World Record was recorded at Shangri-La Studio and produced by Rick Rubin and Neil Young.
Available for pre-order today and coming to most DSPs on November 18 via Reprise Records, World Record is available on vinyl, CD, and cassette formats via The Greedy Hand Store at Neil Young Archives (NYA) and music retailers everywhere. Recorded live to capture the Horse’s long-running spirit, the album was mixed to analog tape at Shangri-La.
To optimize audio quality, the vinyl format of World Record will be released as a three-sided double album with an etching on side four. There will also be a limited-edition version of the album pressed on clear vinyl available via Young’s webstore, The Greedy Hand Store, and indie retailers. World Record will also be issued on cassette and as a double CD set (mirroring the track sequence of the double LP).
World Record track listing:
1. Love Earth
3. I Walk With You (earth ringtone)
4. This Old Planet (changing days)
5. The World (is in trouble now)
6. Break The Chain
7. The Long Day Before
8. Walkin’ On The Road (to the future)
9. The Wonder Won’t Wait
11. This Old Planet reprise
Neil Young with Crazy Horse - Love Earth (Official Music Video)
World Record will be released in multiple digital formats, including XStream Hi-Res Audio and Atmos/Spatial. The album’s hi-res streaming format is fully supported at Amazon, Apple, and Qobuz. It will also be available digitally at Neil Young Archives and all major DSPs on November 18. More info: neilyoungarchives.com.
Rock, punk, metal, country, improv, world, noise, and more: What our editors dug during this eclectic year in music, and their most-anticipated albums of 2018.
There must be zombies! Despite dire predictions in 2017 about the death of the electric guitar, they were spotted all over the musical landscape—whether in the hands of lions of the instrument, like John McLaughlin, who played his last tour, and Annie Clark, or in the seemingly unlikely mitts of pop idols like Harry Styles and Kesha.
Our editors own choices for the year’s coolest albums were equally eclectic, if consistently more 6-string centric. Metal, country, punk, jazz, blues, rock, roots, noise, experimental, and world music were all part of our gang’s 2017 smorgasbord of sound—with very little overlap. The Zep-drunk Greta Van Fleet were the sole double-up among our picks, and Neil Young and Robert Plant were the only representatives of the classic-rock camp on our in-house “hit” list.
Otherwise, as we at Premier Guitar look forward toward a bright (and gear filled!) 2018 and wish you and those you love much happiness, join us in celebrating some of the best music of 2017. Maybe you’ll discover a few new artists you’d like to hear. There’s certainly many among our favorites who aren’t household names—yet. Or maybe you’ll see a few glaring omissions. Either way, read on and be sure to share your own picks for the year’s greatest music in the comments section.
TED DROZDOWSKI—SENIOR EDITOR
Imaginary Friends Live
In which Gabrels rewrites the rock guitar bible in 11 live performances packed with so much invention it’s head spinning. I was at Nashville’s Family Wash the night this set was recorded, but it wasn’t until I heard it here that my mind was entirely blown by the former Bowie/current Cure axe-destroyer’s execution. Every song is packed with “holy fuck” qualities: epic tones, killer riffs, brilliantly tossed-off fills and digressions, and solos that soothe, stun, and drip with lysergic intelligence. Raw and impeccable at the same time. If you dig rock guitar that straddles the trad and the rad with absolute authority, this is an essential album. No bullshit!
Thanks to PG contributor David Von Bader for turning me on to the psychedelic universe of Chelsea Wolfe. I love everything about this album, from Wolfe’s dramatic post-Diamanda Galas singing to the storm clouds of guitar that hover above her Caligari-esque compositional landscape. It helps that Queens of the Stone Age’s Troy Van Leeuwen adds stunning outbursts of guitar, but he’s only a guest in a world of Wolfe’s imagining. And it’s one hell of a place, with Everests of ephemera balanced by passages as heavy as Hephaestus’ hammer. Wolfe is a guitarist and conceptualist to be reckoned with.
