Ruban Nielson explains how custom collaborations with Baranik and Benson, along with a paunchy pedalboard with homemade clones, unlock a psychedelic playground in stereo.
“Gear is meant to be destroyed in the line of duty,” laughs Ruban Nielson. “I realize I prefer to see my equipment all dinged up rather than sitting perfect in my basement—that’s a dorky thing to do.”
That doesn’t mean Nielson doesn’t care about his sound. He noted in a 2015 interview with PG that he spends countless hours in his basement tinkering on breadboard circuits and swapping out components, trying to maximize a pedal for his needs. “I like the idea that instead of buying your sound, you’re building your sound,” he said.
Over the course of 14 years, five albums, and thousands of touring miles, Nielsen has been custom-fabricating his guitar voice. But as we all know, the quest is never-ending, like trying to catch the horizon. After all, isn’t it the journey, not the destination, that matters?
“I used to be too much of a savage to care about a clean boost or headroom,” says Nielson. “‘Just give me a distortion pedal already!’ But now I’m exploring the intricacies, subtleties, and nuances of guitar.”Ahead of Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s headlining performance at Nashville’s Brooklyn Bowl, Ruban Nielson welcomed PG’s Chris Kies onstage to explore his current sonic lab. Nielson covers his two space-age guitars (and what inspired them), explains how he convinced Benson to put a Monarch inside a vintage solid-state Yamaha, and details the pedals—including a few of his own designs—that extract a kaleidoscope of moods.
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Challenge Accepted: The B3-R
Since forming Unknown Mortal Orchestra in 2009, the instrument that Ruban Nielson has been linked to and inspired by is the Fender Jag-Stang. This short-scale offset was codesigned by Kurt Cobain in the early ’90s by simply taking photos of Fender’s Mustang and Jaguar, splitting them in half and pasting them together. The Jag-Stang was treated to separate production runs in the late ’90s and early 2000s before a wider release in 2021. Nielson’s friend gifted him a cherry-red model, shaping Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s first decade of music.
In 2015, Nielson told PG about its impact on his playing style and creative outlook: “When I started on the UMO stuff I pulled it out. It would never stay in tune and sounded really strange, but when I plugged it into a Blues Junior, I started to come up with completely different ideas. I tuned it a half-step down and started playing with my fingers. It was just a whole new style that emerged in the space of about two weeks after messing with this guitar. It’s a kind of imperfect creature and that’s what I like about it.”
Fast forward to a few years ago when Ruban met luthier Mike Baranik. Baranik was a longtime fan of UMO and knew of Nielson’s allegiance to the Jag-Stang, so he approached Nielson with a proposition: “I can make a guitar that will do everything that the Jag-Stang does better and more.” Nielson was intrigued, so the build began. They conversed and collaborated over several phone calls and text chains that culminated in Nielson realizing Baranik was “some kind of genius through his simple innovations that suited the way I think about music and guitar.”
The flaws of the Jag-Stang that informed Nielson’s playing style became features on the above Baranik B3-R. The biggest thing that Ruban wanted translated from the Jag-Stang to the Baranik was the slinky neck pocket that allowed for him to push the neck for emotive bends à la Bill Frisell.
Nielson explains: “When I tuned the Jag-Stang a half-step down—which I just did because Jimi Hendrix did it, and I thought if I was going to start writing some new music that this was my chance to start messing with that—that loosened the strings up. The neck was a smaller scale so it gave me the ability to do completely different things. I was able to get around the neck a lot easier.”
To make that body-neck connection even more expressive and manipulatable, Baranik constructed the trademarked Baraneck floating neck that fastens two springs to the neck joint allowing Nielson to tighten or loosen the neck as wanted. Nielson also routed out wood behind the pickups on his Jag-Stang to reduce the weight and keep it light as possible—just five pounds, nine ounces. The B3-R has a basswood body, koa neck, and ebony fretboard.
Another thing Nielson requested was an approximation of the sound of pickups found in vintage Japanese lawsuit-era instruments, which were often unique, unpotted, and unpredictable. Baranik worked his magic and, via his own alchemy, produced these potted single-coils. Other tag-team easter eggs include a custom Hawaiian print pickguard, an upcycled circuit board control panel, and custom inlays—a row of shark teeth, filled with crushed bone dust—that are a tribute to the family symbol.
All of UMO’s material is based on half-step-down tuning both of his electrics take Ernie Ball Super Slinkys (.009-.042). Nielson goes with a Shure Axient wireless pack at both his Sitar and Baranik guitars and to keep things quiet and tidy, his tech Ben Gram inserted an Electro-Harmonix Hum Eliminator and a Radial Dragster Load Correction box.
