Blues-rock guitar slinger Nick Moss is an electric six-string tone guru. Over the course of 10 albums, including the March 18 release Time Ain’t Free, and 16 Blues Music Awards nominations, he’s stacked up a dizzying array of vintage and modern sounds, and won comparisons to Warren Haynes and Freddie King with his powerhouse playing.
His monster tones have often emanated from his workhorse collection of Gibsons, which include a blonde reissue 1959 ES-335 from the mid-’90s and two SGs — a ’61 or ’62 with P-90 pickups and a reissue with PAFs.
In his endless quest for big sounds, Moss replaced the pickups on the ES-335 with a set made to vintage-inspired specs by Chris Klein of Dallas, Texas — the same type Klein handmade for Warren Haynes. And their throaty voice can be heard on Time Ain’t Free’s title track as the guitar speaks through a signal chain of an Xotic Effects RC Booster, an EWS Brute Drive and his Category 5 JB50 amp.
But that doesn’t mean he loves his SGs any less. “The SG is one of the most versatile guitars,” he declares. “I can even get single coil sounds out of an SG with PAFs. The way you set the amp, how you roll the tone controls and volume back on the guitar…that all comes into play. Often I turn the volume down on the guitar and turn the amp up louder, to clean it up and maybe thin it out a little bit when I want the PAFs to cut. If I had to take only one guitar on the road with me, I would take an SG.”
Moss believes that developing a variety of killer tones is essential. “If you see me live, you’re going to see me turn around and adjust the amp all night long,” he says. “I can’t stand a guitar player that has one tone all night. Different songs need different tones to do them justice, and guitar players should think about that.”
Growing up in Chicago, one of the nation’s blues guitar capitols, Moss’s schooling in great tone began early. His first axe hero was Lucille’s papa, B.B. King, followed by Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Magic Slim and Billy Gibbons. “I didn’t start paying attention to rock guitar until I was in my early ’20s, and then I started listening to Jimi Hendrix, Paul Kossoff and Jimmy Page, and their tones started to influence me, too,” Moss recounts.
Another component in Moss’s quest for tone was pedals. “I went through a period where all I played through was a guitar, a cord and an amplifier, because I wanted pure tone,” Moss says. “I learned that getting great tone is not only easier with a pedal, but especially important when you’re playing festivals, where you have to plug into whatever amp is in the backline.” Moss suggests that guitarists experiment with a variety of pedals to hone in on their tones. “Some pedals don’t play well with others,” he notes. The one constant in his sonic trick bag is the Xotic RC Booster, which Moss leaves on all the time.
For pickup deployment, Moss favors the neck and middle positions. “When I’m playing a Gibson I want a big, fat, meaty ham-fisted tone,” he attests. “I want the grease running down my chin and all over my shirt. And that means staying in the neck and middle positions. When I need to really cut — believe me, my drummer can play loud when he wants to — I’ll flip into the bridge pickup, but nine times out of 10 I’m in the middle and will flip to the neck when I want that sweet, round kick in the butt kind of tone.” Inspired by British blues demi-god Peter Green and his "Holy Grail" 1959 Les Paul Standard, Moss has also had his guitars modded with out-of-phase switches — a feature built into several new Gibson models including Gibson USA’s Les Paul Standard.
The key to chasing great tone is experimentation, says Moss. “You can’t just plug in a guitar, flip the tone and volume controls all the way up, and decide that’s the only way a guitar can sound. You’ve got to spend time with the guitar: roll the tone and volume pots up and down, use the pickup selector… then mess around with your amp. And then, pedals. The possibilities are nearly endless.”