Kicking back with a blues master
On a humid Wednesday evening in early June, Dawsons’ Liverpool played host to one of the rising stars of modern blues. Jared James Nichols (JJN) has earned himself a reputation for performing blistering sets infused with passion, peppered with streaks of technical brilliance, all carefully crafted via his mesmerising pick-less playing style.
As part of a clinic tour in honour of his signature Blackstar JJN guitar amp and cabinet, Nichols treated us to a thorough rundown of his amp and cabinet, as well as his Epiphone “Old Glory” signature guitar; played through some original tunes; conducted an extensive Q&A session; gave audience members lessons on technique; jammed with several eager participants; and gave a masterclass in how to be an all-round excellent person.
From humble beginnings…
Hailing from the birthplace of Les Paul and growing up in the city Stevie Ray Vaughan called home, it would be easy to think Nichols was heavily influenced by two guitar legends from day dot. However, as we found out it could have been a very different story.
His grandfather had been a drummer and JJN had his heart set on following in his footsteps. Only after some deft negotiation on his father’s part did he switch to the acoustic guitar, with the promise that if he learned how to play a song, he’d upgrade him to an electric. After finding out what the gain control did on his amp, Nichols endeavoured to learn every tune in the Black Sabbath canon and the rest, as they say, is history.
Taking on the world!
Polishing his chops whilst expanding his knowledge of music theory at Berklee College of Music, JJN upped sticks to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. Fast-forward several years and Nichols has gone from learning how to play the licks/riffs of his heroes to sharing the stage with them. Trading solos with players as diverse as John 5, Zakk Wylde, Billy Gibbons, Peter Frampton, and Nancy Wilson, Nichols has held his own with the best of them.
Now, his prodigious talent and years of hard graft have earned him some enviable rewards. As well as showcasing his vast arsenal of licks and tricks ( all carried out effortlessly with a fingerstyle technique that has to be seen to be believed), Nichols presented his highly prized signature hardware including the Blackstar JJN-20RH MKII guitar amp head and corresponding JJN-212VOC MKII guitar speaker cabinet, as well as his Epiphone Jared James Nichols “Old Glory” Les Paul Limited Edition Custom Outfit.
Before our clinic was underway, we took the chance to quiz him about his signature gear to find out the facts behind them.
Blackstar JJN-20RH/212VOC MKII
Nichols first encountered Blackstar Amps in his rehearsal room/recording studio after moving to LA. Plugging in to a Blackstar Series 1 100-Watt stack, he was astounded by the lush tonal palette combined with such an emphatic delivery. From there he discovered their impeccable Artisan combos, which he took on tour and elicited remarks from the likes of Zakk Wylde and Billy Gibbons, who were blown away by Nichols’ ability to conjure such impressive tones from such a diminuitive amp combo.
Collaboration with Blackstar
Asking JJN how their collaboration came about, he said that Blackstar approached him at Summer NAMM in July 2018 about the possibility of working on something together. During a UK tour with L.A. Guns later that year, he visited their Northampton base and was greeted by their R&D team in a modest office/workspace complete with whiteboard and the instruction to ‘design anything you want in a 20-Watt amp’. Therefore, everything from the internal components to the imperious *Racing Green finish has been handpicked by the man himself.
*Little known fact, the (British) Racing Green finish was chosen by Nichols in tribute to his British guitar heroes Peter Green and Eric Clapton. He also made the valid point that if someone asks him ‘which one is your signature amp?’, it can easily be identified against a sea of understated black models. It doesn’t look too shabby either.
Motivation behind the amp
Nichols’ driving motivations behind the JJN-20RH MKII design included several factors such as: ease of use; tonal versatility; travels well, i.e. lightweight yet solid; looks good; plays well with others, i.e. effects pedals; and is multi-functional, i.e. practise/recording/performing.
However, underpinning everything was Nichols’ need for the amp to sing in harmony with “Old Glory”. When on tour he likes to keep it simple: guitar + amp = complete setup. From the moment he plugged in on the night, it was clear that Blackstar had it bang on. From delicately nuanced cleans to white hot gain (and then some with the Blues Power voice selected), Nichols sashayed through innumerable licks and riffs as he took the amp on a lengthy walk through some audacious blues.
It is worth noting that during the clinic, several audience members took to the stage with their own models in tow. There were varying types of Les Paul and an Ibanez AZ series model even found its way up there. All sounded huge via the JJN signature setup, showcasing its ability to
212VOC MKII cabinet
The mismatched speaker pairing within the 2 x 12-inch speaker cabinet was no accident, but a carefully conceived marriage between an offset Celestion V-Type and Celestion G12T-75. Following extensive testing of countless speaker partnerships, Nichols settled on this one due to the “…breadth, the wide-open space aligned with clarity that cuts through any live setup”. We can say first-hand that from thumb-plucked basslines across the lower strings to aggressively attacked high-end bends, the “chimey” almost bell like response was the stuff dreams are made of.
A somewhat overlooked but rather clever feature of the 212VOC MKII cabinet is the removable back panel, which allows you to take the amp from closed-back to open-back without having to resort to power tools. Depending on how you want the speakers to respond from compact to large performance space, you can easily adapt to any playing environment with one pain-free adjustment.
How does it ‘stack up’ though?
The power and intensity of the amplifier is truly remarkable. When on the road, Nichols explained that during his time performing with John 5 he only ever dialled the output level to 5! Not only that, but when performing on the Gibson Brands stage at NAMM 2019 with Billy Gibbons, Peter Frampton, and Nancy Wilson, JJN showcased the awesome firepower that his signature amp and cab is capable of. Gibbons had a rather righteous stack at his disposal, whilst Nichols’ stack was tame in appearance by comparison. However, when Gibbons’ gave Nichols the nod to pick up the guitar solo, the JJN-20RH/212VOC MKII partnership cut through the mix like a hot knife through butter!
