Meanwhile, coguitarist Dave Grahs– the band’s resident punk rocker– discloses a surprisingly roots-y side.
reduced, open E string.John Lee Hooker-” Bottle Up & Go”
Bandleader Adam Granduciel on how single-coils, the Dead’s Wall of Sound, and cascades of chorus build his live tones. Plus, bassist David Hartley gets weird, wild, and wonky.
For nearly two decades and across five albums, The War on Drugs’ founder and frontman Adam Granduciel has narrated our complex modern lives while his band has scored our dreams.
The captivating moods of their music, much like us, morph from dense melancholy to saturated, swirling madness and everywhere in between. Granduciel often layers his Springsteen-meets-Young proletariat prose atop a post-rock soundscape, but the heartbeat of their impressive, expansive live shows is their gear and how it is implemented.
“I could play the whole tour with two or maybe three guitars—a White Falcon, Strat, and maybe a Jazzmaster—but I bring all these out just for fun,” he says with a laugh as he considers his trove of axes.
So, let’s have some fun already! Before a full evening of The War on Drugs’ jams in support of 2021’s I Don’t Live Here Anymore, PG was invited to Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium. We covered Granduciel’s growing guitar collection, got the skinny on how Jerry Garcia’s monstrous setup played into the bandleader’s theatre rig, and we took in a cockpit view of his stompbox squadron full of tone ticklers, sizzlers, and wigglers. In addition, bassist David Hartley showed off a trio of Ps, an armada of Ampegs, and demo’d a fuzz that has ended his quest for razing tones.
Brought to you by D’Addario XPND Pedalboard.
Keeping It in the Family
If you’re a fan of Rig Rundowns or Kurt Vile & the Violators, you’ve already seen this Strat. The above Fender American Vintage ’57 reissue was once owned by Jesse Trbovich, who’s flanked Vile for years. Trbovich landed a true-blue ’70s Olympic white Strat and needed to unload this to make room. Granduciel quickly raised his hand as a landing spot because he really enjoyed how comfortably the neck played. And since bonding with it, he likes its low-output single-coils because he can “juice it with pedals.” (It’s worth noting that Trbovich put in a Seymour Duncan Antiquity II Strat Surfer Series in the middle position, allowing him to have hum-canceling operation in the second and fourth position.) All of Granduciel’s electrics take Ernie Ball 2220 Power Slinkys (.011–.048).
It’s the One
“When this thing is in my hands, I can react with it, and it becomes this whole other animal. It can be unwieldy, but this guitar plugged into a cranked Princeton or small tweed sounds incredible,” allows Granduciel. So, as you can imagine, this 1969 Gibson SG is Adam’s right-hand when it comes to recording, but, as he explains later in the video, it doesn’t coexist pleasantly with his live setup. He scooped this gem at Rivington Guitars in New York City.
Flip a Coin
Granduciel had lusted after this vintage offset for weeks when seeing it listed on Reverb by Chelsea Guitars. The listing was removed and he thought that it was gone forever. A few months later, he was in NYC and decided to stop into the shop and, low and behold, the sunburst Jazzmaster was on their bench in pieces. Apparently, the original buyer from the Reverb listing was after a birth-year model (1964, as listed on the Reverb page), but when he removed the neck its pocket revealed a 1963 date. He traded in the guitar for a proper ’64 and, fatefully, Granduciel didn’t let a second pass before offering to buy it. Alongside the SG, this is another heavy hitter for recording.
Down Under with Terry
During a 2018 tour of Australia, Granduciel scored this 1966 Fender Jazzmaster that looks swanky with a matching black headstock. He claims the rhythm circuit in this one “sounds killer,” while the lead circuit is “super bright and used on ‘Occasional Rain.’” In addition to being a remarkable instrument, he loves that it reminds him of a short span of time that included a wonderful tour of Down Under, earning a Grammy for Best Rock Album, and the Philadelphia Eagles winning the Super Bowl.
Cracks aren’t meant to be beautiful, especially on guitars, but looking at the ’66’s backside reveals a twisted thumbprint.
Fly, Firebird Fly
This 1965 non-reverse Firebird was upgraded by its previous owner with a set of Lollar P-90s. If you recall the last Rundown with TWOD, Granduciel added a Bigsby, but that has since been removed.
This Fender American Vintage ’65 Jazzmaster has been a dependable dynamo for Adam. He prefers it because he knows what he’s going to get sonically and he can throw it around without worry. The newer pickups offer a snarlier tone, so it gets used for songs like “Pain,” and the top-end sear helps him cut through the seven-piece live band.
This new-ish Gibson Hummingbird gets busted out for C# tunes and features a LR Baggs M1 soundhole pickup.
Bastion of Tone
Not quite the famed Wall of Sound procured by the Dead and audio engineer Owsley “Bear” Stanley, but Granduciel’s evolving setup is heading in that direction.
Since our last Rundown, Adam has ditched the Hiwatts (although he admits to enjoying that era of TWOD) for the Alembic F-2B Stereo Preamp that was used by Jerry Garcia and David Gilmour. He describes its circuity as mimicking the front end of a Fender Dual Showman. “There’s just so much clean headroom and they’re so creamy. And I don’t know what it is, but single-coils and P-90s just come to life here in a way that other amps don’t, so maybe that’s why Jerry and David used them so much.” The Mesa/Boogie Stereo Simul-Class 295 powers the Alembic. He does run a direct line signal from the F-2B to FOH for a clean DI option.
