Brad Paisley: Modern Country Maverick

In a business that has seen its share of hot pickers since James Burton demonstrated what could be done with a Telecaster so long ago, Brad Paisley stands out.
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In a business that has seen its share of hot pickers since James Burton demonstrated what could be done with a Telecaster so long ago, Brad Paisley stands out.
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In a business that has seen its share of hot pickers since James Burton demonstrated what could be done with a Telecaster so long ago, Brad Paisley stands out. Not only for his prodigious talent as a guitarist—and for the ways he has helped redefine the sound of country—but also for how he has done it on his own terms by not losing sight of one of the most important elements of traditional country: the song.

Paisley’s tunes can range from dead serious to downright hilarious—see the Netflix special Comedy Rodeo for examples of the latter—but if there’s anything he has held onto, it’s the importance of crafting songs he feels are meaningful. On Love and War [Arista Nashville], this is expressed in darker tunes like “The Devil is Alive and Well,” and the title track, which delves into the plight of today’s veterans, and features a cameo performance by one of the most celebrated songwriters to rise during the antiwar movement of the ’60s and ’70s, John Fogerty.

“I knew what I wanted to write as far as the subject, because I had already called the album Love and War in my mind,” says Paisley. “I’d come up with the idea of paying tribute to these veterans that we are neglecting. So I thought, ‘Who better to sing this with than John?’ We were able to make that statement together. I’m representing this generation, and he’s representing the Vietnam generation.”

Even the lighthearted “selfie#theinternet is forever” has undeniable poignancy in the Andriod/iOS era, but Paisley punctuates the subject of people behaving badly with their phones with plenty of scorching guitar. In fact, this album is so awash in badass tones and crazy good playing that it seemed like divine intervention when Fender’s new Brad Paisley Road Worn Telecaster hit my doorstep a few days before this interview. And since this issue also features a review of the new model on p.64, it was mighty convenient to be speaking with the guy who specified what his signature Tele should be.

“When Fender first came to me to do a guitar, I was reluctant, because there have been many things over the years where something didn’t quite go right” says Paisley. “I didn’t want that to happen with something as important to me as a Telecaster. But Fender was great about ensuring that wasn’t going to happen. They said, ‘You can do whatever you want with this guitar,’ and that was very appealing to me.”

However, instead of opting for a super-trick model that would be priced beyond the means of many players, Paisley reached back to his own days as working musician. He wanted to create a guitar that would appeal to those who simply want something that plays and sounds like a great Tele should—skip the icing and keep the cost down.

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“I wanted something an aspiring guitarist down on Broadway in Nashville is playing, or that some kid is taking lessons on,” he explains. “Fender really understood that, and I think it’s what they wanted, too. The Tele was intended by Leo Fender to be a workingman’s tool. As I’ve called it before—it’s a cutting board with a neck. You can literally chop vegetables on it, and go play a gig. I really wanted a guitar you could cherish, but not something that if your kid knocks it over it’s the end of the world.

Is the Road Worn patterned on any particular Tele that you own?

It was Fender’s idea to come out and look at all of my guitars—including a ’63 silver-sparkle Telecaster with a rosewood neck that is all original except the finish. I bought it at Guitar Center in Hollywood, and they didn’t want much for it because it was covered in bar lacquer. Somebody had literally taken that thick clear coating they use for bar tops that you can put playing cards underneath, and they sprinkled a box of gold sparkle powder on it to make it look like a gold sparkle Telecaster. It was one of the most hideous things you’ve ever seen, but I picked it up, and it weighed less than seven pounds, and it also had the original pots and caps and wiring. So I bought it and took it to [custom builder] Bill Crook and had him refinish the body in heavy silver metal flake. And then I put a piece of paisley paper under a see-through pickguard, and stuck it on. The Fender guys saw that one and liked it, and my signature model is a variation of that guitar without the rosewood neck. It has a great pickup, so they duplicated its specs, and the neck is patterned on my ’52 Tele, which has more of a soft-V shape. It’s kind of a hodge-podge of different guitars that I love. The finish is like the one of my ’63, the neck is like my ’52 in terms of feel, and then there’s the body wood, which is a combination of paulownia and spruce.

Why did you choose a combination of paulownia and spruce for the body instead of the traditional ash?

