Interview by: Rick Landers
With hot young talent waiting in the wings, like Jacob Reese Thornton, it won’t be long before a new generation of guitarists will rearrange the musical landscape from theatrics and synthetic musical hype, and take it back to gut level guitar work grounded in traditional roots, but with a willingness and a drive to explore more than the pentatonic scale.
With a nod to tradition and a bent toward split second riffs, Thornton reworked some Chuck Berry terraforms into a heavy fueled Christmas romp of his own making, “Run, Rudolph, Run” (Marks & Brodie). And even that’s a grab at tradition that was explored by the likes of The Beach Boys, The Beatles and others who couldn’t resist Chuck’s foundational licks.
Jacob Reese Thornton is a 14 year old songwriter and guitar prodigy based in South Florida. Jacob writes and plays rock and blues with precision, depth and a passion that belies his age. Jacob first picked up the guitar at age 9, and has hardly put it down since. Check out Thornton’s track, “Bombs Away” to get a fix on the lad’s guitar skills and talents, as well as his ability to capture center stage as well as many well-known front men.
Thanks to a number of outstanding musical mentors, Jacob quickly developed a reputation as a gifted up and coming young artist. Jacob has traded licks onstage with blues legend Buddy Guy, and his remarkable live videos have collectively received nearly 1 million views on social media.
Jacob’s varied influences include Stevie Ray Vaughan, Elmore James, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Chuck Berry, Dire Straits, Neil Young, Foo Fighters, Cheap Trick, Joan Jett, the Ramones, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, the Allman Brothers Band, the Clash and Miles Davis, among many others.
Rick Landers: Well, here comes Christmas and I see you’ve covered those snowy tracks with a Chuck Berry laden romp, “Run, Rudolph, Run”. I dug the spirit of your song and your break crunched along with great angst, but really mostly a fun romp. What brought that on and were you able to pull that lead In during the session or did you have it in your hip pocket already?
Jacob Reese Thornton: Thanks! I’m a big Chuck Berry fan and Rudolph is a fun song I used to throw into my live set around the holidays. It was a blast to make. My friend Bryce Kretz did an amazing job on the drums, and I pretty much did everything else. The solo was mapped on the fly. I just went with what felt right. What I like most about the track are the rhythm parts. The main riff is two guitars blended and panned, one of which is in an open tuning. It gives it a chainsaw sound, which I love. I’m stoked it’s gotten a good reception and even some radio airplay.
Rick: Learning guitar has come a long way from dropping the needle on a 45 over and over again until you figured out the licks to today, where there’s Youtube, in-person lessons, figuring out licks with friends and more. What and who were you able you able to draw from to figured out how to run up and down the neck?
Jacob Reese Thornton: Yeah, there are lots of options for learning. When I started, I would play along with my favorite songs and first try to figure it out myself. It was a challenge. If I couldn’t, then I would go to YouTube. I listened to lot of different stuff like Green Day, Lindsey Buckingham, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, etcetera.
Billie Joe Armstrong is a great place to start with guitar because a lot of his songs are just three power chords and the truth! I also began playing live at a young age, with older musicians who taught me a lot. I learned that what not to play is just as important, and to seek tone before speed. I see a lot of young players hide behind distortion or expression pedals. My teacher, Fritz Dorigo, always emphasized tone and precision. If the note sounds great let it hang a little longer, you know?
Rick: Were any members of your family inspirational or helping you follow your dream to make a hobby a profession?
Jacob Reese Thornton: My parents have a massive music collection. I went deep into that at a young age. My great grandmother owned a recording studio and small indie label in Nashville in the late ’60s, and my great aunt was a Nashville based musician in her day. So, I guess it’s running around in my DNA somewhere. My family are all extremely supportive.
Rick: There’s a whole world of music out there to draw from, as well as music from the past hundred years. African, Ukraine, Navajo…all kinds of music, and then there’s classic rock. Have you explored or considered where you might find inspiration, in places that are culturally different from your own roots?
Jacob Reese Thornton: I like accessible classic jazz, like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and John Coltrane’s stuff. I’m not a big fan of experimental jazz or fusion. Basically, I love rock and roll music. Big drums, guitars, and sweeping melodies. That’s what appeals to me. I’m into open tunings these days and discovering those possibilities.
I’m also a blues fan. I am always searching for a song that grabs me right away and makes the hair on my arms stand up. Noel Gallagher does that for me. He is my favorite songwriter right now, especially his recent High Flying Birds stuff. Lindsey Buckingham does that for me too with his guitar playing. He’s from another planet.
Rick: How did “Bombs Away” come about and how did you meet Bob Kulick and Bobby Ferrari – What have they been like to work with? And how’s the song doing – getting a good reception and good air play?
Jacob Reese Thornton: “Bombs Away” is the oldest song on the record, and one of the first tunes I ever wrote. Stylistically, it is kind of a nod to Joan Jett, who I also love. That’s the “in your face” cut on the record. It’s about being brave enough to suffer the consequences of sharing hard truths. Sometimes things need to be said.
I met Bob and Bobby through rock photographer Robert M. Knight. They were both so supportive of my writing and took off the kid gloves. It was hard work but I learned a ton from them. Even though I’m a lead player, one big take away from my time with Bob was rhythm guitar dynamics. He taught me a lot about that, and it changed the way I approach things. I will always be grateful for that experience.
Rick: Let’s talk a little about gear. What’s your “go to” guitar at home and what are you using on stage? Amps? Effects? Cowbell?
