Chicago Tribune: Guitarist Samantha Fish has soaring career and signature ax

Samantha Fish is a bona fide guitar hero who has the ax to prove it. The Missouri blues-rocker has her very own custom guitar named in her honor. The SF1 (short for Samantha Fish 1) signature model by Delaney Guitars boasts humbucker pickups and a body made of swamp ash. A sound hole in the shape of a fish is a unique design touch, a nod to the name of its inspiration.

“I was looking for someone to build me this guitar,” Fish says, calling from her home in Kansas City on a rare day off from the road. “I wanted something special and specific. It’s definitely my main go-to guitar.”

A rising figure on the roots music scene, Fish, 27, is a singer-songwriter known for her fiery guitar chops. She is on tour behind her third studio release “Wild Heart” (Ruf Records). Released in 2015, the album was produced by Luther Dickinson, a member of the North Mississippi Allstars and son of the late legendary producer Jim Dickinson.

With her tousled hair and high heels, the singer-guitarist cuts a glamorous figure on stage. Musically she draws inspiration from the muscular roots-rock of Tom Petty, the fiery blues riffs of Stevie Ray Vaughan and the beguiling pop smarts of Sheryl Crow.

Fish performs at SPACE on Saturday.

Her trajectory is on the rise. She recently traded in her Ford Econoline touring van for a tall Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.

“It’s awesome,” she says. “I’m having fun with it. I was finally able to get a road manager this year. The Econoline was holding me back for so long. I couldn’t fit one more person in with all the gear and luggage. I upgraded the van so I could upgrade the crew.”

Her traveling coterie consists of four other people. She is joined on the road by two bandmates, a person who handles merchandise and a road manager.

Fish was exposed to music as a kid growing up in Kansas City. Her dad played guitar, cranked the stereo and had his musician buddies over for picking parties. Her mom sang at church.

“Music was always there,” she recalls.

Her parents were supportive of her interests but never pushed her to play. It took her some time to find the right instrument. She attempted violin but says she was a horrible player. At 13 she took up drums. Two years later she started playing acoustic guitar.

“That stuck,” she recalls. “The couple years of drumming leading up to that really helped me with my meter. I started singing and playing guitar together. That’s when things really took off for me musically. I’d been playing drums for two years, so I had that backbone of rhythm in my head. It was already innate.”

Her dad would frequently take her to Knuckleheads, a local venue that featured touring blues, country and rockabilly artists. The musicians she saw there influenced the budding player.

“I saw so many cool guitar players up close including Mike Zito, Tab Benoit and Michael Burks,” she says. “I thought, ‘Wow, I want to do that. I want to play electric guitar.’ It really inspired me to go and work on it.”

She had grown up idolizing a slew of distinctive rock guitarists including the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers. In time she was exposed to earlier blues musicians and expanded her musical palette.

“Kansas City is such a blues town,” she says. “When I started going out to jams with other people, that was my way into the blues. I didn’t fall in love with the blues until I found R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. It was more of a raw and edgy sound. Then I started delving into the Delta blues and found Skip James and Charley Patton.”

At 17 she played for the first time in front of an audience. “It scared the hell out of me, but I fell in love with the exhilarating feeling that comes with performance.”

She decided to skip college and make a go of the music business. After high school, Fish worked full time at a day job and diligently practiced guitar as she figured out how to approach music as an actual career.

“Where I grew up in the Midwest is not a showbiz place,” she says. “The idea is completely foreign. It’s hard to connect the dots and think you can be a performer. But going to Knuckleheads was such an inspiration. I saw artists who I had never heard on mainstream radio, but they were touring and making a living at it. They had fans. I saw there was a way. That’s when I decided I wanted to do it and I’d be happy doing it.”

In 2011 she was featured on the album “Girls With Guitars,” a project that also included blues performers Cassie Taylor and Dani Wilde. The three women joined together for a blues caravan tour that took them to Europe and across the United States.

As her solo career has gained steam, Fish has found herself sitting in with a number of high-profile artists. In 2013, she joined Buddy Guy onstage at the VooDoo Lounge, the casino venue at Harrah’s in Kansas City. The blues legend praised the young Fish for her playing ability.

“I’ve been able to sit in with some really freakin’ awesome people this year,” she says. “I’ve been really lucky. It’s been a right time — right place kind of deal. I played a festival in Hawaii. All these awesome rock stars live on Maui in the winter months. Steven Tyler came to sit in at the festival and I got to jam with him. I sat in with Alice Cooper.”

She’s been picked to open for her friend and idol Benoit at several festivals. “Tab is so gracious,” she says. “We have the same manager. He’s known me since I was 18 years old. He calls me up and we get to play together. He’s one of my favorite guitarists out there today. He rocks. He leads the band. He’s very percussive. I love jamming with him. I always learn a lot on guitar. I just try to soak up what he’s throwing out there.”

Fish feels honored to share the stage with so many musicians who shaped her musical aesthetic.

“It’s been a good year for jamming,” she says. “I’ve had a good time.”

URL: http://trib.in/2fogWjZ