Jared James Nichols is a larger than life guitar player. When he picks up the electric guitar there is little chance he's going to tickle the thing. Nichols prefers to keep things primal, with a fingerstyle technique that throttles the instrument.
As the newly appointed Gibson brand Ambassador explains, that all comes from the blues-rock and classic rock players who grew up listening to. His weakness for a single P-90 mounted in a slab of singlecut mahogany is something he got from Leslie West. His attack, well, he credits the greats but much of that is all his.
Not many players lean into their style like Nichols. His approach requires a shower afterwards. It's physical, a work out. As Nichols says, it's like fighting a bear. And the thing that is – well, we'd imagine – you don't know who is going to win.
When Nichols entered Blackbird Studios in Nashville with producer Eddie Spear to record his forthcoming EP, Shadow Dancer, it was 50/50 between Nichols and the bear – it was to be all live, tracked to tape, high-volume and no safety net.
As Nichols prepares to hit the road supporting John 5, he dropped us a line to talk about Shadow Dancer, the evolution of his playing style, but also the 1952 Les Paul, aka Dorothy, which was destroyed in a tornado and is now being restored for him to play on tour.
It might well be one of the first Les Pauls every made, he says, which seems like an appropriate guitar for a Gibson brand ambassador to play... And if it has survived a tornado, it's got a fighting chance against Nichols.
Jared, we didn’t recognise your voice at first there. Don’t tell us Gibson has sent you to finishing school for the brand ambassador role. But does this all involve?
“Y’know, the thing that they kept saying was, ‘Jared, this just solidifies our relationship. This takes you beyond just a guitar endorsement; now you are part of the brand.’ For me, I’m noticing the biggest difference is I have more of a role in different stuff, not just the guitars but now I have been asked to share my thoughts on new products. I have been asked to do videos, different things… And also, we are going to do a lot more guitars! That is the biggest thing and the thing that I am most excited about is that there is going to be a ton of guitars on the horizon.”
Are you talking signature models. Do you have more signature guitars on the way?
“Yes, there will absolutely be more signature guitars. But also, what’s cool is I get a sneak peek at what’s coming out, and I can check out new products and see things that are on the chopping block, and it is really cool to have that kind of insider vision.”
That sounds very interesting, but it’s good for Gibson to have artists offering input. What is exciting you at the moment?
“Well, definitely there is some cool stuff, and this is already out there, but the korina guitars that Gibson has come out with, with the exact specs of the original Vs and Explorers, when I saw them I thought, ‘What!? And, of course, I got to hit the Murphy Lab stuff which is crazy cool! And I got to do the music for that, so that was part of my role as well – making the soundtrack for those guitars.
“Other things? Let me think. Well, there’s a bunch of cool Epiphone stuff on the way, really cool Epiphone USA stuff that is blowing my mind. I might be spilling secrets. I don’t know. [Laughs]”
Well, we know all about the korina 1958 Flying V and Explorers, but are you talking more Epiphone USA electric guitars as well as acoustics?
“Yes, I believe so. Absolutely. There was some stuff I saw that was insane.”
That is exciting. It appears that the top-of-the-line Epiphone models are getting closer and closer to Gibson USA.
“Yeah, and for me, just being straight-up, my Old Glory is so good, and everyone is like, ‘Oh, he’s just saying that.’ But the guitar is just so good. It rivals a ton of Gibson stuff and I am just so proud of it.”
Isn’t that the goal for Epiphone, to be the best it can be and to push Gibson all the way?
“Oh, absolutely! One hundred per cent. I feel the same way, and also think, when I was a kid, if I had a guitar like I have now – that’s an Epiphone – it would have moved mountains. It is such a long step above what I’ve known from Epiphone in the years gone by. The quality now, like you said, is right there. It is on a par in so many ways. And definitely for me, I pick up the guitar and I am inspired to play. It’s awesome.”
You’ve been releasing a bit of new music with the new EP out in September. We might have referred to you as a blues-rock hurricane, but there’s definitely a bit of the Captain Caveman in your playing. How did you get that tone on the chorus of Bad Roots?
