with Nick Jonah Davis
Name: Nick Jonah Davis
Bands: Nick Jonah Davis / Escapologists
QRD – What was your first guitar & what happened to it?
Nick – It was a Squier Stratocaster. I gave it to my nephew when he started to play at age 10. I think he still has it somewhere.
QRD – What’s your typical set-up from guitar to effects to amplifier?
Nick – Acoustic guitar to microphone to PA. Maybe with a pickup added if necessary.
QRD – What’s the most important part of your rig - guitar, amplifier, or effects?
Nick – The guitar.
QRD – What’s your main amplifier & why?
Nick – I have an Orange Tiny Terror combo for when I’m playing electric. It sounds good & I could afford it. It’s not the ultimate amp though, still looking around for that.
QRD – What’s your main guitar & what are the features that make it such?
Nick – My main guitar is a Martin SPD 16K. It’s the best guitar I have ever owned by a long shot & things are possible on it that were not possible on previous acoustics, it sings. Plus it’s flamed koa back & sides are beautiful. My wife bought it for me, just one example of her general awesomeness. Max Ochs played it at the New York Guitar Festival once & proclaimed it “a magic guitar”. I agree.
QRD – If you had a signature guitar, what would it look like & what would some of its features be?
Nick – It would be an understated guitar, probably built by Roger Bucknall of Fylde guitars, with a relatively wide fretboard, tall frets & a large dynamic range. It would look a lot like 1970s Fylde models. It would sing & wail & break peoples’ hearts with its smoky tone. You would not be allowed to touch it.
QRD – If you had a signature pedal, what would it be & what would some of its features be?
Nick – There is a guy in Nottingham called Martin Cooper who runs the excellent effect pedal company Coopersonic. He has made a few pedals for me. If I had a signature pedal, it would probably be a slightly more robust production version of the analogue delay he made for me out of a cheapo 1980s pedal. Tempo is controlled by an expression pedal & it has an “infinite repeat” footswitch for cosmic feedbacking dub sounds. It is very fun indeed; more people should come to that party.
QRD – How many guitars do you own?
Nick – I think six at the moment; I’ve been selling a few off lately.
QRD – How & where do you store your guitars?
Nick – I store my guitars at home, in their cases. My children can potentially break any item of value left in range.
QRD – What do you wish guitar cases had that they usually don’t?
Nick – I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about guitar cases. I have a good sturdy case for my Martin, which means I don’t worry too much about traveling with it. I wish my Weissenborn’s case was more robust & had a little storage box in it. It would be good if they all had rucksack-type straps for carrying them on your back - as a solo artist I tend to tour on public transport. I was thinking of getting an old rucksack converted for this purpose actually.
QRD – What features do you look for when buying a guitar?
Nick – It should feel & sound right, like it has some potential for great things to happen with it. The design should be focused on the sound & feel, rather than the looks & bling factor. It should be honest. It should be built to last. I really hate guitars with dragons inlaid all over the fretboard, etc. I generally favor second-hand instruments because they are played in & hold their value better if you end up having to sell them later on. You know when you’re playing the right guitar.
QRD – How much do you think a good guitar should cost?
Nick – A guitar should cost what it is worth. If someone has put in months of toil creating a masterpiece of design & craftsmanship, the price should reflect that. If a bunch of machined parts have been hastily assembled on a production line for £17, the price should reflect that. If you have just spent what amounts to the GDP of a small country on a “collector’s” guitar, there is a strong case that you are an over-moneyed fool first & a guitarist second, if at all. Meanwhile C Joynes is out there kicking ass & winning accolades on a knackered old Epiphone, just to make me feel awkward about my posh Martin.
QRD – Do you upgrade & customize your guitars or just stick with what you get?
Nick – I like things to be in good working order & sound as good as possible so I can get on with playing. This means I need to get my guitar set up, worked on, refretted, etc., etc., etc., quite regularly or things start to annoy me. Guitars are pretty sensitive & things tend to move around, especially over the harsh winters we seem to have in England now. I recently upgraded my Telecaster pickups & bridge with great results.
QRD – How thoroughly do you research or test a piece of equipment before buying it?
Nick – It depends what it is & why I am buying it. If it’s a crucial bit of gear, I’ll put in a lot of time researching & hopefully testing candidates out. I have a few friends who I really value the opinions of on this stuff. If it’s a bargain or something I’m swapping with a friend, then less so. Ultimately though, you go on feel. I occasionally make a foolish impulse purchase as a result.
