When Jared James Nichols’ blood is up and he has an electric guitar in his hands, it’s almost as though he has a playing style cribbed from jiu jitsu, that he is locked in combat with the instrument and you can't be quite sure who is going to get choked out first.
He once told MusicRadar that it is like wrestling a bear. There are few players in the blues-rock space who put more exertion into string bends. No wonder he calls this style ‘Blues Power’. But it’s not all muscle. It’s not all brawn. In a newly shot video masterclass with Guitarist magazine, Nichols broke down his technique, demonstrating just how dynamic his fingerstyle approach can be and sharing some wisdom that we can incorporate in our own playing.
“When I had my fingers on the strings it felt like I was in control,” says Nichols, as he explains why a guitar pick was ultimately not for him. He finally cut the cord when he turned up for a gig and realised he didn’t have on, aged “probably 17”. He just went for it and never looked back. “It was the most freeing feeling,” he says. “It was like I had all the control over the guitar.”
Nichols uses the flesh of his fingers, he says, not the nails which only break. The thumb always goes down, the others pull up, and that presents him with some different options for how he wants to pick a note or a chord, making arpeggiated sequences easier.
When he was learning other player’s licks, he was unconsciously adapting them to his own style. He could create pseudo-chicken pickin’ sounds by plucking the strings against the frets to give it a bit of snap.
“What I noticed about it was a freeing feeling, and it almost was like I could take parts of songs that I liked and when I started finger-picking them it would just feel different. It felt like I was kind of saying it my own way. And then, of course, I got into Jeff Beck.”
Things would never be the same again. Nichols soon discovered more fingerstylists. Nichols cites Derek Trucks, Albert King, Mark Knopfler, and the great Hubert Sumlin of Howlin’ Wolf’s band. “I got to jam with him when I was a kid,” says Nichols. “He was not using a pick… It felt just like someone was talking through their guitar, so with the fingerstyle thing I went all in.”
Not everyone thought it was a good idea but Nichols has had his share of bad advice. He is left-handed, but as a kid his guitar teacher told him it would be easier to play right-handed; he would have more choice of guitars when he got older. Well, that much is true, and it’s a similar origin story to Knopfler’s. That also has to have a lot to do with how alien a pick felt in Nichols’ right hand.
If he was playing a left-handed guitar in the first place, who knows how his style might have developed. Who knows how his style would have developed if he had listened to those who told him he was nuts for playing fingerstyle.
“I’m really glad I stuck to it because a lot of people told me when I was coming up, ‘Jared, you’re not going to be a professional guitar player unless you use a guitar pick. At the time I was like, ‘I don’t care. I just want to play!’”
The video is all about Nichols sharing his approach and there is much to take from that. But perhaps the first lesson is learning to ignore unwelcome advice. If what you are doing feels good, and if it sounds good, then keep on doing it.
Nichols’ is not the sort of player who holds back, so when you see him perform, the tricks are right there in front of you – there’s no curtain. And yet seeing him break it down here, even how his approach to speed is to not think necessarily of picking everything fast but intuitively having a feel for when notes are dying out instructs when and what he should pick. It is technically unorthodox; it’s definitely worth checking out.