REGARDLESS OF HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT COUNTRY MUSIC, there is no denying both the classic and modern varieties offer gobs of great guitar playing—live and on record. Even the corniest tune can cause a 6-string lover’s ears to perk up when somebody starts whipping off breakneck flurries of cleanly picked notes. Country has a tradition of singing stars that double as master guitarists, from Roy Clark, Glen Campbell, and Jerry Reed, up through Vince Gill and Brad Paisley—and, yes, you can count Keith Urban in that company. Don’t let the movie star looks and Behind the Music/People magazine stories fool you: Urban can hang with the guitar-slinging big boys.
Nashville resident Keith Lionel Urban was born in New Zealand in 1967. When he was two, his family moved to Australia, where he grew up around Brisbane. “It’s a lot like Nashville,” he recalls. “It’s a town that became a city but is really still a town.” The guitar bug bit early, so Urban’s father let a local guitar teacher place a flyer in the family shop window in exchange for lessons for young Keith. Urban was already singing and playing guitar for talent shows when he was eight years old. By the age of 24, he had an album out under his own name that charted four tunes “down under.”
Moving to Nashville in 1992, the aspiring country star formed a band called the Ranch. Their 1997 self-titled release charted some singles, but more important to guitar lovers it contained “Clutterbilly,” a killer chicken-pickin’, twang-meets-rock raveup with touches of funky wah-wah, and a blues shuffle section featuring a harmonized twin-guitar lead. This smorgasbord of styles foreshadowed Urban’s willingness to mix genres—a trait that would help define his place in country music. The record also introduced Nashville to the Australian’s instrumental talents. Though Urban calls the rumors he spent time as a session player after leaving the Ranch untrue, he nevertheless began getting calls from high-profile artists like Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks, wanting him to add his brand of guitar excitement to their projects. A scorching solo and outro on the 2013 Tim McGraw/ Taylor Swift single “Highway Don’t Care” shows he still enjoys doing some fancy picking for others.
Signed to Capitol Records for his solo career, his 1999 eponymous American release launched four hits, though the guitar-centric instrumental “Rollercoaster,” another train-beat-driven instrumental hoedown, with more dabs of atmospheric wah-wah, was not one of them. At the other end of the spectrum, the first single off Keith Urban, “It’s a Love Thing,” rested on a hip-hop-styled drum loop that served notice this Nashville newcomer was going to drag country music into the 21st century—like it or not. That same tune contains a concise solo by turns funky, melodic, and raunchy. For the more countrified solo on “I Wanna Be Your Everything,” Urban turned in the kind of clean, compressed, double-stop gem for which other artists would have to hire Brent Mason.
2002’s Golden Road largely mines Eaglesish pop-country territory (another act that sprinkles serious guitar chops into irresistible songs), and its first single, “Somebody Like You,” has been called the biggest country hit of the millennium’s first decade. That tune was no doubt helped along by another brief but head-turning solo by Mr. Urban—one which combines chiming open strings, funky rhythms, and screaming Skynyrd-style Strat tones. And, how can you not love a guy who starts the record’s second song by audibly de-tuning his low E string directly to D before launching into the intro—a stunt he pulls off live. The album’s Grammy-winning “You’ll Think of Me” offers a lesson in layering gorgeous guitar tones, while Urban’s tasteful outro recalls his first famous guitar hero, Mark Knopfler. The Stones-y “You Look Good in My Shirt” usually gets an extended workout live, during which Urban takes off his guitar (rather than his shirt) and gives it to a fan, complete with a special Planet Waves strap that says, “I went to a Keith Urban show, and all I got was this lousy guitar!”
Urban’s solo on “Better Life,” from 2004’s Be Here, offers guitar fans a fine example of what had by then become Urban’s signature: syncopated country meets rock. The record also exhibits some rapid-fire pull-off-to- open-string work on “You’re My Better Half” and “Nobody Drinks Alone.” At this point, the Aussie axe-slinger had fully synthesized a recognizable style based on traditional twang seamlessly blended with classic rock attitude and tone.
2006 saw the release of Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing, with its introduction of some Edge-style timed delay to the rhythm parts (“Once in a Lifetime”), as well as longer, more anthemic soloing (“I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Stupid Boy”). That year also saw him get hitched to some actress named Nicole.