I think the weight is probably a good 60 percent of the sound of an electric guitar. The woods in the body and neck, and the way they pair up—that’s what a Telecaster is. When a Tele is too heavy, it doesn’t feel right to me. So I asked them if they could use paulownia for the body, because I had a guitar made of that wood, and it was really light, and I loved it. Then, they came up with the idea of putting a strip of spruce on it—which is harder. When you think about what spruce does on the top of an acoustic guitar, it makes sense that it would do the same thing when you’re bolting strings and pickups and everything else on it.

Did you play a lot of prototypes before the guitar was how you wanted it?

When they first made a prototype, I was wondering if they’d nail the pickup, or if I would wind up swapping it for one of the boutique pickups I like. We went through many different pickups, and I wound up back with the Fender unit, which was wound just for this guitar. I play this guitar every night on two or three songs, and it’s just stock, but it holds its own with my ’52 Tele—which has the original pickup—as well as with guitars I own that have other cream-of-the-crop boutique pickups. I love that the signature guitar doesn’t cost much more than some of these individual components!

On the amp side, you’ve been working closely with Dr. Z for some time now. How did that happen?

I discovered Dr. Z back when all I was touring with was a Vox AC30, a Telecaster, and a pedalboard. I did a gig where the amp wasn’t sounding quite right, and I was thinking, “This is asking for it. If this amp breaks, I’m screwed.” This was back in ’99, and I went to a place called Black Keys Music in Nashville—it’s not there anymore—and started trying out a bunch of different amplifiers. I finally plugged into a Dr. Z Mazerati and I thought, “There’s something special about this!” So I bought it, and I paired it up with two blond Vox speaker cabinets, and started touring with that rig for a little while, in addition to the AC30. Through the years, I tried all kinds of different models that Z [a.k.a. Mike Zaite] makes, and we became best buddies. One of the most perfect amps he has ever made was the Z-Wreck—a cathode-biased AC30-style platform. I was asking him for certain things, and, at the time, he was also talking to Ken Fischer [of Trainwreck Amplifiers fame]. Ken suggested that he build me this kind of amp and call it a Z-Wreck. And so that was born, and it was a tremendous amplifier.

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Most recently there’s the DB4. What specifically were you looking for with that design?

The DB4 is somewhere between a Bluesbreaker and a black-panel Vox AC30 with the EF86 front end. When it came out, there were guys saying, “Why does he need that?” But the thing is, for a three-dimensional sound, I’ve always paired amps onstage—especially at big venues. I think Joe Bonamassa does that a lot, too.

No amp covers the full sonic spectrum, and you want to use a combination of amps that makes a good soup. For a while I was using a Bluesbreaker with an AC30s, and every time I would do that, I would think, “This is amazing.” So I told Z, “What if we were to build an amp that’s kind of clean sheet of paper thing, where it has a pentode tube in the front-end, and you’re using a bass-rolloff switch to get kind of a set sound. I’ve always loved amps that are real simple like that—like the AC15.” He said, “Well, there’s this tube I’ve been wanting to build an amp with called the 5879.” He said it was like an EF86, but more reliable. So he built this amp called the DB4 that had a five-position rotary switch, and it’s great. It’s thick and it’s loud, and it stays clean just enough. And when you pair it up with a Z-Wreck, it’s ridiculous!

Did you specify the DB4’s Bluesbreaker-sized cabinet?

It was Z’s idea to use a 2x12 oversize Bluesbreaker cabinet. He had it made for something else, and when he stuck the DB4 into it, he called me and said, “You’ve never heard anything like this!”

How did you deploy the DB4 on the new album?

Most of the clean sounds you hear on this record are the DB4—especially when it’s a simple lead line on a Tele. The five-position switch is super handy. When I plug a Tele into it, I use settings four or five, which gives the most bass. With a Les Paul, it’s going to go down to 3, or maybe 2. With a 12-string Rickenbacker, I use position 1. We just mic it up, and it really fills the space.

Were you using a distortion pedal for your solo on “Go to Bed Early”?

Yes, the solo is a Wampler Underdog Overdrive into a Trainwreck Rocket. Wampler doesn’t manufacture the Underdog, but he made me one to try out, and then I had him make me a couple of others. It’s really thick sounding and has a singing quality to it. I’m glad you asked about it because he just bought out a Paisley Drive Deluxe, which is a Paisley Drive and an Underdog in one pedal. It’s great because you can finally get the Underdog, and there’s a switch so you can choose which circuit is first or second in the chain, which is very handy as you can imagine.

