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Saving Abel Guitarists Jason Null & Scott Bartlett on Songwriting and Recording

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Guitarists Jason Null and Scott Bartlett have no shortage of words when talking about Saving Abel. The Corinth, Mississippi, group began as an acoustic duo with Null and vocalist Jared Weeks. Their original material impressed producer Skidd Mills, who began working with the two to craft their songs and build a band, adding drummer Blake Dixon and bassist Eric Taylor. When Bartlett did some session work on the recordings, Mills knew he’d found their missing member.

Saving Abel’s self-titled debut album was certified gold, something few new bands can claim. The follow-up, Miss America, entered the Billboard album charts at No. 24 and has charted several singles while the band continues to tour.

Because of their Mississippi roots, Saving Abel was quickly tagged as “new Southern rock,” a label that Bartlett believes is understandable but not entirely accurate. “I’m glad I finally get to clear the air about this,” he says. “We all dig the hell out of Southern rock, but people need to remember that rock and roll evolved in the South with Elvis, and before that came the blues. What people call Southern rock — the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd — was forgotten about for a long time with ’80s music and then the Seattle thing. So to call us Southern rock — we have the guitar solos and harmonies, but with a contemporary sound.”

Null and Bartlett are an interesting team. Prior to partnering with Weeks, Null gigged with various original bands, including fronting a metal group, as well as a cover band “on the side to make ends meet,” where he honed his chops with a song list that covered the spectrum from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Prince. Bartlett grew up in Baltimore and moved to Memphis at 18. His passion for blues music and the Allman Brothers drew him to the city, where he quickly established himself as a top-notch studio musician with analog and digital recording knowledge. “I climbed the ranks as a session guy,” he says, “and six years ago these rednecks needed a guitar guy to play some acoustic. They weren’t even Saving Abel yet.”

When writing, how does the rest of the band factor into the riffs and melodies that you both come up with?

Null: A lot of times the stuff I write starts with a melody in my head, as opposed to just a guitar riff or chords. I search for chords to put behind them, and that makes it easy for Jared because I scratch out a rough vocal and he comes in and writes lyrics with me. Once we get the song structured, there’s only a few ways to go with bass and drums. It’s an easy process for me.

Bartlett: As we have evolved, we always have known how to get back to home base, push each other and have the groove going on. Eric picked up on a lot of that. He used to be a four on four rocker, then Skidd got him to play with a pick and it’s a totally different attack. Drums and bass are the foundation and we are the layers. You have to respect the foundation, because without that, you’ve got nothing. I like to build off of a drum groove with a cool guitar part. We respect the pocket. I played hip-hop and funk with horn sections and I know when to lay back and went to lay on the accelerator. One thing that makes the band great is they don’t have to try to respect the pocket. At first we weren’t on a click. I stressed for one because I knew it would make us tighter. If you listen to Eric and Blake lay down the groove, they can play off of each other and it’s amazing. We come in over the top.

Does the song determine acoustic or electric, or does the guitar determine the song?

Null: I use whatever is handy for writing. If there’s a melody in my head, I want an acoustic guitar that I can strum country style. Sometimes I hear a riff and I pick out on the electric guitar what should be behind it. “Bloody Sunday” is one of those songs. When I’m recording, I try to layer every part I do with an acoustic part. You don’t always hear it, but it’s there. After I double my guitars, I always put an acoustic behind it to make the sound full and big.

Bartlett: There’s obviously something about a ballad being written on acoustic guitar, and I love open tunings buried in the mix to enhance it, like the D minor open inversion tunings on the first album. “Out Of My Face” was written on acoustic guitar. I love to do layers and build and break down. I love an acoustic guitar intro, breakdown and bridge. It’s all about dynamics, and that’s what the acoustic guitar does, hopefully with a screaming solo at the end. That’s the simplest way. The reason I use acoustic and electric is the dynamics that are at the heart, at least with Saving Abel. Whoever comes up with something does it live. It’s not like we use a lot of tracks, so we always find a way to pull it off. Stylistically, we feel fulfilled playing our instruments. Jared and Jason are the primary songwriters, but we all write. We respect each other. We can delegate responsibilities, talk about them and do them in the studio and live.

What do the guitar parts and solos need to do within this band?

Null: Jared has a powerful voice. When he talks to you, when you’re beside him, sometimes he gets on your nerves because he’s so powerful. I find myself having to move away from him to have a conversation. In the studio and onstage he not only sings from the gut, but naturally, and that is why he is so powerful.

Bartlett: One thing I found, especially on a big chorus, is that we have a knack for hooks and we’re meat-and-potato guitarists: play power chords, sing backup and rock and roll it. The band is about vocals and Jared is a very charismatic frontman. He’s a baritone on the cusp of tenor with a natural breakup and bluesy edge, so we want to embellish that with guitar parts. When it’s our time to shine, we find a way to do that.

Skidd Mills is your producer and co-writer. What made him the right person for Saving Abel?

