Joel Kosche onstage with one of his humbucker-equipped MJ Guitars. Photo by Joseph Guay

When Collective Soul suddenly found itself without a lead guitarist in 2001, the Georgia-based band with seven No. 1 singles to its credit didn’t have to look very far to find a perfect replacement. Longtime tech Joel Kosche was a formidable guitarist and singer/songwriter who not only knew the band’s gear and repertoire inside and out, but had also hot-rodded its amps to achieve the trademark guitar sound heard on songs like the 1993 breakout hit “Shine,” as well as on subsequent chart-toppers like “The World I Know,” “December,” and “Smashing Young Man.”

Kosche officially filled Collective Soul’s lead guitar chair in 2003, and he has since added his own sound—shaped equally by metal, progressive rock, and classical, and distinguished by masterful use of effects pedals— to the band’s radio-friendly repertoire. He’s also joining in the group’s writing process and even put his vocal talents to work on the sardonic “I Don’t Need Anymore Friends,” a highlight of Soul’s 2007 album Afterwords.

In addition to playing with Collective Soul, Kosche recently concluded three years of tracking for his debut solo album,
Fight Years, which is available on iTunes and The album’s 14 songs chronicle his experiences as a musician—from the frustrating years he spent toiling in Atlanta bands while painting cars and motorcycles to his rocky ascent to the spotlight. We spoke with Kosche about his musical evolution as a guitarist, songwriter, tinkerer, and amp builder, and in the process discovered secrets to some of the uncanny sounds he gets in Collective Soul and on his own.

Do you remember what first got you hooked on guitar?

I remember first getting excited about music when I saw Elvis playing guitar. There wasn’t a guitar in the house, so I—like so many other kids without instruments— used to walk around strumming a tennis racket. One year, my older brother got a guitar for Christmas, but he couldn’t really hang with the lessons, so the guitar just ended up staying in a closet. My buddies and I would sometimes beat on it, trying to play things like “Smoke on the Water” on one string, but none of us knew what we were doing. Then one day, someone’s cousin came over, tuned up the thing, and strummed some chords. That was the first time I’d actually seen anyone make music on the guitar right in front of me, and I knew right then that I wanted to get serious about music.

When time period are we talking here?

This was in the early ’80s—long before you had the internet and YouTube—so I got some Mel Bay books and started teaching myself how to play chords and scales. One day I saw Roy Clark doing this flamenco kind of stuff on Johnny Carson’s show. I didn’t realize that was any different from classical guitar—it’s all done with fingerpicking—so when I was 16 or 17, I started taking classical lessons at a local community college. That was a great experience— it really taught me how to look at guitar in a different way.

How so?

On the guitar, we don’t have to really think about the names of notes—we just move the same shape to a different fret to play in a different key. But when I started playing classical guitar, I began to read music. I learned what, say, a G chord looks like on the staff in different inversions. A lot of classical guitar repertoire was originally written for another instrument, like the piano, with all these simultaneous bass lines and melodies. So I learned a lot about how harmony works and how music is structured, and I learned to approach music for music’s sake and not to just play the same old boxes and patterns.