For a treat, go to YouTube and check out Urban and John Mayer dueling on CMT Crossroads. They really go at it on “Sweet Thing,” the number one single from Urban’s 2009 record Defying Gravity. “’Til Summer Comes Around,” from the same release, serves up a Knopfler-esque Strat solo. “I gravitate towards people like Knopfler,” says Urban. “Though maybe I gravitate towards them because that is the way I like to play, as well. I like the lyrical, melodic players— guys who play to support the song, nothing more, nothing less.”
The solo on “You Gonna Fly” from 2010’s Get Closer shows Urban still embracing his twang roots with a clean Tele tone that would make Vince Gill proud. Elsewhere on the record he gets all Gilmourish on “All For You,” and bases “Long Hot Summer” on an Andy Summers-style riff.
Urban’s latest, Fuse [Capitol], is in some ways the logical extension of his historical, well, fusing, of musical styles. Rhythmic loops and modern studio effects like stutter- chopping and radical EQing of instruments loom large on tracks that follow the current pop trend of being the product of multiple producers. The record is held together by Urban’s believable vocals, still burning—if shorter and fewer—solos, and love of 6-string banjo. Wah-wah returns, front and center, after a long absence for the badass solo and outro on the opener “Somewhere in My Car,” but guitar-wise Fuse is largely defined by cool ear candy parts that quickly appear and disappear.
Running through all Urban’s records and live performances is a focus on the sound of the instrument, which never fails to come through thanks to the guitarist’s habit of going easy on the gain. Various compressors, overdrives, and effects are shuffled in and out of the effects chain; amps change from record to record and tour to tour; but it all starts with his fingers and a go-for-the- throat attack that sets him apart from the other country picker/superstars.
What was your first guitar?
It was a Suzuki 3/4-size acoustic nylon string I got when I was six. First my dad gave me a ukulele when I was four. I could strum it in time with songs on the radio, so he said, “If he’s got rhythm, maybe we can get him to learn some chords.” Rhythm is the one thing you just can’t teach. When I was six they got me a guitar teacher and I took to it immediately.
Who inspired you when you began to play?
At first it was the local guys—they never get any props. If you are from any little town anywhere it is often some guy playing up the street in a local cover band that makes you wish you could play that well. Later I started learning all of the guitar solos off the radio, but I didn’t pay any attention to who was playing them. I wasn’t scouring credits at eight or nine years of age. When I was about 15, a friend turned me on to Mark Knopfler. He was the first guy that I could put a name, a style, and a sound to. I was hearing a lot of pop music, mainly British, as well as the country music from my dad’s record collection. His records got me into country.
Why do you think country is so popular in Australia?
It is a massive, rural country, with a rural lifestyle, and lots of stories about the outback. I think there is kindred spirit with American country music, with all its songs about community.
Where did you pick up the hot country licks you play on some of your earlier records?
Some of it came from Reg Grant, who was one of those local guys I was talking about. In the mid-’80s a friend turned me on to Ricky Skaggs, and his records became the ones I learned from. They featured a bit of Albert Lee, but Ray Flacke was the guy I started copying completely.
Did you start by playing country music in bars?
When I was eight or nine my mom took me to compete in talent quests. I would often do a country song of some sort, whether by Charlie Pride, Glen Campbell, or Dolly Parton. I joined my first band when I was 12. It was a mix of country and some other covers. By 15, I had quit school and was playing in a band doing five nights a week, four hours a night, of everything. We would do an Alabama song, a song by the Clash, then a Janie Fricke song, and one by Pat Benatar—we had a girl singer, as well.
Were these gigs in the Australian equivalent of honky tonks?
Yeah, they were very small, rough places—probably like the Texas circuit and places like that. People would let you know if you sucked. My crossroads came when I was about 17. I had been devouring these Skaggs records but I was also in this heavy rock phase. This band called Fractured Mirror asked me to join them. They played heavy metal: Scorpions, Black Sabbath, and Whitesnake. It was crazy. I had no business being there, but I was in a phase where I just wanted to rock out. The lead singer had been the guitar player, and he had a Marshall stack, but he just wanted to sing so he gave it to me. I was thrilled. I ripped out the single-coil in my Stratocaster, put in a humbucker, and off I went! And yet, I am so into these Ray Flacke solos that when we’d go into “Blackout” by Scorpions, I would put some chicken-pickin’ in there. Eventually, the band is like, “Dude you are fired.” They fired me for playing too clean through a Marshall. When I look back I realize that was pivotal for me. Am I a rock guy or a country guy?
