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In through the Outformation
From Zeppelin to Zappa, from the Dead to Panic, guitarist Sam Holt draws from the best

As lead guitarist for the Atlanta-based Outformation, Sam Holt brings an array of six-string styles to the party.

The band, which is heavy in the jam-band tradition of loose, improvisational playing, also benefits from a great sense of songcraft, with dense vocal harmonies and an emphasis on strong melody (see their most recent CD, Fastburn).

There's something authentically southern in their music, too, which links them to other great Dixie bands like the Allman Brothers and Widespread Panic.

Panic, in fact, had a profound effect on Holt and his bandmates. For seven years - up until he put Outformation together, in fact - Holt was the guitar tech for Panic fretmaster Michael Houser (1962-2002) and learned about the road, the ropes of the music biz and (as you're about to read) a lot more.

Outformation appears Friday, Sept. 4 at the Live Wire Music Hall.

 You've mentioned in the past that Toy Caldwell, the late guitarist for the Marshall Tucker Band, was a main influence on your playing. Didn't he play exclusively with his thumb?

 Sam Holt: I got turned onto that stuff about 10 years ago. I knew who the Marshall Tucker Band was, and a friend of mine gave me a live recording and I was just so intrigued, like "How is he doing that?" I investigated more and found out he played with his thumb. So I quit using a pick, to cop some of that stuff. It sort of became my style as well.

What does playing like that do for you?

Sam Holt: There's certain things you can and can't do. There's a lot of fast picking that you cannot do, and there's certain things you can do with your fingers that you can't do with a pick. Some of the chicken-pickin' stuff, the country stuff that I try to incorporate, I can't really do with a pick. And I think it helps me to keep from over-playing, too. To try to play melodically, as opposed to a bunch of notes.

What other guitar players inspired you?

Sam Holt: The first recordings I ever had were Kiss Alive II and an Elvis album. I was 5 or 6 years old and I used to wear both of those out. Ace Frehley, man, that's like the first rock guitar player I ever heard - and basically, he's like Chuck Berry on steroids, if you really listen to it, with a bunch of distortion.

And then I got into Led Zeppelin big in high school. Jimmy Page made me want to get a guitar. I remember seeing The Song Remains the Same when I was like 14, and I was like "Oh my God! I gotta do that."

Later, Jerry Garcia. I used to go see the Dead when I was 17, 18. Then later on Mike Houser of Widespread Panic. Then I got into the Minutemen, a punk band out of L.A. Their guitar player, D. Boone, was phenomenal. Those guys, and then Zappa. And Willie Nelson, I love the way he plays guitar. He's just genius.

How big of a life-changing thing was working with Mike Houser?

Sam Holt: I was a fan before I got that gig working for him. That was the band I could go see when I was young and get up close and see what he was doing. I could hear those songs, go home and listen to ‘em and go "Oh, that's what he's doing."

That made me just want to play guitar a lot, to start being able to figure stuff out - a little chord, or a riff or something. When you're 20 years old and you figure something out like that, at least for me it was a huge deal.

Then, due to being in the right place at the right time, I started working for him. Got to know him as a person. He was such a good dude, and was so humble, and would take the time to talk to anyone. He put his all into what he did. He didn't have an ego, he wasn't "the rock star," in the sense that what he cared about what the music, and his parts on the guitar. Doing what was best for the tune.

Has that become a template for how your band operates?

Sam Holt: We try to, you know? We try to do what's best for the music and just focus on that. All the other stuff is just secondary. If you get a good song and you execute it well, and it's got good parts, that's what's gonna drive you to want to be better and connect with other people.

The sense I get from bands like yours is that it's not about being better than everybody else, or getting a hit record ... it's about, as you say, serving the music. And I think that really comes across.

Sam Holt: Yeah, music's not a competition and I think the more people that are included in it, in some way - even if it's just sharing - can make the music better. I'm more into the ensemble than the individual. But - I'd love to have a hit record, too.


Where: Live Wire Music Hall, 307 W. River St.
When: At 9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 4

Tickets: $15


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