Tag: Guitarists

Fever Dreams of the Brilliant Mister Marr

Fever Dreams of the Brilliant Mister Marr

When the great Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes passed away earlier this year, I thought a lot about Johnny Marr. Marr was moved deeply by the girl groups of the ’60s—their positivity, energy, and the convergence of ecstasy and melancholy in the music. He was even fired up by the audaciousness of their style: The impressive beehive hairdo worn by Spector’s bandmate Estelle Bennett famously inspired the jet-black pile Marr wore at the height of Smiths fame.


But the most lasting influence of the girl groups on Marr is probably the musical playground that Ronnie once made her own: the wall of sound. In the decades since Phil Spector concocted the wall of sound from an orchestra of guitars, strings, drums, pianos, chimes, castanets, and whatever else was gathering dust in the closets of Gold Star Studios, scores of musicians—from Brian Wilson to the Beatles to Bruce Springsteen—have chased its elusive, ineffable magic.

Johnny Marr – Spirit Power and Soul (Live)

Johnny Marr’s versions of the wall of sound, however, are highly original and distinctive. They are marked by deep resourcefulness and a gift for achieving wall-of-sound grandeur and scale through the humble medium of multitracked guitar. And from the Smiths’ first LPs to his latest release, Fever Dreams Pts 1-4, Marr achieved this wizardry by mining a seemingly endless vein of riffs and through his penchant for guitar arrangement—talents cultivated through intuition, passionate listening, and a boundless, post-modern knack for tastefully blending influences.

As formidable as Marr’s arranging abilities, melodic instincts, and sense of musical recall are, they all find realization in hands driven by Swiss-watch timing, economy, and percussive potency. And though he’ll be the first to tell you he’s not a musical technician, he is, in many ways, as complete a musician as you could ever know.

I was really struck by the bigness of Fever Dreams Pts 1-4. I pictured you making this record, amid lockdown, making music for the clubs we hoped to return to again. Even the picture of you on the cover—you next to the Fender Showman—seemed like a totemic suggestion of longing for big sounds.
I think that was subconscious. I say subconscious because I started writing it before Covid and had this idea that I wanted to do a double LP, and because it was going to be a double, I thought it could be expansive. I just had this idea that (the double LP format) would give me a lot of space. But, of course, with the way things turned out, I ended up—and I must confess, illegally—going alone into my studio space, which is the top floor of an old factory, staring out at my Mini, which was the only car in this vast parking lot, and working like that for weeks.

So, I ended up very aware of all this idea of space, which is even why the sky is so blue on the cover. I took all the equipment in the space out for that shoot to signify the way I was feeling about all that. There were also these nocturnal themes that emerged. I think a lot of people were lying awake wondering if they still had a job and worrying about their businesses. So, a lot of the songs reference those feelings—like “Lightning People:” “I can’t sleep/static sheets/cries that put me on my knees”—that idea of a storm coming.

I made the assumption that the part of my audience that listens most closely and that I’ve built up over the last 40 years or whatever, that they are living similar lives to what I was talking about. So, I didn’t have a concept, but I did have a sort of nagging agenda—that the album would be expansive and that I would tackle feelings about the psychology and predicaments of being a modern person.

“You know that concept of work/life balance? I don’t really have that concept. I hear good things about it and maybe I should try it out.”

The rhythmic drive and dance feel of many of the tunes also struck me as nocturnal. Was that a conscious thing?
Well, it’s funny how some things turn out. I started writing the album and just a few weeks into it, got the call to work on the Bond film [No Time to Die]. There’s a lot of downtime in that kind of situation, so I started working on the song “Receiver.” And as you said, it sounded to me like the atmosphere of being in a nightclub—like those I used to go to in [London neighborhood] Euston at the end of the ’80s—finding myself, you know, still there at 5:40 in the morning. So that song is about transmitting and receiving erotic signals.

That’s the beauty of songwriting. Sometimes you mix and match images or sometimes a concept comes first. The same thing happened with “Lightning People.” I had that title, which to me sounded like a Staple Singers song or something, so it ended up with a sort of choir/gospel feel. Musically, you can still tell that it’s coming from an indie rocker from Manchester, but the whole idea started from just that title. Lots of stuff still comes via the way people probably expect I write songs, too, which is to just sit down with a guitar. The last song, “Human,” is like that.

All the way back to the Smiths, you’ve always evoked feelings vividly through purely instrumental means—particularly those feelings that that cross sadness and positivity. But you really went after it lyrically here.
Well, in working with lyricists and paying attention to the ones I haven’t worked with, I’ve noticed that as a lyricist you have to be very self-aware and ask yourself, “Well, what am I really saying?” And in the case of this album, I was asking myself how I was going to top an album that was really well-liked among my fans. I know what that feeling is like. I don’t like to call that “pressure,” but that’s what it is.

Johnny Marr’s Gear

Guitars

  • Signature Fender Jaguar
  • 1973 Les Paul Custom
  • Gibson EDS-1275 doubleneck
  • Yamaha SG-1000
  • Yamaha SG-700
  • 1963 Fender Jazzmaster
  • Martin D12-28
  • Auden acoustics, 6-string and 12-string
  • 1984 or ’85 Gibson Les Paul with Bigsby
  • Gretsch 6120
Strings & Picks
  • Ernie Ball Power Slinky strings (.011–.048)
  • D’Addario acoustic strings (.012–.053)
  • Ernie Ball Medium picks

Amps

  • 1969 Marshall plexi
  • HH Electronics transistor combo
  • Roland JC-120
  • 1965 Deluxe Reverb
  • Fender Twin Reverb (black panel)
  • Kemper Profiler
  • Fender Bassman
Effects
  • MXR Flanger
  • Carl Martin AC-Tone
  • Carl Martin Plexitone
  • Carl Martin HeadRoom Reverb
  • Carl Martin Delayla
  • Carl Martin Chorus XII
  • Boss RT-20 Rotary Ensemble

You’ve experienced that pressure before: Trying to top Meat Is Murder with The Queen Is Dead.
Before The Queen Is Dead, I remember a moment where I was walking through my kitchen and stopped in my tracks, just literally frozen, realizing what it was going to take to do that. And when I was doing Dusk with The The, I remember the feeling when Matt Johnson and I realized the record was going to completely dominate our lives for two years. And with this record, in particular, I probably was feeling the pressure of following Call the Comet, because I was literally writing 48 hours after the last show to support that record.

Was the decision to background guitars in some cases on this album also a response to that record?
Deciding where guitars should sit in more electronic music is a balancing act. It’s very easy to get it wrong. One way I’ve done it wrong in the past is by not putting enough guitar on. Like with Electronic’s second album, I was trying to make my guitar sound like a synth. But at the time, that was part of my agenda—taking guitars out, seeing what filters did, things like that.

