Last month during Winter NAMM 2019, Waukesha, Wisconsin native and Les Paul devotee Jared James Nichols quietly stepped up to the Gibson Brands stage, plugged in his new signature Epiphone Ltd. Ed. “Old Glory” Les Paul Custom Outfit, and proceeded to steal the show with a thunderous tsunami of tone and his own brand of good natured bravado and midwest humility. Though all of us at Epiphone knew what to expect from Nichols since he had performed a similar set at the Epiphone headquarters in 2017, the 'we’ve-seen-it-all' crowd of retailers, industry pundits, artists, and manufacturers, had no idea what they were in for when the young man with the long hair, lanky frame, and unusual Les Paul Custom started wailing away with his trio—with no plectrum in sight. The collective jaw drop was and excitement was palpable on the floor and after the first song, Mr. Nichols was the talk of the conference.
Jared James Nichols is now two years into his tour in support of his latest album, Black Magic. And with a new signature Epiphone and a signature amp on the way, the 21st Century Wizard of Waukesha had reason to celebrate and sit down with Epiphone.com in rare moment of relaxation to take us through the story of how five fingers and a single P-90 dogear pickup set the world of rock guitar on its ear, and where he’s going next.
Congratulations on your first Signature Epiphone.
Oh, thank you! It’s an amazing instrument. Initially when I got the guitar, I went to pick it up at the Epiphone office in Los Angeles where it was waiting for me. I couldn’t wait to get it. I pulled it out of the case, and I thought: Oh man! I had been dreaming abut this guitar and had sketched it out in my head so many times and there it was—perfect! Right out of the case. So I grabbed it and plugged it into an amp right away and it sounded fantastic. I love it. It’s everything—for me—I’ve ever wanted out of any guitar.
How did you get the idea to make a Les Paul Custom with a single pickup?
What’s funny is I had been playing an SG and a bunch of different Les Pauls at the time. Like many guitar players, I had this thing where I had to go through everything I could hoping that I’d find something that really fit. And I remember it was about five years ago I was in a rehearsal studio in LA and it was the same place where Aerosmith was making their last record. And me and my band were jamming in another room and long story short, Steven Tyler walked in and said: “Who are you? What are you doing?” (Laughs) And we started talking and he said: “Man, you play so well. We’re making a record in the back—why don’t you come over?”
I remember at the time I think I was borrowing an Epiphone Les Paul Slash model. So I went in the back and they had racks of Joe (Perry)’s guitars and Joe was back there. And he said: “Ok, hold on. You should try this one.” And he pulled out a vintage 1958 Les Paul Custom but all the pickups had been pulled out of it except for the bridge. And they said: “Now that’s a guitar—you have to try this!” So sure enough, I took that guitar and immediately I fell in love. It wasn’t the same configuration that I have. I’ve put my own little marks on mine. But there was something about having a simple guitar and a simple configuration that as a player, really inspired me and pushed me. To get all the sounds out of it, you have to work hard on the way you play and give close attention to your picking dynamics and your attack. You also have to treat your single volume and single tone knob as tools. That’s all you have. That minimalism is really exciting to me. Every time I play that guitar or pick it up or I think about playing, I get inspired. Because, it really puts me in a zone. And, I also think there is something so cool about having a full body, double bound Les Paul Custom with simple controls. Most people are used to having maybe three pickups and a Bigsby™. To me this guitar is really up to the player. Everyone is going to sound different on it and yet it works so well for such a variety of different types of music. I just love it, man!
And you still play without a pick?
Always without a pick. I ditched the pick maybe six years ago. At the time, I was listening to a lot of Albert King and Jeff Beck and I was working on playing guitar in school at Berklee School of Music. I was reading music and practicing scales and learning the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of theory. But there was a piece of me—kind of like this new guitar—that wanted to go against the grain and just go my own way. I remember I always used to take the pick and tuck it in to my middle finger and just use my index finger and thumb. Then, slowly but surely I stopped using it all together. I think that when you play with your fingers it forces you to work hard on your dynamics. Your attention to subtlety and detail become more intense. They have to so you can get all the sounds out of the guitar. A guitar like ‘Old Glory’ is the perfect thing. There’s no pickup there so you have plenty of room for your hands. But it’s also really up to the player and for me, it all depends on each individual finger and how I attack –that’s how I get different tones.