QRD – Do you change your rig around often?
Nick – I have a core rig that is unchanging, but I often buy & swap bits & pieces also. I’m a fingerpick nerd.
QRD – Are you after one particular guitar tone & locking into it, or do you like to change your tone around a lot?
Nick – There are a few sounds that I really like & I’m always looking for them.
QRD – What are some guitars, amps, & pedals you particularly lust after?
Nick – Guitars: Fylde guitars are so special. I really wish I could afford one; it would have such an impact on things for me. One day I hope. I would love a 1930s Triolian, but it would have to be the right one. That said, the modern ones are also excellent. Also I would quite like a Kona Stlye 3. Amplifiers: Vintage Bassman combos are appealing, as are the contemporary Dr. Z combos, again very expensive though. Schertler make nice acoustic amps. Pedal wise, just whatever sounds good. I did lust after a Red Witch Moon phaser for a number of years, but I have one now. I think I’m OK for pedals at the moment though, got that sorted out. I have a real weakness for echo units though, it must be said.…
QRD – What do you think are some important features to be on a person’s first guitar that aren’t always there?
Nick – Some people start out on such poor quality guitars that it’s not really possible to play them at all. I had friends when I was young who had first guitars that were such pieces of shit, half-dead banana-neck Eko electrics or whatever. Nothing was really going to happen, they weren’t going to be excited by playing the guitar. The guitar should work to some degree so the player can get into the thing.
QRD – What have been the best & worst guitar related purchases you’ve made?
Nick – Best - Martin SPD 16K. This guitar changed my life. Worst - You learn from buying bad equipment, nothing is truly lost, but when I was a teenager I bought a “bells & whistles” Boss multi-fx processor which led me up an effects-led blind alley for several years. It was fun though!
QRD – What are some effect, amp, & guitar brands you particularly like or dis-like & why?
Nick – I don’t like it when big name brands start to knock out “reissues” which are basically terrible-sounding, poorly executed copies of their own classic big sellers. It’s cashing in their reputation for a fast buck & really puts me off them.
QRD – What’s the first thing you play when you pick up a guitar?
Nick – I’ll hit all the strings open to find out what tuning I left it in. Then I’ll just improvise for a while usually.
QRD – How old were you when you started playing guitar?
Nick – I was 15.
QRD – At what age do you think you leveled up to your best guitar playing?
Nick – 35.
QRD – Why do you think a guitar fits you more so than other instruments?
Nick – Because it’s such a fucking wonderful instrument. Now I’ve spent thousands of hours playing guitar, it’s never going to happen with another instrument for me. I do quite hanker after a hurdy gurdy sometimes though & I have just started out on the fiddle.
QRD – Do you think guitar should be people’s first instrument as often as it is?
Nick – If you mean, should people start out on guitar, then why not? I think people should start playing whatever instrument excites them the most. Guitars are exciting to a lot of people & they should all have a go. After all, it could ruin their lives!
QRD – Do you see your guitar as your ally or adversary in making music?
Nick – My guitar is an inanimate object & I try not to ascribe too many human qualities to it. Life is complicated enough. It is the means by which I make 99% of my music though.
QRD – Who are the guitarists that most influenced your playing & sound?
Nick – My friend Will Phipps has shown me more about the instrument than anyone else I’ve met. He had a mature touch, taste, & feel when he was very young & let me be in his band, which was cool. In terms of big famous players Bert Jansch & John Fahey have been massive to me, also Jimi Hendrix, Peter Green, & Jimmy Page. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Sonic Youth, Marc Ribot, Keef & the Stones, Jack Rose, Glenn Jones, Bob Hadley, Martin Carthy, Alasdair Roberts, Ali Akbar Khan, Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, C Joynes, The Horse Loom, Asa Osborne of Lungfish, early Memphis country blues - all kinds of players really. There’s a guy in Patagonia called Mariano Rodriguez that people should check out, he’s a self-determined type of player who I really dig. Also Raul Garcia Zarate from Peru.
QRD – Do you think people anthropomorphizing their guitars is natural or silly (e.g. naming their guitar)?
Nick – I’ve never done it. My Martin is known as “The Martin” & my telecaster is “The Telecaster”. Maybe it happens more naturally when people have tons of guitars that they need to discuss with a guitar tech, or if something gives a guitar a story - e.g. BB King’s “Lucille” (although I think he now calls all his guitars Lucille without having to rescue them from burning nightclubs first).
QRD – What’s the most physical damage you’ve done to a guitar & how did you do it?