“Oh my goodness – yeah. Check this out, that whole record, everything on the EP, I went backwards, and I don’t mean that in an evolution, I went backwards with the sound. I went to a studio here in Nashville called Blackbird. We recorded live. Three instruments: bass, drums, guitar, live in the same room, mic’d up with minimal mics, straight to a tape machine. And the tape machine we used was the same tape machine used for Blizzard Of Oz! It was is the Ozzy Osborne Blizzard Of Oz tape machine. No computer involved.
“This was the first time I have every truly recorded to tape and understood what that felt like. As far as how I got that sound, that was a close mic’d Blackstar Artist 100, which I think is their loudest, full-on, full volume, with a Klon Centaur in front of it, and my old Les Paul, my 1953. I guess you’d call it a Red Top; it’s got that gold painted over. That is that sound. And then what’s awesome is, you’ll hear that there is a little bit of echo on stuff, I actually sourced an Echoplex.
“It was amazing because it was so raw, and if you really, truly listen to that tone you are going to hear that it is completely overtones-all-the-time. Because I was facing the amp! I was right there… In the line of fire, and that’s the tone. There are no edits. We went old-school. We didn’t even use tuners; we just tuned to each other. We tried to do something that felt real and felt raw, and more representative of how I play live.”
It’s that why Shadow Dancer is an EP and not a full-length? It is as though it was a case of you testing out if it could be done in this way, live and loud and raw?
“Oh, 100 per cent, because, as a guitarist, as an artist, you go through these stages. I remember for the first record I made, I had never been in a studio. Now I am starting to have that attitude where, okay, we’ve got to try stuff out, and my biggest dream was to play live in the studio and do it like my heroes did, with minimal overdubs.
“This was a testing of the water, and I have to say, I loved this approach, and the producer I worked with – his name is Eddie Spear, he’s from the UK – he is a young talent. He is 30 years old and he has worked with everybody in Nashville, from Jack White to Chris Stapleton and all in between, and to have him producing it was insane, because he has the attitude that I have. He says, ‘Who cares!? Let’s just do it! We have all this stuff. We have all this stuff that we have done, but let’s just be in the moment.’
“When you press ‘record’ on tape, it is a different type of record. You can’t just go over it. ‘Oh I can fix that. Oh, I can…’ No! You hear everything in that recording, bumps and scrapes and all. And let’s say, I think that was Bad Roots take three that was used. We didn’t have a lot of tape so every take counted. It was an amazing experience to do it that way.”
That, by its very nature, brings an element of risk and that’s got to be welcome because everything in this day and age feels a little too safe.
“I feel the exact same way. There are elements, especially on the other tracks of the EP, and I am using P-90s on the Les Paul, and I am not using anything like noise suppressors. I feel like we are losing that element [of danger]. I feel like as far as technology and guitars go, and recording processes and techniques, we are starting to strip away or we have stripped away the human emotion in it.
“For me, when I play and I record, I think the biggest thing – beyond technique or showing anyone that I can play the guitar – is the fact that I am putting some soul into it. I am putting everything I have got into it. That is the most important thing. These recordings are analogue but digital representations of that.”
Do you think that the P-90 fits in to that philosophy, because there is something under-evolved about it? It’s a little bit gnarly and wild, and fell through the gaps as Strat/Tele-style single-coils and humbuckers became the two dominant choices.
“Yes. Yes, I love it, you just nailed it. I say that all time. It’s my favourite in-between sound. The best thing about the P-90 is that it is so touch-sensitive. When you turn up a P-90 and it starts buzzin’, and people go, ‘Urgh! Those frequencies. It’s not grounded.’ Blah blah blah. I think the P-90 is the most open-sounding pickup because of that. Because it is not trying to cut anything out, it’s open.
“Also, when you are playing, there is no direct hum-cancellation, there’s no cancellation of those other magnets picking up strings, so when you’re playing loud, and you are playing with volume, and I am hitting that low E string, that’s being picked up by the magnets across the pickup, so there are a lot of overtones that happen.
“Like you said, there is an aggression and a snarl to a P-90 pickup that you can’t get out of anything else. Now, I am all for the technology moving forward, with noiseless pickups and all this stuff – that’s cool! Whatever you want to do. But, on Bad Roots, that whole song is a bridge pickup out of a 1953 Les Paul, and then that the solo is that neck pickup. That tone is so archaic but beautiful.”
It’s a window into the past.
