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The Everyday Guitar Gear of...

James Whitehead

So far, EDGG has only featured those gritty, dirty, penny-pinching “songwriting in bands” guitarists. But let us not ignore the session players, who, although playing with the stars of tomorrow, have enough pressures of their own. Sure, they may play less of a hand in composition, but they’re expected to come up with the goods, in terms of both playing and tone, on demand.

James Whitehead is one such session guitarist, having worked with artists like Australia’s Eden James and rock and roller Eron Falbo, as well as producers Liam Watson (The White Stripes) and Mark Opitz (AC/DC, INXS, Kiss). He currently plays with pop upstart Saul Ashby and singer-songwriter Rob Bravery, who shot to fame with his YouTube cover of Lana Del Ray’s Video Games, which also features James’s tastefully restrained playing.

James onstage (Annelie Rosencrantz)

He might be classified as a session player, but James prefers a broader definition. “I tend to see myself as more of a live guitarist,” he says. “I don’t tend to get asked into studios to work with artists I don’t know. I’ve always wanted to be part of the band rather than a more distant check-in check-out session guy.”

That live playing is firmly rooted in the blues and rock n’ roll tradition (James Calvin Wilsey, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck), but also incorporates some classic guitarists from outside those realms (George Harrison, Mike McCready, Andy Summers, Lindsey Buckingham).

It was on discovering some of these heroes at the age of 17 that James started to have doubts about the car design course he was set to undertake, dropping out after six months and applying to study at the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford. Here, he eventually completed the Diploma, Higher Diploma and Degree courses in guitar over four years, leaving him far more qualified to talk guitars than EDGG!

Guitars

Considering his influences, it should come as no surprise to see James opt for a 1973 Fender Strat. Although much prized, it’s a guitar that has certainly seen a fair few, ahem, alterations over the years, as James explains, “It was originally Olympic White but got resprayed red sometime in the 70s, it’s had a neck pickup replaced in the 80s (I think it’s a DiMarzio) and someone even routed it for three humbuckers at one point! It’s beat to shit but it plays so well and has a distinctive sound to it that everyone I work with loves.”

James also plays a ’79 Antigua Strat, ’52 Reissue Tele, Epiphone Sheraton and a Gibson J185 acoustic. Not that we’re jealous.

Road-worn: James's Strat certainly has character

Amps

Fender are once again James’s manufacturer of choice when it comes to amps, in this case a ’65 reissue blonde Fender Twin. Again, James’s influences have a part to play in his choice of backline. “I always wanted that Strat into a Twin sound you hear on the first couple Chris Isaak records, as played by James Wilsey,” James says. “It responds really well to pedals without losing that crisp cut, and the headroom is endless.” A 15w Cornell Romany also sees studio use, while a (borrowed) 90s Fender Deluxe transistor amp carries the fort for smaller gigs.

Tweed envy: James's Fender Twin

Effects

James’s pedalboard is a work of great beauty and he’s understandably thrilled with it. “The new board allows me to get pretty much any sound I can think of,” he enthuses. “It took me around four years of experimenting to get to this setup but it’s sounding sweet.”

Clean and efficient: James's pedalboard is a finely-tuned tone machine

The foundations come from an Ibanez TS808 Tubescreamer (James’s first pedal) and a Way Huge Pork Loin, which simulates an amp on the verge of breaking up, a necessity due to the Fender Twin’s supreme headroom. Completing the dirt section is the D*A*M Drag’n’Fly, which covers both germanium and silicon tones, from Fuzz Face to Jimmy Page, while an Xotic Effects EP Booster kicks things up to 11 for solos.

The next part of James’s board is largely influenced by his current employment and the playing style that requires. “I love the atmospheric playing I do with Rob [Bravery]; it’s really what’s responsible for the elaborate pedalboard I’ve put together,” he explains. That’s where the Empress Tremolo and TC Electronic Nova Delay come in, adding ambience without taking away from the tone. With the delay in his amp’s effects loop, James’s signal is entirely true bypassed and runs through George L’s cabling, ensuring no degradation at any point in his chain. Hell, he even replaced his Boss TU-2 with a Korg Pitchblack to remove another buffer from his board: the man clearly knows what he’s listening for.

Different acts, different gear

One of the challenges facing James is the constant shifts in gear requirement, although buying all that new gear is probably less of a punishment and more of a pleasure, especially looking at all the pedal boxes behind his guitars in the photo below.

James's electrics, including his '79 Antigua Strat, '52 Reissue Tele and Epiphone Sheraton

Rock and roller Eron Falbo requires James to have a particular kind of guitar rig to nail the Rolling Stones-esque 60s tones Eron desires. “I’ve got some great Cornell gear: a First Fuzz, and a 15w Romany that I use with Eron to get that nasty Keith Richards tone,” James explains. “I also write with Eron from the beginning of the process, whereas with Rob [Bravery] and Saul [Ashby] I’m usually just writing guitar parts to a more or less finished song.”

Contrastingly, James compares current boss Saul Ashby’s pop stylings to those of Elvis Costello and Cat Stevens. As a result, his guitar rig is somewhat minimal, but James still faces the obstacle of getting the playing just right. “The sound I use here is either just the clean sound of the Fender Twin, or the Tubescreamer and a bit of tremolo for the overdriven stuff,” he says. “It’s the challenge of keeping the parts super simple and tight, yet memorable that’s fun from a playing perspective.”

James’s studio rigs (L-R): ToeRag Studios, Smokehouse Studios, Konk Studios

You can hear James’s playing with Rob Bravery on Facebook and catch him live supporting James Vincent McMorrow on his UK tour in February. James will also be performing with Saul Ashby in March; see Saul’s website for more details. You can follow James’s adventures in guitar playing on Twitter.

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About Michael Brown

Michael is a journalist, musician and general guitar geek who works for Total Guitar and Guitarist magazines. He also freelances on the side, most often for Drowned in Sound. You can view his work here.

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