In a town full of insanely great guitarists, Jim Oblon stands out
by adding a deeply personal style to the usual blazing technique and tone to die for. His
penchant for building tension by hanging on notes a half-step below the destination note
longer than usual is but one facet of a go-for-broke attitude that highlights him against a
backdrop of brilliant-but-safer pickers.
A Nashville resident, Oblon was raised in Connecticut by parents who were music
players and educators. The family basement housed a variety of musical instruments and
young Jim learned to play most of them, including Hammond B3, cello, bass, and drums.
Though competent enough on the latter to pound the skins for no less than Paul Simon,
Oblon opted to call drum legend Jim Keltner to play on his own guitar-centric release,
Sunset [Compass]. Caught before leaving Music City to provide drums and guitar for a
Simon tour, the musical polymath declares, “If I could only take one instrument to a desert
island it would be guitar.”
How did you end up focusing on guitar?
I was living in New York and felt I didn’t know who I was artistically. So, for about five
years I lived in an abandoned Connecticut town that had artist housing. I would make lists
of what I cared about and guitar ended up at the top. The other instruments I play feel like
a craft, but guitar feels like a calling.
Did you formally study any instruments?
My mother would show me stuff on keyboards and I studied vocals, frame drum, and
classical guitar at college.
Was a classical career ever a possibility?
I think I would have stayed with it, but that world is more disciplined than I was at the
time. I studied at Hart College in Connecticut,
where the teachers weren’t used to dabblers.
They were like in the movie Crossroads:
“You can’t have two masters!”
Did playing classical lead you towards
using a thumbpick?
Yeah—I had technique left over from classical
guitar, and then I fell in love with the
Chet Atkins tune “Wheels,” and discovered
Chet used a thumbpick.
Had you been playing with a flatpick?
I was into Stevie Ray Vaughan when I
was 12. I had the flatpick, the Strat, and the
Tube Screamer. I didn’t start playing with the
thumbpick until I shedded it in my artists’
housing period when I was 25. I had also
studied how to apply South Indian percussion
concepts to a frame drum, and the way
I used all my fingers on the drum somehow
felt guitar-like. My style ended up being this
weird hybrid of classical guitar techniques,
thumbpick, and all these Indian rhythms.
Do you use your thumb and two fingers?
Usually, but sometimes for rakes I will
also use the ring finger.
How did you end up playing with Paul
I had been teaching his son guitar for
about five years. I made an EP and was
going to record a song from it with Paul’s
wife, Edie Brickell. I was playing it for her
when he heard it and liked the record. He
was just beginning a new record at that time
and asked me to come to a session and bring
everything—bass, guitar, and drums. I ended
up recording with him and Phil Ramone for
a year and a half. The first gig I played with
him was on guitar, filling in for his guitarist.
What prompted the move to Nashville?
It was the Sunset record I made with Larry
Goldings and Jim Keltner. Phil Ramone hired
me to play on a session where Larry Goldings
was the keyboard player, and a friend
of mine knew Keltner. We did the record in
two days at Sunset sound in L.A. For mixing,
I listened to a bunch of records to see which
ones had a sound that I liked. Vance Powell
in Nashville had mixed all the records I
liked, so I sublet a place there and mixed the
record with him. Then, moving seemed like
the next logical step. I feel like there is more
music I like going on here than in New York.
Have you been doing sessions on drums
I don’t even own a drum set here. I did
a guitar session at Sun studios in Memphis
and quite a few people have sent me stuff
to do sessions at my house. I’m starting to
do co-writes with guys who write for Rascal
Flatts and Sheryl Crow. They like having me
around because I will come up with riffs that
are not typical.
Sometimes when you are soloing you
seem to dwell on the sound of the notes
that are coming out.
That’s my favorite part of watching Hendrix
concerts, where it’s not really notes—
more like modern sound art. It can be hard
to do that kind of thing in Nashville. I am
the kind of player who pushes things to the
edge, where I don’t know where I am going,
so I screw up a lot and play wrong notes.
I sometimes feel that could be viewed as
unprofessional. A lot of the players here are
so technical it is almost surgical—they never
flub. But it doesn’t have the same quality as
Hendrix or Jeff Beck. I’ve heard Beck crash
and burn. I struggle with whether you go
for consistency each time or go for the jugular
Where do the jazz elements in your
improvisational style come from?
