Slim Gambill on How He Stepped Out On His Own with 'Fake Jazz and Theme Songs'

After 15 years as a superstar sideman for Lady Antebellum, Slim Gambill has made his own, remarkably entertaining debut album.
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For 15 years, Jason “Slim” Gambill has enjoyed the kind of career most guitarists only dream about, as a steady sideman with pop-country superstars Lady Antebellum. The Nebraska native, who sports two-foot-long braids, admits that he never envisioned playing with a mainstream country band. “I never even listened to country music before I started playing it,” he explains. But Gambill says his success with the multi-Platinum group stems from a mixture of artistic versatility and a positive attitude.

“You have to be a people-pleaser to be a good sideman,” he says. “You’re there to play the gig and bring your chops to the band’s music, so you have to be a well-rounded player and be able to shift from one style to the next. But you also have to be a good guy to hang with. Even if you’re not in the band, you’re with them all the time. You need to roll with them. Fortunately, it’s easy for me because the Lady A folks are just the greatest, most loyal bunch you can imagine.”

Gambill grew up on a steady diet of southern rock and hair metal, but he segued into jazz in high school and while studying music at the University of Southern California. The idea of returning to jazz hadn’t occurred to him until recently, when he accepted an invitation to perform at a jazz festival in New Mexico. “I quickly wrote some songs that would work in a set, and they went over really well,” he says. “So that kind of lit the fuse for me to want to take things further.”

Which he does with authority on his first solo album, Fake Jazz and Theme Songs (Ludlow Street Records). It’s a remarkably entertaining set on which the fleet-fingered Gambill offers affectionate tributes to both Wes Montgomery and George Benson (“Last Time Thing”), imagines Jimi Hendrix if he were signed to Blue Note (“54321”) and pays tribute to TV composers like Mike Post on the aptly named “Cop Show.”

“People think I’m being falsely modest with the Fake Jazz part of the title, but I’m just showing respect to guys who can really play this stuff,” Gambill explains. “I know what I’m good at, so I’m saying it’s not Art Blakely and the Jazz Messengers. I’m versed in jazz, but I haven’t spent nights playing it in a club and earning my bona fides. I’m simply a fan who loves this music, and I want to show that side of me. But I’m not on the same level of the really heavy jazz dudes. I’m just being honest.”

What was the plan when you were younger? Did you want to be a session player or a touring guitarist?

I thought I wanted to be a session player. In my high school yearbook, I wrote, “I want to live in L.A. and be a session guitar player.” That said, in high school I didn’t know exactly what that meant, and once I got to L.A. and dabbled around, I discovered that the scene was way different than what I imagined. I’ve gotten into the Nashville studio scene too. I enjoy myself, but I’m better when I can be left to myself and create. That’s rarely the case when you’re hired for a session.

What got you into playing guitar?

My grandma had an old guitar, and there was a guitar class at school. It just seemed like something fun to do. Then I got bit by the rock and roll bug, and I decided that I wanted to really go for it. I was just a strummer for a while, but then I heard “Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Def Leppard, and I was like, “What the hell is that?” It just knocked me upside the head. I got into Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi - all the mainstream metal that had shredding solos.

At first, I thought I couldn’t play that stuff, but I kept at it. I took another guitar class and went through the Mel Bay books. At the guitar class, you were asked what songs you wanted to learn, and I said “Stairway to Heaven,” “Purple Haze” and “The Wind Cries Mary.” I was into the bluesier side of classic rock.

How did you get into jazz in high school?

There was an audition for a jazz band, but I had never heard jazz - I just wanted to play guitar. I remember, I played “Stray Cat Strut,” because I was like, “That’s jazzy, right?” The band director gave me a chart and said, “You obviously don’t know this stuff. Learn this and come back in a week.” It was weird trying to learn all those voicings, so that’s when I decided to just fake it till it sounded right.

Was the scene at USC like Berklee, with players showing off their chops and forming virtuoso bands?

USC is more of a conservatory, so there wasn’t the emphasis on stupid chops. There were people getting their Master’s degrees and things like that. It wasn’t cutthroat; most people weren’t hustling for gigs, although there were a few who were. I just played guitar, and late into college I formed a band.

Gambill with Dennis Edwards of Lady Antebellum at the Hammersmith Apollo, London, England, July 16, 2012.

Gambill with Dennis Edwards of Lady Antebellum at the Hammersmith Apollo, London, England, July 16, 2012.

Your first pro gig was playing with [country singer-songwriter] Josh Kelley, but then his brother, Charles, asked you to play in what would become Lady Antebellum. Did you have any reservations about playing in a pop-country band?

Not at all. The way Charles described it, it sounded like a country band with a southern rock edge. They needed a guy who could bring the rock, so that was in my wheelhouse. I was like, “I can do that!”

As a sideman, do you get to assert your creativity?

I get a fair amount of say. When we get a new record to learn, we tend to drift toward the parts on the demos, and then it loosens up from there. You keep playing the tunes and stuff just evolves. I just do what I do till people tell me otherwise. Onstage is where I get to really bring the heat. That’s my job.

Your new album covers a lot of ground stylistically. Is it indicative of what you like to play when you’re not on your day job?

I would say so. From track to track, no tune is like the other. That’s how live shows with my band are, too. There’s never a dull moment. I don’t want to name names, but there are some great classic bands who put out these records, and by the fourth song you’re like, “I get it. Can y’all do anything else?’”

“Last Time Thing” is very much in the style of Wes Montgomery and George Benson. Was that intentional?

It’s hard to say how much was intentional. I studied Wes Montgomery a little, but not George Benson so much, which is not to say that I don’t love him. Of all the jazz players in the world, he’s the slickest freakin’ dude to walk the planet. He was right there at the beginning of smooth jazz, but his guitar playing was wicked.

It’s amazing how “54321” sounds like Jimi Hendrix, if he were playing jazz.

Yeah, right? [laughs] And, of course, I do the quote from “The Wind Cries Mary” right at the tip. That started as the initial riff of the tune, which I didn’t realize was in 5/4. For a second, it sounded not normal, but then it began to feel very natural. Sure, I’m influenced by Hendrix there and a bunch of jazz-type jam bands. It’s bouncy and trippy - classic rock crossed with jazz.

On “4 Guitars Having a Conversation Over Cocktails,” you feature Chris Nix, who usually plays hardcore metal, as well as Isaac Hanson from the band Hanson. How did that happen?

Yeah, that’s nuts. [laughs] When would you ever hear those guys on the same track? I’m friends with both of them. Chris is just a beast of a guitarist, and Isaac is badass, man. I sent a one-bar loop to a bunch of guitarists and said, “Can you improvise over this for 32 bars?” Some of them couldn’t get to it, but Chris and Isaac did, and their stuff was insane. So I chopped up the tracks and put my own stuff on it - I did two guitar parts - and this is the result. It sounds like drunk dudes having a conversation, and I like that.

Did you have a go-to lineup of guitars and gear for the album?

I have a big rack of guitars, but the main ones were a Jeff Senn Tele-type model, a 1970s Les Paul goldtop, my old Gibson ES-335 and a D’Angelico archtop. And I used a Big Tex Strat model for a lot of the classic Strat-sounding stuff. My main amps were a ’64 Fender Deluxe Reverb, and I also used a 3rd Power Dream Weaver. I’m not a big pedal guy. I like a little reverb and slap delay, but I’m pretty much a plug-in-and-play guy. To me, it should come from your fingers and your heart, not a bunch of machines.