Take a Guess
In the video, Granduciel challenged me to guess how many speakers are in the oversized cab, and I said four. Seemed logical but, as he quickly pointed out, the Marshall 2041 Lead Organ has only a pair of Celestion (pre-rola) 12″ speakers. The Alembic runs through this pillar of power.
The other side of Adam’s grand equation is a 1960s Fender Bandmaster head that hits a Marshall 1960BV 4×12.
The Swart Solution
As we alluded earlier, his beloved 1969 SG doesn’t jive with his Alembic-Fender setup, so he incorporates its humbuckers into his live rig by plugging into the 5W Swart STR-Tremolo. The SG and Swart typically dance for “Thinking of a Place,” but Granduciel admits to kicking it on with the Fenders during the heat of battle and treating it like a tremolo pedal for parts of “Pressure” and other jams. To the right of the Swart you’ll notice a pair of Rockman Tom Scholz (yeah, the Boston legend) Power Soak attenuators throttling the Alembic and Fender.
Keeping Time in the Loop
The band uses this AKAI Professional MPC Live II for additional drum machines for the show.
They are harnessed by four Boss FV-500L Foot Volume Pedals controlled by Adam that allow him to bring the samples into the room mix. Additionally, the band syncs their modulation to it, so everyone is locked in. (The MPC clocks or syncs the pulsing of the tremolo for the band. Adam uses a Lightfoot Labs Goatkeeper 2, while bassist David Hartley uses a Malekko Goatkeeper.)
Horseshoe of Madness
Here’s a crow’s-nest view of Adam Granduciel’s massive pedal playground.
Most of what Adam does with his feet is simplified by this Custom Audio Electronics R-ST 24 + 2x PSS MIDI controller.
The Fun Begins
Here’s one of the sections of Granduciel’s expanding pedalboard that includes a Wren and Cuff Tri Pie 70, a MXR/Custom Audio Electronics Boost/Line Driver, an Ernie Ball Expression Tremolo, anElectro-Harmonix 1440 Stereo Looper, a Lightfoot Labs Goatkeeper 2, a Strymon TimeLine, a Boss DC-3 Digital Dimension, and a Morley ABC Pro (for switching amps). A Boss TU-3s Chromatic Tuner keeps his guitars in check.
To the Moon, Adam, to the Moon!
Here’s the meat and potatoes of Granduciel’s spreading stomp setup: (top left) a Boss FT-2 Dynamic Filter, another MXR/Custom Audio Electronics Boost/Line Driver, DigiTech Hardwire RV-7 Stereo Reverb, ADA Flanger, JHS Bun Runner, J. Rockett Audio Designs Archer, MXR Flanger, Moutainking Electronics Loud Box, Crowther Audio Prunes & Custard, a Fulltone OCD, and a trifecta of Eventides that rest on the right side—a Space, TimeFactor, and H9. Everything gets current by either a MXR Custom Audio Electronics MC403 Power System or the Eventide PowerMax.
Clovis the Rough Rider
At first glance, you’d probably mistake this for a ’60s or ’70s Fender P, but as bassist David Hartley attests, this is a 2002 Fender Precision named Clovis that he acquired brand new almost two decades ago. Part of Clovis’ charm for Hartley is that it’s the lightest P he’s ever held, making their “Evening With” shows a little easier on the back. It’s stock aside from him swapping out the standard anodized gold pickguard for the tortoiseshell. He uses La Bella 760FS Deep Talkin’ Bass Flats (.045–.105).
Jam Like Jamerson
Another 4-string that does a lot of heavy lifting for Hartley is this 1983 Fender Fullerton ’62 Reissue Precision Bass. While this one isn’t as light as the previous P, he does love how much it sustains.
Find the Note
And occasionally you’ll see Hartley put down all the guardrails and dance with this Fender Tony Franklin Fretless Precision Bass. The connection with this one came through when he heard how much vocal tonality it has. It’s a highly expressive instrument.
The Ps come to life thanks to this boulder of bass tone: a pair of Ampeg Heritage 50th Anniversary SVT amps that hit an Ampeg Heritage SVT-810AV. The SVT on the left is a backup and Hartley plugs into the normal channels.
Simple but Not
Prior to this run, Hartley toyed with the idea of just plugging his Ps into a DI and his Ampeg. Clearly, that plan changed and he’s probably having more fun because of it. His stomp station contains a pair of Boss GE-7 Equalizers (one to help Clovis pop a bit more and the other helps brighten up the ambient drone of the Gamechanger), an Eventide H9, a Gamechanger Audio Plus Sustain Pedal, a Mountainking Electronics Megalith, a Malekko Goatkeeper, a Keeley Super Mod Workstation, and a MXR Phase 90. A Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner keeps his Ps sounding right.
Gibson partners with the Everly Brothers family for a limited-edition acoustic guitar equipped with AA flame maple and capped with dual pickguards.
