In Search Of Tone: Nate Hall Of US Christmas & Solo Artist
I learned of US Christmas through a friend and fellow scribe Jacob. Their sound is perfect to me, and I became an instant fan. I immediately reached out to Nate Hall who was kind enough to be interviewed as I was excited to learn how he achieves not only his awesome guitar tones, but also how he created these stunning albums in US Christmas and as a solo artists.
What I ended up getting out of this interview far surpassed what I was hoping. Nate offers up some fantastic advice that I wasn’t expecting. From something simple like getting a boost pedal, to tweaking the gear you already have and even building up the confidence in playing and writing, he covers all the basis and I felt better about myself as a guitar player after our chat. If you play guitar then I hope this will help you too.
Thanks for meeting with me today. I tend to start these interviews off with a rig rundown of sorts if that’s cool with you?
Sounds good to me man. So I have several heads. I tend to switch things around a lot, but I always use multiple heads. I don’t just have one because years ago I’ve had so many problems with them breaking down. It was hard to get gear back in the day too. We’re talking like late 90s early 2000s. Now I can get any amp I want delivered in a couple days. There used to be a lot of vintage silver face Fender amps at local churches. They’re great and now they’re really sought after. That was one of the first really nice amps I got.
We had a guy name Robert who lived in Marion NC, where the band is from. He basically was our guitar tech. He was a mechanic, but he really enjoyed going out and finding deals and fixing up amps. I was able to get one of those broken Fender amps that he fixed up and I still have it. I also have a Marshall amp that’s 50 watts and I can cut it down to 25 Watts. I really like doing that because it just sounds better to me. I have a MOSFET also. It’s basically a solid-state JCM copy and they’re really good. You can run them into two cabinets of any ohms which is really cool.
Some guitarists will use one amp really loud, but I’ve learned over the years that these low-wattage amps can really be pushed to get a great sound…
It’s a lot of trial and error hooking up cabinets and we blew up a lot just realizing we’re not wiring things right [laughs]. I’ve been able to rely on those amps so much that I have three of them now. I used to be able to pick one up for like 200 bucks. I got my first one from the guitar player of Pigface. That’s how I developed my attitude towards guitar. I just find things and make them work. I have amp splitters to use multiple amps. Morley is one I’m using right now where I can run into three amps and turn them all off and on.
Some guitarists will use one amp really loud, but I’ve learned over the years that these low-wattage amps can really be pushed to get a great sound. By putting two and ideally three amps together and dial them into that sweet spot, you then can mix amp tones to get thicker sounds without it becoming ear-splitting. It’s a hassle but it’s worth it. The other advantage is if one bank stops working you have others. That’s the reason I like solid states. They last forever, you don’t have to replace tubes and if you drop them, they usually still work. I’ve dropped two or three solid-state amp’s and thought that was it. I thought I broke it, but I plugged it in and it worked, but if I drop a tube amp then you’re trying to fish out all the little shards of glass and I have to replace the tubes. I’ve seen many guys spend lots of money fixing broken amps like that.
And what about your cabs?
As far as cabinets, you have those big 4×12 cabinets and in my opinion they’re not designed for small rooms. That’s where they get used most often for me. I’ve played some big places but most times I play small venues and those things are designed to hit well beyond where the audience is standing. I like the smaller cabinets. I have a Sovtek 4×10 and a Marshall 4×10, they’re both small enough that I could pick them up by myself. I had an Emperor back in the day built for me with 2×12‘s that I really like and they’re small enough that I can pick them up and carry myself as well. The 10” speakers sound better in a smaller place, and they’re designed for that.
Of course you can sound good with a 4×12 but there’s an advantage to smaller cabs and combo amps. Basically, I would advise people to be open minded and experiment with things. If you find something you like, hold onto it. People tend to sell things quickly and you end up left with nothing. I’ve seen that 1 million times, you have a really good guitar player and he doesn’t have a guitar or amp because he’s sold everything, they can’t get anything new and regret selling things. My advice is don’t sell anything. A lot of this comes from having relatives who’ve had things that I would have wanted, but they sold it and when they passed on, it would’ve meant the world to me to have it. I’m not going do that to my kids. I’m keeping everything I have so I can pass it on to them.
