While on tour to support his new album View with a Room, Julian Lage invited PG’s John Bohlinger to his soundcheck at Brooklyn Bowl Nashville to share his insights into why he likes a straightforward rig and “honest” tone.
When it comes to jazz virtuoso Julian Lage, you’d be hard-pressed to find an electric guitarist who uses less gear. “Any time I’ve [used too much equipment], there’s an awkwardness where I’m still grappling with the fact that I play here,” he says, gesturing to his guitar, then gesturing to his amp, “but the sound comes out there.” He continues, “It sounds like a joke, but it’s been a struggle for me. Any time there’s layers or filters or anything, I feel dissociated.” Of course, Lage’s rig, which buoys his clean, no-frills tone, makes sense for a musician like himself—whose playing often comes across fluidly, and as gently as his personality.
For Lage, that fluidity stems from his conception of music as a language. “I think that the way people speak is often more unfettered,” Lage told Premier Guitar in 2021. “There might not be an obvious correlation between the way people speak in a lecture and the notes on the guitar. But it's just a little stretch of the imagination to see that those are pitches, those are rhythms, those are phrases."
On View with a Room, Lage’s second release on the hallowed Blue Note Records, he’s offering a fresh, bold continuation of the conversation he’s created over the years. The album features his latest ensemble, made up of himself, bassist Jorge Roeder, and drummer Dave King—but this time, he’s added the legendary Bill Frisell. Together, the musicians help to expand Lage’s body of work with performances of 10 of his original compositions.
While on tour for the album, Lage invited PG’s John Bohlinger to the soundcheck before his show at Brooklyn Bowl inn Nashville to share his insights into why he likes a straightforward rig and “honest” tone. In the interview, Lage elaborates on his three main guitars (his Nachocaster, Collings signature, and ’55 Les Paul), explains why he prefers low volume on his amps, and offers a remarkably brief tour of his pedalboard.
Brought to you by D’Addario XS Strings.
Not Your Caster
As a bit of an anomaly in the world of jazz guitarists, Lage prefers Telecasters. His number one T-style is his Nachoguitars 1657 “Nachocaster”—a saffron-colored guitar equipped with an Ellisonic P-90-size neck pickup and Fatpups Blackguard bridge pickup, built by Spanish luthier Nacho Baños. However, Lage states that he never changes from the neck position. The Ellisonic pickup, which was created by Ron Ellis for Lage’s other primary instrument, the Collings Julian Lage 470 JL, captures the clarity and acoustic-like feel of vintage single-coils. The guitar is strung with D’Addario Flatwound Electric ECG24 Chromes (.011-.050) with a .020 unwound G string. Lage also uses Tortex .88 mm picks.
The Collings 470 JL signature was built as a collaboration between Lage and Collings. It features a solid Honduran mahogany body with a laminated maple top, Ellisonic pickups, and a Bigsby B3 tailpiece. He shares that the Bigsby was added mainly for weight, as the guitar was 5 lbs. before its addition and 6 lbs. after. “That gets you right to this place where the fundamental is still there, and you have this brilliant overtone,” says Lage, who adds that much like the bridge pickup on the Nachocaster, he doesn’t touch the Bigsby. He strings this guitar with .011-.049 D’Addario flatwounds. “Honestly, I think it’s more of a rock machine than anything,” he adds.
Lage’s 1955 Les Paul goldtop was a gift from Spinal Tap’s Christopher Guest, and sports Les Paul's signature. “I feel very much like a steward of it,” Lage says of the guitar. “I’m learning how to play it constantly. It’s so luxurious. Anything’s possible, so it really comes down to what do you hear, what do you want to play, what’s the voice of the music … and this guitar will be 8,000 percent there for you.”
Les Paul's handwritten message to Christopher Guest.
Lage is a longtime fan of low-watt, vintage Fender amps, in the past having remained ardently loyal to his Fender Tweed Champ, until it became impractical to bring it everywhere. On this tour, he’s playing a Magic Amps Vibro Deluxe, reminiscent of a 1964 Fender Deluxe Reverb. He plugs into the normal channel and sets his volume to 3, treble to 2, and bass to 2. As he describes, “This one has this miraculous thing where it feels like it’s being pushed at a lower volume. It’s not terribly interesting, but it is what I do.”
