Jon Stickley's Eclectic Flat-Top Stylings

September 8, 2017

If you think instrumental records featuring acoustic guitar are limited to smooth jazz riffing, new age noodling, or country cornpone, check out the Jon Stickley Trio. It’s not your father’s acoustic-guitar music—although Stickley’s pop showed him his first chords when he was 12 years old. Instead, Stickley’s Martin churns out a mixture of bluegrass, Chuck Berry, metal, prog, grunge, and assorted other genres—all thoroughly integrated into a personal style.

“When I started playing, I couldn’t wait to get home and practice those three chords my dad showed me,” he recalls. “I got a white Squier Stratocaster and a little Crate practice amp for Christmas, and I learned all of Nirvana’s songs.”

He soon left Nirvana’s music behind—along with his electric guitar—but the Jon Stickley Trio retains some of that band’s reckless attitude. On their latest outing, Maybe Believe, Stickley, violinist Lyndsay Pruett, and drummer Patrick Armitage produce a wall of sound without electronics, overdubs, or guests.

When did you decide to focus on the acoustic guitar?

I learned some classical and folk guitar in high school. Then, I borrowed a mandolin and learned some David Grisman tunes. Through Grisman, I discovered guitarist Tony Rice, who became my biggest musical hero. When I wanted to play with a bluegrass band that already had a mandolin player, I said, “I can be your lead guitarist.” From that moment on, I completely dedicated myself to flatpicking guitar.

Did playing mandolin help you develop your picking hand?

The mandolin is very picking oriented, but getting the cadences down and building up speed is pretty easy, because it’s small and the tuning makes sense. So when I switched back to guitar, it gave me a leg up. Much of what I do is based on mandolin patterns, where you use the open strings, and move from the low to the high strings in geometric patterns, as opposed to thinking about a melodic scale.

How did the trio start?

I had been playing upright bass in a traditional band in Nashville for two years, when the lead singer said, “You need to go play your guitar.” No one was hiring guitar players at the time, so I started booking Jon Stickley Band gigs around Nashville. For one gig, I booked Lyndsay, and it was one of these instant connections. When she played a solo, I was right there, and when I would solo, she was backing me up. It was as if we were the only two people up there. I called her and a bass player for the next gig, and that was the first Jon Stickley Trio. The lineup stuck until the bass player couldn’t make it, and my roommate, who played drums, said he would play instead. It was so much fun—so weird and unique—and that was the birth of the Trio as it is now.


What appealed to you about not having a bass and adding drums instead?

It wasn’t losing the bass as much as it was gaining the rhythm from the drums. We had been missing the percussive element.

Does it give you more harmonic freedom during the solo sections?

Honestly, it may give us a little less. We deleted the root, so our playing had to become more rooted in either melodies or bass lines. The fiddle backing supplies only minimal harmonic information. I can’t go too far out, because my solo is implying what is happening harmonically.

What is your main guitar?

I have always used a 1956 Martin D-18. Because of the tone and volume I am trying to get, I like to have have a high action and large frets.

What type of strings do you use?

Live, I use a .013 set of Elixirs, but in the studio, I prefer D’Addario EJ17 Mediums.

Why?

I can hear the coating of the Elixirs in the studio. The coated strings last longer, but I just like the sound of the uncoated D’Addarios for recording. There’s something about the grit. Elixir strings are amazing for live performance, as they stay in tune, don’t break, and retain a bright, clear sound. Whereas with D’Addarios, I needed to put on a fresh set for every show, and the constant loosening and tightening of the strings was wearing out my nut and saddle.

Also, I am anal about tone in the studio, so I use a tortoise-shell pick. For bluegrass flatpicking, a good piece of tortoise shell gets the best tone out of an acoustic guitar. But there are supply issues, they wear out, they get roughed up, and they require constant maintenance. So onstage, I use BlueChip picks. They are the only picks I have played where the beveled edge never gets rough, so the pick slides smoothly off the strings every time.

How do you mic your guitar in the studio?

For the Maybe Believe sessions, I used a large-diaphragm condenser mic to get a bit of the woof from the body, and a Neumann KM 84 pointing straight into the fretboard near the 12th fret for clarity. I used that setup, and also ran a line from a K&K pickup, which has three mini transducers glued under the bridge plate. I go from the pickup to a splitter, where one signal goes to a guitar amp, one to a bass amp, and one goes direct to a passive DI and into the mixing board. We use different combinations of the signals for every song. On my pedalboard, I use the Electro-Harmonix POG to change my guitar into a bass, so I can play lines behind Lyndsay, and she has one on her pedalboard so she can do the same thing for me.


Do you use distortion?

I don’t use much distortion, because I haven’t found a pedal yet that sounds right to me on the acoustic pickup. But Lyndsay has a killer one I might end up getting—the Electro-Harmonix Soul Food.

Some of the grooves on the album are almost disco, and some are more prog-rock. Did you plan the rhythmic diversity from the beginning?

We decided to do whatever we wanted. Because I played drums in the past, I will often hear a drumbeat that inspires a song. Sometimes, I’ll hear Pat doing something at soundcheck, and I’ll record a bit of it. “Play People” was written around a drumbeat.

Do you have some other projects going on, as well?

One is called the Songs from the Road Band. It’s a bluegrass supergroup of players around Nashville. We get together and make albums that are on the bluegrass charts for years, but we don’t tour. I also have a duo with Travis Book from the Infamous Stringdusters. We sing brother-style harmony and play guitars at festivals where both our bands are playing.

What is the difference between electric shredding and bluegrass flatpicking?

The difference between acoustic and electric picking is the physicality. You can’t do the delicate sweeping things on an acoustic. It is about what can be done quickly and at full volume, which results in a lot of alternate picking. They pick that way in metal, too, but things like hammer-ons and pull-off combinations don’t work as well on acoustic instruments because they don’t have as much sustain.


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