Most people spend a good chunk of their early years trying to figure out exactly what they want to do for a living, but that wasn’t the case for blues guitarist Jonny Lang, who at the age of 13 launched his career and never looked back. Over the ensuing decades that followed, Mr. Lang has released eight solid and well-loved records, toured the world and won a Grammy award — and shows no signs of slowing down.
In advance of his tour stop at The Birchmere Sunday, I met up with the now-36- year-old Mr. Lang at a rehearsal studio to discuss his favorite guitars, new tour and why playing barefoot is a bad idea.
Question: What made you say, “The guitar, that’s my instrument”?
Answer: My first memories were that I wanted to be a singer and play music. That was my dream. I didn’t really think I could play an instrument, I just wanted to sing. My dad was buddies with a bunch of guys in their mid-twenties who were in this blues band in town. I had never seen live music before then. It just blew my mind.
The first time you see something as a kid, that just grabs you. This guy playing guitar and the sound that was coming out blew my mind. I said to my dad, “If I could learn how to do that, even a little bit, that would be awesome.”
Q: Do you consider yourself a singer who plays guitar or a guitarist who sings?
A: Probably a singer who plays guitar. I’m definitely most confident when I’m singing. If I get really lost in it with guitar and I’m flowing, then it’s fun. I tend to be more self-conscious about the guitar. I’m more comfortable singing.
Q: They say the blues is based in pain, so what kind of pain did you have at a young age that made you want to play the blues?
A: Oh, man, a middle-class white kid form North Dakota. Are you kidding me? (Laughs) Bro, the pain. The wind gusts? (Laughs) That’s the funny thing. Culturally, I had nothing to do with what made those origins of the blues. But I loved music and feel like I’m supposed to. And I guess, ultimately, it is music like any other music.
Q: So you don’t have to be in pain to play the blues?
A: I found that it is more joy. The content might be “someone done me wrong” and all that. But man, when you listen to B.B. King, you can hear the ache, but there is more joy in that. It’s cathartic. He’s loving doing it.
Q: Do you still play barefoot on stage?
A: I thought I was really cool. (Laughs) I used to think, “Oh, man, if I play barefoot, I’ll be much more connected.” Then a few hundred slivers, splinters and getting [electric shocks] changed all that. I realized, “Put some shoes on or you’re going to die.” (Laughs)
Q: When is the new album coming out?
A: It comes out here in the U.S. on Sept. 9.
Q: What can people expect when they come see you play live on this tour?
A: I feel like the band is pretty energetic. We have tons of fun playing music together, and I think it shows. When the record comes out we’re going to be doing a bunch off the new record. We try to do a few from each [album]. Whatever can fit in two hours.
Q: Is it difficult to figure out what has to go in the set?
A: It is a bit of a challenge. One of those things is trying to build the dynamics of a set so you don’t wear people out.
A set list is like having a conversation: You don’t want to just monotone someone to death. Finding that ebb and flow in a set list is fun, but it can be kind of challenging. You kind of have to stumble on it. At least that is how it works for me. (Laughs)
Q: Has being in music gotten easier?
A: Some things about it are easier, some things and new and different. On the career side, the business side, it is different every day. I try not to think about that and just think about the music as much as I can. I’m not good at the other stuff. I get to do what I love for a living, so this is great.
Q: You play both Fenders and Les Paul guitars. Which do you prefer?
A: It has changed over the years. I used to just like to play Tellys (Fender Telecasters). My favorite guitar players were Albert Collins and Tab Benoit. I got the Telly bug and swore I would never play anything else. Then I tried this Les Paul one day and thought, “I need this in my life.”
Q: How many guitars do you own?
A: I’d say I have maybe 10 to 15 electric guitars. On the road I usually just bring two electric — a Les Paul and a Telly. Plus an acoustic guitar.
I’ve got a couple of special guitars that I keep safe. I’ve got a ‘57 Esquire that I love. Probably my favorite guitar. I use that in the studio a lot. And an old ‘50s Strat that sounds terrible, but it’s probably worth a bunch of money.
Funny how that works.
Jonny Lang plays The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, Sunday. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster.com.
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