“MAN, IF YOU GET HOT ENOUGH, YOU CAN TAKE AN INSTRUMENTAL to number one.” These are the words of the late, great Buck Owens, speaking to one of his most famous protégés, Brad Paisley. Granted, the music business has changed significantly since Owens famously charted 15 successive number one hits, including his 1965 instrumental, “Buckaroo.” But if there’s one young gun who could conceivably top the modern country charts with a song in which the only voice is a twangy electric guitar, it’s Paisley. Having an impressive number one streak of his own under his belt—eight number one singles in a row—as well as album sales well above ten million and a shelf full of CMA and Grammy trophies (including a Grammy for his 2007 instrumental, “Throttleneck”), Paisley is a most welcome pop culture iconoclast. He’s a mainstream country superstar who is as dedicated to his guitar playing, his tone, and his quest for righteous gear as he is his singing, songwriting, videos, and every other aspect of his meteorically successful career.
If you’re wondering how Paisley earned a spot on GP’s cover for the second time in less than two years, then clearly you haven’t spun his new album, Play [Arista Nashville]. This risky, thrilling release finds Paisley—a celebrity cowboy with such widespread appeal that he’s been featured in Good Housekeeping and on the cover of People—taking a stand for guitar fans everywhere. Once the youngest person ever to be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, Paisley has risked record sales and the ire of Nashville bean counters to release a major label album that is composed primarily of guitar instrumentals. And if Play’s star-studded 6-string tour de force “Cluster Pluck” is any indication, the risk is paying off. The song, which, in well under four minutes, finds Paisley trading licks with seven—seven!—of his very favorite twangbangers (Brent Mason, Redd Volkaert, Albert Lee, James Burton, Vince Gill, Steve Wariner, and John Jorgenson), has been nominated for a 2009 Grammy.
“There’s nothing like sticking your neck out,” says Paisley of his gutsy venture. Though Paisley’s signature guitar voice rings clear throughout, the album finds the Nashville guitar hero paying an eclectic tribute to everyone from Don Rich and Hank Garland to Les Paul, Eric Johnson, and Robben Ford. “Many of my fans have probably never bought a jazz album or a true blues album,” continues Paisley, “so it was a challenge to make something that’s not a complete disaster to them. I wanted Play to be something that people who never bought an instrumental record of any kind before would have a good time listening to.”
Let’s start with your thoughts on the current state of Nashville. What’s your advice for a guitarist striving to rise up the food chain there?
My advice has always been to stay where you are in America growing up and play every possible gig you can play there. And only when you feel like you’re truly as good as you’re going to get in your home scene, then move here. When I finally moved to Nashville, I was lucky—I had done everything I could do at home in West Virginia, and I was only 20. I had played every festival, every club, every Rotary Club luncheon I could play, and had fully exhausted the possibilities. But people who get their first guitar and then move to Nashville a year later with hopes of being a big star have probably got it backwards. Audiences are a lot more forgiving in a place like Wheeling, West Virginia, than they are in Nashville.
If there was one thing you could change about Nashville, what would it be? Or are you completely happy with it?
Well, I am happy with Nashville, and when you start talking about things you’d change, you can sound bitter, and I don’t want to sound bitter. But if I was God and could control the bigger picture of the creative process, I would give a lot of these great road bands the opportunity to go into the studio and record with the artists they play for. A lot of what happens in Nashville is under budgetary constraints, so artists want to get songs tracked in 15 minutes, or an hour at most. And we do have the best session players in the world living here— even some players who used to live elsewhere and have moved here. We’ve got Dan Huff here now, one the greatest L.A. session guys of all time, and an incredible producer. And we have Brent Mason, Brent Rowan, and Mac McAnally, who can go toe to toe with anybody. And they work fast. You know that when you play them a song, they’re gonna hear its potential and have it nailed in 15 minutes, and that’s appealing, even if you have to hire them at double or triple scale.
But I would like to see more artists in town give a few of their road players a chance to play their own leads on the records. That would be fun to see. We’ve had a lot of folks out on the road [opening for] us, and I know that if given an opportunity, some of them could really do well in the studio. And that’s what I love about having my own band on my records—the fact that when Randle Currie plays a steel solo every night, Randle Currie played it on the record, too.