But honestly, I don’t really like a lot of music that blends electronic music and guitars. So, when I do it, it has to be appropriate and really capture a feeling. I think I know enough to do that well now. A song like “Ariel”—a lot of people hear that as very ’80s, and the riff is built on a sequencer. But I made the riff really loud and it’s a very ’80s, Roland Jazz Chorus riff. So, there I really doubled down on the contrast between the electronic and guitar elements. On “Spirit Power and Soul,” if you take the guitar out, it’s a totally different kind of track, and the guitar is backgrounded. So, I think I know how to find the right blend better these days.

Given that newfound freedom, did you write a lot more of these tracks from rhythmic underpinnings? It seems like working alone may have forced your hand in that respect.
Yeah. I don’t mean to take any credit away from my amazing band, which has been with me for more than 10 years now. But the entire record was demo’d and programmed with me playing everything on it. Then the band came in to make it sound more like “us” as a band. But things like “Spirit Power and Soul,” I was hearing that sequencer pattern in my head long before I wrote the song, and I knew I wanted very much for it to sound like Giorgio Moroder, Kraftwerk, or Cabaret Voltaire but with guitars on it.

When I was in my teens, I had a tape player that I could overdub on—this was before I had a Portastudio—and I’d get into obsessively layering. This album is really the grown-up version of that. It’s that same guy, but he’s now been in The The, Modest Mouse, and all that stuff. And again, because I knew it was going to be a double album, I allowed myself to do whatever the hell I wanted. So, something like “Lightning People” and that gospel vibe—I never would’ve done that on The Messenger or Playland because on those records I had these very specific and deliberate parameters I was trying to work within. Which can be a very good thing.

When you’re a writer, and particularly when you’re very young, things often become very much about what you’re not. But in this day and age, when you have a universe of plug-ins, instruments, and directions at your fingertips—not only can you get option fatigue, but your music can become a stylistic hodgepodge. So usually, with the band I impose some restrictions that limit that. On this LP, though, I just stripped them away.

What did that feel like to embrace that freedom?
Honestly, I didn’t even know I was doing it until much later. Because of the lockdown I was usually alone in the studio, so I thought, “Well, let’s see what all these virtual keyboards and synths and machines that I’ve been buying for the past five years do.” First, I had to spend a week getting really frustrated doing all the updates to the point where I don’t even really want to make music. But then I’d wake up after three hours of sleep with a song in my head and be ready to go.

You’re a writer that famously goes on hot streaks and creative runs. Do you still experience that zombie-like sense of creative possession? And how readily are you able to tap into it? What tools do you use when you can’t tap into it?
This thing you’re talking about—finding inspiration and hopefully, some otherworldly place—finding that place is something that has driven me since I was a kid. But you know that concept of work/life balance? I don’t really have that concept. I hear good things about it and maybe I should try it out.

But without mythologizing things too much, when I make records, I tend to lock myself out of the house, or forget where I’ve left the car. I develop very odd sleeping patterns if I sleep at all. I decided many years ago that drugs, particularly cocaine, don’t do any good, and alcohol isn’t really good for my creative process—maybe when you’re younger.

So, it gets back to that quote of Picasso’s: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” In my own process, that means I’ll work on a song—and for it to snag me, the initial feeling has to be something like, “This is the greatest thing that no one has ever heard.” That’s entirely subjective, but that energy will keep you locked in for a couple hours and if you’re really lucky you’ll get on a real roll and you’ll end up with something inspired. Sometimes you do something for a couple hours and you realize, “Ah, this isn’t so great,” and you have to drop it. Emotionally, that can take you down. Especially when you work with a band and spend a few weeks on something and decide, “Nope, this isn’t cutting it.” But things don’t always have to start out as esoteric to become esoteric. And as my friend Nick Cave says, “Just do the fucking work.”

“You still have to get in and do the work. This idea that a songwriter is walking in a supermarket one day, and someone in the next aisle says something and it instantly turns into a whole song…well, yeah, well that might work if you’re Smokey Robinson!”

And alchemy can come from any stage of the creative process—writing, mixing….
Yeah. One of the positive things that comes of being around and doing this for so long is you can look back and say, “Oh, okay, that’s a song people still really like that I’m still playing in my set.” And I’ll realize that it came about from fucking about on a bass line for 20 minutes. But then there are songs like “The Headmaster Ritual” where I carried around a bit of it for a couple years, and then one day we needed a song, and I sped the fucking thing up and I heard it in a totally different way.

Neil Finn, who is a masterful songwriter, nailed it when he said: “There is no formula for writing a song. It’s a mystery. Embrace the mystery.” But you still have to get in and do the work. This idea that a songwriter is walking in a supermarket one day, and someone in the next aisle says something and it instantly turns into a whole song … well, yeah, that might work if you’re Smokey Robinson!

But in my case, and certainly in the case of something like “Spirit Power and Soul,” I really had to craft that one over weeks and weeks. So that one is an example of tenacity and staying true to a vision. If you get caught up too much in divine intervention, you’ll wander around forever waiting for some melody that no one’s ever heard before. It’s in doing the work that you get there. Loads of great artists just write and write. I mentioned Nick Cave, he does it. Thom Yorke, he does it. Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse—he would write an amazing string of lyrics and then just rinse it and start again.

We’ve talked a lot about how your songs have been part hard work, and part unexpected sources of inspiration. Do you find you have to sometimes pull away from the guitar to reignite your relationship with the instrument? Do you ever get alienated from the guitar?
No. If anything, if for some reason I was going to move to Bali and retire, it would be to play for eight or nine hours a day and really expand my vocabulary. Generally, I’ll put a guitar [on a record] wherever I can. Because y’know, when I was a kid, if you bought a Thin Lizzy record, when you dropped the needle on that record, you expected to hear guitar. But because I’m also a producer, I have to find where that guitar fits appropriately. I learned guitar at the same time that I was learning about production. I also learned how to play guitar by playing along with 45s. I never had a lesson and never bought books. So I think of myself as someone who makes records, and the way I make records is to write songs. But I love guitar records. So while I’ll try other things, I’ve also been known to turn to my band while we’re working on something and say, “This needs a new intro, because we’re a guitar band.”

The Smiths – Live The Tube Studio 1984 HD (Full Show)

At the height of their creative and performa- tive powers, Johnny Marr and the Smiths could effortlessly span mutated folk-rock jangle and deep indie-dance funk, as Marr does here with his legendary 1959 ES-355—a gift from Sire Records boss Seymour Stein.

Do you think the idiosyncrasies and individuality in your playing comes from being self-taught? What about your natural proclivities as an arranger?
As a boy, a few of my pals were into playing guitar. They were really focused on “Voodoo Chile” or on what Steve Howe was doing. But I would listen to, say, the Patti Smith Group’s Radio Ethiopia, something like “Ask the Angels,” a song that’s really simple and straightforward—just an A minor and an F—and I’d think: “That’s a really cool song, it starts with power chords, okay, that’s a little like the Who. Cool I get that.” But all of the sudden I’d notice there’s a piano playing eighth-notes that sounds like the Velvet Underground or the Stooges, so I’d end up trying to play the whole record—the guitar sand the piano—rather than just the guitar part.