I have a lot of overdrive pedals, but the one I’ve been using the most is the Black Arts Toneworks Witch Burner…
That’s a really good point and I’m guilty of that. I constantly want to sell pedals to get different ones and my wife always tells me not to for that very reason. Speaking of pedals what are you currently using?
I have a wah and that’s first in my chain. I have a lot of overdrive pedals, but the one I’ve been using the most is the Black Arts Toneworks Witch Burner that my buddy Mark gave to me, it’s just three knobs and it always has a real nice harmonic musical quality that sounds warm and dark. Just really good all around. I use it all the time now. Delay is a big part of my sound too. The MXR Carbon Copy I’ve had for a long time now. With all my pedals I write on them with sharpie and mark where my settings are because I’ve had people in the past mess with knobs before I get on stage.
Yeah, people are dumb [laughs].
Then there’s the Electro-Harmonix Freeze pedal, it basically holds the note or chord that I’m playing and then the drones behind it. It adds a little texture and it’ll always be there. I have a DigiTech Whammy pedal that I use for stretching notes up into the octaves. I don’t use it as a whammy, I keep in its own case and has its own power source. It’s a cool thing to do sometimes.
One thing I don’t really ever use is Chorus. I just never really liked how it sounded but a lot of people do, Mike from YOB uses it a lot and it sounds great when he does. I just never really got into it. Pre-amp stuff like a boost pedal, those are really good. I have a few of those. Tym Guitars from Brisbane, Australia, he makes a lot of guitars and amps, and he supports artists a lot. He built a pedal for my friend Brett in this band Caustic Resin, and he was in Built to Spill too. I put that at the front of the chain because it just gives everything a little extra life and warmth. Those are really cool, it’s something that’s real subtle, but you can tell it’s in there.
I’ve never tried a boost pedal although I’ve been wanting to. Is it something you leave on all the time or to boost for a solo?
I leave it on all the time because it always sounds good. It’s like a preamp so it gives you just a little signal boost and strength, and it helps you sound better. You play better when things sound better, it’s a natural energy when you play good and sound good, then you tend to keep going with it. Those little things help a lot and just makes it more fun and it’s tricks like that, that’s what it’s all about.
I’ll definitely try one of those then thanks. Now, I assume you have a lot of guitars as well.
Yeah, I have a lot [laughs].
Do you have one or two ‘go to’ guitars?
Monson Guitars is really one builder who makes these weapon looking guitars and BC Rich inspired styles. He was building for Wolves in the Throne back in the day, and Will Lindsay who is playing guitar with them hooked me up with him. He sent me one and that’s been by my main guitar. I do have a lot of guitars though. I like those Partscasters that you can just take apart and put together and make it like Frankenstein. I like Les Paul’s a lot. I have several of those. I have an ‘81 Custom but I don’t play it live because it’s really heavy. It’s about 15 pounds. I used it a lot earlier on and it’s really special, so I keep at home now. I’ve got a couple of Les Paul Studios and some that I modded with different pickups.
Monson Guitars is really one builder who makes these weapon looking guitars and BC Rich inspired styles…
I just bought a Clone Flame Top Les Paul for $200 including shipping to my door and it’s great [laugh]. Some of the ones you don’t expect turn out to be really really good. I would advise being able to use everything. I don’t understand people who don’t like a specific guitar like a Stratocaster. They all sound different, so just because you didn’t like one, it doesn’t mean you don’t like others. A good guitar player should know all the gear and be able to use it. I learn the strengths and advantages of everything. I can play a Floyd Rose style guitar and a lot of times I won’t use the bar. I like how you can subtly manipulate the bridge with your hand. I really like how they stay in tune perfectly too.
