Although this singular stylist is based in country blues, his music reaches for the cosmos! Check out his dazzling array of pedals and rhythm boxes, and the classic instruments he uses to make trailblazing sounds live and on his new album, The Fatalist.
Buffalo Nichols believes in the power of acoustic country blues. He also believes it’s not a fossil, trapped in amber, but a living, breathing musical genre. Which is why he blends elements of the tradition—slide guitar, resonator, open tunings, themes of loss, redemption, and struggle—with loops, samples, drum machines, myriad effects, and modern-day narratives. His new album, The Fatalist, is the culmination of his art to date. Listening to its echoes of Skip James, John Hurt, Pink Floyd, and Dr. Dre is an even stranger experience when you know Nichols started his career in the thundering, downstroke-chiseled trenches of the Midwest metal scene.
When you watch this Rig Rundown, Nichols will explain, and play, it all—it's a fascinating story. And the gear! Get ready for a feast, full of the trad and the rad.
Those two woods dominate this Recording King RO-328, with its solid Adirondack spruce top, solid rosewood back and sides, rosewood fretboard, and herringbone purfling in classic rosette. In fact, this guitar would not look out of place in a photo from the early ’50s, and the brand itself has been available since the ’30s. Nichols keeps this 6-string tuned to open C# minor, a Skip James tuning, with a Seymour Duncan Mac Mic pickup. His preferred sting gauge is .016 to .056.
Sweet 'n' Elite
Nichols’ parlor guitar is a Recording King Tonewood Reserve Elite Single 0, with a spruce top, rosewood back and sides, a mahogany neck, and an ebony fretboard. Note the inlays and distinctive binding. It also has the Duncan pickup system. Nichols keeps this guitar tuned in standard with a medium string set (.013s).
Steel and Gold
This Gold Tone GRS Paul Beard metal-body Resonator puts a brushed aluminum cone and biscuits inside an all-steel body with a 19-fret maple neck. With a stock lipstick pickup, Nichols uses it as one of his essential electrics. He prefers it to the more traditional thick resonator body, for ease of performance and weight relief.
Get Behind the Mule
Nichols’ tunings include C#m, open F, and standard, tuned down a half-step. This guitar is a Mavis model, by Mule Resophonic Guitars—an open tuning classic. Dig that pickguard and the warm patina on the body. “It’s taken on a life of its own,” says Nichols. “Some people will show up at my gigs just to look at it.” The mini humbucker sounds sweet, with its basic volume control. The neck isn't too thick or too thin. "Kind of in the middle,” Nichols says. And it mostly gets played clean, or with a nice flavoring of delay.
The banjo is one of the oldest African-American instruments, and this one is a Recording King, with a scooped fretboard and two pickups (a K&K and a Fishman) that he sometimes uses to split the signal. Without a resonating back, Nichols notes that it caters more to old-school music, with its bright, ringing tone.
These days Nichols’ road amp of choice is a Fender Tone Master Super Reverb. He likes the compression he gets from its four 10" speakers, as well as its back-saving weight. He also points out that he uses so many effects that his guitars sound the same regardless of his amp choices.
The Board's Big Brain
Nichols jokingly describes his pedalboard as "very confusing,” but, running through his chain, he starts at a TC Electronic PolyTune to an Origin Effects Cali76 compressor—"and after that’s where it gets pretty weird.” But also onboard, for drive, are a Wampler Tumnus and Belle, and a Fuzzlord Octave Master (“for my Jimi Hendrix kind of tones”). To control various effects and chains, there’s a Boss GT-1000 Core. Those are involved in the guitar-to-amp signal, versus the acoustic.
But the “weird stuff,” as he puts it, starts with an Old Blood Noise Endeavors Signal Blender for switching between the acoustic, banjo, or amp. While the Fuzzlord can color everything, a cluster of his boxes are used to conjure pads and other ethereal sounds. These include the EHX Superego, a Fishman Aura, a Hologram Electronics Microcosm Granular Looper and Glitch Pedal (he calls it his red herring), an EHX Mel9 Tape Replay Machine, a TC Electronic Death Rax3, and a lot more. Listen while Nichols displays his entire array of delays in the Rundown. There’s an SPD-ONE Kick for stomping, and drum machines—an Akai Professional MPC Live II and an Elektron Analog Rytm MKII—too!