“The P-90 didn’t get messed with. People moved on from them. ‘Oh, we’re going to do something better.’ And for me, I am so grateful that that happened because I feel like I take it personally, like that is my pickup! That is how I can say what I want to say, y’know? I am just glad the P-90 didn’t get too messed up.”
Technological advancements are amazing – great tools, more options – but ultimately you just have to make peace with yourself, find what works for you.
“Yeah, so many people come to me and say, ‘Jared, check out this pedal. Check out this, man. Check out how clean it is and also immaculate.’ And I am sitting there and I’ve got like this old Octavia. I’ve got all this other old stuff that buzzes. Sometimes it doesn’t really work right. But it is not that I am trying to do that for the sake of it just being old stuff, that’s just the way I like to talk, through that old gear.
“It inspires me. Like you said, it’s that sense of riding off the rails a little bit; you don’t know if it is going to be beautiful or if it’s [Laughs] going to be shit! Sometimes that’s the beauty, trying to harness that, trying to… I say that sometimes it is the equivalent of fighting a bear. You have just got to go in there with your best intentions and say, ‘Well all right, let’s do this!’”
It works even better with fingerstyle electric guitar, too, because with those extra overtones, the volume, it’s a process of hands-on, constant muting.
“Totally, and the louder I play, I mean, when I was tracking the songs it was full on! There was no attenuation. There was no saying, ‘Ooh, Jared, that’s too loud.’ Between that sheer volume and then of course having the P-90s, I would say I am like a gunfighter on my volume knob, because I’ll playing something and then it’s off! It’s like my gas pedal. It’s a very hands-on process.
“When I pick up the guitar, especially now, with the way that I want to play and the way that I approach it, it’s physical. It is not something that’s like I can just fly through it. No, dude, you gotta be on. You are all in. You are committed to the act of playing.”
What makes the instrument so interesting is you can be super physical, or you can have that conservatoire jazz school stillness, too. So many different ways to play…
“Totally, and I think that is the beauty of the instrument. At the end of the day, there are players out there who will hear me play or they will see me play and they’ll go, ‘No. No, no, no, no.’ And that’s great. And then there are players who will see me play and think, ‘This guy is awesome. This guy is into it.’
“That is why the guitar will never die, because whoever is playing it absolutely dictates everything about the instrument. In my case, it’s like being a boxer. But then I came from that school of Leslie West, Stevie Ray Vaughan, early Clapton, all of that where it was very grab-you-by-the-throat guitar playing. And then there are other people who come from the jazz world, the Wes Montgomerys, the Kenny Burrells, players like that. That is why it is so awesome to play the guitar.”
Obviously, you champion the single-pickup format, but might we see a dual-pickup signature guitar?
“Absolutely, yes. It’s part of my evolution. Don’t get me wrong, my single-pickup guitars speak to me in a way no other guitar does. Old Glory, my original Les Paul Glory, still speaks to me and inspires me in the same way, and having the signature model is so awesome – and I feel so honoured to be able to get other players playing in such a simplistic style.
“But, as I grow as a player, and as I am playing and creating more music, and trying to push myself, I do find that – especially since I’ve got my old Les Paul, which is the only guitar I have with two pickups – I will be playing, and, I’ll be playing and I’ll go, ‘Oh, wait, I want that sound,‘ and I’ll flip the pickup and there it is. In the future, absolutely, I want to cover all those bases. But it’s a natural evolution. Expect some things in the future that are going to be real cool.”
That’s another thing about guitar playing. It is a process of evolution. You don’t change, but all of a sudden you will find yourself wanting a sound and it might be a little out of reach and you have to work out a way to get it.
“Oh yes, and I think it is an extension of what you are trying to say, and I think the further I dig, and the more I try and say, the more I start reaching for that neck pickup. Some people say, ‘Jared, no!’ For me it is part of the vocabulary, and at the end of the day it is all about exploration and having fun, so if I am on a single pickup and I am going wild, or if I have the double-pickup, it’s still me, it’s still me talking to you! [Laughs]”
We have to ask you about Dorothy. This project is really exciting. This story is incredible. Take it from the top. What is Dorothy and how did you come into owning it/her?
