By Paul Hanson
Since the mid-’90s, Philadelphia’s Disco Biscuits have been one of the most successful groups on the jam-band circuit. Incorporating free-form jazz improvisations with hypnotic rave rhythms, their pioneering “trance-fusion” style has brought the band both critical acclaim and a large, loyal fan base.
Jon is an avid user of BOSS pedals, and I recently chatted with him for a BOSS Tone Radio podcast. The following is an excerpt from that interview.
To listen to the podcast, visit www.BossUS.com/podcasts.
The Disco Biscuits are selling out tons of shows, and you guys have a huge following. How’s that going?
It’s going great, it’s going excellent. I love the way that it’s moving and we’re lucky to be in this position. We just want to keep the ball rolling forward, keep pushing the envelope and doing new things musically and hopefully that’ll keep people coming.
At your site, it looks like you guys are constantly doing gigs and touring.
Yeah. We like to get out there and play a lot, and we don’t really like to go [more than] a couple months without playing any shows. It’s easy to play shows. For instance, we just played four shows this weekend. And here I am, home on Wednesday, right back were I left off. It’s really no big deal.
The Disco Biscuits’ members met at the University of Pennsylvania. Were you studying music while you were there?
I did study music there, yeah.
Do you feel like you use the music stuff you learned in college in your current gig?
Yes, definitely. More than the electrical engineering stuff, I’d say. [Laughs.]
With all that equipment you run, the electrical engineering background probably helps.
It helps me figure out the Roland gear from time to time, yeah. [Laughs.]
Did you grow up in Philadelphia?
No. [I grew up in] North Jersey.
At what age did you start playing guitar?
When I was really young, six or seven, or something like that. But I really didn’t get serious till maybe 11.
What was you first guitar?
It was a Kramer American.
Was that during the era when Eddie Van Halen was a Kramer endorser?
I believe so, yeah. I was a big fan of Eddie Van Halen. He had a very large influence in that era.
I remember New Jersey bands like Cinderella and Bon Jovi. Were those the bands that you grew up with?
In addition to those ’80s guys, do you have other influences?
Definitely Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Jerry Garcia. And Trey Anastasio from Phish. That would be like the main list there.
Your album Señor Boombox was ranked as one of the ten-best jam band records of all time. What exactly is a jam band?
Well, what a jam band is has changed a lot over the couple of years that [the concept has] been around. It’s basically a band that does a lot of improv and plays rock and roll. That’s all it is.
You mentioned Jerry Garcia. I think of the Grateful Dead as being the original jam band. Is that the way you guys see it?
Yeah, most people see it that way. However, the Grateful Dead sound is the Grateful Dead sound; the [current] idea of a jam band has sort of left that sound, which is hard for a lot of people to get. “Jam band” doesn’t [refer to] a particular kind of music. It’s a philosophical approach to a stage show. When you walk on stage, you walk on stage without a preset routine of what you’re going to do.
You have songs that you play, but I understand that you play many different versions of a song, with different arrangements.
Well, a lot of times a song has a large jam section in the middle of it.
In the jam section of a song, do you have pre-arranged chord progressions that you follow? Or do you sometimes go off into completely different chords?
A lot of jam bands follow chord progressions pretty routinely. One of the things that really separated Phish from the rest of the jam bands was they started messing around with the harmonies and pushing them around and moving them. But the jazz guys, like Miles Davis, they were doing this 40 years earlier, so it wasn’t some kind of rocket science.
You know, the Allman Brothers are a classic example of a band that kept the harmonies [as they] jammed. The guitar solos would be different every night, but generally the harmonic construction of the jam would be the same.
Do we do that? No. But a lot of [successful] bands have done that. We don’t have any set harmonic instructions. In fact, we like to change the harmonies up.
Do you make eye contact with the other guys in the band and yell out a key?
I’ve seen bands do that. Some bands do that with hand signals. For instance, Jaime Shields from The New Deal can literally move the whole band’s key with one hand signal, which is quite amazing. But we don’t do that, we do it all by ear.
