Warm April sunlight is spilling through the window of a not-so-empty room on the top floor of John K. Samson’s Winnipeg home, illuminating a writing desk, shelves dense with books, a Fender Deluxe Reverb, and a couple guitars. Samson just grabbed one of them, his ‘62 Gibson Melody Maker, from down the hall, and is showing me the signatures on it: Aimee Mann, Billy Bragg, John Prine. “That’s kind of the trinity of songwriters who I love,” he says. With one pickup, one tone knob, and one volume knob, the Melody Maker is economical almost to a fault. It’s a tool that’s well-suited to Samson’s approach to his art—that is, that art and work are synonymous. He’s a worker. Anything more than the essentials is excessive. And any excess would just get in the way.
Samson makes it quite clear during the course of our conversation that he has no real use for anything beyond his now cemented, quite bare bones set-up. The only pedal in his arsenal, save for a chromatic tuner, is an Ibanez Tube Screamer. “It’s from the ‘90s,” Samson says. “Which is where I’m from, right?” You’d certainly know the sound if someone fired one up. He describes his approach to guitars as “Luddite-like,” explaining that he turns all the knobs on his guitar as high as they’ll go, and then turns all the knobs on his amp to the middle. Because everyone was a better six-string player than him but he wanted to play in bands, he started with the bass. He didn’t start playing guitar until his 20s, when he started The Weakerthans, and his technique has always remained utilitarian.
But Al Beardsell, who in 2012 designed and built the guitar we’ve met up to talk about, thought he could make Samson a tool that would assist with this modus operandi better than those hyper-simple guitars, while working within similar parameters. Enter the JKS, a guitar that, “reimagines the chambered reversed cap Rickenbacker guitars of the ‘60s.” It looks a little like a smaller, sleeker version of a Les Paul, with gorgeous woodwork, and colouring inspired by the luxurious coat of Samson’s dog, Loosey, who’s sitting sweet and quiet in the room with us. (An aside—Samson’s partner, Christine Fellows, has a couple ukuleles made by Beardsell. One is meant to resemble their budgie, Pickles). Beardsell notes that when he was working on the JKS, Samson said using more than one pickup seemed, “a little extravagant.” But he built in a second pickup anyway, hoping that if it sounded good, Samson would use it. The result was a slightly more advanced guitar than Samson was used to, but one that suited him just right.
“I was a bit shy about this guitar when I first started playing it, because it is more adaptable and expressive than most guitars,” Samson says. “Al just kinda built what he thought would sound good for me, the kind of player that I am, and it’s beautiful. I really like it. I was shy about it for a long time. I kinda had to make friends with it, to try to figure it out. And now I don’t think I could ever play anything else. So I feel like I have several guitars and my aim is to have just this guitar, and this is the one I’ll keep for the rest of my life, and play. It’s really kind of unusual looking, in a way. He makes his own knobs and hardware. He manufactures that all himself, and builds his own pickups, winds them himself. It’s pretty bespoke over there. And one of the things I like about it is that it doesn’t look like an old guitar. It looks new.”
That’s an important detail—sure, there’s a bit of shape inspired by the Les Paul, but the JKS doesn’t really look like other guitars. Samson has an issue with the fetishization of guitars. “Like, guitar collectors,” Samson says, “I find there’s something really creepy about them, and that they’re obsessed with the past and this idealized, fetishized history of the instrument.” But beyond that, there’s an increased functionality to the JKS. It’s lighter, smaller, super easy to play, stays in tune, and doesn’t get in the way.
“It’s light—that’s always been a problem with what I think of as masculine, manly guitars of the ’60s and ’70s that were giant pieces of wood, like Les Pauls and all that. I simply can’t play those guitars. They’re too much guitar for me, and I feel like they sort of overwhelm everything when you’re playing with other people. So I feel like this is a sort of a guitar that’s more subtle, less gross rock,” Samson says with a laugh.
With two pickups on his go-to guitar now, Samson has access to three sounds to pick from—neck pickup, bridge pickup, or a combination of the two—but says he really only uses two. Which is double what he was working with before the JKS, which he says is plenty fun. But even just allowing for a second option on a machine that he’s comfortable with has had a major effect on his writing and exploring his material in new ways. He recently took the JKS out on an extended solo tour opening for Craig Finn, and discovered that he was able to interpret songs from the past 20 years in a way that hadn’t been possible with other instruments.
“I think it’s just made me a better player in general, and it’s opened music up to me, because it’s something that responds really well to the way that I play, which is pretty rudimentary,” Samson says. “I feel like Al figured out how to make me a guitar I actually wanna play. I think for a long time I didn’t really wanna play guitar. It was a means to an end. And I think that since this has come along, I feel a lot more joy in playing, because I feel supported by the instrument.”https://youtube.com/watch?v=00gFJQHxxJk%27+frameborder
Samson says “17th Street Treatment Centre” is a good example of the JKS’ sound.
Not only that, but it allows him more autonomy as a solo act than an acoustic guitar, which is usually hooked up to a DI unit and run through a board, putting a limit on what you can do with your sound. “It kind of empowers me as a worker to be able to control my workplace a little bit more than playing an acoustic guitar,” Samson says.
A brief drive away, in a west end workshop, Beardsell—who looks kinda like a mad scientist but talks with the easy drawl of a veteran surfer—stands among a seemingly endless clutter of wood, pulling partly finished guitar bodies out here and there to show the construction of them. I ask what the most important things to keep in mind are when building a guitar, and his answer is, not surprisingly, quite in line with Samson’s approach toward the instrument.
“It’s gotta sound like a guitar,” Beardsell says. “It’s gotta sound good. Hopefully, it looks good as well… I’m not huge into adding decorative things to it, but the guitar has to play like a guitar, and then we’ll put a finish on it that makes it look beautiful, and then it will hopefully serve the player as a tool. That’s my main criteria. It has to be useful.”
Something our conversation keeps circling back to is the idea of working with what you’ve got, and that considering your limits and the limits of your tools can itself open up new artistic routes. “If you can be encouraged in the margins that have been created for you, it’s a powerful thing,” Samson says. Beardsell’s JKS has managed to do just that. It works within Samson’s margins but has changed the way that work gets done, allowing for changing the shape of past work looking back, and making the act of creation easier going forward. Like any student of a craft worth their salt, Samson can take a tool like the JKS and build something beautiful within its boundaries.
“I’m interested in the limitations being productive,” he says.