I can only imagine how many National Guitar enthusiasts cringe when they see Nathan Singleton using his vintage 1930 National resonator as a daily player. Wet with sweat, the guitar gets put to good use as Nathan plays the hell out of it in venues around the world, night after night. But after hearing The Sideshow Tragedy, I really believe it’s the only guitar that’s capable of creating the sound Nathan needs. He could easily take a newer model on the road, but no newer model would ever have as much soul as the original.
I first discovered Nathan and The Sideshow Tragedy while browsing the web for upcoming local shows. My browsing led me to YouTube where I sampled the band’s live recordings. The first clip I watched was a live recording of the song “Two Guns,” and I was immediately drawn to the physical beauty of Nathan’s guitar and the raucous, energetic sound it created: a raw, noisy sound rivaled only by the passion in Singleton’s vocals. Nathan sang the way I’d imagine a rock ‘n’ roll preacher would sing if he were trying to rally his congregation – like he was delivering a stirring sermon to remind me rock ‘n’ roll is alive and well.
Intrigued, I then watched the video for “Aint No Woman.” I grinned as I watched Nathan breathe life into an instrument most people would normally keep hidden in a smoke-free, climate-controlled environment. But Nathan takes complete advantage of the resonator, accentuating its pleasantly noisy pops, scrapes, and squeaks with a heavy dose of delay. He sculpts his songs using a growling backdrop of overdrive, fuzz, and delay to create a large-but-ambient feel.
His guitar playing features a mix of open tuning, slide, and Delta blues fingerpicking with undertones of pure rock ‘n’ roll aggression. It’s hard not to be entranced by the sound. The low strings buzz and gargle while the high notes resonate with a crisp, garage rock bite. It took me a while to notice that Nathan was using all of the fretboard because he never really played any spotlight-stealing solos. More appropriately, and tastefully, Nathan compensates for the band’s missing bass guitar by adding constant snippets of lead licks to keep it all interesting.
Now to address the elephants – or stripes, rather – in the room: There have been plenty of successful two-piece rock bands, but only a few can actually fill the stage with enough sonic intensity to hold my interest. The most commonly referenced example of a two-piece band is probably The White Stripes, who I’m a fan of, but they are nothing like The Sideshow Tragedy. One of the most notable differences is the style of Jeremy Harrell’s drumming, which is nothing like Meg White’s. As opposed to a child-like, simplistic sound, there’s a complexity to Harrell’s playing that’s much harder to define. I can’t tell if he incorporates a loose, free-flowing, “play-what-you-feel” approach, or if his chaotic technique is carefully planned. Whichever it is, he manages to beat the hell out of his kit and create a massive sound, with little to no downtime.
I found myself playing those videos over and over. I had discovered a new band that I just had to see live, and a guitar player I absolutely had to meet.
Nathan was kind enough to meet me before one of his shows so we could talk about his music and his gear. He even let me look over his guitars, pedals, and amps. But as you can imagine, that one National just stood out. My eye was drawn right to it. When you see it in person it has more character than you could ever imagine. The fretboard is worn, there’s a dent or two, and just like the Statue of Liberty, parts of the guitar are oxidizing; years and years of sweaty shows have created a beautiful green patina. And of course the backside is home to that beautiful, iconic Hawaiian palm tree design.
As I continued to ogle at the vintage piece, I noticed its taped-down pickup and the wire running from the front to the tail of the guitar. I was reminded that the guitar’s original makers had probably never dreamed of it being amplified and covered in effects. I started daydreaming about what exactly they might think of Nathan’s playing. Their minds would be blown if they could hear the sounds that guitar can make.
The rest of Nathan’s setup is just as interesting. His pedals are abused and faded – a sure sign of the amount of touring his board has endured. Some pedals are familiar, others obscure. And his dual-amp setup is pleasingly unique: a good ol’ reliable tube amp coupled with a solid-state amp from the 80’s.
A quick survey of his gear reveals a lot about his influences and inspirations, but the best way to understand Nathan’s sound is to dive into his revealing Q&A:
(All answers written directly by artist)
How would you describe your style?
I guess I’d call it vile, noisy punk blues-rock.
What were some of your biggest influences? What inspired you to create such a unique sound?
When I started playing guitar, it was all that British blues stuff: The Stones, Zeppelin, Cream, Hendrix ([he was] not British, but the Experience was and they certainly share a lot in common with the Brits), the first Jeff Beck album, The Faces…
My dad had an old National Style O, and when I was about fifteen I started to gravitate to it. Then I started getting into the old Delta blues guys: Robert Johnson, Son House, Bukka White, as well as later acoustic slide players like Johnny Winter and John Hammond, Jr. My dad actually sat me down and had me learn Johnny Winter’s song “Dallas”, note for note.
Then I discovered Chris Whitley. That was a total watershed moment. I really loved the song “Know” on his album Din of Ecstasy, and the way he amplified and distorted old Nationals … the totally insane tunings and chord voicings … compared to the Resonator players I had been listening to, this guy was from outer space. Ben Harper was doing it with Weissenborns, and guys have done unorthodox things with slide guitars before (and since), but it’s all still pretty traditional compared to Whitley; he really freed me up and made me feel like it was OK to do the “wrong” thing with resonators, and blues rock in general.
