Guitar Aficionado

Vince Gill Reveals His Timeless Tools of the Trade

The country performer's vintage guitar collection may be small, but everything in it is nice.

This is a feature from the May/June 2017 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features from our Country Music Special Issue, including an interview with country music legend Vince Gill and top-flight picker Brent Mason, the opening of the new Songbirds Guitar Museum in Chattanooga, plus the guitar design innovations of late jazz giant Tal Farlow, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking here.

Vince Gill with his 1942 Martin D-28 herringbone.

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GUITAR SLINGER: The tools of the trade for country legend Vince Gill are as classic and timeless as his music.

By Alan di Perna | Photos by Jeff Fasano
Grooming by Debra Wingo for Salon Wingo

Vince Gill’s musical output has been both prolific and diverse. He can break your heart with a mournful country ballad like 2013’s “Sad One Comin’ On,” or knock you out cold with bursts of breakneck guitar picking like the 2011 tour de force “Guitar Slinger.” While firmly anchored in country’s rich legacy of song, Gill has been especially adept at finding the common thread that links many styles of American roots music.

“My career has been all over the map,” he acknowledges. “It’s been real traditional country; it’s been real pop. It still rocks pretty good; it’s bluesy—all these things. I never wanted to do just one thing over and over.”

Since emerging in the mid Eighties as a country crossover hit maker, he has released a string of impeccable solo albums that showcase his sterling songcraft, his high, lonesome, Orbison-esque tenor voice, and his formidable six-string prowess. But Gill has also found time for side projects like 2013’s Bakersfield, a collection of rousing, honky-tonk renditions of 10 classics by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard that Gill recorded with steel-guitar ace Paul Franklin.

“I feel a real commitment to traditional country music because I think it’s waning from popularity and people don’t hear it so much anymore,” Gill says. “So I want to stick up for it. There will always be an element in me that wants to be reverent toward great traditional music. People don’t realize how soulful country music can be. It can be just as soulful as Ray Charles.”

In that same spirit, another of Gill’s side projects is the Time Jumpers, an all-star coterie of Nashville players devoted to western swing and kindred styles, which Gill joined in 2010. In fact, he recently bagged the 21st Grammy of his career for writing the title track to the Time Jumpers’ third album, 2016’s Kid Sister. Voted Best American Roots Song, “Kid Sister” pays homage to Time Jumpers singer and longtime Gill backing vocalist Dawn Sears, who died of lung cancer in 2014. Much of Gill’s work has taken an elegiac tone of late. The aforementioned “Sad One Comin’ On,” from his most recent solo album, Down to My Last Bad Habit, is a mournful country ballad occasioned by the death of Gill’s good friend, country legend George Jones.

“I think ballads are mainly what I do best,” Gill reflects. “I grow weary of a lot of hot-shot playing. I love the melancholy side of music. A great ballad is where a vocalist really gets to soar. And a player, too. I find that emotional playing is more interesting than fast playing. The older I get, the more I kind of point there.”

Still, when the time comes to whip out some stunning, lightning-fast riffage, “yeah, I’m ready,” Gill says with a laugh. And he’s certainly got the guitars to suit whatever musical mood strikes him. Comprised of some 150 instruments, his collection is very much a set of working guitarist’s instruments. Ever since the Tennessee floods of 2010, which claimed a number of Gill’s beloved guitars that he kept at Nashville’s Soundcheck storage facility, much of the collection now resides in his Nashville home.

“I have a studio in my house,” he says. “I like to have a nice array of different guitars available, because I always want different tones for whatever I’m recording. I’ve never bought anything that didn’t feel good or sound good for me. I never tried to acquire a massive collection just for the sake of having a massive collection. Even though this collection is small compared to some of the others traveling around the world, everything I have is quite nice—not a lot of dogs. Even in the vintage market, just because a guitar is old, that doesn’t always mean it’s great.”

Gill grew up in a guitar-centric environment, which ended up shaping his destiny. “My father played a little bit, and he had an old Harmony, a Gibson ES-125, and a banjo, too,” Gill recounts. “Those are the first instruments I remember being around as a little kid. My dad also had a little tenor guitar, which was like an ES-125 as well. It only had four strings on it, so it was easy for my little hands to make chords on it. That’s where I got going, until my hand got big enough to play all six strings. When I was 10, my father and mother got me for Christmas—in 1967, I think—a red Gibson ES-335 and a Fender Super Reverb amp, and I was on my way. I had my own gear and a red coil cord, and I was a force to be reckoned with.”

