For Julian Lage, Love Hurts and Music Heals

The guitarist is on a quest for musical singularity

Julian Lage (photo: Nathan West)
Julian Lage (photo: Nathan West)

A Show of Hands: Lage’s Manual Approach to Sound

From Manzer and Gibson L5 archtops to Martin OOO-18 and Collings OM1A acoustics, Nash T-style and Nacho Guitars solidbodies, and a 1954 Fender blackguard Telecaster, Julian Lage has experimented with a variety of tools in pursuit of his singular sound. Perhaps none is so surprising as his recent dalliance with a 1957 Gretsch Duo Jet, with the original Bigsby tremolo, for most of Love Hurts; Lage discovered it while recording and producing the album at Wilco’s spacious studio in Chicago’s Irving Park area. Still, one notable feature of Lage’s studio and live tone is what gear he doesn’t use. Even playing with a solid-body electric guitar, he eschews pedals almost entirely in the studio, and uses only a few on stage.

“With regard to anything that modifies the sound of the guitar, I am sincerely in awe of players who do that effectively,” he says. “I’m always struck by the fact that players at the highest level like Nels Cline or Bill Frisell or David Torn, they’re seemingly looking at the guitar from a producer’s point of view. In other words, saying, ‘What would distinguish this sound within the ensemble? What would reinforce the emotional architecture of the music?’ That really is transcendent to me.

“For my own work, though, I fall short of finding a way to use pedals effectively, mostly because it doesn’t feel totally natural to me,” he explains. “I grew up very much thinking that if you want anything to change with the sound, it has to change with your touch or with your technique.” A discussion with L.A. studio ace Blake Mills brought up a compelling argument that all guitar effects are based on real-life physical and sonic phenomena. “Reverb mimics a room or a space; chorus, phase, or flangers are all coming from intonation-based adjustments you can make manually on the guitar,” Lage says. “And there are even ways where harmony alone can overdrive the instrument. Objectively speaking, you could say that when you want to turn on your fuzz pedal, you could also just play a minor second!”

That said, a few pedals do find their way into Lage’s live rig, including a JHS Morning Glory Transparent Overdrive (“It’s on all the time to help bigger amps approach that more low-wattage sound”), a Strymon Flint Reverb/Tremolo (“There are more decadent reverb options I could use, like a separate reverb tank, but for my purposes, that pedal is wonderful”) and a Shin-Ei B1G Preamp Gain Booster (“My failsafe pedal; it sort of mimics an API preamp, and just really cleans things up beautifully”).

“My dream setup is really just an electric guitar—a Telecaster, or this wonderful Gretsch Duo Jet—through a low-wattage amp, like an old Fender tweed or the 1950s Gibson BR-6 I used on Love Hurts,” Lage explains. “The way that those amps work is that they really highlight every change in touch, so I feel like I’ve got a strong connection between how I’m touching the guitar and what’s coming through the speaker. If I dig in, it’s grittier; if I don’t, it’s more pristine. Now live, if I find myself having to play more powerful backline amps, I’m using pedals to make it respond and sound like a small amp. But if there’s a way I can get the same effect through touch, I’ll do it that way, because that is how I learn.”

Also in the Lage arsenal are Ron Ellis pickups, Mastery bridge saddles, Divine Noise cables, D’Addario EJ21 Jazz Light strings, Blue Chip TP50 picks, and a Sonic Research ST-300 mini-strobe tuner.   

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James Rotondi

James Rotondi is a Nashville-based guitarist and writer who’s performed with Humble Pie, Mr. Bungle, Air (French Band), Billy Gibbons, Eric Burdon, the Grassy Knoll, and many others. A former senior editor at both Guitar Player and Guitar World magazines, he has also written for Rolling Stone, Spin, Mojo, Acoustic Guitar, The Wire, Premier Guitar, and The Boston Phoenix. His 2014 solo album, Into the Unknown, by Roto’s Magic Act, was hailed for its “masterful songwriting” (Blurt), “wickedly skilled guitar playing,” (Powerpopaholic) and “cinematic guitar tones” (Guitar Player).