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Jackson Emmer

Singer-Songwriter Q&A

How old were you when you started playing guitar?


What was your first guitar? Did you buy it yourself? Do you still have it?

My first guitar was a black Squier Stratocaster I purchased from Guitar Center. I bought it with money made from working at my mom's office when I was 14. I also made a few bucks washing cars for my neighbors. I think the strat was maybe, maaaaaaaybe $100. Never held a tune, but I didn't know any better. To me, it was heaven on earth. I gave it away years ago. Can't remember to whom.

Did your parents or grandparents play any instruments? If so, what did they play? Did you ever get a chance to play with them?

My grandmother played piano. I remember her being excellent at it, jamming on showtunes, and singing "Hello Dolly!" at the top of her lungs. She passed away when I was 12, so no, we never played music together. I did inherit her piano however, and I play it with my daughter every day. Along this thread: I have an older cousin who was a musical mentor to me as I was getting started. He's 25 years my senior, and we lived pretty close to one another while I was attending college in Vermont. We got together regularly to jam, and he was always showing me cool things on guitar.

What are the guitars that you play? Do you have a favorite? If so, why is it your favorite?

I mostly perform and record with a Collings OM1. I got it through a Facebook marketplace swap in 2020, just before lockdown. It's my favorite for many reasons, mostly the sound and feel. With some small eq tweaks, the guitar can really support a vocal in a mix, or take up a ton of the spectrum if you want, or pop as a lead instrument. It's an extremely flexible, reliable tool. Great for the road. I also have Collings D1, which functions as my backup guitar. It has a warmer sound than the OM, kind of like a D18, but with more note definition. Just endless fun to strum and sing with. It's almost 15 years old, but new to me, so I haven't recorded with it yet.

Jackson with his customized Collings OM1. Photo credit: Collings Guitars and Mandolins

Jackson playing his Collings OM1.

What strings do you use (brands and gauges)? How often do you change your strings?

I use D'Addario 12 and 13 gauge strings, depending on the tuning and guitar. I try to stick with 12 gauge strings as often as possible because I think they let the soundboard "breathe" a little more. Also, I change my strings as infrequently as I can, but I find that they don't hold a tune after about 20 or 30 gigs... so I change them every 3-6 months, depending on how often I'm playing out.

Do you use a pick? If so, what brand and thickness?

I mostly favor triangle picks, Dunlop brand, at .73 thickness. I find that for some reason, that thickness sounds really great both acoustically and with the guitar plugged in. Sometimes, with a thicker pick, you can pull great tone out of your acoustic guitar, but as soon as you plug it in, that thick pick makes the amplified tone quite harsh. .73 seems to be a very functional middle ground.

Do you use any effect pedals? If so, what are your favorites?

No. Just an L.R. Baggs Session DI for my acoustic, and a tuner pedal. Same goes for when I play electric, which is mostly just on recordings. I use the reverb and tone on my amp.

Do you work on your own guitars or do you bring them to a guitar tech? Are there any guitar techs that you would like to recommend?

If you live anywhere near Woodsong's Lutherie in Boulder, CO I would highly, HIGHLY recommend taking your instruments to them. When you travel with or perform with an instrument regularly, things will go wrong--no matter how nice your gear is. Woodsong's saves the day, every time. They're fantastic.

Jackson with luthier Mike Stephens at Woodsong's Lutherie.

Do you have a favorite guitar shop? What makes it a good shop?

I don't have a favorite guitar shop, but there are a few that I'm fond of: Telluride Music Company in Telluride, CO (nice, no nonsense sales staff; highly knowledgeable, but not in an annoying way). Acoustic Music Works in Pittsburgh, PA (again, highly knowledgeable staff, devoted to helping you find the right instrument for YOU). Fanny's House of Music in Nashville is also stellar. Incredible staff and great, funky selection of gear, oriented towards Nashville pickers on a budget.

At what age did you start writing songs?

20, I think.

What is your songwriting process? Is it the music or the lyrics that usually come to you first? Do you write old school on paper, or electronically?

