The blues-rock guitarist breaks new sonic ground with the help of a dirty little ’60s Valco-built amp, a clutch of vintage and modern axes, and a raw, live-in-the-studio strategy on his new album, Signs.
Jonny Lang is 36 years old, but he’s already had a long and busy career. In the 22 years since his first release, Lang has transcended his early billing as a child blues prodigy and grown into a successful career full of awards and star-studded guest appearances alongside the heaviest names in rock and blues. He’s also a father of five who is, as he says, “kind of always on tour.”
While Lang continues blowing minds with his energetic guitar playing and singing, he also keeps evolving with each new project he takes on. He’s developed into a strong songwriter as he’s embraced deeper lyric themes and, on his most recent albums, moved away from his earlier billing as a blues act and toward more soul, pop, and gospel-oriented sounds.
Lang’s evolution continues on his new Signs, a striking departure from the slick, polished pop production of his previous effort, 2013’s Fight for My Soul. Rather, Signs is a blast of energy that is, at its heart, a rock ’n’ roll guitar set with an organic, live-in-the-studio feel. Teaming up once again with Nashville-based production team Drew Ramsey and Shannon Sanders, who work together under the name Drew and Shannon and produced Lang’s Grammy-winning 2006 release Turn Around, the guitarist has crafted an album that draws from a wider breadth of influences than he’s taken on before, referencing Chicago blues, big band swing, ’70s soul, and classic rock.
The most striking sonic development on Signs is Lang’s raunchy guitar tone. Inspired by a small National amplifier from the ’60s, Lang took a sparse approach to gear: eschewing effects and focusing on using only his fingers and a few select guitars to coax gnarly tones out of the amp’s 8” speaker. The results range from dark, vintage blues tones to fuzzed-out bliss. This direct approach to tone seems to have affected Lang’s solos. His improvising is particularly fresh and inspired—full of the depth and dimension of a masterful player discovering new sonic ground.
Lang took some time to chat on the phone while at a tour stop in Phoenix. We discussed the writing and recording process behind Signs, getting into the influences and creative approach to his new album, as well as the tube-powered “hero” behind his guitar sound and the beauty of a simple guitar rig. Lang shows a clear interest in forging ahead creatively, balanced with a respect for letting his music develop naturally, and a gracious appreciation for his early success as a youngster.
It’s been four years since your last record. When did you start writing the songs for Signs?
A lot of the songs had been laying around already. We sort of started the process of writing and pre-production for it two-and-a-half years ago.
Signs is Lang’s second LP with the production duo of Drew and Shannon, and has a gnarly, more guitar-driven vibe from their last collaboration, 2006’s Turn Around.
Signs has such a different sound than your other records. It’s more raw and rocking than what you’ve done in the past. Where did that come from?
Well, I usually don’t have a game plan when I go into the studio. The game plan is just to write songs and try to keep them as unproduced as possible, and play them for the musicians. I could introduce every song just playing acoustic guitar and singing it for them and just let them interpret it. On this record, I did have a goal and that was to be a little more open sounding and more raw, like you said—a little bit more like you’re in the room, hanging out.
Did you know that was the feel you were looking for when you were writing or did you start making those decisions once it was time to record?
I had that thought from the outset. I’d been listening to Howlin’ Wolf a lot and kind of picking apart, “What are they doing in the studio?” It sounds like they just threw up some old microphones and started swinging for the fences, you know what I mean? It’s just amazing. It’s got separation and you can hear it all, but it’s still super sloppy and raw.
Those old records have this level of studio mystery where it’s not really mystery; it’s just simplicity. They put up a couple mics, the band is amazing, and they make it sound great.
Exactly man. It’s one of the coolest little human things we have, you know?
That raw Howlin’ Wolf/Hubert Sumlin vibe comes across in the guitar sound you’re using, too.
Well, it was sort of solidified when I got to the studio. The engineer we had, Matt Hyde, has this incredible collection of amps and pedals. You’ve never seen anything like it. It’s unbelievable. He’s got giant road cases full of vintage stuff.