“Okay, here goes! Dorothy, this guitar came into my life from an Instagram DM. There was a guy in Illinois, and he sent me a DM, and like a lot of people, I saw this DM, and it had pictures, and there’s a thing in it saying, ‘Review content: it could be sensitive.’ And I have gotten pictures in the past that I DID NOT WANT TO SEE! [Laughs] So, whenever I get those messages, it’s like, ‘Oh no!’ [Laughs]
“I read the text, and it says, ‘Hey Jared, I’m a big fan of your playing and I know that you love P-90 guitars, and I saw your red guitar, and saw that it was an older P-90 guitar. In 2013, there were two tornadoes in my home town…’ As the first one swept through, he was in his basement... the whole town got ruined. It was one of the worst disasters in the history of this town, and in between the tornadoes, he walked outside, ‘cos he thought it was over, and what was laying in the front yard? Dorothy, the trunk, the body, everything about the Les Paul besides the neck.
“He couldn’t believe it. Instead of just leaving it there – because he is a guitar player – he grabbed the body, took it back in the house and then the other tornado hit. So, he had this body, and it started to become a legend around their town, that this guy had this old Les Paul body. Well, they identified it, a 1952 Les Paul body, they found the owner – it was her grandfather’s – but instead of wanting the body back they had claimed it for insurance and said, ‘Just keep it. Hang it on your wall.’
“Now, flash-forward to 2021, and he hits me up with this message. ‘Hey, I think I’m going to have Gibson restore this guitar. I just had to show it to you.’ I had to act fast. I said, ‘Hey, man! Is there any way you would sell me this guitar? I thought I just had to throw it out there, ‘cos it’s online, just to see if he’d answer me back. He goes, ‘Wow! I can’t believe that you would want this.’
“I said I would love to get this properly restored. He said he had been talking to some people at Gibson, and they had sent him some numbers to put a neck on it and get it playing again. I gave him my number and the next day we talked on the phone. He said, ‘You know what? I’ve been talking to my girlfriend. I want you to have this, because I think it would be so cool if you got it fixed and you played it, and you toured it, and you made music on it.’
“I was besides myself. I promised him one of my Gold Glories. We met, went out and I treated him to some Mexican food and some pints, and he gave me the guitar and we’ve been buddies ever since. Of course, with the tornado and everything, I named the guitar Dorothy – after Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. This thing’s special, man. I had it for a day and then I shipped it out to one of my buddies at JW Restoration in Pennsylvania. Now this is a one-man operation. Joel is doing all of the work himself.
And that's a lot of work.
“This isn’t just a turnaround, throw a neck on it and be done job. Joel has taken absolute painstaking time an effort to restore Dorothy to original spec and get this guitar exactly where it needs to be.
“Now, I have to shout out some of my friends... One guy, Fried Okra, aka Kris Blakely, gave me 1952 tuners, screws, truss rod, pickguard, knobs, everything that the guitar was missing. It was all from the same year, 1952, all original plastic, all original parts. Joel sourced 200-year-old mahogany for the neck, 100-year-old Brazilian rosewood, 50s binding – he even had the plastic, the inlays and the fret markers from a 1952 Les Paul. Even the logo!
“Not only that, he is matching the grain, how the grain was where the guitar was broke to match the grain from the mahogany. It’s insane, dude, and guess what? I got it to him in May, and it’ll be ready in three weeks and I am so excited! I’ll be on tour, and I am going to go and meet him where he lives in Pennsylvania, and I am going to pick it up.”
That is amazing. What a story. Back from the dead.
“One of the best parts is, he pulled the backplate cover off thinking everything was going to be destroyed, waterlogged, soaked – it is museum-quality. All the electronics are perfect. Everything works as it should. Also, we think Dorothy is one of the earliest Les Pauls every made, considering the way the pickups are routed, the cavity – the thickness of the body is thicker than any other Les Paul. It has all of the workings of a prototype, or one of the first 10 or 20 ever made.”
And of course you can get people at Gibson to look into its lineage.
“Absolutely. And you know what’s amazing? I am going to play the hell out of this thing. I am going to tour it. It’s getting a brand new lease of life. Even my friends at Calton Cases in Austin, Texas, made a custom case. Not only gold but gold-matched to Dorothy’s colour. It is going to be resurrected from the dead, and I am going to play it until I die. [Laughs]”
This is your Excalibur.
“I am so excited!”
- Shadow Dancer will be released on 17 September through Black Hill Records. You can preorder it here.