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Jared James Nichols: “I’ll never forget the moment I first saw Zakk playing in the flesh with Ozzy – it was beyond powerful. I was mesmerized”

Jared James Nichols
(Image credit: Imani Givertz)

If you’ve never witnessed Jared James Nichols onstage, let us say right now: you’re missing out, big time. 

Usually armed with little more than the heavily customized, even-more-heavily-worn Gibson Les Paul he nicknamed “Old Glory” (or, just as likely, one of his single-pickup Epiphone “Old Glory” and “Gold Glory” Les Paul signature guitars), the singer and guitarist practically strangles his instrument into submission (sans pick, of course), unleashing torrents of incendiary riffs and licks and ripping out howling, hotwire solos jam-packed with blazing note bursts, screaming, vocal-like bends and tasty, blues-drenched phrases.

It’s a sight and sound to behold, and so when it came time to record his most recent EP, Shadow Dancer, Nichols decided to bring that live vibe right into the studio. 

“I’ve always been told, ‘Man, you sound so much rawer in concert than on your records,’ ” Nichols tells Guitar World. Upon entering Blackbird Studio in Nashville with his power trio, he continues, “We said, ‘Fuck it, let’s break some necks. Let’s play how we play. Let’s see what happens.’ 

“We tracked everything live and straight to tape, including the solos – no click, no overdubs, except for my vocals. We turned everything up and left caution to the wind. It was like, ‘Okay guys, tape’s rolling, play one.’ Then we’d take a deep breath and just go for it.”

The result, he says, is “purely raw, unapologetically me: hard-hitting blues mixed with my love of heavy riffs, with grunge overtones.” 

And indeed, one listen to the music – the unrelenting full-throttle chug of Bad Roots; the moody, darkly liquid strains of the title track; the anthemic swell of Skin ’N Bone, the anguished, insistent grind of Saint or Fool – bears this out in spades, presenting Nichols at his most and primal, with his guitar work pushed to the max. 

When I stood in my spot in front of the cabs, it was so loud I couldn’t hear the drums. It was insane

Just how much to the max? “When we were recording, our producer, Eddie Speer, said, ‘Guys, this is the loudest record I’ve ever made,’ ” Nichols says with a laugh. “I’ll tell you, we were in the room, and man, I swear I have hearing damage.

“I had a Blackstar Artisan 100 and a 1969 Marshall Super Lead 100, both running together and full-on. When I stood in my spot in front of the cabs, it was so loud I couldn’t hear the drums. It was insane.”

Guitar-wise, Nichols says he brought a mix of new and vintage Gibsons with him into the studio. “I had ‘Ole Red,’ which is my 1953 Les Paul Standard Goldtop that was over-sprayed in red, and has P-90s and a wrap tail bridge; my ’56 Les Paul Junior, which is an unmodded, really killer single-pickup guitar, and my Gold Glory signature model,” he says. The combination offered up a wide array of tones. 

“One thing that was cool with this recording is that the older guitars, the magnets in the pickups are so weak,” he says. “When you hit them with those big, loud tube amps, it’s incredible the way they react, the way they distort, the overtones you get – it’s like nothing else. And then when I used Gold Glory, which you can hear on something like Bad Roots, it’s a newer guitar with a newer pickup, and it sounds so much brighter. It’s a nice mix.”

What you also get a nice mix of on Shadow Dancer is the many facets of Nichols’ style. “The big thing for me in my evolution not only as a player but also as an artist is that I continually aspire to grow,” he says. “And I think the only way to truly make progress is to always move forward and not let anything stop you. So with this batch of songs I got out of my own head and I stopped saying to myself, ‘Jared, play blues,’ or, ‘Jared, do a shuffle like Stevie Ray.’ 

“At the end of the day, I had to just be myself and play whatever came out. I was left to my devices to say, ‘I want to express the sound in my head in this power trio format. I love to play in this simple bass-drum-guitar-vocal style, so where can I take it and how can I do it in my own way?’ So it’s me exposing all the different shades and all of the different colors of my music and my inspiration, and delivering it with the energy and the overall sonics of a live experience.”

As for that live experience, Nichols has of late been providing it out on the road as the opening act for Zakk Wylde and Black Label Society on their recent U.S. tour, something of a landmark moment for the 33-year-old from Waukesha, Wisconsin. 

“One of the first concerts I attended as a kid was Ozzfest,” he says. “I was 14 and already in love with rock ’n’ roll. A friend and I were determined to get as close to the stage as possible, and we ended up sneaking to the front row. 

“I’ll never forget the moment I first saw Zakk playing in the flesh with Ozzy – it was beyond powerful. I was mesmerized. I had yet to start playing guitar, but the moment I picked one up months later, I was already influenced and had a lifetime guitar hero in Zakk.”

That Zakk Wylde inspiration is just another ingredient in the Jared James Nichols stew, demonstrating that, while he’s often lauded for his searing blues chops, there’s more to the musician than meets the eye. 

“There’s still huge parts of me that are so rooted in playing that really lowdown blues,” Nichols says. “But there’s also so much more that I grew up listening to, from Black Sabbath and Mountain to grunge to some funky stuff, all of which you can hear on the record. 

Really, my biggest goal with all of this was to just be me, and to open up and say, ‘This is what I’m feeling, this is what I’m digging, let’s see if we can make it work’

“Really, my biggest goal with all of this was to just be me, and to open up and say, ‘This is what I’m feeling, this is what I’m digging, let’s see if we can make it work.’ It was a beautiful experience. And the coolest part is when you listen to the EP, you’ll hear it exactly as it was laid down. There’s no trickery.”

And there’s plenty more where that came from. Even while Nichols continues to support Shadow Dancer on the road, he says there’s more material coming – once again, live and direct – in the form of a full-length record. As for when we can expect that? “Early fall,” Nichols says. “So get ready for full-tilt blues power!”

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Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.