I was also very into Sparks, which isn’t guitar music per se, but the way the guitar is integrated is very, “Okay, now were going to use a fucking guitar!” I was just really into the sound of records as a whole. So I thought a lot about layering and when I got a machine I could overdub on, I started layering 18 guitars. By the time I got the Smiths together I had it down to 15 while trying to make it sound like just eight.

Part of that ability to layer and not create a complete mess seems related to your acute sense of rhythm and timing. That’s especially apparent in some of the Smiths’ licks—in a single part I can sometimes hear not only Keith Richards, but Keith Richards and Brian Jones, with some Steve Cropper sixths on top and Leo Nocentelli’s right hand in the same song. Was that skill cultivated from the intellectual process of breaking down how a record works?
I found around 14 that the Rolling Stones records from the ’60s, in particular, really blew my mind. Back then, that was unusual. Because my friends were jumping around to the British pop groups—things like the English Beat. But I’d hear records like “The Last Time,” and even though I knew it was old, I just thought, “Wow, this sounds better than anything around now.” So I really studied that—really getting into those singles, how they were put together, and the sound of them. I realized that Keith and Brian were doing this meshing thing. “The Last Time” is a good example; so is “It’s All Over Now.” I really picked up the soul stuff from those guys. But a lot of the rhythmic drive you’re talking about is just my personality and plain exuberance—hyperactivity really. There’s a song on The Messenger, “Generate, Generate.” I mean, that’s really a tribute to my hyperactivity (laughs). I was quite into being hyper!

You’ve always valued art and seem to have derived a lot of your energy from the notion of a bohemian life. I was always moved by your relationship and loyalty to Manchester and what that place meant as sort of a creative organism and catalyst to your development.
If you’ve got an artistic temperament, you can find inspiration in almost any place. But yeah, Manchester being so urban and musically orientated—there was a lot to rally around. When my kids were teens, me and their mother brainwashed them into having weekend jobs in Manchester, so they knew what it was to finish their shift in the city on a summer’s night, just before the clubs were opening, when all the shop workers are starting to go to the bars and exchange ideas, and all the fashionistas are lurking around. It’s really magical. Urban life is changing and subterranean life is changing. But young eyes—they don’t know different. They don’t know that a place isn’t Cleveland in the ’70s or New York in the ’60s. They’ll make the best of it. There are always great bands coming out. Right now, as we speak, there’s some band of girls and boys getting together in Williamsburg, finding their voice—and it will be great.

The Deep Cuts: Johnny Marr’s Gear in His Own Words

Anyone that’s followed Johnny Marr’s career knows the man is a certifiable guitar addict, with a Fort Knox worth of killer vintage instruments to utilize at the turn of a whim. Marr rather religiously used his signature Fender Jaguar over the last several years, but he reached deeper into his collection for the many less quintessentially Marr sounds on Fever Dreams Pts 1-4. Marr explains what he used in great detail below.

“A lot of my gear for this record was really deliberately selected, and I really honed in on a few things. I’ve got two 1973 Les Paul Customs I used for some of the darker sounds. You hear that on ‘Receiver.’ I ran those through my old MXR Flanger and either my Marshall Plexi or my HH transistor combo. Those things were part of the stylistic structure I wanted to maintain.

I played my signature Jaguar quite a lot. But since I got more into the movie soundtrack work, I’ve used a lot more 12-string, and for that I’ve been playing a Gibson EDS-1275 doubleneck because it’s the best 12-string sound. With all that mass, and the humbuckers—and if you can get it together right—all the extra resonance from the 6-string pickups, you get all kinds of overtones. There’s a couple Yamaha SG-1000s and an SG-700 on the record, which all have the Spinex pickups but sound pretty different. I used my ’63 Jazzmaster, too.

For acoustics, I played a few guitars by Auden, a company here in the UK—a 12- and 6-string—as well as the Martin D12-28 I’ve used since the Smiths. I also used the guitar that I’ve probably played more than any guitar in my life—the red 1984 or ’85 Les Paul with a Bigsby that I played a lot with the Smiths. I got that around the Meat Is Murder album. It’s great for clean stuff. A lot of stuff that folks think is a Rickenbacker is the Les Paul tracked with my Jaguar or tracked with itself in coil (split) mode. If I want to get a little natural chorus, that guitar is perfect because I’ll put a part down with both pickups on one side of the stereo image then put a split-coil track on the other side. The effect of the same guitar with these slightly different tones helps create that sound. For whammy-stuff and dive bombs, I’ll often use a Gretsch 6120 from the Smiths days. Another big part of this album, and the movie stuff, is one of my signature Jags with a Fernandes sustainer pickup in it.

Amp-wise, apart from the HH, I used a lot of the same amps I’ve had since the Smiths: my Roland JC-120, a ’65 Deluxe Reverb, a black-panel Fender Twin Reverb that I use with the Gretsch. Occasionally I’ll use the Kemper for overdubs or a Bassman or the ’69 Marshall Plexi and Super Reverb amps I used with Modest Mouse. Effects-wise, I use a lot of Carl Martin stuff: The AC-Tone, Plexitone, HeadRoom Reverb, Delayla, and Chorus XII are all great. And I’ll use the Boss RT-20 Rotary Sound a lot, too.

I’ve gone down the weird road before. But if I can’t use all this stuff and my fingers to squeeze out the right sound, I’m either not trying hard enough, or what I’m looking for is wrong. Someday I’d like to find something that will replicate the weirdness of Johnny Thunders’ 2-string bends. But I’m always looking for something that will walk the line between musical and radical.” —Johnny Marr
















Rick Holmstrom’s Bent Blues

Rick Holmstrom’s Bent Blues

Rick Holmstrom says he spends “a lot of time not listening to guitar. I like trying to imagine the guitar taking the place of saxophone, Ahmad Jamal’s piano, or Mose Allison’s piano. Like Billie Holiday, who does those weird little micro bends that the great singers do—how can you get a feeling like that on the guitar?”


For Holmstrom, the answer is a style that blurs the lines between traditional blues—the genre where he’s invested most of his nearly 40-year career—and a place on the edge of the envelope, where chromatic lines, finger-crafted imitations of slide, microtonal bends, and a devout belief in the unerring power of the groove telegraph his vision. Those elements plus his clean and spanky and typically Tele-driven tone have made him Mavis Staples’ music director since 2007 and caught the ear of Ry Cooder. His ability to conjure the spirit of Mavis’ late dad, Pops Staples, on her renditions of Staple Singers classics is uncanny, yet still retains Holmstrom’s distinctive flavor.

While his resume most certainly slants toward the old-school—he’s toured with harmonica aces William Clarke, Johnny Dyer, and Rod Piazza, and recorded with Jimmy Rogers, Billy Boy Arnold, and Booker T. Jones—he’s also added spectral playing to the R.L. Burnside space-straddling classic Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down and recorded a solo album in 2002, Hydraulic Groove, that seamlessly wedded funk, trip-hop, ambient electronics, and roots music. In a less conservative place than the blues market, it would’ve been widely heralded as the masterpiece cognoscenti know it to be.

