Seattle-raised guitarist TJ Cowgill adopted the King Dude pseudonym in 2006, when he began to envision his own dark but rooted take on American folk music. He gets plenty of mileage out of a Gretsch Pro Jet and an inexpensive Martin acoustic. Photo by Marie Magnin
Besides that ’76 Twin, were there other amps that played a major role in crafting the guitar sounds on Sex?
I pretty much stuck to the Twin, but I also have a $100 solid-state ’70s Ampeg GT-10. And I have two Heathkit TA-16 2x12 combos, which are super low-wattage solid-state kit amps from the late ’60s/early ’70s. You’d buy the parts and solder them together. Heathkit also made things like ham radios and home stereo receivers, but the same company, or guy maybe, also had a relationship with Vox and made the Jaguar kit organs for them. I just love these amps!
Even though the TA-16 is solid-state, the more you turn it up, the more gain you get out of it. And while they don’t get very loud, they give up this great, kind of shitty Rolling Stones guitar tone. Not that the Rolling Stones have a shitty guitar tone, but it’s like a shitty version of their sound. It’s great! And because they were handwired by amateurs who most likely did not really know what they were doing, each one sounds a little different. I’d like to get more, but they’re difficult to find. The other thing is, I don’t like buying amps on eBay because you never really know what you’re going to get unless you’ve played it in person.
Could you give an example of that amp’s tone from the album?
The lead guitar on “Swedish Boys” is all Heathkit, and “I Wanna Die at 69” has a bunch of it within its six guitar tracks. The song has, like, 29 tracks, which is insane for me. I can usually get out with under 10, but that one just needed so much action in the guitars. In fact, I think that’s the only song on the album without bass, because it was too dense with it. There were countermelodies I really wanted on that track, and I wanted this dirty black-metal tone on one side and a bluesy, sort of broken-radio thing on the other, so it’s got a bit of a stereo-pan going on in the guitars.
What guitar gear do you tour with these days?
I love Peavey’s stuff. They gave me a Classic 20 MH head and a 2x12 enclosure loaded with Celestions, and I actually think it sounds better than my Twin. It’s a low-wattage amp and it can scale down to 5 watts or even lower, which makes it really fun and versatile. It’s easy to get a good clean tone out of, which is important for me because I run pedals in front of it.
Describe those pedals.
I use a Wampler Black ’65, which I’ve had forever and is usually always on unless I need to get the amp really clean for a pretty song or something. I use it to condition the amp a little to make it sound more driven, but I like that pedal because if I’m on tour and using backline and they don’t have exactly the amp I want, that pedal is versatile enough that I can get the sound that I like with most amps.
I also use a Fulltone Supa-Trem, which is awesome and easy to use—which helps when I’m really drunk. Sometimes I have to adjust the speed of the tremolo and it has those giant foot-friendly knobs, which I love. And I just got the Earthquaker Devices Spires two-stage fuzz pedal that I’m really excited to add to my chain. It’s insane! It’s a little unwieldy with the second fuzz channel on, but it works well on songs like “Heavy Curtain” off the last album. I always had trouble getting that punchy solo at the song’s end to poke live, and I was using compression to push the signal for the solo, which was a terrible idea. So now I’m using a fuzz pedal instead and it’s working much better.
There are a lot of dramatic shifts in the use of reverb and atmospherics that really add to the record’s dynamic quality. Do you premeditate that stuff when you’re writing?
I don’t go in with a blueprint or anything, or even use a list, really. I just try to let the parts speak to me and I usually know when a part needs reverb or needs to be bone dry. And there is some weird shit that happens on these songs with chorus and flanging that is very intuitive to me, but probably very counterintuitive to most—at least in my methods and how I get there. I don’t know why people seem so afraid of doing stuff like throwing flanger on even just a bar of a guitar part to add some more character—make it ugly so the pretty parts can be prettier after, you know?
Could you give some examples on the album that define that sort of subtle dynamic approach?
On “Swedish Boys,” the beginning has a flanger, chorus, distortion, and just way too much shit on the bass, but it’s just during that little intro, and the rest of the song has a more conventional bass tone. For that minute intro, it’s all “what the fuck is this mess?” and it really kind of kicks you in the teeth. But when it comes together right after the intro, it’s much more dramatic because of it being juxtaposed against the mess.
