In Search Of Tone: Isaiah Mitchell Of Earthless
I started this project with hopes of even one of my favorite guitar players answering the interview and learning a little more about guitar. This project has really taken off and I’m stoked to have met so many amazing people and learned so much (and still learning). Did I think it would lead up to getting guitar lessons from one of my guitar hero’s? Hell no! But, it did. I would also like to thank my wife for pushing me to do this because if it wasn’t for her, I would still be trying to make power chords sound good through my outdated Fender Mustang amp and I wouldn’t have lessons with none other than Isaiah Mitchell!
I don’t think he needs an introduction, but Isaiah Mitchell is one third of the mighty Earthless, involved in many bands over the years and is currently on tour filling in lead guitar for the Black Crowes. He was a pleasure to talk to and insanely nice and down to earth. He has a lot of valuable information to share, and I think we only scratched the surface!
Thanks for meeting with me to discuss everything music! Let’s start off with gear and can you tell me a little about the amps you’re currently using?
The amps that I’m currently using with Earthless, who I play with primarily, is an Orange Custom Shop 50 head. It’s 50 watts and it’s my favorite Orange Amplifier that they make. It’s more like a Marshall to me then it is an Orange and I’m not a fan of the new Thunderverb, or whatever they’re called. I’ve always been a Marshall guy, so this one is more my taste. I use that with Earthless and for backup I have a Marshall Super Lead 71, but it’s too loud for pretty much any live show. I also, have a JCM 800/GMP copy from amp builder Jeremy Selinda and his amps are called Dover Amps. I’ve been using that as a backup as well.
I love tiny low wattage amps too. I have a 61 Fender Vibrolux brown face and a mid 60s Ampeg Reverb amp. I like using those kind of amps live for pretty much anything other than Earthless because you can crank them and get the best sound. In the studio they just sound absolutely the best and those are my favorite kind of amps, the small brown face tweed amp combos. That’s what Marshall based their circuit off of. The Fender tweed stuff.
That’s cool. I’ve been hearing a lot more about the love of small tube amps vs big rigs.
I surprise a lot of people. I think people throw me in a certain genre and category but there’s so much music out there. My dad’s a musician as well. I grew up around it, working in a guitar shop, around gear and around different musicians and styles there’s something to it. My tastes are eclectic, and I like gear that’s all over the place. Like this thing right here, it’s a 1930s National Triolian Dobro. I’ve been playing a lot of pedal steel lately too. I’m into all kinds of stuff
The amps that I’m currently using with Earthless, who I play with primarily, is an Orange Custom Shop 50 head. It’s 50 watts and it’s my favorite Orange Amplifier…
When dialling in your tone do you prefer a clean amp or do you use distortion from the amps?
I don’t like dual channel amps that have clean and dirty channels, especially not live. I like the Marshall JMP‘s and JCM’s and amps that have the preamp’s where you can really control the gain without having to crank it up to 10. And I like one volume amps where you can just crank the amp and I back off the guitar volume a lot. I like that brown warm broken up sound and then if I need a cleaner tone, I’ll back the volume off the guitar. And if I need more, I have a Treble Booster, a Clean Boost and an Overdrive of some sort to take the gain stages higher and higher and more levels of saturation and sustain.
What pedals are currently on your pedalboard?
On my board right now, I have the Strymon Flint. I love harmonic tremolo like on those brown face circuit amps. They have amazing tremolo with that harmonic phasing. It’s the best one I’ve heard, and it has reverb with three fantastic reverb circuits. I have Cry Baby Mini Wah, just to fit on my board and I’m happy with it. I think it sounds great. For delay right now, I’m using the Maxon D999, it’s a re-issue that sounds great. I tend to go all over the place with delays. I mainly use an Echoplex, but I don’t take it everywhere anymore.
SIB Electronics makes an Echodrive, that’s the delay pedal I use most the time. It has to be repaired, that’s why it’s not on my board right now. Rick over SIB Electronics is really into Echoplex as it’s got that warm drive sound. It’s a fantastic delay. I have a Creepy Fingers Sugar Boost, which is a treble booster. Brad at Creepy Fingers makes amazing pedals, like wonderful wonderful wonderful pedals.
