Keith Urban: The Machines, the Magic, and the Muse

“Make the money, but the money ain’t gonna make me do nothin’ I don’t really want to.”
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“Make the money, but the money ain’t gonna make me do nothin’ I don’t really want to.”

Although he didn’t write them, these words from the song “Worry ’Bout Nothin’” on Keith Urban’s hit record, Ripcord [Capitol], seem to reflect the artist’s attitude.

“I’m a big believer in following the muse way more than my head,” he says.

In other words, the guitarist’s move towards modern grooves and sounds on his last two records is less a ploy for radio attention and more the explorations of someone who has been into music technology for three decades.

“I was playing in a duo in the late ’80s that didn’t have a drummer,” Urban recalls. “I used an old Yamaha drum machine to program drums on the cassette tape backing tracks I made, and I’ve been playing with a drum machine since then.”

Drum machines—often mixed with live-in-the-studio drum performances—are all over Ripcord. The record could as easily be called modern country, pop, or, um, urban, as it features collaborations with Carrie Underwood, Nile Rodgers, Pitbull, and others from those various musical worlds. Typical of those genres, the record is light on guitar solos, but unlike them it is rife with guitar.

“On the last couple of records, I’ve been in a minimalist phase with the guitar just supporting the songs, more than performing big bold solos,” says Urban. “Some people have said there isn’t as much guitar playing, but in some ways there’s more—it’s just layered, textured, and atmospheric. I’m using the guitar as different colors in a song.”

In addition to beds of reverse and volume-swelled guitars, Urban’s signature ganjo [a 6-string banjo tuned like a guitar] comes to the fore over grooves by pop producers such as K-Kov and Busbee. Urban even manages to subversively sift crunchy guitar tones and even the rare “bold solo” into the modern-pop mix.

Guitar fans who have heard Keith Urban’s early records know his cred as a killer player is unquestionable, and they will be pleased to learn that when he performs live the tightly programmed tunes often open up into lengthy guitar excursions. And, despite using backing tracks and samples onstage, Urban is also able deliver shows that are more spontaneous than many self-contained bands. The Australian-born guitarist took time to tell GP just how his human picking interacts with the machine world.

Will you be staying on a click when you stretch out the tunes on tour?

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Certain songs have track support behind them and others are just freestyle. For the ones that have tracks, we still have the ability to change arrangements on the fly. We can deviate and then come back, because off to the side of the stage, Jeff Lindsenmeyer is monitoring the tracks on his laptop. If I take off somewhere, he is a master at quickly muting certain things and then unmuting them. In addition, [synth player] Nate Barlowe triggers parts on stage with the “Phantom” he built [a MIDI controller using four iPads and an Akai MPD32]. Together, they give us so much flexibility. If you’re playing with tracks live, but want to be in the moment, this is the way to do it.

Nashville is known for amazing session musicians. Why import people like Matt Chamberlain, Pino Palladino, and Tal Wilkenfeld for this record?

Matt and I worked together back in ’02. He came to town and we did “You’ll Think of Me,” and the first version of “You Look Good in My Shirt”—both on Golden Road. I love his drumming, so he has appeared on my albums sporadically over the years. On Fuse, and this album in particular, I increased his involvement because I love him as a person, and he’s incredibly creative in the studio. He’s one of those rare cats who never resisted the explosion of programmed drums. He’s an incredible programmer, as well as a great drummer.

How about Pino and Tal?

For the last two albums, I have been opening up the wish list of people I want to work with, and Pino has been on my list for a long time. I contacted him through John Mayer, and I asked him if he’d want to be on a session. Having him and Matt together was so rhythmically strong and creative. As for Tal, I asked Matt if he would love to play with any bass players that he hadn’t worked with yet. He said, “Tal Wilkenfeld.” I always ask Matt who he thinks would be the right bass player for a song.

How do you construct the tunes?

The songs start in the control room. I’ll play acoustically, while Matt gets a groove going on his drum machine. Then, he’ll go out and start layering things on top with the real kit. The bass player—whether it’s Tal, Pino, or me—will play along.

On “Habit of You,” the guitar sound you use sits really well in the track.

That was a Les Paul clone that John Shanks hipped me to. I played it through a small Swart amp. There’s great reverb on the amp, so I used that. That was the core sound, but I’m not sure what we ended up with, because I also cut the song with my ’54 Les Paul Junior playing all the same parts. I ran through a Suhr Jack Rabbit tremolo that I really like.

Do you play the guitar hooks through the whole track, or play them once and paste them where you want them?

