AJ Ghent plays steel standing up, using a modified Dobro technique. With the guitar lying flat against his body, his left hand reaches over the neck from above to bring the tone bar in contact with the strings.
Gary Paulo largely handles the rhythm chores in your band. Is this because the steel doesn’t lend itself to that kind of playing, or is it so you can concentrate on singing?
It’s more to concentrate on singing. When I’m singing and playing at the same time, the tuning can drift off. I have to focus. My secret is to place the microphone so my head points down and I can see what I’m doing. When we recorded our live album, I didn’t want to chance being out of tune or singing wrong notes. When I’m freed from singing, I try to chime in as far as the rhythm and chord progressions, but it’s a challenge doing that without looking directly at the guitar. I don’t know too many people singing and playing steel with the guitars flat to their body, so I don’t have anyone to watch and learn from.
Describe your guitar.
It’s like a Telecaster with eight strings and a really fat neck so I can raise the strings and play slide. A friend of mine made it. I told him I had this vision of a Strat, Tele, or Les Paul style guitar mixed with the lap steel. I helped design it and he built it for me. He’s not a known builder—he’s just a guy who knows how to use his hands. I gave him the idea, and he came back with a Telecaster-style guitar with a Macassar ebony fretboard and a lacewood top.
Where did you get the pickups?
The pickups are Lollars. They’re based off an old Fender Stringmaster lap steel because my grandfather was known for playing that guitar. I loved the sound, and my dad had the same type of pickups. I wanted to keep a tiny bit of the “sacred steel” influence from my family. Those particular pickups get closest to that sound.
How do you tune it?
It’s in open D, but I throw in E andB at the top. I tune certain strings up and down for different songs to help me be comfortable playing and singing at the same time. My 6-string is in open E.
Is the 6-string a standard guitar with a raised nut and bridge?
It is a Fender Select Carve Top Jazzmaster. I raised the strings a little bit, put a set of .012s or .013s on there, and tuned it open to E. That’s a heck of a tone with those guitars.
Ghent shows some fancy slide work on his converted Fender Select Carve Top Jazzmaster. His solo gets really interesting at 4:18.
What amp do you use?
For a while, I was using a ’64 Fender Super Reverb with heavy 10" speakers. I told my amp guy, Jeff Andrews, it wasn’t giving me everything I wanted. He had all these great things he could do, but I didn’t want to modify the amp that much. So, he said, “I have these amps. You can try them out.” I’ve been playing his amp ever since. It’s a 40-watt Andrews Amp Labs Spectraverb. I’m playing it through a Forte 3D cab with an EVM 12L speaker—it’s got panels on the side that are open, so you get both a closed-back and an open-back feel.
You use some pedals, don’t you?
A lot of times I use just a guitar and amp, but in situations where I want a little extra boost, I might use the J. Rockett Archer pedal. I’ve been using that with a Chicago Iron Octavia to get that fuzz thing going. On the recording I was using a Real McCoy Custom wah, though I love Dunlop Cry Babys too. I was also using an Xotic SL Drive and their EP Booster, as well as an MXR Carbon Copy delay or the Skreddy Echo.
I try to keep it simple, but my dad humbles me every now and then. I look at his rig and he’s plugging straight into a Twin Reverb. It shows me it’s okay to have all that great stuff, but don’t get so caught up in it that you can’t focus on playing.
AJ Ghent tears it up on his custom 8-string “stand-up lap steel” guitar.
What’s next for the AJ Ghent Band?
We’ll be working on an actual studio album. We want to be able to go in a studio and put a lot of our influences on it at a slower pace than, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1—go for it!” Other than the new album, it’s just heavy touring and running into other great bands and artists out there.