Equipped with a AA flame maple back and sides paired with a thermally aged Sitka spruce top, the guitar is capped with the dual pickguards that The Everly Brothers made famous. The Everly Brothers SJ-200 features a stunning Ebony finish and also has essential SJ-200 cosmetic appointments including classic mother-of-pearl graduated crown inlays on the rosewood fretboard, as well as a “Moustache” bridge with four bar mother-of-pearl inlays. The bridge saddle, nut and bridge pins are bone, while Gold Grover Rotomatic tuners ensure solid tuning stability; an SJ-200 hardshell acoustic guitar case is included.
Alongside the release of the SJ-200, on Friday, June 17, the 17-track compilation album HEY DOLL BABY, will be released worldwide via Warner Records. On Father’s Day, Sunday, June 19, 2022, the star-studded virtual concert, “Hey Doll Baby Festival: Celebrating The Lives & Music Of The Everly Brothers” will feature the legendary songs of The Everly Brothers will air in full on Sunday, June 19 at 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT on the official Everly Brothers’ YouTube, Facebook, and Website.
Everly Brothers SJ-200
Beginning June 14, Gibson will release the limited-edition Everly Brothers SJ-200 acoustic guitar and the Everly Brothers x Gibson capsule apparel collection, on www.everlybrothers.com and www.gibson.com. $7,999.00 USD. Only 30 of these limited edition Everly Brothers SJ-200 guitars will be available.
Eric Johnson knows that excessive pride gets in the way of true progress, and that having extraordinary talent doesn’t beget personality or, simply put, make you better than anyone else. “I’ve spent so long being involved in [playing music] that, at one point, you take a break and go, ‘Yeah, but that’s not me—that’s just something I do. Who am I?’” he shares. “Regardless of how well you do it and how appreciated you are, it’s not like a carte blanche calling card that gives you any kind of real entitlement in life. If you think it does, then you don’t know who you are.”
That philosophy, along with his passion for the instrument, has, over time, superseded any ego-inflating diversions that can come from fame. And rather than resting on his legacy, the guitarist is building on it with the release of two albums: The Book of Making and Yesterday Meets Today. The records came together in a process of creative reconnaissance, where Johnson dove into his vault of recordings to find forgotten song ideas that could be polished, fleshed out, and rejuvenated for release.
Eric Johnson – Soundtrack Life (Official Visualizer)
The 18 tracks that collectively make up both albums include those that fit into a classic Johnson style, such as the brightly textured lead single from The Book of Making, “Soundtrack Life,” along with ones that explore other territories, like that album’s gentle, piano-guided “To Be Alive,” co-written with singer/guitarist Arielle, and a cover of the blues classic “Sittin’ on Top of the World” by the Mississippi Sheiks (famously covered by Howlin’ Wolf). These new compositions range from panoramic instrumentals to lilting ballads, embroidered by the guitarist’s fluid, crystalline tone and uplifting vocals. And together, they offer a new look into Johnson’s characteristic finesse.
When the last few weeks of his tour got cancelled in March 2020, Johnson, amidst the societal standstill and isolated from his bandmates, decided that the best use of his time would be to revisit his old demos and musical sketches. As he navigated through the tiny snippets, little chord changes, and other bits and pieces, he discovered that he had far more material available than expected and set to arranging and recording.
“When I take the vantage point of a listener, it’s easier to tell if stuff really has merit.”
I felt, well, if I’m going to be isolated, let me go try to find something to work on,” he says. “There’s a handful of songs that were written from scratch, and towards the end of the period I brought musicians in and we recorded new stuff. Then there’s a couple of tracks that I didn’t do anything to. They were just left over from outtakes from other records. But predominantly it was just stuff that was barely started, and I did a whole lot of work on my own.”
The songs done from scratch include “Floating Through This World” and “To Be Alive” from The Book of Making and “Hold on to Love” and “JVZ” (dedicated to Johnson’s late tour manager and guitar tech, Jeff Van Zandt) from Yesterday Meets Today. The original idea for the former album’s “My Faith in You” dates back 20 years, although its oldest song is “Love Will Never Say Goodbye,” which was built from a rough mix on a 25-year-old cassette. “That’s all I had,” Johnson says. “I couldn’t find the master take. It had synthesizer, bass, drums, and a vocal that was a little too low in level, but I just went with it. Then I added several guitars to it, and background vocals and percussion.”
Twenty-five years ago, Johnson was having an especially fertile creative period, despite his reputation as a painstaking studio craftsman. His albums Venus Isle and Seven Worlds sprang from that era, and his tenure on tour with fellow maestros Joe Satriani and Steve Vai was preserved on G3: Live in Concert. And while he’s more relaxed about record-making these days, he’s no less creative or prolific. The popular virtuoso says that every time he sets out to make an album, he usually ends up making two—and stashes the excess recordings in his vault. In this case, his efforts at rekindling his past inspirations resulted in 28 tracks that were pared down to the final 18, although he intends to eventually release five or six more of the original set on an upcoming EP.
Producer Kelly Donnelly, who has worked with Johnson on eight previous albums plus his 2014 collaboration with Mike Stern, Eclectic, helped with some of the engineering, but Johnson did most of it himself. In the process, he learned something interesting about the usefulness of low-fidelity recordings: If you pair them with recordings of a higher quality, the combination can create a compelling depth of field. This meant that he was able to salvage and build upon some of his more compromised cassette recordings. “I found that to be fascinating—it was like, ‘Wow, that kind of works.’ I didn’t know that was going to happen.”
