When a friend gave Nielson (a former Telecaster player) a Jag-Stang, he decided to tune it down a half-step à la Hendrix. It’s been his main guitar ever since. Photo by Raquel Candeias.

What’s your approach to working with effects?
I’m usually reacting to something sonic. I got the [Catalinbread] Pareidolia a couple of years ago—it’s kind of a Uni-Vibe effect—it just sounds so good. There are so many riffs and things that I play just by jamming around with it. I’m pursuing things all the time. If I find a pedal I like, I use it for a long time and then I try to build a clone to see if I can improve on it. I sit around in my basement tweaking it plugged in—on the breadboard—and changing out different components and adjusting the trim until I get everything just exactly how I want it.

How do you know what you’re doing?
I just started tinkering. I started trying to fix my guitars so I wouldn’t have to wait for a tech to get them back to me. I started to tear my guitars apart when something went wrong and I would give them to the tech after I messed them up. Eventually I just got to the point where things were working, my soldering was happening, and I could fix them myself. I went from that to pedals and some outboard gear, and now it’s kind of my hobby.

“I like the idea that instead of buying your sound, you’re
building your sound.”

You have a few no-name, unmarked pedals on your board. Did you build them?
Yeah. I had a Fulltone Octafuzz, which is a really amazing pedal, but I had this idea that I might be able to make my own that was a little more unique. So I built that. I built a Green Ringer and a Foxx Tone Machine—I mean more or less based on the circuit. I can put carbon comp resistors in and use my own combination of transistors until I find something that is exactly the same. I like the idea that instead of buying your sound, you’re building your sound. A lot of kids take photos of my pedalboard, too, so it’s cool to a have a few that are just blank metal boxes that the kids theorize about.

Do you follow any rules in terms of pedal placement?
I’m always moving things around. I’ve got an Analog Man Bi-CompROSSor that I’ve had at the beginning of the chain and at the end of the chain. At the moment I have it at the end. It’s nice to have a compressor at the end of everything—especially with a phaser pedal, which has frequency spikes. It’s nice to control them.

Ruban Nielson's Gear

Fender Jag-Stang
Rogue Electric Sitar Guitar

Fender Hot Rod DeVille
Orange AD30 head

Analog Man Bi-CompROSSor
Electro-Harmonix Nano Small Stone Phaser
Catalinbread Pareidolia
TC Electronic Ditto Looper
Electro-Harmonix Freeze
Soundblox Envelope Filter
Boss Chromatic Tuner
Catalinbread Belle Epoch (EP3 Tape Echo Emulation)
Catalinbread Topanga Spring Reverb
Electro-Harmonix Memory Toy
Two homemade mystery boxes

Strings and Picks
D’Addario NYXL (.010–.046)

Are you using your amp or pedals for distortion?
I’m using my amp—I like amp drive. I usually push the front end pretty hard but the actual volume will be pretty mellow. Not super quiet, but on 3 or something like that. Onstage I’m pretty quiet. I have my amp shooting at me from the side—I don’t put it behind me. I don’t want my amp to be shooting down my microphone. I have a 500 series compression and distortion on my mic so I need to keep that as clean as possible. So I keep my amp on the side and Jake [Portrait], the bass player in my band, has his amp on the other side of the stage. Both amps are on the side pointing in, rather than pointing at the crowd from the back.

Are you using your amp as your onstage monitor?
Yes and that helps. I don’t like hearing my guitar in my monitor because there’s no telling what kind of crappy stuff they have. I only get my vocals through the monitor. Lately I’ve been trying to phase out my vocal in the monitor and have no monitors at all.

How do you hear yourself?
I have an earplug. I might move to in-ears, but right now I’m just using an earplug and have the monitors really, really quiet. I can hear my pitch better when I have an earplug in.

How many amps do you have onstage?
Just one. I went through a phase where I modded my Fender DeVille so one of the speakers could be plugged in from another amp and the Deville ran only one of its speakers. I would have my Orange AD30 running the second speaker. That’s my ideal setup, but it’s a hassle to do that every night. At the moment I just take the Deville on tour.

What do you like about your main guitar, the Fender Jag-Stang?
It was just this funny guitar my friend gave me. When I started on the UMO stuff I pulled it out. It would never stay in tune and sounded really strange, but when I plugged it into a Blues Junior, I started to come up with completely different ideas. I tuned it a half-step down and started playing with my fingers. It was just a whole new style that emerged in the space of about two weeks after messing with this guitar. The neck is really perfect. When I tuned a half-step down—which I just did because Jimi Hendrix did it and I thought if I was going to start writing some new music this was my chance to start messing with that—that loosened the strings up. The neck was a smaller scale so it gave me the ability to do completely different things. I was able to get around the neck a lot easier—more comfortably than I ever had with a Telecaster. I’ve tried to upgrade my guitar and I always come back to the Jag-Stang. It has a lot of personality.