The modern Southern rockers recently played Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, and guitarists Charlie Starr and Paul Jackson displayed a bevy of gear every bit as hardworking as these road dogs.
Right now, they’re in Europe, but Atlanta-based rockers with a distinctly Southern musical accent, Blackberry Smoke, smoked Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium for two nights in February before jumping the pond.
Their latest album, You Hear Georgia, was produced by Dave Cobb in Nashville, and hit the top of the Billboard Americana/Folk chart when it was released in mid-2021. PG’s John Bohlinger caught up with guitarists Charlie Starr and Paul Jackson before their sold-out show at the Ryman to run down their ever-expanding universe of gear.
Brought to you by D’Addario XS Strings.
Battered, Not Fried
This 1956 Gibson Les Paul Junior was professionally refinished in the ’70s, but Charlie Starr has put some serious miles on this one-pickup wonder. The battered badass with a dog ear P-90 and all his electrics are strung with D’Addario XL Nickel Wound strings, .010–.046. He uses InTuneGP Heavy picks and a ceramic Charlie Starr Signature Osanippa Creek Slide.
Like Ernest Tubb and other guitarists from the classic annals of entertainment, Starr has a greeting on the back of his ’56 Junior for the fans.
For some semi-hollow tone and feel, Starr goes with his stock 1964 Gibson ES-335 in Cherry Red with a Bigsby. The guitar belonged to a friend’s grandfather, and when Starr acquired it, he says, “It had gouges at the C, G, and D,” positioning his hand over the open chord shapes. He had it re-fretted by Stan Williams in Georgia, who told Starr, “This guitar looks like it's been sitting outside in a barn since 1964. And I don't know how the dude was able to get a bird to shit inside that f-hole.”
Starr maintains that this 1965 Fender Esquire in factory black, like his other single pickup guitars, sounds larger than most as there are less magnets interfering with the string vibration. He adds, “I’m told that it’s a physics thing. And I’m a physicist, so I subscribe to that theory.”
The Rest of the Best
Here are the Starr's other main stage rides (clockwise from the top left): a 1956 Gibson Les Paul Jr., a 1963 Fender Esquire, a Fender American Nashville B-Bender Telecaster, and a 1964 Gibson SG Jr..
“This is on all the time,” Starr says of his Echopark Vibramatic 23, which he pairs with a tall cab. “It's basically a tweed Deluxe, and it adds that 6V6 creamy sweetness all the time.” The maker of Blackberry Smoke’s 50-watt Germino heads, Greg Germino, personally recommended this Germino Lead 55LV (left) to Starr, and is paired with a 4x12 cab. And the other Germino is a Master Model 50.
Charlie Starr's Pedalboard
Starr’s pedalboard features a Cry Baby Wah, a PCE-FX Aluminum Falcon Klon clone, an Analog Man Sun Face, Chase Tone Secret Preamp—“a preamp that accidentally made everyone’s signal a little sweeter,”—Wampler Faux Tape Echo, Fulltone Supa-Trem, DryBell Vibe Machine, Analog Man-modded MXR Phase 45, and a Polytune 3. XTS XAct Tone Solutions supplies the juice. Starr tapes a few of the pedals’ knobs to make sure his settings don’t go missing in action.
Paul Jackson's Ol’ Reliable
Paul Jackson’s number one is his 1979 Les Paul, which has been modded with a Seymour Duncan ’59 neck pickup and a Pearly Gates bridge pickup. He says he got it at a Guitar Center in Atlanta about 18 years ago—it also sports Dickey Betts’ autograph. Jackson strings this and all his electrics with D’Addario .010-.046s.
This black Gibson SG Standard—one of Jackson’s pair of SGs—was a gift from Frank Hannon of the band Tesla, who signed the back of it.
Keep It Together
Jackson’s Martin D-28 currently has gaffer tape holding down its binding.
The other three touring staples for Jackson include a 1978 ES-335, a 40th Anniversary Les Paul Ebony 1991, and a 1998 Gibson SG Les Paul Custom Shop Historic.