Bubbles – Rick Holmstrom

Now, he’s got a new instrumental album called Get It! that’s a funky and emotive showcase for his style; chasing down his passion for the almighty groove but doing so along his distinctive path where bends get weird (“Weeping Tana”), melodies swing hard (“Robyn’s Romp”), the great spirits of the genre are summoned (“King Freddie”), the strains of Morocco echo (“Taghazout”), and hip-hop-sample-worthy rhythm tracks (“Kronky Tonk”) do some heavy lifting.

Holmstrom’s journey started as a kid in Fairbanks, Alaska. His father, a local DJ, exposed Holmstrom to the blues, soul, and R&B that would define his career. No doubt the Staple Singers’ hits like “I’ll Take You There” and “Freedom Highway,” both part of Mavis’ live sets today, were on heavy rotation.

“Let’s get past all this existential, post-apocalyptic doom and have a funky good time.”

Cooder played a role in his arrival as Mavis’ musical right hand. “My band opened up for Mavis on the Santa Monica Pier,” he relates. “We get off the stage, and the promotor says, ‘Her band is stuck at LAX, but Mavis is here. Can you back her for a few songs?’ We didn’t really know her songs, but we played three or four.

“As I was walking off the stage, a guy with yellow glasses tapped me on the shoulder, and it was Ry Cooder. Ry was producing a record of Mavis’, and he liked the way we played with her. He kept telling Mavis, I guess during the session, ‘I really dug that band that played with you.’ Then our first gig with her, unbelievably, was The Tonight Show. [Laughs.]”

Holmstrom’s individuality is even more surprising considering he cut his teeth during the 1980s blues explosion. While he was digging on Chicago, New Orleans, Stax, and Motown, everyone else was fixated on a particular player out of Austin, Texas. “I didn’t want anything to do with Stevie Ray Vaughan,” he says. “And that’s no diss at all. He’s a really great guitar player. But when he came out, I was like 12 years old. Playing was still an option for me. Then he came along, and it was almost enough to give up guitar.

“All you had to do was look around and see all these guys that were copying him. Everybody had a Strat, a hat, some boots, and a Super Reverb,” he explains. “So, I got a big hollowbody with a single P-90 and no cutaway and tried to learn saxophone and big band horn-section melodies.”

In forging his own way, Holmstrom sidestepped the blues-shred of those years. Preferring to let his parts breathe, he fills that space with … nothing. Check out his solo on “Looky Here” from Get It! The guy sometimes drops out for a full measure. He even ends the solo by basically not playing at all for the last two bars. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t a guitarist who inspired this restraint.

Looky Here

When Rick Holmstrom was writing his new album, Get It!, the songs started with him developing melodies by singing them, then transposing them to guitar.

“Years ago, we were playing in Boston with Mavis,” Holmstrom recalls. “We got there a night early, and Ahmad Jamal was playing. He would break down a melody and only use two of the notes. It draws you in because you’re not hearing all the notes that could be there. Your brain is allowed to imagine the rest. That was a life-changing gig for me.”

Like his playing, Holmstrom’s songwriting is also decidedly non-guitar-centric. Instead of plugging in, turning up, and going for it, he says he listens. “When I’m making up songs or getting a groove going, I’ll hum or sing to myself,” he says. “Then I’ll think, ‘Where does this melody go next?’ I’m not playing the guitar at that point. I’m humming it and singing it to myself. ‘Does that flow? Okay, now let’s go back and learn that on guitar.’”

Of course, the contemporary zeitgeist—not just a quest for melody—also played a role on the creation of Get It!

Rick Holmstrom’s Gear

Guitars

  • 1953 Fender Telecaster with Ron Ellis neck pickup and ’50s Fender lap-steel bridge pickup
  • 1955 Les Paul Special with phase switching
  • 1940s Gibson ES-150
Effects
  • SIB Electronics Echodrive
  • ’60s Fender Reverb Tank
  • Milkman The Amp (used as a preamp for the rented AC15 when touring)

Amps

  • 1950s Valco-made 1×10 Bronson combo modded to tweed Tremolux specs (with 6V6 tubes)
  • Fender silver-panel Vibrolux (with 6V6 tubes)
  • Vox AC15 (rented backline when touring, with EL84 tubes)
Strings
  • D’Addario (.011–.050)

“It was January ’21 and my previous record, See That Light, hadn’t even come out. Then the insurrection happened, and it started to drive me nuts,” he says. “I’m watching MSNBC and reading The Times and stuff, and it was really bugging me. The only thing I could figure to do was get creative and get my mind off it. I booked a session and started making drum loops of grooves that I thought might work.”

While the world’s events have led some artists to exercise their struggles via dark, introspective works, Holmstrom went the other way. Get It! is all about having a good time, feeling free, and reminding us of a simpler, joyful way of looking at the world. “I wanted this record to be something you might put on when you get your friends together or when you’re having a barbecue,” he says. “Let’s get past all this existential, post-apocalyptic doom and have a funky good time.”

“I’ve gotten to the point where I hate guitar pedals.”

While the album is crammed with great blues, songs like “Surfer Chuck” and “Taghazout” play with ’60s surf rock, sultry Middle Eastern motifs, and whatever else caught Holmstrom’s fancy. “FunkE3,“ in particular, with its percolating Meters-style groove and stylistic shifts, shows how far Holmstrom and crew can go.

That one had been hanging around a while. “We did a tour years ago with Mavis, where Joan Osborne opened, and we also backed Joan,” Holmstrom relates. “One of our background vocalists said, ‘Man, why don’t you walk her off with an instrumental, and then, boom, go right into the Mavis set?’ So ‘FunkE3’ is the song I started working on and ended it up being that [transitional] song a lot of nights.”

Even with a wide breadth of styles on Get It!, the album’s sound and production are the secret behind its gleefully old-school character. Inspired by classic ’50s and ’60s blues albums, the musicians tracked together, in the moment, without overthinking. “I was always trying to make things sound like Chess Records in the ’50s—like that Little Walter, Muddy Waters kind of thing,” Holmstrom says. “You can tell it’s three instruments really close to each other, with some bleed.” The other two musicians in the room were Steve Mugalian on drums and Gregory Boaz on bass.

Holmstrom’s commitment to tradition also permeates his guitar sound. From beginning to end, he smothers the album with vintage-style amp tones from a small combo with a split pedigree. “I used a very tiny guitar amp called a Bronson. It’s a weird Valco-made amp from the ’50s. I had a buddy of mine turn it into, like, a mid-’50s tweed Tremolux. It’s a great-sounding, magical little amp.”

Despite the wide range of gain used throughout the new album, the Bronson’s onboard tremolo, a tube-driven SIB Electronics Echodrive delay, and a 1960s Fender Reverb Tank are all the effects Holmstrom used. Even that may have bordered on too much for him.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I hate guitar pedals,” he says. “I absolutely hate them. Ideally, I would love to plug straight into an amp. No 9-volt power, no wall warts, no skinny little power cables that are going to break right before the gig. I would rather use my hands.”

“I was always trying to make things sound like Chess Records in the ’50s—like that Little Walter, Muddy Waters kind of thing.”