Mark “Porkchop” Holder
Let It Slide
I’ve spent a lot of time in the dirty alt-blues trenches, so this album hits home. It’s raw, powerful, and demanding—a sonic demon breathing fresh, searing air into a largely stale, deflated genre. Holder is a badass who conjures the joys and menace of the corporal world artfully. I’m mostly over hearing traditional blues covers on new recordings, but Holder and crew’s version of “Stagger Lee” is a beast. It sounds like a vintage Black Sabbath cut, but meaner. Holder’s scorched-earth slide playing—mostly on baritone—is distinctive and relentlessly nasty. And their live shows have more blood and guts than a slaughterhouse. Catch them on perpetual tour.
Most-anticipated 2018 releases: Jim Campilongo Live at Rockwood Music Hall, Jack White, My Bloody Valentine.
Wish list: Tom Waits, Tool.
TESSA JEFFERS—MANAGING EDITOR
From the Fires
When I first heard this young band from Frankenmuth, Michigan, two words popped into my head: “Led Zeppelin.” Heck, I thought for sure they were British! Once you get past the feeling that they sound too familiar, because they undoubtedly do, it really doesn’t matter. This band of 18- and 21-year-olds is fucking incredible. It’s not surprising all their U.S. dates sold out in advance in 2017. These lads possess something special that the world (at least any world worth living in, in my opinion) will always crave: talent, soul, and passion. With this trifecta carrying them to the top of the charts, the quartet—made up of three brothers and a drummer—are winning over starving rock fans in droves. From frontman Josh Kiszka’s first mountaintop “Yeeeeeaaaaaaah” to the precocious guitar riffs and solos of his twin brother Jake Kiszka, that are never trite, this double EP is about feel. When I fall for a piece of music, I simply don’t overthink it, because it’s time to jam.
The Underside of Power
The opening track of this intense, neo-soul rock record is called “Walk Like a Panther,” and includes a sample of a speech by the late Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton. In the world we live in now, “signs of the times” politically potent music isn’t rare, but Algiers’ musical benchmarks and deviations are. The fire-and-brimstone songs play tug-of-war between street-punk and church, with aggressive guitar riffs, Motown pop vibes, gospel-tinged cries of rebellion (delivered powerfully by frontman Franklin James Fisher), dark bass lines, and even a bit of electro-trance. Guitarist Lee Tesche says growing up in Atlanta influenced Algiers in many ways, from exposure to ’90s hip-hop to having the space for garage bands and tons of instruments, of which a smorgasbord is used on this record. Fisher, Tesche, and bassist Ryan Mahan met in high school, moved to foreign countries, got graduate degrees, saw the world, and then reunited to make music again. Joined by Matt Tong (Bloc Party) on drums, they made a stylistically schizophrenic sophomore album that’s unlike anything else in 2017.
Most-anticipated 2018 release: Greta Van Fleet.
RICH OSWEILER—ASSOCIATE EDITOR
I have a permanent soft spot for the “college rock” greatness that came about during my most musically formative years, in the late ’80s and into the ’90s, and, man, the second offering from this London trio took me back to some of what I loved most about the era. There’s some gorgeous songwriting and jangle á la Teenage Fanclub, a touch of the lightly polished, lo-fi slacker magic of Pavement, and smart arrangements in the vein of Yo La Tengo that can be detected throughout the 10 tracks, which vary plenty but flow seamlessly. I was sold from the get-go with the 2-minute, building lead-in on the opening track “Falling Down” alone.
As a long-time Bay Area citizen, it’s a great feeling to see a truly standout local artist emerge from the often-challenged music scene here, due in large part to the difficulty artists of any ilk face just getting by financially. Barely into her 20s, multi-instrumentalist Melina Duterte—under the name Jay Som—has crafted a solo DIY-pop masterpiece fueled by lush soundscapes that are soft and pretty, all the way to guitar-driven hooky arrangements dripping with effects to excess (in a good way). The mix of tracks is eclectic and, however one may categorize them, they are captivating and a true testament that a high degree of musical awesomeness can be created by a single artist within the confines of her room. I’ve been digging this album all year long.