I find if it’s an instrument you don’t normally play, it breaks your brain from the muscle memory habits you have—especially if you’re playing your go-to instrument, which for me just reminds me of all the stuff I’ve done already with it. But if I pick up someone else’s guitar, I find it helps me write stuff faster and more naturally. It’s good to switch out instruments often, and swapping guitars helps me write much better.
The acoustic guitar plays a huge role on your albums. Tell us about the Martin you use, and any other acoustics that play a significant role in your music.
If you’re hearing an acoustic on a King Dude album, it’s that Martin. It’s actually one of the cheaper ones—the OMCXAE model, which is a composite-body guitar. It’s wood, but it’s coated with something that makes it almost feel like plastic. It’s matte black. I’ve toured all over the world with that guitar. It’s my go-to! I dropped it in Iceland once, had it fixed in Berlin by a great luthier whose name escapes me, but when I was in Greece, I forgot it was on my bed and I accidentally kicked it off the bed and the whole back fell off. I just taped it up and it’s been like that for about a year, and it still sounds good and holds in tune, so who knows? They say that Martins sound better and better with the more shitty things that happen to them. Look at Willie Nelson’s guitar.
There’s something about this particular guitar’s tone that I really love, too. All Martins tend to have a bass-heavy thing that I really like, but this one, being a bit smaller and having a composite body, has a really neat midrange going on. And it almost has a natural vibrato that’s hard to describe, but it has a wave in the chords that you can capture if you place the mic on it correctly.
The instrumental track “Conflict and Climax” adds a great bit of cinematic intrigue to the album. How did it come about?
It was one of the last tracks I recorded. I picked up a bass and came up with a bass line, which I then recorded just to remember it. I ended up liking the take, despite it being completely improvised, and the guitar track I layered over it was entirely improvised as well. They’re all the first takes and it’s a sparse track, and the only vocals are me screaming into the microphone on my laptop with a lot of room sound and feedback, so it was really easy to put together.
What about the Gretsch you use?
I use an Electromatic Pro Jet G538T in gold. It’s on the cover of my last album and I love it. It’s maybe a $700 guitar, retail, and it’s perfect for me. I don’t know why, but I prefer it over almost any other instrument in the room and I always go back to it. It’s my live guitar in the States, but I got an identical one in black recently that looks a bit more uniform with our live show. I use other guitars in the studio sometimes to get a different feel—like I have this shitty Epiphone Les Paul that I used on “Swedish Boys.” My mom gave it to me and it was a really nice gesture, but it’s not a great guitar. But I found uses for it. I also use an Aria Pro II Les Paul knockoff I found in a pawnshop for $200, and it’s got this super-hot pickup that I’ve used on records from time to time because it’s so good for overdrive. I couldn’t use that guitar live because of how out-of-control the pickup is.
The first Electromatic model I got was a hollowbody that’s based on the Country Gentlemen I bought as a conscious decision to try to look like Roy Orbison—wear suits and sunglasses and shit like that, because he was just so goddamn cool. I was really into shaping an aesthetic for myself, which went with changing things up from playing metal. The deeper I got into my craft, the deeper I got into the American rock ’n’ roll side of what I do, Roy included. I started researching the origins of American rock ’n’ roll and its origins in country blues and people like A.P. Carter and the rest of the Carter family, and even early field recordings, prison songs, etc.
Is your Pro Jet modified at all?
Nope! It’s bone stock. They send them to me and I don’t even change the strings—I just plug ’em in and play ’em. I probably do everything wrong in the eyes of guitar nerds, but I go months without changing strings. I recorded this entire album without changing my strings, which I’d say is half laziness and half that I like the way dead strings feel. I don’t care for the feel of new guitar strings, and I do think they sound a little too bright, but it’s really more of a feel thing for me. If one breaks, I’ll swap it, obviously, but I haven’t changed the strings on my Martin in well over a year.
King Dude’s key sonic signatures are featured on “Our Love Will Carry On” from his new album, Sex: atmospheric reverb, a widescreen blend of his Martin acoustic and Gretsch electric guitars, and his satanic baritone vocal intonations.