Jonny Lang: Shreddin’ Sophisticate
by Adam St. James
Sophistication is not always a musical trait associated with blues-based artists. And musical sophistication sometimes comes especially difficult to lead guitarists prone to fiddling with wah-wah pedals and tearin’ it up on extended solos. But a few know how to put those expressions in their place, pulling them out when called for, or setting them aside for the sake of a song, at least here and there.
Jonny Lang is one of those players who tears it up impressively -- and regularly -- during a concert, yet keeps the songs first and foremost. And as he has ridden the roller coaster of fame Lang’s song-crafting has grown increasingly sophisticated.
I first met and interviewed Jonny Lang when he was 16, shortly before his multi-platinum 1997 major label debut album Lie To Me was released. At the time he was an astonishingly talented kid with serious blues guitar skills and the voice of a much older soul. He quickly found himself a media sensation, and on stages with the likes of B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Aerosmith, and Eric Clapton. He sold millions of albums before his 18th birthday.
Lang has followed an interesting path since: marrying early, starting a family -- he’s now 33 and the father of four. After falling briefly into the all-too-easy partying routine to which many musicians succumb, Lang turned away from excess, even embracing Christianity and sober living. He has released five studio albums and a live disc, toured the world repeatedly, won a Grammy, appeared in the “Blues Brothers 2000” movie and on Eric Clapton’s 2004 and 2010 Crossroads DVDs, and is a mainstay on the popular Experience Hendrix tours.
Lang’s latest disc, Fight For My Soul, took seven years to complete, with sessions sometimes put on hold between gigs, and the responsibilities of parenthood. The album came out in the fall of 2013, and he’s been touring on and off ever since.
In the exclusive interview that follows, we talked about guitars, blues, touring, and of course musical influences. Just before he walked out on stage and just completely tore it up, Lang admitted that one of his biggest influences is and has long been Stevie Wonder. And that influence is abundantly evident throughout the very sophisticated collection of songs on Fight For My Soul, and in Lang’s choice of Wonders’ “Livin’ For The City” as a live-show cover tune.
Be sure to watch the exclusive Guitar.com video interview with Jonny Lang, in which he demonstrates how to play several songs, gives us a close up look at his guitar and stage gear, and shares detailed insight into his songwriting process and backstage warmups.
Guitar.com: So we’re here with Jonny Lang, and you’re out on tour for the Fight for My Soul record, right?
Jonny Lang: Yes Sir.
Guitar.com: Where do you feel like you’re at right now? You’ve been out touring with this record for awhile now, right? You’ve been all over the place, right?
Lang: Yeah. I’ve been to the States and Europe a few times with it. I’m going over there again shortly. We’ve done Brazil just recently, and Canada.
Guitar.com: We’re in Chicago, so are you in the middle of a U.S. tour, or do you just have a few dates here and there?
Lang: Yeah, we’ve got a few shows here in the States, and then we go over to Europe for about a month.
Guitar.com: How do the European audiences do for you?
Lang: Really great, actually. Europe is really fun to play. Really attentive audiences. It’s a really good balance. I feel like they have a really good balance between having a good time, and they’re really there for the music at the same time. They listen. It’s really fun to play.
Guitar.com: So is this your main guitar?
Lang: Yeah, this has been my main guitar for 13 or 15 years, something like that.
Guitar.com: It’s beautiful. A Tele Thinline…
Lang: Yeah, it’s a Thinline. I kind of got to design this one. I did get to design this one with the folks over at the Fender Custom Shop. It’s a maple top, and the back and body are spruce. They told me they never heard of a spruce body on a Thinline. But it makes it really light, and I feel like it’s reminiscent of the old swamp ash body guitars. Those were really light, with the porous wood. That’s kind of what the spruce gives it. And it has a birdseye maple neck.
Guitar.com: Yeah, I see the design in that neck. It’s subtle, but it’s beautiful. What do you have going on with the pickups?
Lang: (Laughs) These are Bill Lawrence pickups. I couldn’t tell you the exact model of the pickups. This guy in the middle here, he’s been destroyed over the years of just continual bashing. So we duct taped this guy. The coils are kind of coming out over here. I don’t really use this pickup, so it’s kind of a wash. But it gives it that worn-in look.
Guitar.com: Yeah. So where are you playing tone wise? And with your tone and volume knobs, which one is tone and which is volume?
Lang: Tone right here [points to back knob], volume here [points to front knob]. The tone knob has a pull out to split the coils. That makes everything single coil. And when you turn it all the way back it engages this sort of Peter Green-like mid-range boost. It gives it that kind of mid-honk.
Guitar.com: I play a Tele, and the stock set-up has the tone knob toward the neck and the volume knob behind it, but I wanted to be able to reach the volume knob with my pinky while I was playing, so I had to flip them. But you had your’s designed this way, right?
