“I don’t even have a tuner!” Jared James Nichols on his stripped-down approach to rocking the blues
The 31-year-old talks to us about fingers, thumbs, his love of Les Pauls and why he only needs one pedal.
All images: Eleanor Jane
Gibson’s London HQ is the perfect location to catch up with visiting rock dignitaries, and it is here that we meet erstwhile son of Milwaukee, Jared James Nichols during his recent European tour. Known as much for his expressive, fingers-only style of lead guitar as his enthusiastically maverick approach to vintage guitar modification, Nichols is now firmly entrenched as a Gibson Les Paul player, but things were not always so.
“I’ll tell you what, in the early days it was all about Stevie Ray Vaughan and Stratocasters!” he exclaims. “I grew up right next to the Alpine Valley Music Amphitheatre – where Stevie played his last show. And when I was a kid we could go out into our yard and listen to the concerts! When I started to play a friend’s dad turned me on to SRV and that was it.
“I was such a little Stevie Ray Vaughnabee – I really was, I saved up for a Tube Screamers and I was so into it, even playing heavy strings and this was right when I’d started! However, I realised soon enough that there had already been a Stevie Ray. By the time I was 17 people would listen to me and say, ‘Wow you sounded just like Stevie,’ but I was already thinking, ‘Okay, but how am I going to sound like me?’
It’s a moment that many guitar players come to in the course of their musical development, but thankfully Jared had some expert advice to point him in the right direction…
“I hit a crossroads man,” he reflects. “I think it comes from being aware of your influences but also listening to your own heart and finding your own path. I remember Zakk Wylde telling me ‘We’re all eating off the same deli tray, it’s just the way you make your sandwich’. It’s true! You start by thinking, ‘I love this about Albert King, I love this about Stevie and Jimi…’ somehow you get the foundations for finding yourself.
Fingers & thumbs
“Two essential steps on this journey of self-actualisation were the discovery of the Gibson Les Paul and a return to playing with bare fingers – both of which proved vital in creating a personal and instantly recognisable sound.
“I’m left handed and when I first started I was holding a right-handed guitar upside down and my teacher made me flip it over,” he recalls. “I was also playing with my thumb and he said, ‘If you’re going to be a real guitar player you have to use a pick!’ I didn’t know any better, so I said okay, but it never felt right to me. I’d squeeze too tight and my hand would hurt, and the pick would slip around, and I’d feel, ‘Man, this sucks…’ Then I heard players like [Jeff] Beck and Knopfler and I just put the pick down and left it there.”
While Beck and Knopfler are generally regarded as Strat aficionados, however, Jared finally found his muse in the more solid shape of a Les Paul
“Back in the day you could get a credit card from Guitar Center!” he exclaims. “And I bought a used Les Paul Studio. At first it didn’t work for me but within a few weeks I started falling in love with the feel and sound of a Gibson guitar. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Is this ok?’
“I realised that despite changing guitars and starting to play with my fingers, I was doing many of the same things I did on a Strat and altering them to suit the Les Paul and it just sounded better! And that was really inspiring – I never looked back!”
Nowadays it’s hard to imagine the hirsute Nichols as anything other than a Les Paul-toting rocker, and one Les Paul in particular – a 70s Black Beauty known as Old Glory, which has spent a lot of time on the modder’s work-bench in its lifetime…
“Old Glory started life as a Les Paul Custom, which was super thrashed – I think it’s probably a ’71 or ’72 model,” Jared explains. “I was hanging out with the guys from Aerosmith and Joe Perry was just getting into this single-pickup Les Paul idea – but I was also super influenced by Leslie West and Mountain and that’s when the whole thing turned to P-90s.
“Being a Strat guy originally, my ear started to get twisted and I thought, ‘Okay, this has got the growl and the fatness of the humbucker but it has the clarity and the delicacy of a true single coil. I really started to get obsessed with that idea.
“Old Glory had started off with humbuckers but I thought that it would be the perfect guitar for some modifications, and by the time I was done, it was a Les Paul Custom that was outfitted like a Les Paul Jr with a wrapover bridge and everything. I routed out space for the dog ear P-90 with a hammer and a screwdriver, and then I wired up the volume and tone knobs. When I was done it sounded great! People ask me ‘How do you keep P-90s quiet?’ The answer is you don’t! I just try and be fast on the volume knob.
Before long, Old Glory had become Jared’s calling card, and the distinctive instrument had attracted some interest from higher up in the music industry…
“I was touring and people started to notice and ask, ‘What is up with that guitar?!’” he exclaims. “Then Gibson started to take notice and I remember one day I visited and they said, ‘Old Glory needs to be your signature model, let’s make it!’”
“But the fact that the signature model first came out with Epiphone although the original was a Gibson, is really great. You know I’m still very new in the guitar world and so it’s kind of crazy to me to have a signature model in the first place. I tour with the Epiphone guitar, I love it and I’m really proud of it – and it sold really well, you know people could actually afford it!
“I’ve been on the road with it for the past year and it’s always going to be a piece of me. I still have the original Gibson Old Glory and who knows, maybe someday we’ll see that come out as a Gibson model too!”
