ONE SPIN OF LUKAS NELSON AND PROMISE OF THE REAL’S debut five-song EP, Brando’s Paradise Sessions [promiseofthereal .com], and you’re immediately taken by Nelson’s huge, pure Strat tone. Together with drummer Anthony Logerfo, bassist J.P. Maramba, and keyboardist Chris Williams, Nelson and company create a riot of bluesy soul. Nelson’s supple and sparkling rhythm playing takes precedence over preening solos, but he does cut loose with melodic sweet ’n’ sour lead breaks, deftly mixing Southern rock-infused major pentatonic majesty with an aggressive, growling attack, while never veering into SRV-land. “I was obsessed with Stevie Ray when I was a kid,” explains Nelson. “I would even dress like him!” But when it came to inspiration, Nelson never had to look far— he’s the son of the legendary Willie Nelson.
“It’s safe to say my overall musical tone comes from my father,” says Nelson. “I can’t escape it.” But when he says he has inherited tone from his old man, he’s not talking about tone in the most obvious sense. After all, the younger Nelson’s wound-up Stratocaster is a different beast than pop’s warhorse Martin N-20 nylonstring, Trigger. The tone he is speaking of has more to do with truth, soul, and conveying the magic of the moment rather than turning a knob on a piece of gear.
How did you start playing the guitar and what were you into?
Obviously, I was around music a lot with my dad and his friends. I had been singing since I was three, but by the time I was 11 or 12, I fell in love with Hendrix, Stevie Ray, Mike Bloomfield, and Dire Straits. I felt comfortable with the guitar pretty quickly and I completely immersed myself in it. I knew I could make the instrument sound good if I worked hard and dedicated myself to it. I would just sit in my room and listen and watch videos of my heroes playing. I’m the kind of guy who says nothing is impossible. By the time I was 14, I was able to go out and play with my dad’s band and I still do that when Promise of the Real isn’t touring or recording.
Your rhythm playing is big and full, yet you never really strum.
I do the hybrid-picking thing with my pick and fingers a lot, especially for rhythm playing. It sounds bigger than strumming to my ears. I also do a lot of trills and hammer-ons and pull-offs within chords, which fattens up simple harmonies. Hendrix did that a lot and so does Neil Young.
Have you always been a Stratocaster guy?
Always. My main guitar is a 2000 Fat Strat. I string it with a DR .011-.052 set. Like everyone who was into Stevie Ray, I did my time with .012 and .013 gauge strings, but that just gets ridiculous. My action isn’t really high or anything either. For amps, I’ve been using Fender Twin Reverbs. The Twin at its quietest will be on four or five, but more often than not, even at small venues, it gets turned all the way up. I do take a Deluxe Reverb around if we’re playing a really small venue. On the sessions for our new fulllength album, I used a ’64 Super Reverb and I’m probably going to start using those live. My only effects are a Boss tuner and BD-2 Blues Driver. The Blues Driver gives me a nice growl—kind of like Clapton when I’m on the front pickup, but when I switch to the rear pickup, it screams like Neil Young or Hendrix. I swear, I try not to limit myself, but those two pickup positions alone through a cranked amp give me all the tones I need and more.
A lot of guys think Twin Reverbs are too loud and clean to turn up.
The Twin Reverb is actually a real soulful amp. The clarity it gives me is like a good song lyric—I can easily hear it and it speaks to me. I mean, you’re supposed to play your guitar like you’re singing right? How can you project your voice if it’s all muddy sounding? I’ve always liked tones like Freddie King, Doug Sahm, or even Mark Knopfler—their tones were always clean, but big. Besides, turn a Twin Reverb up and put a little elbow grease into it and you’d be surprised at the ripping sound you can get!
Would you ever do the sideman thing?
I would if the timing were right. I really love Bob Dylan, for example, and I’ve been lucky enough to play with him a couple of times. But Bob asked me to tour with him and I had to pass, so Charlie Sexton eventually took the gig. I know people think I’m crazy for not doing it, but I’m just too into my own music right now. I love Bob. He’s a hero of mine and I was privileged to even be asked, because he always has such amazing players in his band. But Bob also fires his guitarists left and right, and I want to keep my relationship with him as awesome as possible!