Most-anticipated 2018 releases: Breeders, Buffalo Tom, Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, Superchunk, Fu Manchu, My Bloody Valentine
SHAWN HAMMOND—CHIEF CONTENT OFFICER
Bulls and Roosters
Exactly a year ago, I looked forward to a new TP album in the “most-anticipated 2017 releases” section of last year's best music picks, and though Bulls and Roosters took shape as something quite different from their past work, it nevertheless became a 2017 favorite. While previous efforts from the quartet led by William Keegan (guitars, vocals) and Danny Bengston (bass, vocals) have all been characterized by rambunctiously garage-y guitars and sneering, catchy vocals, this time around they’ve cleaned up the 6-strings and brought the bpms and tune lengths back a bit for an effort that feels a little tighter and more mature. “The Cold” is the catchiest of the bunch (no pun intended), opening with slightly chorused clean-Strat strums backing a twangy lead hook and sardonic vocal drawl that quickly build to a bittersweet shout-along chorus and harmonized whistling underpinned by doo-wop-like vocals. Meanwhile, on songs like “Kenmore Ave.” and “Peach Mirror,” new guitarist Roland Cosio contributes simple leads accentuated by Leslie-like motion that ties the tunes together without hollering “Look at me!”
Despite being chock-full of guitars, Mellotrons, electric pianos, and organs awash in reverbs, delays, and modulations straight out of the psychedelic ’70s, the fourth effort from Vancouver-based Imaad Wasif still manages to take you somewhere that feels familiar and new. “The Beautician” begins with trippily treated old Hammond-organ rhythms punctuated by classic R&B chord stabs and ethereal vocals that sound swimmingly psychedelic regardless of the track’s overall sparseness. The warbling electrics, numb and distant vocals, and fuzzed-out solo on “Marie” convey a mood somewhere between Pink Floyd and a drugged-out raga. Meanwhile, “Turn Away” begins with stilted, tension-building electric arpeggios and subtly discordant background acoustics that slowly build to power-chord chaos, fall back to Mellotron strings again, then work back to fuzzy mayhem before commencing with a cathartic solo whose writhing leads intertwine with crescendoing key lines like a pit full of pissed-off vipers.
While a good portion of classic-rock fans continue to hold out hope for some kind of Zeppelin reunion, I’ll always applaud Robert Plant’s refusal to prioritize nostalgia and riches over artistry—despite counting the mighty Zep as one of my all-time favorite bands. Carry Fire features the guitar talents of Justin Adams and Liam “Skin” Tyson, who’ve been with Plant since 2001 and whose blend of acoustic loveliness and electric prowess—on everything from mandolin to Malian 3-string tehardant, flattop 6-strings, lap steels, and various solidbodies and hollowbodies—imbue the whole affair with a Western-meets-Eastern/African vibe that is now every bit as unique, identifiable, and consistent as Zep’s sound was during their heyday. Standout tracks include “Season’s Song,” “The May Queen,” and “Bones of Saints.”
Honorable mentions: Algiers’ The Underside of Power, Sheer Mag’s Need to Feel Your Love.
Most-anticipated 2018 releases: Division of Laura Lee, the Raveonettes, Head Wound City.
ANDY ELLIS—SENIOR EDITOR
Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem is known for blending traditional Arabic melodies with jazz, and Blue Maqams continues his magnificent East-West explorations. Backed by pianist Django Bates, bassist Dave Holland, and the legendary Jack DeJohnette on drums, Brahem draws microtonal inflections from his fretless 12-string that sound as ancient as they do modern. Estimated at 3,500 years old, the oud is the guitar’s forebear by way of the lute. Care to explore the musical roots of your cherished instrument? Perhaps start here. In today’s frenetic world, these introspective, impressionistic sounds evoke a sense of timeless, shared humanity.
It has been two decades since this guitar-driven Tuareg band from Mali rose from the Sahara sands to sing of nomadic life, their people, and an ongoing struggle for independence and freedom. On Elwan (“elephants”), the musical collective is joined by a few high-profile Western indie-rock musicians—all fans of the pioneering desert bluesmen—but the sound and vibe remain as authentic as on such earlier releases as 2004’s Amassakoul, 2007’s Aman Iman: Water is Life, and 2014’s Emmaar. Could Leo Fender have imagined what his Telecaster and P-bass would sound like played by today’s Tamasheq-speaking people? Check it out for yourself.
