ethan Johns

From mu­si­cian, writer and per­former to pro­ducer, mix en­gi­neer and record la­bel owner, Ethan Johns has honed his craft as a gui­tarist on both sides of the con­trol room glass

Guitarist - - Contents - Words Rod Brakes Pho­tog­ra­phy Joby Ses­sions

Ethan Johns’ pro­duc­tions are syn­ony­mous with a host of world-class stu­dio al­bums from a pro­fu­sion of artists such as Paul McCart­ney, Tom Jones, Laura Mar­ling, Paulo Nu­tini, Ryan Adams and Kings Of Leon. His char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally or­ganic hy­per­re­al­ism in recorded sound is a sonic sig­na­ture that pays tes­ta­ment to a pure, life­long love of mu­sic, not only as an award-win­ning pro­ducer, but also as a no­table multi-in­stru­men­tal­ist and cre­ative artist. With a string of solo re­leases and in­nu­mer­able col­lab­o­ra­tions un­der his belt, he joins us here to share some sound ad­vice with you… How did you dis­cover mu­sic? “Brian Jones gave my dad [record pro­ducer Glyn Johns] a dul­cimer. I was about three years old and I re­mem­ber sit­ting in a big green arm­chair strum­ming on this dul­cimer for hours. There was some­thing in­ex­pli­ca­ble about the way I could play a spe­cific series of notes that would make me feel happy, or a spe­cific series of notes that would make me feel sad. It was like magic to me! I was ob­sessed and from then on all I’ve ever done is play mu­sic.” What was the first gui­tar that you owned? “It was a red Fender Bronco – I’ve still got it! I got it for Christ­mas in 1974. [laughs] I used to sneak it in bed and play in the dark. That was a tip from my dad. He said, ‘What you should do is play in the dark be­cause your fingers will re­mem­ber where to go bet­ter if you can’t see.’

“I never took lessons, but there were a cou­ple of guys around that were men­tors: Bernie Leadon – he was with Ea­gles, but he didn’t want to do Ho­tel Cal­i­for­nia and went surf­ing in­stead – and the other guy was Andy Fair­weather Low. He al­ways had time for me and would al­ways help me tune or re­string or give the gui­tar a pol­ish.” How did you ven­ture into the record­ing en­vi­ron­ment of mu­sic? “As a kid I played gui­tar and wrote as much as I could all the time. I got a lit­tle demo stu­dio to­gether us­ing a four-track tape recorder and was writing songs. Then I got an eight-track ma­chine. I used to spend

days and days on it! I mean, it didn’t even mat­ter if I didn’t have a song to record, I’d just start mak­ing sound col­lages and just ob­ses­sively dis­ap­pear into the world of record­ing, look­ing for sounds. Just al­ways ex­per­i­ment­ing.” Do you pre­fer a more ex­per­i­men­tal ap­proach to record­ing? “Yeah. That hasn’t re­ally changed; I don’t like to have a plan. The freer the cir­cum­stances are, the more likely that some­thing mag­i­cal is go­ing to hap­pen. There are times when you need pre­pro­duc­tion, but I al­ways leave the door open for some­thing un­usual to hap­pen. If you’re in­spired, the work’s go­ing to be good. I’ve been mak­ing records for so long now, but, re­ally, I’ve just been mak­ing mu­sic. This whole thing about pro­duc­ing – it all came from play­ing. The whole thing.” So would you iden­tify as a gui­tarist first and fore­most? “Yeah, gui­tarist/drum­mer. The first pro­duc­tion gigs that I got were from song­writ­ing ses­sions. I’d play gui­tar, write songs with other peo­ple and make a demo. And then some A&R guy would hear the demo and say, ‘That sounds good – who recorded that?’ and then – boom! All of a sud­den I’d be mak­ing a record. I had pretty good record­ing tech­niques and a lot of the singer-song­writ­ers that I worked with didn’t know how to record any­thing. I was just help­ing them make a record, but even when I’m record­ing with bands, if there’s any op­por­tu­nity to play I will.” What acous­tic gui­tars are re­ally im­por­tant to you right now? “I’ve got a 1969 Martin D-18, which is re­ally nice. That’s the one I recorded the most with on my last solo al­bum [Sil­ver Liner, Ethan Johns With The Black Eyed Dogs]. It’s re­ally beat – proper thrashed. It’s an im­por­tant gui­tar to me. I’d just moved out to LA and I had no acous­tic gui­tar, but I had just got­ten off the road with Crosby, Stills & Nash, so I had a few quid in my pocket and I picked that thing off the stand, played one chord and went, ‘How much do you want for it?!’ In­stant con­nec­tion. It’s been my main record­ing acous­tic ever since.