Also, I have my Signature Fuzz which is by Tim Guitars in Brisbane, Australia. He made me a custom fuzz pedal and it’s based off a Colorsound Tone Boost, as well as a Triangle Big Muff, and has a mid-switch to fill in all the mids that don’t exist in either of those pedals. I like the push mids, I’m not the scoop mids kind of guy. Then I have a Klon copy by my buddy Mark Leahey who makes pedals up in Eugene, Oregon called Make Sounds Loudly, and he makes some of the most musical sounding pedals I’ve ever heard. I highly recommend checking out his pedals, they’re fantastic.
Since the start of this series, I’ve been looking into buying pedals and creating my own board. This is great information.
If I were you, I would hit up Mark at Make Sounds Loudly. He’ll make you anything and the turnaround time is quick. He’s so good. He can make any circuit and it makes you want to play.
Soon your whole board will be his stuff [laughs].
Yeah, we played with them, that’s how we met. We played in Eugene, and they were sound checking. I was outside and I was listening and his tone was unreal, so I went to go check it out and he made every pedal on his board, so he’s the dude
That’s really cool. Do you have a variety of guitars you use or one or two main guitars your always using?
I’ve got a couple handfuls of guitars, but mostly I use my Fender Strat that I’ve had since High School. That’s my main guitar. I have a Gibson 59 Les Paul reissue, Gibson 1956 gold top with P90s reissue. Those are reissues not original fuck no [laughs].
My uncle built me a guitar with a piece of wood, that’s almost as old as I am, that he’s been saving for a special occasion. He decided he wanted to build a guitar. I call it the Uncle Jerry Guitar or UJ and I use that a lot, it’s a great guitar. He’s never built one before and it’s fantastic and a lot of sentimental value as well of course. My buddy Tim [Guitars], who built me that pedal, also built me a custom Stratocaster that’s really really funky. It has a Jazzmaster bridge. My buddies in San Diego make guitars called Prisma Guitars and they’re made out of skateboard decks, they’re beautiful you should check them out. He built me one that’s a Strat, it doesn’t look like a Strat but it’s got everything a Strat does.
I’ve got a couple handfuls of guitars, but mostly I use my Fender Strat that I’ve had since High School…
I believe you answered this but, do you have a piece of gear you have had for a long time and will never get rid of?
The Strat. Yeah, my Uncle Jerry Guitar is very sentimental and I’ll keep that forever, but the Strat and I have done a lot together. I’ve beat out a lot of emotion and aggression and just beat the shit out of it, but it keeps coming back and feeling greater than ever, so I’ll have to say it’s the Strat and my Uncle J Guitar I’ll never get rid of.
A few years back I bought some albums online and ended up getting Sonic Prayer on whim because I loved the artwork and got free shipping [laughs]. I hadn’t heard of Earthless prior to that but it was the best album I bought, and now I don’t even remember the other albums I got that day.
I’m glad you dig it. Mike the bass player did the artwork on that. I love his artwork
I didn’t listen to much instrumental music at that time, and this really opened up my world of music so what is your writing process like?
One of us will come up with a riff. but mostly when we’re in a room together at band practice, or even on stage, and open the show with a jam, we think ‘oh this is really cool’, I’ll remember the riff and do it again. But a lot of stuff happens in practice by jamming constantly and riff ideas just come up and we build bridges to connect everything. My favorite stuff we’ve ever written and recorded is the stuff that we’ve written all together in a practice situation. For the Black Heaven album for example, I wrote songs and brought them in, and the band learned them. It’s just not the same thing as the three of us writing together. I like our sound the most when we all write together.
You’re involved with many bands and artists. Is there a particular song or part of a song you’re proud of writing?
