Tom Hamilton is one of the guitarists of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and lead guitarist of Ghost Light, and is well revered among the community as one of the greats. Tom is a fantastic songwriter, bandleader, and guitarist, but anyone who’s seen him play live can tell you that. I’ve always been interested in his rig, mainly because of those two Noisekick pedals I couldn’t figure out. I recently had the opportunity to talk with him at Disc Jam Music Festival, and the conversation that ensued really shines a light on how Tom views gear and how important it is for musicians to listen. Check out Tom’s Ghost Light set at Disc Jam from this weekend, video courtesy of mKdev0.
Custom Becker Guitar
Tom’s Becker is the same body shape as the Becker Retro series, but the electronics are that of his first guitar, a B.C. Rich Seagull, that he had made for the Becker by the original creator. The electronics system includes an overdrive, which is triggered by an on/off switch, and has its own gain knob. The pickups are a pair of 1972 Guild humbuckers in the middle and bridge positions, and a regular 60’s single coil in the neck position. Both humbuckers have the ability to be coil-split, and each pickup has an on/off rather than a selector switch.
Fender Twin Reverb
Signal Chain: Boss TU-3 Tuner > Digitech Whammy 5 > Electro-Harmonix Micro Synth > Source Audio Nemesis Delay > Dunlop Mini Crybaby > Noisekick FX Tremolo/Envelope Filter > Noisekick FX Dual Overdrive (One side drive, one side RAT-like) > Wampler Euphoria Drive > TC Electronic Flashback X4 Delay
InterviewPhoto credit to Conor McMahon
Jared Lindquist: What is the one pedal on your board you couldn’t live without?
Tom Hamilton: Delay. Probably the delay. Yeah, it’s like my thing, because on my guitar, I have an overdrive in it, so I don’t necessarily need any of those pedals. But the delay, it’s kind of my thing y’know.
JL: And you use the Nemesis Digital Delay I noticed?
TH: No, the Flashback, the TC Electronics Flashback X4 is my main delay. The Nemesis, I don’t use that as a delay, it has like delays that sound like strings almost, kinda like one of those Eventide type of things. I use that mostly just as effect, so I use that weird string-y type thing, and then it has a ring modulator thing in it, so I use it for that. I don’t use the Nemesis for delay at all, which is I guess counterintuitive, but I have the Flashback.
JL: Do you use the looper function in the Flashback ever?
TH: No. Y’know, it’s like for the band… I don’t need to make that much noise.
JL: When you started doing the Joe Russo’s Almost Dead gigs, did you try and model your board after some Jerry sounds?
JL: So you went your own way?
TH: Yeah, dude I have zero interest in trying to sound like Jerry Garcia. And hey, that’s not a knock on people who do, y’know cause there’s plenty of dudes who have like recreated his rig and all that stuff, and good for them, that’s fine, but like y’know that’s not the point.
JL: Yeah cause like JRAD is all about making the [Grateful] Dead songs your own. Like you’re still playing the composed songs themselves, but you’re creating the jams, it’s your own music.
TH: Yeah exactly, right! And that’s with any band that I play with, y’know I don’t get a gig and then try to change how I play or sound to fit the gig. It’s like I got the gig because people like how I play. So I just do what I do, and it works, but it’s not the rig as much as it is just your ears. So y’know, that’s why I can play with JRAD, or play with the actual Dead dudes, or go and play with Marc and Aron from the [Disco] Biscuits, like I’m gonna do later tonight, and play that jamtronica stuff, and I can do that, I can fit into that just as well, because I just listen. That’s all that matters.
JL: So with Ghost Light, do you have set pedal combinations you’re gonna use, or is it all on the fly?
TH: No, with any band I don’t. Dude, I don’t even like set my knobs.
TH: No, whatever they are when I open my pedalboard up that day, that’s what it is.
JL: Damn, that’s a way to do it (laughs).
TH: Well, dude I’ve been doing this for a long time, y’know, and the goal is to every time I play to do something new. So if you’re constantly making things the same, it’s like if we just did word association right, and every time you say “banana”, I say “grapefruit”. If that happens, we’re just going to have the same conversation over and over and over. So it’s like, if you say “banana”, and I say “2×4”, well now we’re gonna have different things happening. I just try to embrace things being different. Y’know, I have that Micro Synth pedal with those sliders on it… that thing, those things move all the fuckin’ time! I don’t even know what the fuck’s happenin’ there, it’s like “Well alright, let’s just let it happen!”
JL: I noticed you had two Noisekick FX pedals. One of them was a tremolo I saw, but what is the other one?
TH: So the one that’s a tremolo is also an envelope filter; it’s two pedals in one. That guy, Matthew Zuckerman, is awesome, great dude. It’s cool because on his pedals that have two things in it, he has a switch where you can swap which one’s first. Which is super cool, because you can do the tremolo after the envelope filter, or you can put the tremolo into the envelope filter, so it keeps triggering [the envelope filter]. And then the other pedal is my overdrive; one side is more like an Earthtone type of thing, more of just a regular overdrive, and the other side is like a [ProCo] RAT, y’know it’s like a heavy distortion, and he has the same options there, where you can flip which one’s first. With the RAT side you can switch different capacitors, cause some of those really heavily distorted things, they compress your tone a lot, and some people want that y’know, like shredders and shit want that thing, or you can have it be like totally open. Yeah, it’s pretty fuckin’ cool.
JL: With the overdrive in your guitar, can you change the settings, or do you just leave it as is?