Tone, intonation, speed, articulation, and—most of all—stellar phrasing have made Jerry Douglas one of the greatest Dobro players ever, and one of the preeminent acoustic musicians of our era. For his latest album, Douglas assembled an ensemble of players as capable of tackling rock, jazz-fusion, and Memphis soul as the progressive bluegrass the 14-time Grammy-winner helped pioneer in the ’80s. Featuring trumpet, sax, burning electric guitar, fiddle, and a squeaky-tight-yet-elastic rhythm section, What If takes the many strands of American music and weaves them into an exciting sonic tapestry that honors tradition while pushing boundaries.
Most-anticipated 2018 releases: Brandi Carlile’s By the Way, I Forgive You, Julian Lage’s Modern Lore, and Michael Landau’s Rock Bottom.
CHARLES SAUFLEY—GEAR EDITOR
Many songs on Hitchhiker would ultimately find homes elsewhere in the Neil Young catalog, often appearing in more “realized” versions—a loaded notion for an artist that regards production warily. But the 1976 session documented here reveals Young at his rawest and most unadorned. Those that marvel at Young’s wizardly knack for conjuring songs will rejoice in how these tunes reveal the light and dark of Neil’s surreal-to-intensely-personal mid-’70s poetry and mindset. It’s also a brilliant study of one of the most idiosyncratically emotive acoustic rhythm guitar players to ever walk the Earth.
Burning the Threshold
Ben Chasny took a break from the esoterica and intricacies of his mind-bending Hexadic project to indulge his songwriting twitches on Burning the Threshold. The result is one of the most cohesive unions of Chasny’s fleet and fiery fretwork and his mystical and immediate song tapestries. The ace and effortlessly woven 6-string tangle between Chasny and Ryley Walker on “Around the Axis” is worth the price of admission. But it’s the sum—and depth—of Chasny’s voice, picking, and songs that make Burning the Threshold a timeless rock.
Steve Gunn’s more song-based LPs are awesome. His singing voice is among my faves. But his LPs with drummer John Truscinski have always been nearest to my heart. Bay Head is another gem from this improvisationally guided but instinctively hook-and-melody oriented pair—cleverly and joyously spanning humming drones, ephemeral slices of raucous Moby Grape rave up, and colors from the Peter Green-era Mac and Abbey Road playbooks.
Honorable mentions: Lee Ranaldo, Electric Trim, Alice Coltrane, World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Turiya Alice Coltrane, Wooden Wand, Clipper Ship, Chris Forsyth & the Solar Motel Band, Dreaming in the Non-Dream, Bill Orcutt, Bill Orcutt.
Most-anticipated releases:My Bloody Valentine, Ryley Walker, Spiritualized, Graham Coxon.
CHRIS KIES—ASSOCIATE EDITOR
While I live in the axis of country music and could throw a stone and hit two aspiring Luke Bryan wannabes, I’m more at home with the genre’s outliers and outlaws. Ya know—the traditional, tug-at-your-heart-strings storytellers steeped in misery camouflaged with pedal steel. My never-ending hunt has introduced me to artists like Nikki Lane, Jason Isbell (his song “If We Were Vampires” might be my song of the year), Margo Price (made my list last year), and Sturgill Simpson. And now add Tyler Childers to that list. (Sturgill was co-producer of Purgatory.) Using traditional bluegrass (“Purgatory”) fostered in the foothills of eastern Kentucky and rugged, life-harvested lyrics, Childers bares his soul and acknowledges the problems he has with it. Topics include substance abuse (“I Swear (To God)”), love and heartache (“Lady May”), financial woes (“Whitehouse Road”), and chasing that honky-tonk flame. It might be too early to crown Tyler the next anti-country star, like his aforementioned contemporaries, but I’ll follow this backwoods poet’s journey through his troubled life.