Julian Lage’s Pedalboard
Lage’s stripped-down pedalboard includes a Strymon Flint Tremolo & Reverb (just for reverb), a Shin-ei B1G 1 Preamp Gain Boost, and a Sonic Research ST-300 Mini Stomp Box Strobe Tuner.
Bob Dylan’s guitarist discusses cutting his blues chops with the Vaughan brothers, his latest guitar finds, producing records, and his recent film role as Townes Van Zandt.
As a kid growing up in Texas, Charlie Sexton had an unlikely babysitter in none other than Stevie Ray Vaughan. A family friend to Sexton’s single mother, the story goes that SRV played Hendrix records for young Charlie and his brother, Will, to keep them occupied while their mom was at work. As Sexton got older and started frequenting the tiny clubs in Austin’s blues circuit, SRV trusted budding guitarist “Little Charlie” to fill in for him onstage.
This is but a minor footnote in the musical life of Sexton, who is well known as Bob Dylan’s lead guitarist. (Sexton first joined Dylan’s band in 1999, and still tours and plays on his studio albums.) Charlie grew up playing the blues with the Vaughan brothers and, by age 12, was slinging licks and learning the ropes with other Austin legends like W.C. Clark and Joe Ely. At the ripe age of 16, Charlie scored a solo record deal and a hit, in 1985, with “Beat’s So Lonely,” a song from his first album, Pictures for Pleasure. At the time, The New York Times described him as a teen heartthrob in the vein of David Bowie, another icon who Sexton ended up working with later.
Sexton was in his late teens when high-profile artists started calling on him to play guitar on their sessions. “The first year I started doing anything professionally, one session was with Sparks, and then it was Don Henley, and then it was Keith Richards and Ron Wood,” Sexton remembers. “Shortly after that it was David Bowie and Dylan, so that’s a pretty crazy combo. That’s like a year-and-a half of my life, 40 years ago or something [laughs].”
All the while, he was playing in his own bands: most notably the Arc Angels with Double Trouble’s rhythm session and Doyle Bramhall II. Because Sexton could play styles running the gamut from his blues beginnings to pop, country, rock or whatever in between, it was hard to place him in a specific niche. He refers to his sphere of influences as a “triangle thing.”
“There’s this confusion of what I do and who I am or whatever,” Sexton says. “It’s also based on my own listening habits, which I think are shared with a lot of people. I call it the Wednesday-Saturday-Sunday thing. I listen to some records on Wednesday, some on Saturday, and on Sunday it’s something completely different. That’s where that triangle thing comes from.”
Dynamic is an understatement for Sexton, who plays many instruments besides guitar, including piano, drums, bass, and orchestral strings. He’s in his element when providing the atmosphere and musical glue for a kaleidoscope of projects. In addition to working with Dylan and making his own solo recordings, he’s produced albums for Jimmie Vaughan, Lucinda Williams, Edie Brickell, and Ryan Bingham. He just wrapped a stint playing on the Bowie Celebration tour, and holds a lifetime position as musical director for Austin’s Music Awards.
In 2018, he starred as Townes Van Zandt in the Ethan Hawke film Blaze, a biopic about unsung Texas outlaw troubadour Blaze Foley, who is played in the movie by actor-musician Ben Dickey. Sexton’s portrayal of the real-life icon provides the vehicle for telling the story of Foley’s life, through a series of flashbacks. Van Zandt, who also came to a tragic end, was one of Foley’s closest friends. Sexton (who also oversaw the movie’s musical production) is mesmerizing onscreen. His performance captivates with haunting authenticity—it feels like Sexton is Van Zandt.
Blaze is based on the memoir Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley by Sybil Rosen, who was Foley’s muse and a firsthand witness to the songwriter’s life. The entire Blaze project had a synergy fueled by a love for music, and Hawke, Sexton, and Dickey’s onscreen partnership and real-life friendships continued after the film wrapped. Sexton and Hawke recently launched a record label with Louis Black, called SexHawkeBlack, and Sexton produced Dickey’s new record, A Glimmer on the Outskirts, which is the first release for the label.
