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
The profoundly prolific guitarist leads his band of tricksters through a surrealist sonic exploration of deep, esoteric rhythms and intricate interplay on Thisness.
On his new album Thisness, Miles Okazaki is credited as playing guitar, voice, and robots. If you imagine that the reference to robots is some sort of artsy kitsch—like trapping a Roomba Robot Vacuum into a tight space to sample its struggles as it percussively barrels into the four walls—you’re very far off the mark. Okazaki—who has an elite academic pedigree with degrees from Harvard, Manhattan School of Music, and Julliard, and currently holds a faculty position at Princeton University (after leaving a post at the University of Michigan, to which he commuted weekly from his home in Brooklyn for eight years)—wasn’t kidding.
“The robots are machines that I made in Max/MSP,” clarifies Okazaki. (Max/MSP is visual programming language for music and multimedia.) “It’s kind of a long story, but I’ve been doing this stuff on the side for 20 years or so. Some of the music theory, some of the conceptual stuff involved in the album, I programmed into these things that I built. These improvising machines can do things that humans can’t do. They’ll play faster than humans, but they’ll fit in because they’re playing the same type of material.”
I'll Build a World, by Miles Okazaki
Okazaki explains that he creates parameters for the robots to improvise within: “I’m just telling this robot, ‘Play at this tempo and play this many subdivisions per beat—eight subdivisions or something like that—so that it’s linked up with the drums.” For pitches, he assigns a scale and can control the phrasing. “I’m saying for the pitch choices, ‘You’re going to use a chromatic scale and you’re going to play each note of that scale until you exhaust the scale without repeating a note,’ which makes a 12-tone row. It could be any scale, but that’s one of the settings that I have made in there. [After each 12-tone row is done] I tell it, ‘You’re going to take a little break, but I don’t want it to be the same break every time,’ so that it’s a phrase.”
To get a sound that convincingly blended in with the rest of the tracks, Okazaki had keyboardist Matt Mitchell run the robots through his Prophet Six analog synth. “I wrote a file of them improvising and ran that file through the synth,” explains Okazaki. “Matt would do the sounds for it,” so both the robots and Mitchell used the same Prophet Six in their own way.
“I’ve never been that interested in imitating anybody’s style.”
Okazaki, a family man with three children, seems busy in all parts of his life, but he must have learned to maximize his time because he’s incredibly productive. In 2018, he recorded his magnum opus, the critically acclaimed Work—a five-hour, 70-song marathon of the complete works of Thelonious Monk, all performed on solo guitar. It’s a project he’s wanted to do since his teen years. But in the process, he labored so relentlessly that he ignored his body’s warning signs and suffered a repetitive stress injury. That didn’t stop him from intensely preparing for and entering the New York City Marathon just a few months later. When that chapter was over, Okazaki again focused on his musical pursuits and proceeded to record several more albums, both as a leader and side musician.
Thisness is Okazaki’s fifth album in a three-year period and reflects his collaborative approach. It features his Trickster band, which includes Mitchell on keyboards, Anthony Tidd on electric bass, and Sean Rickman on drums. Okazaki has worked with each of these musicians for years, both in his own group and in saxophonist Steve Coleman’s, and they’ve developed a creative relationship that made it possible to record complex music quickly. The entire album was recorded over a two-day span with the quartet recording live on day one and overdubs the following day.
The Trickster band (left to right): bassist Anthony Tidd, keyboardist Matt Mitchell, drummer Sean Rickman, and Miles Okazaki.
And the music on Thisness is incredibly complex. Though Okazaki has studied Indian music seriously, his compositions are also somewhat reminiscent of contemporary Western classical music. You’ll see no shortage of odd note groupings, polyrhythms, and mixed meters carving out space for intricate atonal melodies throughout. Plenty of advanced jazz musicians that proudly boast about their ability to play John Coltrane’s “Countdown” in all 12 keys would cower in fear if they were asked to perform some of Okazaki’s works.
