“We’re very unpredictable, that’s the thing because I do like to go outside the box. But everything I do is still rooted in Blues. It’s just the grooves are different. I try to explain that to a lot of my fans. They’re just like ‘how do you go from that to that?’ (laughing) A lot of practice (chuckling). And it’s not just me. When we get in the overall group and play the arrangements, all my guys they’ll say ‘let’s try this groove.’ My thing is you have to be open minded and take criticism and use it to your advantage. That’s what we do, we do it as a unit.”
It is this spirit of adventure and open minded collaboration that permeates the music of Bernard Allison. A veteran Bluesman and artist, Bernard is one of the guiding lights of an eclectic style of Modern Blues that injects the music with Funk, Rock, R&B and Soul. Bernard delivers his Blues all within his own unique voice as a guitarist, singer, songwriter, recording artist and live performer. The son of legend Luther Allison and having learned at the feet of the Queen of the Blues Koko Taylor, Bernard is now a pillar of the Blues and the bearer of the legacy of live music his fore fathers and mothers passed down.
First and foremost Bernard Allison is a guitarist. With a deep robust tone, Bernard alternately wrestles and caresses seemingly endless creativity from his six strings. The man also thinks critically about his guitar tone. There are almost countless variables in a guitar tone that can be tweaked and adjusted – types of guitars, guitar pickups, string width, types of amplifiers, pedals, how the guitar is set up, etc. These little choices are not immediately recognizable to the average listener but it is what makes someone notice Bernard’s guitar sound, what makes it stand out. In spite of all of this it always starts with the guitar itself and the musician’s hands on the strings.
“Over the years I pretty much played my custom blade which was pretty much a spin off of a Strat with a preamp in it. I just wanted to change my tone a little bit so mainly now I’m using Gibson. I use a Gibson SG for my slide playin’, majority of the time. My main Les Pauls: my white one is a Les Paul Standard and then my lemon is a professional with pretty much stock pickups. I don’t really go for the heavier pick up sounds. I can typically pick up a guitar and make it sound like me. I use a heavy bottom set 10-52. I get a lot of fans ask ‘why can’t I play along with your record, it’s not in the same key?’ (chuckling) I tune a whole step down so the E’s are D’s. It also fits my vocal range a lot better.”
Bernard plays a mean slide guitar. He learned how to play in open tunings (that is when you re-tune a guitar to make the sound of a chord) from the slide genius Johnny Winter. Slide adds a different angle for Bernard to approach the guitar and yet another variable, a different variety of Blues for him to mix in.
“I do open D, open E and open G. When I was in my Koko Taylor years we toured with Johnny and every show we did he’d bring me on the bus and first of all teach me how to tune the guitar to open because I was just playing slide straight up. He said you gotta try this, you gotta try this. He showed it to me and I picked it up fairly easy. Slide guitar for me is fun. I couldn’t do it all night long, it becomes a little bit monotonous. We throw in a couple slide songs because my fan base they say ‘okay we want to hear some slide.’ Here you go, here’s a little bit of Johnny Winter’s style slide.”
The music that a guitarist makes with their fingers on the strings, or slide on the strings, then needs to be amplified. For an electric guitarist like Bernard it is important to have that guitar signal to go through the right equipment. Bernard uses one of the more coveted guitar pedals in the world, the Analog Man King of Tone. These are premier overdrive pedals made by a small boutique company in Connecticut owned by Mike Piera and revered by guitarists of international caliber to the novice bedroom dreamer. They are so universal because they are kept at a low price, only available from Analog Man and such are in high demand. The waitlist for one of these pedals is 5 years, but an artist such as Bernard is able to have 2 on his board.
“I’ve been endorsing Analog Man for 10 years now. I have 2 King of Tones and I don’t use any other overdrives at the moment. I really like the Analog Man because I’m not one to get a lot of grit or dirt. I like to keep it clean and the Analog Man has something in that mid-range frequency that I just love. It depends on what the track is but I’ll just leave the clean (boost) side on full time. I’m A/B so I’m going to 2 different amps. When I need more overdrive I can hit either the red channel or both once I balance my tone out.”