Two of the songs on UMO’s fall setlist required a sitar. Nielson previously toured and recorded with a Rogue Sitar, but found it to be a nuisance to maintain on the road. He searched for a sturdier stand in and found this electric sitar star: a Jerry Jones model whose voice wholly celebrates Nielson’s love for early psych-rock, and matches its chime with rugged dependability.
Nate the Great
Nielson has plugged into all sorts of amps since 2009 when playing under UMO. The longest sidekicks include Fender combos and Orange heads. (When Ruban spoke with PG in 2015, he had a Fender Hot Rod DeVille and an Orange AD 30 head.) He notes in the Rundown that a few years back, he was “getting frustrated with his amp setup and thought he should be like one of those real guitar guys and find a boutique amp company.” After auditioning some combos, he landed on a Benson. One half of Ruban’s stereo setup is the Benson Nathan Junior that maxes out at 5W, has a single JJ 6V6 power tube, and barks with a 10" Celestion Greenback.
Benson in Yamaha's Clothing
Nielson has his feet firmly planted in both amp camps. He appreciates the beef, brawn, and chime only produced by power tubes, but he’s also attracted to the old solid-state amps that offer quirky, charmingly weird tones. Chris Benson’s shop happened to be within walking distance of Nielson’s home, so after becoming acquainted and friendly, Nielson pitched a project for Benson: Could he turn a ’70s solid-state Yamaha TA-20 into a roadworthy tube amp? Benson initially balked at the idea, and Nielson thought his plan was foiled. Three years later, Benson reached out and asked if Nielson still had the Yamaha—he did—so Benson told him to bring it by the shop, and they’d retrofit a Benson circuit into the TA-20. “My weird dream to bring this on tour was finally happening!” says Nielson.
The TA-20 is packed with Benson’s Vinny Reverb guts that includes a JJ EL84 power tube, a 12AX7 preamp tube, a 12DW7, and a JJ 6V6 power tube as a voltage regulator that goes from .25W up to a snarky six watts. The overhauled TA-20 does still have the original polystyrene parallelogram speaker. Both amps are always on, and miked up with Shure SM7Bs.
Ruban Nielson's Pedalboard
Nielson is a tonal tactician. He’s never been satisfied with stock sounds and a pedal’s inherent limitations. “If I find a pedal I like, I use it for a long time and then I try to build a clone to see if I can improve on it,” he explains. “I sit around in my basement tweaking it plugged in—on the breadboard—and changing out different components and adjusting the trim until I get everything just exactly how I want it.” So, looking down at his stomp selection you’ll notice a few nondescript devices on the beautiful Twin Peaks Woodworks pedalboard custom-built by both Nielson’s tech Ben Gram and Caspian guitarist Jonny Ashburn.
His signal hits an Effectrode PC-2A Tube Compressor (you’ll notice two on the board—one is a backup). That’s a change from our 2015 interview, when he he was using an Analog Man Bi-CompROSSor and had it at the end of his chain. (“It’s nice to have a compressor at the end of everything—especially with a phaser pedal, which has frequency spikes,” he said at the time. “It’s nice to control them.”) He enjoys how the PC-2A up front fattens his entire sound, and how it smooths and shaves off the transient tinges. The Strymon Deco has a stereo out that hits a pair of Jam RetroVibes. Both are set to have slightly different speeds and depths so that they really take that stereo signal for a journey in real time, and Dave at FOH has them panned in the PA to really amplify this effect.
One of Nielson’s creations shows up inside the gray box titled “Octave Magic,” which is based on the Foxx Tone Machine. The suede purple devil next to it is the Jam Pedals Fuzz Phrase LTD, about which Nielson says, “It’s the wooliest, most-musical Fuzz Face I’ve ever played.” Sometimes the answer to Nielson’s problems is the Benson Germanium Boost. “If something’s wrong,” he explains, “I’ll kick on that pedal and it makes everything louder and resets the gain structure.” The Gamechanger Audio Plus pedal sees a lot of action throughout the set: it helps Nielson seam the tail end of a solo and discreetly rejoin the band in rhythm mode.
The remaining pedals include a Boss DD-3 Digital Delay (a gift from Mike Baranik), a Danelectro Back Talk reverse delay, an Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail reverb, and in the top-left corner, an unnamed pedal that Nielson built that is currently not in the signal. (He can’t remember if it’s a Rat or Tube Screamer clone.) Utility boxes include a Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner, an Electro-Harmonix Switchblade Plus channel selector, and a Lehle Little Dual II switcher.