Despite the puzzling, esoteric nature of his compositions, Okazaki’s roots draw from the jazz tradition. After initially starting on classical guitar at age 6, he developed an interest in jazz at 12 and was doing solo guitar gigs at a local Italian restaurant by age 13. His first guitar teachers were Michael Townsend and Chuck Easton (a bebop-influenced Berklee grad), and he took music theory group classes in a cabin in the woods with a teacher named Alex Fowler.
Miles Okazaki’s Gear
Miles Okazaki can be seen with a host of instruments, but his 1978 Gibson ES-175, which has a Charlie Christian pickup, is his most common 6-string companion.
Photo by John Rogers
• 1937 Gibson L-50
• 1940 Gibson ES-150 Charlie Christian (bought with matching EH-150 amp)
• 1963 Gibson C-O Classical
• 1978 Gibson ES-175 with Charlie Christian pickup
• 2018 Slaman “Pauletta” with Charlie Christian pickup modified with adjustable pole pieces drilled into the blade. A hum-canceling coil was recently added by Ilitch Electronics.
• 2002 Yamaha SA2200
• 2016 Kiesel HH2
• 2008 Caius quarter-tone guitar
• Quilter Aviator Cub
• Quilter Tone Block 200
• Raezer’s Edge Twin 8 cabinet
• Boss OC-2 Octave
• Boomerang III Phrase Sampler with Side Car controller
• One Control Mosquito Blender Expressio
• Gamechanger Audio Plus Pedal
• Dunlop CBM95 Cry Baby Mini Wah
• Boss RV-5 Digital Reverb
• Analog Man Peppermint Fuzz
• MXR GT-OD
• Electro-Harmonix Micro POG
• Dunlop DVP4 Volume
• Sonic Research ST-300 tuner
Strings and Picks
• Thomastik-Infeld Flatwound .013s (Gibson ES-150 Charlie Christian and Slaman “Pauletta”)
• Thomastik-Infeld Flatwound .014s (Gibson ES-175 with Charlie Christian pickup and Caius)
• Thomastik-Infeld Flatwound .012s (Yamaha SA2200)
• Thomastik-Infeld Flatwound .011s (Kiesel HH2)
• D’Addario Roundwound .014s (Gibson L-50)
• D’Addario Pro-Arte high tension nylon (Gibson C-O)
• Fender .88 mm for .012 strings, 1.0 mm for .014 strings
• Homemade picks using Pick Punch (Preferred material is American Express Delta Sky Miles Credit Card)
• Ilitch Electronics Driftwood pick
• Knobby picks bought from an Instagram metal shredder
During his teens, Okazaki went through a jazz-snob phase, and although he hails from Port Townsend, Washington, he never got into the nearby Seattle scene. “The ’90s, Nirvana and Soundgarden.… No, I kind of missed all that,” he admits. “I was there, but I was into Wes Montgomery and Thelonious Monk. I was stuck in the ’60s and ’50s at that point.” He still cites those musicians, in addition to Grant Green, George Benson, and Charlie Christian (whom he hailed as “the greatest guitarist that ever lived” in a blog post) as influences.
After attending Harvard University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English Literature, Okazaki came to New York to pursue his master’s degree in guitar at Manhattan School of Music. There, he found a mentor in Rodney Jones, a jazz/R&B player with tremendous chops. “I studied with, and continue to study with, Rodney,” explains Okazaki. “He was my teacher from 1997. I worked pretty closely with him for about 10 years, rebuilding my technique. My technique wasn’t good. You know I didn’t really have a teacher before him that really talked about guitar so much. I had teachers, but it was more just sort of like other people from other instruments. His technique is based on a hybrid George Benson type of deal. It has to do with the picking, but also there are many, many things that have to do with micro movements of the right hand. So, I spent a long time studying that. I still don’t really play like that, but I play kind of like a hybrid version of his hybrid version. Now mine is mixed with some other stuff.”