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I love building a track in the studio and then playing along with it. With a song called “Getting in the Way,” I wasn’t really feeling much, guitar-wise, on the day we recorded it. You’re either in the zone where you respond to a song, or you’re not. I came back on a different day with the idea of just layering guitar tracks on that song. I prefer to have the guitar tone and effects all ready, and then hit Record to see what happens. A lot of hook parts come from just responding to the way the track makes you feel.

If I hear something I like, and I want it somewhere else, I’ll play it—unless it’s one of those magic moments where the way the angle of the pick hits the string, the intensity, and everything else is just freakish. Still, I think when you cut and paste you can tell there’s some trickery going on, so I prefer to play it. More often than not, the earliest takes are used, because on the later ones, you become too aware of the part and it loses its spontaneity.

In that case, might you paste a part from the beginning to the end?

Maybe, but more often I’ll play it again. I go do something else—get on YouTube and waste enormous amounts of valuable studio time looking at stupid sh*t—and then come back and try not to think about it. I just play it. Those are often the takes where you’re free and liberated. You’re in your joy—you’re not in your head.

Are some of the sounds that may not sound like guitar generated by guitar and then processed?

Yes. For example, when I wrote “The Fighter” with Busbee in London, I didn’t have any of my gear except a cheap 6-string banjo with an awful pickup in it. We plugged it in direct, Busbee threw it through some processing, and then soaked it in delays. Before we knew it, we had this cool intro riff to the song, and it was hard to define what instrument it was. It’s a six-string banjo capoed up and run through a whole bunch of sh*t. We thought we’d replace it when we got back to the States with something better, but we grew to love it.

Speaking of ganjo, I thought I detected a “Middle Eastern by way of Zeppelin” influence on the ganjo part on “Gone Tomorrow Here Today.”

That part was subconsciously informed by a band called Gomez. They have a song called “How We Operate.” It starts with a banjo lick, and there’s a semitone aspect to the riff that I love.

The acoustic rhythm sound on “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” is very distinctive. Was that processed or is that a straight acoustic?

It’s a straight acoustic, but it’s a whole bunch of guitars, and, again, I’m not sure what we ended up choosing. In some cases, I’ll use different guitars playing the same part, and when we get into the mixing stage, we’re just pushing faders up and blending things together to get the effect I want. So you’re “souping” stuff together, and you don’t even know what’s making the final sound. It just feels and sounds right. I think the core of that sound was two 12-string guitars—maybe with a 6-string in there, as well—playing really simple rhythmic chords.

What was the wah pedal on the electric guitar?

It was an AMT Electronics Japanese Girl Wah. It’s a tiny little purple pedal that’s hard to use live, because it’s a fifth of the size of a normal wah, and your foot devours it. I use it in the studio because I love its sweep. The guitar on that solo was a Grover Jackson GJ2. I went through the AMT wah into The Schaffer Replica booster—which I’ve become a mad fan of. The AC/DC freaks discovered the missing link in Angus’ tone was the Schaffer Vega Wireless unit he recorded with back in the day. An AC/DC fan makes and sells these replicas that are just a wireless unit in a pedal you can plug your guitar into. It’s just a booster, but the mix of compression and boost is a very specific sound. I used it a lot on this record. [See our review of the SoloDallas The Schaffer Replica online or in the June 2015 issue.]

Is there a funk ganjo part on that tune also?

Most of the time, I tend to layer ganjo in there somewhere. I use ganjo more like a sequencer than in a bluegrass way. I play with a flatpick for a start. I’ve written so much with my ganjo and drum machine that they tend to lock up really quickly because I play metronomically.

Do I hear slide ganjo on “Wasted Time”?

[Laughs.] Yes. I cut that song out at Greg Wells’ studio. I said, “I want to do a ganjo solo. I’m just not sure what to play.” Greg said, “Just solo over the whole song beginning to end.” I pulled out every trick in the book. About halfway through, I saw a slide in an ashtray sitting next to me, put it on my finger, and slid up the neck a couple of times. Greg comped bits and pieces of that three-and-a-half-minute solo down into the solo on the record—which I then had to learn note for note to play live.

How do you amplify the ganjo on tour?

It’s an L.R. Baggs pickup, but I’m not sure what model. I tend to prefer the real Deering banjos, as opposed to the solidbody electric ones. I like the drumhead and the whole thing. They’re not conducive to playing live, but I like the feel way more.

Do you have any feedback issues?

I put a little foam padding on the drumhead, which seems to get rid of a lot of it. Also, I don’t crank it up through the wedges. I keep it more in the in-ear monitors.

Did you create the reverse guitar on “Break On Me” with a pedal, or do it in postproduction?

That was reversed in Pro Tools. We liked the way it was leading into certain things. It created an unusual rhythm.

