Vince Gill on Fusing Pop Hits and Stellar Musicianship

“I might have had a better career if I was able to focus on one type of music, but I have to be so many different things to satisfy my itch,” says Vince Gill.
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“I might have had a better career if I was able to focus on one type of music, but I have to be so many different things to satisfy my itch,” says Vince Gill.

Sitting in Gill’s small but gorgeous home studio, and surrounded by more than 70 museum-quality vintage instruments, it’s hard to imagine him having a better career. The man has sold more than 26 million albums, garnered 18 Country Music Association Awards (including two Entertainer of the Year and five Male Vocalist of the Year awards), been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Guitar Center Rock Walk, and earned 20 Grammys. And, he has somehow managed to do it all while retaining a reputation as a musician’s musician and the nicest guy in the world.

He was born Vincent Grant Gill, in Norman, Oklahoma. Gill’s father, who played in a country band part-time, encouraged young Vince to learn banjo and guitar, to which he quickly added bass, mandolin, Dobro, and fiddle. While still in high school, he was performing bluegrass in Mountain Smoke, a well-regarded local band. Soon after graduation, the budding picker moved to Louisville, Kentucky to join the Bluegrass Alliance. Following a brief stint in Ricky Skaggs’ band, Gill moved to Los Angeles, where he continued his bluegrass phase, playing with Sundance, a unit fronted by fiddler Byron Berline.

The year 1979 found him pioneering country rock in Pure Prairie League as guitarist and lead singer. Gill recorded three albums and the hit single “Let Me Love You Tonight” before quitting to join Rodney Crowell’s backing band, the Cherry Bombs. There, he played alongside Tony Brown, who would later produce a string of hit albums for him. Those albums introduced the public to Gill’s triple-threat talent as a world-class singer, a blazing-but-tasteful guitarist, and a songwriter whose tunes reflect everything good about country music. An astounding string of “weeper” hits—“When I Call Your Name,” “Whenever You Come Around,” “Never Knew Lonely,” “Look at Us,” “Pocket Full of Gold,” “Trying to Get Over You,” “If You Ever Have Forever in Mind,” “I Still Believe in You”—recall the crying pedal-steel ballads of George Jones and Buck Owens, while often serving up tasty solos by Gill. During the same period, the guitarist’s up-tempo barnburners—“Oklahoma Swing,” “Liza Jane,” “Take Your Memory with You,” “Oklahoma Borderline,” and “One More Last Chance”—delivered graduate courses in Telecaster technique, while simultaneously selling millions of singles. Check out the man’s body of work over the last 30-odd years, and you will be hard pressed to find a bum note, a bad tone, or a below-par song.

In the last decade, the non-stop hits have tapered off, but the excellence of the work has not. In 2006, Gill released the ambitious These Days, a four-CD set of new material with a quality level many artists fail to sustain over a single disc. The aptly named 2011 release, Guitar Slinger, saw a slew of Gill solos featuring classic clean Tele tones, some distorted ones, and a few Knopfleresque Strat sounds. Speaking of Knopfler, Gill was once asked to join Dire Straits but declined, wisely choosing to focus on his own career.

After a five-year break from releasing original material, during which he joined pedalsteel master Paul Franklin for a record paying tribute to their Bakersfield influences, the Nashville resident is back with Down to My Last Bad Habit [MCA Nashville]. It features the kind of superb guitar interplay between leader and session guitarists that rewards close listening.

“The great thing about making a record is it’s a combination of all these little parts, and we all play a part that’s equal in importance,” says Gill.

And there you have it—the modest, team-player attitude that hallmarks this country-guitar legend. His playing and singing are amazing, but what truly makes Gill great is his attention to detail. “I’m really interested in subtleties,” he explains. In a town suffused with stellar pickers, it is this level of finesse that continues to make a Vince Gill solo drop jaws.

What attracted you to the guitar in the first place?

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It has been part of me since before I had any memories at all. I have a picture of me as a baby, asleep on a couch, with my arm around a guitar. My dad played a bit of banjo and guitar, but I don’t have a conscious memory of seeing someone play the guitar and saying, “I’ve got to learn how to do that.”

Your dad provided your first guitars, right?

Yeah. He got me a guitar similar to the ES-125, but with a four-string tenor neck. With my little hands, I could make chords on it a lot easier than I could on a 6-string. I tuned it like the first four strings of a guitar.

What kind of music were you playing?

The first time I played in front of people, in second or third grade, I had learned “The House of the Rising Sun.” I sang a song about whorehouses in grade school and I didn’t even know it! I just played the songs of the day, whether it was the Beatles, the Stones, or what have you. In sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, we were playing the rock tunes of that time—the late ’60s. I was the youngest in my family, so I was at the mercy of the music my mom, dad, big brother, and big sister would play. I heard a diverse palette early on, and I liked a little bit of everything.

What guitar players were you trying to sound like when you first started?