The first amp I saw was this little tiny National from the ’60s, and it’s a 5-watt amp with an 8” speaker. It’s just tiny. It sounded like a wall of Marshalls or something. It was crazy. So that’s the amp on pretty much the whole record. I just changed tones by switching guitars and rolling the volume and tone up and down on the guitars and getting different rhythm sounds or lead tones out of the amp. But that amp was the most amazing thing I’ve ever plugged into. That amp dictated a lot. You know how it is. The tone is the thing you’re playing that sort of dictates how you play, so that amp was sort of the hero of the whole thing.
As far as guitars go, for the longest time you were playing a Tele, and you’ve made the switch to playing a Les Paul a lot now. What are the guitars on this record?
That Les Paul you’ve probably seen in photos is on a lot of it. The Tele does make it on songs here and there, but it doesn’t get nearly as much love as the Les Paul in the studio. And I used an ES-335. I have one, but I have a buddy who has one and his sounds better so I use his. Then I’ve got an old ’57 Esquire that I used on quite a bit of the record. And I’ve got this old Supro Dual-Tone, which is on quite a bit of it, too. So, it’s like four or five guitars.
Is the Les Paul a more recent model?
Yeah. It’s a ’58 or ’59 reissue. It’s probably 15 years old. I’d never played a Les Paul before and got to go into the Gibson place in Nashville and played some. The first one I picked up was this one and I just thought, “Man, do they all sound this good?” I just got a really special one, I think, because even just hearing it next to the old, highly-sought-after Les Pauls that I’ve gotten to play in the studio, it still beats ’em.
I used to be kind of in a box, like, “it’s gotta be vintage,” but I don’t care what it looks like anymore. Well ... I suppose I would. I might not be jumping if there’s, like, a Kramer anytime soon.... But, hey, if that Kramer was killin’, I would probably play it!
Playing a double bill with Buddy Guy at the Meadow Brook Music Theater in Rochester, Michigan, in 2011, Lang digs into his favorite Les Paul—a 1958 reissue built by the Gibson Custom Shop. Photo by Ken Settle
What’s the process like working with Drew and Shannon as far as songwriting and arranging goes? I imagine you’re bringing in most of the songs. Are they completed when you bring them in or are you bringing in sketches?
It depends. Sometimes you get a little sketch of something right on the spot and just say “Hey, let’s record this. See if it turns into something.” “Wisdom” is a song like that. I had this idea, a few lyrics, and nothing else. One night, we were getting ready to go home and Drew and I were in there working and it just hit. We recorded it right there.
“Wisdom” is a good one to talk about. I really like the tone on that. It’s so gnarly! What guitar is that?
That’s the Les Paul through that little National amp.
Are you using a fuzz on that?
No, that’s just that amp. I’m telling you, it’s the craziest thing. Put a single mic right in front of it and let it go.
The production on “Wisdom” is really interesting, too. It’s got this sparse, dark thing going on.
There’s this little, super-old jazz cocktail kit kick drum laying around the place where Drew records. I tied a towel to the end of a drumstick and that was the kick drum sound. Then we recorded some foot stomps and blended it together. Kind of like some old dude with a wooden leg hobbling down the road or something. And then just two guitar tracks. That’s all.
It’s tricky. Drew is a master of drum sounds and how to get percussion sounds right. He’s really good at it. Just dial all the high end out of the foot stomps so you don’t get the click, the attack, of it. All you get is just the thud, so it sounds like a big kick drum or something.
“Snakes” has this throwback vibe—maybe almost like an old swing tune or something.
Yeah, it’s like a dark Cab Calloway song.
That vibe is so different. What was the gear on that?
I was playing my Supro guitar on that one: the Supro Dual-Tone, which I got at a pawnshop for, like, $400. I lucked out on that. That’s one of those guitars that just, anything you plug it into, it sounds good. But that track, there’s no pedals or effects. It’s basically just the guitar and the amp with the tone all the way down on the guitar. It’s basically how you make a fuzz tone with a guitar.
And I was gonna ask you about the fuzz you used on the solo!
No, that’s the Les Paul through the National. I did another track of slide with the Supro. So, same amp, but two different guitars for the two different guitar tracks on there. It’s a boring Rig Rundown!
It’s a great Rig Rundown!
