The new wizard from Waukesha

Pay no attention to rumors you might have heard that the electric guitar is dead. Clearly, whoever is telling you such nonsense hasn't heard Jared James Nichols. Over the last three years, Nichols' explosive trio has been touring the world non-stop, gaining fans everywhere, and making a strong case that what planet Earth needs now is more Rock 'n' Roll.

Over the past decade, Nichols has earned many prestigious awards like the Gibson Les Paul Tribute Contest and the Musician's Institute Most Outstanding Player. But he's also been making friends and admirers among the world's top artists like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Zakk Wylde, and ZZ Top, who are all attracted to Nichols' deft fretwork (without a pick!), and deep love of the blues. And when your hometown is Waukesha, the birthplace of Les Paul, you really have no choice but to take up guitar. Nichols dropped by the Epiphone showroom to pick up a new Epiphone Korina Flying-V and show off his customized single-pickup Ltd. Ed. Inspired by "1955" Les Paul Custom™ ("I can't leave anything alone"). He also talked about his new album Black Magic (out October 27) and treated the Epiphone staff to a private showcase that rocked the entire building.

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What music were you listening to when you decided to learn guitar?

To be honest before all of it, I wanted to be a drummer. I was hearing The Who, Zeppelin... all the classic rock stuff. And I thought man, if I could play drums like that, that would be the coolest.

Were there musicians in your family?

Never. Supposedly in the 50s my grandpa played drums in a polka band. We had an old acoustic —starter pack— in the closet. My Dad said 'why don't you play guitar because you can take it with you.' I said nope! So I conned a drum set from a friend and my parents came from work one day and I'm down in the basement trying to figure out the drums. And my Dad said there's no way I'm gonna sit upstairs and have to listen to you bang away (laughs). You know what I mean? So he said try the guitar. He said 'if you can learn a song on the acoustic, I'll buy you an electric.' I learned "Smoke on the Water" and two days later, I got an electric. And I still wasn't convinced until I found out what distortion was. There was a button on the practice amp. And I hit it and I thought that's the sound, that's how those guys made that sound. Then I wanted to learn all the Black Sabbath, all those riffs. The first guys for me were Tony Iommi, Jimmie Page, and David Gilmore. I thought if I could learn the solo to "Comfortably Numb," I thought that would be it. I was 15.

Were your high school friends also into music?

Everybody I knew played guitar. It was either the sports guys or the guys that were into music. They all wanted to play guitar. When I said I was going to play, all the guys went: "Really? Like c'mon man, you're just following everybody else."

Why don't you play drums instead...

Exactly! Then the funny part was my buddy actually had an Epiphone with a flame burst finish. He had the nicest guitar of all of us. We'd all go to his house and he'd say: 'Don't touch my guitar. Don't play it.' Once I learned how to connect riffs and tabs, I just got hooked on it right away. Then I found the blues guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Cream, Free, Mike Bloomfield, all the Bluesbreakers stuff.

Did you find that having a deep music vocabulary helped you as you started to play in bands?

Absolutely. There were a lot of blues jams in my area. I was able to play with Buddy Guy when I was 16 and figure all that out. My mom started taking me to blues jams. She said if you want to play guitar, you should try to play on stage. I grew up on the border of Illinois and Wisconsin and there were Sunday blues jams. Next thing I know, she said we're going for a ride. I didn't even have my guitar. We go to this place and it's full of all these Chicago guys—in the middle of nowhere. It was an old juke joint. They were up on stage playing the read deal. She goes to the bartender and says: 'My son plays guitar. Can he try?' I was thinking 'please no.' I swear to you! Hubert Sumlin was there, guys who played with Junior Wells. I remember being so nervous. I said I want to go back after the first time and we kept showing up. We had the chance to go to Buddy Guy's (club) Legends, too. I got to get on stage with Buddy and after that, I was hooked.

Not many young players get that opportunity. Today, what stands out about their approach?

I was so lucky to watch these guys actually play. It's more than the notes—it's the soul and the feeling behind it. The way you can take something simple and give it such incredible depth. To make your playing stick out and have its own unique sound. Even now as I've grown and put my own band together and we're touring everywhere, the biggest thing I'm still connected with is whenever I pick up a guitar, I still have that blues instinct.

When I was 18 I thought to myself, all of these guys, they all sound different. How do I sound like me? And I think that's the million dollar question for all players, right? When I picked up Les Paul, I was taking stuff from Texas blues, rock, and Delta blues and trying to mix it together in my own way.

And you're from the hometown of Les Paul.

Where I was born was Waukesha. In the 50s—supposedly—my grandpa and his friends, when they were kids, were running around with Les Paul. Who knows about that?

Tell me about making your new album, Black Magic?

I'm really over the moon about this music but it was a crazy process. We've been touring nonstop in Europe and America. There hasn't been a month break in the past three years. When we decided to make the new record, we would start ideas and record it on the road. The songs stem from playing live and figuring that out. We would come off the road and I'd say, let's knock out some demos and then we'll absorb them.

The cool part was over the past years, I've made friends from different bands so we did the record in a lot of places—Johnny Depp's home studio and the Boneyard in Boston—Aerosmith's place. It's one thing to record and make a record but when you're in such cool environments, it pushes you in a different way to get more creative and take more chances. I set the bar for the new record really high. When you tour so much, you start to find out who you are and develop your own sound. We took it straight off the stage and into the studio. We had a fun time making it.

What Epiphone did you use to record Black Magic?

So the Epiphone I got was a Ltd. Ed. Inspired by "1955" Les Paul Custom™. I first played it before a show in LA and honestly, I was blown away. I couldn't believe it. I haven't played another guitar since. I prefer Les Pauls with P-90s. For the style that I like, I don't mind the buzz and I don't mind a little more dirt in the sound because I think it just adds to the character. The P-90 is a lot more of a deeper sound to me. Not a lot of guys play with them. I think they're just scared of them!