Shop Ruban Nielson's Rig
Benson Germanium Boost
Boss DD-3 Digital Delay
Danelectro Back Talk Reverse Delay
Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Reverb
Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner
Electro-Harmonix Switchblade Plus Channel Selector
Lehle Little Dual II ABY Switcher
Ernie Ball Super Slinky Strings
Oscillation, octave, out-there sounds, and Bozo-the-Clown dive bombs take shape with a trusty offset, some pissed-off P-90s, and a pedalboard stocked with interactive tone tanglers.
Crobot’s hard-riffin’, smooth-groovin’ rock anthems often ride on the back of guitarist Chris Bishop’s handiwork. The guitarist carefully corrupts his tone with creative pedal tweaking, but he’s never lost sight of his role within the quartet.
“The groove is the most important thing in the song and, being the only guitar player, my main focus is to make sure that’s there,” explains Bishop to PG in 2016.
And when you’re opening for the party-rocking Steel Panther, no goal can be greater than making the crowd move ’n’ groove. Before Crobot’s set at Nashville’s Marathon Music Works, Bishop welcomed PG’s Chris Kies onstage to detail his trio of guitars—a beloved offset and a pair of P-90-loaded Teles—his parti-colored pedalboard, and the Victory VS100 Super Sheriff and Kemper Profiler that work together to create his massive sound.
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The Bodacious Berly
Crobot cronies will note that Bishop has favored Telecaster and T-style guitars for most of the band’s existence. Unfortunately, their trailer got stolen during a recent tour, so the guitarist had to rebuild his rig. His current go-to is this J-Master that was built (and beaten) by Berly Guitars.
“This guitar has the Lollar P-90s in it, which are really awesome and probably my favorite pickups that I got. They can be noisy, and I play loud, but it’s not like riding a bull [laughs].”
The other thing Bishop really enjoys about his new squeeze is its big, chunky neck that has a V profile and is heavily sanded down for primo movement. The guitar was modified to have an AllParts Buzz Stop to help with string rattling. All of his guitars take a custom set of DR Strings (.010–.048).
Red Right Hand
Bishop’s Fender Telecaster Custom was overhauled with a Seymour Duncan P-90 in the bridge and a Railhammer Tel90 Neck pickup. This T used to enjoy more time in the spotlight, but for this opening-slot run, it only saw the stage during Crobot’s newest single, “Golden,” which utilizes double-drop-D tuning (D–A–D–G–B–D).
Long Distance Call
This Fender Telecaster Deluxe used to reside in Europe, where it was part of Bishop’s international rig. But when the band’s trailer got jacked, the guitarist called it back to the States. It features two main mods—a Mastery M6 Hardtail Bridge and a Seymour Duncan P-90 in the bridge. The red button is a kill switch.
A Little Bit of Everything
Orange Terror amps were Bishop’s backline for years. Looking to change things up, he tried out a Victory VS100 Super Sheriff and fell in love with the first gain mode of the Hot Rod channel, where he now lives all night. The VS100 runs into an Orange Crush Pro 4x12 cabinet. To create a stereo effect, Bishop sends a signal from a Kemper Profiler Stage to FOH. The engineer blends his direct sound with the two mics on the cab, making it sound like there’s two Bishops blasting riffs. The remaining Kemper Profiler is for bassist Tim Peugh.
Chris Bishop’s Pedalboard
Spaceship landings, airplane flybys, otherworldly madness, and what Bishop describes as “Bozo-the-Clown-sounding, flanger-like dive-bombs” are generated by this team of stomps: (top left) a Vox Joe Satriani Time Machine Delay, an Old Blood Noise Endeavors Dark Star, Ibanez AF2 Paul Gilbert Airplane Flanger, an expression pedal to control the Boss PS-6 Harmonist. On the bottom row is an Ibanez ES2 Echo Shifter Analog Delay, a Coppersound Pedals/Third Man Triplegraph, an Electro-Harmonix Micro POG Polyphonic Octave Generator, a DigiTech Whammy Ricochet, an EarthQuaker Devices Tentacle Analog Octave Up, and a Morley 20/20 Bad Horsey Wah. A Shure GLXD16+ wireless unit keeps him untethered, and a Voodoo Lab Pedal Power Supply MONDO brings the juice.
