"It was a gift from a friend of mine" 

Gregory Alan Isakov muses over his guitar as he rolls a cigarette.  It is the last day of September 2013 and Gregory was kind enough to chat a while about his beat but sweet 1967 Gibson J-50.  The weather was nice and it was time for a post sound check smoke.  We talk about how his guitar lay dormant in a barn in Colorado for about 40 years, just resting up for its second career. 
Gregory Alan Isakov with vintage Gibson J-50 acoustic guitar

John: Do you mind if I check it out?  It looks like it has seen some miles.
Gregory: Please.  Yeah it's a '67.
John: did you say he brought it to Vietnam?
Gregory: Yeah and he brought it back.  I used to work on his farm and we had always been really close.  One night he said, "Well Gregory, I left you something in the barn."  I thought it was weed since he smokes a lot of weed.  He took me out to the barn and there was this big buffalo skull and a guitar case.  I took the guitar to a friend in New York who got it set up for me.

Gregory's J-50 has had a neck reset, refret and had the adjustable bridge "fixed".  The tuning keys are reproduction Kluson keystones.  It has the slimmer, late 60s neck and the setup is spot on.  It has nice mid to low range with that classic Gibson Americana rumble.

J:  ... and you play this guitar pretty much exclusively?
G: Well I have another guitar with me, it's a Stella.  Actually, I almost bought another guitar last week.
J:  What was it?
G:  An ES-125.  It was the nicest one I've ever played.  Most of the mid range was gone, it was just super warm with a really buttery high end.  But the mids were gone.  It played so well and it sang really well.
J:  What year was it?
G:  '52.  It was $1800 which was pretty much all I had.  I didn't buy it but I've been thinking about it all day.  It's in Austin at Austin Vintage Guitars.  It's like my favorite shop.

G:  I don't love electrics, but I like electrics with just a little bite to 'em.  The ES-125 has my favorite tone that I've found.

J:  So are you a Gibson guy or do you like all of them?
G:  No not really, my favorite guitar right now is the Stella.  It was $35 and I got it in Buffalo, NY.  It was in a big pile of old Stellas.  The guy was like "how about $50 with a set up?"  I said, "You're just going to WD-40 the tuners, I mean there's no truss rod on the thing."  "Oh okay, $35."  I really didn't even mind paying $50, he was a nice old guy with a great shop.  I had told him I was just looking for a plywood guitar because I don't care to keep it in a case.  My Gibson usually stays in the case but the Stella just goes in the van and everyone plays it.  That's what I tell people who ask me about playing the guitar, I say just get a piece of junk and don't keep it in the case.  You'll play it more often.
Gregory Alan Isakov with vintage Gibson J-50 acoustic guitar
G:  I won this [hand made] guitar in a songwriting festival a while back and they said it was worth like $15,000.  I never play it.
J:  Who made it?
G:  It was the owner of Santa Cruz.  He had made his own company and they only make about 100 guitars a year.  I got it in 2009 and have never changed the strings.  The thing is still too bright.  Still.
J:  I guess it's still a little green.
G:  [while strumming a few chords] Gibsons have just like a nice dark tone, where the high end isn't in your face.
J: Yeah, they have a good mid range where the Martins have the big booming bass, harsh top end and scooped mids.  
G:  But the Martins have a good tight string tension which I like.
J:  What gauge strings do you normally play?
G:  I normally play lights since I play every day but when I record I use mediums.
J:  There was a Silvertone that you were playing for a while right?
G:  Yeah, a Hollywood.  I love that guitar.  It used to have an old pickup from the 60s in it, a little single coil.
J:  Like a DeArmond?
G:  Yeah it was a DeArmond, and it sounded great.  I recorded a lot of our last record with it.  But most of the record I just made was on this guitar [the Gibson] and the Stella.

The Weatherman

J:  I heard that you recorded your last record all analog.
G: Well we did dump it onto Protools at the end but, yeah, we tracked it just in an old studio with a tape machine.  It was just something I wanted to try.  I don't know if it's the way I record, or if I've even found the way to make records.  I feel like, five years old in that realm.  It was fun to try since I've never been able to afford it before because that gear is just so expensive.  So, we found this studio up in the mountains and did it in a few months.  I usually don't go to studios because I don't like them and I don't like the time constraint - because I take forever.  I like to find the perfect sound for something even if it's hardly audible.  It gets expensive fast.

