Jared James Nichols: Meet Zakk Wylde, John 5–Backed Heavy Blues-Rock Guitarist | Revolver

Jared James Nichols: Meet Zakk Wylde, John 5–Backed Heavy Blues-Rock Guitarist

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"I actually went to this summer camp at Berklee [College of Music] in Boston, and they gave me a full scholarship to the school. I went there for six months … and quit because I fucking hated it."

Rising guitar hero Jared James Nichols is laughing as he recalls his failed attempt at rock & roll academia. His jab at the venerable learning institution may be lighthearted, but it does speak to the nature of this young gunslinger, which is, in many ways, quite untamable.

From his singular talent for playing blues-based guitar rock with his signature no-pick style to his tumbling mane of fiery curls that enter a room before he does, the 30-year old shredder makes a huge impression in nearly every way. Which makes sense, considering the larger-than-life characters that first inspired him to pursue a career in music.

"My first shows were Kiss and Aerosmith, with Kenny Wayne Shepherd opening," he tells Revolver, before a recent club show in New York City where he and his band are opening for Rob Zombie's virtuosic guitarist John 5's solo tour. "We were drinking beer in the parking lot, and we went in and I saw Kenny Wayne Shepherd play. All that hair, this young dude just ripping guitar … I was like, 'That's so sick. I want to play music.'"

With his sights originally set on drumming, the East Troy, Wisconsin native talked a friend into giving him his kit so he could practice in his basement at home. Nichols' construction-worker father came home during one of the young percussionist's self-taught bashing sessions and quickly put the kibosh on the raucous noisemaking rattling the house.

Not wanting to squash his son's dreams entirely, his father suggested the burgeoning player try out an acoustic guitar­ — "So you can take it with you," he recalls his father saying. Offering up the deal of a lifetime, his dad added that upon learning one full song, he could also get an electric guitar and small practice amplifier.

The teen took this wager seriously and quickly learned how to parse through Black Sabbath's 1970 doomy psychedelic banger "Electric Funeral." His pops followed through on his end of the deal, and the newly christened six-stringer got to work on carving out his niche on the instrument.

"So he gets me an electric guitar and I found like the overdrive setting on the amp," Nichols remembers. "I was looking at it and thought, 'What does that do?' Then I heard it and I was like, 'Oh, that's the sound. That's the button.' And then I was hooked." That lightning-rod moment immediately inspired Nichols, and sent the young guitarist down a path of musical discovery — digging into the work of classic acts like ZZ Top, Ted Nugent and (maybe most importantly) Stevie Ray Vaughn as he developed his own craft.

The next seismic shift for Nichols' creativity arrived a few short years later, after his aforementioned brief stint at Berklee College of Music. "After I left Berklee, I was sick of it," he recalls morosely. "At that point, I didn't even know if I really wanted to play … I lost like the desire for a minute 'cause I was so beat up over it. Then I started kind of going about it my own way."

The guitarist returned to the source of his initial inspiration — those blues-rock artists he was initially drawn to in his formative years — and shook off the constraints he felt in the strictly regimented school. (He also ditching his pick for a fingerstyle approach that allowed him to "feel every note.") The radical course-correction not only reignited his creativity, it motivated him to hit the road — where some big names in the music world started to take notice.

photograph by Max Knight

"When I started touring and trying to build my own band, I started getting calls," Nichols remembers of his early days after moving from Wisconsin to Los Angeles to immerse himself in the scene. "I got a call from Zakk Wylde to tour, then I got a call from [Lynyrd] Skynyrd … these guys were my heroes!"

During this time, Nichols' guitar-playing skills weren't the only things getting noticed. The guitarist was also getting attention for his uniquely modified ax: a Frankensteined creation of his own design that was the result of trying to create his own version of "Blues Power" with his original Les Paul guitar. "Everything … was ripped out," says Nichols of the guitar, which was stripped down to one pickup, one volume knob and one tone knob. "It was super punk."

The lore of Nichols' guitar grew as it was routinely dissected and discussed in online guitar forums (Lynyrd Skynyrd's Rickey Medlocke even attempted to purchase it) until legendary guitar manufacturer Gibson came calling with an offer to make a replica model through their Epiphone brand of guitars. Thus, the Jared James Nichols "Old Glory" Les Paul was born.

"I was blown away because usually I think about signature guitars, and I think about guys that have already been there and done that," he says of the opportunity to partner with Gibson. 

photograph by Max Knight

This April, Nichols is about to increase his footprint in the music-equipment industry with the release of his new signature Blackstar amp. Bringing such a product to life obviously relies on numerous technical factors, but for Nichols it all starts with "the sound in your head."

While on tour in the U.K. with glam icons LA Guns, Nichols paid a visit to Blackstar Headquarters, to meet with the experts that would help turn the sound in his head into a reality.

photograph by Max Knight

"These guys there, they were like scientists!" he exclaims. "They were putting parts together and matched the way my hands were hitting the strings and the speakers … all this different stuff. Long story short, I just played."

After a 12-hour session of adjusting, tweaking and making the amp sound "alive," they came up with a product perfectly suited to Nichols' dreams. Likening the fine-tuning process to his proclivity for the rumbling, visceral satisfaction of driving his prized vehicle, an "old Ford Falcon," Nichols feels he successfully pulled that gritty sound out of his Blackstar. "It's like a car ride … You gotta give it gas, but then it's like, 'Oh, I'm in a fucking car.'"

Nichols has been having a blast showing off his skills — and his new amp — on tour supporting John 5, and he's looking forward to connecting with even more fans on the road this spring and summer as he embarks on a May headlining tour of the Midwest, appears at The Music Experience during Welcome to Rockville, Epicenter and Sonic Temple, and heads off to Europe for a support tour with Living Colour, multiple festivals and more.

"I am so blown away by the people that come," he says of his current run with John 5. "You get the [Marilyn] Manson and [Rob] Zombie crew of people, but then you also get people who just fucking love rock … I get to play in front of totally different audiences that would never be there in general, and I'm just so grateful to be on this tour."