Guitar Aficionado

Keith Urban: Guitars, Cars & The Whole Crazy Thing

Our Winter 2011 cover story on country star and guitar aficionado, Keith Urban.
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by Chris Gill | Photograph by Clay Patrick McBride

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“They just don’t make cars like this anymore,” Keith Urban says as he pulls his long, black 1956 Continental Mark II out of the parking lot of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. He eases his way around the corner of 4th Avenue and Broadway, passing in front of Gruhn Guitars. The Mark II seems like an unusual statement when you consider that Urban also owns a Bentley Continental GT and an Aston Martin Rapide. But there is a certain distinguished grace and elegance to the Continental that even those luxurious modern engineering marvels can’t match.

“Everything is solid and real on this car,” Urban says. “It’s built to last. Even though it was built in 1956, everything is still tight, and nothing rattles on it. It’s just the best engineering.”
That much is true. The Mark II’s ride is as smooth as the action on a 1957 Les Paul Custom, and its engine propels the mass of steel down West End Avenue with quiet but commanding power. Although the vehicle is a relic from a bygone era when America got more things right than it got wrong—whether it was cars, motorcycles, or electric guitars—it’s also hard to think of a time since when American engineering ever did any of those things better.

Urban’s 1956 Continental Mark II is probably the most appropriate ride for someone who is a big fan of both vintage American automobiles and guitars. The Mark II was the last car design by Detroit legend Ray Dietrich to go into production before he left to work for Gibson and designed the original “reverse” Firebird guitar. Urban didn’t buy the car because of this—in fact, he wasn’t aware of the car’s fascinating guitar-related pedigree prior to this interview. But like so many things in his life and career, it ended up with him because, somehow, in the grand cosmic scheme of things, it just was meant to be.

Urban’s rise to success as one of country music’s biggest stars didn’t happen overnight, but those who understood his unique blend of raw rock energy and traditional country songcraft knew he’d eventually reach the top. Born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, Urban was about as far outside the Nashville scene as one could be when he first landed in the United States in 1989. However, his hard work, formidable guitar skills, and captivating stage presence opened enough doors to convince him to relocate to Nashville permanently in 1992.

For the next three years, Urban worked the Nashville club circuit. He signed a contract with Capitol Records in 1995, but it took the label another four years to release his self-titled U.S. solo debut. In the meantime, he recorded an album with his band, the Ranch, for Warner Elektra Atlantic, toured as a guitarist in Garth Brooks’ band, and recorded “Some Days You Gotta Dance” with the Dixie Chicks. But after four singles from Keith Urban soared up the country charts (including the Number One hit “But for the Grace of God”), Urban’s solo career became his primary focus. His next albums, 2002’s Golden Road and 2004’s Be Here, racked up a string of hits and multi-Platinum sales, and established him as a true country music superstar.

When Urban married actress Nicole Kidman in 2006, he became a household name and a frequent subject for the tabloids. But after conquering a heavily publicized battle with alcohol abuse that landed him in rehab, he emerged refreshingly human and humble, seeming less like a fallen star and more like an old friend who refused to let a few mistakes bring him down. The theme of redemption underlying his 2009 album, Defying Gravity, and the personal nature of several songs on his latest effort, aptly titled Get Closer, exemplify his newfound openness as a performer.
“A recurring subject matter started to come forward in more than a couple of songs,” Urban says, explaining the album’s title. “I didn’t come up with a title for the album first and then write a bunch of songs to fit that; it was a subconscious thing. This time I focused mostly on relationships, which are an endless well of inspiration.”

Driving is another big source of inspiration, Urban reveals as he cruises past his desired turn off of Harding Pike. “I come up with my best ideas when I’m doing activities that I really love and are good for my spirit,” he says. “Driving a car or riding a motorcycle is very meditative. That’s when my best ideas come to me. Sometimes it’s a lyric or a riff. Sometimes it’s a rhythm or groove that I come up with when I’m listening to the radio and I start making up my own thing to it. If I have the music but I don’t have lyrics, I’ll drive around and play the music until the lyrics start coming.”

Urban also feels that each of his guitars has its own musical tales to tell, and it’s just up to him to extract each story from the instruments. Unfortunately, many of Urban’s beloved guitars and their stories were silenced forever when the Cumberland River overflowed in May 2010 and flooded Soundcheck, a Nashville rehearsal studio and storage complex located near the river’s banks, where many artists kept their gear between tours and studio sessions. Dozens of Urban’s electrics and all of his acoustic guitars, including a 1957 Martin D-18, were totaled, but a handful of his favorite electrics survived or were “resurrected” by Joe Glaser of Glaser Instruments.

“I’m deeply indebted to Joe,” Urban says. “The necks warped on a few guitars, and that was the end of them, but most of the necks stayed straight, which is remarkable, considering some of them were submerged in cases full of water for four days. I had completely given up on a few guitars, and he encouraged me to let him take a look at them. He said if I wasn’t too worried about the aesthetics and the plummeting value, he could bring them back to life.”

One sentimental favorite that Glaser rescued was a 40th Anniversary Fender Telecaster that Urban named Clarence. He bought the guitar at Manny’s Music in New York City during his first trip to the United States, in 1989. “Manny’s had it on display in a glass case with a spotlight on it,” he recalls. “It was like aaaah—the Holy Grail. I fell in love with it the second I played it. It cost about $2,500, which was way more money than I had at the time, so I begged and pleaded with various people to scrape up the money to buy it. I kept it under my bed and babied it for years, but eventually I grew tired of touring with my $450 Fender Squier Tele, so I took it on the road with me. At the first gig, it fell off the stand and got a chip in the finish. That was it. I’ve played it live ever since then.”

