Updated: Apr 25
How old were you when you started playing guitar?
I don't remember. Maybe 7? What was your first guitar? Did you buy it yourself? Do you still have it?
My first guitar was really my older brother's guitar. He was very patient with letting me play it. The first guitar that I owned was a Hondo Stratocaster copy that my dad bought for me. I learned a lot on it, but I got rid of it as soon as I could buy my own real Strat. I mean, that's what Jimi Hendrix played, so obviously if I was going to be a "real" guitar player, that's what I needed.
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 mother played the piano and her brother played guitar. Neither of them was very accomplished, but they could play songs, and that attracted other musicians to them. My mother was our church's pianist for years. That might have been my first real music lesson--don't worry about being great, just learn the songs. I've played with some of the best musicians on the planet just because they liked my songs.
What are the guitars that you play? Do you have a favorite? If so, why is it your favorite?
I'm not a collector. I like having a few good tools. My two favorites are a Martin D-18 Golden Era, which is my workhorse, and a Gibson Southern Jumbo from the 60s that I use in the studio, depending on the sound I'm going for.
Jonathan with his Martin D-18 Golden Era
Jonathan and his Gibson Southern Jumbo. Photo credit: Crystal Ellen
I have a cheap Norman plywood guitar that is Nashville-tuned, which is like having only the six high strings on a 12-string guitar. That's a popular studio technique that you've heard on a thousand records whether you knew it or not.
I also have a stock American Telecaster for electric stuff in the studio. Lastly, a friend of mine made a guitar for me out of white oak. I keep that one at my girlfriend's house.
Jonathan and his gravity defying Fender Telecaster.
What strings do you use (brands and gauges)? How often do you change your strings?
D'Addarios are always around, so I usually end up buying those, but it really doesn't matter. Whatever suits the guitar. Occasionally I'll surprise myself and accidentally get a slightly different guage of string. It makes me play differently, and I like that. If you think a particular product is the key to your technique and tone, you probably need to work on your technique and tone.
Do you use a pick? If so, what brand and thickness?
The Dunlop tortex picks are easy to find so I usually use those. They've got different colors for different thicknesses so you can tell immediately which one you're dealing with without having to find a flashlight and squint at a tiny number. I've got a few purple ones, a couple green ones, and usually a yellow or red one around. You need a thicker pick for single note work on an acoustic, but otherwise I can get by with about anything.
Do you use any effect pedals? If so, what are your favorites?
The only true effect I use for acoustic, and only if I'm playing solo, is a Boss OC-3 Super Octave. You can dial in the range so it only makes a bass note for the lowest strings on the guitar. That makes it sound more like there's a bass player. I have a fairly extensive pedal board for electric guitar, and it's all useful and fun, but I also like to plug straight into a good amp. I saw Daniel Lanois play with Emmylou Harris, and he had a cord from his guitar to his amp. If you can do that, you'll always have a gig.
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?
I can do a little set up on an electric, but I wouldn't know what to do with an acoustic guitar. I take mine to Hanson & Crawford in Durham NC and, barring an emergency on the road, I wouldn't take them anywhere else.
Do you have a favorite guitar shop? What makes it a good shop?
A good shop is one that helps you find the tool you need to make the sound in your head. Acoustic guitars are as different as cats, where five of the same litter can have radically different personalities. I found my Martin at Mandolin Bros. in Staten Island, NY. I found my Gibson at Folkways Music in Guelph, Ontario. It took me years to find each of them and I probably played hundreds of guitars in the process. Electric guitars are much more consistent. If I needed a Telecaster or a Les Paul, I could probably pull one at random from a local music store and get what I wanted out of it. Made in America, Mexico, China, whatever. There's a lot of mythology around this stuff, but it's just metal strings and a magnet. Get a hex key, set your action, and start paying the bills.
At what age did you start writing songs?
As soon as I touched an instrument, I started making my own music. I didn't hear a lot of people on the radio playing songs I'd heard before, so I just thought that's what you did. A record was almost always about the uniqueness of the song.
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?
Truly, whatever. I make up new processes all the time. Start with a color. Steal a riff from a mockingbird. What does grief sound like? Write it on a CVS receipt. Writer's block is the process of creating the perfect conditions to write.
Who are the top three musicians or bands that have had a major influence on you?
Impossible to answer, but randomly off the top of my head, Anais Mitchell, Fishbone, Doc Watson. There's no "top." Art just doesn't work that way for me.
If you could jam with one person, living or dead, who would it be?
Colin Brooks. He's alive and well in Austin, Texas right now and I miss him.
What are your top three “desert island” albums?
Again, there's no "top" in music. This is impossible. Mercury Jazz boxed set, Dark Side of the Moon, The Nutcracker Suite. On my desert island, I'd keep making albums.
What was the first concert you attended? What was the last concert you attended?
I don't remember, and I don't remember. I saw Sheryl Crow in a little club in Nashville once, and that was amazing. Michael Peter Smith was probably the only solo songwriter who could pin me to a chair for two hours. I like going to the symphony. I'm not a fan of big shows; they're loud and people are annoying. Listening to the album is almost always a more satisfying experience for me.
The Beatles or the Stones?
Where and when was your first paid gig? How much did you make?
I don't remember.
Photo credit: Barry Tomlinson
What has been the highlight of your musical career so far?
You get lots of highlights in 20 plus years of doing something, but playing in a barn in Fischer, Texas with Tim O'Brien, Tony Rice, David Wilcox, and Peter Rowan in the audience was pretty hard to beat. That's the only place I ever got a standing ovation in the middle of a show just because they liked the song. I could play just the Texas Hill Country for the rest of my life.
Jonathan performing at the 10th annual Rice Festival in Fischer, Texas, November 9th, 2013.
What has been your worst gig so far and why? (You don’t have to name names).
It's hard to say I've had a bad gig. String breaks, you keep playing. Sound goes out, you stand on the bar and keep playing. Weird shit happens, you get a great story to tell for the rest of the tour. I feel blessed every minute I get to do this.
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 audience and the presenter makes the venue. I've played in dive bars that were incredible, and I've played in multi-million dollar facilities where it was hard to tell if the audience was alive or dead, and they acted like they were doing me a favor by paying me. Treat the artist and the art like gold, and they will come back for the rest of their careers for less money than they make elsewhere.
How do you work out your setlist?
Now you've really overestimated me.
Is there any advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out in the music business?
Never drive your own vehicle on a tour.
Do you have any suggestions for a guitarist or songwriter who might be stuck in a musical rut?
Make yourself uncomfortable. Write a song about the worst thing that ever happened to you. Play an instrument you've never played. Burn your notebook.
If you weren’t a singer-songwriter, what would you be doing for work?
I'd probably be a physicist. I just started an Associates in Science this week, so I might be a working physicist in a few years. I'll never stop playing music, but it's fun to learn new things.
Please list some of your upcoming shows, plug your music and provide links to your merchandise.
Jonathan's website: jonathanbyrd.com
Jonathan's upcoming shows.
Jonathan's online store.
Jonathan's song coaching.