Nick – In the 90s I had a MIDI pickup installed on my telecaster. It still has the drill holes, which I have decided not to fill in. They serve as a reminder not to be an idiot & use things correctly. I also broke an acoustic guitar once when I was at a festival. I’m not actually sure what happened exactly, but it was certainly ruined when I woke up. As was I.
QRD – What do you do to practice other than simply playing?
Nick – You can practice a lot in your head, see the book The Inner Game of Music for details.
QRD – How many hours a week do you play guitar & how many hours would you like to?
Nick – I probably play about 8 hours a week. I would like to do about 3 hours in the morning & 3 in the afternoon daily, but reality seems to be against me on this one.
QRD – What type of pick do you use & why?
Nick – I am currently using Dunlop medium plastic fingerpicks, which I steam heat & straighten before filing them to a point. I hold them on with surgical tape due to paranoia - one flew off during a gig that was already going badly for me. Also a Dunlop plastic thumb pick. I seem to change around a lot though. I have loved picks by Fred Kelly (the slick picks) & John Pearse in particular & the Pro-Pik Fingertones are great, especially when you’re starting to fingerpick. For a couple of years I visited a nail bar & had long extensions on three fingers, but they made me look suspect to say the least.
QRD – What gauge strings do you use & why?
Nick – I use John Pearse 710NM New Medium strings on acoustic, John Pearse Weissenborn strings on my lap steel, & heavy gauge D’Addario electric strings. The John Pearse strings sound the best out of any string I have come across (pipe down all you Elixir fans, I disagree with you!). The New Medium gauge is pretty unique & ideally suited for fingerstyle players. D’Addario’s are in my experience the most reliable electric strings.
QRD – How often do you change strings?
Nick – I change acoustic strings about twice a month, depending on how much I am playing (silence Elixir fans, I will not tell you again!).
QRD – How often do you break strings?
Nick – Very rarely. Usually only during a big gig.
QRD – Which do you feel is more proficient, your strumming hand or fretting hand & how does that affect your style?
Nick – I don’t really separate them out because they have to be working together pretty closely. I probably have to put more physical effort into maintaining accuracy with the right hand & more mental effort into getting the left hand to go to fresh places.
QRD – Do you set-up your guitar yourself or send it to a guitar tech (or not set it up at all) & why?
Nick – I go to Cat & Jenna Bradley at Xperience Guitars in Nottingham a few times a year. They can do, it would seem, more or less anything to sort out guitars. They have also done incredible work on a sitar & a fiddle for me. They are fine luthiers & great people too, well done them.
QRD – What tunings do you use & why?
Nick – I use a lot of open tunings. Most popular at the moment are CGCGCD, CGCGCC, CFCFCC, CFCGCE, CCCCCC, DADGAD, DADFAD, BF#BG#AB, DGDGBD, DGDGBbD. They are a simple but devastatingly effective way of opening up the guitar, particularly for solo playing. I don’t really spend any time in standard.
QRD – Do you prefer tablature, sheet music, or some other notation system for writing down your own ideas?
Nick – I occasionally record something into my phone if I think I might lose the idea, but generally I trust in good ideas to stick around in my head or fingers.
QRD – How high do you hold your guitar when playing (strap length)?
Nick – I generally play sitting down without a strap. I have to wear electrics quite high to play them properly, I wish I could hang them round my knees like Peter Hook & look like a rock monster, but I can’t get anything done with the guitar all the way down there.
QRD – What’s a bad habit in your playing you wish you could break?
Nick – Maybe I play alone too much, I haven’t been collaborating for quite a long time now & I miss it.
QRD – Playing what other instrument do you think can most help someone’s guitar playing?
Nick – I suppose any part of a guitarist’s unique sensibility might stem from their experience of other instruments & there are certainly directly transferable skills from other stringed instruments. I’m not sure you could say any particular instrument would be most helpful to everyone. Regardless, people seem to be quite easily able to put their own stamp on the guitar, which is odd when you consider how many guitarists there are.
QRD – What’s a type of guitar playing you wish you could do that you can’t?
Nick – I wish I could do the Malmsteen type over-the-top “like music only faster” shredding, because I find it absolutely hilarious. The triumph of technique over content. It would be a bit too much work to learn it just as a joke though.
QRD – What’s a guitar goal you’ve never accomplished?
Nick – Jamming with Bert Jansch, now tragically impossible.
QRD – What’s the last guitar trick you learned?