You seem to have worked it out somehow.
Somehow I did, yeah [laughs].
Was it hard breaking into Nashville?
I just didn’t fit in here in the ’90s: I didn’t look like anybody, I didn’t sound like anybody, and, of course, being from Australia I didn’t talk like anybody else. Our live shows had a whole lot of sweaty attitude, which was not the style at the time. I had to try to fit in but not lose myself.
How do you decide what to play on your records and what to have others play? And how do you decide what other guitarists to use?
I always play the solos. I like playing with other guys for the textures. I don’t believe in this jack-of-all-trades bulls**t. Each guitarist has a particular thing they do that sets them apart from everybody else. Someone like Dan Huff’s got this wrist for rhythm and a pocket like nobody else, and when I need that I call him. His playing complements mine. Jay Joyce is a mad scientist. He is fearless with effects, and I really wanted to work with him on Fuse.
How do you choose guitarists for your live band?
I have had the same band for years. I got to the point where I realized I often prefer keyboards played by a guitarist. I thought I would get several guitarists and we would all play different instruments, but we will play them like guitar players. I like the way guitar players approach things, the way a guitarist plays keyboards, mandolin, or banjo is different than the way people who usually play them might.
Do you think guitarists play less?
That is certainly true for me. I am not a very good pianist, so I can’t play fancy, and I think the minimalism works to my advantage. Ignorance really is bliss [laughs].
Speaking of banjo, don’t you and your guys actually play 6-string banjitars?
Right—or ganjos, as they call them in Nashville. I play a 6-string banjo.
Why that instead of a regular banjo?
There is the register—you don’t get the low E- and A-string notes on a regular banjo. I think it is a tougher, bolder sound, which I find works better with a strong rhythmic foundation. I also play it because I am just too stupid to play a 5-string banjo. The tuning key is halfway up the neck—what the hell is going on here? Seriously, though, in 1995 I was making a record with a band I was in called the Ranch, and we had a song I wanted banjo on. A banjo player came in, but even though I knew exactly what I wanted, I couldn’t translate it to him. I remember that day going, “If they ever made a 6-string banjo I’d be in heaven.” I walked into Corner Music here in Nashville, and there was a Deering 6-string banjo. I picked it up, played it, and bought it right on the spot. I went back in the studio the next day, put it on the song, and it brought everything together. I put it on the next song, and then the next, and it has been on my records ever since. It has been a favorite go-to instrument. I have also written with it a lot.
Do you flatpick or fingerpick it?
Both. I use Herco picks flipped over so the grip part rips the string. I use them on guitar as well.
How do you divide up the parts with the other guitarists onstage?
It’s an instinctual thing, saying, “You play that and you play that.” But then we might swap it around. The harder part is figuring out what we have to play off the record, what has to be represented. This is particularly true in large amphitheaters where nuance can get lost and too many parts can actually cloud the music up. You are better off doing broader strokes. I don’t want to get into too many intricately detailed parts you don’t really hear. I try to stick to the things that are important, like instrumental hooks.
Do you hand off some parts you might have played on record to make it easier to sing and perform?
Sometimes I do, but not frequently. Singing while playing is something I have done for a long time, often in a three-piece band where there is no other guitar player.
You bring some serious vintage instruments on the road. Do you ever worry about that?
They are very well taken care of and watched over as far as the security aspect goes. But they are just to be played. There is a story about that. When I came to America in 1989, I went to New York, because I wanted go to the famous Manny’s Music. I was looking for a really nice Telecaster. Fender had just released the 40th Anniversary Tele. I didn’t know anything about it. I just walked in and saw one in a glass case that was lit up like a museum piece. With that tobacco sunburst and the gold hardware, it was love at first sight. It was about $2,500, which was probably three grand more than I had. I said to the guy, “Can I play this guitar.” He is looking me over to see if I had any buttons or buckles—anything that might scratch it. He made me take my jacket and belt off, and then pulled the guitar out. I played it and immediately loved it. I figured out how to borrow enough money from my friends and family to buy it. I took it back to Australia and put it on my first album and then I put it under my bed. I had this cheap Fender Squier Telecaster that I took on the road and toured with. I would come back from the road, pull the Tele out from under the bed and go, “I wish I could play a guitar like this on the road—oh well,” and I would put it back under the bed. After a while I thought, “Why don’t I take it out on the road?—it’s just a guitar.” So I took it out with me and on the first gig my guitar tech knocked it off the stand and put a big chip on the side. I went, “There you go—it’s broken in,” and it became my road guitar for the next 20 years. It got really banged up, but from that experience I learned what they’re for: Just play them.
