J.D. Simo Brings the Blues Back Home on on 'Let Love Show the Way'

A few short years ago, J.D. Simo was filling the guitar-slinger slot in Don Kelley’s legendary Nashville country band, joining a list of hot pickers that has included Brent Mason, Redd Volkaert, Guthrie Trapp, Johnny Hiland, and currently Daniel Donato.
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A few short years ago, J.D. Simo was filling the guitar-slinger slot in Don Kelley’s legendary Nashville country band, joining a list of hot pickers that has included Brent Mason, Redd Volkaert, Guthrie Trapp, Johnny Hiland, and currently Daniel Donato. But country music was not Simo’s first love. Though born decades after the Summer of Love, the young guitarist is steeped in the music of that era. Soon after leaving Kelley’s band, he founded Simo, a tie-dyed-in-the-wool, ’60s-style power trio. Their first release was authentic to a bygone era, with echoes of Zeppelin, Cream, Jeff Beck Group, Yardbirds, and a dash of Kinks, Sabbath, and Hendrix.

Hundreds of live dates later, the Music City-based band has achieved a more cohesive, closer-to-home sound, built around J.D.’s bluesy vocals, vintage guitar tones, and the loose, free-form excursions of the Allman Brothers and their Southern siblings. In fact, much of Simo’s latest release, Let Love Show the Way [Mascot], was recorded at the Allman’s legendary “Big House” in Macon, Georgia. “The owner of Duane’s goldtop had let me play it over the years,” he explains. “The guitar is in the Big House museum. Most everything cut there was on that guitar.”

Like his friend Joe Bonamassa, Simo is a player to whom collectors enjoy loaning prime pieces. The guitarist shared some of these windfalls with GP, as well as why he brought the music back from its more Brit-inflected tendencies to the sound of the USA.

Is it fair to say that this record has a more American than British vibe?

It definitely embraces a more Southern approach to playing—improvisational blues-based rock music. The more we travel the more the South feels like home. It’s been a natural evolution of the music we play.

You are playing a Les Paul as much as your 335 these days.

I have had the loan of a 1960 sunburst Les Paul for about a year and a half. I call it “Candy.”

Why record in Macon?

We had a Nashville-recorded album finished when we signed with Mascot. They wanted us to record some bonus tracks, so we went to the Big House with a mobile recorder. The bonus tracks were done within an hour. We kept going and recut some of the Nashville record. We ended up with an album and a half of material and hours of jams. A jam that appears on the record is called “Ain’t Doing Nothing” because I didn’t have to edit it.

Are any of the tracks from the Nashville recording sessions?

“Long May You Sail” is from the Nashville sessions. I’m playing a loaner ’58 Flying V on that. Also, “I’ll Always Be Around.” I’m playing Candy on that one.

“Please” has an edgy-sounding rhythm guitar with really good articulation on complex chords.

It was a ’59 Strat that is also on loan. I used it to track the song, and then overdubbed the slide part with Candy.

Did you record mostly live?

Everything is completely live. Even the finished vocals were done with the tracks. If there’s an overdub, it’s a second guitar part, percussion, or a doubled vocal.

What kind of separation did you use?

None. Part of the sound of the record is everything bleeding into one another. I don’t expect everyone to like that, but I do.

Did you play the rhythm parts on the basic track and then overdub the solos, or vice versa?

On three songs I played rhythm on the track because there’s slide guitar intermingling with the vocal. On all the rest, the solo is on the basics, which is how I like to work.

Some of the guitars have a heavy room sound.

At the Big House, we put the bass in one room and my guitar amp in the other. A microphone in a third ambient room where the Allman Brothers rehearsed just picked up my guitar. I strongly dislike close miking on my guitar.

There’s some backward guitar “I Lied.”

I wanted some psychedelic stuff. I recorded the guitar direct into the board through a fuzz; I don’t remember if it was a Supa Fuzz or a Fuzz Face. Then I reversed it in Pro Tools, which has a very different sound than a reverse pedal. When reversing the track, it’s difficult to play through the changes backwards.

What amps are you using?

An early 1969 100-watt Marshall that is a plexi, not a metal panel one. I’ve got some old basket-weave cabs, and—on gracious loan from Joe Bonamassa—[Free guitarist] Paul Kossoff’s cabinet, which sounds incredible.

Is that why you do Free’s “Fire and Water” some nights?

After I got it, I had to do something by Free. It was fun, but I don’t enjoy playing covers. “With a Little Help from My Friends” is the only exception. Or, if there’s a guest sitting in with us, it might dictate doing a cover of some sort.

I noticed in a video that you’re not stacking cabinets anymore.

As we played more opening slots in bigger places, we were trying to find ways to make the sound consistent, not only on stage, but also out front. Putting our stuff on the ground seems to make our individual zones a little more comfortable. Also, they don’t project out as far if they’re not raised up.

You’re not facing them across the stage at each other any more?

That was in the previous incarnation of the band. The stage volume has come way down. I rarely play through two cabs anymore. In a bigger place we might, because we don’t like to use a lot of monitors. I have even occasionally pulled two tubes out the 1969 100-watt. It changes the sound, but in a pleasant way. You have to rebias it, but I know how to do that. For me it’s like working on a car—a kind of stress relief. Some people constantly change things on their pedalboards. Since I don’t have a pedalboard, my thing is to mess with stuff like that or to try different strings.

Speaking of strings, what are you using?

I’ve been using a hybrid set from D’Addario. I feel lighter strings sound good on old humbucker guitars. When you put on slightly lighter strings it seems to cut out some of muddy frequencies on those old guitars, at least on the Les Paul and on “Red” [Simo’s 1962 Gibson ES-335]. I start with their .0095 set, but usually I’ll put a .009 on top. It was tough for me in the beginning because, playing as much slide as I do, I had to adjust my technique and lighten up a little bit. I’m always fighting the battle of having a heavy right hand, and thinner strings force me to lighten up. It sounds better when you play with a lighter touch with your picking hand.

Which picks are you using?

Sometimes I use a really heavy V-Pick from Nashville. Those sound really good, but other times I feel more comfortable with old-school Herco 75 1.01 millimeters.

What is your favorite slide?

I use original old Coricidin bottles from the early ’70s.

Where do you get them?

Once in a while they pop up on eBay. I’ve gotten several from people coming to shows. I’m comfortable with them and they sound great.

Do any of the country licks you learned to play with Don Kelley ever sneak into the Simo gigs?

I’m sure they do. That’s where I learned to be a musician. It’s all part of my playing, though less than it used to be. The other night we played Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Bob Wills played. A friend who owns [Wills guitarist] Eldon Shamblin’s gold Stratocaster, which Leo Fender made for him in 1954, gave it to me to play. One of the other acts was a friend of mine who plays traditional country music. I was able to get up with him and play “Take Me Back to Tulsa” on that guitar, in that building.

Your music is based in the sound of the ’60s, but when you start jamming, there are musical ideas that would not have been played back then. Is that part of putting your stamp on it?

In an improvisational passage, all the things you collect as a musician are in there. When somebody plays something, every influence I have is free to come out in response. It is so hard to be free, whether in everyday life or in a musical context, because we’re insecure. To let go and be a blank canvas is really difficult, but when you do it’s amazing. I’m trying to express whatever emotions I have at that moment. Whether or not somebody likes it is not up to me. It might not be great—one might argue some of the best improvisers in history were extremely inconsistent—but the great performances happened because they were always reaching. Some nights are better than others, but it never gets boring.