When it came to building your career, how much of your time did you spend developing your playing, singing, and songwriting, and how much did you devote to the business development end of things—you know, networking, marketing, promoting, etc.?
It’s funny—some people spend more time on the business side than on the musical side of things, while others turn anything business related over to someone else and don’t want to think about it. But I’m somebody who finds the greatest fulfillment in being an artist, and when I say that, I mean that when it comes to anything from writing the music and choosing the set list to figuring out the concept for a music video or doing the album covers—I designed the last three or four myself, and laid them out in Photoshop—I’m all over it. But while I did go to Belmont University, where I learned invaluable stuff about copyright law and publishing and other important elements of business, if a task isn’t creative then I don’t enjoy it. I don’t want to think about how much diesel costs, or how to bring an album in under budget, but I do want to think about song titles and what’s showing on the screen behind me when I’m on stage.
There’s an amazing level of call-and-response between you and the other seven guitarists on “Cluster Pluck.”Howdid you pull off such an organic sound?
That’s all [producer] Frank Rogers. He’s a master of organization. He’s made a bunch of records now, mine included, and for the second year in a row he’s Billboard’s Country Producer of the Year, based on airplay. Only John Jorgenson and Brent Mason actually made it to the Castle, the [Franklin, Tennessee] studio where we record. I recorded Albert Lee out in California. James Burton came to another studio, and we sent the session to Redd Volkaert in Austin, and he put his parts down there. So it was definitely a challenge weaving it all together.
It’s a fun song, but not the kind of thing that’s a showcase for any one person. And unless you listen to the intro track that precedes it, you may have hard time figuring out who’s who on there—but that’s really the point, and why it’s called “Cluster Pluck.” It’s not like we tried to make this thing a nice melodic experience. [Laughs.] This thing basically exists for the purpose of being too much information.
“Turf’s Up” is super surf sounding. It’s the second track on the album, and the first indication that on Play, you’re diving into a bunch of influences that most people probably didn’t even know you had.
Yeah, this album was a chance to do things that I would never get away with on a country record—like a full-blown blues song, a full-blown surf tune, a full-blown jazz tune. Of course, the country guitar playing comes through—I can’t help sounding like me—but it was a great feeling to be completely unrestricted. Before recording “Turf’s Up,” I went back and listened to the Ventures, Dick Dale, and even some Duane Eddy, who I think fits in that genre to some degree. That music was unbelievable. I mean the Ventures had a ton of hit records in their day, and they were all instrumentals! I don’t think there’s ever been a run in instrumental music that has enjoyed as much popular success as surf. It’s timeless. And the songs hold up. You’d never get tired of hearing “Walk, Don’t Run.” I mean, no one’s ever like, “Nah. Don’t ever wanna hear that again.”
How do you feel when you turn on the radio and hear yourself and Keith Urban throwing down that immense guitar jam at the end of Play’s first single, “Start a Band”?
It’s a thrill, because that song sort of sounds like old Allman Brothers or Eagles, back when those bands would really let loose on their guitars and still get airplay. I love that guitarbased music. There’s nothing like two distorted guitars playing harmonies. Keith and I are old friends, and back when we were both new artists playing early in the day at the same festivals, we’d sit in with each other and do these epic, eight-minute jams on songs like Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues.” What’s funny is that while the big solo section on “Start a Band” sounds really worked out, it wasn’t really rehearsed. I just recorded a guide track so that when Keith came in to overdub, he could just listen to what I did but then do his own thing, and I’d come back and add a harmony part later. Well, he came in, he listened, and then he just worked. He woodshedded and came up with all those amazing harmony parts himself—and that’s the hard part of a double guitar thing. Whoever lays down the first part has it easy. We finally got to perform the song recently on the Country Music Awards and had to actually get together the weekend prior to rehearse it!
How did you get Buck Owens’ vocals on your record?
Well, Buck and I were friends, and had worked on a few songs together before he died, so for this album I asked his people, “Do you have anything he was working on
One item in a press release I saw said that “Playing with Fire” is a tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan, but perhaps that blurb was wrong, because, from the opening measures, it sounds like Robben Ford.
