Tone Talk with Lea Thomas

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Photo by Hannah Rosa Lewis-Lopes

Hi, I’m Lea Thomas (pronounced lay-uh). I write and release music under my own name and have a new record called Mirrors to the Sun that is due out in late July.

A lot of the songs on this album were built on live takes with my band, recorded between sessions in a house in the woods that we turned into a studio as well as at Thump Recording in Brooklyn. I arranged for horns for the first time and composed some extended instrumental sections on songs like “Hummingbird” that really came to life with the involvement of my band and a community of musicians I am lucky to know.

I’ve been living in New York for the last 13 years, but I grew up on an island in Hawaii. When I’m not working on music, I turn to weaving and learning about plants and gathering herbs for my small-batch collection All in All Apothecary.

Photo by Hannah Rosa Lewis-Lopes

What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?
I used to think that “tone” was a combination of gear and choosing to play with a pick or with fingers, but over the years, I’ve come to realize that it’s so much more than just the way the guitar sounds. I think an artist’s signature sound also encapsulates their melodic and rhythmic sense and the emotion behind the performance.

Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?
For the last few years, I’ve mostly alternated between a Peavey Classic30 (with a Celestion speaker) and an ‘80s Polytone with a custom grill cover.

My dad built guitars for a while and played around a lot with combining vintage parts to make some fun ‘frankenstein’ guitars. I have a number of these experimental and vintage guitars now. The gold top I play with a lot is a Japanese-made Les Paul replica with vintage Maxon pickups. The neck and body were made by Tokai. It’s my go-to electric—a little bit weighty but has such a beautiful sustain, and I love how the neck pickup sounds.

My pedal set-up is usually pretty simple, I like to play with an overdrive, a chorus pedal, one or two delays, and maybe a reverb, depending on what I’m performing, but I usually prefer to layer a short and a long delay to get that expanded sound. 

What about strings?
I don’t have any particular loyalty to specific strings, but I have been really enjoying playing my nylon acoustic recently. The roundness of the tone and the softness of the strings lead me to play—and therefore write—in a different way. I’m always exploring new sounds to stay inspired.

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?
For this new record, I knew I wanted the songs to have the urgency and honesty of a live performance. My co-producer and drummer, John Thayer, is also the recording/mix engineer for all of my records to date. Because he’s so involved with the songs before it’s time to track, we have time to discuss the ‘vibe,’ what instruments will be involved, the arrangements I hear in my head if it’s a high-energy of a mellow song, etc. and then plan what techniques will help us to achieve those goals. It feels good to me to base the recording approach according to the personality of the song.

How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?
I bring my own amp, pedals, and guitars to shows and always allow myself time to really get familiar with how the room sounds during a soundcheck. Generally, if I have my own instruments and I have good monitoring for my sound, I can be somewhat comfortable.

What does your practice consist of?
I don’t set aside strict practice times anymore, but I am always trying to push myself into new experiences so I don’t get stuck in any certain patterns. These days, I end up in a lot of alternate tunings because it’s interesting to explore new chord shapes and harmonies and see how I can adapt vocal melodies to those sounds.

Favorite guitar riff or lick that inspired you to play guitar?
I couldn’t name a specific one because I was pretty obsessed with all kinds of styles when I first started learning guitar. It was a long time ago, but I remember listening to a lot of folk fingerpickers like John Fahey and Bob Dylan, having some classic rock moments with Hendrix, and then getting my mind blown by the emotion and rawness of a Neil Young solo—I was all over the place in terms of influence. I just soaked in everything I heard.

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?
Be patient with yourself and allow yourself the opportunity to change and grow. Stay open to learning and be true to yourself before anyone else.

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