Believe it or not, Joe Walsh was an early influence, as well as Eric Clapton. I learned “Sunshine of Your Love,” and I loved Led Zeppelin in those high-school years. I was drawn to all of it. Chet Atkins was a big influence, too. In those days, I was playing more with a flat-pick and not trying to figure out how Chet was doing what he did. I just loved the way he sounded.

I got flipped into the bluegrass world when I was about 15, and that pointed me in a completely different direction. I didn’t play nearly as much electric guitar in the last years of high school. I was flatpicking, learning to play fiddle tunes, picking up the mandolin, and trying to learn the correct style of banjo playing. That was until maybe 1977 or 1978, when I moved to California. There were so many musicians to learn from, and I started being inspired by players like Larry Carlton, Robben Ford, and James Burton. I could hear the difference in the way Larry Carlton and James Burton would bend the strings. James would bend the strings like a steel-guitar player. I’d hear Larry Carlton playing on a Steely Dan record, and try to learn to bend that way and find that tone. Then I stumbled upon Albert Lee. Albert Lee was such a huge inspiration as far as me wanting a Telecaster. When I got the job playing with Rodney and Roseanne, I learned a lot of his solos. After a couple of solos, Rod or Roseanne said, “You can play whatever you want. You don’t have to play it just like Albert.” I said, “That would be nice, because I’m not sure I can.”

Speaking of bending strings, part of your style is starting with the note bent up and then releasing it. Is that something you got from Carlton?

Obviously, but if I bend strings on a Telecaster, it is way different than bending on a Gibson ES-335 or a Les Paul. On a 335, it comes more from the blues and jazz spirit. When I’m playing a Telecaster and playing country music, it’s coming more from a country and steel-guitar mindset. There are a million different ways to play these silly things, and I enjoy finding subtle ways of being different on any instrument I play.

When you play country, it seems that you cross pick what someone else might hybrid pick. Did that come from bluegrass?

Maybe. With Tele playing, there are a lot of open strings involved, which is fun. What’s interesting about a Telecaster is the way you pull with the meat of your finger sounds different than with a pick. Those subtle differences are important to how the note blooms. When I play a Strat, most of the time, I play it with my fingers. I learned that from Mark Knopfler, who plays everything with the meat of his fingers. It is shocking how different it sounds. With a pick, it’s very precise, but with fingers, it’s three times rounder and sweeter.

Most people don’t understand how much your hands have to do with it. I did a show with Keith Urban where we were the resident guitar players. He had his rig set up, and he said, “Vince, come over here and play through this.” I plugged in, played, and he goes, “You just sound like you.” It’s funny. You can buy a Marshall and a ’59 Les Paul, but you’re not going to sound like Jimmy Page. You may want to, but the reason we all sound like we do is because of our hands as much as anything.

You are known for getting some of the best Telecaster tones in the world. Any tips on how to improve Tele tone with your hands before dealing with equipment?

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You have to pull a tone out of an acoustic instrument, and you can pull tone out of an electric instrument the same way. If you want to hit it harder, you might have to be a little closer to the bridge so the tension of the string doesn’t go so far that it pulls it out of tune. There are places you have to play the strings depending on whether it’s the big strings or the little strings. There are all kinds of places you can play the string along the length from the bridge to the neck. At each point, there’s a subtle change of how the instrument sounds. In the last few days, I got to play a little bit with Robben Ford, who is masterful at that.

What gauge strings do you use?

I use D’Addario .010s.

You don’t use a B-Bender for your pedal-steel licks, do you?

No. I was playing in Rodney Crowell and Roseanne Cash’s band when Hank DeVito was the steel player. I had my old white Telecaster that I have played since the late ’70s. Hank said, “Can I play your guitar?” He strapped it on and started jerking and pulling on the neck. He goes, “Where’s the B-Bender?” I said, “There isn’t one.” He says, “Yeah, there is. I hear it every night.” I said, “No, it’s just my fingers.” I didn’t even know that there was such a thing. You can emulate it with your fingers and get pretty close. A B-Bender only bends the B string up. I bend all the strings. The G string can go up or come down. It can go up a half step or a whole step. There are times where I think the sound of the B-Bender is cooler than what I can do—especially in the hands of somebody tasteful like Albert Lee. Some guys do it all the time, and it can wear you out. But Albert is subtle with it.

We have to talk about the white Tele.

It was the first Telecaster I ever bought. I have had probably 20 or 30 since, and not one can a hold a candle to it. Just the other day, I found the receipt for it, which blew my mind. In 1978, I wanted to buy a Telecaster. I was in a guitar shop in Oklahoma City owned by Bob Woods. He and Larry Briggs, who is huge in the vintage world, had gotten together for a big guitar trade. I was in the store just hanging out. Bob had taken in all these guitars, including that white ’53 Telecaster. I played it and said, “Oh my God, this one suits me right here. What will you take for it?” He said, “$450.” I said, “Okay, sold.” It became the iconic guitar of my life. My friend Joe Glaser does the guitar work for everybody here in Nashville. He has seen everybody’s famous Telecasters—whether it’s Roy Buchanan’s or whoever—and he claims mine is his favorite. It has such a definitive sound.