Jacob Reese Thornton: Cowbell is obviously my go to instrument! [Laughs]. My main guitar for writing is a 2012 Martin EC28 acoustic, which I modified with a Fishman pickup. I do all my writing with that guitar, and use it live and in the studio. That guitar is rarely out of reach and will be with me for life. Almost lost it recently though. Someone broke into our car on the way to a Nashville gig. They stole an iPad, but overlooked the Martin, thank God!
In terms of electric, I have several main ones set up for different songs. Most of the Different Times LP was cut with an Ernie Ball Music Man Cutlass HSS. I am also a big fan of P90 pickups and have a few Les Paul, Jr.’s. I’ll reach for those when I want something that roars, and sometimes will use those for slide. I like the Telecasters for open tunings or a bit of twang.
As far as amps, it depends. I actually love the Kemper Profiling Amp. My live set requires a number of different tones, which I profiled through the Kemper. It makes it easy to quickly shift between them. If I am pushing air, I’ll use either a Marshall Jubilee reissue or an old Fender Deluxe blackface. As for pedals, I mostly get by with a Boss Blues Driver overdrive, a Boss delay and an MXR flanger. Acoustically, I am a big fan of the Fishman TonedEQ.
Rick: How did you wind up working with rock photographer and co-founder of the Brotherhood of the Guitar, Robert M. Knight?
Jacob Reese Thornton: Robert is the dude. He reached out to my Dad when I was 13, after he put up a video of me playing a Stevie Ray Vaughan instrumental. The clip got some attention from the social media rock magazines, which is how he found us. Robert is an amazing person and, of course, a legendary rock photographer. And the stories! He has had a front row seat to so much music history. He continues to help so many young musicians like me.
Robert recently introduced me to Slash and Steve Lukather, and it was obvious how much both of those guys like and respect him. He has opened doors for so many players. If you have not yet read it, get Robert’s latest photography book, Rock Gods, Vol. 2, which just came out. It’s incredible.
Rick: The music business is a lot about connections and Robert has those, but I found if you don’t have the talent, you need to up your game to become a “Brother”, or “Sister” of The Brotherhood. How did you prove yourself to Robert to get on board?
Jacob Reese Thornton: I guess you would have to ask him that. I keep trying to do what I do to the best of my ability. The level of talent in the Brotherhood roster is humbling, to say the least. I’m just grateful to be a part of it. It provides a way for younger more players around the world to find each other and even collaborate, which is really important.
Rick: Did he pull you out of oblivion or were you already working on some kind of heavy fueled ambition and strategy that was working for you?
Jacob Reese Thornton: Well, Robert has obviously opened some doors. He also introduced me to my amazing manager, Michelle Bakker, who is super connected herself. I’m super grateful for both of them, and for all of the mentors I was blessed to have an early age who helped and encouraged me. I knew early that playing guitar and writing songs inspired me more than anything else. I do this first because it’s what I love to do. As long as it comes across as honest and authentic – even if it’s not for them – then I’ve succeeded.
Rick: Your career seems to be moving at a solid fast pace, have you been surprised at anything about the industry that you’ve found very surprising or interesting?
Jacob Reese Thornton: Well, I think everyone knows there is a tidal wave of B.S. to navigate, even at a local level. I saw that early on. There are people with agendas who tell you what you want to hear, then twist a knife when you aren’t looking. So many people are struggling to be seen and heard in this business; to be recognized. I’m not always comfortable with the self-promotional stuff you have to do either.
But, musicians live and die by social media these days. The most disappointing thing is that the industry doesn’t seem to invest in developing new talent. And it abandoned guitar based music in favor of music made by computers. I never understood how a DJ could make 10,000 people scream with a laptop. I believe art must be made by human hands. Its okay if it is not perfect, because people aren’t perfect.
Rick: I suspect it’s easy to let one’s ego get ahead of you when others are telling you you’re phenomenal. Do you believe them straight away or are you cautious to keep things grounded, and real? Tough to do?
Jacob Reese Thornton: I definitely wouldn’t believe anything like that at all. It’s easy for me to stay grounded, because I know what my strengths and weaknesses are. I have a solid team, a great family and friends who keep me smart and push me to strive for the next level.
Rick: From what I can tell you’re getting some experience-based mentoring from top performers, producers, and a solid management team. Do they ever suggest you take a breather or go slow sometimes to let some things grow organically or are you wanting to be on a fast track?
Jacob Reese Thornton: I’ve been lucky that way and am thankful for them. I’m just doing what makes me happy and inspires me. We are not trying to chase anything too much. What’s meant to happen will happen in its own time. Of course, I would love nothing more than a life of creating music that people relate to. To make a decent living doing that would be such a blessing. That’s a dream that I share with a million other young musicians [Laughs]. It’s pretty crowded down here!
Rick: Okay, you’ve gotta tell us what it was like hanging with the legendary Buddy Guy, assuming you two had the chance to trade licks or just chat and chew a bit.
Jacob Reese Thornton: When I was 12, I went to a concert of his. During a quiet moment from the front row I asked if I could play. He stared at me for a second and said “Come on up here young man.” A crew member handed me a spare Strat. The next thing I knew I was on stage trading licks with him. It was a intimidating because I had only been playing for a few years at that point. But, it was an awesome moment I will never forget.
Buddy split pretty quickly after the show, but he chatted with us briefly and was very kind and encouraging. I wish I could do it again now!
Brotherhood of the Guitar: Jacob Reese Thornton
Source: Guitar International Magazine