In the 2008 concert video, you are getting an amazing sound out of a Gibson Melody Maker. Is that the stock pickup?
Yes, it’s a 1963. It had a crazy great pickup and was light as a feather. It drowned in the 2010 Nashville flood and it never came back to life. Some of my guitars came back but that one just sounded waterlogged.
What determines which guitars you take on the tour and which ones stay home?
At the end of the day, I could take one guitar and do the whole show. I choose guitars in general for the touch, the feel, and the tone—and every now and then I will choose one guitar because it is just bizarre looking, like the Musicvox Space Ranger a.k.a. “Shroom.” I do that for the 12-year old kid in the front row, to expand his or her imagination.
You have the amps on stage, but you also use in-ear monitors. Do you hear guitar in your ears or just from the stage?
I have it in my ears, too. Our monitor engineer is superb. He makes the sound in my ears as good as being in the studio. When I have both ear monitors in I can hear the reverbs and delays—it is really beautiful. A lot of it is also screaming back through the wedges to react with the guitars.
So, you are hearing more sound from the wedges than from the onstage amps?
The amps are pretty loud behind me, but they are still a good 20 or 30 feet away. On the tour before the last one I had a high-power 1958 Fender Tweed Twin and a mid- ’60s Vox AC30 Top Boost underneath the stage. They were under the open grid I was standing on and the guitar loved it. For amphitheaters we can’t have a grid, so for this tour they are on stage.
Are you now taking just a Dumble Overdrive Special and the Tweed Twin? Do you have them both on all the time?
I am running just those two in stereo. They have slightly different characteristics, which is what I liked about running the Tweed and the Vox. I hear one in each ear. When I take one ear out to be with the crowd in the space I primarily hear the Twin in my ear, but I still hear a lot of both on stage.
Do you play very loud?
Yeah—I’m always trying to bring the level down for better tone, but somehow it always creeps back up again. Amps like to move a bit of air, so there is a certain volume that they like—especially the Tweed Twin. But I find that the sonic nuance gets lost at a certain point because it is just too f**kin’ loud [laughs]. The subtleties get lost. There is something wonderful about less volume. The tone search never ends. This tour I am running cable again instead of wireless. Being in the smaller amphitheaters there isn’t a humongous stage, so I went back to two very long cables with an A/B box so we can switch out guitars easily. I like the sound much better with the cable.
What do you think you were losing?
Nuance—the edge frequencies. The radio frequency of the wireless has to consolidate the guitar frequencies to transmit the signal. It’s like listening to an mp3. It’s not the full sound. I never really noticed it before. You plug in the wireless and think, “Beautiful, it is all there,” and then you plug in the cable and realize no it isn’t. The better monitoring helps me hear the difference, as do these new sE Electronics Rupert Neve RNR1 microphones we are using on the amps. They brought out far more sonic nuance and the cable really enhances that.
Do you share effects switching duties with your guitar tech Chris Miller?
Chris pretty much does everything. We just started that a little while ago. I liked having a pedalboard out there so I could override something and be in the moment, but I have gotten to the point where I can be in the moment and not have to switch pedals on and off. I can roll the volume or tone off on the guitar, or go to a different pickup—anything to change something. The only thing I don’t have control over is the amount of ambient effects, but Chris knows me so well he knows when to bring them in and out.
Are you using the Fractal Audio Systems Axe-FX II for the ambient effects?
We use it for delays and specific ping-pong delays. There are songs I write, like “Sweet Thing” or “When Summer Comes Around,” that have specific timed delay hooks that are part of the riff, and without them the song doesn’t work.
Is it synched to a click track?
