There are moments during a John Butler Trio concert when Butler starts a solo and you swear that he's conjuring up the spirit of Hendrix through his guitar, but upon second glance, you notice that he's playing an acoustic. WTF? There are lots of names that pop up often on underrated lists, but Butler is probably on the top of underrated guitarists.
The music of John Butler Trio is roots-based, song-driven music with a message within which Butler has carved a particular niche that fuses a handful of styles, enables him to showcase guitar abilities without being over the top and conjure up emotions through songs of love, environmental issues and family.
"The more I make music and write songs, the more I respect the power of a good song," Butler says by phone from a recent tour stop in England. "I think I've learned more toward the songwriting than I have elaborating instrumentals that we used to do. I used to play 10-minute songs — those are still around, but they're not there every song anymore. The songs that stick with me the most are great songs. There are one or two great solos, but there are tons of great songs."
The band is currently on tour in support of 2010's April Uprising, though they released a live CD/DVD last week, Live at Red Rocks. Butler says he has no timeline for the next album, though he has been writing. He says the band usually tours for a couple of years on an album, so this one has "another year of life in it" at least.
Butler writes about the topics that are of interest to him or that move him emotionally. "When I think about the music that I love, it's always emotionally stirring music, whether it's fuckin' Beastie Boys having a ball or if it's Tracy Chapman singing about heartache — they're songs that are potent and powerful in their emotion," Butler says. "I see things happening around me and move me and I write about them. I'm not interested in drug addiction and cheating on my wife and having three lovers to give myself a bunch of inspiration. There's enough to write about in my life and the lives around me. All I can do is write about something that makes me feel strongly."
One of Butler's most emotionally-driven songs is "Ocean," an extended instrumental solo that is often dedicated as a prayer at his live shows. Playing an 11-string guitar — he removed the high G — and using a finger-picking style along with slapping the body of the guitar, the song is slow and building, eventually speeding up into a frenzy without ever becoming a "look what I can do on the guitar" self-indulgent moment.
"I could write 1,001 songs as elaborate as 'Ocean,' but it won't be as moving as 'Ocean,'" Butler says. "'Ocean' is a piece of music. It's not just a combination of techniques. When something has the power and spirit, I will go with that more than anything else. The power of a song is definitely the most important thing, with or without words."
Butler's style of guitar — he also plays banjo — hit its stride when the singer turned 21 and discovered open tuning. It led to the writing of "Ocean," and a self-taught style of playing. His goal has always been for the guitar to compliment the song rather than soloing for the purpose of showing off.
"I started playing guitar and my thing was, as much as I wanted to be able to solo, I could stand any of the examples I saw around me," Butler, who notes Hendrix and Jeff Lang as some of his favorites, says. "As a child, I grew up with hair metal all around me and everyone playing a million notes per minute, and I just hated lead guitarists who just constantly kept on masturbating on stage. It wasn't until I discovered open tuning that I was able to create quite elaborate guitar but in a way that was melodic."
As the band gets set to make its first appearance in Charlotte, Butler acknowledges that while the band has paid its dues a handful of times, there are still more people to play to and still more places to play. "We're not the Black Eyed Peas or Lady Gaga," Butler says. "There's room to fuckin' grow, but I think we are not unknown. It's always good to go to new places and bring our music to the people."