With the release of 2004’s Sunrise Over Sea, his third album as the titular frontman of John Butler Trio, the California-born singer-songwriter Butler went from a former busker to one of Australia’s most respected songwriting voices.
Fans and music industry folk were not only impressed by Butler’s ability to carve ear worm hooks out of an acoustic, jam band framework, but also his deft and nimble approach to the guitar, pulling off dynamic manoeuvres on the 12-string and 6-string alike.
More than a decade on and Butler still stands as one of the country’s most respected songwriters and musicians. His latest release, Flesh & Blood, came out last year and saw Butler co-writing material for the very first time.
Ahead of the John Butler Trio’s headline appearance at VANFEST 2015, Tone Deaf caught up with the man himself to talk about the guitar gear he couldn’t live without and how it’s helped him on his ongoing musical journey.
My essentials would obviously be my guitar, my Maton acoustic guitar, a 12-string or 6-string. And then it’s got to be a pedalboard of some sort. If I only have a small area, I’d bring my Deadwood pedal board made by a great pedal board maker named Morgan Richards.
You can find Deadwood pedal boards on Instagram or whatever. I’d take that and I’d have to have a volume pedal on it. That’s probably the main thing, an Ernie Ball volume pedal, that has to be on it. I can go without any other kind of pedal, but the volume pedal is essential… that’s how I get a lot of distortion in there.
My rig is getting bigger. How can I explain it? I’m looping a lot of things nowadays, so I’m not just running through the pedals. With the amount of hardcore touring that we do around the world, if you’re just using pedals all of a sudden your signal could die.
So everything goes through a loop now and if that kind of dies, you just turn it off and the signal still runs clean. I use a lot of different kind of splitters so I can basically run my acoustic and my volume pedal can run a Fender or a Marshall or both and do a lot of AB kind of switching.
And then there’s a series of delays and flangers and whammy pedals, wah wah pedals, phasers, all sorts of stuff.
Hitting The Studio
I play around with the pedals a lot in amongst it all. I take a lot of the pedals out and then stick them back again depending on the song. As you’re building the song, you’re grabbing new sounds and seeing what works, but it’s all the same equipment and the same pedal board.
My understanding of gear back in the day was pretty much the same as it is now, I don’t understand most of it [laughs] I first played through a 1972 100 watt Marshall Super Lead, I find that because my magnetic pickup is so high gain that I do go through a lot of valves on it, but it’s still my favourite amp.
I take that everywhere nowadays, I take it everywhere. I don’t know why it’s so awesome, but it is. Everything else I’m kind of learning slowly about. I kind of stay in the dark. If it sounds good, it sounds good, and I just fiddle with knobs until it sounds good, and that’s kind of where I keep it, I’m not much of a tech head.
I got a really amazing guitar strap from a guy who was in prison. An American guy who ended up fucking up and ended up in prison over here and made me and my wife beautiful guitar straps. He got into leather work whilst he was in prison.
There’s this great pedal I like called the Kilobyte. It’s a delay pedal that I saw on the Chicago Music Exchange website and it has this great button on it, it’s a feedback button and it basically turns it on forever whilst slowly degrading the signal at the same time.
I use that quite a lot and I ended up getting the maker to modify it slightly and put the buttons on different sides so I could hit it better. I also had this French guitar maker make me something, he makes guitars out of old aeroplanes, so it’s a completely aluminium lap steel guitar.
My first Maton 12-string guitar is my oldest piece of gear. I used to use it back when I was busking and it’s about 17 years old and has more glue in it than wood. Other than that, I use a really old guitar that’s from the 1960s, with these DeArmond gold foil pickups.
I also have a 1930s Bacon banjo, which I’ve been touring with for the past 15 years. I got it from a guy named Skip Sales who collects banjos.
See John Butler Trio live this weekend when they headline the highly anticipated return of VANFEST – more details here.