That’s right. Robben Ford is a huge influence on me, and it’s a tribute to him. I loved SRV, but when I hear him, I think, “Well, that’s as good as you can do that,” so I have never spent time trying to cop his style. When it comes to blues, I tend to dig up the more obscure stuff. Plus, I love that Robben approaches his blues from a jazz standpoint. You’ll hear him do an augmented run or a whole-tone thing in the middle of a I-IV-V blues pattern and it works. What you’re hearing on “Playing with Fire” is a ’52 Tele on the bridge pickup through a Trainwreck amp. I did a little bit of G-bender stuff on there too.
Do you use B-benders too?
No. I have one guitar with a B-bender, and it just sits in the house. That’s another style that’s already been mastered. It’s a really unique sound, but you can immediately identify it when you hear it. And besides, how are you going to match what Ricky Skaggs, Steve Wariner, Clarence White, and Marty Stuart have already done with it? When I play a G-bender, though, guys come up to me all the time and say, “How’d you get that sound?”
In your quest to create your own style, what other things did you consciously explore because you felt they weren’t done to death and still had plenty of untapped potential?
One thing I did consciously was venture heavily into jazz when I was a teenager, because I realized quickly that country was sort of jazz on the bridge pickup. If I were to take “Huckleberry Jam” and play that same song on a Byrdland or an ES-335, it would definitely sound like jazz. But play it on a Tele through a Vox-style amp, and suddenly you’ve got a much more unique thing going. Find a tone that’s unique, and then explore notes that aren’t always used, and you’re on your way to something special. I learned a lot about that from guys like Redd Volkaert. The first time I ever heard him play, he was doing an amazing amount of different things. He could go right from Charlie Christian to Roy Nichols and keep things interesting by throwing in all these different influences. And that’s something I’ve always tried to hometown in West Virginia. I grew up under his tutelage. There was a time when the leading guitar players were the guys who could do jazz runs up the neck on a Gibson with a neck pickup. It was a beautiful time in music—and really intense, when you think of the complexity of what they were playing. These guys were rock stars in their era.
Sounds like you’re really bending the neck on “Departure.”
Yeah, no whammy bar on that Tele. I think that was my ’68 Paisley.
And you don’t feel bad about bending the neck on such a valuable guitar?
Nah. Redd Volkaert, who is the master of that approach, can grab baseball-bat-sized ’50s Broadcaster necks and bend them down an octave, and it doesn’t seem to hurt them. All you have to do is adjust their truss rods every couple of months. It’s a great trick Tele players can do—it’s cooler than cheating and using a whammy bar. Whammy bars are for sissies.
Slash used to bend the neck like that on his main Les Paul until one day it exploded his face.
A Tele probably won’t do that because the Telecaster is less of a work of art—or, in a sense, more of a work of art—than the Les Paul. I mean, a Tele is just a cutting board with a baseball bat and some strings, so it’s hard to hurt it.
We covered your rig extensively in your last cover story [“Gear Freak,” December 2007], but tell us what your basic signal chain is these days.
It’s always simple, though it doesn’t look simple. If you look at our stage, it looks like I’m David Gilmour, because there’s so much stuff out there. But if you’re hearing a clean sound, it’s probably just a [Vox] AC30-type EL84-based amp such as a Dr. Z or a Tony Bruno with an analog delay pedal—usually aWay Huge Aqua-Puss—plugged right into the front of it. My amps don’t usually have effects loops. I didn’t use any distortion pedals on the new album. When you hear any kind of distorted sound, it’s the Trainwreck Liverpool 30. Turn that amp up anywhere past 11 o’clock and it’s dirty. I use cables from Guitarcables.com, McVay and Glaser G-benders, and I go through a wireless—a high-end Shure unit—because I have to be mobile on stage. I still use .010-.046 Ernie Ball strings on most of my guitars, the only variation being that I’ve also started using their new Coated Titanium Electric Slinky strings. I like using them on my ’60s Buck Owens Tele because the coating gives strings a slightly darker, more broken in sound, which is good, because that Tele is usually too bright sounding with fresh strings.
You get a wonderfully ambient slap-back sound on your tracks.
That usually starts with the Aqua-Puss, or one of those great Fulltone Tube Tape Echoes. That Fulltone is the greatest thing— it’s like an Echoplex that won’t break. People forget, though, that the same guitar, same amp, and same player can sound 100 percent different with different mics and different mic placement. I really like Royer R-121 Ribbon mics, and have been using them in the studio and on stage. They really deliver a flat response somewhere near what your ear offers. And room sound is a big deal, too. No guitarist is used to hearing an amp right at the speaker. Every time you plug into anything, you’re hearing the room. The challenge when you’re recording a guitar is to try to capture the way your amp fills the room.