Null: I sought him out when Jared and I got serious about making this our career. I mastered a record at Ardent in early 2000 and the guy that mastered my record took me to Studio B and cranked up Skillet and Audio Adrenaline. I couldn’t believe how clear and nasty the guitar sounded. I had my mastered disc that I made in my home studio and I wasted every dime I had instead of getting Skidd. I remembered his name, so I looked for him to do our acoustic demos. Jared and I paid $40 an hour, $240 for six songs, and he came and listened to a couple of tunes and asked if we needed anything else. His engineer recorded us and I left him my number. Two weeks later, Skidd called. He loved "Beautiful Day" and wanted to do a three-song demo. We met at the Steak 'n Shake and ate and talked, and we started going over songs. Three became five became ten became twenty songs and we signed a deal, just Jared and I. We played all the instruments ourselves and started looking for a band. We met Blake when we moved back to town. We put an ad on MySpace and Daniel Dwight was our first bass player. We hired Scott to work in the studio and I told Skidd on the phone, “Pay the guy, and if he wants to join, tell him to meet us in Corinth.” He decided to join. Daniel left six months prior to us signing, and we got Eric.

Bartlett: Skidd is the sixth member of the band and that’s all there is to it. There is no right or wrong in songwriting. It’s tricky. It’s not something you do with a red correction pen. The beauty of the art is the freedom to express yourself. I learned a lot about playing parts from him, about being a bigger man, removing myself from the picture, about democracy. That’s what Skidd’s got going for him. He’s older, he’s a father of three, he’s a father figure and a mad scientist behind the mixing board.

What is your definition of tone and does that definition change?

Null: It definitely changes. My first rig was a Crate solid-state 2x12 combo amp with built-in chorus, and later a Crate full stack with a DigiTech GSP21 Pro. I played Ibanez guitars most of my life. I got into Stone Temple Pilots, Candlebox and Soundgarden, and I was able to dial in a Lynyrd Skynyrd sound, but I’d think, These guys get something I’m not getting. My first tube amp was a Mesa Boogie that I used for two years. With tone, you’ve got to learn not about gain and low end. You’ve got to learn to put your fingers on the fretboard, hit a chord, walk over, twist the knob and tweak it until it sounds good to your ear. I went back and forth — combo, tube, Mesa, Marshalls. My latest is a Diamond amp. Jeff Diamond came to the show we were playing with Sevendust, liked what he heard and sent me his new line, the Decada. He did a mod and hot-rodded it for chunk and clarity. When you hit a chord, you can hear every string and still have distortion.

Bartlett: Tone is in your hands. It’s not about overplaying or notes. David Gilmour says as much in his silence as in his phrasing. You’ve got to make people believe you when you play. It can’t be forced and it’s got to come from a real place. I’m still learning. Even David Gilmour is still learning. You always hear people saying, “This is the best guitarist.” There is no best guitarist. It’s all relative.

Can you describe the recording process for one track from Miss America?

Null: The classical intro to “Angel Without Wings” was part of the first song I’d ever written in my life. It was inspired by ’80s bands; you never had to worry about not hearing good guitar in that era. Any time you put a C-# minor with A, B and E, a tone comes out that’s unmistakable with those chords. It’s my favorite song to play because Scott complements it well. It’s the most tasteful, well put-together solo I’ve ever heard him play. I go to sleep with that song on my iPhone: Johnny Cash, Prince and that song. I just love it, and I’ve had it for twenty years.

Bartlett: “Angel Without Wings” was laid down with my Goldtop and one PRS and a variety of parts. I used a clean amp that was built for me by Robert Henson in Memphis. It’s a lot like an old plexi with two knobs. We rolled the volume back and split my pickups, used a Fulltone and doubled it with an acoustic with a stutter step on the minor chord before the chorus. I used a Dropped C guitar to double with the Goldtop and PRS, with a Marshall Slash head and a Bogner Shiva. Guitarmageddon was about to happen. Over that, there’s an arpeggiated picking pattern, and a ’72 Fender Mexican Telecaster and a Fender Bassman to make the parts cut. It’s my favorite solo that I ever put down.

What do you listen to for inspiration and technique tips?

Null: I love Jamey Johnson. Amos Lee is a phenomenal songwriter — the things he says, his melodies over his guitar work; I listen to him and I wish I could sing, play and write like that. I always go back to my favorite records: Candlebox, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blackfoot, Bad Company, Johnny Cash. I love so much music: Johnny Horton, Johnny Rivers, Jon Bon Jovi — all the Johnnys! Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Metallica, Motley Crue, Ralph Stanley, Stone Sour, so many. I grew up listening to Willie Nelson. My mom’s favorite song is “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” Jared and I covered that song when we had our acoustic duo, Shades of Grace.

Bartlett: Lately I listen to a lot of Monte Montgomery, Joe Bonamassa, King's X and Eric Johnson. If you play enough and study techniques, it gets tougher to find people to challenge you to think differently. I play slide and I can’t away from Duane Allman and all he’s given us. He single-handedly brought the slide guitar from the Mississippi Delta to rock and roll. Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks picked up where he left off.

