by Tom Redmond
An interview with Pat Bergeson
Guitarist and harmonica player Pat Bergeson has written, toured, and recorded with many of his musical heroes. Beginning at the University of Illinois in his home state, he moved on to New York City and picked up a Jazz Studies degree at William Patterson University. After playing in New York for ten years, he arrived in Nashville upon the request of Chet Atkins who heard Pat on a demo tape. Chet invited him to play on his album Sneakin' Around with Jerry Reed, and later featured Pat's guitar and compositions on his 1994 release Read My Licks. They were good friends and toured together for several years.
A versatile guitarist as well as chromatic and diatonic harmonica player, Pat's style incorporates jazz, blues, rock and finger style and he is known for his session work with a variety of artists. He has been in the studio with Lyle Lovett, Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, Bill Frisell, Martin Taylor, Suzy Bogguss, Bill Evans, Peter Frampton, Michael McDonald and many others. He has toured with Shelby Lynne, Wynonna Judd, Suzy Bogguss and then four years with Lyle Lovett and his Large Band. Pat has been a teacher and producer and has appeared on many movie soundtracks.
In 2007, Pat released a CD entitled "Country Gentleman - A Tribute To Chet Atkins." He produced and recorded it for Green Hill Music and is available at their website, www.greenhillmusic.com. Pat Bergeson was named as one of Chet Atkins' top twelve favorite guitarists in the Oct. 2001 issue of Vintage Guitar Magazine.Keep an eye out for Steve Shapiro & Pat Bergeson's release "Backward Compatible" on the Apria Records label due out in June 2008.Pat Bergeson endorses Fender and Gretsch guitars, Hughes & Kettner amplifiers, Visual Sound pedals, Line 6 effects and Seydel harmonicas.
TR: One of the interesting things about you is that you're multi-instrumental. Some people think of you as a harmonica player, some people think of you as a guitarist -- Which came first, the guitar or the harmonica, and how did you develop your proficient skills on each of them?
PB: Well what came first was the drums. I actually played drums from the time I was in third grade until I was about 21. Initially, all I wanted to do was be a drummer. When I was a kid I played in orchestra and band, went to music camp in the summers, and studied all the percussion instruments: chimes, bells, xylophone, vibraphone, marimba and snare drum.
PB: Back then I would play drums along with Frank Zappa records and Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd and whoever else - all those songs on the radio in the '70's.
TR: So you basically would crank up the stereo and play along?
PB: Yes, I just played along with the top-40 radio songs.
TR: When did you start on harmonica?
PB: Well, I started fooling around on the harmonica when I was in junior high school. First I just learned how to play Christmas songs and really simple tunes like "Oh Susanna". I learned how to get a decent tone when I was pretty young, but back then I could only bend one note, the fourth hole draw. After that I just kind of put it down for a while. I didn't touch it for many, many years.
And then about eighth grade my Mom and Dad got my older brother Keith a Fender Stratocaster. It was an early '70's Sunburst Stratocaster. I started playing around on that guitar and I remember telling my brother, "Well, if you get a guitar, I'm going to learn how to play it."
I was really started getting into it and then I met this guy in Batavia, Illinois named Gary Marzuki. I was walking by the Batavia News Agency and I heard him inside jammin' with some guys. He showed me some licks on the guitar, and I remember there was another kid in my neighborhood who had a Country Gentleman. It had the half-moon fret markers and I thought they were so cool and had the Bigsby bar on it. He taught me "Stairway to Heaven" which I learned in 10 minutes in the back room.
TR: So you were playing with your fingers, not a flat pick?
PB: I was using my fingers and a pick. I still didn't know what I was doing. And then in high school, I played in a rock band with some friends. It was mostly J. Geils Band, the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, some Roy Buchanan.
TR: So you didn’t grow up in a household where your father idolized Chet and played all the Chet records.
PB: No. My Dad had a bunch of different records but he did have one of Chet’s - "Finger Pickin' Good". I started listening to that one and really, really loved it. That’s the only Chet record that I had when I was a kid, and it was so over my head.
I couldn't figure out how he was doing what he was doing, but I remember really liking the music a lot. I remember trying to learn "Yakety Axe" and I couldn't figure out how he got the tone. One summer, our band the River Rats learned “Yakety Axe”, that's one of the first Chet tunes that we played.
Back then I had no idea about a thumb pick. I didn't even know people used thumb picks on the guitar except Leo Kottke.
I did see Chet on television a few times when I was a kid, and that had a big influence on me. I saw him on TV with George Benson, and on a few other TV specials like the Glen Campbell Show.
TR: Is that when you saw he was playing with a thumbpick?
PB: I think what I noticed most was he was playing with all of his fingers of his right hand.
TR: I read on your Web site that you had a demo tape that was sent to Chet somehow. How did that happen?
PB: I switched over from drums to guitar during high school and for awhile I was doing both. I ended up going to college for guitar, the University of Illinois and then ended up going to William Patterson in New Jersey, finishing with a Jazz Studies degree. While I was out there, I got a job teaching at the National Guitar Summer Workshop in Connecticut.
I taught in Connecticut for eight or nine years, and one summer I took a camping vacation. The week I was gone Chet came to town and did a clinic and a concert at the workshop which I missed. I remember being really upset that I missed it. When I got back, I found out my friend, R.L. Kass, who now goes by Robert Lee Castleman, had given Chet a cassette tape of a recording that he and I had made.
TR: About what year would that have been?
PB: Around 1990 or '91. R.L and I had made a demo of his song, "Sneakin' Around”. It was a crude tape, with R.L. playing the melody and I played some licks and fills. He gave that to Chet the week I was on vacation.
Chet's manager at the time Fred Kewley was also part of things. Fred heard R.L. play at the NGSW faculty concert, and he loved R.L.'s writing and singing and wanted to help get him a record deal.
After Chet heard the demo tape he asked R.L. who was playing guitar on it.
Not much longer after that, Fred Kewley sent R.L. down to Muscle Shoals Sound to do some demos to try to get him a spec deal.
R.L. wanted to have me on the session in Muscle Shoals. It was with David Hood, Roger Hawkins and Steve Nathan and all these big-name session guys. I was pretty terrified. After that I went to Nashville. Chet heard I was in town and asked Fred and R.L. to bring me over to his office. We probably hung out for six hours that first day, sitting there playing guitar.
TR: I'd be curious as to what kind of songs you might have played on a first sit-down with Chet.
PB: We were just sitting there, pretty much just passing the guitar back and forth showing each other licks. He sat there and just played a number of songs. I remember he played "Autumn Leaves". We were playing my green Stratocaster. I just thought it was so cool how he was so interested in the guitar and interested in what I was doing on the guitar.