Nashville Tele Master Jim Oblon's Radical Roots

April 14, 2014
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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 Simon?

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 and guitar?

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 vein.

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 less lick-y.

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 neck pickup.

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 Foobar record?

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 guitar playing?

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 music too.

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