In real life, Blaze Foley was known for being drunk and violent, but his tender side is revealed through the lens of his lover, Rosen. The film’s raw telling of the tortured artist’s struggle and demise ain’t pretty, but it’s a testament to the idea that no one is definable by one quality—a sentiment Sexton has embodied in his decades-long career.
In this interview, Sexton discusses how he started, the guitarists who greatly influenced his own playing (“meeting Jimmie Vaughan was like meeting Elvis”), working with Dylan, details of his favorite guitars, and how he learned to produce. Throughout the conversation, he reveals nuggets of wisdom about the bigger picture of music.
You’ve been playing guitar since you were a toddler. Can you recall an “aha” moment, where something clicked and you thought, “This is what I’m gonna do for the rest of my life.”
That happened really quick. When I was really little I would watch The Johnny Cash Show religiously with my grandparents. I remember being at a family reunion at 7 or 8 years old with all my aunts and granny at the VFW, and at the end of it, my uncles got up and played country or gospel tunes or whatever. What it did to them was really powerful.
TIDBIT: While playing the role of Townes Van Zandt in Blaze, Charlie Sexton also oversaw the musical production of the film. The soundtrack includes Blaze Foley’s most popular tunes like “Clay Pigeons,” performed by Ben Dickey, as well as one Van Zandt song, “Marie,” performed by Sexton.
Johnny Cash was an idol of yours. Who else?
That was pre-teen. I grew up with the records my mom was listening to: the Beatles, the Stones, Arlo Guthrie was in the house, random ’60s music-machine stuff, the birth of garage psychedelia. I started hanging out and getting close to the Vaughans when I was really young. Jimmie Vaughan was probably the real guitar hero I was obsessed with.
Me and my brother, we opened for the Clash, who we met through Joe Ely, who gave me my first break. That was my first real, real gig. I came up playing mostly blues. That was the vehicle to play. Once I heard the Sex Pistols, I was like, what the hell is this? And then I became obsessed with Gang of Four and Andy Gill. I was seeking and searching out other things that weren’t immediately in front of me.
Is it true that SRV babysat you?
Yeah. I rarely ever played with Stevie, because he’d see me walk in and he’d hand me his guitar and take a break. He was going to get a drink, and he liked me. He was super, super, super sweet. I met Stevie before I met Jimmie, and then I met Jimmie and that was kind of like meeting Elvis.
Who would you say taught you the most about guitar in that time period?
For me, the point by which it all comes out of, like, if you made a map with a pin-drop and it goes out from there, it starts with Jimmie Vaughan. There’s something about Jimmie, who could play half the speed of his brother, but the tonal thing that he achieves, even on that first record [1979’s The Fabulous Thunderbirds]. I always refer to it as his brother is a really fast car, and Jimmie’s like a really fine car, like a beautiful old Cadillac with all the right stuff and it’s just kinda cruising.
That’s where it all comes from, and then I go to back to where he was getting the blues: Jimmy Reed, Freddie King, Albert Collins, Albert King, B.B. King. But then it goes into Frippian land and Earl Slick/Bowie stuff. The main record I tried to teach myself to play guitar to was Magical Mystery Tour, which was a nightmare. It’s not like the first Beatles album, where you can play the chords. Nothing stays the same within one track. That was exhausting at 9 years old with a crappy acoustic guitar. Guitar in general is pretty frustrating. It’s a terrible instrument. It’s not supposed to play in tune and nothing is laid out easily like on the piano.
The Appalachia crew prove that ripping T-styles seasoned with effects-rich pedal steel can still be prominent in today’s country and Americana music.
During Tyler Childers’ 3-show sell-out run at Nashville’s Exit/In, PG’s Perry Bean swooped in for a pre-soundcheck hang with the bandleader, Jesse Wells (guitar/fiddle/baritone/mandola), James Barker (guitar/pedal steel), and Craig Burletic (bass) to cover all the gear these good ol’ boys use to spark some hoopin’ ’n’ hollerin’.
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