Asense of humor seems to run through everything you do, and not just in your song titles, intros, and lyrics, but also in your gear. For instance, take those giant playground-sized wah pedals you used on your last tour. Did they actually work?
They’re made to look like they work, but really my guitar tech is backstage running a wah for me. He knows the part.
And what about all those Dr. Z cabinets you had stacked to the sky?
Fifty-six of them! I love that look—a bunch of amps piled high behind a guitar player. Some people see all those cabs and right away say, “That’s completely unnecessary.” But then, a few songs into the set, the cabs suddenly light up and people realize they’re not actually amps, but TVs.
Who was your biggest influence in the humor department?
Roger Miller. He was awesome—tongue-in-cheek and super creative. But generally speaking, I take a Mark Twain philosophy toward life. I mean, I named my son Huck! I love that sort of country wisdom, and I’m always trying to find that angle in a song in a way that hasn’t been said.
I’m guessing you can be a prankster on the road.
Yeah. One night we got off a great one on “Mud on the Tires.” See, that song starts with four clicks in our ears, and then boom!—we all hit a big D chord. Well [co-guitarist] Gary Hooker plays acoustic on that song, and when it comes to music, he’s a total type-A neatfreak kind of guy who wants to nail his parts perfectly every night. So one night I told everybody but him not to come in until beat seven.
Well, nobody in the audience really noticed, but we heard “Click, click, click, click, strum, click, boom!” [Laughs.] After the show, Gary came backstage and said, “Man, I blew it. I jumped the count, didn’t I?” I said, “Yeah.” But when he listened back later, he died laughing and knew we had just hung him out to dry. When you do 70 shows a year, you have do stuff like that from time to time.
You play a lot of huge awards shows. How often are bands not actually playing live on those shows, but just going through the motions to backing tracks?
At most of these things, if there are ten bands performing, eight or nine of them are not actually playing live. I mean, in a way it’s understandable because think about it—sometimes there are a dozen bands playing in two hours, so they have to keep things moving and they just don’t have time to mic up every band. We’ve only used backing tracks like that one time on an awards show, because it was logistically impossible to do it any other way, and I hated it. It’s hard to describe how wrong it feels to be singing live and playing guitar live while your band is not actually playing behind you. So we rarely do that, and sometimes our mix doesn’t turn out as a good as that of other bands on the bill who have prerecorded tracks being piped in, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
What can a guitarist expect the first time he or she plays one of these huge TVextravaganzas?
To turn down! [Laughs.] That’s usually the first thing they want you to do. I recently performed “Let the Good Times Roll”—the song I did with B.B. King on the new album—on Dancing with the Stars, and they stopped us halfway through, and the guy told me, “You’re too loud.” But you know how a 30-watt AC30-type amp works—it doesn’t come alive until you push the volume to at least two o’clock. I said, “You can throw a blanket over it, put it behind the stage, or put it under the stage, but I can’t turn it down.” They eventually said, “Well, okay then, just keep playing.” But I’m lucky. I’m the artist—the lead singer. But if you’re just a hired gun working for the artist, then guess what—you’re turning down. I’m just incredibly thankful that I’m at the point in my career where I can finally say “Nope” in some of these situations and occasionally get away with it.
“Playing this lick slowly is twice as hard as playing it fast,” says Brad Paisley. He’s talking about the blazing hot, hybrid-picked Telecaster theme that powers Play’s opening track, “Huckleberry Jam” [below]. As is the case with many hotshot guitar heroes, when Paisley’s fans ask him to reduce his more up-tempo licks to the speed of molasses (so they can grok the moves), he struggles. When the metronome setting is halved, the muscle memory that delivered his licks with effortless precision up near 200 beats per minute suddenly fades, and his hands effectively go senile. “But play it at half-speed is exactly what we had to do when we recorded the intro to this song,” says Paisley. “See, my two-year-old son Huck has this little Fisher-Price toy guitar that plays songs with this really bad, high-pitched music box kind of sound. So for fun, I wanted to emulate that. To do that, the entire band played the lick at half-speed, and then we sped it up to double-time so everything is at the right tempo but sounds an octave higher. We sound like a toy band.” —JG