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Jason Isbell

"If I have a style of guitar playing or an individual way of approaching the instrument, it probably came out of following the right mistakes." In this episode of String Theory, we speak with Jason Isbell about his history with guitar and early influences, his writing process, and his ability to humbly create Grammy winning albums throughout his career."

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The thing that I liked the most early on was blues music. My grandfather, if I would sit and play rhythm guitar for him for a couple of hours through gospel songs and old country songs, then he would turn the guitar flat in his lap, tune it to open E or open D, and play it with a pocket knife, and that was my reward for dealing with, you know, two hours of country and gospel songs. And that, I became obsessed with that really early on.

I grew up in Muscle Shoals, in the area about 20 miles outside of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. So there was still a lot of really great studio musicians, but we had liquor laws there that wouldn't let you open a bar or a venue. It had to be a restaurant, so you had to sell more food than alcohol. That worked out really well for me, coincidentally, because when I was 13, 14, 15 years old, they couldn't kick me out of the bar. So I could go see these people play. There's some people who played on the original recordings of the songs, and everybody thinks they're covering. People like David Hood and Spooner Oldham, and guitar players like Kelvin Holly. Those were the first people that I really tried to imitate. Those guys were always trying to play the most emotive version of whatever they were doing, so that just became natural to me.

Once I learned that people made a living playing the guitar, it was done. It was over. Why would you ever attempt to do anything else if you could make music for a living? But the songwriting thing, that took a while, because I was not really an extrovert and I didn't really feel like I had a lot to say, but I had read enough and practiced enough with different kinds of writing that when I really got serious about songwriting, it went pretty quickly. But the fact that I started out as a guitar player really, I think, helped me be a better songwriter.

I've always been the kind of guitar player who liked to play melodies that I could sing. I think I read Eddie van Halen say that sometime in the 80s in one of those guitar magazines. He was talking about how you should be able to sing every melody that you play, no matter how complicated it is. And I started doing that really early on, because it just makes it more lyrical and more vocal and more melodic. And when I started writing the songs, that was great, because really all you have to do is start playing a melody and then instead of just singing the melody, just put some words there and then go back and figure out better words until you have a line, and then you have another line, and another.

The Drive-By Truckers gig was the first thing that came along that seemed to fit the bill of what I wanted to do. Also, I learned from the truckers that it's not an all or nothing proposition. It's not like you get signed and you make a platinum record and you get to be a star or you have to go back into the workforce. You know? I learned from those guys that nobody can make you stop touring and playing. Nobody can make you stop. You know, I learned to speak my mind in my music, and I learned not to be afraid to sing things that didn't paint me in the best light.

And I learned that people still like loud guitars, which was ... There were three guitars in that band, and we were all playing through big amps. I had a JCM800 Marshall and a 4 x 12, and I took the back off with a screwdriver. I mean, in those days I think maybe Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine, that might've been the only bands that were louder. Drummer had the big crash rod cymbal, you know, and of course that was right by my left ear. So my left ear is no good, no good anymore.

I was a little bit anxious about going out on my own. I mean, it wasn't really a decision that I made. I got kicked out of that band, because I was drunk all the time. But I'd already made a solo album while I was in the Drive-By Truckers, so I just called people that I knew and musicians that are respected and asked if they wanted to come out and tour. The hardest part for me was having to carry the weight of the whole set, having to sing for an hour and a half or two hours every night. Back then, I wasn't taking very good care of myself. One show in San Francisco, my voice went out completely, and we still had 20 minutes or so that we had to play, so we just started playing Meters covers.

And then my amp went out. A tube blew or something. I was like, "Oh my God." So I plugged direct out of my pedalboard into a direct box and went into the board, and played for another two or three songs like that. This was the worst tone you can imagine. But then that night, somebody broke into our van and stole a bunch of guitars and drums and stuff, and we get up the next morning and the drummer quits. This was in the middle of a two and a half months tour all the way around the country. The drummer quits. He comes up to me while I'm on the phone with the cops filing a police report, asked me for $100 advance, and I'm just like, "Whatever dude. Let me go to an ATM." I got him a hundred bucks, and he used that to get a cab to the airport, and his girlfriend had bought him a plane ticket home. He didn't call me until he was already at the airport headed home. I didn't know what was going on. I have not seen him since, per my own instruction.

We had another month and a half left, and so we were missing all this gear, windows knocked out of the van. We borrowed gear from the other band that we were touring with, Will Hoge. Borrowed his drum kit, flew a drummer out to pick up the tour, and he had no rehearsal. Didn't know the material at all. I did a great job. We had another month of that, and I remember thinking, "Man, the wheels are off. The wheels have fallen off," but we've still got shows to play, so we'll continue to play them.

