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more... ArtistsGuitaristsIndie-RockMay 2010Nels Cline

Interview: Nels Cline


What are some of your standout pieces, besides the Jazzmaster?

I’m kind of drawn to what I call these “ugly duckling” guitars or strange ’60s flights of fancy and rather odd instruments—and also inexpensive instruments. I find the couple of swanky guitars I’ve bought from friends just don’t work for me. They’re too nice or something [laughs]. Then there’s also my old Martin 00-17 acoustic, my old Taylor 12-strings from the ’70s, and my Jaguars. I have a 1962 Jaguar that I bought in the ’90s at Black Market Music for $300. I had it painted with a picture of [fashion model] Kristen McMenamy. I kind of adored her whole vibe at the time—I liked that she was older than all those other girls and just came along with this androgynous look. I played that on “Hummingbird” and some of the more country numbers because it has a nice twang. My 1969 Jaguar is my most “rock” guitar. It’s silver with a mirror pickguard, and it has a Charlie Christian pickup in the neck position and a Seymour Duncan Antiquity wound especially to compete and blend with the Charlie Christian pickup in the bridge position [laughs]. It’s hilarious, but it has this beefy sound because of the pickup configuration. It was an eBay guitar, and it was a complete mess. I had no idea it would be so good. I use that on rhythm parts where I need more gain. I also have some Jerry Jones electric 12-strings and baritone guitars, including a doubleneck baritone that I played on “You Never Know,” the George Harrison tribute. There’s a descending, diminished-chord slide part, and I solo on one neck and then play rhythm on the other, which is such a ridiculous solution I came up with to play that song more reverently to the record. But I joke that I don’t know why I have so many electric guitars, since I could really get by with just the Jazzmaster and be perfectly happy.

How many Jazzmasters do you have?

I have three. The main one is a ’59, and I have a spare onstage that’s black—that’s a ’59, too. And then I have a ’59 in Los Angeles.

What’s the story behind your main ’59 Jazzmaster?

The main one I bought from Mike Watt in 1995. I was playing a Jaguar for many years, and I started playing with Watt in ’90, but even more in ’94 when I recorded on his first solo record, Ball-Hog or Tugboat? I played my Jaguar, but I was fascinated with these Jazzmaster guitars after hearing Tom Verlaine of Television and Sonic Youth using these guitars. Also, I wanted the strings behind the bridge. It’s funny, they were joke guitars when I was a kid, so I didn’t really consider them—but I should have, because they were affordable. That’s why Sonic Youth played them: they were cheap. When I realized the Jazzmaster had not just the different pickups but also a slightly longer string length, I thought, “Wow, that could really work.” Then, I saw my friend Joe Baiza playing in Santa Monica, and Joe was playing this Jazzmaster instead of his usual sunburst Stratocaster. So I asked, “Joe, where did you get that guitar?” And he said, “It’s Watt’s.” So I asked Watt about it, and it turns out he was lending it to Joe because Joe was getting his Strat refretted. We were about to go on tour, so I said, “You know, I think this guitar could be better for me. I could dig into it a little bit more and get more sound.” Watt said, “Well, just take it on the road. And then when we’re done with the tour just buy it from me, because I don’t need it.” He had kind of snaked it from J Mascis when he was on tour with Dinosaur Jr., or J had played it and didn’t like it. So, I played it on tour, and at the end of the tour I got paid and bought it. I remember at the time thinking, “Ouch, it’s 800 dollars.” Now I think they’re about six or seven thousand.

Why did you think the Jazzmaster’s slightly longer string length could work for you?


It feels more solid and taut, which I like because I play pretty hard. I don’t often like light or mushy setups because I tend to really dig in sometimes.


Cline’s stable of live guitars: Jazzmasters, Jaguars, Bill Nash Tele-style, and Jerry Jones oddities. Photo by Anne Erickson
Why is having the strings behind the bridge important to you?

It makes the palette so much broader. I remember hearing that sound on Sonic Youth records, especially around that time when there was a lot of good detuned rock going on in the No Wave scene. If the bridges are set right, then I have some specific notes I can play behind the bridge, and it has a bell-like resonance. I can also really distort it. I can just rip behind the bridge and create the sound of tearing or horrible shrieking. I don’t know why I like those kinds of sounds, but I do. Sometimes, just before a big chord, I like to swipe behind the strings and then hit the chord so it creates this splaying effect. It’s just part of my sound. I’m lost without it. It’s no fun to play other guitars for a whole night because I’m so used to being able to go to certain sounds like that.

Did you ever imagine that Jazzmaster would become your main guitar?


Not at all. I didn’t realize at first that it was one of the best-sounding Jazzmasters. I used to just throw the thing around mercilessly. Then I realized it was a really great year for them and a great instrument. But you know, there’s not that much original left on the guitar, because I’ve broken everything. It was painted black, but there’s not much paint left on it. I’ve ripped it to shreds. I’ve actually gouged a gully behind the bridge from playing so hard. It does have the original pickups, tremolo and slapboard neck— meaning it’s a big, thick piece of rosewood instead of veneer. It’s got a beautiful sound.

Premier Guitar’s maxim is “the relentless pursuit of tone.” What do you think constitutes good tone?

It’s just a personal choice. I think if you can manifest the sound you’re hearing in your head, then you have your tone. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s somebody else’s idea of good tone. For example, I’m always trying to get rid of treble. I try to find some rich low-mids, and that’s why I have this Tim Schroeder amp that I play right now. He designed it with that in mind for me. I find a lot of these class A, handwired, point-topoint amps are very, very treble-y, and I don’t know if it’s the speaker choices or what, but I cannot deal with the sound of those amps, personally. But somebody else can come along and play with a treble-y sound and sound fantastic. Everybody has a different idea about how they feel sound and music. I have a lot of pedals that give me certain tones, so that’s the same pursuit. It’s the same dream and vision: just trying to find things that satisfy what I’m hearing in my head.


Cline’s pedalboard for Wilco shows. Photo by Anne Erickson
What’s on your pedalboard right now?

The Wilco pedalboard is a little different from what I use for my own music in that it has a lot more distortion boxes. But the things I always use, in every kind of music, are a Boss volume pedal, the Klon Centaur overdrive, a Boss CS-3 compressor pedal that everyone laughs at me for using because they think it’s bad and I love it, a Z. Vex Fuzz Factory, and my Electro-Harmonix 16-Second Digital Delay from the ’80s.

Let’s talk about Wilco. On the new record, there seem to be more layers. Would you say this is more of a studio record than previous releases?

Absolutely. I think that was Jeff’s concept from the very beginning. He wanted to take the opposite approach of Sky Blue Sky, which is essentially live performances. The basics for Wilco (The Album) were recorded in New Zealand, and I wasn’t even there.