Compliment a guitarist in Nashville and they will say, “Thanks, but have you heard Jack Pearson?” Pearson grew up just south of the city, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Exposed to a wide range of music by his brothers, he ended up with a style that moves seamlessly from Wes Montgomery and Duane Allman to Reverend Gary Davis—often in the same tune. His fluid sound owes nothing to following the “rules.” Pearson plays with his left-hand fingers flat rather than arched, the result of a childhood operation that limited the bending of his wrist. He blissfully uses a beginner model guitar, and plays Duane’s slide licks in standard tuning. You can hear him on his 2007 record, Do What’s Right [Candlefly Records], and All My Friends: Celebrating the Songs & Voice of Gregg Allman[Rounder], or check him out with his killer trio on YouTube. The Music City master revealed some of his secrets to GP, with more to be found on his website, where he offers affordable video lessons.
How did you get started?
My oldest brother taught me. I remember him showing me Jimmy Reed licks when I was about nine. He gave me a chart of the fingerboard and told me to memorize the notes. After about a year, he handed me a slide and said, “I can’t do it, but you need to learn how.” He would always say, “I should have done this and I didn’t. You need to.”
What guitar did you learn on?
My brother had an old Harmony acoustic. The action was like a Dobro, and my fingers bled. We finally put a capo on the 3rd fret to pull the action down. He showed me what he knew, and then I just played along with records. I would watch people play on TV, and then run to my room to try to get it under my fingers. My brother-in-law had the Allman Brothers Band:At Fillmore East record. He showed me the 9th chord, the 6th chord, and this [plays a major 7th chord]. Learning those tunes was great ear training, and it came in handy later on [laughs].
When did you start playing with bands?
I started when I was a teenager. The older guys in the band would drive because I didn’t have a license. We would play George Jones and go right into “Purple Haze.” My second session was in Muscle Shoals when I was 17. It was a band called Renegade—Lee Roy Parnell and me.
When did you get into the jazz aspect of your playing?
At about 15, Wes Montgomery and Django Reinhardt became my main influences. I had already been using my thumb, because Toy Caldwell from the Marshall Tucker Band used his. There is a phrasing I can do with the thumb that I can’t do with a pick. I went through spells where I would just use my thumb, or just a pick, or just my fingers. When I use my fingers, I put the pick between the first and second, like holding a cigarette. That way I can use all my fingers. Now I use them all—as well as pick and fingers.
How did you put the jazz, rock, and blues styles all together?
They just came together over time. There are guys who say you can’t do that in the blues, or in jazz. After a while I decided, “Yes I can.” We’d be playing a jazz standard, and I would go into a Roy Buchanan, bridge pickup, whistling harmonic thing. I’ve gotten fired a lot for it on other people’s gigs. I’ve had artists come up to me and say, “Don’t ever do that again.” That’s just what I want to do, and I finally feel free to do it with my own stuff.
How did the Allman Brothers gig come about?
I knew Warren Haynes, and when he joined the Brothers I said, “If you ever need a sub, let me know.” In 1993 he called and said, “Dickey’s going into rehab. Can you sub?” I couldn’t do it when they first called, because I couldn’t cancel the work I had and leave everyone hanging. They had David Grissom cover it for two or three weeks, and then I did it until Dickey came back. Gregg liked my playing, so he hired me for his solo band. Then in 1997 he called me to sub when Warren left the band to do Gov’t Mule.
How much of your jazz stuff were you allowed to play in the Brothers?
Not as much as with my band. They were open to me playing whatever, but I felt I should play in their tradition. I learned every note on the first four records. I would play some Duane stuff as a tribute to him, but also try to be myself. With Dickey in the band, I would sometimes catch myself playing a Dickey Betts lick. It was a mind trip.
What guitar were you using with them?
