How have you been able to successfully incorporate eastern and western styles of music into something that is modern and mainstream?
photo courtesy ATO Records
A lot of it has to do with the open tunings I use. The moment you open tune your guitar, you’re stepping back a 1000 years to when they originated—whether you planned it or not. I remember as a kid hearing the bagpipes of the army marching down the street or Ravi Shankar at Woodstock and it always created something very spiritual within me and it just moved me in way that other music didn’t. I just really embrace and love that organic Celtic stuff and I’m happy it has found a way into my music. I’m not trying to emulate or reproduce something or someone, but I’m just happy that influences like that are able to come through my music.
Some guitarist are overwhelmed by the idea of 12-string, but it appears to be your go-to guitar. Why is that?
After playing two gift guitars—a cheap electric and a cheap nylon acoustic—for a few years I was about to buy my first guitar and my guitar teacher had a 12-string. So I thought to myself “I’ll give that a go,” and it kind of just stuck. I played it as 6-string, a 12-string and it finally ended up being an 11-string. What makes that guitar so appealing to me now is that I can make it sound like a banjo, a mandolin or like two acoustics—so if one instrument can be so versatile, why not use it?
When I listen to your records and hear the 12-string there is a lot more going on than just a 12-string guitar. What is all going on there?
[laughs] I know, right? It just becomes another beast when it’s electrified. When I stick it through my 1975 Marshall JMP Super Lead it can sound like I’m using an overdriven chorus, which turns the 12-string into a multi-harmonic instrument that I’ve never heard before. A lot of times when I use it with the band and use open tunings I can hear a Hammond in the background and all these other overtones ringing all around me. I’ve always liked a big, warm fat sound so a setup like that just works for me.
A Marshall and a 12-string isn’t a run-of-the-mill combination. How did you land on that setup?
Well, I used to run my acoustics through an older Fender Bassman and I was pretty happy with it until I landed a festival gig where I had to use a backline rig. All they had to use were Marshall amps and cabs, so I set my signal chain up and it took my sound to another level. So I went to a store in Australia and picked out that 100 watt Marshall JMP Super Lead and it has been my main amp since. It has that power, low-end and absolute mid-cut that I wanted and needed. I’ve dabbled with other heads like Fender, VOX, Orange and all sorts of things but that Marshall just kind of nailed it. I enjoy playing other amps, but when it comes down to it I don’t need to buy another amp.
How do you use the volume pedal?
Well it all started when I got familiar with Australian guitarist Jeff Lang who is just an amazing player and we became good friends. He would always blend in this crazy distorted guitar through a volume pedal—much like a pedal steel player—so he could have his clean, acoustic sound and then he could slowly bring up this distorted sound. It was too cool to ignore and I’m not big on copying or emulating players, but that was something I just needed to incorporate—especially for my live shows. I even asked Jeff if I could use that setup of a volume pedal and he just looked at me as if I was the weirdest person ever to ask if I could do that [laughs] … it just seemed so revolutionary to me but he looked at is something quite elementary.
In addition, you use the Tube Screamer quite a bit, too. How do you use that to compliment your tone?
A lot of times I just kick it on to give my acoustic a little bit of hair in certain parts. A lot of time—at the beginning of songs—I need some grit and the volume pedal will need to be set at about halfway, so I can use the Tube Screamer to cut the mids, give my acoustic tone just a little bite. I compare it to old blues recordings where you can hear the distortion on acoustics because of those old mics. It drives my acoustic tone really early so I can have a pinch of growl but not have to mess with my overall acoustic clean tone. The clean acoustic is pretty much there all the time, so have that pedal in my arsenal allows me to push my tone a little harder with some heavier, darker overtones.
And why have you decided to make it an 11-string?
It is just that silly high G string. In the early days it just kept breaking and so when I could afford strings for every time it broke—I found I didn’t like it. It’s the highest note on your guitar—higher than the high E—and it is right there in your mids. I like to have my mids nice and thick and full and focused, but with that high G string you have something three semitones higher than the high E. It gives the 12-string guitar a little more focused and grounded tone. But between it breaking all the time and ruining my mids, it just pissed me off. [laughs] I don’t bring him out to play because it is like my revenge against the insubordinate string.
Are there any contemporary guitarists that you’ve been listening to lately?
Whenever I see Jeff Lang perform he is always pushing the envelope. Tom Morello is definitely one of the most innovative guitarists in the past 20 years. People seem to think he’s got a board of tricks, but he really only uses like five pedals. It is just amazing what he can do. Ben Harper is always pushing music in a new, positive direction whether it is with the Relentless7 or as a solo artist. Another guy that has been doing an amazing job is José González … much like Rodrigo y Gabriela—those three artists do a great job of combining their styles, traditions and influences and pushing their resulting music in a completely new direction. You hear a lot of guys emulating the prophets like Hendrix and SRV so when I want something like that I usually just go to the source [laughs].
John Butler's Gearbox
Maton ECJ85 12-string Jumbo acoustic guitar with a custom cedar top
Cole Clark FL2A/12 12-string
Carson Crickmore Weisenbourne-style lap steel
Bacon 5-string banjo
’72Fender Telecaster Deluxe
Amps and Cabinets
’75Marshall JMP Super Lead 100W head
Marshall 4x12 cabinet loaded with Celestion 30 watt speakers
** All effects go through Avalon U5 Wireless units**
Boss ODB-3 Bass Overdrive
Voodoo Labs Microvibe
Boss RV-2 Digital Reverb/Delay
Jim Dunlop Crybaby Q Wah
Ibanez TS9 DX Turbo Tube Screamer
Akai Headrush Tape Echo/Delay
Ernie Ball Volume pedal
JLM Audio Custom Box
**This box is a master volume/mute & phase switch with a transformer isolated split which we have used in the past to send to a second amplifier.