How do you typically cast your amp choices in the studio?

I sort of pick amps like you would pick guitars. I go for something consistent, which, for a clean Tele sound, starts with a Boss DD-2 delay pedal. That old 8-bit digital delay has some sort of compression going on that makes it great. Following that, I choose the amp based on what I want that sound to be. I’ve got one of the old Trainwreck Rockets that I used on a couple of songs, and it’s like the ultimate AC30 in some ways. I also have a couple of AC30s from ’62 and ’63, and I’ve found that, compared to a Rocket or a Z-Wreck, the AC30s have a little bit more honk. I don’t know why that is, but it’s there, and I’ll pick one of those amps based on that.

When you hear a dirty part, it’s either one of those amps, or a cranked Trainwreck Liverpool. On “Contact High,” that’s just a Liverpool doing its thing with a Wampler analog delay in front of it. It’s fantastic, and I’m just using the Volume knob on the guitar to make it a little cleaner, or a little dirtier here and there. Sometimes, I’ll put on some background tracks, like a rocking rhythm part or something, and I’ve got a couple of old Marshalls—a ’69 or ’70 Super 100, and a ’68 Super PA, which is as good as any amp ever made. I plug it into a 4x12 open-back cabinet in the studio, and we’ll rattle the walls for the right rhythm part.

Amp-wise, I’ve got a ridiculous collection at this point. I’ve also got a ’62 Vox AC15 that I use when I want to shimmer something with a 12-string. I’ll run a Rickenbacker into a compressor pedal and the AC15. But when I want something well rounded, it’s the DB4. Now, if I was a session player doing a demo project, and they only wanted you to bring one amp, I could bring a DB4, and I’d get all that stuff with it.

What made you gravitate toward British amps in the first place?

You can credit John Jorgensen for that. When I was growing up and finding my way—as all guitar players do—it was like, “Who do you love?” and “What do you want to be?” In the ’80s, I was listening to all this stuff that was going on then, and a lot of it was heavily processed—either a variation of a Fender or a preamp into a board with a chorus pedal. It was a strange time for guitar music. There were a lot of Strats at the time in country music, and I was playing a Strat a lot. But I also had a Tele, and, around that time in the mid to late ’80s, the Desert Rose Band formed, and they had their first few hits. I went, “Oh my god—what is that guitar sound?” And here’s John Jorgensen—who was really ahead of his time—and he played AC30s almost exclusively. He would play his Tele, and then he would switch to a Gretsch, and then a baritone, and then a Rickenbacker 12—all through an AC30. It was all about what that band was supposed to be, which was a combination of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers—the pedigree of Chris Hillman and Herb Peterson.

So I told my dad, “I’ve got to get an AC30 or two.” But in 1990, you couldn’t find one. I mean, I’m a high-school kid searching for AC30s, and people looked at me like I was crazy—especially the guys at my local music store. They’d go, “Why do you want one of those?” I’d say, “Because of John Jorgensen.” Eventually, I bought two AC30s from England, and I had them shipped to Wheeling, West Virginia. The shipping cost as much as the amps, but it was still a pretty good deal at $2,500 for two AC30s. I’d saved up all my money from the gigs I was doing, and I told my dad I’d pay him back for whatever else I needed. He still says I never did, but he’s full of it! So I got my AC30s, and I went to plug them in, but I couldn’t. They had the British plugs on them. I had to wait a whole other day to find a place that would change out the AC plugs.

So it was Jorgensen’s tone that influenced you most?

I loved John’s playing. It took me down this path, and I never turned back. But there’s something magical about an AC30 or a Dr. Z—or some of these other cathode-biased, EL84 amps—which absorbs everything that’s not pleasant about a Telecaster, and hands it back to you full of butter on a platter. That’s what I like about them. And they’ve got guts, too!

James Burton defined classic Telecaster tone decades ago playing through Fender amps, and you’ve helped redefine modern country using a Tele though British amps. Do you think country music has completely morphed into something else now?

