Three Dog Night - Michael Allsup

Michael Allsup is one of rock's most underrated guitarists. Any listen to the great Three Dog Night albums will offer plenty of evidence of his versatility in covering a wide variety of styles. Other guitarists, though skilled, would find covering so many bases within the context of a single album quite imposing, if not impossible. Michael did it all, and did it with great taste and feel. One thing you have noticed, if you've listened to the band all these years (as I have), is that Michael never overplayed. He always gave the song just what it needed to help make it come alive, as did his bandmates.

For the benefit of non-guitarists reading this interview, the term "volume swells" refers to playing a note or notes with no signal from the guitar, then raising or "swelling" the volume to the desired level. "Leslie" is not a groupie from Pocatello (although I suppose there IS a Leslie there), but a "rotating speaker" cabinet that is so much the part of the sound of a great Hammond B-3 organ (used to perfection by such fine organ players as one J. Greenspoon). Finally, Telecaster (or "Tele") and Stratocaster (or "Strat") are Fender guitars, while the SG ("Solid Guitar") and Les Paul models are made by Gibson. Here, Michael discusses aspects of his technique, guitars and amps, working with the 1968-73 lineup of Three Dog Night (which included the now-departed Chuck Negron, Joe Schermie and Floyd Sneed) as well as the current unit, his solo CD Some Women, released in the spring of 2000, and the importance of music in his life. (NOTE: This interview will be updated soon. Stay tuned. -- T.W.)

Who were your influences as a musician?

Not necessarily the impressive ones that you might want to hear.

Try me.

I started out with Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison.

That's a good start.

Also the Kingston Trio's music, the Ventures, Duane Eddy and, going way back, Link Wray. As I learned to play I started playing James Brown songs and a lot of the old club songs of the times.

As we all did, and if I hear "96 Tears" one more time, I'm going to kill somebody.

Then I dabbled with a little B.B. King with the coaxing of a drummer named Huey that I was working with when I was about 16. Of course, Chuck Berry was in me from listening to him as a kid before I learned to play. James Burton got into me more than I realized, just from watching the "Ozzie and Harriet" show on TV.

"Believe What You Say," "Be Bop Baby" ...

Yes, I was playing those Ricky Nelson songs at home like "Hello, Mary Lou" and "Travelin' Man." All that stuff, as well as my anglo religious youth environment, impacted my likes and dislikes in music. Then the 60s and Jimi (Hendrix) and Eric (Clapton) came down the road. Everything changed.

Bless their hearts.

Thanks, guys. Still love it. Jimi was my guy, though. Best I ever saw or heard. I was fortunate enough to have jammed with him and (we) played a couple of shows together (NOTE: Three Dog Night was also on the bill at the very last performance of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience, in 1969 - T.W.). Don't get me wrong; I was not a personal friend of his, just another guitar player that recognized his genius. I'm proud to have shared an era and life with him. I've seen others that play with more speed than him, but I have never seen anyone play with (greater) ease of interpretation than he. That is, it just went from his head straight to his fingers, and usually back again. He was as much enthralled with his music as were the fans.

And a true showman ...

Oh, sure, the world knows that, but one beautifully monstrous guitar-playin' kid from Seattle who changed the face of rock music and guitar for all of us. Absolutely the BEST I'VE EVER SEEN or HEARD.

The volume swell effects have become one of your trademarks, and you used them beautifully on "Out In The Country" and "Pieces Of April," and the "french horn" part on "Cowboy" was one of my favorite things that you ever did.

Wow! I don't believe you dug up that stuff from way back when. You are the first one to call that part a "french horn" part, and that's exactly what it is. We had a dub of that song - Randy Newman wrote it - and he had used a full orchestra on it. I had to come up with a way to reproduce that part with guitar so I could also do it live. Register and tone were very important as well as using the volume swell effect. A very soft and gentle attack (with) absolutely no pick sound. Two-part harmony on the lower mid-range of the guitar with a gentle wind attack.

How did you begin using the volume swells?

Early in my career, I had done a gig with another band who had a 16-year-old guitarist named Larry Carlton.

How was he as a teenager?

He was scary even back then. I think I was 18 at the time. He was doing a few things while messing with his volume control on a Tele he used to play. When I joined the band before our first album, Danny wanted me to get into more of the "violin" type lines, as he described it, and I did. Over the years it has become kind of a sub-style that other guitarists attribute it to me somewhat. Over the years I have used it on numerous songs, starting with "One" and, as you noticed, on "Pieces Of April." There are other songs that I don't recall at the moment.