So how does he get all his sounds? Like everything else, the old-school way. “I turn the volume of my guitar down and pick a lot with my fingers. Then, if I turn the volume on the guitar all the way up and pick with a pick, it’s pretty gain-y.”

Not surprisingly, Holmstrom also prefers vintage guitars. Save for a couple of tunes, the entire album was recorded with only one of them. “The album is all my ’53 Tele except for two songs,” he says. “It’s the variety of sounds you can get out of them. ‘All About My Girl’—that’s the neck pickup. It sounds like it could be a hollowbody. The middle is pure Stax or Motown, and then the bridge is whatever you want.”

As versatile as the Fender Tele is, the songs “King Freddie” and “Pour One Out” begged for something different. And though that something else—a 1955 Gibson Les Paul Special—is also a drool-worthy vintage piece, this one was different. “It has an out-of-phase, push-pull tone knob on the bridge pickup,” Holmstrom says. “I can blend the amount of out-of-phase so that it’s not completely nasally thin. It’s what Peter Green did, I’m sure, with his Les Paul. All points lead back to the blues, really.”

Erlee Time – Rick Holmstrom

In this live performance video of “Erlee Time,” from Get It!, Rick Holmstrom demonstrates his playful bends, joyful sense of melody, and the vintage Tele tone that’s part of his signature.



How Many Amps Do You Use?

How Many Amps Do You Use?

Kevin Morby joins the discussion of what we’re plugging our guitars into these days. Plus, musical obsessions!


Q: Do you own or use more than one amp—why or why not?

Kevin Morby — Guest Picker

Kevin Morby

A: I technically own four different amps. Two different Orange 15-watt practice amps that are great for recording and running vocals through in my living room. I also own a Supro and Fender Vibrolux. The Fender Vibrolux is my most used amp, and the Supro is good if I ever want a lot of overdrive.

Kevin Morby’s Current Obsession:

My current musical obsession is MJ Lenderman, a young artist from Asheville, North Carolina, who is making incredible music. If I didn’t know his backstory, I would maybe think I was listening to a lost demo from the early ’90s Drag City submissions bin. But it’s not from then, it’s from now, and it’s amazing. I listened to it while mowing the lawn recently and it was perfect lawn-mowing music. He is also incredible at guitar. Go listen!

Joseph Müs Contento — Reader of the Month

A: Yep, and I use them both at the same time. Got a Vox Night Train combo set clean and a Marshall Class 5 set dirty, and the resulting sound is a sparkly, gritty mix. Chimey and articulate, while warm and meaty. Best of both worlds.

Eventually I want a Fender ’65 Princeton Reissue and a Marshall Silver Jubilee 20-watt combo to really accentuate those qualities. I also use stereo delay and ping-pong the signal between the two amps. The further I physically keep the amps away from each other, the more dramatic the effect. It’s trippy and atmospheric AF, fills out the space between notes, and I love it.

Joseph Müs Contento Current Obsession:

Continuing to build the coolest guitars I can. I’ve settled into my job at Gibson Custom and have slowly built up a woodshop of my very own. The inaugural build that I just started this spring is my entry to this year’s Great Guitar Build-Off. I’m excited to dig my teeth into my new tools and techniques and to see how far I’ve come as a luthier in the past two years!

Shawn Hammond — Chief Content Officer

A: Yes! I love the variety of tones and textures imparted by different types of power tubes—and that you can further tweak responsiveness with preamp-tube swaps.

My ’76 Fender Vibrolux Reverb (6L6 tubes) is a killer pedal platform and pairing it with a Fender Rumble 200 bass amp adds massive oomph. An old Fender Vibro Champ (6V6) is great for middle-of-the-night playing that still sounds nice (I hate headphones).

A Sound City SC30 (KT66s) yields a huge array of British tones with killer reverb, a Goodsell Valpreux 21 (6973s) is great for soulful, old-school tones at a reasonable volume, while a Jaguar HC50 (EL34s) combo has big, brawny sounds, thanks to its Hiwatt-esque circuit and oversized cab.

Shawn Hammond’s Current Obsession: 

Current obsession: Fontaines D.C.’s new album, Skinty Fia.

Ted Drozdowski — Senior Editor

A: I’ve curated my amps for a wide variety of tones, and I love having Marshall, Fender, Carr, Supro, Orange, and Quilter sounds at ready for the stage—where I run in stereo—and studio.

After many years, I’ve found a voice as a guitarist that’s my own, and blending a variety of amps, guitars, and effects is part of it.

Ted Drozdowski’s Current Obsession:

Germanium fuzz and octave fuzz pedals. Over the past year I’ve gone deep into fuzzworld and acquired a pile of stomps, including three custom builds (my one-off Burns Buzzaround clone with four germanium chips is satanically heavenly), and they’ve expanded my sonic vocabulary even more. I want to keep it expanding, like the universe.

The Bros. Landreth: “Guitar Playing Wasn’t a Priority”

The Bros

One of the core ingredients that is essential to any Bros. Landreth album is also the most dreaded: abject fear and panic. It doesn’t sprout up from any particular insecurity about the end result, but rather where to start. “We always say we’re going to write 30 tunes and pick our 10 favorites,” says Joey Landreth. “But we usually write 12 and pick 11.” At first, the fear was unsettling, but Joey and his bassist brother, David, have not only thrived under the self-imposed pressure but relished it. Factor in a world-changing pandemic, the experience of being new dads, and a soul-crushing session gone wrong, it’s amazing that Come Morning even saw the light of day.


Back in March of 2020 the band had finished two legs of touring behind ‘87, their tuneful return to form after a pair of solo albums from Joey and some time away from the band for David, who had just become a father for the first time. Joey had plans to tour behind his Lowell George tribute album. Naturally, all that went away. Tour dates were canceled, and bins of merch collected dust on the shelf. Once the duo came to terms with the uncertainty of their touring future, they immediately went to work on writing new tunes. But would it be for a solo record or another Bros. album?

The Bros. Landreth • Come Morning (Visualizer)

“I had this idea of making a solo record in my apartment,” remembers Joey. He lived in a 100-year-old building in Winnipeg where he converted the dining room into a home studio. After starting that project, mostly in isolation, with programmed drums, he played the songs for David and thought the material might better be suited from a Bros. album. “We asked ourselves what it would sound like if we merged my solo stuff with the Bros,” says Joey. “There weren’t any timelines, we weren’t career planning or writing with intent,” mentions David. “We were just making things because there was nothing else to do.”

The first two demos that they tracked were “Drive All Night” and “Corduroy.” On Come Morning, both songs feature sparse arrangements and touches of R&B influences, all mixed in with swirling sonics. “The demo for ‘Drive All Night’ was basically fully formed with programmed drums and weird stuff,” says Joey. “It was quite a departure for us.” Naturally, the next step was to start recording drums. The band found a window where travel was permitted and flew in a drummer from Edmonton to begin tracking the first half of the album. It soon became apparent that the result of the session wasn’t matching the Landreths’ vision. “When we didn’t get there, we were fucking gutted,” says David. “It was devastating. It almost killed us.” A few of the tunes were recorded at the wrong tempo, the bass lines didn’t sound like David, and it was the first Bros. album without drummer Ryan Voth. “You write these songs, you make a plan to record the best album you’ve ever made, you get through seven tracks, and you didn’t get it.” Heavy vibes.

