Interview: JP Soars - Backstage at The Tree
JP Soars gives us a tour of his "Arsenal of Guitars"
JP Soars treats his audience to a generous basket of original songs, exotic stringed instruments and bluesy vocals every time he steps on stage; but he doesn’t only present a very serious show, he also builds a down-home, two-string axe that whines the blues with a plaintive and electrifying soul.
The undisputed king of Soars performance instruments is his 1960s Silvertone 1446 nicknamed Harvey Wallhanger. The sobriquet comes from its origin in a small venue in Fort Gaines, Georgia where Soars spotted the guitar being used as a decorator piece on the barroom wall. Dusty, semi-stringless, with a broken Bigsby tremolo arm, he took it down and tuned the remaining strings attached to it. He fell in love immediately. Offering to buy it on the spot, the owner balked and said he wanted to barter something for it: in the end, Soars surrendered twenty five copies of his latest album on CD and one of his custom two-string cigar-box guitars in exchange. Soars replaced the bridge pickup on the 1446 with a Seymour Duncan humbucker and replaced the entire Bigsby tailpiece rather than just the arm. He uses it in every show, but unfortunately, the 1446 was in the shop during this interview having the neck refretted, “I’m missing my Silvertone, I can’t wait to get it back.”
While Harvey is in the hospital, Soars has his Heritage H-535 double cutaway semi-hollow stand in substitution for shows. Made at the old Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Soars claims, “It’s a great guitar. They make them better than the new Gibsons.” The H-535 carries two ’59 Seymour Duncan pups, and has a stop-bar tailpiece that can’t support the Bigsby vibrato of the 1446 which, for Soars, adds a whole other dimension to a guitar’s performance. But he loves the 535’s handling, “My friend describes this guitar as a ‘high definition’ guitar,“ and he flashes a quick riff on it and chuckles.
Soars has a third semi-hollow body guitar, a 1960s Harmony Holiday, which he found in a small music store in Durham, North Carolina, “Yeah, this is a cool guitar. I use it for open tuning type of stuff.” It has a single neck pickup and a wood bridge which Soars maintains gives it a “certain” sound. He tunes the axe to open D and often capos the third or fifth fret using the guitar for the Delta-like blues tunes he writes himself.
Soars also performs with a sweet, electrified Merlin stick dulcimer by Seagull. The four stringed instrument is tuned, like a standard dulcimer, to root-fifth-octave or D-A-D-D with the two upper D strings tuned an octave above the bass D. The frets are distanced differently than on a guitar- these frets are spaced according to scale. He first saw the dulcimer in a “mom and pop” music store in Peterborough, Ontario (Godin/Seagull is a Canadian guitar manufacturer) and tried it out. He dug the way it could be held like a guitar, yet had the same Smoky Mountain vibe as a traditional dulcimer which must lie flat on a player’s lap, “So I bought one. I keep it in the van. When I feel the urge, I pick it up and start messing around with it. ” Finger-picking, Soars unwinds dusky, swirling melodies reminiscent of the earliest Delta bluesmen.
Not surprisingly, a Dobro resonator also appears in the line-up. It is a wood body model with a sound hole on each side of the neck and a humbucker snuck between the neck and the resonator for further amplification, “Yeah, I took a jigsaw and cut out the…(space)…it’s cool.” Soars plays it on his lap, slide style, again producing very Delta-style music with a glass slide.
One instrument that will rarely be seen except at Soars shows is his custom made cigar-box guitar. “Yeah, cigar-box guitars…they’re a heck of a lot of fun.” The cigar-box guitar is a two stringed instrument: the low string is an E (.52) and the high string is a G (.18). At the bridge Soars puts a DiMarzio Super Distortion humbucker and leaves the neck fretless. There are fret markers on the neck’s side facing up toward the guitarist and the axe is intended for slide playing only. “I saw a guy playing one years ago and it blew my mind…In Memphis, Tennessee I met the guy who built them and I bought one.” Soars comes from a family of carpenters, so they experimented and built another one at home; the one he uses in his shows is the first one they built, “I do make them out of cigar boxes. The necks are oak, mahogany and pine.”
On amplifiers, Soars keeps it basic. He practices at home on a Marshall Combo someone gifted him, and for gigs, “I’ve got a Fender. My main amp is a ’72 Fender Princeton which is a twelve watt amp.” It has the customary ten inch speaker.
Following the protocol of a vintage one-man band, Soars accompanies himself with a kick drum beater and snare, “I take the snare and turn it sideways, on a little stand. I got a drumstick attached to the beater…so it’s hitting the snare with the drumstick.” He also attaches mini-tambourines to each foot to get a jangly sound along with the beat. But after hours of singing, playing guitar and the drum, he finds his legs cramp up and he’s exhausted. “So, I got this!” He proffers a Logjam ‘Prolog’ foot-stomp pedal he’ll run through his amp, “I haven’t tried it yet, so I’m looking forward to that. You won’t see it, but you’ll hear it.”
Soars finds inspiration and influence in some of the giants of big city blues like Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, “I love Django Reinhardt, I love that stuff. I love Tito Puente, I like Wes Montgomery. Recently I got into Frank Sinatra. I always associated that stuff…old-folks music like my grandparents used to listen to. Now when I hear it, it moves me, and I go, ’Man, this stuff is incredible.’’’ He noted, too, Jessie Mae Hemphill as especially influential for her, “hill country style, really cool” which is evidenced by his predilection for six string open tunings.
On composition, Soars keeps it original, “I write most all my songs. I never really played in a cover band and almost to a fault I don’t really know a lot of songs as far as cover tunes. I’ve always played in original bands and I have a knack to write music…I don’t have a specific sound, per se. I play some jazzy stuff, I play some bluesy stuff. I play some rockin’ stuff, some traditional stuff, some Latin kind of stuff, some gypsy stuff…I just like all kinds of music and I want it to be unique for the people.” Any Soars show is exactly that.
JP plays his Dobro Resonator
JP Soars and Rockin' Jake will be performing on Thursday April 29th at the TOF Nightclub