Laur Joamets' Unique Take on Twang

“It’s pronounced ‘lour’ [like hour] with a rolled ‘r,’” says Estonian guitarist Laur Joamets.
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“It’s pronounced ‘lour’ [like hour] with a rolled ‘r,’” says Estonian guitarist Laur Joamets. He would explain how to pronounce his last name, but it is hopeless. “That’s why they call me Joe,” he says. “It is easier for everybody.”

Estonia is right across the Gulf of Finland from Finland, but is considered part of the Balkans rather than Scandinavia. So how did a Balkan guitarist land the coveted gig with Sturgill Simpson—the hottest alt/trad-country artist in Nashville?

Part of the answer is connections: Joamets’ rock band opened for the Rival Sons in Estonia, and he started hanging out and playing with the Sons’ drummer, Mike Miley. Miley suggested the guitarist move to Nashville and recommended him to Dave Cobb, who produced both the Sons and Simpson. Trans-Atlantic files were exchanged, and Joamets soon found himself in the studio with the producer and artist.

The real answer, though, is talent, as indicated by the tasty fills, blistering but melodic solos, and pedal-steel-sounding slide parts Joamets inserts into Simpson’s record, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music [High Top Mountain/Thirty Tigers Records]. Further confirmation is available on videos of the young picker tearing it up with Simpson on tour and television shows such as Conan and Letterman. Like the record’s title, the guitarist’s story is a tale of tradition with a twist. Initially intimidated by the talent in Music City, Joamets relates how he triumphed through hard work and a unique voice.

How did you start on guitar?

My father is a really good guitar player—one of my main influences. He started me with some chords, Chuck Berry licks, “Smoke on the Water,” and some blues turnarounds. After that, he pointed to the record shelf and said, “Alright, you have the means to start learning this.” Every time he heard something bad coming from my room, he would open the door and say, “Do something else; that’s no good.” That’s why I call him my “taste police.”

Did you play country when you lived in Estonia?

Not really—it was just my hobby to learn from fascinating guitarists like Danny Gatton, Albert Lee, and Brian Setzer. I stole their licks from the Hot Licks video series, but didn’t have any place to put them. The cover bands I was in played a little bit of everything, including “On the Road Again,” “That’s Alright Mama,” or “Folsom Prison Blues.” That was the only time I could use those licks.

When did you pick up slide guitar?

I started by trying to emulate Jimmy Page in Led Zeppelin. After that it was Roy Rogers and Ry Cooder—he’s the man. There is this guy John Mooney, and he’s a slide guitar virtuoso. I also learned a bunch of stuff from Bonnie Raitt. I saw this really cool Finnish band, Honey Bee and the T-Bones, and that was the first time I saw anyone use fingers behind the slide, like Sonny Landreth.

Shortly after we met online, Sturgill sent me an email saying he would be interested to see what I could do with the slide. At the first rehearsals I was trying to emulate Danny Gatton’s combination of volume knob and slide. That led me to listen to steel guitar—it is impossible not to listen to steel guitar in Nashville [l aughs]. I would try to emulate simple things steel players do. After touring a while, I was having a hard time with the volume knob in the regular position on the Tele. I figured out if I turned the control plate around and switched the tone and volume knob positions, it would make my life easier.

Was the Telecaster your guitar of choice in Estonia?

I have had the Fender Telecaster I play with Sturgill for almost ten years. It’s a beat up ’74. When I got it, it was in really bad shape; the frets were out of it. My father found it for me and put the frets back in. When you have a relationship with an instrument for so long it becomes your main guitar, but I also like Gibson ES-335s and the Firebird—it has a bright sound but retains the Gibson fatness. But, in country music it is hard not to play a Tele.

Your Tele is a natural finish but I’ve seen you playing a painted one as well.

That’s one Sturgill gave me. It’s an MJT body; they finish them with really thin nitrocellulose lacquer, which makes the wood breathe more.

Do you use pedals?

I have a T.C. Electronic Hall of Fame reverb; a Destination Rotation by Option 5, which is a Leslie-style pedal; a CMAT Mods phaser; and a Zvex Distortron, which I use to just to boost the signal a bit. The ZVex is a great pedal because it doesn’t cut the low end. It works well for high or low gain.

What amps do you use?

I have been using Fender amps. When I first got here, I was using a late ’60s silverface Champ. We used that for at least half the record. If you want a really big sound in the studio, use a really small amplifier. When we were playing somewhere in Mississippi, a sound engineer saw me using the Champ and told me about the Musicmaster Bass amp, which is also fairly small. It has 6V6 tubes and a 12" speaker. It’s 12 watts, with just volume and tone. They were meant to be practice amps for bass players. They are a well-kept secret that I am ruining here. Fender has a history of guitar players stealing bass amps [laughs]. Lately, I’ve been using an amp built by a friend of my father, Urmas Anderson. It’s called the Charmer—a two 6V6, ten-watt combo with a 12" speaker and tremolo. It is like a modified Fender tweed amp. It’s the 21st century. We have in-ear monitors, wedges, and big PA systems. You don’t need 50-watt amplifiers anymore, or even 30-watt amplifiers. The singers want to hear themselves. You don’t need to be so loud.

That is a rare thing to hear from a guitarist.

Well, Sturgill has coached me [laughs].

That was my next question: How did Sturgill help you adapt from blues-rock to fairly traditional country music?

Well, first he told me to play country music [laughs]. I made myself practice to remember all the country licks I had learned years ago, and get my right-hand technique going again.

By right-hand technique do you mean hybrid picking?

Exactly—Danny Gatton style. When I concentrated too much on that, he told me to listen to Merle Haggard’s guitarist Roy Nichols and just get that vintage twang—you don’t have to be all over the place all the time.

One of the most important things he taught me was about the interaction between us: When he sings, I should be quiet. When he ends a phrase, I need to fill the space. That was hard, because country phrasing is strange when you have a blues and rock background. Jimi Hendrix was one of my idols. I still sometimes get too “rock” and Sturgill has to say, “Dude, keep it country.”

When we recorded Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, the producer, Dave Cobb, had a lot to do with how I played. If I didn’t have a motif, or got lost, he would give me something to work with. Sturgill’s sound is very dynamic, not one level all the time. Dave helped the dynamics come from the players. You can fake it with automation later, but it is not the same.

Do you improvise your solos?

The bluegrass tempos were too fast for me to improvise solos over, so I started composing them. I still do, because I think solos should be like melodies. A lot of players just noodle, which might sound good for one song, but after five starts getting old. I would rather have things thought out.

You sound great with him, but with a town full of country guitarists, why do you think Sturgill brought you over from Estonia?

That’s a good question—I would love to know the answer [laughs]. When I first got to Nashville, I went from bar to bar on Broadway checking out the guitarists and was in excruciating pain. I wondered, “What the hell am I doing here?” I’m a rock and roll and blues player—and I don’t even rate myself that highly in those genres. I didn’t ask Sturgill about it during the first tour, but what I got from the experience was that I should work on my country playing.

But to try to answer the question: I sent Sturgill a lot of different stuff I had done over the years and he saw I was a fast learner. I know for a fact he wanted someone who sounded a little bit different and, coming from Estonia, I have a totally different perception of the genre. I think my blues and rock and roll influences give his music a different flavor.