Interview: John Butler - Blending Styles & Gear
April 2, 2010
photo: Marty Philbey
Like the thousands of guitarists before him, Butler first picked up the guitar to imitate Hendrix and Iommi. As Butler describes it, he was just another gangly teenager until an Excalibur moment happened. His whole life changed when he was given his grandfather’s ’30s Dobro and later discovered open tunings. Since that moment Butler hasn’t put down the Dobro—or any other guitar—and has successfully blended an unusual mix of music to make something Butler calls spiritual. His music pulls from the worlds of blues, reggae, folk and roots. Incorporate some gritty, distorted rock plus a little hip-hop guitar percussion and rhythms and with a pinch of Celtic and Aboriginal fingerstyle playing and you get a synopsis of Butler’s discography.
Now with the release of his fourth studio album, April Uprising, Butler has added yet another tool to his musical belt by incorporating electric guitars on several of the album’s tracks. The use of a ’72 Fender Telecaster Deluxe and a Silvertone Jupiter validates Butler’s rock side without taking away from the worldly influences. Instead, it makes for a much more accessible album that anyone can appreciate.
We recently had a chance to catch up with Butler during his flurry of promotion for April Uprising, and he talked with us about matching his Maton 12-strings with a ’75 Marshall JMP Super Lead, mixing Western and Eastern musical styles and his discontent for G-strings.
How did you get introduced to the guitar?
I discovered it as any teenager with a primordial urge a boy gets when they hear Black Sabbath or Jimi Hendrix. I started just playing standard tuning and some basic chords—something to mimic the guitar giants. [laughs] When I started it was just four chords and the truth.
There was this guitar that was left in my family’s possession. I saw all my aunts and uncles give this slide guitar a try, but none of them could play it and what I refer to as an Excalibur moment happened. All my aunts and uncles couldn’t get it out of the rock, but when I stumbled across it as a gangly juvenile I could just play it—it was like my grandfather was talking to me through it. So when this guitar was given to me from my grandmother it was a big deal to me because it was my grandfather’s, but on top of that it was a 70 year old Dobro … it was just a heavy thing to have unfold as a teenager. But when I first got that Dobro I didn’t know really what to do with it. I didn’t know anything about open tunings or even like the blues—it was all a mystery to me.
Who were some of the guitarists that you first looked up to?
It had to be Jimi Hendrix and “Voodoo Chile”—just hearing that made me realize that there is something pretty different… something really amazing going on between him and that guitar. Back then—and still to this day—what grabs me isn’t a complete song but killer riffs. I just remember hearing “Voodoo Chile,” “T.N.T.” and anything off Paranoid and I was just put into a trance.
When did you have that “A-ha moment” and knew you were going to be a guitarist and not just a hobbyist?
I played with simplistic chords for about 6-7 years and I did it as a teenage hobby like skateboarding. When I was 21 years old I found out about open tunings—that was just like the light going off. Until then I didn’t really grasp the versatility of the Dobro except as a way to remember my grandfather, but after the discovery of open tunings I couldn’t put the guitar down.
It all started with the simple drop D. The first influences for me to go with open tunings had to be The Tea Party and of course Zeppelin. One of the greatest gifts I’ve ever gotten was the introduction of the “Jimmy Page” tuning—the open C. When my friend showed it to me on paper I thought there were too many of the same notes to make anything musical, but then I tuned my guitar and started playing it and it was liquid. Music I never knew would just flow out of me. And to this day, CGCGCE is still one of my main tunings.
Compared to your previous studio albums like Grand National and Sunrise Over Sea, the new record April Uprising is more accessible to the masses yet it still retains your roots-rock mentality and feel. How did you achieve this as a songwriting guitarist?
Luckily as a songwriter I feel I’ve gotten better at it with each record and each song. I’ve been able to find a way to get my ideas out in a more vivid but coherent way that makes them more available. Both as a guitarist and songwriter, one epiphany that appeared during this album’s process is that less is more. I’ve heard that many times before, but with April Uprising I was finally able to ingest those words and apply them in manner that worked for me. I feel more comfortable saying a lot more with a lot less, allowing the song to breathe and react naturally. I really tried to focus my efforts on creating songs rather than forcing them out. If the song wasn’t there or something became unhitched, I just left it by the side of the road. We just did our best to make each song stand on its own and work with the attitude of “all killer, no filler.”
How did you craft your songs with April Uprising?
For me, each song always starts with the guitar [laughs]. I always have to come up with a riff or hook that ignites the rest of the song to just flow out of me. When those words didn’t start to come, I spent a bit more time really building quality, thoughtful lyrics. One thing I hadn’t done much prior to this record was re-working choruses and song parts while in the studio. For instance, on “Revolution” I re-did the chorus four or five different times while I was recording it. When I round up with the guys in the studio I bring my songs in as naïve teenagers and when we’re done recording they are fit to leave home as adults … [laughs] I guess I babied my songs a bit more this time. Another thing that helps is working with the Trio—they often hear and see things I couldn’t even imagine for a song, but end up totally working. It’s a blessing to have them in my back pocket.
One of my favorite tones off the record is found on the track “Close To You,” while it sounds like you, there seems to be something different going on. What are you playing in that song?
[laughs] It definitely was something different—I was playing a new ’72 Fender Telecaster Deluxe through my Marshall JMP Super Lead. I doubled the track with a Silvertone Jupiter, which is this grungy, dirty sounding thing and I sprinkled my 12-string Maton on the choruses, too. This album definitely has me playing a few more tracks with the electric guitar. It is a nice change of pace and it gives me another way to express my voice in a completely different manner. For effects on that solo I use a Voodoo Lab Micro Vibe, Boss PH-2 Super Phaser and the Ibanez TS9DX Turbo Tube Screamer and a sprinkle of the Boss RV-2 Delay. Also, I used the DigiTech Whammy on the bridge parts.
Did you use any other electric guitars on the album?
No, I mainly used the Telecaster and the Jupiter … [laughs] both guitars I got off eBay. Isn’t that where everybody gets their guitars now?!
What are some of the effects you dabbled with on April Uprising?
I definitely used the Ibanez TS9DX Turbo Tube Screamer quite a bit on the record—that thing is my ace in the hole. I really enjoyed working with the Voodoo Lab Micro Vibe because it’s a phaser with that Uni-Vibe feel from Hendrix’s days. Like I said before I used the PH-2 Phaser and RV-2 Delay. I saw Rage Against the Machine about two years ago in Portugal and I forgot—when done well and used sparingly—how awesome the whammy can be for a solo or cool intro riff, so thanks to Tom Morello I used the DigiTech Whammy on this record, too. You can really hear it in the songs “To Look Like You” and “Close To You.”
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.