It seems like it has in some ways. As you say, it used to be a Tele and a Fender amp—that was country. But you certainly can’t do that now, and we’re stealing from the best. I used to think country would come back to the more traditional thing, and maybe it will, but I think it’s at its best when it’s song-centric. The issue we have is a long discussion, but it has to do with this: The songwriting community is not emboldened anymore, and they’re not making the money they used to, either. Some of these amazing songwriters are struggling, because there’s no money in album cuts now. Unless you have a single, you’re out of luck in terms of making much money. That changes the way you write. It used to be that if you wrote a bunch of really artistic songs, you could get somebody to cut those songs. But now, the incentive is gone to do that, because the mindset is, “Well, that’ll never be a single, so how are you going to live off that?” This has changed everything in our town in some way. I think it will equalize eventually, and come back around, but it’s currently a difficult time to work in Nashville for some people who used to make a lot more money that they do now. My hope for country music is I want people to be true to themselves, and write about things they care about. I don’t care where it goes stylistically, as long as people are saying what they really want to say.

Are you always coming up with song ideas, or do you mainly get down to writing when the next record is due?

I’m always coming up with things. Right now is one of those times when I’m not working on an album—I just released this one and we’re touring it—so I’m good with saving up. What I do is I write down the ideas, or I type them in my phone to make sure I’ve got them. Then, I don’t think about it. I’ve probably got 20 to 30 titles in there right now. Sometimes, I look back and think, “What the hell was that supposed to be?” Other times, I’m pleasantly surprised. If I get a song idea in the middle of an album project, though, I instantly start working on it.

You often work humor into your songs. Does that just come naturally to you?

As long as I can remember, I’ve goofed around like that, but I’m serious with songs, too. It’s a strange sort of yin-yang thing. When I was a kid, the first song I ever wrote was a heartfelt Christmas song that got me on the Wheeling Jamboree [see wheelingjamboree.org for details], which was life changing. The second thing I did was a parody song called “My Teachers Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” which, of course, was just stupid. But the whole sixth grade learned it as a surprise, and we got up and sang it for our teachers at Christmas. So I guess there’s always a part of my mind that thinks that way.

Has the Netflix show Comedy Rodeo been a fun outlet for you in that regard?

Absolutely. I love things like that. My co-writing friends and I write stuff you’d never put on an album, so when I started hosting the standup night at our festival in Nashville, I said, “Look, here’s a chance to do all this.” The song “My First Cousin” would be odd on an album [laughs], but when you hear it in the comedy thing, it’s perfect. However, the “Selfie” song was something we wrote for standup night, and it wound up on the new album. It wasn’t a big a stretch to put it on there, either.

“Drive of Shame” is a cool tune. What was involved in getting Mick Jagger on that one?

It was deceptively easy. Mick has become a friend of mine. I’ve opened for the Stones a few times, and I’ve gotten to know the band. When they played Nashville a couple of years ago, we went out to dinner the night before the show, and Mick was asking some questions about Nashville. I said, “Well, you’ve got to come back and experience it. You can hang out at my farm and spend a week.” I thought he’d never do it, but two or three weeks later, one of his folks called, and said, “Mick wants to take you up on your offer.” Sure enough, we had a week booked with a couple of days of writing, and it was so much fun to work with a guy who is still hungry to write songs and record.

The writing sessions were just like you would think. I had a note pad, a guitar, and an amp, and he brought some gear of his own. He sits down, and goes, “Well, what do you think?” One of the ideas I had was “Drive of Shame,” which is a twist on the song “Walk of Shame.” We hacked through it pretty quickly—although we did get stuck for a while on the name of the perfume. We had our phones out checking brands, and, finally, settled on Obsession.

Was it similarly easy getting John Fogerty on the title track?

It was the same situation. John gets here, and the most mind-blowing moment for me was when we start to write, and he looks at me and says, “How do we do this? I’ve never co-written before.” I asked him if he hadn’t co-written the old stuff with the band, and he said, “Well, to some degree, the guys get credit, but as far as sitting down in a room with someone to write, I’ve never done it.”

Have you heard of the Swamp Box? That’s what he was running his black Les Paul through. It’s that tremolo/vibrato combo box he developed in the ’70s. It’s on “Run Through the Jungle,” and all of that. He brought the original with him, and as soon as he played a note on that song, I’m going, “Oh man, I’ve been drafted.” We also traded solos on the song. John’s a genius.