My favorite band is probably QOTSA. I declare that because it can be tough hearing new music from one of your favorites, due to the history and memories attached to previous cuts. In 2013, …Like Clockwork marked a big (and ultimately beneficial) jump in the band’s maturing sound, and the inclusion of super-pop producer Mark Ronson had me concerned, but once the needle dropped it all melted away. The band’s abilities are top notch, with King Arthur precision. The danceable party-starter “The Way You Used To Do,” the dark, somber introspective strokes of “Fortress,” the synth-and-bass-propelled “Hideaway” (a perfect retroactive fit for the Drive soundtrack), and the galloping “Head Like a Haunted House” all complementarily and cohesively fit within the band’s evolving discography. And if you, too, are a longtime QOTSA fan, you probably still need a dose of the desert rock that first hooked you, so insert the ripping burner “The Evil Has Landed.” (Warning: If you play that song while driving, myself or Josh Homme & Co. are not liable for any speeding violations.)
Sleeping Through the War
Guitarist Ben McLeod and the rest of the Witches do not like to make the same album. Each of their previous three LPs are as raw and honest as a Polaroid— snapshots of their mutating collective musical consciousness. What’s the photo say this time? In one word: flow. This is a road album, a hike album, a lose-yourself-in-the-music album. What I call a front-to-backer. Starting things off is the brooding “Bulls,” which is both huge and quiet. “Don’t Bring Me Coffee” and “Bruce Lee” build tension with might, courtesy of fuzzed-out guitars and bass. It’s then released during the deep, echoing drums and clean, compelling fretboard runs in “3-5-7” and “Am I Going Up?” The last three tracks are where the band spaces out, with the droning “Alabaster,” the swaying “Cowboy Kirk,” and a final rootsy, blues jam, “Internet.” Sleeping Through the War captures a band at full flight, understanding and unleashing their power, but more important, knowing when to pull off the gas to provide ultimate dynamics.
Honorable mentions: Mutoid Man's War Moans, Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett's Lotta Sea Lice, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit's The Nashville Sound, Citizen's As You Please, Chelsea Wolfe's Hiss Spun, Ryan Adams' Prisoner, and Royal Thunder's Wick.
Most-anticipated 2018 releases: Tool (come on!), A Perfect Circle, Sturgill Simpson, Mudhoney, Pelican
JASON SHADRICK—ASSOCIATE EDITOR
The Nashville Sound
Isbell’s razor-sharp sense of wordplay, melody, and structure, not to mention his top-notch band, brought this album to life. Plus, he’s a hell of a guitar player. I found myself returning to this album over and over, each time discovering a phrase, chord, or inflection that I had missed on previous listens. Dave Cobb’s production displays a multi-layered approach that not only serves the songs but allows Isbell to stretch out (“Anxiety”), rock out (“Hope the High Road”), and look inward (“If We Were Vampires”).
Damn, what a talented dude. He’s not only a pillar of the retro-funk powerhouse Vulfpeck, but he can write a killer hook, sing like Timberlake, and play some pretty wicked guitar. The theme of love and loss is up front on all 10 tracks, but I challenge you to sit still through the euphoric, feel-good groove of “Hard Work.” Each track is full of subtle guitar nuggets, with riffs and lyrics that make you forever believe in the connection between love, loss, and rock ’n’ roll.
Live from the Fox Oakland
Not many things sound as good as a 12-piece band in lockstep firing into a punishing freight train of a groove. At this point, Derek Trucks has established himself as an all-timer—a first-ballot hall of famer who can hang with anybody. This live set hits all of the band’s collective influences, from Derek and the Dominos (“Keep On Growing”) to the tripper side of the Beatles (“Within You Without You”) to gutbucket blues (“Leaving Trunk”). Oh—not to mention they can write fresh blues-rock jams that have the heart of John Prine and the muscle of Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen band.
Most-anticipated 2018 releases: The Bros. Landreth, Sturgill Simpson, Julian Lage’s Modern Lore, a Clapton blues album (pretty please?)
PERRY BEAN—NASHVILLE VIDEO EDITOR
The highly anticipated follow up to Propagandhi’s 2012 Failed States did not disappoint! With every new record, Propagandhi finds new ways to completely blow my mind: beautiful clean tones, ripping lead tones, and complex song structures that constantly change the sonic landscape of punk rock as we’ve known it. Chris Hannah and company hit me right in the feels with this release. Take a listen to the link below to hear how true masters of the craft transcend punk and poetry with the song “In Flagrante Delicto.”