Unusually for an electric guitarist, Jared has all but abandoned effects pedals in favour of a more organic approach to finding his sound.
“Honestly, as far as effects go I don’t really use them anymore,” he affirms. “I love coaxing out as many sounds as I can using just the guitar and the amp. A lot of players tell me they never use their tone knobs but I swear, even in the middle of phrases I am working the tone knob and the volume, too, it’s so important for me.
“I think it’s a beautiful thing to limit yourself to the bare minimum. You get to a point where you’re in survival mode and you have to make all these sounds on your own. I don’t even have a tuner! That’s become almost like an attitude thing for me now – I’ll tune up before we play our set but everything else I’m going to figure out on stage.”
There is still one box that forms as essential part of his sound, however, and it’s a beauty.
“Actually, right now I do have one pedal which was a present from Joe Bonamassa,” he admits. “People are going to laugh when they find out what it is – ‘Oh this guy’s a cork-sniffer! – but it’s a Klon Centaur. I use it as a preamp, which I just put it on top of my amp, dial in my settings and leave it on. It really does sound beautiful.
“You know what though? The other night while I was jamming with Bonamassa and his band, the battery died so I didn’t even use it, and guess what? It was okay – I made it through!”
When it comes to amps, Jared plugs into a pair of his signature Blackstar JJN 20RH heads on stage every night – an amp that has proved hugely popular with both punters and the man himself. Indeed, so committed is Nichols to his friends at Blackstar, he straight up refuses the offer of a refreshing beverage that happens to be branded with a rival amp company…
“Yeah I won’t drink that man, I’m a Blackstar artist! Blackstar amps taste better!” he jokes. “Seriously though, they have been amazing to work with and I know I’ll get my sound on stage every night. That means a lot to me.”
While Old Glory and its signature siblings have bee Jared’s preferred on-stage squeezes, that doesn’t mean that he turns his nose up at a nice old guitar. And a recent chance meeting with one of the most significant figures on the vintage Gibson guitar scene led to an education in golden era guitars, and to some extraordinary instruments coming Jared’s way.
“I met Charles Daughtry [a vintage Gibson collector who runs the Les Paul Forum] last year at NAMM and he said, ‘If you’re ever down in Texas give me a call.” Jared explains. “Well, a few weeks later I was passing through on tour with John 5, so I got in touch.
“He came and picked me up, took me to his home, opened the door to this room and I swear my jaw just dropped! Every golden era Gibson possible was hanging on the walls! It was the first time I had been able to have someone bring me 20 beautiful vintage instruments, one after another! ’59’s, Goldtops, just crazy stuff.
“He said, ‘You like P-90s right?’ and passed me a 1956 Les Paul Junior – I plugged it in, hit one note on it and it started singing to me. It was love at first sight! Next thing I know he’s left the room and came back with the case and said, ‘Take it! – It’s not going to do any good sitting here!’
“So I go and play the gig, I show up at the venue just shell-shocked. I have a ’56 Junior now! I couldn’t believe what had just happened. That was my introduction to vintage guitars!”
In recent months, Jared has been sighted on stage with ‘Ole Red’ – a very different Les Paul to his signature models with achingly cool vintage vibes and as ever, a story to tell…
“A few months down the road and I visit Charlie again and he’s got more stuff he wants to show me,” Jared continues. “There was one guitar there, I just could not take my eyes off it. It was gorgeous. It’s a 1953 Goldtop that had been oversprayed. The back and the back of the neck are now black and a coat of Dakota Red was sprayed over the goldtop at some point in the 60s. It’s a really old overspray. The fun part is that the goldtop finish was already aged, then the Dakota Red has aged over it so it’s a double-aged guitar! I couldn’t put it down, it just spoke to me and as I was getting ready to leave Charlie said, ‘You’ve got to take Red’.
“So now I am now the proud owner of a real 1950s Les Paul. It’s great, those guitars inspire you in a lot of different ways. Believe me, I know how that sounds but I can say this because for many years I would tour with just one guitar and I am totally not a snob, hell no. I believe that as long as any guitar at any price speaks to you and makes you want to play better and be a more expressive musician that’s the all that matters.
“The other night I was jamming on Bonamassa’s blues cruise and I flipped to the neck pickup and hit a bend and I held it for about 30 seconds… the whole guitar was vibrating! When you get those old guitars at the appropriate volume something magical happens.”
Touring around the world with your own power trio is the dream of many aspiring rockers and we wonder if he’s got any plans to expand his line-up, the answer is unequivocal.
“I’ve been fronting my own trios since I was 18 – I met Dennis the drummer in LA when I was living there – that was about seven years ago. Barron joined us on bass about seven months ago,” he note. “I like to keep it simple, a lot of my favourite music was created within a trio – Hendrix, Cream, Robin Trower – I just love that format.
“The next step after this European tour is to hit the studio and make a record. A REAL record! My aspirations are pretty simple, Last year I was out there on the road for 308 days straight and by the end of it I was exhausted but so happy. So I just want to play to anyone who wants to listen – as many people as possible.”
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