Whether you're a blues fan, more into straightforward rock or just a tone-hound, there's at least a fair chance that you've sampled the sweet sounds of Jackie Venson.
Since making her way into the guitar universe's collective consciousness around a decade ago, Venson has parlayed her signature sound into a steadily growing fanbase of far more than just would-be blues breakers.
To be sure, Venson's discography serve as a veritable sonic smorgasbord, tickling the senses of that growing body of fans. Indeed, with a carved-body curio slung over her shoulder, the 32-year-old Austin, Texas native harkens back to a simpler age, which makes all the sense in the world given her roots.
"The person who inspired me to pick up the guitar was Buddy Guy," Venson recalls. "The reason why is because he's pure lightning-in-bottle emotion. Buddy plays exactly what he feels in the moment, which is inspiring. I remember the first time I saw him play; I'd never seen someone be so present. He's not thinking about scales or anything stupid; he's just firing off his emotions in the moment, and that was the coolest thing to watch live."
"You don't see people with that kind of connection to their instrument every day," Venson continues. "I mean, sure, you'll see people who are good at their instrument, but being good has nothing to do with being connected. That's what I try to do: intertwine with my guitar. I let the soul of the guitar seep into me. I draw on my emotions, my feelings, and the life I've lived. And that connection and storytelling is the cornerstone of my guitar inspiration."
As an artist who finds herself unafraid to traverse genres, Venson fearlessly blends rock, blues, R&B, reggae, and just about everything in between into her music.
Utterly unique, the rising six-stringer's sinful tone – which she's carefully curated through a combination of formal training, God-given gifts, and a bit of a tech addiction – has found her at the forefront of blues guitar in the modern era. Still though, despite that singularity, standing out can be difficult in this day and age – not that that bothers Venson.
"It would be easy to get caught up in the challenges, but I don't focus on that," insists Venson.
"Even if you're a major artist, the challenges aren't too different than what I face. I don't care who you are; it's hard to be heard through all the noise. It's hard to be heard when there's like 60,000 songs uploaded to Spotify per day. I don't look at this as momentary; it's a constant, everyday thing where you have to keep rising to the challenge. It's hard, and the question is always, 'How am I going to be heard through all of this?' But that doesn't deter me; if anything, it spurs me on."
Now a decade into what appears to be a long journey ahead, Venson has her head held high, and her eyes fixed on the horizon. Growing each day and taking each new experience as yet another chance to learn, Venson's evolution as a guitarist and songwriter has been nothing short of astounding. But has her core process changed?
"I still look back to when I was a kid watching Disney movies," she reveals. "I was obsessed, and from then on, I never wanted to watch movies that didn't have music in them. I guess my brain was spongy then, and a lot of my tendencies began to form at that time. So much so that I believe that's where my songwriting interest and style began to be molded."
"From there, it's been a lifelong development where I become obsessed with a song or album, and I listen to them over and over again for like a year," Venson confesses. "That's always been a catalyst for me wanting to write my own songs, and that, in turn, makes me obsess over when I can play over and over again instead of listening. My abilities have grown, but those early eclectic and obsessive tendencies have never left me."
As she prepares for a busy 2023 ahead, Jackie Venson dialed in with Guitar World to discuss her formative years, her love for technology and single-cut Epiphone guitars, fooling purists with her Kemper, and the evolution of her songwriting.
What first sparked your interest in guitar and blues-based music?
"When I was very young, I really liked the star aspect, as in the big-deal arena singer or guitar player who can bring down the house. That feeling of hitting a powerful note in front of a lot of people – it's incredible that an electric guitar has that kind of power. And now, when I have a guitar in my hand and do my thing, I feel that same power.
"As far as the blues, I fell in love with that music because I liked how expansive the genre is. I like how much space the blues and R&B give for instrumentalists and bands. With the blues, the songs aren't just about the singer; they can be about the band, too. And then, they can be about the audience, so it's not just this one-sided thing. There's a lot of freedom [in the blues] to do what I love with the guitar, which drew me in."
You hail from Austin, Texas, a city with a rich musical history. How is that best reflected in your music?
"Being from Austin has been a blessing because it's such a guitar town, you know? I grew up playing piano, which I played almost exclusively until I was around 21 years old. Up until that point, I didn't play any other instruments. But being from Austin and having guitar-based music all around me, along with a great understanding of how chords worked, was my inspiration to pick up the guitar, at least from the perspective of how Austin influenced me."
So, the piano gave you a leg up as you were learning guitar, then?