Code Orange just seems to get better and better with every release. Forever is no exception. I damn near wreck my car every time I listen to this while driving! With breakdowns this good, it’s no wonder. Fans of extreme music (á la Converge) should make sure not to sleep on this monster! Check out the video for the title track.
Most-anticipated 2018 releases: American Nightmare and At the Gates.
Boasting a prominent bloodline and an enviable gig backing Neil Young, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real demonstrate how to deliver on a moniker.
Lukas Nelson is having a busy year. He and his band, Promise of the Real, recently released their third full-length album, Something Real, and hit the road in support of it. They’re also touring and recording with Neil Young as his backing band—a project they began last year with a lineup augmented to include Lukas’ brother, Micah. In addition, Lukas somehow finds time to accompany his dad, country legend Willie Nelson.
But despite his pedigree and the auspicious company he keeps, Nelson is no next-generation-of-greatness clone. While he counts his father as an obvious and huge influence, that didn’t stop him from absorbing the classic riffs and tones of artists like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix, the blues feel of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Hubert Sumlin, and the three Kings, and the improvisatory exploration of the jam-band world. His work ethic is serious, and he’s developed significant chops, killer tone, and stylistic flexibility. It didn’t hurt that he shared a stage with Buddy Guy, Young, and other titans along the way.
Something Real was recorded at the William Westerfeld House—a San Francisco landmark that was once home to Janis Joplin, jazz saxophonist John Handy, and a group of Czarist Russians following the Bolshevik Revolution. Its many rooms, nooks, and crannies provided an amazing and varied sonic environment, while its history and location provided the vibe.
We spoke with Nelson as he was traveling through the Rockies en route to Texas. Here he discusses his influences, techniques, recording approach, side projects, songwriting, and why he isn’t much of a gearhead.
It’s probably safe to assume you heard a lot of music around the house growing up. When did you start playing the guitar?
When I was 10 or 11 years old. Dad and mom never really forced it on me. They just had ’em lying around the house. It was something I could do to get closer to my dad actually, because he was gone all the time. I thought, “If I start playing guitar, maybe that’s something we can talk about.”
Listening to your music, it’s obvious you had other influences—like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.
Oh yeah, I love Sabbath. I love Zeppelin. I went to San Francisco one time and my mom got me Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix [albums]. I started listening to them and had a kind of religious experience and fell in love with them. And then I had my dad as an influence, too. So it was like a marriage of those two musical styles that I really love—rock ’n’ roll and real country music.
How did you develop your technique—did you take lessons or learn solos off records?
I listened to lots of records and I’d spend 8 to 10 hours a day playing. I took a few lessons here and there. My dad taught me the country chords. I even learned some Gypsy jazz playing from my friend Tom Conway in Maui. My friend Donnie Smith taught me about the jam-band world—the Grateful Dead and just going off and being able to improvise. I was pretty well rounded and I had some great teachers, but I just did a lot of [wood]shedding on my own.
Can you read music and do you know some theory, too?
I know a bit of theory. I can read a little bit, but if you stuck a sheet of music in front of me it would take me a long time to figure it out. That’s not how I learned, I learned by ear.
What’s that joke—how do you get a guitar player to turn down? Put a piece of music in front of him.
[Laughs.] That’s it!
Promise of the Real poses outside the William Westerfeld House, the San Francisco mansion where they recorded Something Real. Band members are, from lower left (clockwise): Tato Melgar (percussion), Micah Nelson (guitar), Corey McCormick (bass), Lukas Nelson (center—vocals/guitar), and Anthony LoGerfo (front right—drums). Photo by Jim Eckenrode
Do you use a pick, fingers, or both?
I use both: I fingerpick and I play with a pick. These days I’m using my fingers a lot more, actually. On my dad’s show, when I play with him, I only use my fingers now. Our tech, Tunin’ Tom [Hawkins], will tune the guitar and then I’ll just go straight into a Baldwin amp. I don’t have any pedals, nothing. It’s the same amp my dad uses. It breaks up great—those Baldwin amps are incredible.
It’s an older vintage amp?