This is some high end fine tuned gear. Bernard also uses a series of pedals to get a washy underwater organ sound and a classic wah pedal. He also has a nod to a Classic Rock gimmick that Peter Frampton made popular:
“I have a talk machine on my board also.” Bernard explains, “it can simulate a Talk Box without the tube. I tried the tube early on and it freaked me out. I heard too many stories, you gonna blow out your teeth if you don’t do it right.” (laughing)
Bernard pairs his emotive vibrant playing with his expressive singing. One can hear some of his father’s rough hewed voice, but Bernard’s singing is very much his own. Although deeply influenced by his father in many ways, Bernard’s humble approach to singing is shaped by the music of his time.
“At first when I first started playing I hated to sing,” Bernard admits, cracking up laughing. “I sound like Michael Jackson with a very high voice.”
Bernard remembers his dad saying to him: “‘well your voice is gonna change over the years. But, if you’re gonna be a player I don’t want you to be just a guitar player. You’ve gotta be able to sing and play, utilize both. Because they compliment each other and you’ll be able to find your vocal range.”
Bernard goes on to say about his singing: “I listened to a lot of my Dad, obviously. But one of my favorite singers is Lonnie Brooks and Tyrone Davis, more on the R&B scale. So I grew up with all this so a lot of this comes naturally for me. I can hear their phrasing, I can hear if they need to sing soft or do the Howlin’ Wolf growl. Just kinda balance it out to the song that you’re trying to get your message across. Over the years I’ve really focused more on singing than the guitar. Okay I can play both but I got to be able to answer them evenly, not one better than the other. They have to compensate each other very well.”
Bernard matches all his guitar slinging and emotive singing power with a prolific original song catalog. A keen observer of the human condition, Bernard tries to craft his songs so they connect with everybody’s experiences and lives. He also, maybe surprisingly, writes against the guitar and gives his songs their own lives outside of his guitar mastery.
“I’m constantly writing. Typically if you’re going 12 bar Blues you’re talking about someone. Where my songs aren’t necessarily talking about someone. It’s more or less lyrics that everybody can relate to because they’ve been through those types of situations. Cause even if I’m touring I’m in the back of the bus I’m writing things as I see it. I just kinda look through those notes, it’s kinda shorthand. Then I make sense out of it. Typically I find titles in those notes and then start to get really deep into the lyrics. We need a strong hook line, you know the hook line could be the guitar riff or it could be the vocal. I combine all of that and go back into my notes again. A lot of it can be personal. I really focus more on the lyrics than the guitar parts cause I don’t want to just flood it with guitar. I don’t want to step on something important.”
Bernard has recorded his many fine songs throughout a now over 30 year recording career. Out the gate with a bold statement in 1990’s The Next Generation, Bernard has upped the ante every project. His most recent album 2022’s Highs and Lows finds Bernard joyously living within his eclectic mix. His approach to recording is simple:
“Not to clutter it with guitar everywhere,” this guitar master tells us. “We make sure we write good lyrics and make sure there’s room for the music to breathe. Otherwise if you start stacking things, I’ve found you can do a lot in the studio but can you reproduce it live? Just play 10 guitar parts (chuckling), you know what I mean. It’s pretty simple”
Highs and Lows is Bernard’s post-pandemic album. Working with legendary producer Jim Gaines, Bernard didn’t want to deliver something solemn, he wanted to create something reflective but also joyous.
“Highs and Lows we kinda prepared it through the pandemic. Once we knew we needed to do a new studio album the first thing I told the record company is I do not want to do pandemic record talkin’ about the lockdowns and all this (chuckling). They said no, just do what you normally do.”
