Jim James is the vocalist, guitarist and founder of Kentuckian psychedelic art-rockers My Morning Jacket. Formed in the late ‘90s, the band released their ninth studio album earlier this year.
The eponymous long-player follows up last year’s The Waterfall II but it wasn’t the only major release James has been involved with in recent months. For James – like Larry Carlton, Alvin Lee, Chris Cornell, Joe Bonamassa, and Dave Grohl – has now joined the Gibson family by lending his name to a signature ES-335 model.
Though it has some subtle personal touches, the Gibson Jim James ES-335 doesn’t stray from the essential blueprint that has made this iconic guitar so successful over the decades. It’s Walnut finish black witch-hat knobs, and Calibrated T-Type pickups give it a late 60s vibe, while a sprinkling of other choice features, including personalised emblems, make this guitar James’ own.
Here, he explains how he developed his signature guitar with Gibson – a project that was, as it turns out, many years in the making – and discusses his enduring love for the company’s original double-cutaway semi-hollowbody thinline…
How far back does your collaboration with Gibson go?
“This guitar was in the works for a while – around ten years or so. But once Jenny Marsh joined Gibson the whole thing got serious and the Custom Shop made a prototype guitar. That was about three years ago and so I’m really happy it’s finally out there.
“It was so cool to actually see the prototype. And having a signature Gibson is unbelievable. It’s like one of those things where you can’t quite believe it. If I went back and told my 13-year-old self I would get a Gibson signature guitar it would be hard to believe. I’m just so grateful.”
What do you think of the guitar itself?
“I really love the guitar. We spent a lot of time getting all the details right because I wanted it to be something I would play every night on tour. That’s the thing I’m most impressed with – how much I really do love playing it.
“It has such a beautiful simplicity about it. And I really love the classic Walnut finish. That was something I really wanted to have. One of the most important things for me was that the guitar has a slim neck because I’ve got pretty bad carpal tunnel [syndrome] and if I have to play a super thick neck it just really wears on me.”
How did you arrive on the Calibrated T-Type humbucking pickups?
“We went back and forth quite a bit on pickups. We even tried P-90s for a while. I really wanted the pickups to be able to do anything. I didn’t want them to be too rock ‘n’ roll or too dull.
“What I loved about the two 335s I already owned and played was that within one song I can instantly go from a super clean, beautiful clean tone to a raging, insane fuzz sound. They deliver on everything.”
What other appointments make your signature 335 unique?
“I love the witch hat knobs. They just look so classic. Just the term ‘witch hat’ sounds cool. [laughs] There are a couple of symbols on there too, which make it unique – a symbol on the truss rod cover and an owl emblem on the back [of the headstock]. I’ve always loved the owl. There’s something about the owl which speaks to me. That’s been one of the symbols My Morning Jacket has used for years.
“Owls play a big role in Twin Peaks, and there’s a beautiful part in a Twin Peaks book that says, ‘They remind us to look into the darkness.’ I’ve always really liked that. I feel like that’s part of how we can all grow and change – if we face the darkness and deal with it, rather than running from it.
“Also, the owl is a reminder of nature. And in this modern world filled with technology I think it’s good to get as many reminders as you can to get outside, breath fresh air, and connect with nature. So, the owl means a lot to me.”
The Gibson ES-335 is such a timeless design. Guitarists find it just as appealing nowadays as they did when it first came out in 1958…
“There’s just something so beautiful about a 335. To me, it really is the ultimate guitar.” It’s the guitar I reach for the most and the guitar that can do anything. I love my Flying V, but sometimes it’s just too rock ‘n’ roll. And I love a Strat. But sometimes a Strat just does what a Strat does, you know? Which doesn’t always work for me. But I feel like the 335 works for anything.”
Do you use 335s in the studio as well as on stage?
“Oh, definitely! I got my first one right before [My Morning Jacket] made our  It Still Moves album. That was the first time I had one in the studio, and it’s been my go-to ever since. When we start working on a song, I always start with a 335. Then, as it progresses, if I feel like I want to take the sound in a different direction I might choose a different guitar, like the V or Strat. But I always start with a 335.”
What was your first 335?
“It was an early ‘00s Tobacco Sunburst model. I still play it on tour all the time. It was pretty much the only guitar I played on It Still Moves other than the V which I played on a couple of songs. A few years later, I got a black 2005/2006 335. And those were the only two 335s I had for years. I just love both of those guitars so much. They were both brand new when I got them, and I still use them on tour a lot.”
What made you go for the Walnut finish?
“I’d always loved it when I saw it on other guitars. I thought it was so interesting that it wasn’t available anymore. I was very surprised about that because it looks so cool. When we started talking about it, I really felt we should go with that. I know it was introduced in the late ‘60s but it feels timeless.
“There’s something about the way it looks that makes me feel like I’m playing a tree or looking at a piece of art. There’s something really natural and interesting about it.
“I just wanted to make it a guitar people would love when they saw it, even if they didn’t know or care who I was. I just wanted people to go, ‘This is a sick guitar… Who’s Jim James?’ I don’t even care; I just like the guitar.’”
The same is often true of Les Paul…
Like the Les Paul Standard, many players feel the 335 is a perfectly designed electric guitar – that you can’t improve on its essential form…
“The 335 is beautiful and its really functional. There’s a reason why certain things work. It’s like a piano – they nailed the design a very long time ago. And I think the 335 is so special because of its semi-hollowbody build; you can sit and strum it and enjoy it unplugged, or you can plug in and go as hard rock as you want without it feeding back like crazy.”
Gibson’s original centre block design was a stroke of genius…
“Oh, definitely. It gives it killer sustain, and gives it that ability to cut through and really rock, like an SG or Flying V.”
Have you played any other Gibson ‘3-series’ guitars?
“I’ve occasionally played an ES-330 – the fully hollow model without the centre block – in the studio. But I don’t like the way they sound as much as the ES-335. With My Morning Jacket’s music, I’ll go from clean to fuzz in the same song, and with a 330 and similar hollowbodies, as soon as I step on my fuzz pedal it just feeds back like crazy. To the point where I can’t even play it!”
What do you like to pair a 335 with in terms of pedals and amps?
“I use a 3 Monkeys amp called the Orangutan. They’re really cool. You can get a lot of different tones with those, from a beautiful clean sound to a raging distortion. I use the amp boost on stage a lot. I’ve really enjoyed using that amp (plus it looks really cool!)
“I’ve got a quite a few pedals, but my favourite fuzz is by a company called Devi Ever. I’m also really into the new Universal Audio pedals. I think they’re really great. The way they modelled those classic sounds is amazing. I’ve got a Boss Blues Driver that I really love for lead stuff. I just tried the BD-2W [Waza Craft] version and really liked it, so I’ve just switched out the regular [BD-2] Blues Driver to that one.”
So, what do your bandmates think of your new Gibson signature model?
“They’re so stoked. They were all joking about whether or not the 13-year-old version of me would really believe it. [laughs] One of the most important things for me was to test it live before it was released to make sure I loved it on the road.
Fortunately, I got to take one on tour and play it every night. And I do love it. It’s become one of my favourite guitars. Being what it is it’s obviously very special to me, but I wanted to make sure it was something that I would love just as much as my other Gibson 335s.”