Nick – The Roy Buchanan pinch harmonic technique, randomly enough.
QRD – What’s your favorite guitar gadget (ebow, capo, slide, string cutter, etc)?
Nick – The tuner in my phone is the G-Strings tuner & it’s the best one I’ve ever had. I really like those cheapy string winders too. You can make a pretty good makeshift guitar bench using a towel & a child’s swimming armband. In related news, an old washable nappy makes a great guitar polishing cloth.
QRD – What’s a guitar technique you’d like to master, but haven’t?
Nick – Free improv type playing is kind of fascinating. I think you gradually become aware of something that’s beyond you & then naturally start to work towards it. Tremolo fingerpicking took me years to even vaguely sort out. Eric Carbonara from Philadelphia is the first guy I met who really had it nailed, listen to his “Infinite Breath of Lady Greensleeves” for an example.
QRD – Did you ever take guitar lessons & if so, what did you learn from them?
Nick – I took electric guitar lessons for a while when I was 16, with Pete Dixon who now plays in a Who tribute band. He has wild chops & had studied at the Guitar Institute in Los Angeles. This seemed impossibly glamorous when I met him. He taught me what was going on in Hendrix’s playing & a lot of blues, jazz, & rock things. Mainly though, he was inspirational because his playing was so masterful. There’s something about sitting 2 feet away from someone really playing the shit out of a guitar that teaches you on an intuitive level. Plus he was a pretty rock-n-roll dude in my otherwise fairly straight-laced existence at the time.
QRD – What would you teach someone in a guitar lesson that you don’t think they would generally get from a guitar teacher?
Nick – If I’m teaching, I try to find out what the person wants to achieve & focus things in that direction. I’ve come across teachers who try to squeeze every pupil into their pre-set way of learning an instrument. It’s a massive turn-off.
QRD – What’s something someone would have to do to emulate your style?
Nick – Open tune a guitar, deeply misunderstand American Primitive fingerpicking techniques, bastardize them further with some half-baked British folk stylings, rely heavily on the resonance of open strings, & try to play in a way that’s aiming to affect people emotionally above all things.
QRD – What’s your take on tremolo systems?
Nick – I think they’re great. I never had an amp with one built in, but I do love using a tremolo pedal. It’s a classic thing.
QRD – How often do you adjust your tone knob?
Nick – I have been reading about people disconnecting their tone circuits entirely to get a better sound. This interests me.
QRD – What do you see as the difference between lead guitar & rhythm guitar players?
Nick – The rhythm guitarist is more likely to have a pen.
QRD – If a band has good guitar work, can you ignore the rest of the band not being good?
Nick – Not really, the point of a band is to be playing as a band.
QRD – What famous musician’s guitar would you like to own & why?
Nick – I would like to own Eric Clapton’s “Blackie”, so that I could sell it & never need to work again. On a more sentimental level, being able to play a guitar once owned by Bert Jansch would probably make me extremely happy. His music hits me like a waterfall of single malt.
QRD – Who do you think is currently the most innovative guitar player & why?
Nick – There are a lot of great players coming up. William Tyler in Nashville springs to mind - he’s definitely innovative as far as I understand the word; he really brings something new & fresh to a well-established way of playing. Check out “Behold the Spirit” to see what I mean. Other players I rate for this include Alexander Turnquist, Jack Allett, Cam Deas. There’s a banjo player called Paul Metzger who is absolutely insane in terms of innovation on that instrument.
QRD – Where can people hear your best guitar work?
Nick – I am indebted to Mr. Josh Rosenthal of the wonderful Tompkins Square Records, who made it possible for me to release a couple of albums where people can hear what I do. I am currently recording a follow-up, which is actually taking forever to get done. Meanwhile stuff happens live that would never go on in a studio, so come along to a show.
QRD – Anything else?
Ten of my favorite music films people might enjoy:
1. Dhrupad by Mani Kaur - about Zia Mohiuddin Dagar & family
2. The short doc about Richard Thompson, Jim O’Rourke et al making the Grizzly Man soundtrack (on the DVD extras)
3. The Tom Waits concert flick Big Time
4. Be Glad For The Song Has No Ending - about the Incredible String Band
5. Acoustic Routes - about Bert Jansch
6. In Search of Blind Joe Death - about John Fahey
7. The Last Waltz - the 1976 farewell concert by The Band
8. Raga - about Ravi Shankar
9. The Devil & Daniel Johnston - about Daniel Johnston
10. Bird On A Wire - about a 1972 Leonard Cohen tour