“We’re always trying to put mics in stupid places.” — Joey Landreth

After making the tough decision to scrap the sessions, Joey and David sat down and made a dream list of drummers they would want on the record. The two names at the top of the list were Aaron Sterling and Matt Chamberlain, two studio veterans whose combined credits include David Bowie, John Mayer, Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift, and countless others. “We sent an email to both of them, and they both said yes,” says Joey. “Fuck, how do we choose between them?” According to the brothers, it simply came down to Aaron’s enthusiastic response. Once Sterling was in place, the band sent him a demo for “Stay,” a grooving, mid-tempo tune that features some inventive open-tuned rhythm parts. “The demo had programmed drums and we outlined what we wanted him to play,” says David. “When we got the tracks back, they were wickedly inspiring and took the song in a completely different direction.”

As the long-distance sessions progressed, Sterling meshed well into the creative process and even pushed the limits of what would typically be acceptable on a Bros. Landreth record. “I remember getting the Dropbox folder and seeing the files for bongos and was like, ‘Well, that’s a hard no on the bongos,’” laughs Joey. “Then I realized the song was nothing without the bongos.” The demo for “Drive All Night” was sent off with the idea that they would strip back some of the more modern production elements and replace them with organic instruments. “We learned over the course of this project to send Aaron just the core of the song and then have us play off that, rather than the other way around,” says David.

One thing that fans of the Bros. might be missing on Come Morning is an abundance of Joey’s down-tuned slide riffs. “Guitar playing wasn’t really a priority for me on this album,” says Joey. There are incredibly melodic moments with big, roomy sounds on Come Morning, but Joey’s focus was more on vibe and sound then trying to get his licks in. “I would go for my usual super-fuzzy solo and it just wasn’t as inspiring,” he remembers. “I found myself wanting different things and needing to change the approach.”

On his solo album Hindsight, a majority of the guitar tones were inspired by a very particular room reverb that Joey added pre-delay to in order to create a slapback effect. An early influence on this technique was Jimmie Vaughan’s 1998 album, Out There. “Jimmie’s tone is incredible, and that sound has an identity that’s congruent with the record. I’ve always tried to emulate that,” says Joey. That thirst for experimentation revealed itself when Joey looked to emulate the sound of his recording booth at Sandbox Recording, a studio that serves as the brothers’ musical headquarters. Their particular recording booth at the studio sounded so good, they wanted to use it on far more than just guitar and bass tones. “What wound up kind of being more of an identity on the record is that you can hear the booth on more instruments. You can hear it on the B-3, you can hear it on the vocal,” says Joey. He points to the acoustic guitar intro on “Back to Thee” as the best example of the sound. “It’s kinda like the Jimmie Vaughan thing. It’s not super in your face, but it’s a big part of the guitar sound,” says Joey. For the washed-out baritone guitar on “Corduroy,” they placed a mic in the airlock and left the door open just a crack. The resulting tone gave the illusion that it was recorded in a much bigger space. “We’re always trying to put mics in stupid places,” laughs Joey.

Joey Landreth’s Gear

Guitars

  • Sorokin Gold Top
  • Josh Williams Mockingbird
  • Duesenberg D6 Baritone
  • Suhr Classic S
  • Mule Resonators Mulecaster
  • Collings OM1
  • Waterloo WL-14 X
  • Yamaha LS16M
  • Yamaha Revstar
Amps & Cabinets
  • Two-Rock Bloomfield Drive
  • Two-Rock Joey Landreth Signature
  • Greer Mini Chief
  • 1960 Fender Super
  • 1966 Fender Deluxe
  • Two-Rock 212 Cab

Effects

  • Benson Studio Tall Bird Spring Reverb
  • Jackson Audio Golden Boy
  • Isle of Tone Haze Fuzz ’66
  • DanDrive Secret Weapon
  • Mythos Pedals Olympus
  • Ceriatone Centura
  • Chase Bliss Thermae
  • Chase Bliss Mood
  • Chase Bliss CXM 1978
Strings, Picks, Mics & Accessories
  • Stringjoy Custom Strings
  • Rock Slide Joey Landreth Signature Slide
  • The GigRig G3 Switcher and Power Supply•
  • Moody Leather Straps
  • Royer R-121
  • Shure SM57
  • Stager SR-2N
  • Warm Audio WA-47

Typically, no matter where the journey takes Joey, he does have a few tried-and-true starting points. Most notably, his Sorokin goldtop and Two-Rock Bloomfield Drive is where he begins. But Joey isn’t afraid to swap out a trusted piece of gear if the vibe isn’t right. “The Two-Rock is a big sounding amp. If I start to play something and it takes up a ton of space and the part doesn’t need that, then I’ll start to reach for smaller amps,” mentions Joey. Those smaller amps include a Benson Nathan Junior, or a mid-’60s Fender Deluxe, which saw plenty of action on Come Morning. As a foil to the Two-Rock, Joey also employed a brown-panel Fender Super. “It’s kind of the opposite of a black-panel circuit. It has a lot more midrange and creamy breakup,” describes Joey.

“I would go for my usual super-fuzzy solo, and it just wasn’t as inspiring.” — Joey Landreth

Joey has also become well-known for his very particular setup on his guitars. He counts Derek Trucks and Sonny Landreth (no relation) as prime influences for moving to an open tuning. Trucks hangs out in open E (E–B–E–G#–B–E), while Sonny plays in several tunings including open A (E–A–C#–A–C#–E). However, it was an incredible Toronto guitarist named “Champagne” James Robertson who inspired Joey to not only eschew standard tuning, but to tune down to C. Robertson had such a unique style that Joey even texted him after a jam session to “get permission” to move to open C (C–G–C–E–G–C) exclusively. “I had a friend call this setup the autoharp of the guitar once,” remembers Joey.

David Landreth’s Gear

Basses

  • Moollon P-bass style
  • Duesenberg Starplayer

Effects

  • Noble DI

Strings & Accessories
  • D’Addario Chrome XLs (.050—.105)
  • Moody Leather Straps

Setting up a guitar for slide goes far past simply deciding on a tuning—finding the right string gauges is just as important. After moving up to a set of .014s for a while, Joey still felt something just wasn’t feeling right. He ended up with a custom set of Stringjoys that clock in at a whopping .019–.068. That sentence alone might make a guitarist’s hand quake with fear, but with the tuning’s lowered tension, the strings aren’t as rigid as you might think. All the guitars on Come Morning were in open C with the exception of a few acoustic parts in open D (D­–A–D–F#–A–D), because Joey felt his Collings OM1 just really loves to live in that tuning. Every now and then when he’s working something out, Joey will hear a part that calls for standard-tuned voicings, “Sometimes I just need a few ‘cowboy chords,’ but then I tune it back to an open chord as soon as possible.”

