Guitar god Scott Pemberton — fresh off performances at High Sierra Music Festival and Live at Lakeview in South Lake Tahoe — headlined Reno News & Review’s 2018 Rollin’ on the River at Wingfield Park this weekend.
“High Sierra was so fun,” Pemberton said in an interview backstage before his Friday night set. “First thing we did after setting up camp was hang out with Ernest Ranglin, and I’m a huge fan. Backstage, I was kind of nervous. He was checking out my guitar … it was special.”
Ranglin accepted the High Sierra Musical Festival Lifetime Achievement Award during his set. Pemberton considers him one of his biggest influences.
Pemberton doesn’t play reggae music, but he’s influenced by Ranglin’s musical construction and how he builds songs from the bottom up.
“Bass line first,” Pemberton said. “I consider the bass line of my songs the melody. I write a thoughtful, creative bass line, then everything else is frosting.”
Pemberton’s frosting is ridiculous and entrancing. He uses a stool on which to rest his strapless guitar. It either sits on its bottom, when he plays like any other person, or on its back, when he takes a palm-down approach and plays the thing like a piano.
He recalls the first time he tried this was in front of an audience at John’s Alley Tavern in Moscow, Idaho.
“Stuff always gets weird there,” Pemberton said. “It’s a place that cultivates music. It just happened.”
The next day, he thought to himself: “That was weird. I was kind of into that.” Then he tried it again at the next show.
“During shows, I let myself do what I want,” Pemberton said. “I take down the barriers and voices in my head that say not to do something. And I found myself repeatedly doing that.”
The over-handed technique has since become a highlight of his live shows. He can flow from blues to classical to hard rock without picking up the guitar. His soft voice accentuates country vibes, his ripping, detuned guitar brings the chunk. He creates kill-switch sounds like Buckethead or Tom Morello, except with the palm of his hand. He switches between beating drums and playing his prone guitar in less than a second. And like any virtuoso, the shredding comes with a mean guitar face.
“It changes the way I look at the guitar,” Pemberton said. “Because I play it over-handed, I see more of the guitar at once. Sometimes it’s easy to see the guitar in little chunks, but when I play like this, there are no chunks. I’m working the whole thing at once. It increases my abilities and what I can do.”
Before his second High Sierra performance, he had only done the technique live and never practiced at home. He has since honed the craft and became a hot topic at the fest. This year was his fifth appearance.
“I think that festival sets the standard,” Pemberton said. “It’s a delicate balance between running the festival incredibly professionally and partying. I love the playshops. I don’t know who I didn’t play with. It cultivates community between the musicians.”
From here, Pemberton tours through Montana and ends up eventually on the East Coast, where he’s opening for ZZ Top. Pemberton is playing Reno more and more, from the Off Beat Arts & Music Festival to The Saint (a venue he said “has it going on”) to The BlueBird with Reno’s Silver, which also opened this year’s Rollin’ on the River. The man is hopping around the country playing with guitar legends and made time to play a free event in our city.
The event was filled with the spirit of summer. And not just because it was hotter than hell. Shirtless folk in fold-up chairs filled the park from the stage to the Truckee River. I could hear Silver’s “Be Somebody” from my parking spot five blocks away. Remember when parking and traffic problems were nonexistent in our Biggest Little City?
Silver is the type of band that can make me enjoy a song by The Rolling Stones … almost. They played their catchy rock tunes and threw in a Petty cover and their country tune, “Wait,” during which I saw three cute old ladies two-steppin.’ Oh, Reno, you beautiful enigma.
— Tony Contini