BLUES PRODIGIES ARE A COMMON ENOUGH PHENOMENON. Every few years a teen or tween player appears, astounding elders by ripping off a 12-bar tune in a precocious manner that ranges from cute to jaw-dropping. Usually these wunderkinds proceed in one of two directions: some continue to grow and improve as players until, like Joe Bonamassa, they become part of a new generation of guitar gods. Others fall off the radar—Nathan Cavaleri anyone?
Jonny Lang’s career has taken a third path. Though his independent release at 14 was pure blues, his subsequent major label records flew in the face of what one might expect from a 16-year-old blues guitarist from Fargo, North Dakota.
On his 1996 debut, Lie to Me, shuffles like Ike Turner’s “Matchbox” and Lang’s own “Rack ’Em Up” offered enough pentatonic picking to please the most rabid of blues purists, but the majority of the tunes displayed a far wider range of influences: Stevie Wonder-style funk, gospel, and acoustic-based pop that wouldn’t seem out of place on a John Mayer record.
“I have always loved different styles,” says Lang. “I think the things that come out of me as a songwriter have changed so much through the years that I would have had to not be myself to stay just the blues guy.”
Lang admits that the blues is where he started. “At the very beginning, the guy who let me join his blues band, Ted Larsen, was my mentor and my biggest guitar influence. He was the guy I listened to every night. Other than that, Albert King, B.B. King, and Albert Collins were the first three guitarists that I tried to emulate,” he says. “I was a pretty hardcore blues listener for the first few years that I was learning how to play guitar. After that, I started getting into people like Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page”
All of the aforementioned titans are occasionally discernible in Lang’s playing, yet he seems to have sprung up with a full-blown sound all his own. “I never had the inclination to straight-up copy somebody,” he says. “I would learn entire solos, but more to just get a vocabulary going. When it came time to solo at a concert, I felt that it was my solo, so I tried to make it original—I am not Albert King.
“I feel like I am the sum total of my influences. I would never claim that one of the riffs that I play really belongs to me—I am standing on the shoulders of a bunch of people in that regard—but I have tried to just let myself be who I am with my music.”
Singing is another area where Lang differed from the typical blues prodigy; out of his 16-year-old mouth came a raspy sound normally associated with 40-year-old veteran soul singers. “A lot of my guitar playing is influenced by singing,” he says. “My first memories of music are singing along to Motown records with my mom and sisters. I have always loved to listen to singers, so I have been trained to come at music from that direction.”
Still another point of departure from the typical blues trajectory is that, from the beginning, Lang eschewed the Strat-based Stevie Ray Vaughn tone adopted by many blues neophytes for a more distorted, classic rock edge—complete with wah-wah. “That was just a comfort thing for me. Everyone’s ear dictates his or her comfort level. It is sometimes easier to play with more distortion, and everybody figures out what level works for him or her,” he explains.
Lang’s ultimate choice of guitar also helped dictate his sound. “For the first year or so I played a Strat that my dad got me,” he recalls. “Then I got into Albert Collins’ Telecaster tone so I got a Tele.” Finally Lang discovered Louisiana blues guitarist Tab Benoit, who plays a semi-hollow Tele with humbuckers. “When I heard his tone I freaked out—the Thinline Tele with humbuckers became the staple for me after that,” he says.
The guitarist eventually dropped a P-90 pickup between the two humbuckers. “I just wanted to have a 5-way thing so I could get an out-of-phase sound, though I hardly ever use that. I do use the P-90 on its own a lot, though.” He can be heard wielding the P- 90 during the fiery intro and first solo of the Tinsley Ellis tune, “A Quitter Never Wins,” on his new record, Live at the Ryman [Concord].
The live record also heavily features Lang’s newer love, a Gibson Les Paul. “I started playing one in the studio a couple of albums ago and realized how great they sound for certain things,” he says. “Live, it’s got a midrange, squawky, funky sound that my Tele just can’t do—the way it breaks up the amp is so different.” His current Les Paul is a 1958 re-issue, but it hasn’t led him to completely abandon the lighter-weight Tele. “The Les Paul I have is heavy but not a backbreaker like a lot of them. It is pretty light as far as they go—but I wouldn’t want to wear it all night,” he says.
The newer ax demonstrates its mettle on the live record opener, “One Person at a Time.” “That tune is going for an older, fuzzy, amp sound. I am playing with a fullon lead sound and my tone rolled almost all the way down on the bridge pickup.”
Lang used an old Gibson amp for the studio version of the tune, but his live rig these days consists of a pair of blackface Fender Deluxe Reverb reissues. “Sometimes I will use both of them together, but one is usually enough,” he says. “I have the other one up there as a backup. I was only using one at the Ryman. They have been rewired to be more like the early-’60s ones. The new ones don’t sound bad, but there are a few things missing. I don’t know the names of the replaced circuits or the values of the pots or whatever, but they make the amps sound a littler cleaner and fuller, with more dynamic range than the stock versions.” The original speakers have been replaced with Celestion Greenbacks.
Lang uses a lo-tech system to turn the Deluxe’s two input sections into two gain stages. An A/B box lets him choose between the Normal and the Vibrato channel. “I have a clean channel and a rhythm channel, which is just one channel on the Deluxe turned up more than the other so it breaks up more,” he explains. For still greater dirt, he adds the Tube Screamerlike Visual Sound Route 66 pedal. “The Deluxes are pretty loud, but it is definitely easier to control the stage volume now than when I was using a Fender Tonemaster,” he says. “That thing was just ridiculously loud.”
The live record draws heavily on Lang’s spiritually oriented 2006 album, Turn Around. His Minneapolis-bred band brings out the funk part of that record’s gospelfunk tunes. Two of the players—rhythm guitarist Sonny Thompson and keyboard player Tommy Barbarella—served with theartist- known-at- various-times-as Prince, and at the Ryman they helped emphasize how Lang’s soul/gospel/rock approach mirrors that of the Purple One.
A rhythm guitarist is unusual on the blues circuit, but Lang has found having one to be liberating and inspiring. “It frees me up to deal with the singing,” he says. “I could have probably learned to do everything, but I like the sound of the rhythm guitarist playing when I am soloing.
Of course, Lang has not actually played the basic blues circuit in years. Through hard work, a killer show—one that leaps off of the live record—and a “big tent” approach to his material, the now more mature guitarist has moved up to the larger venues that few pure blues artists ever get to play. “We have always been able to tour whether we have a song on the radio or not—a lot more often not,” he laughs. “Out of all the years since Lie to Me came out, I think I have only missed between six months and a year of touring.”
A strictly blues career can have a glass ceiling, 200 to 500 seat clubs and a few large festivals, mostly catering to Caucasian audiences in their middle to later years. “I think there was a time when it was that, but now there are younger people, and definitely a broader racial spectrum to our audiences,” he relates. “It has changed as my music has changed.” His music may have changed, but Live at the Ryman confirms that Lang has managed to expand his audience without losing any of the blues-based passion that fired his launch as gravel-voiced, 6-string slinging teenager.