De-Modded For Classic Tones
One of the two amps Jackson tours with is a pre-’85 Marshall JCM800 50-watt with a stock 4x12 cab. You’ll see it has a sticker that says “Paul Jackson Mod”—he had it modded at one point, but later took it to Andrews Amp Lab in Atlanta to have them “turn it back into a Marshall.” Along with the Marshall, Jackson’s Vox AC30 is on “all the time.”
Paul Jackson's Pedalboard
Jackson and Starr’s pedalboards have more than a few things in common—Jackson’s also equips his with a Cry Baby Wah, Wampler Faux Tape Echo, and a PCE-FX Aluminum Falcon Klon clone—although Jackson’s is an Aluminum Falcon III. Other pedals on his board include a Radial Twin-City ABY Amp Switcher, JHS 3 Series Reverb, MXR EVH Phase 90, Way Huge Overrated Special Overdrive, and an Ibanez Mini Tube Screamer. Power comes from a Truetone power supply. Of the EVH Phaser, Jackson says, “If you don’t know what you’re doing, hit the phase pedal. nobody will ever know.”
Rig Rundown: White Reaper
Witness how the self-proclaimed World's Best American Band values pragmatic workhorses over rock 'n' roll excess.
Tired of pretentious music? Are you looking to just have fun and rock out? The good-time, make-you-move-and-groove medicine you're after is what White Reaper dispenses.
The band's core was formed in 2012 when Louisville high schoolers Tony Esposito (guitar/vocals) and Nick Wilkerson (drums) started jamming as a duo. Then Nick recruited his twin brother Sam (bass) and Esposito added friend Ryan Hater (keys). And the fearsome foursome released their rowdy, ripping 2015 debut, White Reaper Does It Again, on Polyvinyl Records.
Carrying forward their blend of lo-fi garage rock and pop-punk hooks, the quartet added second guitarist Hunter Thompson in 2016, before recording 2017's (tongue-in-cheek) The World's Best American Band. The glee blossomed with shinier, poppier melodies that soared over harmonized guitars—think crossing Cheap Trick with Thin Lizzy.
The World's Best American Band graduated them to major label Elektra, where they earned studio time with producer Jay Joyce (Cage the Elephant, Halestorm, Eric Church, Carrie Underwood, Emmylou Harris). With Joyce providing a slicker, tighter sound, the quintet unveiled an even catchier package that employs the sheen of peak Cars and early Maroon 5 in danceable tracks like "Might Be Right" and "Eggplant." (The former earned them a No. 1 slot on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart.) But rock purists still got to stomp and howl with the hard drivin' "Headwind" and redlining "Raw."Hours before their headlining gig at Nashville's Exit/In, White Reaper's Esposito and Thompson checked in with PG to talk tone. The guitar duo showed us how the rigors of the road have impacted their touring gear decisions and why COVID-19 handcuffed one of them to the digital life.
[Brought to you by D'Addario XPND Pedalboard: https://www.daddario.com/XPNDRR]
Come Fly With V
It's said rock 'n' roll is a young person's game. And while the garage-rocking gentleman of White Reaper have no plans of slowing down any time soon, guitarist/vocalist Tony Esposito already knows the importance of a strong back. The combination of lumbar-compressing Les Pauls and thin leather straps resulted in soreness and welts that have forced Tony to keep his Lesters at home.
Above is the first of his lighter Gibsons: a 2000 Flying V he bought on his birthday in 2015. During the Rundown, he refers to it as the School of Rock guitar, since fictional student Zack Mooneyham played one in the film. Aside from Esposito's sweat, skin, and some dust, this guitar is completely stock.
This V stays in E-flat-standard tuning and rides the stage with either a custom set of Augustine Spectras (.011–.052) or Ernie Ball 2226 Burly Slinkys (same gauge).
