“There are specific things I look for in guitar albums,” says Paul Jackson, who shares guitar duties with frontman Charlie Starr in the fast-rising Southern rock band Blackberry Smoke. “You’ve got to have great songs, but you also need guitarists with a unique style. If I can listen to a song and go, ‘That’s Duane Allman,’ or ‘Well, that’s Rich Robinson from the Black Crowes,’ then I know the guitarists did their job. Your guitar playing should be just as identifiable as your lead singer.”
Jackson admits that he and Starr come from different musical worlds, but the two axemen find common ground by sharing ideas and keeping open minds. “I’m probably more the metalhead of the two,” he says. “I listen to Maiden, Megadeth and Metallica – anything with an ‘M.’ But I’ve gotten Charlie to listen to metal more than he once did, and he’s gotten me to appreciate things like the Grateful Dead and a few more traditional-type bands. We have a nice exchange going on.”
Blackberry Smoke’s rootsy stew consists of Southern rock, outlaw country, gospel and bluegrass – with the occasional metal guitar lick thrown in judiciously. “Timing is everything,” Jackson says with a laugh. “I can get a little shred into a song sometimes, but it can’t be obvious. You can’t force it. The worst thing would be for somebody to say, ‘Whoa, check out that metal shredding’ during one of our songs. That would be corny.”
In his bands prior to joining Blackberry Smoke, Jackson functioned as the sole guitarist. Sharing six-string duties with Starr, he notes, is more in accordance with the Southern rock tradition, but it also opens up a wide range of sonic possibilities. “When I was the only guitar player, I sometimes thought the sound was a little empty,” he says. “The minute I got with Charlie, I was like, ‘Oh, my God. I’ve got so much more freedom. I don’t have to play all the time. It really allowed me to be thoughtful with my playing because the sound wasn’t as dependent on me.” He adds, “Plus, Charlie’s such a beautiful guitarist, so I’ve learned a lot from playing with him.”
Beyond stylistic approaches, Jackson and Starr avoid stepping on each other’s toes by utilizing different gear. “You don’t want two guitarists to sound the same – that’ll create a big mess,” Jackson stresses. “Charlie uses P-90 pickups on his guitars, and I use humbuckers. Plus, we use different amps [Starr goes through Geronimo amps; Jackson uses Orange amplifiers], so that helps a lot. His tone is more traditional and classic, whereas I go for something a little heavier. You put those sounds together and you’ve got a nice balance.”
Below, Jackson runs down his choices for five essential guitar records. Blackberry Smoke’s latest album is Holding All The Roses. The band are currently on tour in Europe and arrive in the UK in early November.
Allman Brothers Band – *At Fillmore East* (1971)
“For me, it’s the quintessential Allman Brothers record, and maybe the most important guitar record period. It’s just magic in every way. Duane Allman and Dickey Betts are two of the greatest guitar players ever, and they’re on fire here. The whole band is slayin’ it, too. Everything about this record is just perfect.
“The Allmans did three nights at the Fillmore. When the record was originally released, I think it only included some of those performances. Over the years, it’s been reissued a few times on CD, but it’s the latest expanded edition that contains everything, all three nights. If you’re a hardcore fan, you’ve got to get the whole thing so you can just revel in this band.
“I love both guitarists – I don’t gravitate toward Duane or Dickey. To me, they’re equal in that they know how to complement each other and drive the music. They really influenced me in the way I play, particularly in Blackberry Smoke, knowing when to add something and when to lay back. Don’t overplay your hand, you know? If you can add one line that really says something, that’s more meaningful than just shredding the hell out of your guitar and mangling the song. Duane and Dickey ate such tasteful, beautiful players. Listen to them and you’ll learn a truckload.”
The Black Crowes – *The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion* (1991)
“They’re a little Allman-y, kind of an update on what Duane and Dickey were doing. I love the Black Crowes fiercely, man, and this record is astonishing. There’s not even one song on it that’s ‘good,’ you know? Every song is beyond great. From top to bottom, it’s the best thing they ever did.
