Being good enough at guitar to get into prestigious Berklee College of Music, ironically, almost ruined Jared James Nichols’ musical career.
The then-17-year-old kid from Wisconsin was convinced by his mom to try a four-day camp at the Boston institution. He showed so well that the school offered him a scholarship the following year. At the time, it sounded like a great idea.
“So I get to Berklee, and I pick my classes,” said Nichols, now 30, by phone from Las Vegas, during an off day on his current tour. “There was sight reading, note writing, conducting in keyboard, etc. Now, you take this kid, obsessed with fuzz guitar and Albert King and put him in a conducting class. No. A month in and the shine was wearing off.
“I was almost afraid to play guitar,” Nichols continued. “It was like ‘You have to do it this way.’ I just wanted to play. I just wanted to be in a band. I already knew where I wanted to go with it. So I said I wanted to quit. The dean brings me into his office to sign something (to end the scholarship). And he says ‘If you sign this paper, you’re signing away your music career.’”
Nichols still scoffs all these years later.
“What a dick.”
Of course, on cue, rebellion ensued. The experience pushed him into a life of bending rules like B.B. King bent strings. He even stopped playing with a plectrum. He decided to do it his way and hasn’t looked back since.
Jared James Nichols is seemingly a musical paradox. He was born when pointy Day-Glo guitars and big hair ruled, yet would fit snuggly into an Allman Brothers side project. He came of age when technology nearly killed vinyl, yet pounds the road like his career depends on it. He’s a Midwestern guy who made his name in Hollywood, yet hasn’t recorded for a big label.
He’s even a lefty who plays right-handed.
“I was told to,” Nichols said. “My first teacher said, ‘You’ve got to flip it. I’m like, ‘but Jimi Hendrix is a lefty.’ He said ‘All the great guitars are right-handed. And I don’t want to teach you left-handed.’”
Carving a career based on his own vision doesn’t make Nichols a bird-flipping rebel. He smiles and interacts with his audience, no matter the size. At Slim’s in San Francisco in September, he went directly from stage to the merch table to sell his own stuff, remaining until fans stopped lining up.
He talks fast and he talks a lot, generally about one thing.
“I don’t think you can replace the power of live music,” said Nichols, who along with drummer Dennis Holm and bassist Baron Fox (son of The Cult’s keyboardist Damon Fox) is currently touring with Fozzy. “For me, that’s everything.
“Don’t get me wrong, I get the creative part of the music. But the connection comes from being in the room, whether it’s 15 people or 1,500.”
Nichols comes from East Troy, Wisconsin, a town claiming barely 4,000 residents when he left in 2011. It’s also where one of Nichols’ heroes, Stevie Ray Vaughan, died in a helicopter crash after playing the Alpine Valley Resort in 1990, not long after Nichols was born. He had a unique way of commemorating the anniversary.
“You could hear the concerts from where I lived,” Nichols said. “I’d climb the fence (at Alpine Valley) with my guitar, no case, and I’d go to the stage where (Vaughan) played. There’s not even a sign there for him. I’d be there at 3 in the afternoon until 9 at night, playing my guitar with no amp.”
He moved to Hollywood in 2011 and met his manager, Phil Jaurigui, a few weeks later at a guitar competition at Musicians Institute, where Jaurigui was a judge.
“He came out with a homemade Flying V, bell bottoms, playing the blues with no pick,” Jaurigui said. “I knew he was the real deal. He, of course, won the contest. I later asked when he was playing in town. His response was ‘I don’t have a band.’ I told him jokingly to go down the hall and find two Swedish dudes and come to my studio.
“A week later he called. ‘Hey Phil, I found two Swedish dudes. Can we check out your studio?’ We’ve worked together ever since.”
For the record, they really were Swedish.
It was at Jaurigui’s Swinghouse studios where Nichols connected with people like Aerosmith, Johnny Depp and producers Jack Douglas and Eddie Kramer.
“I was playing and Steven [Tyler] walked into the room and said ‘Who the hell are you? Come hang out with us,’” Nichols said. Former Aerosmith guitarist Rick Dufay liked him so much, he gave him a Les Paul.
Nichols has also mingled, as an opening act, with the likes of Lynryd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, UFO, Saxon, Zakk Wylde, L.A. Guns and Living Colour.
“Plugging into a full stack and playing with Skynyrd to 15,000 people in Germany was surreal,” he said. “They were like ‘Take the solo, Jared.’ I was like ‘How did this happen? I still get the chills.”
Nichols recently moved to Nashville, where he wants to soak up the vibe and collaborate with new musicians, though he and his fiancé only had a couple days there before he hit the road again. Between his own shows and guitar clinics (he has his own signature Epiphone Les Paul), he’s been to more than two dozen countries, including Egypt, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Bosnia and Greece. Next year he’s touring China and Japan.
“I did a clinic in Cairo and 500 people showed up,” he said. “It was incredible. We went to Greece and played in this local bar; there was nothing touristy about it. We were playing all their music.
“We were in Dubai, and I was like ‘What am I doing here?’ But looking back now and seeing how many people we connected with through music—and especially with the guitar playing American blues rock–is incredible.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t like writing and recording. Nichols has made two LPs, 2013’s Old Glory & Wild Revival and 2018’s Black Magic, part of which was recorded at Johnny Depp’s studio and has garnered more than 4 million streams. This year, he released single “Nails in the Coffin,” which was in heavy rotation on U.K. classic rock radio for eight weeks.
Nichols has already had enough career highlights to satisfy most musicians. Like his heroes, he’s building a career for the long haul, though he still sounds like a kid getting started.
“I continuously have these moments, when someone I looked up to says ‘I love your playing,’ Nichols said. “Guys like Leslie West or Zakk Wylde or Joe Bonamassa, who invited me up to his house. We smoked a cigar and talked. It’s really, really cool.”