John Butler Trio

John Butler thinks of himself as a man on a mission to battle injustice and make the world a better place. Embrace or eschew that sentiment as you will, but when it comes to his guitar playing, the dreadlocked do-gooder from Down Under is definitely on an interesting trip.

For starters, his primary instruments are 11-string acoustics and Weissenborn lap-steels played through a convoluted signal chain that includes high-end studio preamps and a ’74 Marshall JMP Super Lead 100 MKII half-stack. His playing is a combination of various approaches executed with the aid of acrylic nails.

“My style doesn’t really fit into one genre,” says Butler. “My fingerpicking includes bits of Celtic, folk, blues, bluegrass, and other styles, and the acrylic nails allow me to use my index finger as a flatpick. I continuously swap between fingerpicking, flatpicking, double-thumbing, and other techniques, and, at any point, I also have the option of changing the sound from acoustic to full-on distorted Marshall tones.”

Butler takes a similar tack when songwriting. While the Trio routinely performs on the jam band circuit—and is typically associated with that scene—the music on its latest release, Grand National [Lava], melds bits of rock riffing, up-tempo dance grooves, New Orleans funk, lilting reggae rhythms, rolling 6/8 balladry, plucky bluegrass motifs, bluesy slide sweeps, and Hendrix-inspired crunch chords and wah lines into a coherent power-pop hybrid.

“Plowing a lot of influences together comes naturally to me,” explains Butler. “I grew up listening to artists like G. Love, De La Soul, the Beastie Boys, and a lot of other people who fused music together into new styles. So even though I’m influenced by blues, country, bluegrass, reggae, and hip-hop, I’m not always hearing the traditional accompaniment. For example, when I was writing ‘Funky Tonight,’ I had this sort of bluegrass fingerpicking motif going on. But as I was playing the song, the off-beat accents reminded me of ska, so I just blended the two stylistic elements together.”

Highlights from Grand National include the hyper-kinetic solo on “Funky Tonight,” the neo-psychedelic slide on “Used to Get High,” the raspy resonator riffing on “Gov Did Nothin’” and “Fire in the Sky,” and the reversed-steel sound collage and Jimi-by-way-of-New Delhi wailing on “Devil Running.”

Your press suggests that Grand National is connected with an old Dobro that your grandfather gave you.
I did inherit my grandfather’s Dobro when I was a teenager, but it didn’t make it onto the album, and it’s not where the album got its name from, either. The title has to do with all of us being part of one global nation. I did play a National resonator on a couple of songs on the album, though, as well as a Weissenborn-style lap steel made in Australia by Carson Crickmore. There’s also a Larrivée 6-string acoustic and a ’30s Bacon open-back banjo. My main 12-strings are a Maton CW80 dreadnought that I’ve been playing for about ten years, and a new Maton ECJ85 jumbo with a custom cedar top that’s one of the most beautiful 12-strings I’ve ever seen in my life. I also have a Cole Clark FL2A-12.

Your “12-string” guitars are only strung with 11 strings. Which string isn’t used?
The high G string. It used to break all the time back in the early days, so I got used to playing without it. I would replace it when I’d get new strings, but I wound up not liking the sound. I want my guitars to be warm and even sounding, and having a string that’s tuned higher than the high E right in the middle of the guitar makes the tone quite treble-y. The 12-string is a pretty versatile instrument—especially when you take the high G off. It can sound like a 6-string, a banjo, or, sometimes, like four guitars playing at once, with all the overtones and the Marshall going.

Speaking of the Marshall, can you step us through your signal chain?
Each of my guitars has two pickup systems with separate outputs. The Maton 12-strings are fitted with Seymour Duncan Mag-Mic soundhole pickups—I don’t use the microphone, only the magnetic part—and Maton APMic pickups, which combine an under-saddle component with a soundhole mic. The lap-steels are fitted with Fishman Rare Earth Blend soundhole pickups that have both a magnetic pickup and a microphone with individual outputs for each. So, in both cases, there are separate signals for the magnetic pickups and the non-magnetic pickups.

The signal from the magnetic pickups is routed through a heap of effects—a Boss ODB-3 Bass Overdrive, a Voodoo Lab Micro Vibe, a Boss RV-2 Digital Reverb, a Dunlop CryBaby 535Q wah, and an Akai Head Rush E2 delay—into an Avalon U5 instrument DI/preamp. The signal from the non-magnetic pickups is routed directly to an Avalon M5 microphone preamp. Then, the outputs from the Avalons are combined using a Midas XL42 mixer, and the mono signal is sent to a JLM Audio custom master volume/mute/ phase switch box, before going to the house console. That’s my acoustic sound.

I also take a feed from the Avalon U5, which goes into an Ibanez TS9DX Tube Screamer and an Ernie Ball volume pedal, before being sent to the Marshall. That’s my electric sound. I use the volume pedal to blend the electric tone with the acoustic sound. The only things that change when I record are that the Marshall goes into another room, the signal from the Avalon M5 is routed to yet another amp for an amplified clean sound, and I put mics on the guitar, as well. That gives us lots of different signals to work with.

You play in open tunings quite often. What are a few of your favorites?
The tuning I use the most is C, G, C, D, C, E [low to high], and, sometimes, I’ll tune all the notes an additional half-step down. Lately, I’ve been appreciating standard tuning again. I’ve been playing in open tunings all my life, and when I go back to how I used to play in standard tuning when I was 16, it just seems like another open tuning to me—which is kind of cool. “Good Excuse,” “Caroline,” and “Nowhere Man” are all either in standard tuning, or standard one half-step down. Of course, the lap-steels are all in open tunings—usually B or C—as is the banjo.

How do you decide which tuning to use when writing a song?
I don’t really pick tunings for songs. I’m usually playing a guitar while I’m writing, and a song will just come out. The guitar might be in standard tuning or an open tuning and I just go with it—though I might tune down a half-step or capo it up to better suit my voice. Occasionally, I’ll come up with a lyric or a melody apart from playing a guitar, but, most of the time, I write to a tuning, and that’s what inspires the song.

How did you get into playing slide?
I was given my grandfather’s Dobro when I was 16, but I didn’t really learn how to play it for another five years or so. Then, when I was about 21, I discovered open tunings when I saw Jeff Lang play live. That experience changed my life entirely. Until then, I hadn’t been interested in slide—or even in the blues—but Lang played this great slide music in a style that was entirely unconventional. It wasn’t blues slide, it was this new zone, and it definitely inspired me to investigate the inkling of slide interest that I did have. That’s also where I got the whole acoustic/distorted volume pedal thing—which is a huge part of what I do.