A decade ago, Merlo Podlewski got the call to play with an obscure surfersongwriter named Jack Johnson. Podlewski’s chill demeanor and love for the Meters, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley made him an easy personal match for laid back Jack, and he’s been riding high on a monster wave with him ever since. Johnson’s latest, To The Sea, is out now.
Jack Johnson has professed his passion for “unobtrusive tones.” Is that how you would describe what you’re going for?
I guess so. I’m going for a reggae tone, but I’m not playing those licks in their native context. We go for the irie tones of a reggae band—slightly dirty guitar, dry, old-school drums, warm, round bass, and a mellow vocal—but we don’t use one-drop rhythms or anything like that. I learned loads of licks listening to Family Man Barrett and Robbie Shakespeare growing up, but we mostly play them in an American soul style.
Can you elaborate?
Different styles of music utilize many of the same stock licks. Where they stop and start in a bar is often the only difference between, say, a funk lick with an emphasis on one, and the same lick in an afro beat context, where it might start on three. Reggae is like soul like moved over— you don’t emphasize the one as much, but the licks are essentially the same.
Can you draw similar comparisons tonally?
When I started playing in clubs, I discovered that Latin music and reggae have essentially the same warm bass tone. If you can get that tone out of a rig, you can do world music gigs, plus soul and hip hop.
How do your mechanics factor into nailing the irie tone?
I feel that you need heat on the front end in order to achieve a true tone, so I use heavy strings, high action, and I dig in—even on low-volume gigs. I’ll pluck up near or on the neck to mellow my sound. I play a lot of Jack’s stuff using frets five through ten. In that region, you get a warm sound that doesn’t grind like the tone you get from playing the lower frets, and the notes don’t jump out too much either. The middle region of the neck is the sweet spot.
HEAR HIM ON
Jack Johnson, To The Sea [Brushfire, 2010]
Basses Hofner HCB-CB Club Bass, ’70s Epiphone (studio)
Rig Tech 21 Landmark 300 head, Ampeg SVT-810E 8x10 cabinet, Ampeg B-15 (studio)
Strings GHS Bass Boomers Heavy (.050–.115)
Tone tip “If the venue is too boomy, I’ll cut my amp volume way down and rely on the monitors.”