TIDBIT: On his new album, Okazaki creatively repurposed an influence in his approach to “And Wait for You”: “I played a piece of a Charlie Christian solo that I’m kind of riffing on. That’s a phrase from ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’ but obviously the context here is a little different.”
Jones referred Okazaki to legendary saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, and Okazaki did a few gigs with the soul-jazz master shortly before his passing in 2000. It was around this period that Okazaki made his mark on the NYC jazz scene. He worked with vocalist Jane Monheit and was initially cast as a straight-ahead guitarist. “For a long time, I was just a standards player. I was pigeonholed in that area,” he recalls. “I did this weird stuff on the side—well, I didn’t consider it to be weird—but it was hard for people in their mind to imagine that you do different things.”
The guitarist found he was able to fully explore other sides of his playing when he landed a gig with Steve Coleman, whose M-Base Collective created a new language of incredibly challenging, forward-thinking music. From 2008 until 2017, Okazaki’s artistry thrived as he played alongside Coleman.
”I don’t know how many people you know that can play in James Brown’s band. It’s harder than playing in my band, that’s for sure.“
Very few players can comfortably hang with both the down-to-earth, bluesy jazz sounds of George Benson and the futuristic, ultra-heady maze of Coleman’s music like Okazaki can. The guitarist sees the two approaches as sharing common heritage. “Benson’s language is blues and R&B, and Steve Coleman’s is, too. There’s different theories and stuff behind it, but it’s not technically different to me,” he explains.
“If it was language, I’m interested in the grammar, not so much what language I’m speaking about,” he explains. “Or if it was cooking, I might be interested in the principles of ‘how do you cook a piece of meat,’ as opposed to, ‘I’m doing French cooking.’ George Benson has a style for sure, and a lot of people, when they learn about George Benson, will also sort of imitate his style. I’ve never been that interested in imitating anybody’s style. I kind of want to have my own style.”
Trickster performs during their recent residency at SEEDS:: Brooklyn.
Photo by Alain Metrailler
Okazaki’s style is radically different from both the sounds of his main guitar influences and other offerings in today’s jazz landscape. His abstruse music has been called academic, but that’s a label the guitarist isn’t particularly fond of. “I would push back a little on ‘academic’ because, first of all, I don’t like academic music,” he says. “I don’t like any type of art that has to be explained. When I go to an art museum, I don’t want to have to read the little blurb. I don’t want anybody to have to know anything about music to appreciate it. There are things involved in how it’s made that are interesting to me, but I don’t care if they’re interesting to anybody else, or I don’t want that to be a feature of it that’s really that important, unless people want to look for that.”
For Okazaki, his music might be also called academic, or complex, or cerebral, but that doesn’t explain his purpose, or set him apart. “James Brown is complex, or Robert Johnson is complex,” he says. “All these things are complex, meaning that they’re not easily explained. I don’t know how many people you know that can play in James Brown’s band. It’s harder than playing in my band, that’s for sure.”
“The test is: Does it sound good, or does it not sound good? That’s the only question for me.”
Complexity comes in many forms. Just because a piece of music happens to be based on one chord “that doesn’t mean that it’s simple,” Okazaki observes. He believes the opposite is true as well. “There are things that take a lot of work, and there’s a lot of machinations involved, and a lot of manipulation of materials and thought, and construction, and it still sounds like shit,” he laughs. “And there are things that are just one chord and amazing.”As much as Okazaki is known as a musical thinker who can throw down some heavy information in his compositions and playing, what matters most is how it sounds. “It might look good on paper, but if it doesn’t sound like anything, then it’s not good,” he says. “The test is: Does it sound good, or does it not sound good? That’s the only question for me.”
Trickster's Dream - "The Lighthouse"
On Come Morning, the Canadian duo wrestled with a gut-wrenching session gone wrong, dealt with new inspirations, and finally learned to let go.