Light as a Feather and Ready To Rock
Not wanting to show favoritism, Esposito is quick to note that this 2000s Gibson ES-335 isn't a backup. He's actually used it the most since playing live shows again, because the fly-date-heavy schedule worried him about the angular fragility of the V. He even revamped his amp and pedalboard setup to mesh better with the 335 (more on that in a minute).
Who You Calling Runt?!
Vox have been a big part of White Reaper's DNA, and both Esposito and guitarist Hunter Thompson (not from Louisville and no relation to Dr. Gonzo) have used them live and in the studio for years. "I loved the reliability of the AC30s, but I was using more pedals (than now) to essentially turn it into a plexi," says Esposito. "I had a compressor, Tube Screamer, and EQ pedal that were always on, but when I switched to the Friedman Runt 50 it was already that thing."While touring with the Struts he noticed how much guitarist (and Rig Rundown alumnus) Adam Slack loved his Friedman Small Box 50, so he did some research and landed on the 50W, EL34-glowing Runt. The Runt 50 hits a stock Fender Super-Sonic 60 2x12 extension cab that has its original Celestion Vintage 30s.
Dials for Dimebag
Passing time in the van by listening to Pantera's Cowboys from Hell, Esposito wondered how Darrell "Dimebag" Abbott set his Randall for the nasty breakdown during "Domination." He lucked out and found an old '90s Guitar Magazine article displaying Dimebag's Randall settings. He's since loosely adopted those for his own live tone, as seen here.
Simplifying Esposito’s Stomp Station
With less purposes for pedals, Tony Esposito's pedalboard has shrunk. Basically, he has the Way Huge Green Rhino MkIV for additional drive, and a Boss DD-5 Digital Delay and Jacques Meistersinger chorus for spacier sounds and occasional leads. The pair of Boss pedals—an NS-2 Noise Suppressor and GE-7 Equalizer—are in place to squelch any unwanted feedback from the 335 and to supplement any anemic backline amps he encounters on fly dates. Everything comes to life via a Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Plus.
This Baldwin Baby Bison Burns
When White Reaper started, guitarist Hunter Thompson toured the world with this 1965 Baldwin Baby Bison. He stumbled across the guitar on Reverb.com and, after some homework revealed it was a choice instrument for Jeff "Skunk" Baxter when recording with Steely Dan, pulled the trigger.His favorite part of this peculiar 6-string is its Burns Tri-Sonic pickups (similar to the ones in Brian May's Red Special). They're stacked single-coils. Additionally, Thompson enjoys how the "tone" knob acts more like a presence control that "blends in the bottom pickup, allowing you to make the guitar's sound really gain-y or really clean." To take things to another level of weird, Thompson added a Roland GK-2A Divided Guitar MIDI pickup to have fun at home.
Can I Interest You in a Strat, Sir?
Aside from the aforementioned Bison, Thompson normally rocks Les Pauls or Teles. However, he recently scored this lightly worn Nash S-63. For its speaking voice, he opted for the Lollar Sixty-Four single-coils. And you'd think the tonal differences would throw off Thompson a bit, but he said the biggest transition to a 3-pickup guitar is being careful to not rake the middle single-coil with his hand and/or pick. This S-63 stays in E-flat-standard tuning, but Thompson goes with a lighter set of D'Addario NYXLs (.010–.046) and hits the strings with Dunlop Tortex Flow .73 mm picks.
Ready for Your Profiler?
White Reaper was in the middle of a U.S. tour supporting 2019's You Deserve Love when COVID-19 struck and the world shut down. The band's gear went with the Kentuckians back to Louisville, but Thompson retreated to his home in Austin. For the first few months, he hunkered down in the Lone Star State with his one electric and some crappy desktop sims. Longing to play proper electric and be creative, he ordered a Kemper Profiler. Its diverse sounds and intuitive interface prompted Hunter to play guitar more than ever. Everything he needs is backed up on a thumb drive and his entire rig fits in a laptop bag.