Yeah, but I’ve gotten less interested in all of that. I would rather just have a delay sound that feels right for all the songs regardless of tempo—I’ve become less of a fan of things locked into time.
The guitar solos are pretty short on Fuse. Do you plan to extend them live?
Probably—all the songs tend to get their own treatment in the live setting. On some of them I like the conciseness of it. They’re like the solos on the Cars records: Here’s the solo, done, moving on to the next thing.
Do you find you have to rein in the length of the solos live because you have so many hits to get through?
It’s definitely a Cadillac problem [laughs]. A greater limitation in these outdoor venues is having an 11 o’clock curfew. Where we would normally play for two-and-a-half hours, we have to get it down to less than two hours.
Do you still get to stretch a little bit? And when you do, are you improvising?
Yes, on “Sweet Thing” we do an improvised section at the end, and I don’t know how long it is going to be and I don’t know quite what we are going to play. There are a few songs throughout the show where we are just responding to the night. I need that for my soul, because, like every other big show, we have a certain amount of rehearsed structure—you have to have it. But I need spontaneity, like you have in the clubs, too. I will thread it though the show so every other song will have a moment where I can yell to the band, “Break it down, we are going to take this one for a little ride.” The band is right there with me. If we have prerecorded tracks in that song the drummer shuts them off and we go straight to manual mode from autopilot.
Speaking of spontaneity, what was it like trading licks with John Mayer on CMTCrossroads?
Awesome. He is an incredibly gifted player and he just ups my game. I love the different way we approach things, and playing with him was like having a conversation. Every guitarist knows what that feels like. It doesn’t require any words. You look the other guy right in the eye and you are communicating— and I love that!
Do you get much chance to do it?
I’d like to do more of it. I sat in with Buddy Guy recently and got to sing on his record—that was fantastic. I got to play with Vince Gill at the Crossroads Festival. Everybody brings something different in a collaborative situation.
On record, do you comp your solos or go for a single take?
I have found that all combinations work. On my records I like to respond to the track and let it take me to a place. I will play it a number of times and slowly something will start to form—the way it starts, the way it lands. I think the takeoff and the landing are important, while everything in between is sheer wandering, responding and dancing to the moment.
Do you construct the beginning and ending or do they develop over a number of takes?
Both. With some solos I respond to the track and think, “That’s the one,” and then I think I might still be able to articulate it better, and I do, but the second take just doesn’t move me the way the first one did. In that case, if the first take has a few little mistakes here and there, I will just leave them.
Do you ever miss doing chicken-pickin’ rave-ups like “Clutterbilly” and “Rollercoaster” in the show?
I was just thinking we might put them in at some point, but some of those are hard to translate in an arena or amphitheater setting. Some venues don’t convey that really fast intricate information very well because they are a bit cavernous. Those tunes work better in clubs.
Let’s talk a bit about Fuse. Was that a cocked wah at the beginning of “Even the Stars Fall For U?”
Maybe, I know we did that song many times. I was going for a CBGB, gnarly guitar tone for the rudimentary riff. That song was meant to be a dumbass one-string riff that any idiot could play—that was my intention.
On “Cop Car,” are the bends at the beginning fingers or a Whammy pedal?
All fingers—I don’t have a Whammy.
It sounds like really big intervals.
Did you use lighter strings or just go for it?
It is actually a series of bends. With the right gain you can bend, slide up quickly, bend, slide up quickly, and bend again, hopefully in such a smooth fashion that the slides don’t show.
There are some “glitchy,” stuttering studio effects on the guitar on the record. How are you going to reproduce those live?
Those are the kind of things where you can just run your fingers up the string— do some archaic, caveman, unapologetic other way of doing it. Whenever I try to reproduce an effect on the record I think, “Don’t—because you can’t. What else can you do?” It is like the intro of “Little Bit of Everything,” with the chopped-up ukulele. My guy just has to flatpick it. It is not overly accurate, but it is the best you can do to emulate this studio trickery. I like the idea of a human emulating it, so it is not exactly the same. It’s live.
Do you think being a serious guitarist and musician has kept you grounded through all the star-maker machinery and People magazine aspects of your career?
