JD Simo on the Joys of Fuzz

After the thousands of blazing country solos JD Simo played for Nashville honky-tonkers and YouTube viewers before leaving the Don Kelly’ group in 2013, guitar enthusiasts were seriously surprised by the sound of his own band.
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Photo By Derek Martinez

Photo By Derek Martinez

After the thousands of blazing country solos JD Simo played for Nashville honky-tonkers and YouTube viewers before leaving the Don Kelly’ group in 2013, guitar enthusiasts were seriously surprised by the sound of his own band. Hell, no one even knew the guy could sing. When Simo, the record, turned out to be something of an homage to the great British power trios of the ’60s, complete with the guitarist’s Paul Rodgers-style vocals, fans were gob-smacked. Simo, the band, followed up their first outing with Let Love Show The Way, bringing the music back home with a Southern-rock vibe enhanced by the use of Duane Allman’s actual guitar.

Both records revealed a band that could evoke the spirit of a bygone era while adding its own distinctive stamp. But Simo’s love of classic rock extends beyond the music to the attitude of continual searching that was a hallmark of that time. The Beatles, the Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, et al, evolved from record to record, and their fans went with them, open to any avenue they chose to explore. With Rise and Shine [Mascot Records], JD Simo, drummer Adam Abrashoff, and bassist Elad Shapiro have jumped into new territory, not by abandoning the guitar-based rock that has built them an impressive following over the last four years, but through adding a fresh layer of funk. While this new texture too is derived from the past, its melding of ’70s soul music with hard rock (like the Chi-Lites meets Zep mashup “I Want Love”) also creates an original soundtrack for the future.

The band’s label took a page from history as well, offering them enough studio time to do the kind of sonic experimentation that made every new release back in the day an earphone extravaganza. Simo, the man, sat in his living room and walked GP through some of the record’s fantastic sounds.

Is it fair to say that his record has a funkier, R&B direction?

Absolutely. I was recently taken with the Blaxploitation soundtracks, the most famous of those being Shaft and Super-fly. I ended up loving guitarist Michael Toles, who played on the majority of those records. I take a psychedelic approach to music, and what he did is the Black interpretation of psychedelia, which is very different than the British version.

Your first two records had a live-in-the-studio approach, but this one sounds like you also used the recording process creatively. How did you combine the two?

We spent a whole month at my house cannibalizing and rearranging every song we’d written. Once in the studio, we started every track from scratch with the drum sound. We would sometimes work all day to get what I was looking for sonically. Some of the performances were one take, but we played “Meditation” 32 or 33 times. I like to work in a linear fashion, so when we’d get the take, if I wasn’t already tracking the vocal live, I’d immediately do the vocal and then do all the overdubs right then and there. The whole track was finished before we moved on to the next.

Did you layer any of the basic tracks individually?

No, it was always the trio, and the basic track parts were never touched.

On “Be With You” the tremolo effect goes comes and goes, and gets choppier in spots. Was that done live?

I would turn the tremolo on and off while playing. I used the tremolo in the Super Reverb, as well as an old ’70s Color-sound tremolo pedal. I had them set slightly differently. I also had my wah-wah pedal engaged through that entire song because it cut all the bottom-end out and made the guitar sit in the track in a very cool way.

The fills and the solo at the end of that tune sound like the guitar is being torn apart.

I often distorted the inputs of the API board directly. A couple of times we fed the wah pedal into the console. Also, Elad has an old Acoustic 360 bass head with a built-in fuzz that sounds fantastic on guitar. The solo of “Don’t Waste Time” is the 360 head with the fuzz on, going direct into the console.

“The Climb” really has that ’70s Blaxploitation thin fuzz sound.

I liked the 360 fuzz, but couldn’t implement it live. It kept humming uncontrollably, so I looked for something like it. I went to Carter Vintage and said, “Give me every fuzz you’ve got.” This old ’70s Jax Fuzz-Wah was what I was looking for, the Isaac Hayes “Walk On By” sound. That’s on “The Climb.”

There are some interesting low-end swells on “Return.”

Elad has this Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synthesizer that he used on “The Climb.” I was messing with it one day and found a setting I liked. Because it’s for bass, it doesn’t track guitar well and that’s what I liked about it. The parts in the verse and the solo are all played through it.

On “I Pray,” when the chorus comes around the guitar has a crackly sound.

It’s actually a compressor plug-in from Soundtoys called the Decapitator. Soundtoys plug-ins have eccentric aspects that you would normally associate with hardware. We used their Tremolator on drums, vocals, guitars, and bass. We even used it on the master fader a couple of times.

On “People Say,” that first heavy riff sounds filtered or like a cocked wah.

It’s me using the wah-wah as a filter. That’s the only track that doesn’t have any guitar overdubs—it’s live from start to finish. One side is a Fender Super Reverb and the other side is an Epiphone Futura from the early ’60s. When I turn down the guitar volume for the verses, the Epiphone goes away a bit, and when I turn up for the chorus the stereo field fills out. There’s some reverb and delay we mixed in after the fact, but that track is just the trio. I also have a ’59 Fender Harvard amp that I used a lot.

Isn’t that the Steve Cropper model?

Yes. This one was rebuilt—the guts and the speaker are old, but the cabinet is new.

What guitars did you use on the record?

Pretty much the whole record is my ’62 Gibson ES-335. “I Want Love” is a ’59 Strat that I’ve had for a while. I put flatwounds on it and loved what it did to that guitar.

Which songs did you use the Fender on?

I used it on “I Want Love” and “Shine.” Those are the only guitars I used on the record. I got different sounds by working with mic placement, EQ settings on the console, and how the amplifiers were set.

What acoustic did you play on “The Light”?

It’s an old ’50s Kay archtop that was sitting there in the studio. On the last day of mixing I said, “I want to do one more thing. Can you just put up a microphone real quick?” I tuned the guitar down to C or C# and just did it.

What strings were you using on this record?

The flatwounds on the Strat were a D’Addario hybrid. I’ll use the flatwound part from a .010 set, but then I’ll put an .011 high E and a .014 or .015 on the B string from a set of .011s because it feels more balanced to me. Live, I play bottleneck on it because it’s just got this beautiful sound. On the 335 I use D’Addario XL .010 to .046.

Now the big question: You have been playing straight into the amp for many years, but now you’re about to embark on a tour supporting a record that has so many different guitar sounds. Are you going to use a pedalboard?

I have one put together with the Jax Fuzz-Wah, a Dunlop Clyde McCoy wah, and an Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synthesizer. There’s also a relay built by Elad that turns the reverb and the tremolo of whatever blackface Fender amp I’m using on and off. It plugs into the back of the amp via an XLR jack. I can set up as far from the amp as I want because that box makes it completely quiet. With the original switch, when you turn the tremolo on it goes “cacha.” On a quiet song, it’s a little distracting. I also have some other pedals I’m considering. There’s a great fuzz by Durham Electronics that I used that on the record called the Crazy Horse. It is has a bias control on it that will starve the signal and make it sound like it’s falling apart. I also used an old Boss DD2 Delay in certain places. It’s an early form of digital where the repeats degrade like analog, but it’s not as murky as the analog DM2.

What’s coming next?

I have a West Coast tour with Tommy Emmanuel, and I’m on a duets record he has coming out. One of the itches I want to scratch is acoustic music. Up to this point, it hasn’t found its way into what the band does, so I’m going to do two weeks with Tommy. It’s opening the pathway for me to experiment more with that avenue in the future.