Lang: Yeah, this is kind of how… I think these are more in the position of where the volume and two tone knobs on a Stratocaster would be. So yeah, it’s closer, so you can do that [wraps his pinky around volume knob and turns it}.
Guitar.com: So who did you work with at the Fender Custom Shop? I used to spend a lot of time there and knew some guys there. Mike Eldred was someone I worked with a lot. Del Breckenfeld, as you remember, was the Artist Relations guy…
Lang: Yeah, Del was the guy that I worked with the most over there.
Guitar.com: I know it’s been awhile, but do you remember who built the guitar?
Lang: Yeah, I think it was a couple of guys. But Todd Krause was the main builder. He did an amazing job. It’s held up. Actually they built two others of these for me as well. This particular one, I think, is the best one out of the three.
Guitar.com: Isn’t that funny? These are Custom Shop builders, they build you three guitars that are more or less identical, and yet you can still find the difference, or feel the difference, or hear the difference between them.
Lang: Yeah. It really is amazing. It goes to show you that the wood and how it relates to the way you play, and the electronics in it, is… The wood is everything, almost. It’s crazy how that can be such a make or break medium in all the aspects of the guitar.
Guitar.com: So you have a show tonight, what would you do to warm-up?
Lang: There’s nothing in particular. No scales or anything. I’m just trying to get loose. I’m just playing whatever, linear riffs, until I feel like I’ve got that break through, like, ‘OK, I’m not working at it. I’m warmed up.’ And then I stop there. It takes about 15 or 20 minutes.
Guitar.com: Have you already done your warming up, or do you do that right before you go on?
Lang: No, I haven’t. I start warming up my voice about an hour beforehand, if it’s in good shape. Two hours if it’s not. So I’ll start playing guitar at the same time.
Guitar.com: What do you do for vocal warm-ups? Do you pay attention to what you’re drinking? Do you do vocal exercises?
Lang: I don’t really watch anything in particular with the diet. Some people avoid dairy and stuff like that. I’ve never really been one to do that, it doesn’t seem to affect me one way or the other. I just do basic vocal warm-ups: go from low to high, high to low, all the vowels. And then I do the same afterwards to warm down. And that’s what has really helped me over the years is warming down. I really notice a difference the next day.
Guitar.com: Can you show us a little riff or exercise or song off the new album?
Lang: Yeah, man. If I’m warming up before the show I usually start at the lower frets because you have to reach the most, so you get the best kind of stretch. And there’s more tension down here, so to bend the strings it takes a little bit more effort. So I usually just warm up doing something like this [plays random pentatonic blues solo in F minor beginning at 1st fret, then moving up the neck and back]. Just stuff like that. This is one of the riffs on “Blew Up (The House),” which is our new single. [Plays rhythm guitar riff that makes up the song -- watch the Guitar.com video!].
Guitar.com: Can you show me the right hand on that? You’re doing some hybrid picking…
Lang: Yeah. If I’m playing with my fingers I usually hide the pick back here [shows pick held by index finger while he uses thumb and other fingers to fingerpick, then plays the rhythm part of “Blew Up (The House)” again].
Guitar.com: That’s really cool. That tune rocks too!
Lang: Oh, thank you!
Guitar.com: You’re playing it in E?
Lang: No, I’m playing in F-sharp.
Guitar.com: Oh, you’re covering the bass note with your thumb?
Lang: Yeah, I usually play a bass note with my thumb.
Guitar.com: Do you do that a lot?
Lang: Yeah, because if you’re wanting to get at the other strings, to solo, kind of the only way to do it is to reach with your thumb so you’re still in this position [shows thumb holding bass note on sixth string while first, second, and third fingers are in a lead guitar-playing position on the third and fourth string]. Otherwise if you’re doing this [demonstrates playing a barre chord with first finger and having to use the pinky to play those same third and fourth string lead notes], it’s hard to get any leverage to bend strings. I think Jimi Hendrix is the guy I saw do that the most. Stevie Ray Vaughan did that. A lot of guys do that.
Guitar.com: I’m not comfortable with that myself, for some reason. What gauge strings are you using?
Lang: These are 10-point-five.
Guitar.com: 10.5? Is that a custom set?
Lang: Yeah, it’s just that, these top three are 10.5 on the top, 13.5, 17.5 -- or whatever this one is. And the rest are normal, like a normal set of 10s from there on…
Guitar.com: Like, .27, .37, .47?
Lang: Whatever… Yeah, I don’t even remember (laughs). I played with .11s for awhile, and they just didn’t… the tone was… For whatever reason, I felt like the tone didn’t have the type of high-end I can get out of these. These are really dynamic. If I hit them hard, they do something else. Like on the really high-gauge strings, the harder you hit them, they just kind of absorb it. They don’t change the sound. So I felt like these are the highest gauge strings I could get and still be dynamic with the tension of the strings.