Yes I do. I think Aussies in general are grounded. Australia is a country that doesn’t tolerate any ego or nonsense. It is a very down-to-earth place where they have what they call the “Tall Poppy Syndrome.” If you get too tall, they will just cut you down, so you never become a tall poppy. Also, being a guitar player means I like playing and collaborating with people, growing and learning and being a part of an ensemble. I don’t need to be the only part.
Keith Urban’s guitar tech Chris Miller serves up the lowdown on the superstar’s super stuff.
Camera Guitar: This guitar started life as a Fender Jim Root model Telecaster. The neck is from an Eric Clapton Signature Strat destroyed in the flood of 2010. The craftsmen at Glaser Instruments cut the channel in the back to install the HD video cable. The cable runs through the body and comes out of an additional jack plate that looks very similar to the regular guitar output.
Reverse Clapton: This was a regular Fender Eric Clapton Signature Strat. At one time Keith was playing three identical Clapton Strats. The Fender Custom Shop provided us with three reverse headstock necks made to Keith’s preference. On this guitar, the neck and middle pickups are Fender ’50s Fat Strat pickups and the bridge is a DiMarzio Area ’67. The Clapton Mid Boost circuit is still operational.
Silver Strat “Stratosphere”: This was acquired before our last tour of Australia. Keith described what he wanted for a new stage guitar. Fender’s Artist Relations rep James Pennebaker was key to making this happen in under a week! The body came from a Fender Robert Cray signature model hardtail Strat, and the neck is from one of Keith’s Fender La Cabronita Tele’s. Glaser Instruments put the pieces together. They made the mirror pickguard and painted the pickup covers to match the body. The pickups are DiMarzios: an Area ’67 in the middle and an Injector bridge pickup. This guitar also has a Clapton Mid Boost.
Fender Pine Tele: Keith received this guitar from Fender as a gift. It, too, has a large neck profile. I believe it is the only Tele that Keith owns with a rosewood fretboard.
Fender ’64 Stratocaster: This is a magical instrument, a textbook example of the way a Strat is supposed to play and feel. He went to a music store in Australia and grabbed it off the wall to try out an amplifier, didn’t like the amp, but left with the guitar. The pickguard has been changed, along with the pickups. It now has DiMarzio Injectors in the neck and bridge and an Area ’67 in the middle.
Fender White La Cabronita: Keith discovered the La Cabronita Teles playing a show with John Mayer and soon started searching out more. He’s very fond of their neck shape and simplicity. They are especially great live. He’d already received a single Filter’Tron model from Fender, so we decided to mod this one. Joe Glaser had an original Gibson mini-humbucker he installed along with a unique pickguard.
Fender La Cabronita Dual: This is the third La Cabronita that Keith acquired. It has been modified by replacing the Filter’Trons with Lollar mini-humbuckers, and installing a Wilkinson tremolo. At one point it became an organ donor: The original neck for this guitar is now on the Stratosphere guitar. It was also given a new custom neck from Fender.
Fender “The Mirror”: Fender’s Master Builder Yuri Shiskov built this amazing guitar. He did the original build and also resurrected it after it went through the flood in 2010.
PRS Mira: Keith requested that I track one of these down after watching a documentary on Jeff Lynne. Winn Krozack at PRS got one to us to try and didn’t get it back. It started out as a metallic blue guitar, but one day in the studio a piece of finish came off, and seeing the natural mahogany underneath, Keith immediately wanted it stripped.
’62 Gibson ES-335: This is another guitar that went through the flood and was able to get a new lease on life. At some point, it had a Bigsby tailpiece, but that’s long gone.
Urban HSN: This is available to purchase on the Home Shopping Network. It comes with a case and a small practice amp. Several were made for this tour and have a special graphic on the back. During the show Keith will go out into the crowd to perform. He spots special fans, takes the guitar off, signs it, and gives it to them.
’57 Gibson Les Paul Junior: This outstanding guitar went thru the flood of 2010, as well. Fortunately, the staff at Glaser Instruments brought it back to full working order.
Maton EBG808: A great live guitar, very stable, and rarely any feedback problems.
Musicvox Space Ranger a.k.a. “Shroom”: Keith actively looks for “fun” guitars to use on stage—something outside of the usual brands.
’59 Fender Tweed Twin-Amp High Power: This makes up half of his tone.
Dumble Overdrive Special: This is the other half of his tone. It used to belong to Tom Verlaine of the band Television.