That guitar, which now resides in the Country Music Hall of Fame, served Gill well in many teenage rock bands. But by the time of his sophomore year in high school, he’d become obsessed with bluegrass music. Shortly after graduating, he acquired a guitar that is still one of the cornerstones of his collection: a 1942 Martin D-28 herringbone in mint condition.

“It cost $2,500 in 1975, which was a lot of money,” he recalls. “I traded in a newer Martin I had, a ’71 D-41, plus $1,500, and I got that guitar. That was all the money I had in the world—everything I’d saved for my future.”

With his 1956 Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins.

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The D-28 was with Gill during his early professional bluegrass tenures with Ricky Skaggs’ Boone Creek and Byron Berline’s Sundance, a journey that also took him from Oklahoma, where he was born, to Louisville and Los Angeles. Martin guitars have become something of an obsession for Gill, who currently owns some 50 of them. Among them are a 1928 000-45 and a pair of 1936 000-28s, including one in a rare shade-top (sunburst) finish. “I also have two OM-45s, which are extremely rare,” he adds. “Rarer than the D-45. Martin only made 41 of the OM-45s.”

One of these, a 1930 model, was a 50th birthday gift from Gill’s wife, the contemporary Christian singer and guitarist Amy Grant. “She knows what to get,” he says, laughing. “She calls [Nashville vintage dealer] George Gruhn or somebody like that and says, ‘What doesn’t he have that he really likes? What’s the nicest thing you’ve got?’”

Gill’s 1936 000-28 shade-top Martin was also a gift from Grant. He returned the favor by buying her a Gibson Nick Lucas model. “She really likes Gibson guitars,” he says. “This one was built around the same year as her mother was born, so there’s a connection there. I like that kind of thing.”

Many guitars in Gill’s collection hold a sentimental value for him. He speaks with great fondness of a Martin 00-40 that belonged to Chet Atkins and was given to him shortly after the guitar legend’s passing in 2001. “That one’s real precious to me,” he says. “ I like recording with parlor guitars a lot. You’re going right into a microphone, so they don’t have to be big and loud. I’ve got a lot of 00 and 000 everything.”

Also of great sentimental—not to mention monetary—value is Gill’s 1959 sunburst Gibson Les Paul Standard. “I bought the ’59 Les Paul from my brother-in-law from my first marriage [to country singer Janis Oliver],” he says. “We were great friends, and he owned this great ’59 sunburst since 1959. He’d played it his whole life but got sick a couple of years ago. He called me and said, ‘There’s not much they can do for me. I’m probably not gonna make it. You’ve always been my favorite guitar player. Will you buy my Les Paul?’

“I didn’t have a sunburst Les Paul in my collection, and I previously couldn’t justify the expense because I don’t play a Les Paul that much. But this one came along and I said, ‘There you go.’ I got the one I was supposed to have. My friend played it for 40 years, and now it gets to live on and still make music.”

Another cornerstone instrument that Gill acquired early in his career is a white 1953 Telecaster that has remained his main guitar throughout his career. “I bought it for $450 in 1978 from a guitar trader who had a store in Oklahoma City, and that’s the one guitar I’m most identified with.”

Gill got the Tele right around the same time he joined country rock group the Pure Prairie League toward the end of the Seventies. He recorded three albums with Pure Prairie League between 1979 and 1982 when the band initially broke up, and he sang lead on the band’s biggest hit, “Let Me Love You Tonight.” The 1953 Tele was with Gill when he went solo with his 1984 album, Turn Me Loose. It went on to play an integral role in many of his huge Nineties hits such as “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away,” “One More Last Chance,” “What the Cowgirls Do,” and “You’d Better Think Twice.” The guitar can be seen on the cover of his 2011 Guitar Slinger album and in many other iconic images.

“I have a lot of blackguard Teles,” he says, “and the reason is I’ve been trying for almost 40 years now to find one that reminds me of my white one. But I’ve never found it. I got close, but I can’t find that neck and that sound. There’s just something magical about that guitar. That’s still the one I wind up playing. It’s really got the thing for me.