Joey also favored a Josh Williams Mockingbird, which is a handmade 335-style guitar that’s loaded with Firebird pickups and is the “antithesis” of the Sorokin. “It has a bit of a mid-scoop, so it tucks in around a lot of the other guitar parts in a really beautiful way,” says Joey. “If I want something that’s not as mid-forward as the Sorokin and Two-Rock, but I don’t want it to be super scoopy, then I go with the Josh Williams into the brown-panel Super.”

As much as Joey micro-manages his guitar tone—he even went so far to subdivide the slide vibrato on his Lowell George tribute record, All That You Dream—he couldn’t really do that as much on this project since there were so many collaborators and nearly all the bed tracks were done remotely. “I learned an incredibly valuable lesson on this record,” says Joey. “Which is to get the fuck out of the way.” The duo brought on Greg Koller to mix the album and he nailed more than half the mixes on the first try. “This album really feels different,” says David. “Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of the fact we made it in isolation and it being such a communal effort. There’s something about that I need to figure out.”

“Balance makes this whole thing feel a lot more sustainable and a lot less manic.” — David Landreth

So, is it a Bros. Landreth record if there isn’t a sense of fear and panic? “I think that’s the ultimate question,” says Joey. The brothers wear many hats including running their own record label, publishing company, and management company. “That balance makes this whole thing feel a lot more sustainable and a lot less manic,” mentions David. “Our creativity has many different outlets, so if I ever find myself with enough time to write more songs than I need, that probably means something bad has happened with the other things we do,” laughs Joey.

YouTube It

Featuring an expanded lineup that includes keyboardist Liam Duncan, the band tears through a handful of tunes from their sophomore album, ‘87.



Black Pumas’ Adrian Quesada on Using a Pick: “I Was Just Shredding My Nails”

The soulful guitarist talks about his flamenco and classical background, and shares what he learned from Thurston Moore.


Eric Johnson Pans for Gold

Eric Johnson Pans for Gold

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

Guitars

  • 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

Effects

  • 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
Amps
  • 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 [2018]

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.”

YouTube It

Take a good look at the fretboard on Eric Johnson’s signature Virginia Stratocaster while he performs “Gem,” from his 2010 album, Up Close, showcasing a brilliantly articulate clean tone and impeccable finger work.




Fontaines D.C.’s Poetry in Commotion

Fontaines D.C

We all know how the Irish saved civilization—and if you don’t know the story, look for Thomas Cahill’s excellent tome on the subject—but what about rock ’n’ roll? From Van Morrison and Them to Rory Gallagher and Taste, or Thin Lizzy to the Pogues, U2 to the Cranberries, My Bloody Valentine to Snow Patrol, Irish rockers have given the British blues explosion a run for its silver, carving out an unbroken line from soul and blues-rock all the way to hardcore punk and ultramod art-rock, and they’ve done it in large measure while hewing close to the staunchly Irish traditions of myth, poetry, storytelling, rebel yells, and romantic longing.


It’s way too soon to refer to the five 20-something lads of Fontaines D.C. as rock saviors (they’d scoff at the prospect anyway), but Skinty Fia, the band’s third slab since their 2019 Mercury Prize-nominated debut, Dogrel, has rapidly turned up the critical heat, going straight to No. 1 on the U.K. Albums Chart upon release. The leadoff single “Jackie Down the Line,” a righteously gloomy but beat-driven rocker, sets the tone for the album, with frontman Grian Chatten transforming himself into the song’s dark narrator (“I will stone you, I’ll alone you”) as guitarists Conor Curley and Carlos O’Connell mesh together in a jangly, echo-laced interplay of crafty three-note chords, 12-string acoustic filigrees, and tremolo-washed sheets of sound. Add the locked rhythm section of Conor “Deego” Deegan (bass) and Tom Coll (drums) behind them, and the band’s tightness, augmented by their dogged desire to keep experimenting, instantly permeates every song.

Fontaines D.C. – Jackie Down The Line (Official video)

“I think when we first met, we were mainly just songwriters,” observes Curley, reminiscing on their early moments together. “I mean, obviously I’m a guitar player, but I saw myself more as a songwriter, and I think the other lads did as well. So the first album was the culmination of trying to be aware of our abilities, and keep things raw and exciting. We were playing 100-cap venues in Dublin, so there was no point in trying to overextend ourselves.

“After that, we felt we had more strings to our bow, in terms of the songs that we knew we could do. We went down more of an introspective path, and definitely got into more psychedelic music with the second album [A Hero’s Death]. And now it’s just a combination of all that. I think something that defines us as a band is that we never want to sit still in a sound. We’re always trying to be inspired by different things.”

The band also stuck with producer Dan Carey (Black Midi, Geese, Wet Leg, and plenty more), graduating from Carey’s home studio in London, where they recorded their first two albums, to the larger Angelic Studio complex in the idyllic English countryside, near Oxfordshire. But before they even took up residence, each band member made the most of the prolonged pandemic lockdown to flesh out detailed demos, either working in Logic or with handheld recorded snippets of vocals and guitar. Armed with well-prepped songs and the prospect of working with Carey in entirely new surroundings, as O’Connell describes it, opened up possibilities that led to a bigger, more multi-layered sound.

“What I love about Dan is his process is in two stages,” O’Connell says. “We were in a bigger studio this time, so he wanted to take advantage of that. There’s the live guts of the recording [from the floor], and that’s just getting the sound right at the start. We spent a couple of days gaining up all the inputs, so when it hits the desk, it’s pretty much a very balanced mix. Then it’s just about playing well and having the songs arranged properly so they work.

“The first album was very much in a fighting mode, with the two guitars EQ’ed the same and just smashing off each other. On the second one, we learned to play together a little better.” —Conor Curley

“And then at the second stage, we do overdubs. We rarely add new parts, but we’ll redo the parts we have, either with a different instrument or treated differently.”

Both Curley and O’Connell also brought some of their earliest influences to bear, including the slashing surf guitar leads of the Birthday Party’s Rowland S. Howard, along with the snakebitten Fender Mustang kick of Kurt Cobain. “We also played a bit more with a blend,” O’Connell says, “like what happened with rock and roll and electronic music in the ’90s, you know? Primal Scream, Death in Vegas, even U2 went through that phase, but they all used actual synthesizers and drum machines. Our idea was to make it sound like that with our own instruments.”