“‘Highs and Lows,’ actually the title song, that basically explains the pandemic but not touching that pandemic topic. It’s the highs and lows of life. Seeing the highs and seeing the lows. Yes the low point was obviously the pandemic, but the high point is we’re back on the road again. That’s why I followed it with ‘So Excited.’ It’s basically telling the audience we’ve been locked down for so long now we’re on our way back up again. So the 2 count kinda played off of each other and Mr. Jim Gaines he really loved the idea because they are 2 different types of songs. Ones more rocky the other’s more on the funky bass.”
“Before recording an album we do a lot of pre-production. I’ll do everything myself at home on my multitrack, you know put down a bass part, guitar parts, organ parts. Just kinda create the grooves. I’ll work the arrangements out with Jim Gaines. There’s a lot that goes into putting the piece together and not get there (the studio) and waste time. Let’s get in there and knock it out. Cause Highs and Lows, I know it took the rhythm section 4 days to record the album. Once they’re done with their parts I’ll sit with Gaines and do my vocals and guitars. But, I’m always playing a rhythm track through the whole session and a lot of it we actually kept. I think one song we had two takes, other than that it was all one take because we were prepared for the arrangements. Just knock ‘em out.”
Playing live is an important part of Blues music. The communion between artist and audience, the community building. Bernard is always thinking about his fans and keeping his music exciting and appealing. Leading his band more like a Jazz leader, Bernard keeps his music fresh and spontaneous as it moves from the recording studio to the live stage, not an easy task.
“We as a band, we pretty much mix ourselves on stage. Yeah we can record Highs and Lows, but a lot of those tracks are too short or some maybe too long. So what we try to do is show as much versatility as we can by choosing fan favorites verses trying to play the whole album down. I have so many songs and someone’s always howling let’s play this, I want to hear this, or this. Which you can’t just combine in a set. We’ll piece our ideas, our plan, together and there’s not a lot of stoppage. So there’s a lot of interluding or transpose right into the next tune which gives it almost a rollercoaster effect. You can start high but you can’t just drop the bottom out, the vibe can’t do it (chuckles). We’re very aware of what we can do and what makes our show more interesting. Where we need the power tunes, where we need the ballads, it’s actually a fun process for us because we love to do it.”
The pandemic was so hard on musicians and Bernard was no exception. But he was thoughtful about how he came back out onto the road.
“Once the pandemic lifted we chose not to go out right away. I chose to get Highs and Lows done and wait to come out to make our reappearance rather than rush out. Cause it was still not back to normal overseas or anywhere per se. But now, my first tour we were just shocked because we pretty much sold out every venue that we played.”
Bernard has stripped back his touring unit. He used to bring out a rhythm guitarist and horns. He is now traveling in a smaller more in tune quartet featuring George Moye on bass, Matthew Mwangi on drums and Eric Roberts keyboards. Bernard says:
“I can cover a lot of these parts. I’ve got the organ pedal, I can play organ, Eric can play piano or horn parts. It’s really cool, there’s always something goin’ on. You look and it’s like who did that? (laughing) All that sound coming from minimum people it’s pretty intense. You can fill up a lot of the holes.”
Bernard Allison is a real artist. Filtering all his influences through his inheritance of the Blues, Bernard makes music that is honest and true to his muses but also accessible and thoughtful of the community of people who have found joy and solace in his art. This balance is a tightrope act for many that Bernard makes look easy. But it is not. Bernard works hard and looks deeply into his music, he is confident and clear about what he does and open minded enough to be engaged with his music wherever it travels, whatever groove it lands on.
“What I try to do intentionally is not just play the 12 bar Blues. I grew up a little Rock, a lot of Funk, we try and label ourselves Groove, it’s all about the Groove for me.”
You can find Bernard Allison out on the road at: https://www.bernardallison.com/
Writer Bucky O’Hare is a slide guitarist, songwriter and singer. Based out of South Eastern Massachusetts, Bucky plays Slide Guitar Soul Jazz and Funk Blues inspired by the music of the 60’s and 70’s all around New England.