J:  Are there drawbacks to analog recording that you kind of enjoy?
G:  Yeah, oh yeah.  It was amazing how once you play the song and you go into the control room and listen to it, you know that's the take.  In Protools you think this [take] might sound fine in about a month, let's just keep working on it. But [with analog recording] there's none of that.  Do we like it, or do we feel it, or does it make us feel something?  Some of the stuff we'd spend hours and hours really perfecting and the next day we'd listen to it and not really feel anything.  Then I'd play kind of a crappy take and it was the one.

J:  What can you think of from The Weatherman that was like that?
G:  There were a couple songs that ended up that way, like "Second Chances".  We made like 13 tracked versions of that song, 13!  I could put out a double record of just that song.  Different takes, tempos, feels but the one we kept was just really simple and live.  Same with "Suitcase Full of Sparks" and "Living Proof" was live.  There was this one song I wrote when I was 19 called "Honey It's All Right" and that was sort of like a throwback.  I don't why I just thought we'd try it.

J: So "Amsterdam" and "St. Valentine" weren't like that?
G: They were too, they were very simple.  On our previous record called This Empty Northern Hemisphere we had songs that were 90 tracks but you would never know it.  We had like 3 mics on every cello...
J:  and was "The Stable Song" like that?
G: No, that was like probably 16 channels but this record was almost nothing.  It hasn't lived long enough for me yet, and I haven't listened to it since we made it so I don't know if it's good.  Sometimes [the records] have to live for a while before you can figure it out.  I didn't have that kind of opportunity with it because I wrote it so close to when we needed to put something out.  I had been working on another record for years before that, that I didn't like.

J:  One thing I noticed about your songs, well, another website (indie-music.com) said about "Amsterdam" was that it was a "richly vintage delight."  I thought that was a good way to put it.  Dreamy, poetic.  Do you write spoken word poetry as well?
G:  I write a lot of prose and stories and stuff.  I like short stories, poems, I like this guy Billy Collins a lot.
Elizabeth (my wife & photographer):  Did you say Billy Collins?
G: I love Billy Collins.  It's really funny when I talk to my nerdy writer friends and they say he's like the Coldplay of writing.  But I think that's why it's so good.
E: I teach Billy Collins to my 9th graders.
G: He's so good, you know that poem "Aimless Love"?  It's the most beautiful love poem I've ever heard.  He's talking about a field mouse that he found that was dead, it's on 9 Horses I think.  I love that book.

G: [Billy Collins] has a similar approach to writing that I do where I don't want anything in there that isn't important for the piece of music.  In Billy Collins's writing, every line in his poem is necessary and there's nothing extra; it's so bare.

J: What's the song on The Weatherman that's like a minute and a half?
G: You mean "The Astronaut"?
J: That's it, so awesome.  Very stripped down and just ends when you wanted it to end.  There's no fluff, there's no room for fluff.
G: We did have this really long, really ornate introduction to that song with a big string line and it was really dark and cool with a Rhodes and lots of feedback.  Then, the last week before the record came out we just cut that part out and started over with just the lyrics.

J:  I really love that song.  Thanks for taking the time to chat with me about your guitars and the new album.
G: No problem.

Gregory lets me check out the aforementioned Stella parlor guitar before I leave the venue of his show for that night.  It's got that great lo-fi, dark tone that only a $35 plywood guitar can produce.

Elizabeth and I return after dinner to the venue to hear these guitars in their element.  The show shares many similarities with our chat - engaging, personal, relatable.  Gregory and the band even unplug from the PA for a couple of songs letting us have a real taste of how this music sounded when they first wrote it - gathered in the kitchen of Gregory's home in Boulder, CO.

Visit Gregory's website for a full tour listing and purchase The Weatherman everywhere good music is sold.

Photography by: Elizabeth Shults

John Shults


Wonderful article. Can’t wait till the day I’ll be able to see Gregory Alan Isakov in concert. His music is truly something special

— Nic

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