The Current's Guitar Collection: Jonathan Russell of The Head and the Heart

Jonathan Russell of The Head and the Heart with his 1976 Guild Starfire guitar.
Jonathan Russell of The Head and the Heart with his 1976 Guild Starfire guitar. (MPR photo/Luke Taylor)
  1. Listen The Head and the Heart: "Shake"

    Oct 29, 2013

When The Head and the Heart visited The Current for an in-studio session and an interview with Mac Wilson, the band's Jonathan Russell took some time to tell us about his guitar, where he bought it and how he uses it in the band's songwriting process. Here's what he had to say:

What kind of guitar are you playing today?

It's a Guild; it's a 1976 Starfire.

Do you remember where you got it?

Yeah, I got it at this place in Seattle called Emerald City Guitars. They specialize in a lot of vintage gear. Almost everything I play, actually, is from that shop in Seattle; it's like the place to go for really quality instruments. The owner and his son who run the shop — and they've got some people working for them, obviously — are just so great. It's one of those iconic guitar shops that you think about and dream about. They do still exist; this is one of them, and it's in Seattle.

How did you pick it out?

Trevor, the son of the owner of the shop, is like the nicest guy ever. He basically just turned on all these amps for me, took down all of these different kinds of guitars — because at the time, I was transitioning from acoustic to electric, so I was like, "I don't really know what I'm looking for, I think I want some kind of a hollow-body, I don't have a lot of money, so I'm not going to buy a Gibson 335 right now" — so Trevor took down all these guitars and set them all up for me and we just hung out. We sat down, went through all of these guitars through different amps, and the Starfire just was the one where I picked it up and I was like, 'Yeesss, this is exactly my voice. This is what I'm going for.'

What about the tone of the guitar struck you?

It kind of has this really dirty, almost overdriven neck pickup on it. I think it's a Seymour Duncan.

It's not the most versatile sound, but I'm also not the most versatile guitar player, so for the kind of stuff that I write to, it's exactly like the other arm I always wished I had. It has that dirtiness to it, that grit. It's just a really hot pickup, and it feels really great. I just like how dirty and broken up it gets.

Do you write with this guitar?

I usually write with an acoustic guitar or on a piano. And then sometimes as the band starts playing a song, I won't play an instrument at all so I can see what's missing and can listen for where the gaps are.

Like with "Another Story," for example, I wrote that song on acoustic, but Josiah started finger-picking that song on acoustic instead, so I listened for the gaps and that's where the electric came in.

I rarely write on an electric, but it's changing, it's always changing. "Shake" is one of those songs actually where — again, I wrote it on an acoustic — but the evolution of the song that you hear now with the full band, that was when I was in the practice space and it was just me, Tyler our drummer, and Josiah, who was playing piano at the time. We just wanted to not have a serious day, so we were basically playing three-piece, rock-band kind of music. We were playing loud, and so I was just like, "Oh, I have this song." But I wanted to play it differently on an electric than I do on an acoustic, which was strumming your standard blues or alt-country chords, you know, like E, A, B7. I didn't want to play that on an electric because it's not very interesting to just play open chords like that. So you just find ways around it. It's still a very simple part on that song; it's just the E and the D string alternating, but it has this driving thing that makes Tyler want to hit the kick drum, and then that influences something else. So it's fun to take a song from an acoustic to an electric and see what happens with it, for sure.

But I rarely start the writing process on the electric; I like a lot of nuance, and when I'm playing electric guitar, it's hard to hear the nuance.

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2 Photos

  • Jonathan Russell's 1976 Guild Starfire
    Jonathan Russell's 1976 Guild Starfire (MPR photo/Luke Taylor)
  • Jonathan Russell plays his 1976 Guild Starfire during The Head and the Heart's in-studio session at The Current.
    Jonathan Russell plays his 1976 Guild Starfire during The Head and the Heart's in-studio session at The Current. (MPR photo/Luke Taylor)
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