Over the past ten years or so I’ve gotten more into noisy punk rock, as well as bop and free jazz (although I’m totally unschooled – I can’t read music and don’t know much theory), so I started to kind of mix my youthful blues rock foundation with stuff that’s a little more outré. Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, and guys like Tom Verlaine, Marc Ribot, Bob Quine (especially on Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask), The Latin Playboys, Sonny Sharrock, James Blood Ulmer, and Greg Ginn (check out Black Flag’s Family Man and Process of Weeding Out) are what I’m listening to a lot these days, and I’m sure that comes out in my playing.
I listen to a lot of music that isn’t “guitar-centric” as well: From classical stuff like Bach’s Cello Suites, Debussy, Satie, and Mozart to Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity, Ornette Coleman, Jean-Claude Vannier, and Kendrick Lamar … I even like some EDM stuff I’ve heard.
Which guitar do you mainly play?
My main guitar is a 1930 National Style O – the one my dad had around the house when I was a kid. I “borrowed” it from him about twenty years ago.
What about the resonator appeals to you?
Originally, I was drawn to it because I loved Delta blues, which is the musical style it’s most commonly associated with. But it’s mainly the tonal properties of the instrument I love, more than any association it has with capital B “Blues” or slide guitar or whatever. It’s a vile, brash, clangy, nasty-sounding thing. Johnny Winter said it sounds like a garbage can with wire on it. I love that. And when you put a pickup on it and play it through an overdrive amp … all that wild-ass feedback … it almost sounds blasphemous. Like, “this should not be done with a guitar.” And you can get tons of punchy bottom end out of that big, hollow, metal body – and that helps in a [baseless] duo setting like ours.
Your amp combination is very unique. What amps do you play and what made you decide to pair them together?
Thanks! Right now, my live rig is a Trace Elliot Velocette 1x12 combo and a Fender Bassman Compact, which is this weird bass amp Fender made in the early 80’s that almost sounds like a keyboard amp or something. The Velocette is a nice little amp. It’s loud as hell and has a ton of headroom. I love Vox AC30’s but they’re a little tough to control when using a resonator. Resonators feedback like crazy, so the smaller the amp, the easier it is to tame them. I’ve found it’s good to play through a pair of amps live if you’re in a two-piece band – it fills out the sound on stage. On the new record I used the Velocette and a ’59 Bassman on all the basic tracks and used a Mesa Boogie Rocket 44 and a Vox AC30 for some overdubs.
What gauge strings to do use?
Pretty heavy strings: Nickel Wound .016, .018, .028w, .039, .050, .060
What pedals do you use and what is their signal flow (from guitar to amp)?
Boss Tuner > Durham Electronics Sex Drive > Jacques Fuse Blower > EHX P0G 2 > EHX Small Stone > Line 6 DL4
You seem to almost always have delay on. Why do you like to utilize it so much?
Have you ever heard Neil Young’s soundtrack for the movie Dead Man? It’s just super-haunting, eerie minor key solo electric guitar with tons of delay in it. I really love the mood of that music and I want to sort of do that with my own stuff. The soundtrack to that movie is literally why I got a delay pedal. That, and delay fills up a ton of space in a guitar/drums-only live setting. It makes things sound huge.
How did you come across the Jacques Fuse Blower and what do you use it for?
Jacques Stompboxes is a boutique company in France. This pedal is for heavy-duty J Mascic-style distortion and fuzz, but it’s surprisingly articulate. Nothing else quite like this box.
Is the Durham Sex Drive always on, or just for certain parts?
How do you use your Pog and Small Stone?
I use the Pog as a boost, mainly … like to push a chorus and to beef up stuff. Like, if I were to double a guitar part in the studio, that’s when I [would] use the Pog live. The idea is to make it sound like there’s a bass synth bed underneath everything. And I only use the one-octave-down slider. I keep all other sliders flat and never use any of the Q effects or whatever. I know they make a simpler version that does this, but I’ve found they don’t track as well or sound as good as the big one.
As for the Small Stone, it’s just something to add texture and mood sometimes. A seasoning. I love those swirly sounds on [Zeppelin’s] “Ten Years Gone” and The Cure’s [album] Faith, so it’s nice to be able to throw stuff like that in.
Lastly, what are some of the stresses of playing and touring with a guitar that’s almost 90 years old?
I’ve been doing it for so long I don’t really think about it, but it is stressful. It’s so old. I feel like a steward of this instrument rather than its owner. It’s a pain in the ass. A lot of serious collectors or “guitar dudes” would probably chide me for dragging it all over the place … in and out of dive bars and clubs. But I love playing it, so I gotta do what I gotta do, I guess!
I have a hard time understanding why such a unique guitarist keeps playing the same mid-level venues. Nathan Singleton and The Sideshow Tragedy have a sound perfect for places like The Granada or The House of Blues. But for some reason, those aren’t the stages they’re playing.
There’s a myriad of rock ‘n’ roll bands out there, but only a few embody the pure essence and feel of the genre. Nathan isn’t the first person to add a pickup to a resonator, but the addition of his original pedal and amp setup has definitely helped him create his signature sound. Many could mimic the tunings and the notes, but no one will ever be able to sound like Nathan.
The Sideshow Tragedy will be in town this Friday, August 12th at The Doublewide in Deep Ellum. Their videos offer a glimpse of how fun their show can be, but nothing compares to their live experience. Go ahead and change your weekend plans so you can check out Nathan’s gear up close and personal. You won’t want to miss this show.