“For a long time, I took a lot of pride in never selling instruments and only acquiring them. But at one point I finally got to the place where I said ‘Okay, let’s look at this logically. You have more than 40 Telecasters.’ And there are a lot of people now who are making nice instruments. I try to buy their guitars to help them out and get them going. But at the end of the day, they don’t wind up in the everyday arsenal of what I want to play.”

Gill’s collection includes a 1960 Gibson ES-175 (in hands) with a Charlie Christian neck pickup and a rare Thirties Gibson Advanced Jumbo flattop (on chair).

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In comparison, Gill’s Stratocaster collection is fairly modest. “I may have eight or 10 Strats in all,” he says. “All great ones—early Sixties and older. My number one right now is a ’59 Strat with a slab fingerboard—the first year Fender did slab boards. I got it from Duane Eddy’s son. Duane got it new in 1959, but then he decided he was never going to be a Fender player, and he gave it to his son to play. His son played it his whole life, but one day he called me up and said, ‘I need to sell this old Strat.’ I played it, and it’s one of those guitars that you get in your hands and you never forget the sound of it and the way it plays. It trumps all the other Strats I have.”

Gill’s tastes in vintage Fenders are finely honed. “I find what I like are the neck profiles,” he says. “Certain years—’54 through ’57—are a little bigger than I like. I tend to like ’58, ’59 and early ’60s. I’m friends with a lot of great vintage guitar dealers across the country and they know what I like. I’m a pretty easy mark.

“I take all my guitars on the road,” he adds. “I take my ’53 Telecaster, ’59 Strat, and ’59 sunburst Les Paul. I want those great instruments in my hands when I play live—to be able to sound like I want to sound and have a guitar feel to me the way I want it to feel. They’re not doing me much good sitting at home.”

While these valuable instruments have escaped harm on the road, Gill’s collection took a pretty serious hit in the Tennessee floods of 2010, which struck Nashville particularly hard. His lyrical statement in “Guitar Slinger” that “half my stuff’s in the Columbia River” is only a slight exaggeration.

“All told, about 50 guitars were compromised,” he says. “Some could be rescued, although not many. Most were ruined. I lost a guitar used on ‘One More Last Chance’ and a couple of guitars that my friends made for me. Amy gave me a nice, old small-bodied Taylor that I used on a duet I did with her from ’93 called ‘House of Love.’ That one got destroyed. I also lost about 30 old amps and 60 vintage cases. It was a real painful spring-cleaning. But Amy was pretty cool about it. She said, ‘You lost all that stuff, but you can make a living with just one guitar.’”

Not that it’s come to that. Gill’s collection embraces awe-inspiring instruments in just about every category, including mandolins—several of which were made and signed by legendary Gibson designer Lloyd Loar. “I’ve got a couple of Lloyd Loar F-5s,” he says. “I’ve played mandolin my whole life, and I was never able to pull the trigger on buying a Loar. They always went for crazy money, and the crazy money kept getting crazier and crazier. I thought, If I don’t get one of these things now I’m never going to be able to.

“So I finally bit the bullet and got a couple of amazing Loars towards the height of the boom,” he continues. “I’ve also got a Loar quartet collection: the mandocello, the mandola, the F-5, and L-5 [guitar], all signed by Lloyd Loar. There’s only eight of those in existence, because Gibson only made eight mandocellos. So that’s a pretty rare collection.”

More recently, Gill has been acquiring archtop electrics, including a 1960 Gibson ES-175 that he used to contribute western-swing stylings to the Time Jumpers’ Kid Sister album. “It has a Charlie Christian pickup in it,” he adds. “I’ve never seen a 175 like that. That, to me, is the best-sounding pickup for swing and those kinds of things. Even better than a PAF. I saw that on Gruhn’s website. I called George and said, ‘I’ll take that one.’ It’s just the best of all things for that gig.”

So is there anything that Gill is still seeking to add to his collection?

“I’ve pretty much got the basics covered,” he says. “But you never know. If another 335 shows up that’s even better than the one you have, why wouldn’t you want it? That’s what I try to do—find something that’s even better than what I have. Find a great guitar and it gets to live in a studio, get played all the time, and be a part of your musical life. What could be better than that?”

This is a feature from the May/June 2017 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features from our Country Music Special Issue, including an interview with country music legend Vince Gill and top-flight picker Brent Mason, the opening of the new Songbirds Guitar Museum in Chattanooga, plus the guitar design innovations of late jazz giant Tal Farlow, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking here.

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