I prefer writing music and lyrics at the same time whenever possible. I think the pairing sounds most natural that way. I prefer writing when inspiration strikes, but more often than not, I write on a schedule these days (which hopefully leads to inspiration striking). The muse likes to find you working, so I've heard! I try not to get attached to writing on paper with pen, or at a certain time of day, or when conditions are "just so." Writers write, and our job is to be ready to catch a good song whenever the moment calls for it--so that's what I try to do.

Who are the top three musicians or bands that have had a major influence on you?

Trevor Wilson, Amelia Meath, and John Kirk. Trevor is a friend of mine from college. He doesn't have much on the internet these days, but he's a staggering songwriter, pianist, and musician. He's one of the first people who inspired me to sing and write songs. Amelia Meath is now part of pop-duo, Sylvan Esso. We were friends in college, along with Trevor, and she inspired me to sing and learn harmony. John Kirk was a folk music professor at my college. He plays 10 instruments at a virtuoso level, and is also one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. That left a big impression on me.

If you could jam with one person, living or dead, who would it be?

What are your top three “desert island” albums?

This is the hardest question yet. I don't really listen to albums anymore, so it's extra hard. Probably:

Ethiopiques Vol. 4

Stephane Grapelli in Tokyo

Willie Nelson, Honeysuckle Rose

What was the first concert you attended? What was the last concert you attended?

First concert was Trey Anastasio, with Michael Franti & Spearhead opening. Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. I don't remember if I liked the music, but I remember being astounded at the amount of weed in the air. I was probably 13 or 14. Most recent concert was John McCutcheon, a solo set in Basalt, CO. It was great. That guy can SHRED a hammer dulcimer by golly.

The Beatles or the Stones?

I'm with Jonathan Byrd on this. Chuck Berry all the way.

Where and when was your first paid gig? How much did you make?

No clue. Probably somewhere in Vermont when I was 20ish. We were likely paid in pizza, beer, and a pittance for gas. Living the dream.

What has been the highlight of your musical career so far?

Through a series of lucky accidents, I found myself performing for a group of recent college graduates from Britain, at the base of a canyon in Utah. 300 miles from the nearest city. One electrical outlet and an oil lamp, singing under the western stars. There were maybe 40 people there at the most, howling at the moon. I'll remember that show forever.

What has been your worst gig so far and why? (You don’t have to name names).

I don't remember the bad ones.

What are some of the venues you enjoy performing at the most? What things make the venue enjoyable for the performer (location, equipment, setup, organizers)?

The size of the venue and the crowd is irrelevant to putting on a good show. When folks are there for the right reasons, it's magic every time. The host, presenter, or venue owner really set the tone for the night and for the venue overall--be it a big stage, or a living room. Be welcoming. Set a good vibe. Set people at ease, and it's all gonna work out. Also, I'd rather play through a $100 PA run by a friendly genius, than a million dollar sound system controlled by someone who isn't listening.

How do you work out your setlist?

I usually pick one setlist for any given tour and then tinker as we go. Things aren't static. I change the setlist every night. I want each show to feel unique and alive, and that's just one way to do it.

Is there any advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out in the music business?

Be honest, be excellent, and be ready to work 1,000x harder than you thought you'd have to. No one will "take care of things" for you. No record label is coming to save you. You are the only one holding a magic wand. Push yourself to make art at the highest level you can, and build real relationships with anyone who believes in you and supports your art. Successful artists are a scene unto themselves. Endeavor to deserve it, and to cultivate that. The rest will take care of itself.

Do you have any suggestions for a guitarist or songwriter who might be stuck in a musical rut?

Talk to other musicians. Ask for a 5 minute music lesson from anyone. Take a class. Start an open mic. Invite a new group of people over to jam. New ideas are everywhere. Take a leap, and try something you wouldn't normally do. Learning and excitement are waiting beyond your comfort zone.

Jackson with legendary songwriter and folksinger, Tom Paxton.

Jackson and McCoy Tyler perform Cornflakes and Whiskey, written by Jackson and Tom Paxton.

If you weren’t a singer-songwriter, what would you be doing for work?

Either editing videos, leading raft trips, or coding websites. I'm not good at any of those things yet, but I think they'd keep me occupied.

Please list some of your upcoming shows, plug your music and provide links to your merchandise.

Jackson Emmer's website.

Jackson Emmer's shows.

Jackson Emmer's music.


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