“There has to be an element of the music that has enough power and velocity to reach out to the listener, rather than just be sonically nice to listen to.”
In 2020, Johnson worked with Fender to create a replica of his 1954 “Virginia” Stratocaster, which he played on many of the tracks from The Book of Making and Yesterday Meets Today. The guitar’s body is made with the less commonly seen sassafras wood and set up with a DiMarzio bridge pickup and ’57/’62 single-coil Strat middle and neck pickups. On the albums, he played a handful of other models, including a 1957 Strat with a maple neck, a 1965 Gibson ES-345 semi-hollowbody, and a late-’50s Les Paul. He also plays a National lap steel and Danelectro Vincent Bell Coral sitar on some tracks.
When it comes to songwriting, Johnson comments that his self-proclaimed perfectionist tendency to overthink things can work against him. “The songs where you’re really pushing and striving and stressing end up sounding like that,” he says, while the ones that just flow are the ones that are, for him, most worth working on. His creative process usually begins with making recordings of musical snapshots on his iPhone. He’ll capture a phrase on guitar or piano, or sometimes record himself singing a vocal or instrumental melody to later revisit. “They’re pretty embarrassing, if anybody ever found ’em,” he laughs, referring to the latter.
Eric Johnson’s Gear
- Eric Johnson Virginia Fender Stratocaster
- 1957 Fender Stratocaster
- 1965 Gibson ES-345
- 1950s Gibson Les Paul
- National lap steel
- Danelectro Vincent Bell Coral Sitar
Strings & Picks
- D’Addario EPN110 Pure Nickel sets
- Dunlop Jazz IIIs
- TC Electronic Stereo Chorus
- Electro-Harmonix Memory Man
- Vintage Echoplex (modded for use as preamp)
- ’60s Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face
- Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer
- BK Butler Tube Driver
- Marshall plexi 50
- Two-Rock Classic Reverb
- Marshall 4×12
- Fender Bandmaster Reverb
- Electro-Voice speakers
Deciding which compositions to keep or toss can be a curious process. To better judge his own writing, Johnson says it’s important for him to detach and act like an audience member or listener—so not to give himself any favoritism. “You have to dispel all that,” he says. “When I take the vantage point of a listener, it’s easier to tell if stuff really has merit.” While that can sound like a purely imaginative exercise, he has a rather practical way of getting to that perspective. Often, he’ll just crank up his studio monitors and walk into another room to listen.
“That helps you tell whether something’s really reaching you or not,” he elaborates, “because you’re not sitting there enveloping yourself and hyping yourself on something. There has to be an element of the music that has enough power and velocity to reach out to the listener, rather than just be sonically nice to listen to.”
“There’s nobody who’s going to be able to do what you do the way you do it.”
Johnson calls the evolution of his sound a “crazy process” that he says could go on forever, but he tries to let the music speak and will work to rise to the occasion to come up with a part that fits. “Sometimes that means I have to study a part that I can’t normally play.” Which means his self-labeled “perennial student” mentality has its benefits.
When asked if he experiences self-doubt, Johnson shares that he believes the habit of comparing yourself to others can be demoralizing, but he looks to practicing gratitude as a solution. “It’s just trying to be thankful for what you have and not compare yourself to other people. The more you’re in yourself and do your best.… There’s nobody who’s going to be able to do what you do the way you do it.”
Johnson was born into a musical family, with a father who was an enthusiastic music appreciator and three sisters who studied piano. His parents have said that he loved records when he was 3 years old. They listened to a lot of swing and showtunes, he says, which he developed a taste for as a child. He got his own record player when he was 5.
When Johnson got into playing music, he began to study piano at age 11, then took some lessons on guitar—though on guitar, he was mainly transposing what he learned on piano. His passion for wood and strings, however, quickly took over. “I loved it so much that I incessantly worked at it to get better, and it’s all I wanted to do,” he says.
“When I was a kid and saw all the cats playin’ guitar—Cream and the Yardbirds and all those people—I was like, ‘This is awesome,’” he shares. “Plus, it was kind of the first generation of overdriven guitar with fuzz tones. It was a sound that you’d just never heard before. That was really exciting.” He played in bands as a teenager, and tried going to college at the University of Texas at Austin but only earned three credits from taking an astronomy course, thinking it might be something he would want to pursue. But becoming a professional musician ended up being his clear choice.
Rig Rundown – Eric Johnson 
Despite his high profile and staggering proficiency, plus eight Grammy nominations and a win for his 1991 tune “Cliffs of Dover,” Johnson says he’s remained conscious of not letting things go to his head, saying, “It’s better to just let it flow, like when you were a kid just loving to play,” he says. “It’s best to let that happen naturally. Once you start becoming too aware of yourself and assimilating your legacy or living in your stature or fame or notoriety, you create a feedback loop where you’ll trip over yourself eventually.”
Fame, he says, can be stressful, but “right now I’m kind of taking a break from the whole thing. Just trying to work on myself and do other things. But it’s kind of always there a little bit because I live and breathe music.”