“I take my 2000 Martin D-41 around with me a lot now – I’ve been us­ing that one live for the last three years – and then there’s a 1964 Gib­son Cus­tom J-200 that is an amaz­ing rhythm gui­tar. My [Gib­son J-180] Everly Brothers gui­tar is also a good rhythm gui­tar, es­pe­cially for the faster, higher rhythm play­ing.

“I usu­ally go to a ses­sion with two gui­tars. I’ll have a Martin for most things, but if I need to play a proper rock ’n’ roll rhythm gui­tar then I tend to play a Gib­son. I have a Cal­i­for­nian red­wood David Russell Young – that’s one of the most im­por­tant gui­tars I own. I use it quite a lot for writing and record­ing. He was ‘the’ Cal­i­for­nian acous­tic builder. He built gui­tars for Gram Par­sons, James Tay­lor, John Prine, Keith Richards and Eric Clap­ton. There aren’t that many of them. They’re like the elves of the acous­tic gui­tar world!” What elec­tric gui­tars do you favour? “I’ve got a ’52 Tele­caster, which I still play a lot. It’s a great gui­tar, but one of my main elec­tric gui­tars, which I used when I MD’d the UK Americana Awards, is a mod­i­fied 2006 Mex­i­can Fender Tele­caster. It’s re­ally my num­ber one. It’s noth­ing to write home about in terms of vin­tage ap­peal, but the whole point of this gui­tar was for it to be as ver­sa­tile as pos­si­ble and it’s got ev­ery­thing I want in a gui­tar.

“Gene Par­sons [The Byrds, The Fly­ing Bur­rito Brothers and in­ven­tor of the B-Bender] put the B-Bender in him­self

when I sent it off to Cal­i­for­nia. It’s got brass sad­dles and cus­tom pick­ups – it’s just a great work­horse! That’s the spirit of it.” What ad­vice would you give to gui­tar play­ers when it comes to play­ing and writing their own ma­te­rial? “Keep ask­ing ques­tions and try to do the best you can. Peo­ple some­times dis­miss all kinds of mu­sic other than the stuff they’re lis­ten­ing to. I’m not say­ing that you shouldn’t cham­pion the thing you love, but the truly great gui­tar play­ers that I’ve come across are learn­ing from ev­ery cor­ner that they pos­si­bly can. Ry Cooder is one of those guys. He re­ally im­merses him­self with who­ever it is that he’s in­ter­ested in. He’ll go to Cuba if he wants to learn about Cuban mu­sic, or wher­ever. Keith [Richards] would never have come up with the open G tun­ing had he not hung out with Ry. One of the most de­fin­i­tive rhythm rock ’n’ roll gui­tar play­ers took some­thing like an open G tun­ing – which could’ve po­ten­tially been like a kind of bizarre Hawai­ian thing – and look what he did with it! Any­thing can work its way in.” How do you per­form and en­sure you cap­ture a great take? “I think one of the rea­sons that some record­ings are still con­sid­ered to be clas­sic and sound fresh to­day is be­cause they’re per­sonal ex­pres­sions of the artists. If you put on those Bea­tles records, the first thing that you hear is the per­son­al­ity of the peo­ple mak­ing the records, be­cause there were so many im­per­fec­tions. Dom Monks, an en­gi­neer I work with, said some­thing re­ally in­ter­est­ing: ‘So much is be­ing said be­fore you know what it is that you want to say on those early takes.’ Dur­ing those run-throughs, be­fore the takes, be­fore the brain kicks in, there’s a re­ally amaz­ing at­mos­phere that flies around. You’re not over-in­tel­lec­tu­al­is­ing in any way, shape or form: you’re just re­spond­ing to what you’re hear­ing for the first time.” What is the best way for gui­tarists to ap­proach writing and record­ing? “You’ve got to find your truth in what­ever it is that you’re try­ing to do. You shouldn’t let any­body in­flu­ence what you’re do­ing if your cre­ative ex­pres­sion is truth­ful. It’s very easy to be in­se­cure or mind­ful about what oth­ers may think, but this whole thing about try­ing to be hip or try­ing to please your strong­est critic… Fuck that! Don’t even bother with it – it’s got noth­ing to do with any­thing. As long as you’re be­ing truth­ful to your­self then ev­ery­thing’s gonna be fine, man – it’ll work out!” What mo­ments par­tic­u­larly stand out in your life as a mu­si­cian? “One of my high­lights would be play­ing a ben­e­fit con­cert for Fred Walecki [of West­wood Mu­sic, Los An­ge­les] with Ry Cooder. I also got to play with The Byrds that night. What a buzz! It was the first time those guys had played to­gether in a long time, and there I am play­ing drums