“Their riffs are insane. Rich Robinson is a king riffmeister – everything he writes sticks to your ribs and gets inside of your head. It’s harder than it seems, writing simple but strong riffs, the kinds of things that form the bedrock of songs. Rich is like a textbook of strong, memorable riffs.
“Rich and the other guitarist, Marc Ford, have great tones. I don’t know what kinds of guitars they were using, but they manage to sound different but perfect for each other. They’re like Dickey and Duane in that way: Their approaches, styles and tones work so well together. You can’t really picture the songs working with just one guitarist playing them; you need both guys to fill out the whole picture.”
Van Halen – *Fair Warning* (1981)
“A lot of people would probably pick Van Halen’s debut record, which I do love, but there’s something different about the vibe on Fair Warning that always appealed to me. It’s like you went from Van Halen’s first record to Van Halen II and then to Women and Children First, and you were like, ‘OK, I’ve got this band figured out.’ They did fun, carefree music. But then they threw you a real curve with Fair Warning, and you said, ‘Now, wait. I have to get a handle on these guys again.’
“It’s a gritty, angry record, and Eddie’s playing is dark and nasty, as well. He’s tapping into some different places here – and I don’t just mean his guitar technique. I’m talking attitude. He’s pissed off.
“The songs are very different from anything they did before. The subject matter is weightier and heavier. They’re not just doing songs about partying and getting girls – they’re more cerebral here. All of which didn’t make the record company too happy. From what I’ve read, the label wanted more of the party-time Van Halen, not the warped, psychotic band that they are here. But the band was in a position to do what they wanted, and I applaud them for that.
“As always, you can pick any song and find moments of Eddie Van Halen brilliance. But I have to mention the intro to Mean Streets – what the hell is he doing on that? It’s as if you walked into a master course on guitar playing, this little intro that knocks you on the floor. He’s amazing.”
Led Zeppelin – *Led Zeppelin* (1968)
“Some people might not think that this record is the definitive Zeppelin guitar record – they might pick Led Zeppelin IV or Houses of the Holy or something more polished. But the unadulterated, raw sound of Jimmy’s guitar sound on the first record is stunningly great. I got a vinyl copy of it, and I just can’t believe the sheer weight of his tone. It’s massive.
“It’s a very under-produced record. This was pretty much Jimmy on a Tele going through a Supro amp. He had his tunes, he had the band, and he just went in and did the job. Boom – he slays it! And you’ve got to give it up to the rest of the band. The grooves, the interplay, the spirit – total communication between all the players. It’s as if they were all of one mind together in a room.
“It’s more of an extension of what Jimmy was doing with the Yardbirds. Later on, he got into different styles and textures, doing folk and Celtic music and pop and what not. This record is very raw, bold and blues-based. The riffs are huge, the sound is massive, and it hits you directly in the chest.
“Some bands have to work up to something this powerful, but Led Zeppelin did it right from the start. As far as debut records go, it’s one of the untouchable ones. It set the bar pretty high, and they just kept right on going.”
Cheap Trick – *Dream Police* (1979)
“This is the first Cheap Trick record I ever heard. I was skateboarding, and my next-door neighbour was cranking it in his car. I had to stop and just listen. I was completely blown away by the sound. It was huge and exuberant. The whole thing grabbed me, and I had to find out what it was.
“Why Cheap Trick aren’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is beyond me. They’re such a great band. Obviously, a big part of what makes them so amazing comes down to Rick Nielsen. What a guitar player! He’s one of the most underrated guys out there, and it’s a shame, because every guitarist I know just loves the guy.
“He writes beautiful riffs, but his soloing is so melodic and tasteful. His guitar parts are songs within the songs – you wait for them because you know they’re so good, and they’re going to take the music to a new place. I saw the band on the *Lap of Luxury *tour – my first time seeing them – and I was stunned by Rick’s playing. As great as he is on record, he’s even better live. I was taken back by how commanding he was on stage. The whole ride home, I was quiet. I think I was in a state of shock.”