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Phil deGruy is not your usual guitarist. For one thing, he considers himself to be a guitarpist, a unique custom-built instrument that combines a traditional electric guitar with an electric harp.
Not only is he a respected guitar (and guitarp) wizard who’s collaborated with other master guitarists in New Orleans (Cranston Clements, Jimmy Robinson, John Rankin), he’s got a crazy wit and a flair for entertaining his audience that also has bolstered his career as a solo player.
DeGruy grew up in New Orleans’ Mid City (where he still lives) and started playing guitar when he was forbidden to play his brother’s the guitar that he had received for Christmas. Being the contrarian that he is: “I picked it up and started playing. When I was in high school I went from jock [playing football] to rock. And then my mother gave me a copy of Chet Atkins record, and that was it.
“When I heard Chet Atkins, I threw away the guitar pick. It wasn’t my thing anymore. And then I heard about Hank Mackie. He was one of the great guitar teachers, not only in this city, but in the world. Steve Masakowski, Cranston Clements: he taught them all, he’s been a teacher all his life, and he’s still teaching and he’s had a major influence on guitar players in New Orleans. He still plays every weekend at a restaurant on the Northshore, and he’s 73-years-old. He inherited the business from Roger Filiberto, who was also very well-known as a fantastic guitar teacher.
“I played in a few bands in eighth and ninth grade, when I was still trying to figure things out. It was after high school when I started playing with and learning from other people, like Masakowski, who went to Berklee. He brought back Emily Remler, in the ‘70s. We didn’t watch much TV, there were no cell phones, no distractions, so we played and learned a lot. We played together and we learned so much.
“My style was developed by listening to Chet Atkins, and then I started working in a record store in Mid City, called Rainbow Records and got exposed to a lot more music. So then I started turning people on to Atkins, George Benson, people like that.
“Then I heard about Lenny Breau. It’s hard to describe his style; he crossed so many genres, but he’s sort of a player only other guitar players know about. He learned to play with his parents, who were musicians. Then he got into jazz, then he starts playing flamenco. On top of this, Lenny was an ‘imbiber’ and unfortunately Lenny took LSD like people smoke pot. His playing covered a really wide range of styles. He only lived ‘til his early 40s, but he changed the language of guitar. He was one of my mentors and teachers and main influences.
“This is what I’m doing now, echoing kind of what Lenny did. He did stuff that was sort of unheard of and unappreciated because in the 70s, that’s when people like Hendrix were popular and most people didn’t ‘get’ what he was trying to do.
“I was on the West Coast when I was 21, and I heard that Lenny moved to Nashville and he was teaching and I got in my pickup and drove to Nashville and studied with him. I ran into him again when I was driving through Nashville, and he had me actually play for Chet Atkins. So I was hanging out with my two idols on my 25th birthday!
DeGruy plays a unique instrument—dubbed a guitarp, sort of a cross between a guitar and a harp that has the ability to also sound like a steel guitar— that was designed by Jimmy Foster. It’s gone through several modifications, making it lighter and easier to play.
“The second time I saw Lenny in Nashville in the 80s, he had a seven-string guitar and it was a really nice instrument, made by Aria. But they weren’t popular then. Everyone was doing the low A, but Lenny added a high A (he did a lot of that Bill Evans stuff) and it added a totally new feel to playing an inresbile breakthrough.
“So I ordered the same guitar through Hank. But it was hard because the high A was basically made of fishing line. It was a few years before I decided to commit to the seven-string, and so I finally decided to get myself a custom guitar made and I ordered one from Jimmy Foster to get a guitar that could achieve the effects I wanted. I’m not an acoustic player. I play the electric guitar, and those harp effects ‘mask’ the my intent, in a way. I wrote this tune ‘Mask and You Shall DeCeive’ that I spent years writing [it’s the title song from his new album]. I do standards and arrange other tunes (I like to call them ‘derangements’—that I like!).”
DeGruy has a way with words, but he’s not a lyricist. He is certainly erudite, so much so that every time he’s played at Snug Harbor he’d sneak into the bathroom and post a new batch of clever graffiti on the men’s bathroom wall that was there for years. And he also performs as alter ego “Les White” who’s coined these witticisms, among others:
One Tenth of the most popular stolen Les White “Whitti©isms”:
In Duncan Hindsight, the following is a Betty Crocker shit.
If you don’t think you’re repetitive, think again.
What’s the difference between classical and jazz? Paperwork.
We are all racists in the eyes of a Pure White God.
I’m going to Half-Ass Annonymous. It’s a six-step program.
Ask your Psychic if you’re better off now than you were four years from now.
We need more JFK jokes like we need a hole in the head.
I slipped her a Roofie and she gave me Shingles.
All my cocaine jokes are one-liners.
I took Viagra and Valium and slept really hard.
When it came to sex-ed, I was home-schooled.
Every time I tell a terrorist joke, it bombs.
In hindsight, I was first attracted to her ass.
It’s never too late to be here now, yet it ain’t what it used to be.
Amputees are discriminated against left and right.
How loud one plays speaks volumes about their character.
Procrastination is just around the corner.
I’m a hypocrite. (NO I’M NOT!)
I love you. (That last statement is a sentence.)
And on the Eight day, God created Eightheists.
The world is a stage, and there’s a lot of stage-fright.
I sneezed on my computer and it went viral.
I have a love/hate relationship with paradox. And fuck irony. I love it.
When you wish upon a star, black holes matter.
It’s nice to plan things, in order to learn how to slowly become friends with failure.
Sometimes going from one speaker to another just doesn’t pan out.
My standards are so high, they need to go into rehab.
Life is like masturbation. It has it’s ups and downs and can get out of hand.
Oh I just can’t wait to have another anxiety attack.
Love is blind. Lust is an eye doctor.
—© Les White 2015
Phil DeGruy performs at Snug Harbor (new graffiti?) at a self-titled “CD/Ego-release party” on October 4, and at a Clinically Happy HourTM from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. every Thursday at Chickie Wah Wah.