Ryan Bingham Talks Guitars, Especially the J-45
Nearly three years have passed since Ryan Bingham rocketed to fame on the strength of “The Weary Kind,” the Grammy-winning theme song he co-wrote and performed for the acclaimed film, Crazy Heart. Junky Star, the album that followed, saw Bingham consolidate his place as one of roots music’s most promising young troubadours. Bingham hasn’t forsaken his acoustic beginnings, but his new album, Tomorrowland, finds him plugging in and cranking the volume like never before. “It wasn’t until the last couple of years, since I got a house of my own and had time off, that I could set up and play Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page stuff,” he says. “My inner 16-year-old kid was coming out.” Fans of Bingham’s bare-bones balladry need not worry, as he continues to breaks out his trusty J-45 acoustic on occasion as well. In the following interview, he talks about the new album, his guitar influences, and why he loves his J-45.
Did you have an over-arching plan for the new album?
I wanted to experiment more with sounds and tones. A friend of mine had a house that was vacant, and he let me set up and record there. There were no time constraints, and no budget restraints, so I had time to sit around and experiment with the songs. We recorded over the course of about two months – playing around with the songs and tracking them. The vibe of the room became a kind of instrument itself, and helped shape the sound. I always like things to be a bit rough and raw, to have a bit of a live sound in there.
Did anything happen that surprised you?
The guitar playing surprised me. I went in thinking I would just play basic rhythm tracks. I was thinking about who I would bring in to play lead guitar, but then I started taking a crack at solos and leads, and that’s what we ended up keeping on the record. I pretty much played all the guitar parts. That surprised me. I didn’t think I was capable of playing some of the things I did.
What guitars did you play?
It was a mix. I’ve got some older guitars – some old Kay guitars, a Les Paul Junior and bunch of acoustics. Also, a good friend of mine named Jon Gries, here in Los Angeles, has tons of vintage gear. He brought me all kinds of microphones and pedals and guitars, including a vintage Les Paul. He also brought a vintage Vox AC30 and an AC15, and a bunch of old pedals – including an original Uni-Vibe and Colorsound. We experimented with all those things in this big room in the house, with big tall ceilings. There weren’t any rules. It was a lot of fun.
Did you play your J-45 much, in addition to the electrics?
Yes. Actually my wife got me an older J-45, a ’63 model that I played a lot on the album. I used the J-45 for pretty much all the acoustic stuff. I had other acoustics as well, and would sort of pick each one up, one at a time, and strum it and play it. But at the end of the day, it was always the J-45 that sounded best. It’s also my main guitar for writing.
When did you first get a J-45?
I got my first one – a brand new one -- when I was working on the music for Crazy Heart. Of course it sounds great as well. My wife got me this older one soon after that, for my birthday.
How did you first learn to play?
It was a long process. My mother bought me a classical gut string guitar when I was 16, and it sort of sat in the closet for about a year. After that we moved to Laredo, Texas, near the border. My parents had friends who would come over for get-togethers, and one of them was always playing old mariachi music – Tejano stuff. One day I told him I had a guitar, and he said, “Well, go get it. I’ll show you a couple of chords.” He taught me one part to an old mariachi song called “La Malagueña,” and told me to go home and practice that for a couple of days, and then to come back and he would show me the next part. That went on for a couple of weeks, until I had learned the parts and could put them all together. Soon after that we moved away, and for about a year that was the only song I knew how to play. Finally I got tired of playing just that one song, so I got a book of chords and started teaching myself. From there I started making up songs on my own.
Did it make a big difference when you got your first really good guitar?
Totally. It was amazing, the first time I played a nice guitar, and had a guitar that actually made the sound I was trying to make. It’s a lot more inspiring to have a guitar that sounds good. The first real guitar I had was another gut string, but I don’t remember the brand or model.
Who influenced you as a player?
I never tried to mimic anyone, because I didn’t want it to rub off on me, where I played in someone else’s style. I felt the only way I could come up with my own style was to try to do my own thing. But I certainly listened to lots of different types of music. I like everything from Bob Marley to Bob Wills. Mariachi music was definitely a big influence when I was starting out. There are lots of styles I’ve been influenced by – bluegrass, folk, Tejano, the blues and western swing. I think I draw from all of that, although what I do is rough around the edges.
Read more about the J-45 here.