You also used a Leslie better than any other guitarist I ever heard, on "Woman" and the live version of "Jam," for example, and the break in "One Man Band" almost sounds like two organs. I suppose, just for clarity, that I should ask if you actually used a Leslie or a pedal such as a Uni-Vibe?

I actually used a real Leslie. I had the gray colored ones, at first a 900 model and then later a 925. Greenspoon and I had a real blast weaving in and out of each other's playing. He sometimes used the 900 series as well, but just as often he would use the old 122 wood cabinets. They are still the real deal as far as the Hammond B-3 organ sound is concerned. I liked the 900 series for guitar. Of course I didn't use only that. I would use a regular guitar amp as well and then blend the sounds. Back then I was using an unheard of amp called Bruce Amps. They weren't particularly good for guitar in the traditional sense. They were first-generation solid-state electronic amps, no tubes at all. They had JBL speakers in the cabinets, which, together with the crystal-clear solid-state circuitry, made for a great response on some of the old stomp boxes I used.

There were a couple of occasions, such as that last note on "One" and on the instrumental "Fire Eater," where you had sustain that sounded like it would last for days. How did you do that?

I'm so glad you asked that question. I've been dying to respond to a question like that for years. My answer? None of your business. (Laughs) One of life's little secrets that I will indulge myself in keeping private. I do appreciate the question, though.

Oh, you're quite welcome. Well, let's try this one. Many of us know that (producer) Richard Podolor is also a fine player in hiw own right. How much did Richard play on the records, and how much of an influence did Richard have on your approach to working in the studio?

Richie Podolor is, to this day, the biggest single influence of my entire career. Joe Schermie and Floyd Sneed would be close seconds, and, of course, Jimmy, Chuck, Danny and Cory. Working and playing with Richie was like taking a course in "music appreciation." He IS the master, and that's a fact. I love Richie, if you can't tell. The times we spent together in the studio and at rehearsals are of monumental importance to me. My way of listening to - and approaching - music was forever changed by working with Richie.
I should also mention Bill Cooper, who is Richie's sidekick and engineer that has been there all those years. Bill and Richie are legendary, and, as I said of Hoyt Axton, they have been, and still are, an American treasure. THAT'S WHAT I THINK OF RICHARD PODOLOR AND BILL COOPER. How much did Richie play on the records? Pooh on you. I'm not telling. (laughs) Richie snuck in a few licks over the years. Okay, I'll tell you one. Now and then I get credit for some licks he did on "Pieces Of April." Okay? So there, you've made me come clean. Yes, we both played on that record. Richie is a fine guitarist, and that's putting it mildly. I'll never live this down for giving that turkey credit like this (laughs).

We would assume that the singers had the greatest "voice," no pun intended, in choosing songs for the albums. How much input did you have in that area, and how did you work out the songs? Many of the arrangements you did were quite different from the writers' recordings or demos.

Yes, that is true. The singers always had the greatest "voice" in choosing songs. As the musicians established themselves as a source to be drawn upon, we found ourselves involved in the process. We would have listening sessions with Richie and all seven of us would go way into the night wherein we would start making a "maybe" pile, a "probably" pile and a "definitely" pile. Granted, the "definitely" pile was non-existent on a lot of those listening sessions, but it did grow.

Are there any well-known tunes that you brought to the band?

I've heard different versions of how we came upon "Joy To The World" by Hoyt Axton. I swear, I think ALL of us rock people rewrite history the way we remember things, so here we go. Here's my version of "Joy:" I say Joe Schermie and I brought it to the group. Joe and I were visiting Hoyt at a demo session he was doing, just him sitting and playing guitar. Schermie and I thought it would be a smash, with a good arrangement. 'Course we really didn't know how big it could be. I say Joe and I brought it to the studio and put it in the listen pile. Now I know this will raise an eyebrow or two in the group, but I'm sticking with my story. Hoyt may have indeed, after the fact, lobbied some of the guys to do it. In fact, I do remember two of the three - no name mentioning (laughs) - actually said something to the fact of "Nah, too teeny-bopper. Not for us." And then, when the listening session was over. certain people drifted back into the studio saying, "Er, where's that song of Hoyt's? Think I'll listen to it again." So there you have it. Call it Michael Allsup's rewrite of history if you will. So be it! I know Schermie would have no problem backing me up on that one.

But you didn't do the song the way Hoyt wrote it.

Once we started working the song up, we actually wrote the little thing at the end where it modulates up to the key of E. Back in those days, they called it arranging. Well, it really was. Hoyt had already finished writing the song. Hoyt was somewhere else. Wish you could have known him. Beautiful dude. We all loved him and do miss him.


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