One of the core ingredients that is essential to any Bros. Landreth album is also the most dreaded: abject fear and panic. It doesn’t sprout up from any particular insecurity about the end result, but rather where to start. “We always say we’re going to write 30 tunes and pick our 10 favorites,” says Joey Landreth. “But we usually write 12 and pick 11.” At first, the fear was unsettling, but Joey and his bassist brother, David, have not only thrived under the self-imposed pressure but relished it. Factor in a world-changing pandemic, the experience of being new dads, and a soul-crushing session gone wrong, it’s amazing that Come Morning even saw the light of day.
Back in March of 2020 the band had finished two legs of touring behind ‘87, their tuneful return to form after a pair of solo albums from Joey and some time away from the band for David, who had just become a father for the first time. Joey had plans to tour behind his Lowell George tribute album. Naturally, all that went away. Tour dates were canceled, and bins of merch collected dust on the shelf. Once the duo came to terms with the uncertainty of their touring future, they immediately went to work on writing new tunes. But would it be for a solo record or another Bros. album?
The Bros. Landreth • Come Morning (Visualizer)
“I had this idea of making a solo record in my apartment,” remembers Joey. He lived in a 100-year-old building in Winnipeg where he converted the dining room into a home studio. After starting that project, mostly in isolation, with programmed drums, he played the songs for David and thought the material might better be suited from a Bros. album. “We asked ourselves what it would sound like if we merged my solo stuff with the Bros,” says Joey. “There weren’t any timelines, we weren’t career planning or writing with intent,” mentions David. “We were just making things because there was nothing else to do.”
The first two demos that they tracked were “Drive All Night” and “Corduroy.” On Come Morning, both songs feature sparse arrangements and touches of R&B influences, all mixed in with swirling sonics. “The demo for ‘Drive All Night’ was basically fully formed with programmed drums and weird stuff,” says Joey. “It was quite a departure for us.” Naturally, the next step was to start recording drums. The band found a window where travel was permitted and flew in a drummer from Edmonton to begin tracking the first half of the album. It soon became apparent that the result of the session wasn’t matching the Landreths’ vision. “When we didn’t get there, we were fucking gutted,” says David. “It was devastating. It almost killed us.” A few of the tunes were recorded at the wrong tempo, the bass lines didn’t sound like David, and it was the first Bros. album without drummer Ryan Voth. “You write these songs, you make a plan to record the best album you’ve ever made, you get through seven tracks, and you didn’t get it.” Heavy vibes.
“We’re always trying to put mics in stupid places.” — Joey Landreth
After making the tough decision to scrap the sessions, Joey and David sat down and made a dream list of drummers they would want on the record. The two names at the top of the list were Aaron Sterling and Matt Chamberlain, two studio veterans whose combined credits include David Bowie, John Mayer, Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift, and countless others. “We sent an email to both of them, and they both said yes,” says Joey. “Fuck, how do we choose between them?” According to the brothers, it simply came down to Aaron’s enthusiastic response. Once Sterling was in place, the band sent him a demo for “Stay,” a grooving, mid-tempo tune that features some inventive open-tuned rhythm parts. “The demo had programmed drums and we outlined what we wanted him to play,” says David. “When we got the tracks back, they were wickedly inspiring and took the song in a completely different direction.”
As the long-distance sessions progressed, Sterling meshed well into the creative process and even pushed the limits of what would typically be acceptable on a Bros. Landreth record. “I remember getting the Dropbox folder and seeing the files for bongos and was like, ‘Well, that’s a hard no on the bongos,’” laughs Joey. “Then I realized the song was nothing without the bongos.” The demo for “Drive All Night” was sent off with the idea that they would strip back some of the more modern production elements and replace them with organic instruments. “We learned over the course of this project to send Aaron just the core of the song and then have us play off that, rather than the other way around,” says David.
