I’m Jess Robbins, the singer and songwriter of the Chicago-based band Course. I played piano growing up and then made the switch to guitar in college. One of my roommates had a few electric guitars and loved ‘90s music, so showed me how to play a couple Smashing Pumpkins songs. I then taught myself guitar by watching videos and learning covers. I have wide-ranging musical influences from Gillian Welch to Radiohead to Depeche Mode to the Beatles to Fiona Apple. I have played in a bunch of bands and been a solo artist, but this current project is by far my favorite. I feel like it is what I have always wanted to do — more upbeat, more synth-based, and a band with no drama! Our debut album came out May 21, 2021.
What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?
The tone is the first impression of the song. It establishes the mood and vibe and is the first thing the audience hears. Tone is what makes the guitar sounds good, and I have worked to refine my sound over the years. I used to play only acoustic guitar, but when I switched to electric guitar, the tone changed, and I have paid more attention to the specific sounds I’m aiming to get and how it works. I also work with our lead guitarist to make sure the tones are working with both guitars.
Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?
I’ve just recently started using pedals. And I only have one. I have an EarthQuaker Dispatch Master, which I love and use a lot on the new songs. I was afraid of pedals for a long time and didn’t take the time to learn how to use them — but the more I use this one and work on getting good guitar tones, the more I want more pedals! I can see how it can become addictive!
My electric guitar is a Fender Strat with humbuckers which makes for an interesting rhythm tone. I have an acoustic Martin DC-15E, and I use this guitar for all my songwriting. It’s funny because I never write on the electric, even though that’s all I use now, and in the studio, I still just love to write on the acoustic.
I have a Roland JC20, and I try not to abuse the chorus on the amp, haha, but it’s hard not to sometimes — it sounds so great and is fun to use! I also chose this amp because I had a back injury, and this was an easy amp to carry but also sounded amazing.
What about strings?
To be honest, I don’t really have any specific kind of strings I use. I like light gauge, and the last strings I bought were D’Addario.
Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?
I generally like to play live with the band to get the good tones. I also feel like the performance is better live. I will also do overdubs as well but prefer to do live takes.
How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?
I use the same gear on stage that I use in the studio. I learned early on from our lead guitarist that you need to know your gear, know what it’s doing, and spend time and practice with it. The more confident I am with my instruments and gear, the better I perform onstage. I can remember using my pedal and new amp for the first time without a ton of practice, and it definitely showed!
What does your practice consist of?
Lately, I have been playing around with different tunings and writing purely guitar compositions without lyrics. I found, during quarantine, just simply playing without feeling the pressure to write a song gave me freedom to explore new chords and interesting parts. I try to play every day at least for a few minutes if I don’t have much time. I play a lot in my bathroom, haha.
Favorite guitar riff or lick that inspired you to play guitar?
Neil Young’s Live at Massey Hall 1971 is probably one of the most inspirational guitar albums for me. He’s such an amazing guitar player, rhythm and everything. There’s so much emotion in how he plays, but he’s also so steady and strong. That album never gets old to me and always makes me want to be a better guitar player.
What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?
Get in, get your hands dirty, learn about pedals, learn about guitars, and don’t let anyone push you down or tell you that you don’t know what you’re doing. The more you know and can control your own gear, the less you rely on other people, and it will make you feel confident and powerful in a highly male-dominated industry.
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