See how a Tube Screamer and a pair of POGs mesh with badass bassist Bridget Kearney’s carved double bass. Plus, touring guitarist James Cornelison shows the oddball guitars and pickups he chose to funkify the band’s neo-soul dance parties.
College internships can run the gamut. They can lead you into a career or dissuade you from pursuing one altogether. In 2004, while still attending the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, singer Rachael Price, bassist Bridget Kearney, founding guitarist Mike “McDuck” Olson, and drummer Mike Calabrese joined forces to perform as what they dubbed a “free country band,” where they intended to play country music in an improvised, avant-garde style. As it goes with many college-years experiments, it didn’t stick, but the fervid foursome pushed forward in continuing to develop their own sound. They quickly graduated to a bona fide band cultivating a buzz with infectious concerts, creative covers, and complex, groovy originals. Through their mutual influences and complimentary counterpoints, their sound matured into a harmonious fusion, as if Berry Gordy produced the Beatles in Nashville’s RCA Studio.
If starting a band and shaping their sound was an internship and bachelor’s degree, self-releasing records and organizing U.S. tours would be their master’s and doctorate. They self-released 2007’s In This Episode... and 2008’s Promises, Promises before joining Signature Sounds, who put out 2010’s Lake Street Dive and 2014’s Bad Self Portraits. (The latter slotted them on the Billboard charts—No. 18 in the 200 and No. 5 in Top Rock Albums.) They then signed to Nonesuch, where they’ve dropped three more albums—most notably 2016’s Side Pony, which put them atop the Top Rock Albums chart, while 2021’s Obviously netted them their highest single, with “Hypotheticals” hitting No. 2 on the Adult Alternative Airplay chart.
And while the band has continued to evolve, experiment, and expand their signature sound, they have kept to their core identity—having fun. They seem never to miss a Halloween dress-up show, and still aren’t gun-shy about covering classics and making them their own. Setlists are often littered with audience requests and reinterpretations of the Beatles, Hall & Oates, George Michael, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis, Shania Twain, the Pointer Sisters, the Jackson Five, the Kinks, Steely Dan, Annie Lennox, Sly & the Family Stone, and countless others.
The afternoon before their second consecutive sellout at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, Lake Street Dive’s Bridget Kearney and touring guitarist James Cornelison welcomed PG’s Chris Kies on stage for a casual gear chat. Kearney explained how she uses a pair of octave pedals through her standup double bass, and what she’s doing with four tuners! Plus, she explains what restarted her slow-burn courtship with electric bass. Then, Cornelison walks us through his setup, which includes leftover pieces from retired guitarist Mike “McDuck” Olson and a ratty pickup bought off a former PG staffer. It both honors the band’s catalog and carves his own musical fingerprint.
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All About That Bass
Bridget Kearney is known for almost exclusively using a standup double bass on stage and in the studio with Lake Street Dive. (As you’ll see in a minute, she’s fostering her connection with electric bass.) She’s been thumping on this one since LSD took shape. She acquired the 50-year-old carved double bass (all solid-wood construction) from fellow bass player and friend Ben Davis. When she received it from Davis, he had already added a David Gage Realist LifeLine pickup, but she’s opted to add and amplify via a Fishman Full Circle Upright Bass Pickup (“the heart of the tone”) and a Pierre Josephs String Charger magnetic transducer (“helpful getting extra juice to cut through when playing with a full band”). The Fishman provides a pure, clean signal to FOH, while the String Charger handles all the effects Kearney puts on her instrument. It’s been years since she’s changed strings, but she thinks they’re D’Addario Helicore Orchestral bass strings.
In Brooklyn for Halloween 2020, Lake Street Dive recreated the iconic Beatles rooftop concert. In doing so, the entire band doubled down to look the part (wigs, sideburns, and shaggy coats included). To be as authentic as possible, Kearney borrowed a friend’s Höfner for the performance. She enjoyed the playing experience and wanted to further investigate the electric bass, then bought this Höfner Limited Edition H500/2-RLC-O Club Bass. “Before this, I hadn’t played electric bass for nearly 20 years. It took me to the age of 35 to think, ‘I wonder if electric bass could be a cool thing?’ Höfner and that rooftop concert was my gateway drug back to solidbody electric basses.”