Guitar.com: Is this whole song (“Blew Up (The House)”) in F-sharp, or does in modulate?
Lang: Yeah, the whole song is in F-sharp.
Guitar.com: Do you favor certain keys? Do you stay away from E and A, or are you OK with E and A?
Lang: I’m fine with E and A. It’s really dictated by what key best suits the vocal, the melody for the vocal. Really, for that particular song, F-sharp was the sweet spot for the vocal.
Guitar.com: So from a songwriting point of view, with what you just said, does that mean that you came up with the song, you tried the vocal line, and you were like, ‘I need to change the key to get the vocal line where I need it’?
Lang: Yeah, that happens frequently. Because if you’re writing a song, and you’re singing it quietly during the writing process, and then you go in the studio, and you really sing it, it can be something totally different. You might say, ‘We need to raise that up a bit, it’s not energetic enough,’ or ‘drop it down, it’s too high.’
Guitar.com: You have kids, right?
Guitar.com: How old are your kids?
Lang: I’ve got a six-year-old twin boy and girl, a three-year-old girl, and a one-year-old girl.
Guitar.com: Wow. Are they expressing any musical interest?
Lang: Yeah, they love to sing. They’re just always singing. Pretty much any instrument that you hand them turns into a drum. They just like beatin’ on stuff. Maybe they’ll be drummers, I don’t know.
Guitar.com: My kids are 11 and 13, they’re very musical, and they both like to sing. But a lot of times I hear them practicing quiet, because they’re shy and they don’t want me to hear them. So I’m always telling them, ‘If you go out on stage, and you’ve got to sing that song for real, it’s going to be a whole different thing if you didn’t practice it full volume at least a few times.’ So like you said, when you’re writing a song and you’re singing it a little quieter…
Lang: Yeah, it’s different. If you’re practicing, and you’re in your room or your practice spot, and you nail it, and you’re like, ‘OK, I have this song now,’ when you go to play it in front of people, and it’s live, it’s weird how everything goes out the window. Everything that your mind says, ‘OK, I’m comfortable with this now,’ it becomes a whole new set of variables all of the sudden. It’s like you’re doing something totally different.
That was something I was really thankful for, having been able to join a band when I was 13, and getting to notice that difference from practicing in my room to being able to play on stage. That was a big deal. I always try to tell folks that are starting out to try and play in front of people, or play with a band for awhile, or jam, or whatever. It’s probably the best thing for a student of music.
Guitar.com: When your band is doing sound-check, do you cut loose and jam sometimes, or work on new ideas?
Lang: Yeah, all of the above. Usually the first part of sound check is dedicated to getting the sound right. And then if we’ve got some time, we’ll goof around. Somebody will fall on something, and we’ll just go with it and play with it and have fun for awhile.
Guitar.com: In the show tonight, are you playing songs from throughout your career?
Lang: Yeah, actually, we’re doing some stuff from the new record, and stuff from previous albums.
Guitar.com: All the way back to the beginning?
Lang: Not quite the first record.
Guitar.com: Are you doing anything, like “Lie To Me”?
Lang: Yeah, actually we do “Lie To Me.”
Guitar.com: Can you show us a little bit of that? How does that song go?
Lang: “Lie To Me” is one of those songs that -- on the album it’s in A-flat, but we do it in A live. There’s the Clavinet intro on that song, and the guitar part is just [begins to play chords, beginning with open A chord, then moving up in to fifth position].
Guitar.com: You’re really digging into those strings.
Lang: Yeah, I usually hit the strings real hard. I’ve got a pretty heavy pick. I like to hit ‘em hard.
Guitar.com: You’re wiggling them a bunch…
Lang: Yeah, it makes a different sound.
Guitar.com: What are you using on stage as far as gear? Do you have a bunch of pedals?
Lang: Yeah, I’ve got more pedals than I’ve ever had, really. But I still don’t use all of them. Just here and there I’ll use some of the more out-there effects. But I have a Route 66 or Route 808 pedal, or whatever it is that Visual Sound makes. That’s kind of my main drive sound. And I’ve got a couple other drive pedals that are different stages of gain. I’ve got a Boss Dynamic Wah which I use pretty often. And I’ve got a Vox wah-wah pedal -- a Joe Bonamassa Signature wah-wah pedal.
I texted him. The guitar tech that we had that one time out, mine went down and he just went to Guitar Center and got one. And I was like, ‘Wow! This thing sounds really good!’ And I had it for about a week and I looked and it said Joe Bonamassa, so I took a picture and sent it to him. It was very funny.
Guitar.com: Did you guys do a few shows together?
