Vernon Black on Taking Control of His Guitar Sound

Studio musician and sideman Vernon “Ice” Black—currently with the Booker T. Jones Band—has played with a huge range of industry legends including Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Kahn, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Carl Perkins, and Willie Nelson.
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Studio musician and sideman Vernon “Ice” Black—currently with the Booker T. Jones Band—has played with a huge range of industry legends including Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Kahn, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Carl Perkins, and Willie Nelson.

“I take pride in playing that support role, and playing it very well,” says Black. “It is not all about you with your toes on the edge of the stage. That’s easy. I feel that it’s more challenging play only what the composition is asking you to do in a team effort. I’m thankful that I’m capable of playing many styles of music authentically.”

Black started Ice Black Productions in 1997, where he is both producer and engineer.

“I sometimes joke that I’m a frustrated audio engineer in a musician’s body,” he says. “You’ve played it, now how do you make it sound like butter? You see, I didn’t ever want to be in a position again where I wanted something to sound a certain way, and I was trying to explain what I heard in my head to an engineer or producer, and it didn’t end up quite right. I’ve always been fascinated with audio, so I decided to do it myself. Dave Frazier, the brilliant engineer behind all the Narada Michael Walden hits, taught me well. After recording, everyone would leave the studio, and he would let me stay and watch him, sometimes until 4:00 a.m. I learned a lot in those late night and early morning sessions.”

Black feels the same way about working on his guitars. He’d rather do—or direct—most everything himself. He designed his two main guitars, right down to the Gumby-shaped headstocks. Luthier Joel Tosta built the first one, “Sunni,” in 1984 (currently maintained by GP columnist and super tech Gary Brawer), and Philip Ralph built the second guitar, “Mahogany,” using quilted mahogany.

“Sunni—that’s my guitar on most of the records I’ve played on,” says Black. “She’s extremely versatile. I installed Seymour Duncan Hot Rails to give me a vintage Strat sound, yet also deliver some of that fat Les Paul tone. I also designed a custom preamp for her, so for clean tones, I usually just plug right into the mixing board—no amp. I always use La Bella strings, gauged .010-.046, because they deliver the true sound of your instrument—no hyped highs or mids. Mahogany is kind of a freak of nature, because mahogany doesn’t typically grow quilted. She is designed much the same as Sunni, but she has a Seymour Duncan JB in the bridge position. The tone is definitely different with that mahogany thing. It’s very heavily mid-rangy, so Mahogany is not as versatile as Sunni, but her sound is so cool and unique. There’s a lot of sustain there, as well. I mostly play jazz fusion or rock rhythm with her. Sunni can get really glassy clean, but baby girl Mahogany can’t go there. She’s a little hard [laughs].”

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