Julian Lage on the Lure of the Telecaster

Not yet 30, Julian Lage has already been playing guitar on stage for two decades.
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Not yet 30, Julian Lage has already been playing guitar on stage for two decades. He sat in with Santana when he was nine, played on the Grammys at 13, and joined jazz legend Gary Burton’s band at 17. There is apparently no genre that eludes his talent, from his beginnings playing blues to traditional and modern jazz with Burton and others, bluegrass with Chris Etheridge, and free improv with Nels Cline. If he hasn’t taken on metal yet, it isn’t for lack of technique, only current interest. In fact, Lage strikes you as someone for whom technique is no longer an issue. Anything he hears he seems able to play.

After years of employing electric archtops and flat-top acoustics, his latest record, Arclight [Mack Avenue] explores the possibility of the iconic Telecaster. “The Telecaster is as brutally honest as an old Martin,” he says. For his GP interview, Lage goes deep into Tele love, waxes rhapsodic about one of his mentors, the great Jim Hall, and explains why he looks so happy playing guitar.

Which Tele players inspired you to take up this unforgiving instrument?

A friend of mine, Jason Bodlovich, who’s a great guitarist and educator in California, went down the Tele rabbit hole. He was playing jazz, rock, and chickenpickin’ stuff, which made me think it was the perfect instrument. Also, I had been doing some gigs with Bill Frisell and it was comforting to see that just because you play a Tele doesn’t mean you have to play Tele music.

What do you feel you can do with a Telecaster that you can’t do with an archtop?

I think you can do anything on anything, but what I love about the Telecaster is the feedback you get from it. If I stop thinking in terms of phrases and gestures and get too specific or too technical, suddenly the sound is less pleasant to me. When played well, it really sounds like the person playing it.

Did you use your custom built Teletype guitars on the record?

The guitar on the record is a Danocaster. It’s based on a ’60s Telecaster. It’s going through a tweed ’53 Fender Super with two 10s, and a Flint by Strymon for reverb. I also have some Jim LeClair Teles. One of them is a Thinline. I’m obsessed with the pickup maker, Ron Ellis. Except for my original ’54 Fender Telecaster, the others all have his pickups. I feel they are as important as the guitar itself.

When I tour now, my setup is a little different than on Arclight. It’s my ’54 black pickguard Fender Telecaster through a tweed ’58 Fender Champ. There’s something historic about that combination. That was the birth of the electric guitar solidbody as we know it. I love the history of Fender. I love older equipment and that era of invention.

Does playing the Telecaster require technical adjustments?

Absolutely. My background is jazz alternate picking, which allows a great deal of flexibility and speed when needed, but, coupled with starting when I was really young, it means I have always had a very hard touch. I always had an image of pulling the sound out of the guitar, even though that’s not necessarily what happens. A lot of the things that are beneficial for pulling the sound out have a way of overpowering the Telecaster. Specifically, it’s the concept that the right hand is in the driver’s seat. There’s a sensuality with the Tele that I don’t hear when I focus on the right hand. When I don’t think about that hand as much, or I think about the left and the right hand together, there is a delicacy and a swiftness that is rewarded. You still want to resonate the body and the neck, but you’re going a shorter distance. You’re trying to make something impactful that will travel the half inch to the pickups, and from the pickups to the amp. I don’t feel like I’m driving a Telecaster the way I am driving an acoustic guitar. I’ve come to look at the Tele, the amp, and my technique as one instrument.

Does the extra sustain you get from a solidbody and/or the lack of acoustic resonance affect your composing?

You nailed it. Things ring longer, but they also ring differently. There’s a muted quality to the shape of the decay of the note on many acoustic guitars that informs your timing. One thing I noticed with Teles is if the notes are all radiating it’s almost too much. I have been practicing without reverb on the amp to learn how to gauge when to turn notes off and on. For years I thought only about attack—how do you pick the note, how does it sound, is it soft, or is it bright? With the Tele, the game is more about when the note is over. How does it come to an end? I love it because, when you do it right, it doesn’t sound like an acoustic or an electric, it just sounds like cool guitar.

What gauge strings are you using on the Teles?

For a month or so I have been using D’Addario .011s with a wound third. For the longest time it was .012s.

What picks do you use?

I use BlueChip picks for everything acoustic. They don’t really wear. I use a medium size triangle, which is called a TP and the gauge is 50, which is between one and one and a half millimeters. With the Telecaster, I find myself being more liberal. I’ll use a D’Addario extra heavy standard plectrum, like the old Fender extra heavies. The thing I like about using a different pick every so often is it gets me out of the rigid “This is how I hold a pick” mode. So even though the BlueChip is most comfortable in my hand, that can come with certain habits that are too heavy handed for the Tele. Sometimes, I’ll use no pick. I like to keep rotating as much as possible.

It seems your style is like Jim Hall’s, in that it leans heavily on the swing era and then leapfrogs to more modern playing. I don’t detect a lot of bebop in it, though I’m sure you learned it. Does that sound fair?

Very fair. I really appreciate you saying that. I can’t speak about myself comfortably, so I’ll talk about Jim. He had this thing that was so directly connected to the roots of blues and electric guitar, via Charlie Christian, and guitar as a supportive post-banjo era kind of instrument. And then it leapfrogs to this super modern conceptual land that is weirdly timeless. It’s like Picasso, or Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” Those things are old, but still so futuristic. In other words, there’s nothing trendy about them. Bebop was like an academic survey for me. It’s in my playing to a certain degree, but I hooked on to Jim early on and while he was playing with beboppers all the time it never sounded like “bebop.” It just sounded fresh. He had such a beautiful way of showing the role of guitar player as being part of a network of forces. You can focus on any one of those forces at any given time, but you don’t ever have to be the hero, climb the mountain, or knock it out of the park. You just have to make sure all the plates are spinning. As a consequence, you can cultivate such a different demeanor. Jim was the master at having a sense of humor, while being soulful and heart-wrenchingly beautiful. We’re so lucky to have shared any time with him.

You’ve been playing seriously since you were a child. Even though you are only 28, it has been two decades. What keeps you excited about the instrument?

I feel like there are some inevitable confluences that are upon us now and about to happen. Now is the time for polyphony and improvised music on the guitar to become integrated by polyphonic improvisation. I am excited about pushing the boundaries of open tunings and the use of open strings within short form music. I cannot fathom how the bar is going to be raised next. I look forward to pushing it to the degree I can. I feel very lucky to have inherited this community.

Many people who play jazz look very serious. When you play, you appear to be having the best time. Where does that come from?

It’s true. I get the deadly serious thing, but I think there’s something so inherently absurd and so beautiful about playing guitar. It isn’t a life or death thing. Things are risky and dangerous in real life, but within a musical context you have this playground where you can jump off a cliff, or walk up to the person you love but are intimidated by. It is joyful because you can try things, and even if they don’t work it is exhilarating!