Kearney landed this brown beauty just a few months ago while instrument-shopping in Seattle. She had saw this 1975 Fender P bass on a store’s online inventory, but Bridget realized after arriving that she had went to the wrong store. However, the “wrong” store had a 1969 P she couldn’t pass up. Even after buying a vintage gem, months later, the above ’75 was still haunting her. So, the next time she visited Seattle, Kearney went to the “right” store and made the purchase. She hasn’t used it in the studio yet, but during this run of shows, she brought it for the band’s cover of “Love Doctor” from her 2017 solo record Won’t Let You Down. (The Cookin’ Outlaws stickers were put on prior to the score, and Bridget notes they are a part of the instrument’s charm.)
Bridget Kearney’s Pedalboard
“My pedalboard is a little bit ridiculous. It’s composed of four Boss tuners [laughs],” concedes Kearney. Unraveling the 4-tuner conundrum, she explains that she uses a pair of TU-3s for each pickup on her standup bass. The ingenious silver plate allows her to mute both signals with one kick. A passive TU-2 stays on all the time to help her play the fretless standup as close to in tune as possible. And the fourth Boss tuner is for her electric basses. Her duo of Electro-Harmonix Micro POGs each have a specific duty—one goes low (for “Good Kisser”), and one goes high (for solos and melodic lines). An Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer adds some sting to the double bass for “Bobby Tanqueray” and other parts. A couple of Radial Firefly Tube Direct Boxes send all her bass signals to FOH.
Gather ’Round This Gibson
For this batch of shows under the Gather Round Sounds Tour umbrella, LSD revamped their catalog for stripped-down, alternative arrangements. This is how they described the tour on social media: “Join us for these easy going, semi-acoustic evenings full of the fan favs, some deep cuts, and maybe even some works in progress in our most relaxed, basement couch setting yet.” Accommodating those cozy cabin vibes, guitarist James Cornelison brought along this 2010s Gibson J-35 reissue.
When the band reaches maximum campfire camaraderie, they perform as a guitar trio. In that arrangement, drummer/percussionist Mike Calabrase uses this Gibson Songwriter Standard EC Rosewood acoustic-electric.
This late-’60s Harmony H165 is singing better than ever, thanks to the facelift handed out by Old Style Guitar Shop in L.A. Aside from bracing upgrades and a proper setup, it’s been given two pickups (a piezo) and what looks like (but is unconfirmed) a variation of Seymour Duncan’s Hot Rails. When asked during the Rundown, James was unsure but did note that Old Style uses this pickup on all their acoustic overhauls. You’ll also notice a rubber bridge giving this storyteller even more vibe.
Cornelison’s roommate received this Excel SS from D’Angelico, but James gravitated more towards the instrument, so it unofficially became his. (What a friend!) Since adopting the 6-string, he’s designated it as his “Frankenstein project” as he’s tried several experiments on it—using flatwounds, playing in open tunings, and replacing the stock neck humbucker with an old Teisco gold-foil pickup. It currently is the slide guitar for LSD material and stays in high-tension F-tuning for “Hush Money” off 2021’s Obviously.
We’re Not Worthy!
Single-coil sweetness is provided by this ’90s Squier Wayne’s WorldStratocaster. (As you would assume, “Stairway” is not allowed on this Strat—denied!)
Big Ups to Big Thief
“I’m a big fan of Adrianne Lenker and I always enjoyed that she played semi-hollow guitars with P-90s in it. I thought it was cool to have the reversal of the hollowbody archetype with P-90s instead of humbuckers,” admits Cornelison. This D’Angelico Deluxe DC features a set of Seymour Duncan STK-P1 Stacked P-90s and is serial #3.
Original guitarist and cofounding member Mike “McDuck” Olson left this ’50s Les Paul Standard (finished in Heritage Cherry Sunburst) for Cornelison to use in his absence. James remarks that this electric does the bulk of the work when the full band is represented.
On this subdued set, Cornelison plugged all his electrics into the above Magnatone Twilighter 112 combo.
James Cornelison's Pedalboard
This dialed-in setup was designed and built by longtime Jason Isbell tech Michael Bethancourt. Cornelison has onstage control of everything via the RJM Mastermind GT. Also, out front is a Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner and an Ernie Ball VP Jr volume pedal. His two-drawer rack holds the following pedals: a Source Audio EQ2 Programmable Equalizer, a JHS SuperBolt V2, a Behringer US600 Ultra Shifter/Harmonist, a JHS Colour Box V2, a Keeley Katana Clean Boost, JHS Morning Glory, and a Strymon Flint & Deco. Everything is powered by a pair of Strymon Zuma units. Additionally, an RJM Mini Effect Gizmo MIDI controller helps organize the signal paths.