Jackie Venson may be tagged as a “blues artist,” but the Austin-born guitarist/composer doesn’t allow media labels to fence in her stylistic diversity. On her recent self-released album, Jackie Venson Live at Strange Brew, she fearlessly presents a number of styles, feels, and moods—all anchored by a rainbow of Stratocaster sounds.
How did you craft your live-performance sound for the album?
For the album, I used a Vox AC15—though I have a Fender Blues Junior now that I love so much I want to marry it—a Boss DD-7 Digital Delay and a DS-1 Distortion, and D’Addario .010s, because those strings sound good and they’re inexpensive. I’m a baller on a budget [laughs]. My favorite guitar is a new 2016 Fender American Elite Stratocaster with S-1 and Passing Lane switches. I can get 11 tones out of it, as opposed to just five.
Do you actually use all those sounds?
Oh, hell yeah! That’s why I bought the guitar. I use all the tones all the time, because I don’t stick to one style of music. On the live album, it starts off jazzy, then it goes into R&B, rock, Texas two-step blues, reggae, and beyond. I also change tones a lot during parts of songs to match the stories as they develop. It’s the same with solos—as my mood, dynamics, and intensity change, so will my tone. So I need these tones to be able to add so much more language and emotion to everything I do.
Many players tend to stick with just a couple of sounds onstage. Why do you seek multiple tones?
The reason is that I get bored [laughs]. I played a gig with my dad [Austin blues icon Andrew Venson] after about two years of playing guitar, and I said, “Dad, I feel like I’m plateauing.” And he’s like, “You ain’t plateauing, you’re just not using enough tones. You need to work your Tone knob. Why don’t you put it here? Why don’t you put it there?” So I went home that same night, and I checked out what different Tone and Volume positions sounded like using all the different pickup choices. My dad is always right—he has blown my mind like 15 times.
But how can you devise a uniquely individual sound when you’re always switching up tones?
B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and George Benson have unmistakable tones, but it’s also their note choices and phrasing that makes them so recognizable. You know, a singer can sing a lot of different songs, but an audience can still tell it’s them whether they’re singing a rock song, a ballad, or an R&B tune. So I’m actually humming to myself as I’m soloing in order to get to a point where people say, “That sounds like her.” My singing voice is hopefully unique, so I trying to get my guitar to be just as recognizable as when I sing. I don’t exactly know what people will latch on to so that they know it’s me when I play the guitar, but once I find out what it is, I’m going to chase it.
How do you reconcile your talents as a songwriter and a guitarist? They can be totally different jobs.
I’m kind of a rebel, because I understand that non-players—which is most of the world—want to hear catchy melodies and maybe sing along with the songs. But I’m also a guitarist, and I want to play the guitar. I want the freedom to do things that interest and challenge me, and not have to worry about what people want to hear. So, my songs have hook-y choruses, but they might also have a three-minute guitar solo, and the audience is going to have to deal with it. My position is, “Look, I gave you your singalong melodies, now let me play the guitar!”