John Butler

By Hammond, Shawn | Acoustic Guitar, December 2005 | Go to article overview

John Butler


Hammond, Shawn, Acoustic Guitar


The Australian rocker bridges 20th-century roots music and new-millennium acoustic experimentalism with his Maton 12-string and a blaring Marshall stack.

Whether you're intrigued by the thought of a Maton 12-string plugged into a distortion box and a blazing Marshall half-stack or think it could only sound like crap, you need to check out the John Butler Trio's Sunrise over Sea. Butler-a 30-year-old Australian influenced by Tony McManus' Celtic guitar work, Gillian Welch's banjo playing, and the fingerpicking on Dolly Parton's "Jolene" as much as he is by U2's epic rock, Jane's Addiction's rollicking brashness, and Jimi Hendrix's psychedelic riffing with the Band of Gypsys-certainly isn't the first acoustic guitarist to use electric-guitar tools. But his band may be one of the few acoustic acts today with both the maverick rock experimentalism to win over young listeners and the earthy vibe and melodic sensibility to appeal to curious traditionalists.

Need proof? "Treat Yo Mama" features down 'n' dirty slide riffs, harmonized rapping that's not too over-the-top for those who aren't into hip-hop, thumping upright bass, Motown-style background vocals, and a ripping wah solo that morphs into atmospheric washes before kicking into high gear again. But "Damned to Hell" finds Butler showing off old-time clawhammer banjo skills and a convincing Irish brogue, while "Mist" showcases his formidable fingerstyle chops.

"My first pivotal influence was Jeff Lang, an Australian singer-songwriter/guitarist who showed me that you can mix instrumental adeptness with singing and storytelling," Butler recalls. "He blew my mind the first time I saw him play-it was like going to church. Ever since then I've been into slide guitar and fingerpicking." Butler, who uses acrylic nails and flatpicks with the nail of his index finger, first saw Lang and McManus perform within the same year, and it motivated him to get out and perform himself. "That's when I started busking-playing music on the street-so those guys were big catalysts for me."

Sunrise over Sea (Lava, www.lavarecords.com) embraces a stylistic spectrum that includes the mellow "Seeing Angels," one of the few accessible pop-rock songs that stands a chance of getting banjo on mainstream radio, and "There'll Come a Time," which features cathartic guitar-and-bass unison riffs, tribal tom-tom action, and stuttering marimba and sound-effect stabs.

"When I record, I use the studio itself as an instrument," says Butler. "'There'll Come a Time' is a good example. I used an EBow [a handheld electronic "bowing" device that creates infinite sustain when you hold it over a string with your picking hand] to create four tracks of acoustic guitar that sound like a sort of electric string section," he continues. "Then I put a sound gate on the EBow parts and electronically triggered them with the marimba so that every time the marimba hit a note, it triggered the EBow tracks. …

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