I have guitars with active pickups to see how those sound. I have a Sustainer System on one of my BC Rich guitars and that’s basically an EBow which emits electromagnetic field that vibrates the strings. Even if you don’t have it running through an amp and you have it turned on it’ll make the strings vibrate. Kerry King uses them a lot from Slayer. Robert Fripp from King Crimson also uses them. Fernandez makes them, they’re expensive though. Plus, you have to route your guitar. But, because it’s mounted in the guitar, it makes the strings vibrate more. Anyway, limiting yourself as you say you only like one guitar is silly to me. There are some guitars that are my favorites, but there’s not very many I don’t like playing.
I have a handful different guitars. I was considering downsizing, but I think I’m just going to tune them all differently.
Yeah definitely, maybe even create some tuning. Nashville tuning is cool, but I think you have to get a lighter string set for that. That’s a cool one and a lot of people use it. I think the guys in Kansas do and a lot of the Nashville country guys use it.
I’ll look that up. I’ve been playing in DADGAD tuning for the first time recently.
Yeah, that’s a fun one and I’ve been using slide a lot too. It’s called the Latch Lake Chrome Dome. It’s like a big finger cover, it has a rounded end and its concave. I use that on guitars as a set up with the strings right at the fret board. It was hard to get used to at first and took practice, but I love it and I’ve used that on everything that I’ve ever recorded.
What is your songwriting process like and does it differ between USX and your solo stuff?
It’s the same for both and it just sort of happens. I get these ideas in my head, and I’ve just got to get them out. It usually happens all at once in a short amount of time because it’ll drive me crazy until I get it. I won’t do anything unless I feel that way about it, that’s why I haven’t done anything in a while in terms of writing. It’ll happen when it happens. I can tell that there’s a point a few years ago where I was getting stagnant, and I started to do things half ass. If somethings not good, don’t try and make it good. I tend to know right away if I feel somethings good or not. If I don’t feel that way, then it’s best to just let it go.
It’s not really great for me to give songwriting advice because, for me, it just happens…
It’s not really great for me to give songwriting advice because, for me, it just happens. I just feel it and need to get it out. Oddly enough I guess a lot of it happens when I’m around water. The physical place that I’m in makes a difference and seems to really be a part of it to push the ideas out. I’ll drive everyone around me crazy until I get it done too, that was a big thing back in the day with USX. I had such firm ideas about what I wanted to happen and how it’s going to be organized.
A lot of times I couldn’t really explain it. I just had to run over people to make it how I wanted, and I think it aggravated the guys sometimes. I can understand that, but at the same time when you have a vision you should not compromise. If you have something you want to see happen, then you should make it happen the way you want it. I wish I could say it’s always easy, but I think it’s worth it to do it your way. I don’t necessarily think that bands should be a democracy. It sounds like a shitty thing to say but it’s true. If you have the opportunity to do something, jump on it, don’t hesitate, it’s scary but don’t overthink it.
As I said before when you have an idea, you just have get it out and sometimes that’s hard to do. There’s hiccups along the way but you just got to trust the people around you, trust your engineers to get what’s in your head out. For example, Travis Kammeyer, he’s in Johnson City. He’s a guy I worked with most and Sanford Parker. Both are really really good, and I just trust them. They did their best and they understood what I wanted and how I wanted to sound. Don’t second-guess yourself either if you feel good about what you did. There are going to be imperfections and little blips along the way that can’t be perfected, and you can drive yourself crazy if you’re trying to fix every little detail.
That’s great advice and I think the imperfections can sometimes make the song more interesting at times. I am however the opposite and I record my own playing and go back in criticize everything about it [laughs], I have to start thinking more like you.
It can be hard recording yourself, but it’s necessary. I guess just building up the confidence takes a while. Phones do a good enough job recording these days. I have recorded albums on my phone. Just little short albums that I put online. I don’t have any other options and it works for me.
If I get inspired to do something really cool, I’ll make it happen, but if I don’t, it’s not gonna bother me too much…
When things aren’t sounding right or going your way how to you inspire yourself to get playing again?