I was in a band Golden Void. We’re not together anymore, but a lot of the songs I wrote for that band I’m very proud of. For Earthless my favorite is the stuff we’re currently writing. I was just telling my girlfriend last night after band practice ‘I’m so happy and proud of the music we’re writing, it’s all of our favorite stuff that we’ve ever written.’ I think people are gonna be pretty stoked and I see a difference in the album we’re about to start recording then everything else we’ve done it just feels ‘deeper’, I don’t know how to put it.
a lot of stuff happens in practice by jamming constantly and riff ideas just come up and we build bridges to connect everything…
I have many off days and get discouraged easy. What do you do for inspiration if you’re having an off day?
That’s a tough one because sometimes you don’t feel like playing and you just don’t play. I am that way, but I teach guitar so I’m pretty much playing every day no matter what. Between teaching and band practice, or working with bands recording, or doing something for someone, that’s not so much for my own inspiration, that’s just kind of my ‘duties’, but there’s times that I’m doing so much of that, I don’t feel inspired to pick up the guitar for myself.
Sometimes it can go on for so long that I lose track. I’m totally playing guitar but it’s not for myself, so it just phases in and out and I just deal with it. What I’ll do is I’ll pick up a different instrument, for example, now I’m playing the pedal steel and it requires you to think completely different. You can play different instruments, or if you wanna play guitar, then play with different effects, play with a bunch of reverb or really push yourself to play something different from what you normally play. Try and think way outside the box and do something different and refreshing and that will hopefully get you inspired and kick off a whole new thing.
There is an insane amount of music released every day, how do you go about writing unique music without repeating yourself or others?
Fuck man, that’s such a hard question. I try not to be too much of a manic, but everybody takes from everybody that’s how we all learn and it’s impossible not to sound like something, or multiple things, but you can tell a guitar player or musician by their sound. I think one of the most important things to develop your own sound is to listen to a lot of different types of music. I love guitar players and I wanna learn from the best, like Neil Young, Billy Gibbons, Jimi Hendrix, Mark Knopfler, it just keeps going. Eric Clapton, Peter Green, B.B. King, learn from all those guys, learn everything you can by learning how they phrase and everything that they do. You learn that and you’re able to start doing it yourself and then you’ll have such a wide vocabulary that you’ve been studying from many different people.
Now you can start listening to stuff from all over the world, like Japanese koto music, and go to all these different places and pick a part what you like about it, learn how to play it and try and mimic it as best you can. Then you just do it and take what you’ve learned and now speak, just start talking. That’s how to go about it I think, there’s nothing wrong with studying anything and being so well-versed at it.
I think one of the most important things to develop your own sound is to listen to a lot of different types of music…
There are people that have Jerry Garcia down and that’s all they do and if you’re paying Grateful Dead songs and that’s what you want to be doing, then great, but maybe you shouldn’t sound just like him, maybe yourself should come through. We’ve all heard Jerry and we want to hear Jerry sometimes, but I just want to hear your voice. One of my all-time favorite guitar players Neal Casal, he can play anything, and he put droplets of Jerry Garcia in the most beautiful ways, but he has his own voice coming through. He’s an unbelievable guitar player.
So take bits and pieces of guys and ideas and the way they think, but don’t speak the same language verbatim, trying to mimic them, that’s my thing. I like hearing a lot of different voices in somebody’s playing and I like hearing their voice.
Do you have a practice routine or warm up you do on a daily basis?
Daily no, but before gigs I’ll do modes of the major scale, but in groups of fours to get the fingers warmed up. I don’t do an exercise routine, I’ll just run some scales for a couple minutes but when I pick up the guitar, I’ll play some licks I want to learn, or a song I want to learn, or something that is on my mind and I wanna try it out. I love it and I have fun with it so when I pick it up, it’s to play.
Thanks Isaiah for taking the time to answer my questions. Earthless latest release is the awesome Live In The Mojave Desert recording that’s out now through Heavy Psych Sounds, and keep an eye on the bands website, or follow them on social media, for up to date news about when their new album will drop, which I for one eagerly await.
Band Links: Official | Facebook | Bandcamp | Twitter | Instagram
Interviewed by: Josh Schneider