At the end of the song, there’s a big dissonant electric guitar in the background.

I did that well after we recorded the song. It seemed a little too sweet, and I wanted something dissonant and dark in there. I went over to Blackbird Studios, plugged in a couple of my amps, turned them up insanely loud, and plugged in one of my guitars. I think it was my Clapton Strat. I put earplugs in, stood in the room with the amps, and just let it wail—bending notes and letting the feedback do unusual things. When we went in to mix the song, we used it where we felt it needed dissonance.

On “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” is the chugging acoustic part doubled with another instrument?

Yeah. Charlie Judge [synth player] did a stabbing, sampled orchestral-string sound in time with the acoustic guitar.

The basic song is so traditional, but you’ve done interesting things to bring it into “the now.”

I was on the fence with that song, because I love the lyrics and the melody, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d heard it before. I wondered what the hell we could do to make it not sound like some ’50s doo-wop/waltz thing. That’s where Matt Chamberlain came in. He programed the drums first, and we kept them bone dry. I also used a nylon-string acoustic—which was unusual for me.

Do you remember which guitar that was?

It might have been a Yamaha. I’ve had this nylon-string acoustic for a long time. It doesn’t get a lot of use, but it was there, and it seemed so wrong for a song like “Blue Ain’t Your Color” that I thought I’d grab it and see what happened. It was unusual to use it for the fills in the second verse, instead of electric guitar or piano. And I love the idea of the electric solo being drenched in that ’60s reverb.

That was my next question. Is that spring-sounding reverb from the amp or a pedal?

It’s primarily this killer reverb pedal by Mr. Black called the Super Moon. I played my 1951 Nocaster through my Fender tweed Twin and some kind of boost. If I were listening to that song, I wouldn’t expect a distorted guitar solo. I’m just trying to mix in ingredients that seem a little unusual.

There are also a lot of volume swells on the record. Do you prefer using the Volume knob on the guitar or a pedal?

In the studio, I use a pedal. I wish I could use the pedal live, but I don’t have any pedals in front of me, because my tech, Chris Miller, does the pedal switching on the side of the stage. I prefer the pedal, because I was never great at using the Volume knob on the guitar. I used to hammer on the strings with my left hand and use my whole right hand on the Volume knob. [Urban’s co-guitarist, Danny Rader, handles the swells live].

Was there a setup you were favoring for the crunch tones that are sprinkled through the tunes?

Not really. I have an arsenal of overdrive pedals and amps. Amps like the Swart do overdrive really well. I have a couple of Dumble amps, and, when we were working at Ocean Way, I used my Dumble Overdrive Special combo with my tweed Twin running stereo effects through the two amps. I like how that rig brings out the different tonal characteristics of my guitars. If there is a main amp I’ve predominantly used in the studio, it would be one of my three original, late-’50s Fender Twins. That whole run of ’58 and ’59 Twins is unbelievable. Pedal-wise, the Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive and the Schaffer Replica are on a bunch of stuff.

Is Nile Rodgers playing the funk rhythms on “Sun Don’t Let Me Down”?

Absolutely. He’s playing the Fender Strat he used on all those Chic records. He carries it into the studio in a padded gig bag, and it never leaves his side. What he does is insane. You can watch his fingers, but you can’t hope to come close, because it’s the lifting and pressing back down of his left hand fingers within a particular chord shape. And that’s before you even get to the right wrist. Whatever is going on there is beyond magical.

Is he doing the crunchy funk rhythm as well?

That’s me. Nile is doing the super-clean rhythm.

At one live show on YouTube, you’re playing a Strat for “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” but for most of the other shows, you seem to be playing a Tele on that song.

The Tele was what I wanted to play, but I had to retire it for a second while I got Joe Glaser to give it a re-fret. That brought it back to life, so it’s back playing that song now.

What determines which guitar you play on a given night or a tune?

It’s a great question. Sometimes, it’s just the room. You get to soundcheck, play a couple of songs, and discover it is a really bright room. In that case, I’ll pick slightly darker guitars. Sometimes, it’s just wanting to change up the song a little bit. I’ve been trying to get back to one guitar, because I hate changing so much, but two things determine most of the guitar changes during the show. One is that a lot of songs are a halfstep up or a half-step down, but I want the sound of the guitar to be that of a particular chord inversion. I either have to capo, or the guitar has to be tuned up or down. There is a mix of that going on. Second, even though it would be better for me to put all the Telecaster songs back to back, those songs don’t flow together in the set list. That causes a lot of the guitar changes, as well.

Has your stage rig changed for this tour?