Urban says he named the guitar Clarence after the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life who shows Jimmy Stewart’s character what life would be like if he wasn’t around. “I feel like Clarence has been an angel in my own life many times,” he says. “That guitar has been beside me at every important event in my career. I later found out that Leo Fender’s first name was also Clarence, so the name seemed even more appropriate. I was devastated when that guitar drowned. Joe put it through this drying process that seems to have pulled a little extra moisture out of the body. It feels a little lighter now and sounds better than it ever has.”

Other guitars that survived the flood include a 1962 Gibson ES-335 and a very early 1952 Gibson Les Paul with diagonal mounting screws on the bridge P-90 pickup, an unbound fingerboard, and no serial number on the headstock. Urban replaced the Les Paul’s floating (and much maligned) trapeze tailpiece with a solid-brass bridge attachment made by Glaser. “Purists may scoff, but I wanted it to be playable,” Urban says. “The original bridge wasn’t right for palming, which is a big part of my style. The brass bridge sustains for days. Even acoustically, you can hear the mojo in it. The only visible damage caused by the flood is some finish flaking and dull spots in the finish that almost look moldy. The neck is still straight, the electronics survived, and it still sounds great. A similar thing happened with the 335—the finish just got dull in a few places, but otherwise it plays great, and the PAF pickups still sound fantastic.”

Urban was among a handful of musicians affected by the flood who had the foresight to properly insure their instruments, so he was fortunate to have ample funds to replace his equipment afterward. “That should have been an exciting opportunity, but at first I didn’t have the heart to do it,” he admits. “It seemed too disrespectful to do it too fast, especially when I didn’t know if some of the guitars that got damaged were going to be salvageable or not. I didn’t want to just race out and get duplicate versions of things I already had. It was a weird feeling. Guitars mean so much to musicians, and we’re responsible for them. They’re like children—they’re fully dependent on us to take care of them, and if we’re negligent in the slightest they can be destroyed in a heartbeat. It’s an awful feeling to think that a guitar has survived for 50-odd years and I drowned the damn thing. Even though it wasn’t my fault that the river flooded, I can’t shake the feeling that this happened on my watch. I went through a period of grief, shame, and guilt. Only another guitar player could understand that. Those guitars were good to me.

“It left me with mixed feelings,” he continues. “Spiritually, I try not to cling to my guitars, but in my human form I really miss them emotionally. I’ve developed a positive attitude about the experience, however: I want to get a T-shirt made that says, ‘Jesus says do not cling to earthly things,’ and on the back it will say, ‘But Jesus never owned a ’57 Strat.’ When I remembered that I’ve made records in the past where I’ve owned nothing, I decided to make the most of the situation. I borrowed some guitars from my tech, Chris Miller, and eventually went out to find some new guitars.”

Some of the new additions to Urban’s guitar family include a well-worn 1964 Fender Stratocaster (“It just sings”), a 1964 Gretsch 6131 Jet Firebird (“Just like the one played by Malcolm Young of AC/DC, who is my all-time favorite rhythm guitar player”), and a 1946 Martin D-28. “After the flood, I realized that I really need a great acoustic,” Urban says. “Andy at Cotten Music called me up and told me that a 1946 D-28 had just come in. I fell in love with it immediately. It turned out to be the most expensive guitar I bought out of all the new ones.”

But Urban’s taste in guitars isn’t limited to the finest and most expensive instruments. “Sometimes I like to go to music stores and look for the ugliest guitar,” he says. “I’ll buy the runt of the litter, even though it may be only a $100 guitar, because I just love the quirky look of it.”

One recent example is the Sixties Wandre BB that Urban purchased a few weeks earlier. “It’s a very voluptuous guitar,” he relates. “I read somewhere that the guy who designed the Wandre was fascinated with Brigitte Bardot, which is why these models are called the BB. When you look at the body, it’s proportioned like a woman’s body, much more than other guitars.”
While Urban has restocked his guitar collection quite considerably, he purchased only a handful of amps—a Dumble Overdrive Special and a Trainwreck—to replace those damaged in the flood. He says that his friend John Mayer facilitated that decision.

“When I played the Crossroads Festival with John, who owns 14 or so Dumbles, I asked how he justified spending so much money on an amp,” Urban says. “He asked, ‘How much is your most expensive guitar?’ I told him. He said, ‘Why wouldn’t you spend a similar amount of money on the amp you’re going to plug all of your expensive guitars into?’ When he put it that way, I realized he was right. I decided that instead of replacing all of my amps, I’d get just a few good ones. I talked him into selling me one of his Dumbles, and I started looking for a Trainwreck, which Brad Paisley is always going on about. I found out about one called Nancy and bought it straight away. You can hear it all over the new album.”

Most collectors would probably be devastated about losing their guitars and amps in a flood, but Urban views the experience as a form of rebirth and resurrection. Having lived through personal struggles and triumphs, he feels fortunate that he’s found success doing the one thing he loves the most—making music.

“I’m overly blessed to be doing what I love,” he says. “I have this intense passion for playing music, and my passion has increased exponentially over the last 10 years. After losing so many guitars in the flood, my love of guitars has come back way more intense than ever before. I can never take any day that I can play guitar for granted. If I’m lucky, I’ll be like Les Paul, playing before people up until the very end.”