Scherzer: Most of us have our ups and downs during our performance years. What were some of the highlights and low points as you progressed in your own career?
Pearson: High points for me are just getting to play good music, make some good friends and pay the bills. Getting to play with some of my influences and just playing with great musicians, many who will never get the recognition they deserve.
Now when it comes to low points, it’s important to keep things in perspective. They call hard times paying dues. Going through hard times is tough, but my faith leads me on. I have so much to be thankful for. It’s such a blessing to be able to play music to begin with.
Well, I guess some low points would be just being out of work and nowhere to play the music I really wanted to play. I’ve played to a lot of empty clubs. But a lot of people do. I remember we made $1.37 each one night and there have been a lot of two dollar nights, 20, 30, 40 dollar nights. You know a lot of club gigs still pay the same thing now that they did in the ’70s. It’s crazy. Some things never change. But it’s such a joy to play music. I sure do Thank God for everything.
Scherzer: As you may know, I first “found” you after you collaborated with Jimmy Hall in one of my all-time favorite blues CDs (Rendezvous With the Blues). It remains one of my personal benchmarks for guitar playing. What went into your preparation for that CD?
Pearson: Jimmy and I had been playing together for six years. So we drove down to Johnny Sandlin’s studio in Alabama. We listened to the songs Johnny had picked out, and Jimmy played us the ones he brought in. We talked about the arrangements, and then we recorded them. The recording process took two or three days. They still needed more songs, so we recorded three songs that I wrote with William Howse. All of the songs are pretty straight ahead, so it was just a matter of figuring out what kind of blues to play. We also did Johnny Jenkins’ and Gregg Allman’s CDs there at Sandlin’s studio.
Scherzer: Most of our readers will know of you as one of the ABB guitar players. How did that gig happen, and what was it like for you playing in a band that has had such success for so many decades?
Pearson: Warren Haynes and I were doing some playing together in the late ’80s when he lived in Nashville. The night he told me he just joined the Allman Brothers, I was so happy for him and we were clowning around and I told him, “Well, if you ever need a sub give me a call.” Then, one day in 1993, he called me to sub for Dickey. After I subbed for Dickey, Gregg Allman asked me to start playing in his solo band. We toured until he asked me to join the ABB in 1997. The ABB was my favorite band when I was growing up. I’m glad I learned both Duane and Dickey’s parts back then. It sure came in handy ’cause there was no time for rehearsing in ’93 when I subbed for Dickey. I listened to some tapes and brushed up on the guitar parts and we played it cold in Dallas, Texas. I remember thinking after the tour was over, “I sure wish I could play with Dickey someday.” So, in 1997 after Gregg called and asked me if I wanted to join the ABB, I went to Dickey’s house and we played a few songs. He said some nice things about my playing, and then he left the room. When he came back, he gave me one of Duane’s slides.
After that, they started auditioning bass players. Then we started rehearsing and touring. People would say, “Man, I’ve never seen this band smile so much.” Gregg was starting to take more solos on the organ. It was cool. He’s one of my favorite singers ever. We never got to record in the studio for different reasons. It’s too bad, but that’s the way it goes. Then, I had to quit the ABB in 1999 because I developed tinnitus, ringing in the ears. It was terrible, so painful. I just couldn’t take it anymore. And I was wearing ear plugs. I had several sets of custom plugs made for my ears. But at that stage volume, nothing helped.
Scherzer: Your CD with William Howse seems like a unique change in what you have recorded. Can you tell us about how that project came into being and what went into the process of making what turned out to be a great acoustic blues recording?
Pearson: William and I first played together in 1978, but we both remember meeting when we were kids. We played in several configurations through the years. We had a band called The Nationals for a long time. We’ve always gotten together and played acoustic music and were asked to play at the dedication of a memorial marker for Sonny Boy Williamson which led to some more gigs. We finally were able to record the CD and we’ve written a lot of songs together.
Scherzer: Besides the CD with Howse, you have three CDs of your own. What is your own process for creating your CDs?
Pearson: I’ve had to do most of the engineering and everything. I’ve never been able to get a record deal or have a budget to work with, so I just do the best I can. I do enjoy engineering, and I’ve tried to learn from the best that I’ve worked with in the studios.
Scherzer: If I understand correctly, you also enjoy playing mandolin and organ. Are there any plans to someday record with these instruments?
Pearson: So far, I’ve only recorded and played live for other people with my mandolin, but I really want to do my own record with it. I was blessed to get to record mandolin with Earl Scruggs last year. That was definitely a highlight. When I learned how to play the mandolin, I felt like it was what had been missing in my music. I really enjoy it. It gives me another voice.
I played most of the organ on “Step Out!” and my instrumental CD “Jack Pearson.” Dennis Wage played keys on my new CD “Do What’s Right.” I look forward to playing some on the CD that I’m working on now.
Scherzer: Since TGP is a website devoted to guitar players, no interview would be complete without a discussion of the gear you use. Can you tell us about your #1 guitar?
Pearson: I don’t really have a #1 guitar. In the studio I play certain ones for the sound the producer might want. When I play a gig, I choose the guitar I feel like playing that night that will fit the style of music. I’m so blessed to be able to have a choice now because, for a lot of years, I could only afford to own one guitar at a time. I did a lot of trading through the years trying to find something I could identify with. At one point in the ’80s all I had was an archtop, and I couldn’t get much work with that, at least not back then. After a while I was able to get a solidbody. That helped a lot. But now Gibson is in the process of making a guitar for me, a small semi-hollowbody, and I hope it will be special. We picked out the wood last week. I’m humbled and excited about that. Maybe it will be #1.