There’s such a connection when you’re playing without a pick, too. When I use one, it’s almost like playing your fretting hands with gloves. You think: Wait a minute, I can’t really do this. That’s how I feel now with my right hand if I use a pick. I have such a connection to the strings now. And I know it sounds funny but when I play without a pick, I can hear every single string underneath my fingers. And there’s a certain excitement to that. It’s so intimate to play that way. And you feel every single note. It’s cool.
Do you think your band members play differently because they are hearing a wide range of dynamics from you?
Oh, for sure! For instance, my bass player, Gregg Cash, he’s played with a bunch of different bands. I remember the first time we jammed, he just stared at the body of my guitar and my right hand. He was just watching it trying to figure out what I was doing and how I was wrangling the guitar. And he told me right away, ‘Man you’re like the most dynamic guitar player I’ve ever played with.’ Which was really cool, and it was really nice of him. He just said the fact that I was getting so many different sounds out of my picking hand was crazy.
So, it has certainly shaped my sound. And it’s shaped the sound of the trio, too because it’s almost like a chicken pickin’ thing but it’s also very bluesy. I think as a guitarist, your life-long pursuit is to try to find your sound. I feel like I’ve been able to grasp that with this guitar. It’s helped me to hone in on what I want to push and pursue. I find a new thing everyday.
What has your life been like since the release of Black Magic?
My life now is kind of hectic. I feel like a professional traveler more than anything but I also have to play guitar. I think I’ve been to Europe on month-long tours about seven times now since the album came out. We’ve also done three duet tours, too. And all of that has been in support of Black Magic. The last year (2018) was such a great year of touring and building the band and my brand and as of now, I’m gearing up for the release of the guitar and the new signature amp from Blackstar. I’m chomping at the bit to have them out together. It’s going to be a one-two punch. We’re gearing up now for a three month tour of the U.S. and Canada with John 5 and the Creatures. Otherwise, I’ve been writing and getting ready to put out the next record. I’m excited for the future. We’re booked to the end of 2019.
How do you find time to practice and keep your solos and your ideas fresh when you’re on the road?
The funny part is I haven’t stopped writing since Black Magic came out. The first thing for me is when I travel, I’ll take my guitar with me everywhere. I’m not one of those guys who just shows up for the soundcheck, does the show, and leaves the guitar behind. If you only play when you’re on stage, things get predictable and then you’re going for the same thing night after night. I’m always putting myself in the position of having guitar and a little practice rig available at all times. We’ll be sitting and waiting for our flight and I’ll just take a guitar out, find a corner, and play acoustically and work on a technique or a song idea and plug in with headphones. That’s the only way to move forward is to keep pushing. Keep trying to find different sounds. I kind of treat my guitar playing like an athlete would. You always have to push and get better. An athlete can’t take off from the gym. I can’t take off from the playing. It’s really personal for me to get that time put in. And as far as the live shows go, every night I always throw audibles at the guys and try different things. If I’m taking a solo or playing rhythm under the singing, I always try to keep it fresh and maybe just test it or tweak it with a new idea. It doesn’t have to be the same thing all the time. It’s up to me and my creativity.
Who are you listening to for inspiration?
I’ll get caught up in all my old favorites. I put on playlists when we’re cruising around. I usually resort to the bluesy rock stuff. There’s a lot of stuff coming out now by friends of mine that I think is awesome. But sometimes I take inspiration from stuff like old country, old pedal steel or chicken pickin’ things. Sometimes if I’m feeling weird, I’ll put on some crazy jazz stuff just to keep it fresh. I’m listening all the time.