A Strat body with a Tele neck, a humbucker in the bridge, and two Seymour Duncan Hot Rails in the middle and neck with coil taps on them. I didn’t have a Les Paul, but they didn’t care. I didn’t know Duane played a Strat, an SG, and a 335 in his early career before he switched to the Les Paul. On the first record Dickey played an SG. He gave Duane that guitar for slide towards the end, because they got tired of him retuning.
Do you retune for slide?
I play in standard and alternate tunings: open D and open. I have my Silvertone Jupiter tuned to open D. I also have a hybrid, open E7 tuning, where I just tune the third string up to a G#.
How you do you play those Duane licks in standard tuning?
It’s hard to do. In the beginning, I only had one guitar and nobody wanted me to retune in between songs, so I had to learn. That’s also how I developed a light touch with the slide, because I didn’t have a separate guitar with higher action.
Do you use a glass slide?
I use a glass Dunlop slide, but the same model can vary in length. I have to go through a batch at the store to find the length I like. I used to have my guitar case full of Coricidin bottles. People would come up to me and say, “I love your slide playing,” so I would give them one and say, “Thanks, learn how to play.” I didn’t know they were going to quit making them [laughs].
What guitar are you playing these days?
A $90 Fender Squier Bullet Stratocaster. A friend of mine wanted a guitar for his daughter, so I went to the store and played all the Strats. The Squier Bullet was the most acoustically resonant. I never plugged it in. If it vibrates and holds the note acoustically, that is it. The salesman thought I was nuts. The next day my friend said, “She wants a Tele.” I said, “Good, I’m keeping this.” I replaced the volume pot, had the frets dressed, filed the nut, and took it out on a gig. The second gig was the Gregg Allman tribute at the Fox Theater. It’s a great guitar. I have gone back several times looking for another one, but it was just that one out of the batch. All these guys walked by, looked at my guitar and looked away real quick [laughs]. I used to be into brands, but I don’t care what anything costs or who makes it anymore.
You get an amazingly fat tone out of it.
It even has the “undesirable” ceramic magnet pickups. The polepieces are weird heights but they sound great. I wire the second tone control to the bridge pickup, but most of the time it is full up. It’s the first guitar I’ve had where I can go from Wes to Roy Buchanan.
What gauge strings do you use?
I use D’Addario .010s, or sometimes .009s depending on how the tension of the guitar feels. The Bullet has .009s. It actually resonates better with them. I use Wegen Picks, the TF 140.
I use an Ibanez Tube Screamer and an MXR Custom Badass O.D. overdrive, which sounds more like an amp than a pedal. I will kick it in for a little extra boost and it works well with the Screamer.
Speaking of effects, you don’t use a wah pedal but I swear sometimes I hear one when you play. How do you do that?
As a kid I didn’t have a wah-wah. I had to figure out how to do it with my fingers. I hold the pick where my first fingernail, the flesh of my first finger, the pick, and my thumb can all hit the string depending on how I swivel my hand. Each one is a different texture so you get a different sound depending on which one hits the string. I call it the “poor man’s wah-wah.”
Tell me about your VVT signature amp?
I love my old Fender Bandmaster, Showman, and 50-watt Marshall amps. I wanted a combination of those sounds. I was concerned about where the mids and bass were centered. Jim Hill at VVT finally got it right with this model. It’s a 40-watt combo. Hill and Lindy Fralin came up with an openback cabinet that has a 15" speaker, but the baffle has a cross brace that disperses the sound—I can walk across the stage and it sounds consistent. They added a midrange control to the Lindy Fralin model. A switch adds a slight upper-mid bump that changes the character from Fender to Marshall. I don’t use a lot of bass—it gets in the way of the bass player. It also changes the way the guitar vibrates.
Is there a new record in the works?
I hope to do a live one with my new band with Charles Treadway on organ and Josh Hunt on drums. The way we inter-act is not rehearsed. I’ve been fired from other people’s bands for improvising, but that is my main strength. Being able to pull out the different styles at different times keeps it fresh for me. I’m a great bunch of guys!