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You have a lot of killer guitar duels on your records now—as well as live. What do you like most about playing in a three-guitar band?
I just think it’s a great sound. More than one guitar is always the best way to go. I think it’s so attractive to me because I like the sound of the guitars slightly and naturally chorusing together. The timbre becomes much richer. In Wilco, Pat [Sansone] mostly plays Telecasters, and he uses the bridge pickup a lot and has more twang going on. Onstage, Jeff is playing some Telecasters but he’s got his Gibson SGs up there and whatnot, too. And then I have my sound. I think the sound of all that together can be powerful. For example, on something like “Impossible Germany,” when we have three electric guitars up, the potential for richness is exponentially greater. And somehow the arrangement works and we manage to stay out of each other’s way. It was very carefully arrived at, but I don’t think we knew it was going to be so successful. I think it maybe means we’ll do more three-guitar things.
Is there any kind of music you play that might surprise people?
Well, I had a band for a while that wasn’t supposed to play live and it was called Destroy All Nels Cline. There were four electric guitars, bass, and percussion. I also had plans for a band called Headstock, which would be kind of a hardcore, fast fusion, punk-rock kind of band with a lot of three-guitar songs. I don’t know if I’ll ever get that Headstock music written, though. I’m just so busy. But it’s a total shred band.
Sounds cool. You should do it!
Yeah, I still wiggle my fingers around and do these shred-like things, because I think that’s exciting. When I heard Jimi Hendrix or John McLaughlin or George Benson as a boy, I got really hyper listening to that prodigious technique, but only because it sounded like it meant something. It wasn’t just a display of some gymnastic-like ability. But, I still hear a million notes in my head when I try to shred. Maybe it just appeals to my inner-13-year old [laughs]. I don’t do a lot of shredding in Wilco. It’s much harder and more important to play economically and play the right thing for the song. I feel my goal for Wilco is to be part of the orchestra. If there’s a time to amp things up, then maybe the shred thing comes in handy.
Cline’s Schroeder DB7 amp, ‘69 Fender Jaguar (left), BilT Jazzmaster-style, and ‘62 Jaguar (right). Photo by Anne Erickson
How important is instinct when playing guitar?
I think that in music in general, and particularly as an improviser, it’s crucial to trust in one’s instincts. I think that one can hone those instincts with the knowledge that comes with studying theory or ear training and by just paying attention. It’s about listening beyond your instrument. In other words, while you’re playing, you’re hearing everybody, not just yourself. I think if that’s happening, then your instincts are razor sharp— and that’s crucial to being a good improviser.
What’s your advice for guitarists?
Well, if my life or experience means anything, it shows that persistence and patience might be the ticket to playing guitar or doing anything. I played music for a really long time. I wasn’t really playing commercial music. I didn’t try to “succeed.” But my life is beautiful now. I’m making great music and I have great opportunities to play. Lots of people won’t make it all the way down that road, and they’ll give up—because it’s hard. So, if I do have a message, it would have to be that if you really love sound as much as somebody like me, just hang in there.
Dying to know what’s in Nels Cline’s rig for the 2010 Wilco world tour? We’ve got the lowdown below.
Two 1959 Fender Jazzmasters with original soapbar pickups and a Mastery Bridge designed by John “Woody” Woodland
Chambered, all-rosewood Jazzmaster-style guitar made by Bill Henss and Tim Thelen of BilT Guitars in Des Moines, Iowa
1962 Fender Jaguar
1969 Fender Jaguar with Charlie Christian neck pickup and Seymour Duncan Antiquity bridge pickup
Jerry Jones Neptune “Shorty” Octave 12-string
Jerry Jones Neptune 12-string with three pickups
Jerry Jones double-neck baritone
2009 Bill Nash Tele-style “He makes them out of kit parts and puts Lollar pickups on them, which are really good for Telecasters, and then he relics them.”
Gibson BR-9 lap steel National lap steel
Custom Schroeder DB7 built by Tim Schroeder of Schroeder Guitar & Amp Repair in Chicago
Marshall JTM45 2x12 reissue given to him by Jeff Tweedy
Boss DD-3 Digital Delay
Boss VB-2 Vibrato Boss AB-2 2-Way Selector
Boss volume pedal Boss CS-3 Compression Sustainer
Crowther Audio Hotcake Zoom UF-01 Ultra-Fuzz
JAM Pedals Rattler
Fulltone ’69 Fuzz
Fulltone Deja Vibe
Electro-Harmonix Pulsar Klon Centaur
MXR Phase 45
Z. Vex Fuzz Factory
The Last Temptation of Boost (made by Alan Yee in Memphis)
Original Electro-Harmonix 16-Second Digital Delay
Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man
Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Reverb
Korg KP2 KAOSS Pad
Boss TU-2 Chromatic Tuner
Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Plus
Mics & Cables:
Sennheiser e906 dynamic mic
Planet Waves instrument cables
Strings & Picks:
GHS .012s on all six-strings except the Telecaster, which has .011 D’Addario lights on 12-strings
Dunlop Ultex 1.14 mm picks
Various custom designs from Souldier Straps
Couch Guitar Straps. “I’ve had neck and shoulder problems, and the Couch strap is vinyl so it seems to be a little more comfy.”