How has your playing changed and stayed the same?

Null: The main change is that I used to play guitar strictly as a pastime. It was a great way to release emotions. Now it has become a job. I do it for a living, and sometimes it is like going to work. I’ve played with a fever, put my guitar on, it felt heavy, my fingers felt sloppy on the fretboard, but I pulled it off. I’m not a 16-year-old playing covers anymore; that’s the only major change. I still love to play. I love being in the studio. I love the creation of music, and having that ability is such a blessing. I wasn’t given much else. I draw a little. I write. But creating music is what I’m supposed to do, and that’s why I never gave up after all the sleepless nights and playing late. I made a decision that this would be my profession instead of a hobby.

Bartlett: It’s an extension of who I am. There’s no way you can teach yourself something as unnatural as pressing your fingers against metal strings to make sounds and express yourself. It’s timeless and it will always be my life, regardless.

Why Saving Abel? Aside from the obvious — songs — was it the team, the Internet, touring?

Null: It was everything. I couldn’t have done this without meeting Jared. I knew the first time I heard him sing that he had something special. I was in a room full of musicians doing metal and he grabbed the mic and said, “Play me a song and I’ll sing it.” I knew he had God-given talent. It’s my family, our management team, Skidd, a label believing in our music. Definitely my bandmates; we all grew up in the same town —except for Scott, who’s a damn Yankee and is a little different than the rest of us! The stars have aligned perfectly, and thank God we weren’t scared to push the envelope with “Addicted.” The day Jared brought me that song two years prior to recording it, I said, “This would be a hit for Nickelback, but not for our acoustic thing.” When we wrapped up our record, the label wanted a song like “18 Days.” I hounded Jared for “Addicted,” but he didn’t remember it. Finally, he went home and found the notes. He’d written the lyrics on a prescription pad. I said, “This is the song! I told you! I knew it was something about getting a b*** j**!” We sat down with the guitar and the lyrics and that became our hit.

What have been some life-changing moments for this band?

Null: There have been a lot of personal changes. I got married, Jared got married, some of us have children. As a band, we've learned how to live with one another. We learned to pick our battles. We’re all adults and we know what’s out here. We’re still the same guys from Mississippi. I still live in the same house and drive the same Honda. Going to play for the troops was a real eye-opener. It puts a lot of things in perspective. I love that we can go there and do it for those men and women. I can’t imagine doing what they do. I’m very thankful that we have them. When we left the war zone and went into India … you see 5- and 6-year-old kids beside your van and all they want is a dollar. As Americans, we don’t know how blessed we are and how good we have it.

Bartlett: I went to an all-guy private prep school in Baltimore. My dad was a doctor and he had the money to send me. I was there for 12 years and look what happened ... . I’m honored to go back and give speeches to the student body. I’m an honored alumni; there’s a plaque on the wall. My father delivered the baccalaureate and he said, “Go back and smell the roses,” so I gave the cliché speech and I played the old guy. It was an endearing moment to be honored. I studied at Rhodes College in Memphis and it helped shape me as a player; I immersed myself in the guitar. Going overseas was surreal. We really should complain less in this country because we don’t know how good we have it. We looked outside the venue, and when you see a horse and a kid taking a dump side by side … . What our military goes through — they risk their lives so that I can turn up my music as loud as I want. They’re fighting for that.

Gear: Jason Null

Guitars

Gibson Flying V, PRS McCarty Korina with dual humbuckers, PRS Hollowbody, PRS SE Singlecut American flag model tuned to Dropped C, Gibson J-200, Gibson Hummingbird, Kramer 1983 Pacer Imperial reissue in black

Amps

Diamond Decada, modded, Diamond 4x12 cabs

Pedals

Voodoo Lab Ground Control, Korg tuner, Furman power conditioner, Shure wireless system, DigiTech Dual Delay, Boss DD-6 Digital Delay, Fulltone MDV-2 Deja Vibe. Boss NS-2 noise suppressor, 10-band EQ on the clean channel, Voodoo Labs Ground Control foot controller, Ernie Ball customized volume pedal, Morley Steve Vai Bad Horsie wah, Boss TU-2 tuner.

Strings

Dean Markley 11–13; flag PRS is strung .012, .015, .020, .032, .042, .053.

Picks

Jim Dunlop Big Stubby 1mm

Gear: Scott Bartlett

Guitars

PRS custom-built jumbo-bodied acoustic made with Brazilian rosewood, PRS Hollowbody, PRS McCarty, Gibson 1958 Les Paul Goldtop reissue, Gibson Hummingbird, Fender Mexican Telecaster

Amps

Orange Tiny Terror head, Orange 4x12 cab with Celestion Vintage 30s, Bogner Shiva, Bogner 4x12 cab

Pedals

Line 6 DL4Delay, Line 6 MM4 Tremolo

Strings

D’Addario, Dean Markley and DR.

11-52 on electric and 13-56 on acoustic

Picks

Fender medium

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