Shop Buffalo Nichols' Rig
Recording King RO-328
Recording King Tonewood Reserve Elite Single 0
Recording King RK-R20 Banjo
Fender Tone Master Super Reverb
TC Electronic PolyTune
Origin Effects Cali76 Compressor
Boss GT-1000 Core
EHX Mel9 Tape Replay Machine
Akai Professional MPC Live II
Elektron Analog Rytm MKII
How many guitars, pedals, and amps do you need? Enough to make you happy. But window shopping alone has its own benefits.
I just got back from the NAMM show, and I am suppressing the nervous twitch of desire. My eyes and ears were flooded with all kinds of great gear, from cutting edge software plugins to microphones to—my favorites—pedals, amps, and guitars. With so much new gear around, G.A.S. was so abundant you could almost smell it hanging over the show floor. (Sorry, I could not resist.)
As you all know, I’m talking about Gear Acquisition Syndrome, the disease for which there is no cure. I have 15 guitars—17, if you count a cigar box and a diddley bow—that cover the sonic waterfront for me and then some. So why would I want more? My tube and solid-state amps are carefully curated so I can recreate all the classic tones I love, and with my quirky playing approach and equally carefully assembled pedalboard, I can put my own spin on every one of them.
And yet … I return with a pocketful of maybes. Maybe that new semi-hollow with the sleek neck and coil-splitting would get me another tone I can’t quite access now? Maybe that pedal would make it easier to accommodate pitch shifting while I solo? Maybe it’s time to add a bona fide high-gain amp, or dive into modeling?
I used to think these impulses were unhealthy. Especially when I was a touring indie musician and had no money to spend on gear. (One of musical life’s great ironies is that club-level working musicians often earn so little that they can’t afford to increase or upgrade the tools of their craft.) But I’ve changed my mind, thanks to my dog.
“You should never pick up interesting things with your mouth.”
Dolly, who is going on 17, is slow … or perhaps methodical … when we go on walks. But every inch of the way she is sniffing, her ears are up, and she stops to spend time looking at and smelling anything that captures her interest, even for a moment. That’s a great way to spend NAMM and to examine gear, with senses and imagination open, considering the potential of everything for your music, prepared to evaluate impulses without prejudice. (But, unlike Dolly, you should never pick up interesting things with your mouth.)
Considering a piece of gear is not the same as buying it, or I’d be broke. And evaluating these flirtations can lead to something good. Let’s say you’re smitten with a brand-new $250 modulation pedal. But after careful consideration and inspection, you realize you can get a similar sound with the chorus or vibrato you already own, and a delay or reverb pedal. The tempting new gear has led you down a path of finding a new, purposeful sound in your current gear. Same with a drive pedal. It’s fresh, it’s raw, it’s low and singing—and maybe with a bit of compression it isn’t very far from the sound you can get with your current overdrive if you just roll back the tone controls on your 6-string. And what about that semi-hollow? Maybe what I really need is a 10-band EQ pedal so I can approximate semi-hollow and hollowbody tones on all my guitars at whim, which would certainly inject a different voice into the solos or choruses of songs in my repertoire. Sometimes looking at new gear reminds us of the full range of our current musical real estate holdings. And that’s great. It’s easy to get in a rut and overlook the potential of gear you already own. (Parallel question: How many of you really make full use of the tone and volume controls on your instruments? I find this to be an oddly neglected zone of exploration, even this many years beyond Eric Clapton’s unfortunately dubbed “woman tone.”)
That said, there’s also not a damn thing wrong with buying some new gear. In fact, it’s great. Guitars, pedals, amps, microphones, plugins, and even accessories seem to get better all the time, which means we probably all have some room for upgrades if we’re able to make them. Same with the tones produced by modern emulations of vintage gear, which ideally get more on the nose with every iteration, while adding improvements to tonality and performance. In terms of consistency and playability, today’s well-made guitars are perhaps the finest ever built, in some cases outperforming the templates that inspired them at much lower cost. And, as the saying goes, every guitar—or pedal, or amp—has new songs inside of it, waiting to be discovered.
Hopefully you’ve gorged on the videos and reports from the NAMM floor that we’ve shared at premierguitar.com with you this month. There was a lot to see, hear, and smell. Well, maybe not smell, but I think you know what I mean. Never be afraid to chase gear temptation, because it can often lead you to interesting places.
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