James with his Gretsch Super Axe and a 3 Monkeys Orangutan half-stack at the Charter One
Pavillion in Chicago on August 17, 2010. Photo by Andy Keil

“I had always been curious about it,” he admits. “I love country music and I love the sound of pedal steel, but I didn’t know how to play it, how it was set up, or even how many strings it had. I found a really great teacher and he gave me a couple of lessons and showed me how it relates to the guitar,” explains Broemel. “There’s been so much amazing stuff done with it in country and swing and jazz, and I try to be conscious of that—but I’m not trying to master it. I treat it more as an ambient thing. I’m just applying it to what we do and trying to make sounds that I feel like I haven’t heard yet. Now, sitting down and playing it is one of my favorite things about being in the band. I’m kind of a beginner, so I just use it for what I know I can pull off without falling on my face.”

In addition to constituting a return to classic MMJ form, pedal steel also boosts Broemel’s creativity on his main instrument. “I love the guitar, but sometimes you get burned out and go ‘I don’t even know what to do!’ When that happens, I’ll play pedal-steel guitar for a while, and having to think about the theory and how the instrument works and then going back to guitar helps me picture the fretboard differently. You get a different perspective.”

A Lot of Gear for a “Minimal” Rig
Whether crafting eerie shimmers or slashing at minor chords with a reverb-drenched overdrive, Broemel has a surprising amount of gear for a man who says he likes to keep his setup minimal. One of his favorite new pieces is a German-made Duesenberg. “Until this record, I used all Les Pauls, all the time. I bought a couple of Duesenberg guitars after the last record—my friend runs a studio in Indiana and he had a couple, including a 12-string that I used on a session there. So I bought the Double Cat 12-string, and then a guy from Duesenberg brought me a Starplayer TV, which is kind of their version of a Gibson ES-335 and has the Bigsby on it—and I love Bigsbys. I’ve always had Bigsbys on my favorite black Les Paul Standard, my main guitar. I used the Starplayer for the whole record, basically. The neck’s a little bit longer scale than a Les Paul, and it’s the only hollowbody I have. The older songs don’t feel right on the Duesenberg, but the newer songs do, so it’s cool that an instrument is dictating how I play and making me play a little bit differently. It’s like a hi-fi, fancy guitar—like a BMW guitar. It’s too nice for me!” he laughs.

Broemel and his Bigsby-outfitted 1988 Gibson Les Paul Standard at the Charter
One Pavillion in Chicago on August 17, 2010. Photo by Andy Keil

As for amps, Broemel says, “I’ve always been partial to combos. I’ve always used pedals for overdrive, so I just look at what’s going to work live and be really flexible and play all the songs on it. But it’s such a slippery slope—you can go chasing those zenith guitar sounds, but what’s the point? Do you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan or just like Jimmy Page? Or Jimi Hendrix? I don’t really care about that. If it sounds like me—if that’s possible—then great. I’ve been using a Carr Rambler live, and I love that. I also have a couple of old Fenders. I have a Vibrasonic, as well, which I use for the pedal steel—it’s a silverface with a 15" speaker.”

James stuck to his tried-and-true guitars, including a 1999 Gibson Flying V and a Breedlove Revival Custom acoustic. Amps-wise, he waxes lyrical about a new discovery: “I have finally found an amp I love both on the road and in the studio— the 3 Monkeys Orangutan. It is unreal how versatile this amp sounds. It can truly do everything. I feel like I’m doing a product endorsement right now,” he admits. “But I’m really being serious. The amp sounds amazing and it looks beautiful, too—like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey or something. God bless that amp.”