Though his guitar playing is rooted in jazz and blues, Scott Pemberton’s style has evolved into something more other-worldly.
Up until a few years ago, Portland, OR-based guitarist Scott Pemberton was a traditional musician following a somewhat prescribed course – playing in lots of different bands, teaching guitar lessons and producing records for other musicians at a studio he owned. Then he got nailed by a cab while riding his bike home from the pizza shop and almost died.
Immediately after his accident, the MRI scans looked harrowing. He fell into a coma. His doctors didn’t expect him to live – let alone walk, speak or play guitar again. But miraculously, he survived. What followed was a six-month recovery and, eventually, an unusual musical breakthrough.
During his recovery, Pemberton says his biggest frustration was not being allowed to pick up a guitar – lifting it could have caused his brain to swell or bleed. But his outlook was positive. “It wasn’t scary or painful,” he says. “I was just stoked to be alive. I was just super pumped.”
When he could finally play again, the guitar felt brand new, but also a little bit foreign. “It was kind of like if you just woke up and knew karate like Bruce Lee,” he says. “That’s what it felt like. I was just like, ‘Oh my god, I am awesome at the guitar.’ For the first time, I could appreciate what I was doing from an outside perspective.”
Until that point, his musical path wasn’t always as clear and open. But Pemberton discovered that the accident had basically stripped him of his creative inhibitions. He felt free to emote through his guitar without expectations – his own or others’ – getting in the way.
What Pemberton does with a guitar isn’t just skilled playing; it’s transforming the instrument into something it wasn’t before. He combines a host of effects pedals (including one that makes his guitar sound like a drum) with an unrestrained approach to playing to create a sound that’s equal parts surf rock, jam, jazz, psychedelic and classic rock – and everything in between.
Although Pemberton is still making his presence known on the East Coast, fans who have seen him perform – he’s logged shows at the Chameleon Club (including performances at the Lancaster Roots & Blues Festival in 2014 and 2015), Tellus360 and The Fridge in Lancaster and at The Abbey Bar at Appalachian Brewing Co. in Harrisburg over the past couple years – use terms like “guitar god” to describe him. And it’s true – when the Scott Pemberton Trio performs, the show is simply off the hook.
For starters, Pemberton doesn’t wear a guitar strap. Instead, he wields his big, heavy 1971 Gibson ES-335 electric guitar with no support other than his forearms, fingers and wrists. And a stool. And his knee. And the floor. Pemberton doesn’t exactly stay in one place when he plays.
“Straps are a strange evolution of the guitar, to me,” he says. “Ergonomically, you’re wearing it, and it’s always the same. It’s like, ‘This is how I am when I play guitar.'”
He compares using a guitar strap to riding a horse with a saddle – riding bareback is harder, but it accommodates a greater range of motion. “Whatever struggle it adds, it gives me 10 times back in flexibility,” he says.
Pemberton and his band use every resource they have to the fullest extent, from various percussive elements to funky organ swells. It’s a running theme for Pemberton, whose life mottos are “follow the path” and “keep it real.”
Now that he’s been back in action for several years, Pemberton is a household name in Portland and other West Coast cities. He’s snagged the #4 spot on Billboards Tastemaker Chart and has topped Portland’s Pop Charts. His first full-length album, SP3, was released in 2011, followed by Sugar Mama in 2012.
His third album – Timber Rock – was released earlier this year following over a year of production. Fans familiar with SP3’s live set will take note that Timber Rock features many songs that have long been front and center on tour, from the album’s opener “One Time” to the blue-collar-themed “Elbow Grease.”
But though the studio versions of any of Scott Pemberton’s songs do all that is possible to capture the band’s energy, there’s simply no replacing the experience of seeing it all unfold live on stage. This is more than just a “you have to see it to believe it” scenario. And, quite honestly, it’s hard to put into words just why that even is. But it totally is. You have to trust us on this one.