John Butler Stirs Up A New Roots Stew

“Once you put an acoustic guitar through a Marshall amp, it opens up a whole gamut of things,” says John Butler. The native Australian is a star back home, due to the success of a string of independent CDs. Now the John Butler Trio’s first major release, Sunrise Over Sea [Lava], and the single, “Zebra,” are bringing the buzz to the U.S.
Publish date:
Updated on

Butler’s rootsy blues vibe, hip-hop grooves, ballsy voice, and breakneck 11-string fingerpicking/slide technique propel a dynamic live performance, during which the versatile musician also handles banjo, lap steel, 6-string acoustic, and djembe. JBT’s audience looks similar to those you’d find at a Ben Harper, G. Love, or Dave Matthews Band show, and Butler displays the same stage presence, instrumental ability, and songwriting skills that launched those acts from the confines of the jam-band scene to the international spotlight.

Why do your 12-string guitars lack one string?
I want my midrange to sound nice and warm. So I remove the octave G-string because it’s higher in pitch than the first string, and I don’t want the highest string in the middle of the guitar. I played with the octave G for a couple of years, but after it broke several times, I realized I liked the sound better with it off. I have three 12-strings—a Larrivée, a Maton, and a Martin—which I set to different tunings: dropped-D, open-C, and B, F#, C#, F#, B, F#.

How does your signal chain flow on stage?
Each guitar has a Sunrise soundhole pickup, a Maton piezo pickup, and a Maton internal mic. I use a Fishman Pocket Blender preamp to mix all the signals. I plug my piezo and mic signals straight into the Blender, and my Sunrise pickup goes through a series of pedals—a Boss ODB-3 Bass OverDrive, a Boss HR-2 Harmonist, a Boss RV-5 Digital Reverb/Delay, a CryBaby wah, and then into the Blender. That blend of tones goes to the house. Then I take the Sunrise signal out of the back of the Blender and put it through an Ibanez TS-9 Tube Screamer, an Ernie Ball volume pedal, and, finally, into a 1975 Marshall JMP Super Lead with a 4x12 cab.

Why use a Marshall?
Because it’s dirty and grungy and lovely! It’s like having an extra player that plays exactly in time with you, but with a different sound that allows you to go more places. When you distort the 12-string’s signal, you can create a lot of harmonic overtones that fill out the sound. I use the volume pedal to control the feedback—which can be your friend at times—and I’ll use an EBow to further facilitate sustain.

Who are your main influences, and what did you learn from them?
Jeff Lang is an awesome Australian singer/songwriter who inspired me to play slide-style acoustic with a two-pickup system through an amp. I learned to appreciate banjo music because of the mellow subtleties of Gillian Welch’s arrangements. I love the syncopated beats of the Ill Communication-era Beastie Boys. Bob Marley brought so much soul to reggae, and Jimi Hendrix’s Live at the Fillmore East with the Band of Gypsys made me laugh and cry because it grooves so hard.

What inspires you to create?
I’ll play a new riff or a chord progression that will inspire a melody, and from the melody I’ll find words by mumbling. Then I try to find meaning. Music is a very cathartic way for me to express how I feel about myself, and about the world around me as I try to make sense of it.