Trivium frontman Matt Heafy partners with Epiphone to launch 6 and 7-string models with Fishman Fluence Custom Humbucker pickups and classic Les Paul cosmetics.
The Matt Heafy Les Paul Custom Origins Collection is available in 6 and 7-String versions, in both Ebony and Bone White, and each guitar is also available in right and left-handed versions. The Matt Heafy Les Paul Custom Origins and a Les Paul Custom Origins in 6 and 7-String models. Each guitar features a pair of Matt Heafy’s Fishman Fluence Custom Series Signature Humbucker pickups that deliver three distinct tones – two standard Modern voices, and one crystal clear single coil tone.
These tonal options are selected with push/pull volume and tone pots. The maple-capped mahogany body has modern weight relief for hours of comfortable play, and the mahogany neck has a fast-playing SpeedTaper D profile and a contoured heel for exceptional upper-fret access. Gold hardware, including locking Grover Rotomatic tuners with Tulip buttons, and classic Les Paul Custom cosmetics make this a standout guitar on-stage. Available in Ebony and Bone White gloss finishes, a custom hardshell case is included.
Matt Heafy Les Paul Custom Origins
The Matt Heafy Les Paul Custom Origins Collection guitars are available worldwide through authorized Epiphone dealers and via www.epiphone.com.
Inside the band’s East Nashville studio, we zoom in on the multi-instrumentalist’s string-driven things.
Mike Harris says he “Forrest Gump-ed” his way into the Grammy-winning Americana string band Old Crow Medicine Show when he was drafted to join in January 2021. But rather than picking his spot in the group from life’s box of chocolates, Harris’ initial connection was his friendship with drummer Jerry Pentecost. He quickly proved himself an important member of the Nashville-based outfit of “Wagon Wheel” fame, thanks to his flexible guitar, mandolin, banjo, resonator, and vocal abilities.
Harris invited PG to Old Crow Medicine Show’s East Nashville studio, where they recorded their latest album, Paint This Town, for some show-and-tell about his favorite traveling and recording instruments.
Brought to you by D’Addario XS Strings.
Mike Harris’ main electric instrument in Old Crow Medicine Show is his well-loved 1968 Fender Telecaster with a maple-cap fretboard. The guitar has had a few changes over the past 54 years—the biggest is its Lollar neck pickup—but is mostly stock.
From Fessler’s Lane
Famed Fender luthier Greg Fessler, who’s made guitars for Robben Ford and many others, created this Custom Shop ’62 Tele in 2017. The speed dials and saddles are by notable vintage-style parts maker (and builder) Glendale Guitars of Arlington, Texas.
This stripped 1964 Fender Jaguar was a gift from Chris Stapleton. The tuners and bridge have been upgraded, which is common for pro-player Jags.
For a guitarist in Old Crow Medicine show, a classic Martin seems like a requirement. Harris’ 1960 D-28 features a Brazilian rosewood back and sides. The headstock has been repaired and a bridge plate saver installed.
This Collings MF Mandolin features an Adirondack spruce top and an Eastern flamed maple back and sides. It has a V-shaped neck and wide string spacing, for easy finger placement. Harris has a Fishman pickup installed.
Amplifying a banjo can be tricky, so Harris has a microphone installed behind the head of this Deering Sierra model.
A “Handy” Les Paul
This 2012 Gibson R7 Les Paul has a mahogany top, Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates pickups, and a Bigsby BP-15 palm-pedal tailpiece installed with a Vibramate V5 bridge plate. The R, by the way, stands for reissue, and the 7 designates 1957 as the year of origin for the guitar that inspired this goldtop.
The Rev. William F. Gibbons’ very own monster ’59, dubbed Pearly Gates, is the inspiration for this Gibson reissue. Of course, it also sports a pair of Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates Pickups. Only 350 of these came out of the Gibson Custom Shop in 2009.
This mid-1960s Harmony Meteor actually belongs to Harris’ great uncle, Howard. True to its birth-era, the guitar stays strung with flatwounds. It also possesses its original D’Armond-made gold-foil pickups, which were introduced with this model back in the day.
I’ll Have a PBR
This Gold Tone PBR Paul Beard Signature-Series Roundneck Resonator with a cutaway gets carried to the PA via a Fishman Nashville Series spider-style resonator pickup. Harris always plays the guitar through a Fishman Jerry Douglas Signature Aura Acoustic Imaging pedal.
And now for something unusual: Harris has his PBR resonator tricked out with a Bigsby BP-12 palm pedal tailpiece.
Harris’ pedalboard starts with a XTS custom pedalboard interface and routes to a Fancy Boy Klon clone, an Origin Effects Cali76 Compact compressor, a Walrus Audio 385 overdrive, a Demonfx King of Drive, a Shnobel Tone-modded Ernie Ball VP Jr. with a built-in TC Electronic PolyTune, a EHX Micro POG, an MXR Phase 95, a Moog MF Delay, and a Strymon Flint Tremolo & Reverb. All are powered by a Truetone 1Spot CS 12 and wired with Mogami cable with SP500 plugs. The board also houses a Magnatone reverb/tremolo controller.