"When I first switched to the guitar, it was nice having the foundation of the piano, like I didn't have to learn what a chord or note was – I already knew what scales, notes, and chords were. So, in a way, yes, the piano expedited a lot of things in my early guitar days. But as far as my sound goes, I'd say the piano is why I don't just stay in the blues box.
"Sometimes I go outside the typical blues scales, and I like to use different tones, harmonics, and stuff. I'm pretty sure that the piano extended my ear that way."
Beyond your training, does your personal nature alter your approach?
"I think it does. I'm a genre hopper, and that's probably because I'm a person of many interests outside of the guitar. I don't like to do just one thing because I get bored really easily. I can be a little scatterbrained, which is reflected in my music. I can play reggae one minute and then switch to the blues the next, and I need that to keep my interest piqued.
"People often ask me if bringing other genres to the forefront is a motivator for why I do that, and honestly, it's not. I do what I do to keep myself inspired, and if other people take notice, then that's great. If you show people that it can be done, then the odds are that other people will be inspired to do the same thing."
Do you feel being well-schooled gives an advantage as opposed to being self-taught?
"It's hard to say if it's an advantage or not. There are so many different tools a guitarist can use to their advantage to learn, so who's to say that one is better than the other? Some of the greatest players of all time couldn't even read music, so that's a consideration, too. But in my individual situation, it's been an advantage to me because I work with a lot of technology, and having that sort of knowledge base has been immeasurable to me.
"I work with samplers to minimize the number of players in my band, which helps me stay afloat when touring expenses start to get intense. I'd say my usage of that technology is absolutely because of my musical education; I don't know where I'd have learned to use digital audio workstations and things like that and make them work in the live setting other than in school. So, I learned all that kind of stuff in school, [and] it's been huge for me."
If you had to describe your sound to a new listener, how would you do so?
"That's tough, but I guess I'll call my sound 'rock.' I know that a lot of my stuff is blues-based, but considering that the spectrum of rock is huge, I think I'd place myself there above other categories. At the end of the day, I like screaming solos played over high-energy music. I've always been a fan of rock, so I'd say that if you don't like rock music, you're really not gonna like my show. [Laughs]"
You're known to use Epiphone single-cut guitars. What do you love most about them?
"I love my Epiphone, and I use it almost exclusively these days. I like Les Pauls because I like how they sit on my body, you know? I put a Les Paul around my body, and without even doing anything, it just sits at the perfect angle. I don't have to move it, and I don't have to constantly keep my hand on the neck to stop it from diving into the ground. I don't have to do anything with those guitars; they naturally land in the perfect position that I need them in."
In the past, you played Stratocasters, though. What led you to move away from them?
"I used to play Stratocasters a lot more often, but the neck can make things a little challenging to play in some arrangements. I think the Epiphone has a little bit of a shorter-scaled neck, which means I don't have to work as hard. So, I guess, with the Stratocaster, I don't like the angle of the neck as much, which was why I moved away from them.
"It was a lot harder for me to reach those higher, modular, more nuanced licks on the Stratocaster, but with the Epiphone, I don't have that issue. So, I really like that, and I've also fallen in love with humbuckers, which aren't on Stratocasters. If I had never found Epiphone guitars, I don't think I'd have ever found humbuckers, which have become my pickup of choice."
What is it about humbuckers that you love most?
"I really love how hot-sounding they can be, but in a volatile way. With humbuckers, you have to be really careful and constantly muting. You have to be nuanced and sensitive about it – you can't just jump in. It's like surgery, if that makes sense. You can't just go crazy and start playing a bunch of stuff because it might end up a hot mess, but that's what I love about them.
"If you can be careful about it, nail it, and sound clear – with the humbuckers – you get this crystal-clear tone you'll never find anywhere else. That tone is what attracted me to them, and it's something that's very hard to find with any other pickup."
Epiphone has come a long way over the years, but is still thought of as secondary to Gibson. What are some of the reasons a young player might choose an Epiphone over a Gibson?
"Well, if you like Les Pauls and don't have, like, $3,000, I'd say that's a big reason to give an Epiphone a go. [Laughs]. But it's not just that – there's a lot of different varieties of Epiphones, and you can get one in pretty much all the same styles that Gibson offers.
"They're very similar guitars, but the Epiphone has a few things that make it more accessible. That accessibility is important – especially for young players – because investing that type of money is scary. So, if there are other quality options, why not explore them?"
There's certainly precedent for supposedly "cheap" guitars packing a big punch throughout the history of music.