On electric guitar I use flatwound and roundwound strings depending on the style, sound and touch I need. I don’t like the way new roundwounds sound, so I keep them on for a long time. The gauges I use depends on the feel of the guitar, some instruments like lights and some like a heavier tension. For example on one guitar I’ll use 9,12,16,24,32,42, another guitar might feel better with 10’s, on the Epiphone I use 11,15,18,26,36,46, but I won’t be doing any big bends with it. If it’s a low open tuning I might use a set that starts with a 12. I try to match the tension to suit the instrument, I use the same approach on acoustic.
I use medium, heavy and extra heavy picks for different sounds and touch also. As I’m playing, I’m always switching between using a pick, pick and fingers, or just my thumb, or thumb and fingers. It’s not planned out. I mix it up and use the different techniques to accomplish what I’m trying to play. I prefer no picks while playing slide. That’s how I do all the damping of the unplayed strings, but, every once in a while, I’ll hit a slide lick with a pick for a certain sound. It depends on what’s going on with the music.
Scherzer: What are some of the other guitars you prefer to play on and what about them made them “keepers”?
Pearson: A guitar has to have a feel about it, the shape of the neck and the way it vibrates and responds to dynamics. I have a beat up 1932 National Duolian for the Delta thing. The headstock had been broken twice before I got it and somebody painted it red, but it sure sounds good to me. A mid ’60s Epiphone Casino with one pickup. It came with a P90 in the middle. It was so nasally, I had the P90 taken out and put a humbucker right up against the fingerboard. I’ve been playing a G&L Legacy Special a lot since 1994, but I rewired it and put Duncan Hot Rails in it. I wired the tone controls for the neck and bridge pickups, no tone control on the middle pickup. I also use a Legacy with Duncan Vintage Stacks with the tone controls wired the same way as the Special. An ASAT Classic with Duncans. I put a Seth Lover in the neck of it so I can switch between a Tele and a Gibson type sound. I have a Gibson L-00 reissue acoustic and an old parlor with no name on it. They both sound nice. I have a chambered Les Paul that doesn’t kill my back and it has a nice tone.
Scherzer: Your slide playing has become an integral part of your repertoire. Is there a certain guitar you prefer, and do you set it up differently to accommodate slide?
Pearson: I use low action ’cause I learned to play slide on whatever guitar I had at the time. And we didn’t have time to be retuning in between songs, so I did a lot of playing in standard tuning. That’s why if I feel like playing slide in the middle of a song, I’ll just take it out of my pocket and start playing on whatever guitar that I’m playing at the time. But, I keep a Les Paul Junior reissue in open D or I’ll tune it to open G. Sometimes I play an old Silvertone hollowbody in open D tuning. That masonite is pretty funky sounding. So, I use standard, open D, open G and use a capo if needed. And I have a 7th tuning and a 6th tuning that I use sometimes.
For slide I mostly use glass or whatever it is that Dunlop uses, but they don’t make the size that I really would prefer. So I make do with what I’ve got. I have a bone slide that was made for me that I record with on the acoustic.
Scherzer: What is your main amplifier and cabinet rig for live performances? (or which do you use, and what is it about these amps and cabs that make them your preferred choices?
Pearson: I’ve gone through a lot of amps over the last 30+ years. My favorite amp for live is a Yamaha G-50 II. It works for me. My speaker preference is a 12″ EV.
Scherzer: If you use pedals and effects, which ones seem to fit well with your style of playing to get the sound you want?
Pearson: Sometimes I’ll use a Tube Screamer and a Phase 90 live. In the studio I’ll use those plus anything else a song might need like a wah wah or delay. I like to use vibrato for that R&B thing.
Scherzer: What gear do you prefer to use when recording?
Pearson: I like small amps. I have a Fender Blues Junior that I use a lot. Sometimes I use an old Silvertone amp, a Fender Blackface Vibro Champ, or I’ll go direct with a Sans Amp Classic or a POD. Sometimes I’ll use the Yamaha amp or an old Polytone MiniBrute.
Scherzer: What music projects are you involved with at present?
Pearson: I’ve been doing some sessions in Nashville. I would like to do more producing in the future. I’ve been working on my demos and trying to work on a couple of new records of my own. I’ve been playing some regional gigs around the South. Just whatever I can do.
Scherzer: Are there some pearls of wisdom that you would give students if you were teaching them guitar?
Pearson: Develop your ear and timing. Try to play with a good feeling. Play in tune. Go back to the early recordings and learn from the people who really started the style that you’re interested in.
Scherzer: All musicians who succeed have to develop their own unique style. For those of us still trying to find their “voice”, can you give some tips on how they might best go about finding their own sound?
Pearson: That’s a hard question. Not sure if it can be answered. But maybe, the better you get on your instrument, your personality and experience will start coming out. Then you’ll have your own sound.
Scherzer: All of us sincerely appreciate the time you spent doing this interview. We wish you the best. Thank you!
Pearson: Thank you. I enjoyed doing it. It made me try to reach back and remember a lot of things.