Kick It Like Mule

Danny Louis holds down the keyboard chair in Gov’t Mule, the standard bearers of heavy southern rock.

Danny with (left to right) Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, FM4 Filter Modeler, and MM4 Modulation Modeler pedals atop his Hohner Clavinet D6. The grid of chrome buttons at far left is Line 6’s most comprehensive stompbox modeler, the M13, atop Danny’s Wurly.By Michael Gallant

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Danny Louis on Mastering Rhythmic Delays

Danny Louis holds down the keyboard chair in Gov’t Mule, the standard bearers of heavy southern rock. To hold his own next to Warren Haynes’ searing guitar, Danny uses twin Wurlitzer electric pianos through loud guitar amps, a Clavinet, and a cranked Hammond B-3. However, Danny’s tonal repertoire goes far beyond the fuzz and fire you’d expect from such a rig. In fact, many of the textures he brings to Mule’s improvisationheavy live show come from the creative use of effects pedals, adding elements of psychedelia and even electronica to the live jam. We caught up with Danny just off the road with his other band, Stockholm Syndrome, to learn his stompbox secrets.

In general, how do you use effects pedals when playing with Gov’t Mule?

I try to take a normal sound that would be played on a normal part and give it a psychedelic attitude via a reverb or delay, something that sets it off in the distance and makes it seem eerie or trippy. You’re still just using a regular sound, but you’re adding an effect to it. I also go further and do an ambient thing where I lose the original sound in the effect. It becomes more of a wash or an environment. Then there’s the rhythmic work. I predominantly use delays for that, so I’m not just working with a stagnant tone. I manually modulate it with a finger on a knob or a foot on a control pedal. There are a lot of options.

Which pedals in particular do you use?

Line 6 pedals. I might prefer vintage analog pedals and effects, but they don’t travel well. The Line 6 stuff works great because the keyboards themselves sound so vintage on their own, so I don’t mind having digital effects on top of that.

On top of the Clav I have their MM4 modulation unit, the FM4 filter, and the DL4 delay. Those three are for the Clav. There’s an M13 Stompbox Modeler that sits on the Wurlitzer I have at stage right and use for soloing. The M13 is really versatile, so I can call up multiple effects, or multiple versions of the same effect, at once.

With so many effects available onboard today’s synths, why use vintage keys and effects pedals?

I think the inspiration for a lot of this stuff came from jazz players who were confronting the electronic keyboard revolution in the ’60s and ’70s—in particular, on a lot of Miles Davis records. The approach the keyboardists took, whether it was Miles’ influence or their own, made for some wacky sounds, including Herbie Hancock playing a Farfisa, if I’m not mistaken. Bitches Brew is full of amazing electric piano sounds. There was no shame if they were ratty. It wasn’t by nature pretty music, so the sound was right for what they were doing. Our co-producer, Gordy Johnson, came to see the band before he first recorded us and one of the comments he made was, “Man, the band sounds like Miles Davis!” I got a big smile on my face because my electric piano sounds have always been informed by my love of that stuff .

In the rock world, I didn’t find a lot of that sort of texture. A B-3 sounded like a B-3, with the exception of Jon Lord and Brian Auger.

There were certain artists who would take keyboard sounds and twist them, but in rock it was the guitarists who’d get the psychedelic sounds. So a lot of my inspiration for the Clav is actually from guitar sounds I grew up listening to, whereas with electric pianos, it’s people like Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea.

How do you approach using delays live when it’s not just you setting the groove?

Playing in an ensemble, there’s a collective interpretation of time going on. That’s part of the beauty, and it’s what makes the whole larger than the sum of its parts. If you’re injecting a rhythmic subdivision, sixteenthnotes or triplets, you have a lot of influence on whether everything flows or not, just as the hi-hat on the drum kit does. With Mule, there’s a lot of deliberate push-me-pull-you, a lot of liberty, and a need for precision.

For me, learning to play drums had a lot to do with this. It’s not easy to hold the beat during a jam. I’m constantly adjusting on the fly. When I have a shuffle going on for reggae or dub material, or I’m going for a more interpretive feel than triplets, it’s imperative to play with good time because not only is the effect itself altering the sound, but so is the tail of what you play, whether it’s a single repeat or many, or a flange triggered on your attack. Even if you’re just triggering a reverse cymbal and you want the whoosh at the end to hit on a specific beat, you need to have really good time.

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How do you make sure you lock in?

I look at it as reverse syncing. If the band is my “sync track,” then it’s a human-generated sync track, and if I’m trying to duplicate electronica, or something that mimics a sequencer or arpeggiator, I’m recreating those types of keyboard parts, only with a Clav instead of a synthesizer. It’s never going to be as robotic as if it were in sync and everyone else was playing to it.

Do you use these tools and techniques with other groups?

Th is is pretty specific to Mule. I used to do bar gigs with an Oberheim OBX, an Echoplex, and a little Yamaha P.A. system. Oft en I’d be playing a more traditional piano or organ sound, but a lot of the time, I’d be doing exactly what I’m doing on Clav now, but with that Echoplex tape delay.

What about slapback echo with vintage keyboards?

There’s the classic rockabilly slap, which originally came from running the sound through another tape deck played just off sync. With slapback, the truly psychedelic stuff moves in real time, but if you start with a pitch and play it with a repeat of a certain speed, then slow it down or speed it up as it’s happening, it can get wacky as hell and sound like insane cackling or a plane crashing, depending on how you work it.

Can you point us to a couple of good examples of your techniques?

Live shows are where all this effects talk is most relevant, and there are countless shows downloadable at The best example of a Clav through effects on the album By a Thread is the final tune “World Wake Up,” which I co-wrote with Warren Haynes. The atmospheric mayhem in the first interlude and the chaos throughout the coda were all done with a Clav and Line 6 pedals in one pass, while listening to the track. The delay, while driven to feedback, was used as a musical pitch in the key of the song—or was alternately made atonal and freaky—by adjusting parameters on the fly.

Tap Tempo Technique

“At a Gov’t Mule show, if it starts to sound almost like electronica, that’s me tapping away at delays,” explains Danny. “I tap rhythmic patterns on the delay’s tap tempo button against the actual tempo of the song. That’s not how you’d normally use tap tempo, but it gives interesting results.” Here’s how to do it yourself.

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Ex. 1. With a click track or your foot establishing the tempo shown on the first staff, tap the rhythm on the second staff into your delay. Once that’s set, play the melody on the third staff, and expect to hear the trippy ascending figure shown on the fourth staff.

Ex. 2. In 6/8 time, do the same as in Ex. 1, tapping the rhythm on the second staff and playing the melody shown on the third. The result is the dense, atmospheric line shown on the fourth staff.

Ex. 3. Get some swing by tapping quarter-note triplets into the delay as shown on the second staff, and playing the figure in straight eighths, on the third and fourth staffs. We’ll let you discover the sonic result for yourself.