[For example], if we’re in A, jamming over an A to D to G progression, and somebody brings in a B Flat into that progression, everybody in the band will immediately react in some way or another. The D will probably become minor, the G will become minor immediately, and A Major may go to A Minor, depending on the vibe. A lot of it has to do with what tempo you’re at, and what the drums are doing. At this point, we have a feel for how to flip everything around.
You guys have put in a ton of time of playing together, rehearsing countless hours and playing so many gigs. Do you feel like you instinctively know what the other guys are going to do, and vice versa?
Yes. To some degree, there’s a lot of random stuff that happens, so there are moments when things go exactly as planned, and there are moments when things don’t go anywhere near as planned. Obviously, we get both situations all night long because we do so much improv. We’re up there improvising all night. At least half the show is improv. I don’t think there’s any band in the world that does as much improv as the Disco Biscuits.
That’s so amazing. It must be really fun, because you never know what’s going to happen. That must be a huge part of your popularity. Has MTV or radio followed you guys, or are you an underground band?
Well, we generally never made videos in the past, so we never really had reason to have a relationship with MTV. But we’ve recently met some friends who are video production guys, and we’ve had a great time hanging out with them. They’ve actually pitched us on some videos, and they’ve done a great job. We’ve actually gotten a video on MTV2, and they want our next video. It’s rare for jam bands to have videos on MTV.
You guys have one of the most amazing light shows. Do you have a full-time guy who runs that?
Yes. He’s been with us forever. His name is Johnny R. Goode. He has an awesome lighting rig that he has full command of, with a giant lighting console. [He does] a wonderful job night in and night out, and he’s a great member of the team.
Let’s talk about gear. I’ve seen some pictures of you with what looks like a Paul Reed Smith guitar. Do you use those?
No, I actually play Becker guitars. They build my Roland [GK-3 Divided Pickup] right into the guitar for me, so my Roland [VG-99 and FC-300] system is seamlessly integrated. It makes it so easy for me to run the Roland system. It’s literally plug and go. It’s really a wonderful piece—the guitar is 100% handmade. It’s made with the quality of a Paul Reed Smith, but it has more of a bluesy tone, an earthy, deep tone.
Does it have regular pickups in addition to the Roland GK pickup?
Yeah. It has custom-designed Seymour Duncan pickups.
I saw a picture of your pedal board. You also use the Roland VG-99 now, correct?
I have the VG-99 and I have pedals. I use both.
On one of your pedal boards, you have a BOSS DD-7 Delay.
Yes, I do have one of those. I’ve had a DD-5 or a DD-7 in my setup for as far back as I can remember.
You also have a BOSS OD-20 Drive Zone.
Yeah, that’s a great pedal, too. I really like that pedal.
There are about 20 different overdrives and distortions in that pedal, and you can save four different presets. Do you switch between different overdrives and distortions throughout your set?
Yeah, I actually have four overdrives saved into it that have different uses. There’s also [the Manual] position, so I basically have five overdrives on that pedal, and I just choose them as the night goes on. They all have different purposes. The [Manual position is set for] a nice shreddy overdrive for solos, and the first preset is a heavy-metal power-chord overdrive.
Are you using the Metal Zone setting for that?
Yeah. It’s like something you might hear at a Cinderella concert. The second [preset] is a thinner distortion, because sometimes I like to throw some different things on there with some effects, phasers and stuff like that. I don’t want to use the phasers with a really thick overdrive because it just creates a lot of noise, so I’ll use that thinner overdrive for those purposes. Sometimes I layer distortions, and that thinner overdrive is nice [for that also].
The next [preset] is a Centaur model. I used to have a Centaur, but it broke and it’s hard to get another one. It’s a real smooth, brown overdrive sound. The original Centaur [is a great pedal], and the BOSS model of the Centaur is wonderful as well. The fourth [preset] is an Eddie Van Halen-type lead sound. Then it’s got that feature [that adds low end].
That’s called “Heavy Octave.”