Other elements of Harris’ gear include D’Addario American Stage Cables, BlueChip thumb picks, ProPik fingerpicks, Fender medium triangle plectrums, Dunlop .88 mm Flow picks, and Clayton thin triangles. He uses Dunlop slides: a 224 Heavy Wall Brass for resonator and a Derek Trucks signature for electric.
In the studio, Harris uses a lot of amps. On tour, however, he carries two, including this Magnatone Panoramic Stereo 2×10 combo. These come with Jensens, but Harris replaced those with a pair of Eminence Legends.
No. 2 for the Road
His other touring amp is a Fender Chris Stapleton Signature ’62 Princeton with an Eminence George Alessandro GA-64 12″ speaker.
Wall of Sound
Here’s a look at the studio amps he keeps on tap—mostly classic-style Fenders with a little assist from a Silvertone and that Magnatone.
From the sparse, smoky ballads of Julie London to the hard bop of Sonny Rollins, Barney Kessel could back up just about anybody. The bandleader, session great, Wrecking Crew member, and sideman was one of the most accomplished guitarists of his era. His chordal complexity not only got him steady work and accolades, but also a collection of signature guitar models bearing his name.
This 1968 Gibson Barney Kessel Custom is a top-of-the-line example. It’s the higher-end counterpart to the Barney Kessel Regular, both built from 1961 until 1974. They followed a trio of Barney Kessel signatures that Kay sold between 1957 and 1960.
Barney Kessels often became parts donors, with their hardware, tuners, and pickups (original PAFs, Pat. No., and T-Tops, depending on the year) being stripped and sold separately.
Each Gibson model has a hulking 17″-wide and nearly 3″-deep body, with two humbuckers, a Tune-o-matic bridge, and a bound rosewood fretboard. The attractive Barney Kessel tailpiece is also common to both, while the controls will be familiar to any Gibson player: two volume pots, two tone knobs, and a 3-way selector switch. The dual Florentine cutaways—a design first seen in these Barney Kessels and later used in Gibson’s Trini Lopez signature—cut a striking silhouette.
Of the two Gibson Kessels, the Custom alone is dressed to the nines, swapping in gold-plated hardware for the Regular’s nickel, and bowtie inlays for the Regular’s fretboard parallelograms. There’s also a 3-piece maple neck with two pinstripe-thin mahogany strips taking over for the Regular’s solid mahogany. And the Custom tops off its outfit with a pearl headstock inlay in the shape of a musical note.
Such features were a huge upgrade to the art-deco stylings and Kleenex-box pickups of Kay’s Kessel signatures, which Kessel snubbed, reportedly saying, “I don’t play that Kay. It’s a terrible guitar!” Interestingly, he often chose not to play these Gibson signatures, either, instead typically using his favorite 1940s ES-350.
When they were introduced, Gibson’s Barney Kessel Custom model had a list price of $599, while the Regular’s was $399. Both sold in respectable if not incredible numbers, with sales peaking in 1968. However, the following decades were not particularly kind to the guitars. As the vintage market took off for Les Pauls, SGs, and other classic Gibsons, Barney Kessels often became parts donors, with their hardware, tuners, and pickups (original PAFs, Pat. No., and T-Tops, depending on the year) being stripped and sold separately. You can still find Barney Kessel husks on the market—project guitars looking for a new owner to rebuild them. And many of the complete Barney Kessels you’ll find for sale have been rebuilt.
That’s what makes the particular Barney Kessel Custom featured here so special. It’s nearly all original, with Patent pickups intact and even its Custom-stamped hang tags. The only modification is one replaced tuner (along with a couple patched screw holes from a previous replacement). The cherry in its cherry sunburst finish is one of the most vibrant we’ve ever seen, and the condition of the finish overall is in impeccable vintage shape.
Because of the wide array of Barney Kessel Customs on the used market—many with non-original parts—you can find them across the price spectrum, from about $3,000 on the low-end to $12,000 or more on the high. This Custom, listed on Reverb now by Nationwide Guitars, fittingly lands on the higher end, with an asking price of $8,999.
Sources for this article include Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars by George Gruhn and Walter Carter, American Guitars: An Illustrated History by Tom Wheeler, Reverb’s “Player Profile: The Hard-Swinging Barney Kessel” by Greg Cooper, Premier Guitar’s “Gibson and Barney Kessel” by Jim Bastian, and Reverb listings from Retrofret Vintage Guitars and Vintage Correct Parts.
Halestorm’s Lzzy Hale unleashes a stylish mash-up with an Explorer body, neck, and Firebird headstock in Cardinal Red finish.
As the first female Gibson Brands Ambassador, Lzzy Hale joins legendary musicians, in thought leadership, brand research and development, and represents Gibson, Epiphone, Kramer, MESA/Boogie, KRK and Maestro. The guitar’s release comes as Halestorm’s latest single, “The Steeple,” becomes the group’s second consecutive #1 at rock radio from their new album Back From The Dead. Released earlier this month, Back From The Dead’s title track claimed the top slot last fall. “The Steeple” marks Halestorm’s seventh #1 hit.