It’s crazy the options we have, just in life, in general. It’s like, you can buy this rack thing, but it does 10,000 things, so which one am I gonna use? My thoughts aren’t organized enough to use that stuff. I can’t do that. There are masters of it, like the Edge— people who have such a good mind to create all these atmospheric sounds, really turn the guitar into this enhanced instrument. It turns it into something else. I don’t have the knack for that really.
I feel like the solo on “Signs” really stands out. I hear a different vocabulary in that solo than I hear on any of the other tunes. Maybe it’s especially inspired or maybe it’s just the note choices and different kinds of phrases, but I feel like something different is going on.
Yeah, it was ... a bit left. I know what you mean. It’s weird, man. The song jumps up a whole step just for the solo and when the solo’s done it goes back down to the key. When you start doing stuff like that, the drama of all those things coming together, it does different things to you, you know? I don’t really give it any thought. I just record—do as many passes as I feel are necessary so I don’t have anything left to say, so to speak.
It’s easier for me to be inspired in situations we had in the studio, where it’s just fun and everybody’s having a great time and you’re friends, and there’s no pressure, creatively, just “go for it.” All those things come together and sometimes you end up doing stuff you’ve never done before, you know? It’s pretty neat.
How much of the record was recorded live? Are the solos live or overdubbed?
Some of them are live and some of them were later. It took three days to track the record: bass, drums, and other supporting stuff. Drew’s in there. Drew’s also one of my favorite guitar players of all time. Shannon’s playing keys on some of it. We have another keyboardist, Dwan Hill, who’s playing on there. The guys [in my band] are so good, they’re just my favorite musicians. I’m so lucky I get to travel with them and play these tunes as well. Most of the songs are just one or two takes.
How much time after the initial sessions did you spend working on the album?
It was so spotty, trying to find a time when my schedule matched up with Drew so we could go in and tweak everything and do the overdubs we needed to do. That’s really the time-consuming part, because that process lends itself to sort of standing back for a while and living with it and then returning and then living, returning, and living. If you put it all together, it would have been a couple months of solid work.
The guys in your band—they’re mostly from Minneapolis and Nashville. They’ve been with you a while, right?
Yeah. Barry Alexander, the drummer who’s on the record and plays out here on the road with me, is from Minneapolis. Same goes with Jim Anton, who’s the bass player. And then Drew and Shannon play on some of it, too. Jim has been with me for a long time—probably 12 years, something like that, and then Barry for 10 years, I think. It doesn’t seem long, man. It seems like a flash.
When you guys are out on tour, do you have a lot of people coming up to you saying, “I saw you when you were just a kid?”
Yeah, yeah, totally. I’ve gone through different phases of hating it and thinking it’s okay. The whole point is just to inspire people, you know? And make people feel better—just help them out somehow with music. So, if that’s the aspect that gives them the context for their experience, and that makes folks happy, that’s cool. That’s fine with me. It’s a funny dynamic, when you’re young and have a sort of notoriety. I imagine that happens with just about everybody who’s experienced that.
I imagine having your music from when you were a teenager be so public could be an interesting thing to reconcile, but you can rock it because you sounded great as a kid.
It’s been a cool journey and that’s what I’m reminded of when people bring that up. It’s just like, “Wow, I’m a totally different person.” It’s pretty neat to have done that at a young age. Yeah, I’m sure I missed some things, like normal kid stuff, but, honestly, where I come from [Fargo, North Dakota], all that normal stuff is probably just destructive anyway, so maybe music saved me from all that.
Are you gonna bust out one of those National amps live or do you have a different amp rig?
Man, I’ve discussed it with our production manager and tried to figure out every single way we could bring this amp out on the road without it falling apart within 24 hours, because this thing is made out of, like, pressboard. It’s this fragile little thing, so I don’t know if it’s plausible, but we’re gonna try to figure it out. We’re gonna do the Billy Gibbons deal where you put it in a box and mic it, see if that works, and then it just never comes out of the box and doesn’t get messed with. But if not, we’ll figure it out.
What are you using live in the meantime?