with them – it was in­cred­i­ble! The most im­por­tant thing for me about those ex­pe­ri­ences was the joy in the mu­sic. It was a buzz to play with Ry in re­hearsal, but when we walked on stage, that was when he re­ally un­leashed. It was like a light­ning bolt! I’ve never been so lit up by an­other mu­si­cian in my en­tire life. I’d never felt en­ergy like it be­fore. It was like he was from an­other planet. I think it’s com­mit­ment – full com­mit­ment – to the moment. There was no mis­tak­ing where it was or where it was go­ing. It was like, ‘Get on­board and let’s fuck­ing go!’ And there was a tremen­dous sort of aban­don and pu­rity in that moment.” Who are you work­ing with at the moment? “I’m record­ing with Ida Mae at the moment and it’s been fan­tas­tic [see the ‘Or­ganic Pro­duc­tion’ box op­po­site for more on Ethan’s work with the blues duo]. The songs are great! I’m lov­ing work­ing with those guys. Stephanie [Jean] is a phe­nom­e­nal key­board player and it’s great to play drums along­side [gui­tarist] Chris Turpin. I find I re­late to them as artists as much as any­thing. Chris is an amaz­ing gui­tar player and no­body plays like him, that’s for sure. He’s clearly ob­sessed – he’s al­ways play­ing. You don’t get that good without play­ing all the time. It’s amaz­ing to me how ob­vi­ous it is, but it’s easy to for­get. If you want to get bet­ter as a gui­tar player, just pick up the gui­tar and play!” Do you like to play gui­tar ev­ery day? “I try and play ev­ery morn­ing. Just do­ing some­thing pos­i­tive and mean­ing­ful with your day is so im­por­tant – learn­ing some­thing, whether it be a chord se­quence or what­ever. It’s still magic to me, it re­ally is. It’s im­por­tant to bring that re­spect and love and ide­ol­ogy for mu­sic into the record­ing process. Mu­sic should be re­spected. I think if you do re­spect mu­sic in the way that you make it, it will treat you well.”

Ethan’s 1924 Martin T-28 Ti­ple is a rare Martin 28-style 10-string in­stru­ment (in 2-3-3-2 for­ma­tion) that is tuned like a ukulele with oc­taves

It may not have the vin­tage ku­dos of some of the other gui­tars in his col­lec­tion, but Ethan’s 2006 Mex­i­can Tele wins points for ver­sa­til­ity: “It’s got ev­ery­thing I want,” he says

The B-Bender sys­tem in Ethan’s Mex­i­can Tele was per­son­ally in­stalled by The Byrds’ Gene Par­sons, in­ven­tor of the B-Bender!

Ex-Ralph McTell 1950s Hofner 461S acous­tic arch­top. “It records great. It’s very middle-y. Some­times you don’t want rhythm gui­tars to sound too big or they take up too much room”

A trio of vin­tage Fender tweed amps (in as­cend­ing or­der): 5F1 Champ, 5F10 Har­vard and 5E9-A Tre­molux. “These amps can give me the sound I need at the right vol­ume” “It’s such a use­ful tool,” says Ethan of this East­man MD-514 F-style man­dolin. “I’m al­ways look­ing for some­thing that’s go­ing to be use­ful on a record and oc­cupy a slightly dif­fer­ent space, sonically” “I re­mem­ber bring­ing this [1940s Masco Map15] amp to Buddy Miller who heard it and flipped out. He went and found one im­me­di­ately!”

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