Lang: Yeah, we used to play quite a few shows back before he really hit it and became famous. So yeah, I’ve known him for several years.
Guitar.com: He’s doing really well…
Lang: Yeah, he really is. I’m really happy for him.
Guitar.com: Who else do you listen to these days?
Lang: You know, when I come off the road I don’t listen to music all that much. But if I’ve had a break, and I start getting the itch for music, I’ll start listening to it again. But I pretty much stay with the stuff I’ve always loved. I’m still wearing out the same Stevie Wonder and James Taylor records. I listen to Gospel music, folk music as well. The ones I’ve been comfortable with throughout the years. Not too much new stuff, really. Even though I’ll really like something new, it’ll just kind of end up in the background, and those old records are still the ones I listen to.
Guitar.com: What are some of your favorite Stevie Wonder songs?
Lang: Oh, man! All of ‘em...all of ‘em. I think the Music of My Mind album is my favorite Stevie record. And on that particular record, the opening track, “Love Having You Around,” is amazing. I don’t think there’s a Stevie Wonder song that I don’t like. I think I like all of ‘em.
Lang: Man, somebody played me the separate tracks from “Superstition,” and there’s six Clavinet parts on that song…
Guitar.com: Oh really!
Lang: ...and they’re put together so well, he plays them, interweaves them so well that it sounds like…
Lang: Yeah, like it’s something that could actually be played.
Guitar.com: And that’s why it’s so massive sounding....
Lang: Yeah, man!
Lang: And everybody’s like, ‘Ahhh, that’s why….’
Guitar.com: You know, there’s always these little tricks or behind the scenes things you find out, and you’re like, ‘That’s why it sounded so good.’
Lang: Yeah. But like today somebody would play a few takes of a Clavinet part, and then an engineer would go back in Pro Tools and cut and paste them into place, and then hit the button that arranges them all in perfect time, where back in the day you just had to play them like that. The musical geniuses stuck out in that regard. He’s a genius, obviously. I love his music.
Guitar.com: When you’re in the studio, when you’re recording, are you hands-on on the board? Are you in there going, “Hey turn this EQ up,’ or anything like that?
Lang: No man, I stay as far from that thing as I can. (laughs) I’ll wreck the whole project if I try to start engineering things. I mean, I have a pretty good idea of where I want to go, and what I want to achieve tonally in the studio. I’ve gotten better at articulating that. A good engineer kind of knows how to decipher what you’re wanting to get, and makes it happen.
Guitar.com: Do you like to use different amps and different guitars in the studio?
Lang: Yeah, I switch around, mess with different amps. On this last record I think I used Fender Deluxes for a lot of it, which is what I use live. I have an amp made by a company called Mill Hill Amps, it’s called the Love Amp. Basically you just plug into the thing. There’s no volume or tone on it, it’s just big tubes and a speaker. And this thing sounds unbelievable. It’s like an AC-30 that’s on steroids or something. So I used that on a lot of stuff. And then I actually plugged straight into the board for a lot of stuff and just used pedals. .
Guitar.com: And as far as guitars, did you use this guitar [his main Tele Thinline] in the studio?
Lang: Yeah, I used it on some stuff. But it’s funny, I used a lot of Les Paul in the studio. For whatever reason, that sounds good to me in the studio. A lot of Les Paul. And I’ll use this if something calls for single coil pickup settings.
Guitar.com: Other than the fingerpicking you do on “Blew Up (The House),” do you do a lot of Tele-type, hybrid picking stuff?
Lang: You mean like country picking? Like chicken pickin’? Man, I am a very novice chicken picker. I wouldn’t even attempt to officially try to do that, on the odd chance somebody like Vince Gill was watching, somebody who can really play like that.
Guitar.com: What about Delta blues? “Blew Up (The House)” is a little bit Delta influenced. Do you do some of that kind of stuff?
Lang: Yeah, I actually do. I do a sort of more Delta version of a Muddy Waters song during the set, “40 Days and 40 Nights”...
Guitar.com: Can you show us a little bit of that?
Lang: Yeah. [Plays guitar, and demonstrates tone knob function]. This is what the tone knob… so tone up [demonstrates sound] and here’s that mid-range boost [demonstrates sound]. It’s kind of a cool thing. So that song goes [plays and sings song]:
“Forty days, and forty nights, since my baby, left this town/The sun keeps shining, but the rain keeps falling down/She’s my girl, I love her so/And why she left here I just don’t know”
Guitar.com: Very cool. Well, hey man, thank you so much for your time.
Lang: Yeah, thank you.
Guitar.com: And I look forward to seeing the show tonight. It’s nice of you to sit down with us and share a little bit, play a little bit for us, show us your guitar.
Lang: It was my pleasure.
Guitar.com: Thank you so much, Jonny.
Lang: Yes sir.