Yeah. I don’t use the octave bass as much as you can; you can really turn that bass up if you want to. For me, I just put it in there a little bit to fatten everything up. It’s really subtle the way that I use it. I don’t think that anyone would guess that it’s in there. But I do use it on my Centaur setting and my heavy metal guitar setting.
You know, from night-to-night and room-to-room, you don’t really know which distortion is going to work the best for you. What I like about that pedal is having a couple of different distortion selections. There are a lot of little factors that go into which distortion is going to sound best for your show, depending on the sound on stage and whether you’re standing on top of the subwoofers or not. I like to have a couple of options.
You have an RV-5 Digital Reverb pedal. Do you use that for just a hint of reverb, or for a more obvious effect?
In the studio, I’ll use it for effects. I’ll tweak it and get some cool stuff out of it. It has a lot of cool features to it, and if you want to roll the knobs around while you’re playing you can get some really crazy things that I think are cool, frankly. [Laughs.] But live, on stage, I put it on a light plate and just leave it on the whole show. I never turn it off.
I noticed you have an FS-5U Foot Switch with your DD-7 for tapping in the delay time. Do you tap in the rate at different tempos?
Yeah, all night long. I have some analog delays, too—which I use because they have a cool sound to them—and I put them before the DD-7. Then, I use the DD-7 to tap the analog delays. Because the DD-7 goes last, it sets the tempo of the other delays. Even if they’re out of tempo, the DD-7 will loop them at the appropriate tempo.
Wow, I never thought of that! It wouldn’t be the exact repeat rate, but it would still be in tempo. I’ll have to try that.
Yeah, it’s always looping at the correct time. So, even though it may sound a little chaotic, it’s still looping at the correct time. The chaotic-ness is just part of the sound. At that point, you can like it or not like it. If you don’t like it, just turn the pedal off. The DD-7 is basically my go-to delay, because the tap works perfectly, really.
Do you have it set to the quarter-note delay time?
Yeah. Sometimes you want a nice slap-back delay, like an old ’50s, Brian Setzer-type thing. But with the Biscuits, we don’t do very much of that, so I basically leave in on the quarter-note tap.
What other BOSS pedals do you use?
Do you use the GE-7 to shape your tone?
Yeah. The EQ pedal is really used as a distortion boost. I use it when I’m [playing] at the top of the neck, [because the sound] quality of the guitar changes a little bit. It gets a little thinner. When you listen to Disco Biscuits’ music, I’m all over the neck. I play every single fret on the guitar twice at least every single night. My guitar is a 24-fret guitar, and I use every one of those frets up top.
When I get up there, I use the BOSS EQ to put a little bit more emphasis on those higher frequencies, and I also reduce some of the lower frequencies. When you’re up high and you have a lot of distortion on, you’re going to get some weird feedback coming at that lower range, so you want to dampen that lower range just a little bit. So, that’s what I use the EQ for.
Back when my clean sound was closer to a Wes Montgomery sound, I used to use the EQ to turn that sound into more of a classic Stratocaster sound. It was like a Stratocaster button! I’ve experimented with so many sounds over the years.
A lot of guys have a habit of flipping their pickup switch to the neck pickup when they go high on the neck. Do you do that also?
No. I actually use the EQ for that. I don’t switch pickups as much as other people.
Do you have humbucking pickups?
I don’t use humbucking pickups on any guitars that I play.
You’re a single-coil guy.
I like the neck single-coil pickup.
Jimi Hendrix always preferred single-coil pickups and Strats. He said there’s more bass, more highs, and a wider range of tone with single-coil pickups.
I agree with that. Single-coil on the neck. My problem with bridge pickups [is that the sound] gets very thin, you lose all your bass, and you get this shrill treble. [With my neck pickup], I use the EQ to sound exactly the way I want. It works great.
Do you have any advice for guitar players that want to achieve what you’ve achieved so far?
I think every guitar player has to make their own path. Every musician has to make their own path. If you try to do it the way somebody else did it, you end up finding out that you have to make your own path.
As he briefly mentioned in this article, Jon uses the Roland VG-99 V-Guitar System as part of his onstage guitar setup along with his BOSS pedals. To read more about how he uses the VG-99, click here.