Carlos O’Connell’s Gear

Guitars

  • 2019 Johnny Marr Jaguar
  • ’67 Fender Mustang 3/4 scale
  • 50th Anniversary Fender Jazzmaster [prototype]
  • Martin J12-15 with L.R. Baggs M80 active humbucker
  • Seagull Artist Studio 12 Burst with L.R. Baggs Lyric acoustic microphone system
Amps
  • Fender ’68 Custom Twin Reverb
  • Fender ’68 Custom Deluxe Reverb
  • 1975 Fender Deluxe Reverb (used only at Angelic Studio)
  • THD Electronics Hot Plate

Effects

  • MXR M133 Micro Amp
  • Electro-Harmonix Soul Food
  • Strymon Lex Rotary
  • Moogerfooger MF Flange
  • Moose Electronics Cosmic Tremorlo
  • Moose Electronics Reverb
  • Boss TR-2 Tremolo
  • Electro-Harmonix Op Amp Big Muff Pi
  • Electro-Harmonix POG
  • Boss GE-7 Graphic Equalizer
  • Dunlop Volume (X)
  • EarthQuaker Devices Life Pedal
  • Vein-Tap Murder One Killswitch
Strings & Picks
  • Ernie Ball Burly Slinkys
  • Dunlop Tortex .60 mm

The album’s title track “Skinty Fia” (roughly translated, “the damnation of the deer”) delivers on the idea. Wielding his trusty ’67 Mustang through Carey’s own ’75 Fender Deluxe Reverb, O’Connell avails himself of a chaotic wash of tremolo (aided by a reverb pedal from Dublin-based Moose Electronics, which he unconventionally places first in the effects chain, ahead of his overdrives) to propel the song’s relentless, hypnotic churn. Meanwhile, in the left channel—throughout the album, each guitarist occupies his own side of the stereo image—Curley knifes into the mix with an echo-drenched melody on his Johnny Marr Jaguar, routed into a Fender Twin Reverb, to accentuate Chatten’s menacing vocal, while Deego and Coll hammer out a beat that recalls Nine Inch Nails with a thick, dub-style low end.

“I think we’re trying to be more patient, and more conscious of the texture,” Curley says, describing how he and O’Connell have worked together to refine their sound. Like most bands with a two-guitar attack (the well-known Irish precedent of Thin Lizzy comes to mind), the symbiosis comes with time, practice, and subtle lines of communication. “The first album was very much in a fighting mode,” he continues, “with the two guitars EQ’d the same and just smashing off each other. On the second one, we learned to play together a little better. We’re still working on it, and sometimes we still try to become as one almost, when the song needs it, but I think now we’ve learned to fit in with how we’re EQing everything. It feels really good.”

Fontaines D.C. – Full Performance (Live on KEXP)

The confidence shines through on Skinty Fia, especially when the two axe-slingers choose to embrace a little sonic chaos. On the dark drum-and-bass-influenced opening track “In ár gCroíthe go deo” (“In Our Hearts Forever”), O’Connell tees up another locked tremolo effect, eventually morphing into an otherworldly chorus effect, mirrored by Curley, of what sounds like distant dogs howling. “It’s only at the end where my guitar comes in,” Curley clarifies. “I’m just following the bass with the chords, at a very high frequency, and with delays at the end of every phrase. I hit my [Industrialectric] Echo Degrader, and that’s what really sends it into a spin.”

On the Curley-penned “Nabokov,” the layers of noise lean heavily on classic shoegaze and dub, with Curley again availing himself of the Echo Degrader. “That pedal is so unpredictable, it’s almost like it doesn’t sound the same every time you use it. I’ve been using that and an RV-7 [by Digitech Hardwire] for gated and reverse reverb. There were definitely a lot more shoegazey elements that we were trying to get to, and, obviously, if you start talking about Kevin Shields or even Robin Guthrie from Cocteau Twins, the stuff they did, to me, is almost unreachable, but if you try, you might end up with something new anyway.”

Conor Curley’s Gear

Guitars

  • 2019 Fender Johnny Marr Jaguar
  • ’66 Fender Coronado II
  • Fylde 12-string (loan from Richard Hawley)
Amps
  • Fender ’68 Custom Twin Reverb
  • Lazy J (used only at Angelic Studio)
  • THD Electronics Hot Plate

Strings & Picks

  • Ernie Ball Burly Slinkys
  • Dunlop Tortex .60 mm

Effects

  • Industrialectric Echo Degrader
  • DigiTech Hardwire RV-7 Stereo Reverb
  • Moose Electronics Reverb
  • Moose Electronics Delay
  • Strymon Sunset
  • Strymon Deco
  • ThorpyFX Chain Home
  • Electro-Harmonix Nano POG
  • Dunlop Volume (X)

By contrast, both guitarists reached for a 12-string acoustic on a pair of songs: Curley on the aforementioned “Jackie Down the Line,” and O’Connell on the smoldering groover “Roman Holiday.” Oddly enough, the Fontaines acquired the guitar, a beautifully finished Fylde custom 12-string, from British crooner and troubadour Richard Hawley, who met the band on a recent jaunt in Sheffield. “We were struggling to find a really nice sound on a 12-string,” O’Connell says, “so it was like, let me just text him. He was really excited about being a part of it and lending us the guitar, and it was magic. Just a beautiful guitar. Someday I’ll get one, but you can never play it live because it’s just too precious.”

And on tour, Fontaines comes across as anything but precious. Chatten often prowls the stage like a wounded animal between verses, wielding the mic stand like a cudgel and seeming to goad the band into wilder forays of sonic exploration. At a recent packed house in Brooklyn, Curley and O’Connell whipped “Too Real,” one of their earliest singles from Dogrel, into a feedback-laden, psych-rock deluge, while an encore of “Nabokov” made the most of the dueling washes of noise that each guitarist can deliver, with precision, from either side of the stage. As a unit, they’re brash, tough, and confident—typically young, and typically Irish.

“We’ve found refuge within each other, and within our identity,” O’Connell observes when asked about the band’s recent, and inevitable, move to London. Chatten in particular, as frontman and lyricist, has been outspoken in interviews about some of the prejudices he’s encountered, a sentiment that inspired the song “In ár gCroíthe go deo,” which pays tribute to an Irish woman in Coventry who was initially denied permission to bury her late mother with the Irish inscription on her gravestone.

“We also found that accumulated frustration with a very ignorant misunderstanding of Ireland from Britain’s point of view, which started to piss us off quite a bit,” O’Connell reveals. “But then we wrote this album, and ever since, it’s starting to open up a lot. It’s given me the dream of what I thought I would find in London: a place where we’re more anonymous and where there’s less expected from us, you know?”

“We were struggling to find a really nice sound on a 12-string, so it was like, let me just text him [Richard Hawley].” —Carlos O’Connell

Surely those expectations will grow in urgency as time goes on, but for now Fontaines D.C. seems content to ride the lightning. “There’s been a lot of self-discovery along the way,” Curley says. “There’s always inspiration to be found in Irish art and culture, and we’re also massively into Irish traditional music. Me and Tom got really into Paul Brady and Andy Irvine and Planxty, and we wrote a good few Irish ballads. At one point, we actually thought of doing Skinty Fia as a double album, which I guess might’ve seemed a little gratuitous. Hopefully those songs will see the light of day in a different context.

“But now that we’re back on tour, whatever happens, I think we’re definitely not gonna take any of it for granted. We’re just trying to enjoy all the things we see, and trying to put on really good shows.”

YouTube It

In this pandemic-era livestream, Fontaines D.C. plays a half dozen songs from their Grammy-nominated sophomore album, A Hero’s Death [2020].



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