How old were you when you started playing guitar?
I was 12.
What was your first guitar? Did you buy it yourself? Do you still have it?
It was a late 1940s Stella acoustic that belonged to my aunt who lived for a time in the house where I grew up. I found it one day in our attic. The action was so high I could only finger first position chords. Then my cousin gave me a Coricidin pill bottle and showed me how to play some slide guitar riffs. I wound up playing bottle-neck electric guitar in all the bands I was in because of that high action on the Stella. The guitar is long gone, my parents got rid of it while I was living in California.
Photo credit: The Big House Museum
Craig playing bottleneck slide on a 1956 Gibson ES-225 at the Main Point in 1973.
Did your parents or grandparents play any instruments? If so, what did they play? Did you ever get a chance to play with them?
My father was a big band musician who gigged almost every weekend and worked a day job at WIP radio until he was 80. He played alto sax and he taught me how to play sax starting when I was about 9. We would play all of those duets in the lesson books together. When I found the guitar, I put away the sax. My grandmother also played the piano and organ.
Craig with his dad.
What are the guitars that you play? Do you have a favorite? If so, why is it your favorite?
I have a 1990 Taylor 912 that I use for all of my live stuff. It’s a great finger-picking instrument but the wood isn’t stable. The top splits on many of them. Mine has been repaired but still plays great. I also have a 1953 Gibson J-185 that I used on all of my early records. I have a 1970s Guild D-50 Dreadnought that is great for fatter tracks, and a 1987 Alvarez-Yairi acoustic that’s fun to play around the house. My only electric at this point is a vintage Fender Strat that never leaves my studio.
Craig with his Taylor 912. Photo credit: Carolyn Miller
Craig's 1953 Gibson J-185.
What strings do you use (brands and gauges)? How often do you change your strings?
On my acoustics I use D’Addario XT Phosphor Bronze light gauge. But sometimes I’ll switch down to the custom light gauge for a session if I have to play any lead riffs. I usually change strings before my weekend shows. If I’m not gigging they might stay on the guitar for 2-3 weeks.
Do you use a pick? If so, what brand and thickness?
For flat picking, I use a D’Andrea Brain Pick, the lightest thickness because it seems to caress the strings better for ballads. I switch to the medium gauge for harder strumming. I love the non-slip surface. My thumb pick is the Herco Flex-52 blue. It’s an old standby, but it never needed improvement. It grips my thumb tight, it’s small and light, and it does the job without getting in my way or falling off my thumb.
D'Andrea - Snarling Dog Brain Pick
Do you use any effect pedals? If so, what are your favorites?
I don’t use any effect pedals, just the Baggs Session DI. It has a compressor I can pop in if the sound person thinks my dynamics are too extreme. Cliff Eberhardt told me I have a very aggressive picking hand. I do tend to dig in too much sometimes and some sound techs tell me they have to ride my levels.
Do you work on your own guitars or do you bring them to a guitar tech? Are there any guitar techs that you would like to recommend?
I work on them myself if I have time. If serious work needs to be done, I take them to Jack Romano here in Philly or if I’m in Nashville, to Joe Glaser’s shop.
Do you have a favorite guitar shop? What makes it a good shop?
I’ve always loved Gruhn Guitars in Nashville. When I lived in Nashville I’d stop in there once a month to play the lastest finds. I bought my Gibson J-185 from George in 1985. What makes a good shop…well the guitars need to be touchable. If I’m asked not to touch without a salesperson present, I leave. I get it, there are kids who should be supervised. But do I look like I need supervision? Also, variety. I like to see custom brands mixed in with the Martins, Taylors and Gibsons. It takes a while for me to fall in love with a guitar, so I need time to play it, so a relaxed atmosphere is best, no salesperson hanging around me waiting to ring up a sale.
At what age did you start writing songs?
I wrote my first song when I was 14. It was terrible, a lot of teen angst.
What is your songwriting process? Is it the music or the lyrics that usually come to you first? Do you write old school on paper, or electronically?
I don’t have a consistent process. I record fragments and ideas, moments of accidental discovery on guitar, maybe some cool fingerstyle riff. I keep these files until I need some spark of inspiration for a new song. Sometimes an inspired melodic line comes to me and I try to develop that. Sometimes these fragments wait years until I figure out what to do with them. I’ve written songs that were lyrics first, others that were music first, others that were simultaneous lyrics and music. Some songs are quick events, others become month-long projects. Often there is a real-life trigger behind the song and it comes together quickly. You have to learn how to surprise the listener—because, let’s face it, if you aren’t full of surprises, you won’t get far as a songwriter. I prefer pen and paper, but once the revisions start, I sometimes switch to a laptop. I also use the laptop when I’m traveling.
Photo credit: Brian Mccloskey
Who are the top three musicians or bands that have had a major influence on you?
I’d have to say my dad was my biggest influence because he taught me to love music as a musician, not just as a fan, to really get into it, to study what’s going on in the piece. His record collection was very cool, all over the place--jazz, country, pop, swing and big band. He wired the whole house for sound so no matter where we were, indoors or out, there’d be music. I couldn’t pick only three influences. I got turned on to some of the great acoustic guitarists at a young age. There was John Renbourn, Bert Jansch in Pentangle, and Davey Graham, John Martyn, Doc Watson, great players with interesting technique. But then there were the songwriters; Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Joni, Bruce Cockburn, Neil Young, Van, Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman. They were all important to me.