Yeah. My dad uses one, and Neil has one, too—he has a big one. It’s the amp that my dad’s been using forever.
What amp do you prefer for your gigs?
For my gigs I have a Magnatone [Twilighter] amp, the reissue that Ted Kornblum has been doing, and they’re just incredible—they’ve got the greatest tone. Sometimes, if I can’t get those, I’ll use a [Fender] Super Reverb or a Deluxe Reverb together—I run two amps in stereo. But Magnatone is what I'm using right now.
How did you get your tones on the new album?
We put the amps in the library [at the William Westerfeld House] and walled them off. We had close mics and room mics. We created a little studio and it was the greatest thing ever. It was the coolest vibe out there, recording right in the middle of San Francisco.
Did you use your live rig or did you experiment with other gear?
I pretty much used my live rig, although it was during the recording of that record when I first started using Magnatones. We recorded it a year and a half ago.
What do you like about the Magnatones?
Just how they sound. It’s good tone, and it sounded real. It didn’t sound like a lot of reissues, where it’s maybe more high end. It’s real warm. They’re good-sounding amps and the vibrato is really cool.
Neil Young is obviously a fantastic and very unique guitarist. What’s it like playing with him?
Oh, I think he’s one of the best that ever lived. It’s an honor to play with him.
Lukas Nelson with his 1956 Les Paul Junior at Lollapalooza in 2013. Photo by Chris Kies
Musically, does he give you direction—tell you what to do—or just lead by example?
Just by example. He lets us be who we are and play how we play. He likes all our different styles—my brother’s style, my style, and his style. We go together well and it really translates well at the show. We did a lot of rehearsing before we played with Neil—we learned all of his songs. We’ve played over 200 shows a year for the last eight or nine years, so we’re pretty tight. We don’t really rehearse that much when it comes to our stuff.
Has being around him taught you any cool new lessons about playing or performing?
There are definitely little subtleties that just get absorbed when you’re around him.
Well, I couldn’t even explain it—and I probably wouldn’t even if I could [laughs]. His attention to detail is really great. He’s got the wall of sound, he’s got his amps—and everybody knows what he does. He knows his gear, and I’d rather not sit and talk about his tone too much. I mean, I know he has. It’s special to him.
You play in your father’s band as well. What are some lessons you’ve learned from him?
I learned everything from him. How to be a performer, how to be in front of a crowd, how to connect with a crowd. Mickey Raphael is his harmonica player and has been for forever. He’s taught me a lot about being in a band—like when not to play. And then Aunt Bobbie [Nelson] has been playing with him for 40-something years. I mean, that’s one of the greatest band’s you’ll ever see. It’s simple and just pure talent.
I have to say, for me, it’s less about the gear and more about the person playing. That’s why I’ve never paid attention to gear, because my dad was more of a minimalist. He’s got the same guitar he’s been using for the last 45 years or longer [the famously worn Martin N-20 nylon-string that the elder Nelson calls Trigger], and he goes directly into an amp. He doesn’t use any pedals or anything, and that’s kind of what I’ve learned to be. It’s more about what you put into the instrument—what you put into your performance—that really connects with an audience. I think most of the tone is in your fingers, rather than in the gear itself.
You mean how you put your personality into the instrument?
I do. I’m not a gearhead. I believe it’s good to have a base of good equipment. If you went up there with a Squier or some kind of little guitar—a $200 guitar—then yeah, there would be a difference. But your tone comes from your fingers, how much time you put into it, and how much dedication you have to learning the subtleties of your instrument.
Do you find that you generally sound the same regardless of the gear you’re using?
Yeah, I do find that. It really doesn’t matter what pedal or whatever I’m playing. It’s like how Billy Gibbons could play a tiny little Vox amp and still sound like Billy Gibbons. I think there is a lot to gear, but personally I believe most of it is just you.
There’s definitely a heavy blues influence on the new record. Did you spend a lot of time shedding the blues when you were young?
Oh yeah, the blues are my first love. Like I said, I got into Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix. I got into Albert King, Freddie King, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, and Hubert Sumlin—all the old blues guys. I really love them.
Did you ever get to meet any of them?