TIDBIT: Recorded over several months in isolation, Come Morning nearly went off the rails after a less-than-successful session. “It gutted us,” says David. Once the band brought in drummer Aaron Sterling, the project took shape and pushed the brothers into a new creative space.
One thing that fans of the Bros. might be missing on Come Morning is an abundance of Joey’s down-tuned slide riffs. “Guitar playing wasn’t really a priority for me on this album,” says Joey. There are incredibly melodic moments with big, roomy sounds on Come Morning, but Joey’s focus was more on vibe and sound then trying to get his licks in. “I would go for my usual super-fuzzy solo and it just wasn’t as inspiring,” he remembers. “I found myself wanting different things and needing to change the approach.”
On his solo album Hindsight, a majority of the guitar tones were inspired by a very particular room reverb that Joey added pre-delay to in order to create a slapback effect. An early influence on this technique was Jimmie Vaughan’s 1998 album, Out There. “Jimmie’s tone is incredible, and that sound has an identity that’s congruent with the record. I’ve always tried to emulate that,” says Joey. That thirst for experimentation revealed itself when Joey looked to emulate the sound of his recording booth at Sandbox Recording, a studio that serves as the brothers’ musical headquarters. Their particular recording booth at the studio sounded so good, they wanted to use it on far more than just guitar and bass tones. “What wound up kind of being more of an identity on the record is that you can hear the booth on more instruments. You can hear it on the B-3, you can hear it on the vocal,” says Joey. He points to the acoustic guitar intro on “Back to Thee” as the best example of the sound. “It’s kinda like the Jimmie Vaughan thing. It’s not super in your face, but it’s a big part of the guitar sound,” says Joey. For the washed-out baritone guitar on “Corduroy,” they placed a mic in the airlock and left the door open just a crack. The resulting tone gave the illusion that it was recorded in a much bigger space. “We’re always trying to put mics in stupid places,” laughs Joey.
Joey Landreth’s Gear
Joey isn’t afraid to employ unusual textures with his parts. For example, here he’s using a Duesenberg 12-string Double Cat for some ethereal slide parts.
Photo by Mike Highfield
- Sorokin Gold Top
- Josh Williams Mockingbird
- Duesenberg D6 Baritone
- Suhr Classic S
- Mule Resonators Mulecaster
- Collings OM1
- Waterloo WL-14 X
- Yamaha LS16M
- Yamaha Revstar
Amps & Cabinets
- Two-Rock Bloomfield Drive
- Two-Rock Joey Landreth Signature
- Greer Mini Chief
- 1960 Fender Super
- 1966 Fender Deluxe
- Two-Rock 212 Cab
- Benson Studio Tall Bird Spring Reverb
- Jackson Audio Golden Boy
- Isle of Tone Haze Fuzz ’66
- DanDrive Secret Weapon
- Mythos Pedals Olympus
- Ceriatone Centura
- Chase Bliss Thermae
- Chase Bliss Mood
- Chase Bliss CXM 1978
Strings, Picks, Mics & Accessories
- Stringjoy Custom Strings
- Rock Slide Joey Landreth Signature Slide
- The GigRig G3 Switcher and Power Supply•
- Moody Leather Straps
- Royer R-121
- Shure SM57
- Stager SR-2N
- Warm Audio WA-47
Typically, no matter where the journey takes Joey, he does have a few tried-and-true starting points. Most notably, his Sorokin goldtop and Two-Rock Bloomfield Drive is where he begins. But Joey isn’t afraid to swap out a trusted piece of gear if the vibe isn’t right. “The Two-Rock is a big sounding amp. If I start to play something and it takes up a ton of space and the part doesn’t need that, then I’ll start to reach for smaller amps,” mentions Joey. Those smaller amps include a Benson Nathan Junior, or a mid-’60s Fender Deluxe, which saw plenty of action on Come Morning. As a foil to the Two-Rock, Joey also employed a brown-panel Fender Super. “It’s kind of the opposite of a black-panel circuit. It has a lot more midrange and creamy breakup,” describes Joey.