If you could jam with one person, living or dead, who would it be?
That changes daily. One day it’s Eddie Lang because he was a trailblazer from my hometown. The next day it’s Martin Simpson. But I couldn’t keep up with either of them.
What are your top three “desert island” albums?
Why would anyone in this day and age be limited to three albums when the whole universe of music is on your phone? And if you tell me there’s no cell service on a “desert island” I’d ask where you got electricity for the turntable and the amp. Honestly, no matter which three records I picked I’d toss them in the sea after a year or two. I listen to everything and I tend to need an influx of new music on a regular basis. There are old records I still dearly love, but I’d never want to be stuck with only three of them. I’d go insane.
What was the first concert you attended? What was the last concert you attended?
The first was Jimi Hendrix at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, ’68 I think.
The latest was Mary Fahl two months ago. She was fantastic.
The Beatles or the Stones?
Peanut butter or jelly? I’ll have both, thanks.
Where and when was your first paid gig? How much did you make?
My band played at a local pub called The Colonial Tavern in my hometown (Havertown PA). My dad had to supervise us because we were all underage. I was 16, it was 1970. We were a trio and I think we were paid $10 each.
What has been the highlight of your musical career so far?
Appearing on Austin City Limits was certainly up there. We (SKB) shared the show with Leo Kottke in 1988. That or maybe opening for Bruce Springsteen in 1973 at Swarthmore College with my band Wire & Wood. Hard to top that. Even then we knew Bruce was making musical history.
SKB (Thom Schuyler, J. Fred Knobloch and Craig Bickhardt)
Wire and Wood opening for Bruce Springsteen at Swarthmore College. Craig is on the left. Photo credit: Steve Meade
What has been your worst gig so far and why? (You don’t have to name names).
I once drove from Philly to MA for a house concert that only two people attended. And they were old friends who had seen me many times before. I did a good show for them but that’s as bad as a gig gets--400 miles of driving and a two hour show for $30.
What are some of the venues you enjoy performing at the most? What things make the venue enjoyable for the performer (location, equipment, setup, organizers)?
These days I love the house concerts. The audience is only there for the music but they are among friends so they are relaxed and ready to enjoy themselves. I also love small listening rooms like Laura Mann’s Living Room in Ardmore PA and Jamey’s House of Music also here in Philly. I love the Bluebird Café, but I loved it more in the 1980s when it was a songwriter’s hang. For me, what makes a venue enjoyable is #1 the audience; #2 a warm, comfortable feeling in the room; #3 friendly management and a helpful staff. I can go with any sound system as long as it isn’t a toy.
How do you work out your setlist?
I never do similar songs within twenty minutes. Two up tempo songs for every ballad, but the groove and the lyric content also has to be different, no more than 1 or 2 downers per set. I might finger-pick one up-tempo song and strum the next one. I can get a good laugh between most songs with the stories I tell, and that helps the pace. I play in a wide range of styles from ragtime picking on “The Real Game” to blues picking on “If Holes Were Coins” to selective melodic picking in “Crazy Nightingale” to rollicking bluegrass strumming on “Dirty River Town”. I mix it up as much as possible. I try to take the audience on a journey.
Is there any advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out in the music business?
It’s a long trek so pack provisions. Don’t stop moving forward even when you doubt your next step. Whatever mistakes you make will eventually lead to new opportunities as long as you don’t quit. You want to be lost in the wilderness most of the time because that’s where you get the best view of the stars.
Photo credit: Jesse Terry
Do you have any suggestions for a guitarist or songwriter who might be stuck in a musical rut?
Listen to things outside your genre. Learn to play your instrument better by practicing a difficult piece. Put the guitar in new tunings. Buy a cut capo and learn how to use it. Try collaborating. Collaboration is not weakness, it’s like a chemistry experiment. I’ve had experiences with it that were explosive. Getting out of a rut requires a commitment of energy…you have to attain escape velocity. Consciously work at it and work hard. I’ll say one thing about “writer’s block”. When I was a staff songwriter for 20 years in Nashville I never once heard any songwriter complain of writer’s block. You sit down, turn your damn phone off and write something. It doesn’t have to be your best. The more you make the effort, the more success you’ll have, the more inspiration you’ll find. There’s so much out there, musically speaking, if you’re in a rut, you’ve probably become “ingrown”. You need to open a new window and poke your head out.
Craig is using a cut capo for this song.
If you weren’t a singer-songwriter, what would you be doing for work?
I spent ten years as a completely broke singer-songwriter. I still considered that my work. I figured there was always a way to get a meal so I never thought about a different career. For a couple of years, I sold rare books as a side hustle in the early days of the Internet and I enjoyed that, but that was back when you could still find rare books laying around in thrift stores and flea markets. Now, I’d probably just help my grand-daughter set up an art studio somewhere. I’m 68, but the whole concept of a different retirement career eludes me. As a driven creative being, you just go on and on until you hit a wall and that’s how it’s supposed to end.
Please list some of your upcoming shows, plug your music and provide links to your merchandise.
I have a new double-CD called “Outpourings” that came out in early 2023. It is available on my website- www.craigbickhardt.com
Craig's tour schedule.
Purchase Craig's music.
Photo credit: Aislinn Bickhardt