I think if I have a style of guitar playing or individual way of approaching the instrument, it probably came out of following the right mistakes. I think I started off imitating, like everybody does, and I was way into Eric Clapton for a long time when I was 10, 11, 12, 13 years old. But then I got obsessed with country players and started listening to Jerry Donahue and Danny Gatt, and I spent a lot of time, obviously, with Duane Allman and [Rock Heuter 00:07:38] and Lowell George and Sonny Landreth and Bonnie Raitt. That sort of thirst for as much knowledge, as much relevant knowledge about guitar playing that I could get, being the kind of person who's naturally curious, probably helped me develop my own style as a player more than anything else. I can't do Eddie van Halen or Chet Atkins justice, but I can find something in between the two. If you play something weird enough for nobody to know where your influences came from, then you have a style all your own.

When I'm playing, I rely on wit. It's the same thing as trying to have a snappy comeback for something, or when you're trying to be funny, or when you're trying to be charming on a date. It's the same place in my brain that that comes from. If you can think a few steps ahead and still keep part of your brain on what you're doing in the moment, then you can make phrases. If you go back and listen to David Lindley's lap steel play, his solos sound composed, but he never does them the same way twice, which means that they aren't composed, he's just a really witty player. He's really quick, and he's smart enough to keep the focus on the moment while still thinking, "How am I going to get off of this lamp? How am I going to get back to the tree?"

And that's what it is for me. You sort of compartmentalize, and you take part of your brain and you think, "I'm going to be right here in this note that I'm playing right now." But then also, it's important to be able to react quickly to your own playing. The best players to me are the ones who are the most improvisational, but still sound the most intentional, and I think the way to do that is awareness and, you know, be prepared. Be prepared to respond to what you're going to do next.

I think the first pack of Ernie Ball slinky tens that I had were on my first electric guitar when my uncle gave it to me. I've got it right over there. It's Electra MPC. I had the built in effects cavities with the little, you know. It had toggle switches so you could turn on the effects, and you could take them out and switch them out with other effects and stuff. That's what I have used on electric guitars ever since. We're looking at 32 years of the same strings. I remember reading the back of the pack and all the names, and I remember a few years ago when I saw my name on the back of the pack for the first time, it was an extremely exciting moment, like a posted picture. My buddies do that on Twitter too. Every few months I'll see some guitar player like, "I'm on the pack of strings, I'm on the pack of strings!" It's really exciting, because it was one of those things that you sort of memorize when you're a little kid. Who's on the back of this pack? Who's playing these?

I don't think I'll ever stop trying to refine the tone. You know, I love the Marshall and I love all kinds of different amplifiers, but in my touring rig right now, I have one signal path that I just recently got all the gear in place for this, and it sounds like I wanted to guitar to sound in my head since I was a little kid. It's a '58 Bassman that used to be George Alessandro's. He did all the work on it, and then a '64 Vibroverb with the 1 x 15" that's had the vibrato circuit disconnected, the Diaz mod. It is not a cheap signal path, but it took a lot to get to it. A Klon Centaur Analogman Compressor. I had to make me a four knob. Because he had the three knob, I had a four knob, so I could blend.

That signal chain, for me, is just ... That's how I wanted a guitar to sound, and I think part of it is like having 1 x 15 and 4 x 10s, it's responsive and it cuts through a mix, but it's also very rounded. All the different amps and guitars that I use are really responsive, and they all do what they're supposed to do. But there's just that one particular chain that is like, "This is what I wanted my guitar to sound like when I was eight." Probably because it's a mix of [Mart Mowfler 00:12:42] and David Gilmour and Bonnie Raitt and Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. That's probably what it is. It's like it sounds the most like all of those put together.

And the thing to me that's magic is when I was a kid, I was playing like crappy copies of this guitar, you know. and this is my guitar now. I don't have to ask anybody's permission, I can just go play it whenever I want to. If you get to that point and you're not still having fun, then you're doing something wrong, because it's like, you know, the kid that I was at 15 or 16 trying to get Led Zeppelin four tones out of my tiny amplifier, I'm a cheap Les Paul copy. Now, I have a big Marshall and a real Marshall '59 Les Paul. And that, to me, is enough to keep me interested in all of it. It's like you have what you dreamed of having as far as the gear and the ways to play and the ways to get those sounds.

As a guitar player, too, I just need a reason for what you're doing, and I need that to not be self-serving. And that's all. That's all I need for somebody to be a good guitar player. I don't need you to have a lot of technical ability or be in tune. I just want to feel like you're trying to tell me something, rather than you're trying to show me something. You know? I want it to feel like communication rather than display, and I think that's kind of at the core of honesty.