"That's very true. Take the Flying V as an example: the Flying V was like this 'cheapo' guitar that nobody wanted back when it came out, right? But all the blues guys were broke, and they were like, 'Well, it's either play this guitar or play no guitar.' Just look at what Albert King did with the Flying V; he built a whole career off a guitar that people looked at as 'cheap' but was actually this awesome instrument. I look at Epiphone the same way.
"If the Epiphone was good enough for a band like The Beatles, it should be considered powerful enough for people to respect. Not everyone can afford a Gibson, and Epiphone allows people to own a gorgeous guitar and make music. Epiphone guitars helps facilitate people to do what they love; I think that's beautiful."
You're using a Kemper Profiler over traditional amps these days, right?
"I've been using a Kemper Profiler, and I know that's not the purist's choice, but it's been a godsend for me. I tour at least six months out of the year, and the Kemper is just a phenomenal choice for modeling different types of guitar amps. I have a budget, and it's not easy to tour with huge amounts of gear, so I needed to find a setup that would alleviate costs but still sound real. And let me tell you, the Kemper does sound real; I fool people all the time.
"There's a lot of purists in the guitar world who will claim that if you don't use a tube amp, you don't know what you're doing. But you know what? No-one ever notices that my guitars don't have microphones on them, and they come up to me after the show, and they're like, 'I've never seen a [Fender] Blues Deluxe sound like that. How did you do that?'
"So, I fool people all the time, and that's probably my favorite thing about it. I'm gonna be honest about that. Because the purists in the guitar world can be a little intense, it's funny whenever they think that I'm using a tube amp; I'm actually using a Kemper."
To what do you attribute the rise in young women picking up the guitar?
"I have a feeling that women have always played the guitar in large numbers, but the big difference now is awareness. The reason why I have that feeling is that when I picked up the guitar, I thought that it was something I had never seen. But as I went down the rabbit hole, I found this treasure trove of truly incredible women guitarists who have been around since the '40s and '50s but never got any attention.
"Even in the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s, there were amazing women guitarists, but no-one was listening, or at least, not enough were listening. So, I think that the only thing that's changed is awareness. I think it's really cool because now women are getting recognition for helping shape guitar, not only now but in the past, too. They never got credit for it, but they blazed a trail – that's amazing to the point of being borderline heroic."
Tell us about the latest music you're working on.
"I'm releasing Evolution of Joy on January 27. It's a complete redo and reimagining of the Joy album I released in 2019. I wanted to redo Joy because I've learned so much since I recorded it back in 2017 and 2018.
"It's funny, because my career is built around the electric guitar, but the truth is that I've been playing for like 11 years. So, everything that you've seen me do was done while I was simultaneously literally learning how to play the electric guitar. I think I changed every other month because I'm still in this phase where I'm learning, picking up new stuff, and experiencing a lot of things for the first time."
Have any significant moments shaped you the most in that time?
"When I went on tour with Gary Clark Jr., that was the first time I'd ever toured with a major artist. So, that's an example of people seeing me experiencing things in my career at a more significant level, but I'm learning because it was the first time for me. Touring with Gary was amazing because it was an education and an evolution that happened in real-time. It's pretty wild and thrilling.
"To apply that to Evolution of Joy, I noticed that those songs evolved after playing them for years on the road, learning and seeing new things while on this journey. So, I had to go back into the studio with that renewed focus and take a deeper dive into the arrangements while also using the latest technology I had available. Not only have the songs evolved and the technology changed, but my skills on the guitar have increased. So, this is me painting a current picture of exactly who I am right now."
What is the most important lesson you've learned thus far?
"To be patient. You have to wait and see a lot of the time because you never know how things are gonna turn out. You never know how things will connect to each other, and I think it's best to let things grow organically.
"If you get impatient, start shutting stuff down, give up, or start trying to rush to the end, you might be meddling with stuff you don't understand. I've learned that a lot of things have to delicately fall into place for them to work. So, I am just patient with the process and take it in as I go."
What else do you have on tap?
"I have a fully recorded 14-track studio album, which will be my next release after Evolution of Joy. But I still need to mix the record and make the final adjustments, so we're probably looking at 2024 for that album, which has no title yet. Beyond that, I will be touring all of the United States this spring.
"I encourage everyone to head to my socials and website to see what dates I've got coming up. I'm looking forward to sharing these new arrangements from Evolution of Joy and doing what I do live. Getting on stage feels like home; it's what I love to do. I hope to see you all out there."
- Jackie Venson's Evolution of Joy is available now on Bandcamp.