I’ve played with Buddy Guy before on a couple of occasions. I love Buddy Guy. I’ve backed him a
few times—he’s great. There is a video of me, him, Dad, Lyle Lovett, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Doyle Bramhall II, and Double Trouble—or Chris Layton at least—and Mickey Raphael. We’re all doing “Texas Flood,” a tribute to Stevie Ray and a tribute to Dad at Austin City Limits.
You use a nice combination of open chords and barre chords.
I’m not one of those guys who wants to make the song complicated just for the sake of it being complicated. I prefer simplicity over complexity. Sometimes if you just change one little chord to a minor or to a diminished, it just brings the song and the melody up to a whole other emotional level. I prefer simplicity, but I like to throw in a few things that are different here or there. I really like a good melody.
Do you experiment with alternate tunings?
I do some stuff with alternate tunings, but I don’t think I did with this record at all. I think it was all pretty standard, but tuned down half a step.
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real perform “Find Yourself” live from Jam in the Van at Willie Nelson’s Ranch during the SXSW Heartbreaker Banquet in 2014
Do you do that for your vocals or for the tone on your guitar?
I started doing it a long time ago when I was using heavy, heavy strings. I was using .012s and .013s for a while, and then I went back down to .011s. I guess I just got used to singing in that key. But sometimes I go back to normal. I think the next batch of stuff we’re doing is back in regular tuning.
What made you decide to use .013 string sets—Stevie Ray?
Yeah, I was listening to Stevie Ray and I wanted to get as close to him as I could for a long time—like a lot of guitar players do.
I think it worked them out good. Made them stronger.
The mid-’60s Baldwin C1 combo is similar to the S1 believed to be favored by Willie Nelson for decades now. Lukas Nelson uses the same model when performing with his father.
The Baldwin ConnectionLukas Nelson’s main amp since the Something Real sessions about a year and a half ago is a stock Magnatone Twilighter (a design by Obeid Khan and consultant Larry Cragg—Neil Young's longtime guitar tech—that was introduced under the newly revived brand back in 2013). But when Lukas plays in his father Willie Nelson’s band, he prefers to use the same amp as his dad, a Baldwin.
Never heard of it?
In the mid 1960s, Baldwin, the piano and organ manufacturer, jumped into the guitar market. The company purchased Burns London, Jim Burns’ struggling London-based guitar outfit, and began building amps as well (by decade’s end Baldwin would also own Gretsch). In the late ’60s, Baldwin introduced the Model 801 CP Contemporary Classic—an electric nylon-string with a ceramic Prismatone pickup that ran underneath the strings on the guitar’s bridge—and this guitar was advertised alongside an accompanying amp. Willie Nelson owned and used both, though after the guitar was reportedly stepped on by a drunken fan decades ago, Willie had its Prismatone pickup installed in the iconic Martin N-20, nicknamed Trigger, that he’s been using ever since. He never stopped using the amp.
Willie’s Baldwin combo is most likely the Model S1, the Slave, a solid-state affair that maxes out at 100 watts and has both a 12" and 15" speaker. As he told Frets magazine in December 1984, “[I use] a Baldwin amp with a Martin classical guitar—which is kind of a bastard situation. I’ve tried other combinations, and I don’t get the same sound that I do with this one, which was really accidental … I’ve never changed it. I’ve tried to keep everything exactly the same … Each time I come across a used Baldwin amp, I try to buy it so I can use the parts for replacements on this one. I’ve got a couple of them.”
Most Baldwin models, in addition to standard EQ, volume, reverb, and tremolo controls, featured a groovy color-coded Supersound circuit. As Zachary Fjestad described the circuit in the July 2009 PG, “These were basically preset EQ settings for treble, mid I, mid II, bass, and mix. A three-way toggle switch allowed the user to switch between normal operation, Supersound operation, and dual operation. All of these effects could be switched while in operation, and according to Baldwin’s factory catalog, ‘Hear it, and you might think it’s a happening.’ Whatever that means!”
Willie and Lukas Nelson aren’t the only Baldwin users. Neil Young has one as well, although his model is the Exterminator—a 250-watt solid-state monster with two 15", two 12", and two 7" speakers. Yikes!