The Interviews - STEVE JAMES - By David Ely
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Oct 01, 2004, during the 2004 Gathering factory tour

We met Steve James and his partner Del Ray in the crowded and cluttered front room/office/reception area of the Collings factory.  Brian Smith of Collings was generous to book Steve to come play for the ’04 Collings Gathering and share his thoughts on Bill’s guitars.

Steve had been playing a 1930’s Gibson L-OO, and it needed to be retired from the road before it fell to pieces.  He was beginning to think of a replacement Gibson, but came across Bill Collings instead.  Steve’s been playing his custom black (with actual toilet seat pick guard, according to Steve) C-10 short scale for 14 years now.

You have to know that sitting 10 feet in front of Steve James when he plays is a nerve-wracking experience.  He fingerpicks with a thumb pick and two metal fingerpicks playing slide or standard, and you’re prepared to duck, anticipating strings, bridges, tuning machines or bits of wood to fly off his guitar.  I’ve never seen a guy rip at the strings so hard.  He strings it with 14-58’s now, but he used to use 16-60’s, using custom hand-wound on round core strings.  Steve says that because of the short scale and the custom strings, his heavy gauge applies the pressure of regular medium gauge strings.  But some of the gathering guys noticed how Steve McCreary of Collings just cringed and winced with the rest of us.  James told us that he uses the special strings and plays so hard because “If you’re going to go to the carnival, you might as well ride all the rides.”

The C-10 is on its 3rd re-fret, and has been “flown all over hell and creation.”  Steve admits that he’s legendary in the industry for being hard on guitars, but says his intonation is still good and that he’s “never been able to break one of these.  It’s an aircraft carrier.”  After playing Stacker Lee, he said, “My music is on the side of the underdog, but not my guitars.  I play with the big dogs.”

Not only can Steve play and sing a bit, but he tells a good story too.  He explained that he’d never had any trouble with his current car – it was perfectly reliable.  But one day on a trip coming itto Austin, the steering broke loose and veered him right into the parking lot in front of the Collings factory.  That led to his new OM1A.  He gave us a song or two in standard tuning and said, “Damn this is a good guitar.  It’s a 9 mm now, but you can tell…”  “Collings open up quickly, too,” he added.  Play like he does, and I think you could get a 2X6 to open up to its tonal potential.

Del Ray didn’t talk so much as Steve, but that girl can sing!  And the two gave some great duets on the two Collings, and then Steve picked up one of Bill’s mandolins for a couple more duets.  They finished with some really cool songs between the C-10 and Del’s reso-ukulele.  She loves the uke, and we agreed with her that they offer a cool sound; especially when played as well as she does.  Which left us all wondering if Bill would ever start a uke line.  He’ll have to have a new project if he ever perfects his mandolin process.

Watching Steve James play made me realize that there’s regions of tone that I have yet to discover by digging deeper and HARDER into my own guitar, and that my Collings will handle hard playing as well as his.  No more delicate fingerstyle for me!  Now if I can only decide if my next one should be a C-10 or an OM….

Please visit Steve’s website:

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