GIVEN DAVID GRISSOM’S STINTS WITH JOE ELY, John Mellencamp, and the Allman Brothers, his years of session work, and his role as musical director with the Dixie Chicks, it’s no surprise that he knows a few things about making music that can stand the test of time. Grissom’s latest release, 10,000 Feet [Wide Lode], is testimony to the Austin guitarist’s dedication to the pursuit of excellence in his solo work—something that has been pushed to the forefront of his career thanks to his recent decision to scrap a publishing deal he has had for the past seven years. “Dropping my publishing deal was kind of a pivotal thing for me to do,” Grissom explains. “But a lot of the writing I had been doing during that period was co-writing with other people who had publishing deals. And what I saw when I looked back at my catalog were a lot of songs that I wouldn’t put on my records. We were implicitly writing songs for someone else to cut, and when I took that out of the equation, I felt like I started writing better songs.”
How has session work contributed to your ability to make the kind of record you want?
I’ve had the opportunity to learn so much about making records with different people— and not only about their recording techniques, but also about arranging and knowing when you’ve got the right take. Every time I do a session in Nashville, which is where I’m doing most of my studio work these days, I take note of what the engineer is putting on every instrument, and how all the parts are fitting together. It’s like going to recording school and getting paid for it. There’s also a great engineer and producer here in Austin that I’ve pestered to the point where I’m glad he still picks up the phone when I call. He knows a lot about vintage recording gear, and has been instrumental in helping me get a good collection of vintage mics and preamps. It’s one of the reasons why I got way better sounds on this record than I did on the last one.
Would you prefer using all vintage gear in your studio?
Everybody knows that tape sounds better, but guess what? It’s too expensive and too much trouble, and I’m not going to go out and buy a tape deck. So I just try to get sounds into my computer in the juiciest, warmest way possible by using tube mics and vintage preamps and compressors. In fact, I no longer even have a console, as I mix everything on the computer. I started recording on Digital Performer because there were a couple of guys in Austin who had it, and I’ve stuck with it. One thing I really like about Digital Performer is that it provides automatic compensation for the delay that you encounter with some plug-ins—such as the Universal Audio ones that I use. I can’t deal with latency issues; it’s mindboggling to me.
Your PRS DGT signature model obviously saw a lot of action on the new record. Can you tell us what you did to make it your optimal guitar?
I wanted to take the best of all the PRS guitars I’ve owned over the years, and instill even more vintage vibe into them. To do that, we measured the neck shapes on my two favorites—an ’87 Gold Top Custom and a ’93 McCarty—and sort of interpolated between them to come up with the perfect shape for my hands. Then we added a nitrolacquer top coat, which was an important part of the equation because that’s what was used on all the great guitars from the ’50s and ’60s. Nitro formulas have changed a lot over the years, though, and it took us a long time to come up with the right formulation that was hard enough to be a true nitro lacquer, but would not check or crack.
The other big thing was getting the pickups right. The benchmark was my ’59 ES-335, which has the best sounding PAFs I’ve ever heard. Having owned five or six PAF-equipped Gibsons, I can tell you there’s a world of difference between them in terms of output strength and high-end response. So we literally spent a year and a half testing pickups for this guitar. This time, however, we used a system developed by a guy who works on my guitars named Ed Reynolds. He built a test guitar that had terminals on the top of the body, and we would put the pickups in these special rings he designed, which slid into the top of the guitar. It was a 15-second operation to pull out one set and put in another. So we sort of eliminated the time variable where your ears can play tricks on you. We found that a difference of 100 turns in 6,000 to 7,000 turns of wire made a difference we could hear. The bar-magnet material, the polepiece material, and whether the coils were potted with wax or with paraffin also made a difference. Eventually we nailed the formula, and after having played the guitar for a year and a half, I’m really confident that we did nail it. Paul [Smith] has sent me pickups that are variations on the original theme, and I always go back to the first versions that we landed on.
With all the emphasis placed on gear, how much of your tone do you think is really just in your hands?
I think almost all your tone is in your hands. Sometimes when I do a clinic, I’ll walk around playing my guitar acoustically to let people hear what it sounds like. It’s pretty eye opening for people to hear acoustically a lot of the things they’re used to hearing when I’m playing through an amp. I also find that when I’m playing a certain guitar or a certain amp, I will adjust my playing to compensate if there’s something in the sound that’s bothering me. Ultimately, I’m trying to get to where I’m not thinking about any of that stuff, and that’s where the right equipment can make a difference. So, if you give me a silverface Twin and a Klon Centaur pedal, I can play and you’ll know it’s me, but it won’t be as satisfying an experience for me as it would be if I were playing a Marshall plexi or a tweed Deluxe that has some natural overdrive and harmonic content.
What’s your take on heavy versus light strings in the tonal equation?
I’ve found that the heavier strings drive the wood better—especially on guitars with a tremolo. When the vibrations travel to the springs, it creates liveliness in the tone that I really like. Another thing we did on the DGT was to use the Dunlop 6100 frets that I’d put on all my McCartys. They’re a little bigger that the stock frets PRS uses, and the reason I like them is because they allow me to use a slightly bigger string gauge and still be able to bend the strings as if they were lighter. I use a .011-.049 set on my electrics, which feels like a .010 set on a guitar with medium to small frets.
What do you listen for when choosing an amplifier?
I’m looking for an organic magic that is just in the amp no matter where you put the knobs. I can usually tell in about five seconds if I’m going to like an amplifier, and nine times out of ten, if I don’t like it, it’s because there’s not enough bottom end or the treble control is in the wrong frequency range—meaning I can’t turn it up without it hurting my ears, and when I turn it down, it’s too dark. That’ll wipe an amp off my radar in a heartbeat. I’ve also never had luck with amps that have multiple channels— I always find that the clean channel is too clean and the distortion channel is too dirty.
What amps did you use on the new album?
The first two songs were tracked with an Austin Tone Lab head, and the instrumentals I did with a 1971 Park 75. For the remainder of the songs I used a combination of a’65 Vox AC30, a ’59 Fender Deluxe, and a ’64 Fender Vibroverb. I used a Fulltone Fat Boost pedal in order to keep the inherent sound of the amps, but just hit them a little harder, and for some of the high-gain sounds I used a Fulltone Full-Drive 2.
When you do session work, do you find that people mainly want your signature overdrive sound?
That happens sometimes, but I actually use effects a lot when I do sessions, the main one being delay, because it adds a certain dimension to the sound. A lot of people think that delay moves your sound to the background, but that’s not necessarily true—it can also help separate your sound if a bunch of keyboards are going on or there’s another guitar player. I use several different delays. On my main board that I keep in Austin, I have a Line 6 DL4, and on the little briefcase sized board I fly with, I have a Boss DD-3 that I’ve been using forever. On the board I keep in Nashville, I have a Boss DD-5, which I like because it has a tap-tempo input that allows me to sync it up and set it to dotted eights or whatever.
How much study time do you put in when auditioning for an artist who has a lot of recorded material?
With most gigs, I try to learn as much of the artist’s material as possible—including beyond what I think I’ll need to know at the first rehearsals. Songs are always added or dropped at the last minute, so it pays to be prepared. But sometimes you don’t have that luxury. In 1993, I was asked to do a threeweek stint with the Allman Brothers with one day’s notice. So I just winged it, and it was an amazingly wonderful time.