Hale’s Gibson Explorerbird is a hard-rocking guitar that is built for heavy-music and follows the release of her three sold-out guitars the Gibson Lzzy Hale Explorer, Gibson Lzzy Hale Explorer Dark, and the Epiphone Lzzy Hale Explorer. As the first-ever design of its kind, the Explorerbird combines the body shape of the classic Explorer guitar and a Non-Reverse Firebird headstock into an artist model, with gold hardware. The Explorerbird comes with a striking Cardinal Red finish that matches Lzzy’s explosive live performances.
Lzzy Hale Signature Explorerbird
The Lzzy Hale Explorerbird is available worldwide now at authorized dealers and www.Gibson.com. $2,799.00 USD.
Deep into Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder’s Get on Board: The Songs of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, percussionist Joachim Cooder lays out, letting the two elder musicians can take a pass through “Pawn Shop Blues.” To start, they loosely play around with the song’s intro on their acoustic guitars. “Yeah, nice,” remarks Mahal off-handedly in his distinctive rasp—present since he was a young man but, at 79, he’s aged into it—and Cooder lightly chuckles. They hit the turnaround and settle into a slow, loping tempo. It’s a casual and informal affair—some notes buzz, and it sounds like one of them is stomping his foot intermittently. Except for Cooder’s slide choruses, neither guitar plays a rhythm or lead role. They simply converse.
The two legends sound less like they’re making a record in a studio and more like they’re hanging out and catching up over some music. Mahal describes this feel as “ragged, but right.” It’s the same kind of collective sound that historic blues duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee often possessed. But on Get on Board, it’s unique to these two old friends, who set out on their journeys long ago. “We’re bouncing off one another, we’re bouncing off the music, and we’re bouncing off the joy of being able to play this stuff, having the opportunity,” says Mahal.
Taj Mahal & Ry Cooder – The Making of ‘GET ON BOARD’
That “ragged, but right” vibe pervades each track on Get on Board, from the opening thump of “My Baby Done Changed the Lock on the Door” to the springy call and response of “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” to the closing ritardando on “I Shall Not Be Moved.” And it’s why, as Mahal explains, Get on Board transcends its recorded form: “It’s the kind of thing, when you listen in on it if you have the record playing in the other room, you’re sure those guys are in the other room,” he says. “Even though you know they’re not there, you gotta go and look.”
There are plenty of blues and folk albums that celebrate the genre’s early heroes—tribute projects that offer a feel-good time for musicians and listeners alike. And Get on Board is a masterfully produced, creative take on fantastic old music. But it’s also a one-of-a-kind reunion of two musical polyglots who, it’s fair to say, have explored the depth of the blues, following it on separate paths to the ends of the Earth and delving into the music from every angle—maybe more than anyone else. Now, five decades after their initial career-starting collaboration in 1965, they’ve come back to their roots together.
The Early Days
Each player’s early history is essential to their music as a duo. “Both of my parents were musical, and their culture was extremely musical and at a very high, sophisticated level,” Mahal explains. “We’re talking Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Billy Eckstein, Billy Daniels, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald … this kind of music. But there was also swinging, dancing music that was happening. Jitterbugging, all kinds of different stuff.”
He began forming his own tastes in the nascent days of rock ’n’ roll, which Mahal says “was a step way down” from the music he was exploring—music by artists from the 1930s and ’40s, who, he points out, were still alive and recording. “I was getting their juice as it was coming through—not as an echo. By the time I came around to hear it, I kept thinking, there’s gotta be some older form of the music. And I would hear a little bit of it; my mother would sing some songs from South Carolina.” And thus began his lifelong search for deeper and deeper musical connections: “Once I found out that you could jump into that river, even into the ocean, and keep on finding it, it’s like fish in the sea. The more you find, the more there is—and you’ll never get to the end of it.”
“We’re bouncing off one another, we’re bouncing off the music, and we’re bouncing off the joy of being able to play this stuff, having the opportunity.” —Taj Mahal
A young Ry Cooder was simultaneously on his own version of this quest, digging deeper into the history of American music. At just 12 years old, Cooder found a record called Get on Board by the duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, along with percussionist Coyal McMahan. It was just one point in a long line of musical discoveries that would inform his life and music. Cooder points out that Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee “must have been the most recorded blues act ever.” But his interest set him apart from his pre-teen peers in California, and he soon developed a reputation that reached Mahal—five years his senior—all the way in Massachusetts.
Mahal tells the story of hearing a guitarist perform one night early in his career and says, “It was obvious this guy was listening to something else and played the instrument in a different way.” They struck up a friendship, and Mahal learned that this guitarist had studied with a Californian named Ry Cooder. Upon learning Cooder was just 17 years old, “I blew my top!” he exclaims. Soon enough, he packed up, booked a few gigs across the country, and headed west to find the young guitarist and start a band.
Despite their quick demise, Mahal looks back favorably on the Rising Sons: “Ry’s work on that album is still, to this day, stellar,” he says. “I could listen to it any time in any joint. Anything that he plays. There was never nothing that he ever played that I did not like. Nothing. He heard the music.” Mahal struck out on his own, with Cooder in the band for his 1968 self-titled debut. But they soon went their separate ways on long and fruitful careers.
