FROM HIS EARLY DAYS BUSKING ON THE STREETS TO touring globally as a headliner, Australia’s John Butler has sought to forge his own musical voice both as a guitarist and as a socially conscious songwriter. Primarily wielding 11-string acoustics and Weissenborn lap-steels run through a rig that includes both studio-grade preamps and a Marshall JCM800 half-stack, Butler also plays 6-string acoustics and electrics, lap-steel, a National Steel resonator, and banjo. On his latest recording, April Uprising [ATO], Butler enlists bassist Byron Luiters and drummer Nicky Bomba as the latest incarnation of the John Butler Trio, and brings a tighter, more pop savvy feel to the music. From the fingerpicked hillbilly funk of “Don’t Wanna See Your Face” to his taut slide playing on “One Way Road” to the gentle acoustic closer “A Star is Born,” Butler shows the breadth of his musical scope and abilities.
How did you approach recording April Uprising?
My main agenda was to have an album that was very focused, very powerful, and very song-driven—and we just humbled ourselves to doing whatever was needed to do right by each song. I relate to songs a little like I would to a wild animal, such as a beautiful horse. What makes it beautiful is that it’s wild and strong and healthy. It hasn’t been broken, but in order to take it to town and show everyone how beautiful it is, you have to get the saddle on it. I want to be able to ride the horse, not kill its spirit.
Is there a particular guitar that you tend to use for writing?
I write on whatever instrument is in my hands at the time I get the inspiration, though when it comes time to record and perform live, I may wind up playing the song on a different type of instrument altogether. For example, I wrote “Close to You” on an acoustic, but in my head I was already hearing it as an electric guitar song, and that’s what it became.
You play several types of guitars live. What is your main instrument?
My main guitar is the Maton CW80 dreadnought 12-string that I’ve been playing for about ten years, which is tuned to open C (C, G, C, G, C, E, low to high). It’s really an 11-string, because I remove the high-octave G string. On a 12-string, the high G is higher than the high E, which is just too high, because I want the sound to be even and my mids to be nice and warm. I also have a Maton ECJ85 jumbo 12-string with a solid spruce top that’s in the same tuning but a half-step lower, a Larrivee 6-string acoustic, a reissue Model D National resonator, and a Carson Crickmore Weissenborn-style guitar, which is made out of an Aussie wood called blackbutt. My electric is a ’72 Fender Telecaster Deluxe.
You also play banjo.
I have two: An American banjo made by Imperial and an Aussie banjo made by Bacon. Because I already played in open tunings using my fingers, picking up the banjo made perfect sense. I like it because it sounds sort of like a sitar, though when I play it through my Marshall rig I have to stuff it with foam so it doesn’t feed back.
How do you amplify your acoustic instruments?
The 12-strings and the banjos use a combination of Seymour Duncan magnetic and Maton bridge pickups, and the 6-string just uses a bridge pickup. The lap-steels are fitted with Fishman Rare Earth Blend soundhole pickups that combine a magnetic pickup with a microphone. The magnetic pickups and the other pickups and mics follow separate signal paths, one for the pure acoustic sound that goes to the P.A., and one that eventually gets routed into the Marshall.
The signal path involves an Avalon M5 microphone preamp, an Avalon U5 instrument preamp/DI, a Midas XL42 mixer, and some other components (see the November 2007 issue of GP for details). The magnetic pickup signal also gets routed through a DigiTech Whammy pedal, a Boss ODB-3 Bass Overdrive, a Boss PH-2 Super Phaser, a Voodoo Lab Micro Vibe, a Boss RV-2 Digital Reverb, a Dunlop Crybaby 535Q wah, and an Akai Head Rush E2 delay. And the signal that goes to the Marshall also gets routed through an Ibanez TS9DX Turbo Tube Screamer and an Ernie Ball volume pedal along the way.
How do you set the controls on the Marshall to optimize it for acoustic instruments?
Usually I have the Middle and Treble controls up half-way and the Bass control up full, because I like a rich, full bottom end. I also like a lot of gain. In the studio I have a 1974 Marshall JMP Super Lead 100 MKII that I set the same way as the JCM800, because both of those amps need to have the bass turned up all the way to sound right.
How do you see your role as a guitarist and a musician?
There are so many tones and techniques that can be used to express feelings, and as a guitarist I feel it is my job to tell a story and to take the listener on a ride. For example, the first time I got hit really hard in that way was listening to the Band of Gypsys play an alternate version of “Machine Gun.” I could hear helicopters and napalm bombs and screaming and machine guns and hearts breaking and coffins being sent back home—all in the sounds Hendrix was creating with his guitar. He was channeling something way bigger than himself that was coming directly from his heart. Sometimes he ripped into the sound and sometimes he just let the sound hang and unfold and distort and break apart. I was laughing and crying at the same time. It was life changing.