I use Deluxes. They’re pretty much like the old ones. They’ve been rewired to be older sounding and those would do the job for this record. I could get ’em nastied up enough to at least tip a hat to the tone that’s on the record, but it sure would be nice to have a couple of those little Nationals out there. Who knows?
The title track from Signs starts with a unison riff that leans in the direction of Stevie Wonder’s early ’70s work. When this riff comes back around during the chorus, listen to the way the band plays a descending chord progression on the repeat. The solo kicks in at 2:57 and, as the tune modulates up a whole step, Lang digs into an Eb blues scale and builds a wave of tension that crashes back into the chorus, adding drama as the song returns to the original key.
Drew Ramsey, tracking the electric guitar at right while Lang, center, and his band performs live, has coproduced two albums for the blues-rock guitar star. He is one of Lang’s favorite guitarists and plays rhythm on Signs.
Little Amps, Big SoundsAs half of production team Drew and Shannon, Grammy-winning producer/songwriter/guitarist Drew Ramsey has worked with John Legend, Robert Randolph, and India.Arie. We interviewed Ramsey about his role producing and playing on Johnny Lang’s latest album, Signs.
You and Jonny worked together before, on Turn Around. How did you approach Signs, which is a very different-sounding album?
As a producer, you’re trying to listen to the artist. It’s a construction job. You’re building a house with an artist and you’re describing the rooms they want, and you wanna serve them, you know? With this record, when Jonny called me, he said, “The only thing I want you to know is, I’d really like most of these songs to be coming from the guitar—like coming from a riff or coming from a chord progression.” So, I have to give Jonny the credit. He always has a vision and, as a producer/writer, that’s so important. That was coming from Jonny’s heart, man. His heart is wired directly to his fingers.
That National amp he played on the record had a big effect on the sound of Signs. It’s got such a big tone!
There’s this misconception about recording guitar: Everybody immediately goes, “I want big guitars so I need Marshall stacks in the studio,” but that doesn’t always translate on the record. Sometimes what you would do in the studio is gonna be different than what you might do in a huge concert venue. These smaller amps record really well and they overdrive differently, so when you crank that thing up on one little 8” speaker, it’s gonna break up in a really cool way. It fits in a recording really well. You can still get it to sound big, depending on how far away you’re miking it. You have to make sure it’s back far enough to feel like you’re sitting in the room with the amp—not with your head pressed up against it.
One other time, we did a little one-off song for a [gospel compilation] album called Oh Happy Day, and I had an old amp that was my wife’s grandfather’s: a 1930s Supertone. Same kind of thing—the little 8” speaker. And Matt [Hyde, engineer] had this National. It turned out to be the star of the show, man.
What was your approach with miking?
For the most time, it was one mic in the room. Typically, you’ll see guys putting, like, a 400 series Sennheiser or a [Shure SM] 57 straight on the cone, and then you put something else, like a ribbon, back off the amp. Matt had an [Beyerdynamic] M 160 microphone, which is a ribbon mic, like three feet back. One mic giving you the experience. Every song was a little different. There were a few times that he put a Pearlman, which is a larger diaphragm tube, into the room to try and get room sound.
Jonny told me you are one of his favorite guitar players. Is that you playing rhythm on most of the songs on Signs?
There were a few songs on this record where I consciously didn’t want to play. Because Jonny plays differently—Jonny’s not just a lead player, so if he knows there’s a rhythm player there, there’s certain things he'll stay away from that are cool, so if I’m not playing, you get a little different Jonny.
There’s a song called “Signs.” I felt like, to get that right in the studio, that song needed to be as close to a trio approach. Jonny needed to cover all that space himself, because when he does that, he does that so well. If I track on this song, we won’t get the Jonny Lang we need to get. I don’t want him holding back. I want him having to cover the different stuff, because he does it in such a cool way.
How did you guys approach your guitar parts on the songs you played on?
This record was almost like a Rolling Stones approach. Jonny and I were pretty conscious about, like, “Here’s the signature riff. We’re gonna play that together, and then I’m gonna fall off and chunk low and you do the high.” We did delegate. Jonny’s gonna do the lead stuff, but there were certain signature rock riff things. You know, “We’re gonna show up together on that, then split back off.” It was fun to go down that road with Jonny.