Together, After a Lifetime of Achievement
It wasn’t until decades later, in 2014, when the Americana Music Association awarded Mahal a lifetime achievement award, that Mahal and Cooder would collaborate again. Backed by an all-star band at the AMA awards show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the two former Rising Sons revisited “Statesboro Blues,” which they recorded almost a half-century prior. But this version sounds nothing like the quick, youthful version on the ’92 reissue. Instead, the mid-tempo groove—driven in part by Don Was’ bass and Joachim Cooder’s drums—is slower and deeper, Mahal’s voice lower and stronger, and his dry, percussive fingerpicking is complemented by Cooder’s dark, fuzzy slide work.
While this warm, rousing reunion lasted just under five minutes—and got a serious standing ovation—it reconnected Mahal and Cooder and planted a seed. Soon enough, Mahal says he “took three or four instruments and a suitcase and a handbag and got on a train and went down to L.A. We got together and did some playing.” Mahal pitched Cooder on the idea of doing a project together, trusting Cooder to come up with the concept. “He knows what he likes, and he knows what I like,” Mahal says. Encouraged by his son, Cooder formulated the Get on Board idea, and as Mahal explains, “Next thing you know, I’m on the train again back to L.A.”
Taj Mahal’s Gear
- Gibson Keb’ Mo’ Bluesmaster
Cooder built his concept not just around the duo, but included Joachim. “There’s Taj and me. There was Sonny and Brownie,” he explains. “Duet music, right? But the original Get on Board included the mysterious Coyle McMahan on bass vocals and maracas. I always thought the trio was more interesting. So, Joachim stepped into the McMahan chair, and that gave us a wider range.”
When considering songs, Cooder points out that Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee “had a huge repertoire for us to consider. You have to figure out what will work best, and a record can’t be all blues shuffles—for that kind of music you need Otis Spann or Memphis Slim, and a horn section, etcetera. So, we listened for songs more rural in feeling, like ‘Hooray Hooray,’ and ‘I Shall Not Be Moved.’ Folk-blues, as it used to be called.”
“A record can’t be all blues shuffles.” —Ry Cooder
“This music was making a fleeting disappearance from the inside of the music I was listening to,” says Mahal, adding that “something about the rural music was more connected with the African in it.” But he refutes the idea that their goal was to keep Sonny and Brownie’s music alive. Instead, he insists the music is already alive and he and Cooder are just helping it find new ears. “What you ain’t seen ain’t passed you yet,” he quips.
Cooder says they aimed to capture an “old-style” sound, “like a Folkways record,” the natural environment for these songs. To cultivate an authentically comfortable, low-key vibe, they set up in Joachim’s Altadena, Calfornia, living room for four days—three for live tracking and one for overdubs. And things proceeded simply, with “live singing—one take, maybe two at the most,” according to Cooder.
Ry Cooder’s Gear
- Adams Brothers acoustic (circa 1900)
- Fairbanks long-scale custom banjo (circa 1900)
- ’60s Fender “Coodercaster” modded with an early ’60s Teisco pickup (neck) and a Valco lap-steel pickup (bridge)
- 1919 Gibson F-4 mandolin
- 1946 Martin D-18
- White amplifier (made by Fender)
Get on Board isn’t a genre exercise, but it feels vintage, thanks in some part to the select gear they chose. Mahal switches instruments, playing a Steinway piano, harmonicas, and fingerpicking his Gibson Keb’ Mo’ Bluesmaster. Cooder brought along some vintage items. “I played a 1946 D-18, similar to Brownie’s—light and twangy,” he says. “Also, a peculiar Adams Brothers guitar, circa 1900. It’s rowboat size and super resonant. Check it on ‘Beautiful City.’ And my old Gibson F-4 mandolin on ‘Hooray Hooray.’ Taj commented that I had played the same instrument on his first solo record. The lead instrument on ‘Packing Up’ is a giant gut-string Fairbanks banjo, probably a custom order.”
Although most of the record is acoustic, the opening track features a driving electric slide part that bears Cooder’s unmistakable sonic thumbprint. “I overdubbed my usual bottleneck Stratocaster on ‘Changed the Lock,’” he explains. “That’s a White amp with a busted speaker, and a tape Echoplex which belonged to the great Leon Rhodes.” [Rhodes played guitar in Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troudabours.]
“What you ain’t seen ain’t passed you yet.” —Taj Mahal
Except for the tight, driving version of “Packing Up Getting Ready to Go,” there aren’t any particularly radical reinventions on Get on Board, so the biggest differences in Mahal and Cooder’s versions of Terry and McGhee’s songs are what the individuals bring to the music. As Mahal points out, Sonny and Brownie were the original purveyors, and he and Cooder are “a couple guys who have spent their lives bringing back these nuggets of great music for all to see and hear.”
But Mahal and Cooder both bring a warmth to the music, and it’s easy to think that stems from their mutual appreciation—a feeling that was missing from the original duo, who were famously at odds. In 1982, The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Terry, the harmonica player and singer, and Mr. McGhee, the guitarist and singer, are staunch individualists whose partnership has been marked by feuds, splits, and reunions.” Mahal and Cooder, as individual as they may be, are quite the opposite. It’s friendship that brought them back together after all these years, and helped fuel the creative energy on Get on Board, which Mahal says “felt exciting.”
And if that’s not enough, he adds: “I can’t think of anyone else I’d really wanna play this kind of music with.”