Tone Talk with Nikki O’Neill

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Photo by Deb Morrison-Littell/Shots by Morrison

Nikki O’Neill is a singer, songwriter, and guitar player in Los Angeles. She was interviewed in Guitar Player Magazine in their Nov. 2019 issue, and has a lesson channel on TrueFire called “Twang, Soul & Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Her new album, World is Waiting, is coming out this summer, and it’s a tapestry of rhythm & blues, gospel, blues, and Americana.

What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?

It depends on the project. My own music is pretty roots-based, and I like a warm and rich tone that still has clarity. I’m finding myself using less and less pedals because they seem to suck the tone out. I refer to most pedals as “the sonic equivalents of Instagram filters.” I think I’ve begun to get a better tone in the last two years. In the past, I did the best I could with the gear that I could afford, but I made some missteps with pickup choices . . .

Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?

My main rig is a Fender Telecaster (maple neck) with Seymour Duncan Antiquity II “60’s Twang” pickups, run through a Fender Deluxe Reverb ’65 Reissue amp, which has reverb and tremolo. Besides a BOSS tuner pedal and Ernie Ball volume pedal, I use a JHS Tidewater tremolo, since it has a darker sound than the amp tremolo, and I have a clean boost called “Astroblaster” by Post Culture Pedals. That one actually lives up to the claim of being transparent and not coloring tone . . . at least for me.

Finding the right overdrive pedal for solos is still a challenge – my amp doesn’t have an overdrive channel. So I turn the amp up loud and control the level with the volume knob on my guitar. I’ve tried 15 clean boosts and overdrive pedals, and most of them squashed the tone — either by adding a weird compression or making it sound harsh and shrill. For now, I’m trying out one of those yellow DOD 250s, so we’ll see what the verdict will be on that one. All components, from guitar to pickups to amp and pedals, have to get along, but they also have to sound right in the context of the band. You can dial in a great tone on your own, but then it might not sound right when you’re playing together with another guitarist, keyboardist, bass, and drums.

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My acoustic guitar is a Blueridge BR-73, modeled after a Martin 000. It’s perfect for my small hands and sounds great. I use it for writing songs; when I’m in the studio, and live when I either play the one acoustic song of the band set, or play solo shows.

What about strings?

For the Tele, I use Ernie Ball 009’s, although, at one point, I used to prefer 009.5’s. I can tell the difference.

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?

I’ve been leaving the amp micing to the studio engineer in question, but am going to learn more about it. I do like to record at least the bed tracks live with the band all together in one room. For this kind of music, it sounds way better than everyone tracking their part separately.

How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?

That is always the challenge, especially with club shows where you barely get a line check right before showtime. Every room sounds different. It helps that I have a pretty small set up so that I can control my end of things more. Once I start performing, my mind is totally focused on the audience. I’ll never let them see that I’m unhappy about my tone, unless there’s a serious problem like an amp tube that suddenly died, but then I’ll quickly solve that issue and move on.

What does your practice consist of?

It varies, but singing lead vocals and simultaneously playing some intricate guitar part like a riff or fill is always part of the menu. Vocally, I’m currently working on increasing my belt range, but also to really get inside a lyric. With lead guitar, I love working on rhythmic phrasing — Freddie King had an amazing sense of “pocket” in his solos. I also work on bends and vibrato, just like Eric Clapton still does.

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?

Learn about the industry from credible sources. If you still live with your parents, use your time well and practice a lot. Start a cover band. Develop your foundation, basic sense of the craft, and the base of your artistic identity. You’ll never have this kind of opportunity again once you have to pay your bills by getting day jobs.

If you’re about to attend college, go to the music programs’ open houses and see if life as a performer really is for you, because those who succeed at making a living at it are EXTREMELY dedicated. They practice 6-8 hours a day. They may have started gigging when they were 15. That doesn’t mean you can’t succeed, but you’ll have to catch up.

You might find that you’d thrive more by working in other aspects of the music industry, like marketing, teaching, publicity, or management.

As for day jobs, experiment with what works for you and doesn’t drain you too much. If you plan to be a solo artist and need to hire musicians for recordings and gigs, a white-collar job might pay better than working in a store, but you’ll have to figure that out.

Becoming a recording artist is a growing process. I know I spent too much money on recording my early songs with well-known pricey producers. Even if you’re ambitious and think this is your best work, you will look back and see that you sure have developed better songwriting or singing chops. On the other hand, those well-arranged songs did attract some great band members and connections for me, even if they didn’t result in film or TV placements.

Stay away from negative people. Avoid relationships with drama. Being mature, grounded, reliable, and a prompt communicator will only help you in your dealings with the industry. If you’re practicing a ton, a committed relationship might not be the right thing now . . . nobody wants to feel like they’re just a roommate or bankrolling somebody else’s dream.

Last but not least: don’t be delusional — you need to have a very realistic assessment of your abilities, know what your strengths are, and always be willing to learn and improve. Quincy Jones Jr. said it best: “Get better. Not bitter.”

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