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How to Get Wilco’s Live Guitar Sound

Ted Drozdowski

Wilco is a rock and roll rarity — a great band that reinvented its sound and became even better. And guitars, including an armada of vintage and Custom Shop SGs and Les Pauls, were an essential part of that transformation.

Those guitars feature prominently in Wilco’s live shows and co-star with the band in the new concert DVD Ashes of American Flags, which captures Wilco on stage in Tulsa, Mobile, New Orleans and Nashville. (See movie trailer below.)

The Sound

From the opening rendition of the title track the music reverberates with atmospheric sonic interplay as bandleader Jeff Tweedy pulls psychedelic tones from his handsome SG and Nels Cline wrings singing feedback from his strings. Then Wilco veers off into stomping workouts like “Kingpin,” which features Cline spanking his Les Paul Junior with a slide over a garage-rock version of a New Orleans street beat.

Of course, there’s also acoustic guitar anchored numbers like “Handshake Drugs,” which proves Tweedy and company haven’t entirely abandoned their past. And Tweedy’s dust-coated vocal melodies and gift for writing lyrics about characters who seem plucked from a John Steinbeck novel — or, sometimes, the pages of Nelson Algren — insure that Wilco never will.

Nonetheless, Wilco’s evolution — caught at its peak during these gripping 2008 performances — made a quantum leap in 2004 with the addition of Cline. The LA-based six-stringer’s credentials run deep in the realms of avant-garde and indie rock, where he’s led his own all-instrumental Nels Cline Singers and added blazing leads and effects to the Geraldine Fibbers, among many other projects.

By then founder Tweedy had already veered radically from the group’s cornerstone country-and-folk-rock sound. It was a risky move. Wilco had been canonized as a groundbreaking Americana outfit since its inception in 1994, when the band he’d led with Jay Farrar, Uncle Tupelo, split up. Today’s Wilco is more likely to be compared to influential pre-grunge and pre-punk outfits like the Velvet Underground and Television than the Byrds.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2002 documented the change. Tweedy began collaborating with experimental musician/producer Jim O’Rourke, looking for an edgier, more psychedelic sound, and the ideas they fomented colored that bold album and inspired Tweedy’s growth as a guitarist. The two pushed the envelope even harder with 2004’s A Ghost is Born, and when the album was completed it became obvious that Tweedy would need a like-minded instrumental foil in concert to bring Wilco’s new music to life.

When guitarist/keyboardist Jay Bennett left, Tweedy drafted Cline. And their partnership and level of on-stage communication has continued to grow to the point that Wilco is the most daring, courageous guitar band in mainstream rock, with a host of songs that serve as a springboard for daredevil guitar sparring.

The Gear

The bedrock of the wide variety of sounds Tweedy and Cline generate on stage is their gear — an impressive array of carefully chosen guitars, amps and effects.

Tweedy has a clutch of SGs: vintage axes from ’62 and ’65 as well as a 2007 Custom Shop model and a 2008 Custom Shop Vintage Original Spec (V.O.S.). They’re all rigged with Maestro tremolo bars. He also takes a Relic Les Paul with a Bigsby tremolo on the road along with his 1954 Gibson J-45 acoustic. His other acoustic guitars are a pair of Breedloves, a Martin 00-21 from the 1930s, and a 1972 Martin D-12. Plus he’s got three Telecasters and a prized 1965 Jazzmaster.

At the heart of Tweedy’s amp sound is a fleet of hand-wired Vox AC-30s, both vintage and reissue. But his signal runs through an impressive pedalboard first. It’s a Pedaltrain Pro board with a Voodoo Lab Pedal Power source to provide the juice for a Moogerfooger analog delay, a Love Tone “Big Cheese” vintage-style fuzz box, a Death By Audio Total Sonic Annihilation pedal for generating raucous analog style sounds, a distortion sculpting Freakshow Brown Rabbit, a CP-9 compressor, an Ooh La La Torn’s Peaker fuzz, a Schroeder Blister Agent high headroom distortion, a Mid Fi Glitch Computer octave/arpeggiating distortion and an Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail reverb. Whew!

Cline is primarily a Fender guy, which gives Wilco’s guitar sound a yin-yang balance. He has three 1959 Jazzmasters and a new model from the Fender custom shop, as well as a ’63 Jaguar. His Gibson Les Paul Junior makes frequent appearances on-stage, especially for slide (a Jim Dunlop 1.14 mm). Cline also plays two lap steels — a Gibson BR-9 and a National — employing his own slides made from bottle necks. His other guitars are by Jerry Jones: a Neptune 12-string and a Custom Longhorn.

Cline has a small amp set-up, with a Tim Schroeder DB-7 powering a Marshall 4x12 offset cabinet. But his pedal array is no less impressive than Tweedy’s. His Voodoo Lab powers up a Boss DD-3 delay, a Boss VB-2 vintage vibrato and a Boss CS-3 compressor. His Electro-Harmonix goodies are a Holy Grail, a Memory Man echo/chorus/vibrato, and a Pulsar tremolo-pan pedal. He also has a vintage Electro Harmonix 16-second delay. For overdrive he’s got a Hot Cake and a Fulltone 69 fuzz, plus a Fulltone Deja Vibe. That’s topped by an MXR Phase 45 phase shifter, a Provalve Love high gain and Last Temptation of Boost, a Korg Kaos pad for all kinds of sonic zaniness and a Digitech Whammy pitch shifter.

Such heavy music requires heavy strings, or course, so Tweedy and Cline use .12 to .45 and .11. to .49 sets on various electric guitars, and Tweedy strings his acoustics with .13 to .56s.


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