But what about when you’re at home?
As he demonstrated, by engaging the 2-Watt power output switch, the same brilliant energy sprang forth but with a tempered level. Rather than compressing your tone, it simply lowered the level to afford the same cranked sound at bedroom-/tour bus-friendly levels. Blackstar added their own unique speaker cab emulation and USB direct outputs to make life easier when it comes to capturing ideas at home or on the road.
Epiphone “Old Glory” Les Paul Custom
Following a playthrough and Q&A around his Blackstar setup, Nichols moved on to his Epiphone “Old Glory” model. Much is already known about how it came to be. Nichols’ band’s practise room session was gate-crashed by THE Steven Tyler, who invited them over to Aerosmith’s studio where Joe Perry loaned JJN a ’50 Les Paul Custom with a single pickup. It was love at first sight. Nichols’ emulated the feel and tone of that model with his own Gibson Les Paul Custom, creating a Frankenstein-like model by removing a pickups and integrating hardware taken from another of his favourites, the Les Paul Junior.
Collaboration with Epiphone
Eventually, Epiphone came knocking and invited him to their workshop, where he fell in love with a 1955 Epiphone Les Paul Custom. Adopting the thicker ’55 neck for a substantial feel in the hand and integrating a wraparound “lightning” bar bridge inspired by the Les Paul Junior, installing a single Seymour Duncan P-90 bridge pickup and keeping everything stripped back with a brooding ebony finish, the Epiphone “Old Glory” is a stripped back masterpiece. In keeping with some of Nichols’ own custom appointments, there’s a “Blues Power” plate just below the “lightning” bar and the JJN replica signature on the headstock reverse.
For a guitar made using mahogany and boasting such a thick neck profile, “Old Glory” is surprisingly light in the hands and exquisitely balanced. The JJN is a tall guy with a long reach, several members of the audience including myself remarked at comfortable it was to navigate and perform with.
Though much is made of Nichols’ enigmatic pick-less style from a playing point of view, he explained how it informed the way in which “Old Glory” took shape. For a start, his highly percussive plucking style negated his need for a neck pickup, which turned out to be too “boomy” or “throaty”. Also, by removing the neck pickup, he has greater freedom of movement without and it also focuses his technique.
Having only master tone and volume pots to play with, Nichols has refined his skills over said controls to levels of dexterity some can only dream of attaining. He demonstrated by rolling the tone dial down to 0, then playing whilst attenuating the volume pot. Surprisingly, the range of tones afforded were nothing short of extraordinary. We all know that technique above all else can work wonders and we’re by no means newbies when it comes to playing the guitar. But even we were surprised by the depth and range of the single P-90 pickup. Then he did the same thing, but this time adjusted the tone control, dictating with effortless precision the depth and warmth with the tone rolled back, dialling it in to illustrate the biting clarity across the high end.
When asked about the bridge, Nichols remarked that his dynamic playing style meant that any other bridge had the capacity to literally shred him to pieces. However, the wraparound style enables him to let loose a relentless assault without causing any damage. It must be said that when he does get going, it is truly something to behold.
Nichols’ said that ‘…no matter what guitar he designed, he always knew it had to have Grover tuners due to their stability’, adding that they needed ‘little to no adjustment’ despite the aggressive way in which he attacks the strings.
What about the vocals?
One thing that has always interested us here at Dawsons, yet no one seemed to ask JJN, how did he develop his vocal style? It turns out that as with the development of his guitar skills, Nichols turned to blues masters once again when learning how to sing. He cited Muddy Waters as his go-to in learning how to map out a song on the guitar whilst trying to harmonise the lyrical melody.
Notably, perseverance was key in marrying guitar with vocals, and it was borne partly out of necessity in wanting to be able to open doors with regard to performing. Though he received no formal training, he admitted that his time at Berklee helped him to gain a greater appreciation for putting just as much effort into his vocal practise as his guitar playing.
From the moment Nichols’ took to the stage, it was clear that he knew how to command the attention of the crowd and hold them within the palm of his hand. Playing as if it were a packed-out stadium crowd, he tore through some lightning fast fretwork before settling into his own track, “Now or Never”.
After taking us through a full breakdown of his backline and guitar, Nichols’ invited questions from the audience where we learned about his playing influences and the Aerosmith connection with the design of “Old Glory”. This was followed by an animated game of ‘Guess the Riff’, where our friends at Gibson obliged by offering up a selection of prizes for each winner. The final winner took home their very own Fly portable amp, courtesy of Blackstar Amps.
The jam session was an enlightening experience with several members of the audience stepping up to the stage with their own beautiful guitars, including a ’68 Custom Les Paul that had been found in a cellar! Though nervous at first, every player who played with Jared flew through some incredibly impressive fretboard gymnastics of their own.
After the session Nichols didn’t leave hurriedly. He stuck around to sign autographs, chat and hang out with everyone, which capped off a thoroughly enjoyable evening with someone who – one can only assume – is destined to achieve the iconic status of those who went before him.
Get in touch
Head over to the Dawsons Music website to check out the awesome Blackstar JJN-20RH MKII guitar amp head and JJN-212VOC MKII guitar speaker cabinet, as well as his Epiphone Jared James Nichols “Old Glory” Les Paul Custom Outfit.
Jon is a multi-instrumentalist with a passion for inspiring others to get involved in making music. After spending many years playing venues here, there and – pretty much – everywhere, he joined the Dawsons’ Music Web Team before progressing into his current role managing the Dawsons Blog.