"When it came to touring again, the use of the Profiler was a practical decision," admits Thompson. "It's not the coolest rock 'n' roll decision [laughs], but until someone else is setting up my gear, I'll probably be taking the Profiler." And most of his profiles are built off a Divided by 13 model that's brighter than Tony's and sits a bit higher in the mix.
Caution: Cab at Work
Thompson does run a direct line to FOH, but he also craves stage volume, so he splits the Profiler into this ValveTrain PowerTrain Stage 50—an all-tube (6L6GC) powered monitor designed to work with digital modelers. It has a flat EQ, a single level knob, and comes stock with an Eminence Legend EM12.
Eastman Romeo LA Review
Outfitted with new hardware and potent pickups, the glammy Eastman Romeo LA is ready to rock.
Comfortable feel. Even neck response. Responsive vibrato. Sounds equally great clean and dirty.
A bit expensive for an Asia-built instrument.
Eastman Romeo LA
They say first impressions are everything. And a guitar's appearance often tells us exactly what it aspires to be. When we look at a pointy guitar with humbuckers and a locking trem, we know its intentions. Subverting those expectations can be fun though—like seeing someone rip bebop licks on a Flying V (more of this, please!).
Just as fun is when a guitar model subverts its own intentions, which is what Eastman's Romeo LA accomplishes to some extent. First released in 2019, the original Romeo glowed with a vintage-style radiance that, apart from its curvy, offset profile, evoked traditional Gibson and Epiphone semi-hollowbodies and the jazzy, bluesy tones they produce. The LA, however, with its glammy options and assertive pickups, feels made for bright lights, big stages, and modern rockin'.
The Romeo and Romeo LA share many specs: a maple neck with 12" a radius ebony fretboard, mahogany laminate back and sides, and 24.75" scale. There are pronounced differences too, though. Eastman replaced the solid spruce top on the Romeo with a laminate spruce top (which are common on even the most expensive archtops). Another big change is the shiny, metallic celestine blue finish that covers the asymmetrical body and maple neck. Rather than cultivating the understated, traditional elegance of its predecessor, this Romeo screams for attention.
The slick finish isn't the only thing primed for hot stage lights. Two Seymour Duncan Phat Cat P-90s are housed in stylish gold foil–style radiator covers. And a Göldo Les Trem and 3-point bridge look sharp and enhance the Romeo's tonal personality and expressive abilities. Göldo K-Line locking tuners help keep the guitar pitch stable.
A California Dream
Playing the Romeo LA is a dream. It's resonant, with lots of sustain, and big, open chords sound great unplugged. It arrives with stock .011-.049 D'Addario NYXLs, but the fretboard feels fast and slinky and easily accommodates quick licks of all flavors. The guitar feels balanced and comfortable too, which kept it in my lap for long spans.
Rather than cultivating the understated elegance of its predecessor, it screams for attention.
The Phat Cat P-90s are a real statement piece—and not just visually. They are warm, dynamic, and bright. Each pickup has a dedicated volume knob. But there's just one tone knob, which is wired to the bridge pickup. That means no rolling back the neck tone for straight-ahead jazzbos—a clue to this guitar's more rocking orientation. But the neck pickup is bright and clear, and to darken that sound up would be a crime. Both pickups offer sparkling cleans but really come alive when paired with overdrive. Hitting my Klon with the bridge pickup, the Romeo LA sounded strong and focused across the fretboard. The neck pickup, meanwhile, added powerful low-end rumble.
The Göldo Les Trem is a serious highlight too. It does all the things that Bigsby-style vibratos do well, and the arm, though a little pointy on the end, fits nicely in the palm of my hand while I do my picking. The Göldo feels more modern and is faster than the competition though. It's capable of quick, springy attack—in both directions—and impressively deep dives.
The Romeo LA may offer a lot of flash and pizazz, but it sounds and feels as good as it looks. Thoughtful hardware decisions make it feel like a hot rod. But while it definitely rocks, it's suited for many mellower playing styles. At $720 less than its predecessor, it's a great deal, too.