Big Band Theory: Some might consider four guitarists in one band a few too many, but the trio of supporting guitarists in the Zac Brown Band have figured out the way to make things work.
By Joe Bosso | PHOTO: Eleanor Jane
When any band hits the big time, its success is never about just one thing. In the case of the Atlanta-based Zac Brown Band’s steady ascendance from regional club stars in the mid-2000s to the Grammy-winning international arena fillers they are today, their success can be chalked up to relatable, honest messages, a reputation for serving up thunderous, joyous shows, and a big tent of hook-filled songs that span a wealth of musical styles: bluegrass, Southern rock, traditional and modern country, reggae, and even a smattering of grunge and EDM.
The band’s own tent has grown considerably over the years. What began as a gutsy little four-piece (guitar, bass, drums, and violin) is now a veritable all-star musical army with eight members in all, featuring leader Zac Brown (guitar, lead vocals), Chris Fryar (drums), Jimmy Di Martini (violin, vocals), Matt Mangano (bass), Daniel de los Reyes (percussion), along with a trio of highly skilled multi-taskers: Clay Cook (guitar, keyboards, mandolin, and vocals), Coy Bowles (guitar, keyboards), and founding member John Driskell Hopkins—Hop, for short—who handles guitar, banjo, ukulele, and vocals.
“It’s been a really exciting adventure for all of us,” says Bowles, who put his own group, Coy Bowles and the Fellowship, on hold to join the Zac Brown Band in 2006. “We’ve added percussion, another guitar player, and a bass player, and we’ve swapped some roles here and there. It all grew with the music, and it’s taken place under our very eyes. It’s kind of like watching a girl you’ve been friends with your whole life blossom into this beautiful, talented, and smart woman. That’s kind of a weird analogy, but you know what I mean.”
One of the biggest changes of late to the ever-changing outfit involves the move of Hop from bass to guitar, banjo, and ukulele duties. Although he’s certainly a talented bassist, Hop admits that he only agreed to fill out the rhythm section upon the band’s formation simply because nobody else was available. “It was actually kind of a joke,” he says. “I told Zac, ‘I'll sit in until you find somebody permanent.’ ” Prior to the ZBB, Hop’s only experiences as a bassist were a brief stint in a high school band and a later role as an upright bass player in a theater production.
However, a month into his tenure with the ZBB, Hop felt comfortable enough with the four-string that he told Brown to call off the search for a replacement. “I heard what we were doing, and I thought, ‘We are gonna whoop some ass. I’m not going anywhere!’ ” Hop says. He remained on the bass until 2014, when Brown hired his longtime friend Matt Mangano to fill the slot, allowing Hop to contribute his talents elsewhere.
Before Cook signed on to the ZBB, he had been something of an all-purpose journeyman, playing sax, flute, keyboards, and guitar for the Marshall Tucker Band (his uncle, Doug Cook, is the band’s lead singer) and then performing with artists such as Sugarland and Shawn Mullins. He sharpened his musical skills at the Berklee College of Music, where he befriended a young guitarist from Connecticut named John Mayer.
“John wanted to be the next Stevie Ray Vaughan, and I wanted to be the next Jimmy Vivino—you know, playing guitar in a cool band on TV,” Cook recalls. “We hit it off and found songwriting together—I was getting immersed in James Taylor at that point.” Cook and Mayer formed a short-lived duo, the Lo-Fi Masters, and a few of their co-writes—“No Such Thing,” “Neon,” and “Love Song for No One”—wound up on Mayer’s debut album, Room for Squares.
The idea all along for the ZBB was to pool together the talents of a disparate batch of musicians into a unified team, one in which no member would outshine the other. To that end, Cook, Bowles, and Hop are each uniquely suited. Cook grew up hearing the records by the Marshall Tucker Band (no surprise), and he calls the group’s late guitarist, Toy Caldwell, “his foundation.” By his teens, he gravitated to early Van Halen and the sounds of Seattle. “Pearl Jam was really great,” he enthuses. “They were fresh, but they also had a classic rock and even a Southern rock vibe to me.”
Like Cook, Bowles also dug grunge—he calls Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard his first guitar hero—but most of his musical schooling came by way of classic rock and pop. “The Allman Brothers, Neil Young, and Crosby, Stills and Nash—that came from my dad,” he says. “My mom was more of a Top 40 radio person, so there was always a lot of Hall and Oates, Eddie Money, Bruce Springsteen, and John Mellencamp. She liked some weird Eighties pop, too, Duran Duran and all that.”
For his part, Hop brings a softer side to the ZBB, citing the Indigo Girls as his biggest musical influence. “When I was in high school, that's the music I wanted to write—heartfelt folk singer/songwriter stuff,” he remembers. “The acoustic has always been my first love as far as guitar goes, and it’s the only thing I write music on. A lot of folkier-type stuff calls for capos and alternate tunings, and I’ve always been into that, especially on a baritone acoustic, which really seems to suit my vocal range.”