“I would go for my usual super-fuzzy solo, and it just wasn’t as inspiring.” — Joey Landreth
Joey has also become well-known for his very particular setup on his guitars. He counts Derek Trucks and Sonny Landreth (no relation) as prime influences for moving to an open tuning. Trucks hangs out in open E (E–B–E–G#–B–E), while Sonny plays in several tunings including open A (E–A–C#–A–C#–E). However, it was an incredible Toronto guitarist named “Champagne” James Robertson who inspired Joey to not only eschew standard tuning, but to tune down to C. Robertson had such a unique style that Joey even texted him after a jam session to “get permission” to move to open C (C–G–C–E–G–C) exclusively. “I had a friend call this setup the autoharp of the guitar once,” remembers Joey.
David Landreth’s Gear
For Come Morning, both Joey and David didn’t stray too far away from their main setups. Here you see Joey with his Sorokin goldtop and David with his P-bass-style Moollon.
Photo by Jen Doerksen (BNB Studios)
- Moollon P-bass style
- Duesenberg Starplayer
- Noble DI
Strings & Accessories
- D’Addario Chrome XLs (.050—.105)
- Moody Leather Straps
Setting up a guitar for slide goes far past simply deciding on a tuning—finding the right string gauges is just as important. After moving up to a set of .014s for a while, Joey still felt something just wasn’t feeling right. He ended up with a custom set of Stringjoys that clock in at a whopping .019–.068. That sentence alone might make a guitarist’s hand quake with fear, but with the tuning’s lowered tension, the strings aren’t as rigid as you might think. All the guitars on Come Morning were in open C with the exception of a few acoustic parts in open D (D–A–D–F#–A–D), because Joey felt his Collings OM1 just really loves to live in that tuning. Every now and then when he’s working something out, Joey will hear a part that calls for standard-tuned voicings, “Sometimes I just need a few ‘cowboy chords,’ but then I tune it back to an open chord as soon as possible.”
Joey also favored a Josh Williams Mockingbird, which is a handmade 335-style guitar that’s loaded with Firebird pickups and is the “antithesis” of the Sorokin. “It has a bit of a mid-scoop, so it tucks in around a lot of the other guitar parts in a really beautiful way,” says Joey. “If I want something that’s not as mid-forward as the Sorokin and Two-Rock, but I don’t want it to be super scoopy, then I go with the Josh Williams into the brown-panel Super.”
One of Joey’s go-to combos is his P-90-loaded Sorokin with a Two-Rock Bloomfield Drive. “The Sorokin can be really aggressive, and forward, and present, and ... I would use the word triumphant. It’s like, ‘Here I am,’” says Joey.
Photo by Jen Doerksen (BNB Studios)
As much as Joey micro-manages his guitar tone—he even went so far to subdivide the slide vibrato on his Lowell George tribute record, All That You Dream—he couldn’t really do that as much on this project since there were so many collaborators and nearly all the bed tracks were done remotely. “I learned an incredibly valuable lesson on this record,” says Joey. “Which is to get the fuck out of the way.” The duo brought on Greg Koller to mix the album and he nailed more than half the mixes on the first try. “This album really feels different,” says David. “Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of the fact we made it in isolation and it being such a communal effort. There’s something about that I need to figure out.”
“Balance makes this whole thing feel a lot more sustainable and a lot less manic.” — David Landreth
So, is it a Bros. Landreth record if there isn’t a sense of fear and panic? “I think that’s the ultimate question,” says Joey. The brothers wear many hats including running their own record label, publishing company, and management company. “That balance makes this whole thing feel a lot more sustainable and a lot less manic,” mentions David. “Our creativity has many different outlets, so if I ever find myself with enough time to write more songs than I need, that probably means something bad has happened with the other things we do,” laughs Joey.