Did you mostly use your Tele for solos on the record, or were you playing other guitars, too?

The solo on “The Devil is Alive and Well” is my favorite Gibson—a ’59 ES-330 with P90s. I played a Strat on something that you’d think was a Tele, but I can’t remember the tune. Also, when you hear a distortion part in the background—like in a chorus—that’s an Ernie Ball Music Man Axis. I’ve got one with P90s, and one with humbuckers. I’ve also been using a Gibson Firebird with a whammy bar a little bit. If you listen to “Dying to See Her Again,” all the delayed guitar stuff is the Firebird through a delay pedal and the DB4 combo. It’s very ethereal sounding.

You’re covering all the acoustic parts too, right?

Yes. The basis of everything always begins with acoustic guitar, and I’m largely the only acoustic player on my records. I’ll get other guitar players here and there—like Gary Hooker, who plays in my band. I’ll have him play some guitar parts—especially tremolo parts, distortion parts, and tictac parts—but I always handle the acoustic stuff. I love that part of it, because it’s the blanket you’re laying on.

Are you more of a flatpicker on acoustic?

I use less fingers on an acoustic, because I play more bluegrass style with a heavy pick. But I kind of do that based on what I want it to sound like. If you really want to pop it and chicken pick, you’ve got to use the fingers a bit.

What are your favorite acoustic guitars?

I collect dreadnoughts, and my most prized possession—as far as material things go—is my ’38 Martin D-28. It wound up in my hands due to fate. You just can’t explain it otherwise. There’s a strange connection with the man who owned it and my grandfather that I didn’t know about until I bought it, and it has been on every record since This Is Country Music. That’s the first song I wrote on that guitar, and it’s the first song on that album, so when you hear that first open D chord strum, that’s the Martin. I’ve been using that guitar when I host the CMA Awards with Carrie Underwood. It’s my safety blanket. It’s sort of overkill for a comedy monologue, but that ’38 Martin is superstitious to me.

How did your signature Santa Cruz dreadnought come to be?

I discovered Santa Cruz when I started buying boutique instruments. I would go into Artisan Guitars in Franklin, Tennessee, which is a great place to try boutique guitars. They sell Collings and Bourgious, and I think they’re the number-one Santa Cruz dealer in America. I kept trying out dreadnoughts, and, inevitably, I’d wind up back at the Santa Cruz wall. Every one of their guitars spoke to me. Richard Hoover [Santa Cruz Guitar Company founder] has it figured out, and after I’d bought two or three guitars, he asked if I’d like to do a Brad Paisley model that people could buy. I said, “yes,” because you definitely get what you pay for with a Santa Cruz guitar. I don’t think there’s a bad one in existence.

What do you most remember about Glen Campbell?

He was fantastic—a huge influence on me. I think Glen is the reason you have guys like Steve Wariner and Vince Gill, and, therefore, Keith Urban and myself. Those guys really looked up to Glen. He was a monster guitar player, and he played on so many iconic records before he even made any of his own. If you go onto my Instagram page, and go back to around the time he died, I posted a shot of us onstage a few years ago, when he sat in at a concert of mine up in Connecticut. I didn’t get to know him really well, but we got to play together some, and it’s amazing what he brought to our music. And more than that, it’s what he did for Alzheimer’s disease. I think he did the right thing by performing with it. I went to see one of those shows in California, and what a night. He couldn’t remember what the next song was—or even if he’d already played it—but as soon as the song started, he was Glen Campbell. And he was happy. It’s an amazing thing they did by showing what’s capable for someone like that. He raised more awareness for that disease than anybody in a long time.

You’re a solid promoter of guitar playing though your music, your involvement in signature models, and also the way you hand out guitars in concerts. What makes you optimistic about the future of the instrument?

I love the idea that there are enough things out there for people to customize what they want to be as players. That’s always what appealed to me, and it’s what’s fun about the guitar. This is a paintbrush on a canvas. What do you want your style to be? That’s why I enjoy handing guitars out at concerts. Fender has been really generous in providing me with guitars to give away, and there’s no greater thrill than looking down and seeing a kid in the front row who is eight years old, or a teenager, and to be able to give them a guitar. That guitar could literally change who they are.

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