As a kid I saw an old Looney Tunes cartoon
with boogie-woogie piano in it. I asked my
mom about it and she showed me the pattern.
She would play the left-hand bass part
and I would find the right-hand parts on my
own. That was the first time I improvised.
I also used to sit at the Hammond B-3 as a
kid and find these melodies and other notes
to go with them. I was experimenting with
intervals before I knew what they were. Like
Mozart said, “You just have to find the notes
that like each other.”
I also like the saxophone player Sidney
Bechet, and I transcribed his clarinet solo on
“Blue Horizon.” It almost sounds like Roy
Buchanan, the way he bends the notes. It
really lends itself to guitar.
You often hit on a melodic motif and
keep it going up and down the neck. Does
that come from a jazz sensibility?
That might come out of how they keep
motifs going in orchestration, like on Frank
Sinatra’s September of My Years record. I also
think there should be a compositional element
to a solo, as opposed to just hot licks.
I find if I try to sing what I play it becomes
Where did you come up with the distinctive
way you comp on a blues?
For a year I played a blues trio gig every
week, and playing the usual root and 5
sounded small. I found I could play wider
intervals with the thumbpick. I started pedaling
the root on top while moving the 5 to
the 6 and 3 to the 4. When the bass player
plays the root, this rub happens that sounds
so much fatter, like an orchestra playing.
Oddly enough, people say they have never
heard that before.
Talk about your Telecaster-style instruments.
When I was shedding in Connecticut
I worked with the Albert Lee and Danny
Gatton videos, but Roy Buchanan is probably
the guy who influenced me most to do
the Telecaster thing.
My main guitar is a part-o-caster that
began with Don Mare Roy Buchanan model
pickups he calls the Real Nancy Clone set.
When I moved to Nashville, however, I
found the hum was really loud in the clubs,
so I switched to the Seymour Duncan Billy
Gibbons BG-1400 Lead Stack pickup. It
sounds like a Tele with a little Filter’Tron
and a little P-90. I also have the matching
My new guitar is one I put together as a
top-loader, like the first Tele I ever owned.
It has 22 frets with a compound radius, an
air-dried pine body with a true-oil finish,
and a roasted maple neck. I use D’Addario
EXL120+ strings, gauges .095, .011.5, .016,
.024, .034, and .044.
Why is there solder down by the ball ends?
I found I was breaking strings down there.
I haven’t broken a string since I started soldering
the winds around the balls, and I
don’t have to stretch the strings as much.
Do you use any effects?
I use the Xotic Effects EP Booster, and
their SP Compressor, which is always on.
Every now and then I will step on a fuzz,
like the MJM London Fuzz, or throw on a
Pigtronix Quantum Time Modulator for a
Leslie effect. I am getting an Analog Man Bad
Bob Booster, which is like a Dallas Rangemaster
without the frequency boost. It just
adds a little grit.
What about amps?
For Sunset, I rented a 1955 tweed Fender
Deluxe and a 1965 Fender Princeton and
played through both of them. At that time,
I was using a tweed Deluxe and a later-period
Deluxe with Scumbacks speakers
live, splitting the signal with a Lehle Little
Dual splitter box.
Did you use them on the Live from the
That was recorded after Sunset but released
before. I was using a JMI Vox AC15 on it, but
I sold it and bought a Fender Vibrolux, like
Roy Buchanan had. It has been modded with
a capacitor that tunes the mids to where they
would be if it had a midrange knob on 7. It
has 5881 tubes and Weber DT-10 speakers.
The Webers are great for high-gain settings,
because they tame the amp’s icepick highs
and fill in some bass. I use a voltage regulator
to make sure it is always getting the
right power. Using a tube amp is like dating
an alcoholic girlfriend—one night it is the
best thing you ever had, and the next night
it is, “What the hell happened?”
Has being a drummer influenced your
Studying the Indian rhythmic system
helped me center the beat inside myself,
so sometimes I can start a run in a weird
place and end it in a weird place. It helps
me superimpose rhythms—switch between
straight fours and triplets, or play patterns
in seven over four. John McLaughlin does
that stuff, but I think it has a place in roots