It’s a pretty simple setup on this tour. I have one 1958 Fender high-powered Twin off to the side of the stage. I disconnect the speakers, and have the same two speakers that are in the Twin’s cabinet in a separate isolation cabinet. I’ve never been a fan of iso cabs, but we got hipped to the ones designed and manufactured by Kevin Lee Hughes, marketed by JSS, and the sound is unlike any other I’ve ever heard.

The biggest issue I’ve had is where to put delays in the signal path. I use the Fractal Audio Systems Axe-Fx unit for delays, but I never liked the sound of plugging it into the front of the amp live. I used to run two amps onstage, and run the effects into them in stereo. Now, we feed the mic on the iso cab into the Fractal, and that runs my stereo effects left and right in my in-ear monitors and the front of house. I found it’s simpler and more effective to use just one amp, and run the effects after it in stereo. It helps me with gain structure—particularly when I’m changing from single-coils to humbuckers to P-90s to mini humbuckers, as everything has different output impedances. Trying to get all those guitars to play back-to-back really quickly has been an ongoing issue for me.

You say you are hearing the guitar through the in-ears. Do you have wedges, as well?

Yeah. I have a lot of wedges that are pretty cranked, so the guitar is really full onstage.

The last time we spoke, you said that you play loud. It sounds like you’re still keeping the guitar volume up there onstage.

It helps having the amps loud and pointed towards me, rather than towards the people in the front row, but, ideally, I would be standing right near my amp. The guitar and the amp feed off one another. Playing in a club, the amps would normally be a couple of feet behind me. With the amps off stage—or 30 feet behind me—in a much larger venue, I find myself constantly struggling to get not just the sound, but also the feel I want. I’m not a fan of an amp facing me, because amps are meant to be behind you—and not at ear height, either. The amp is meant to be down low, hitting the back of your shins. That’s where it sounds just right. At the end of the day, I’m just making the best of a situation that’s not really designed to provide the best feel and sound for a guitar player.

Do you have a monitor behind you?

I have a couple of custom 2x12 cabinets behind me that are driven by a power amp. They give a little bit of the vibe, but, again, they’re far behind me because of the size of the stage. In-ear monitors are another issue for me. I like one ear in and one ear out. That’s fantastic, except it’s not really good for your hearing.

Is that because you have to keep the one in-ear monitor louder than usual?

Yes. Also, the exposed ear is hearing an enormous amount of shrill high end from the venue.

What picks do you use?

The guys at D’Addario have just made me custom picks. I used Hercos for a long time. I turned the pick around, and I used the raised nub section to strike the strings to get a ripping sound. I like the fatter end of the pick. But I started to get tired of the sound of nylon. The material in these new D’Addario picks is an Ultem blend. The raised nubs are only in one corner, so you can get three different sounds out of one pick. One corner has the nubs, the other side of the top corner is plain, and there is a pointy bit down at the bottom. I just got the prototype back this weekend.

Do you find yourself using all three sounds—either live or in the studio?

Yes, I do. The pointy bit is slightly more flexible than the top part, which gives it a slightly different sound. Then, you have the less-flexible round edge, and, finally, the grip part. I do use all three edges, but mostly the grip part.

What strings are you using?

I use D’Addario. My acoustics are strung with .012-.053, and on the Ganjo I use .010-.052. Most of the electric guitars are .011-.049—except for .010s on one of the Strats that I tune up a half-step. But .011s are my preferred electric sound.

Do you put heavier strings on the ones that are tuned down a half-step?

No. I use the same gauge. I think we tried .012s once, but it was not the right sound. An .011 set tuned down a half-step really works.

What is that silver, three-pickup Tele in the Behind the Scenes video for “Break On Me”?

I can’t remember. I’m going to jump on YouTube. Oh, right, there it is. That is a Fender baritone Tele. It has two singlecoils in the middle and neck positions, and a humbucker in the bridge.

Is there anything else new in Guitar Land that you want to talk about?

I have a 1959 Les Paul Junior that I just rediscovered as a phenomenal guitar. It’s full of great mojo and has that great Gibson tone. The single P-90 is really versatile, and I love that guitar. It was the main guitar in the last three shows we just did this weekend, so that’s the guitar this week [laughs].

In a recent interview you said something about some Rick Rubin sessions. Will those ever see the light of day?

I hope so. I’ve got to get in the right zone to finish those songs, and then get back in the studio with him. I’m really looking forward to that. I don’t know if we’ll build out from the tracks we already have, or start over again.

Will the Rubin sessions make up your next record, then?

I don’t know. I’ll see what happens. If those songs come together, then that will be the next recording. Between now and next year, I’ll also sporadically record here and there with different people. I find that I go in with my own ideas, but the muse wanders off somewhere else. I just let the music speak and tell me where to go.