TH: It’s just I have an on and off switch, and then a gain, so I can make it like bigger or not as much. I’m actually getting a new guitar built, and the problem with the overdrive–not the problem, but just something I would like different–is it’s very low end heavy. So in the new electronics loom that I’m having built, it’s gonna have a pull-pot on the tone that will be a treble boost. So when I turn on the overdrive in my guitar, if I feel like it’s too thick, I can pop that thing and it’s gonna [lift off noise] y’know, open up the whole EQ.
JL: That’s pretty cool!
TH: It’s pretty cool, man. It’s all about options. The whole thing with that guitar, the pickups can be split into single coils or humbuckers and y’know all the different combinations with the switches on the top. They’re on/off instead of having a 5-way switch, because if you have a 5-way switch, you can’t do neck and bridge, so having just a separate on/off switch for each one, I can do any combination.
JL: Do you tend to just use one drive at a time, or do you combine them?
TH: Oh, dude I’ll fuckin’ put all of it on, I don’t give a shit. It’s definitely like, whatever I feel the moment needs, it’s like if I need more, I’m gonna fuckin’ give it more! The Wampler (Euphoria) is also an overdrive, but it has an option to be completely transparent. Y’know like a lot of overdrives will kind of curve the EQ of your sound, make it mid-rangey. This thing is totally flat, and you can make the Twin sound like you would want an amp to sound if it was at like 8. I can do that, but without it being at 8. It’s like a very transparent, tiny tiny tiny little bit of overdrive on it, that’s a great thing. So between that, the two in the Noisekick, and the one on the guitar, it’s a lot of distortion options.
JL: So you keep your Twin pretty clean then?
TH: Oh yeah, totally, like glass, cause I want to have that option. If you do the amp thing, like you have your amp boosted up and to get clean you bring the volume on your guitar down, personally, I don’t like how I lose high end; I lose treble when I do that. So I want to have that option of just super, crystal clean tone if I want it, y’know like that Michael Jackson thing, that’s my shit.
JL: Who are some of your favorite contemporaries on the scene right now?
TH: Y’know, Derek. Derek Trucks I think is probably the best guitar player alive. It’s just, I don’t even understand it, what he does. Yeah man, he’s probably the dude that any time I have an opportunity to watch him play, I’ll watch. But, honestly at the moment I’m not that into the guitars as much, y’know I went through a lot of phases, so I listen to other instruments now. Y’know I listen to sax players, or even just trying to get inspired by film, or just different mediums of art to try and think of new ways to approach the instrument. If I constantly keep looking at the guitar like it’s a guitar, I’m never gonna get out of that. So I’m trying to just be outside of my head and outside of the instrument a little bit more.
But yeah, I mean this scene, there’s so many killers, there’s not a lot of bad guitar players, like everybody’s pretty fuckin’ good. I just try to do my thing, and get out of the way of everybody else. I’m definitely not as, y’know a guy like Jake [Cinninger] from Umphrey’s or dude [Scott] Metzger in fuckin’ JRAD, I can’t even understand what he’s doing half the time, it’s so fuckin’ amazing. Y’know, Kimock, man. I played with Steve last night and like, it’s a fucking joy! I don’t even want to play lead, I just want to sit back and play rhythm so I can just listen to what the fuck the guy does. Guys like that man, they know something I don’t, that’s for sure. I’ve just gotta keep trying to figure out what they know.
JL: I noticed that when Consider the Source was playing you were impressed.
TH: That fuckin’ guy! Gabe, man, it’s insane what he does! It’s really amazing, it’s beautiful that he can be outside of what everybody else is doing and do something that beautiful and innovative, it’s great. I admire it, it’s like for me it doesn’t matter what people are doing, not in a rude way, but I don’t care about their songs or their albums or any of that stuff, I care about their intention, and the fact that he’s doing something that is different, that there are not a lot of people in the world that do that, I admire that a lot, I think it’s really great. It’s what it should be, instead of everybody sucking off the same teet, which is why when it comes to the Dead stuff I don’t try to sound like Garcia because that’s not…
JL: That’s not you.
TH: Yeah, man, y’know there was only one and there will never be anybody as good as him. I want to be my best self, I don’t want to be my best Jerry, and I think he would probably agree with that.
JL: Who are some of your inspirations as a guitar player?
TH: Oh man, Randy Rhoads was a huge one, still is, I love that guy. Y’know Ozzy’s first two records with him are great and Jakey Lee on the Bark at the Moon record was too. I was a huge Ozzy fan, man, so like Randy, and Jakey Lee, and Zakk Wylde to an extent, really love those guys. Duane Allman was a big thing, and Stevie Ray Vaughn flipped my whole lid when I was really young. Obviously Garcia, I mean I grew up listening to the Grateful Dead, so that shit’s just like in my DNA, since I was like 4 I’ve been listening to that band and listening to him play guitar, so that’s just kind of a given, and it’s just in there. But the dudes that I like sat down and learned their riffs was Randy Rhoads and all those guys that I just mentioned, I really loved all those dudes and it’s just really sick shit, man. And it’s cool because it has nothing to do with what I do, like I don’t play in a hair metal band, unfortunately.
JL: That would be cool to see.
TH: I wouldn’t mind it! But y’know, there’s something really beautiful about all those guys’ playing and I try to just bring that intention into my own playing. Same thing with Stevie Ray man, there was a ferociousness to what he did that was… y’know you couldn’t deny it. I was really into the blues stuff when I was young, I mean Freddie King, oh fuck, dude… fuckin’ Freddie King man, I could listen to that motherfucker play for hours. It’s just, it’s insane! Next time you’re home and doing nothing, surfing online, dude just type Freddie King into YouTube and watch all of it. All of the live stuff. It’s un-fuckin’-believable dude! This guy is just sweatin’ and ripping his fucking instrument to shreds, it’s so good man.
JL: Thank you very much, Tom.
TH: No problem, I appreciate it.