I don’t [laughs]. I’ve got other stuff to do. I made the guitar records that I wanted to make years ago, anything else is extra. That might not seem super ambitious, but I’m not super ambitious, I don’t care about fame, honestly. I was in a situation where I was known by people I didn’t know, and it was a strange feeling. I don’t like it. I like to stay in my small town near my family and I don’t aspire to be anything more. If I get inspired to do something really cool, I’ll make it happen, but if I don’t, it’s not gonna bother me too much. I make my living doing other things and music has never been a source of income of any way reliable. That can be frustrating because it could be and a lot of people say that it should be, but it’s just not. I don’t sweat it.
Now if I weren’t able to fulfill the things that I’ve done in the past, it would weigh on me a lot. That’s why I say it’s important to take those opportunities when they present themselves and a lot of people blow things, not because of doing anything bad, but because they’re hesitating. If you have a really good idea that keeps coming back to you and songs that you believe in, then just make them happen. If it’s not there, don’t force it because then you’ll end up with some bullshit, there’s a lot of good bands that made bad records. I started to head in that direction years ago. You do a few records that are good, and you start getting a little arrogant and thinking that’ll happen again, but it’s not guaranteed. Believing in your own myth is a bad idea [laughs].
Well, the stuff you’ve have done in my opinion is fantastic and is currently on repeat. I love the songs The Valley Path and The Moon In Flesh And Bone, I’m glad you pushed for your vision.
Well, thank you I’m glad to hear it.
Now that I told you my favorites what songs are you proud of or are you proud of all of it?
I like all the USX records and all the stuff that I’ve done really. I haven’t had anything slip through that I wasn’t proud of. I’m sort of grateful that some of the stuff I had in mind years ago didn’t pan out because I wasn’t in a good place in my mind and I had a lot of stress. Sometimes that makes for a good record, but for me it I don’t think it would have. You can see musicians going through that a lot and I can recognize the signs. You just get to a place in your life where you don’t know what to do. It’s a lot to handle sometimes and people can turn that into something cool and others just have to ride it out, but everyone’s different.
Nate is an awesome guy to chat to and that’s exactly what we did here. As the talk of guitar gear faded, we went off on some tangents, and even talked about horse training for a little while [haha], but this really stood out to me and I wanted to include it because this is going on everywhere, not just in music.
Sometimes I feel like the terms in your life are dictated by a lot of really smug little people at offices that never made a record in their life. I definitely have a strong dislike for media and press. It’s a shakedown scheme, you have to pay a PR person or basically you or your label has to pay to get your music heard or get written about. There’s a lot of people feeding off that and you’re the one creating what they’re feeding off. I don’t think musicians get the respect that they deserve, and I think a lot of people with money get way more than they should.
Dorothea Cottrell from Windhand is the best songwriter that I know and probably one of the best that’s lived in our lifetime…
I’m not naming names or anything but you can tell when you see somebody in the press that much that’s because they paid to be in the press. I don’t have respect for that. Dorothea Cottrell from Windhand is the best songwriter that I know and probably one of the best that’s lived in our lifetime. She’s humble and with a voice like that she can could have been one of those stupid reality people and made it. But she won’t do anything like that because she has so much dignity and self-respect and she’s better than that. But she’s not rich, so you don’t see her name everywhere.
Other female songwriters use that as a gimmick, and she doesn’t. She’s just a songwriter, male or female, it doesn’t matter. Don’t feel down because things seem unfair because they’re not fair. Like this pandemic and these clubs that say ‘we’re all in this together’ are the same places that wouldn’t pay us for a gig, or even gives us a beer at the bar and then they smile about it. You don’t see me crying about it when are they’re out of business, but there are places that treated me great and definitely treat those places with respect. There’s a lot of people that got cut out of the chain because they deserve it, they serve no purpose and I hope it never goes back to the way it was.
Thanks again for taking the time to speak with me, it’s been enlightening, make sure you follow Nate on social media to keep up to date with news, new releases and any live dates.
US Christmas: Facebook | Bandcamp | Instagram
Nate Hall: Facebook | Bandcamp | Instagram
Interviewed by: Josh Schneider