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Tyler Bryant Grows Up and Rocks Out

January 30, 2014
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A HUMONGOUS BUZZ ABOUT TEXAS-BORN, NASHVILLE RESIDENT TYLER Bryant has built steadily over the past decade. The boy who learned the blues from veteran guitarist Roosevelt Twitty at age 11, was chosen by Eric Clapton to play his Crossroads Guitar Festival at 15, won the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation’s New Generation Award at 16, was featured in the documentary Rock Prophecies alongside the likes of Santana and Slash in 2009, and was invited by Jeff Beck to open his 2011 tours, has been hard to miss and easy to admire.

The humble hotshot gushes inspired guitar licks like a geyser, and although his music is rooted in classic blues, it’s hepped up on a triple-shot of uproar. With a voice reminiscent of Bon Jovi, a canon of rebellious songs, and a bevy of heavy ’70s and ’80s arena-rock influences, Bryant is an unabashed rock & roll dude, and his band the Shakedown echoes that attitude. Shoot, his Shakedown guitar foil is Graham Whitford, son of Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford.

The 22-year old Bryant is currently supporting the Shakedown’s debut album, Wild Child [Carved], delivering on the title’s promise. The revved-up slide stroke that kick-starts the leadoff track, “Fools Gold,” roars with a massive, Joe Perry-style tone that sounds like the start of a drag race. Bryant played a Gibson Firebird on that tune in honor of Johnny Winter, rather than the SG Junior he typically uses for slide. For everything else, however, he sticks to Fender Stratocasters—the guitars he’s been obsessed with from the beginning.

How is it that you were given a 1960 Stratocaster by former Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson?

I was 13 years old and playing at a cowboy bar in Dallas, opening for Dwight Yoakam. A big guy sitting up front that I didn’t recognize seemed to be the only person paying attention to my set. I played to him for most of the show and afterward he asked me about my dream guitar. I told him it was a ’60 Strat, but it would cost at least $25,000 to buy one. A few days later a 1960 Strat arrived along with a note that said, “Play the hell out of this, from Don.” That changed my life.

At that age, how did you know to go for such a primo vintage instrument?

I was at the Dallas International Guitar Festival a year earlier, where I heard Texas legend Alan Haynes. He became a favorite immediately because his playing was like butter—silky smooth and so tasteful. He played with his fingers a lot, and at times he’d make his guitar sound like a voice, and then a piano or a harmonica. He didn’t use any effects pedals. He just plugged a 1960 Fender Stratocaster straight into a Fender Vibro-King.

I had to hear him play again, but I forgot his name. I knew he played on 6th Street in Austin a lot, so I asked my dad to drive me up and down the street in his truck with the windows open until I heard him. When we found him, they wouldn’t let me into the club, but Alan saw me standing outside. He had a really long cable, and when he walked outside to play for me, I was blown away.

I wanted that same guitar to get a tone exactly like his—though, of course, 95 percent of tone comes from the player’s hands. The first time I picked up that vintage Strat I realized it didn’t play as easily as a new one. I had to work at it. But it’s all about the vibe, and I gigged with it forever. Still, that guitar had already seen more stages than I’ll see in the next ten years. It had inspiring stories to tell, and I wanted to pull them all out.

Some of the songs on Wild Child were previously released on EPs, but they were all freshly recorded, correct?

Yes.

Both recordings of “Say a Prayer” have similar melodic solos and groovy fuzz tones. How did you arrive there?

“Say a Prayer” contains one of the few solos that I wrote out. I improvise the majority of my solos until I get one I like. I actually played a lot of the solos on the new record live in the main room with the band because we wanted a group sound. But I had worked out that “Say a Prayer” solo when we were recording the From the Sandcastle EP in my basement. I tried rewriting it with a different approach, but it was ingrained in my head. I only changed a few notes.

The tonal difference is in the fuzz. I used a Z.Vex Mastotron on the older version, and a Black Arts Toneworks Pharaoh on the newer one. The Pharoah is cool because you can switch from germanium to silicon transistors, or use them both simultaneously. That pedal is all over the new record, including the rhythm guitar parts on “Say a Prayer.” I used Scott McKeon’s new SM Fuzz for the solo on that song, as well as for lots of other stuff.

What was your main amp on Wild Child?

It was a 1967 Fender Princeton Reverb with an incredible-sounding spring reverb. I loaded it with a 12" Eminence Redcoat speaker. To make Wild Child I set the volume and tone controls at about 6 or so on the first day and just left them there. I also had a Fender ’59 Bassman LTD reissue running simultaneously. I used one or the other, or both at the same time, like on the beginning of “House That Jack Built.” The SM Fuzz was a big tonal factor on that tune as well. When we play live I use two Bassman reissues.

What’s your go-to guitar these days?

Once I got a chance to work with Fender, I asked them to replicate my precious ’60 Strat so I could leave it at home. They copied it perfectly, and created a Relic Strat that’s become my favorite guitar in the world. Because it’s so comfortable, I use it onstage and in the studio for pretty much everything that doesn’t call for slide. It’ll do anything. I call it “Pinky” because I had them paint it Shell Pink, which is a color from back in the ’60s. I’m a huge Elvis fan, so I wanted something like a pink Cadillac. I figured that would get people’s attention.

Do you have any stories to share about it?

When we played with Aerosmith in New York City, Steven Tyler scratched, “Pink, it’s like red but not quite,” into the back. I scratched lyric cues to “In the Midnight Hour,” including “twinkle in your eye” and “tumblin’ down,” along the top so I could remember them when we had the opportunity to play it for Steve Cropper’s induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. And I had Alan Haynes sign the back of the headstock because he had inspired me to get a Stratocaster. [Note: The Shakedown’s gear, including Pinky, was stolen after a gig in Spokane Valley, Washington, during the first weekend of February 2013.]

 
The Shakedown (left to right)—Guitarist Graham Whitford, bassist Noah Denny, Bryant, and drummer Caleb Crosby.
What guitars were you digging before you heard Haynes?

I was into Gibson Les Pauls early on. When I would play a Stratocaster, I would always inadvertently hit the pickup selector switch and get distracted. But when I heard Alan use his 5-way switch as a method of expression, almost like a wah, I knew I had to get a Strat.

I’ve gotten into the habit of changing pickups every 15 or 20 seconds as I’m strumming. I mainly flip between the neck and bridge pickups to get that wah-like effect. I’ve also learned how to use the volume and tone knobs for expression. That’s where Jeff Beck is king. He uses every bit of his guitar. Oh, and I actually used a Jeff Beck Signature Strat for one solo—on “Cold Heart”— when I had a “wannabe Jeff Beck moment.” You can hear me changing pickups on that solo as well.

Would it be accurate to say you essentially play traditional styles with a ferocious attitude and conviction that sets you apart?

My main thing is finding the right attitude. I’m not the most technical player. I don’t know any scales. I don’t know the names of half of the chords I play. I just know what moves me, and I try to move people with the notes that I choose. Oftentimes they just kind of happen.

Who have you been listening to lately, and where do you see yourself headed as a guitar player?

I’ve been listening to Mike Campbell a lot, because his playing is so melodic and musical. Right now my focus is not to be the best guitar shredder in the world, it’s to play memorable solos that make people feel excited. This record is all about the songs and the vibe of the band. One day I would love to make an instrumental record, or an acoustic record. I played solo acoustic every night on tour when I opened for Jeff, so that brought something else out of me. I wrote songs on that tour no one has heard yet, so stay tuned.

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