Is that the original finish?

Yeah. They made a handful of white ones in 1953. You don’t see them often.

Is everything still original on it?

I think a couple of pots have worn out. The front pickup wore out, but the back pickup is original. The whole point of that guitar is the back pickup.

You said you changed the pots, which brings up something you said years ago about rolling the tone control down.

When the tone pot is all the way up on a Telecaster, the top-end frequency can be pretty painful. If I roll the tone control halfway back, the top end dissipates a little bit. And then, you can brighten the amp just a little bit. When you brighten the amp it is not near as gack-y and top end-y.

What is your go-to Stratocaster?

For a long time, I played a black ’59—which I love. Duane Eddy originally purchased it brand new. Duane’s son asked me if I would be interested in it, and I said, “Sure.” Duane and I are great friends, and, of course, he was never going to play a Fender. I have Strats from multiple years—slab boards, maple boards—but that one is by far my favorite. I love the neck profile, and that particular Strat has the sweetest top end I’ve ever heard on a Fender.

Is that the one with the EMG pickups?

I don’t have the EMGs in it anymore. One of the reasons I used EMGs was because they created a little bit more top end—which I needed with the Rivera amps I was using at the time. I didn’t have to adjust as much between playing a Tele or a Strat.

As a general rule, do you like to get distortion from the amp or a pedal?

I like everything to at least start from the amp. And then, if I need a hair more, I go to a pedal.

Which amps do you use?

I have about 50. I’ve been using a Little Walter live, and I love what it does. [Little Walter’s] Phil Bradbury is willing to take your ideas when he builds you something, rather than insist on doing it his way. I’ve got all of the old, tweed Fender stuff. I sometimes run two tweed Champs over there at the same time. I also really like 3rd Power amps, and I’ve been using Todd Sharp’s amps, as well. With the luxury of having a home studio, do you just go through amp after amp looking for the right sound?

I think you always know which one is going to sound good. I have a ‘59 Bassman that’s unbelievable. You are just searching for the right way to fill the space. Sometimes, something is too big sounding. Sometimes, you want it to be not big at all, so it sits in the place it needs to sit.

If you were going to use a pedal for that little extra boost, what do you prefer?

I use a Hermida Audio Zendrive live a lot, and a Tone Concepts Distillery pedal. We’ll try just about anything. The engineer, Justin Niebank, brings a box of pedals. For solos, we’ll try a different amp or two amps—like those Champs.

Speaking of solos, do you go for full takes, or do you punch in?

We do it all kinds of ways. I mean, none of us are quite good enough to play a whole solo anymore.

If anyone is, I think you might be.

One solo on this record that I adore is on “Me and My Girl.” That was a Les Paul on the back pickup, played with my fingers, through the tweed Champs cranked. It’s a biting sound, but when I play it with my fingers, it warms it up, and it’s not quite as abrasive. I think I played a few licks I have never played before. The point of any solo is trying to do something I haven’t done before, instead of grabbing the white Tele and playing another chicken-pick-in’ solo. The back half of the solo in “Make You Feel Real Good” is ripping and screaming, and the middle is traditional country licks that sound all jacked up—like you’re on a three-day drunk.

Most of your records have two or three other guitar players on them. As you are versatile enough to play all the parts yourself, why do you choose to use other guitarists?

I know what I can and can’t do, and I need their minds. They know how I play, so they leave me room where they know I’ll shine. More importantly, I don’t think the record would be as interesting if it was just me playing, as opposed to three or four people’s hearts speaking. Plus, I love the camaraderie and the collaboration. Truthfully, those guys can play me under the table—whether it’s Dann Huff, Tom Bukovac, or Dean Parks. Dean is equally at home playing an orchestra date or playing the biggest jazz chords you ever saw, and he can read anything that’s put in front of him. Down to My Last Bad Habit required none of that, but it gave Dean a chance to express what he heard. Bukovac has a great love for rhythm in an age where there’s less rhythmic stuff being played and more arpeggiated parts and little hooky things.

You know, most people aren’t going to listen to the record in depth, but it’s mindboggling to hear a track with the vocal muted and see what Dean does. I marvel at how brilliant his creativity is—it’s not just a guy bashing away. It’s also remarkable to hear how well those guys all listen to each other. Nobody is ever stepping on anybody else. What one guy played might inspire me to play something, and that could inspire the other guy to play something else. The conversation that goes on between great musicians is unbelievable.

Did you have all three guitarists playing at the same time during the Down to My Last Bad Habit sessions?

I generally played acoustic to dictate the feel, and then everybody found their way from there.

Each guitar part on the album is so easily distinguished. Did that take any particular approach during the mix sessions?

If everybody plays only what’s necessary, then it’s all there. All the engineer has to do is find little spots where each player shines, turn him up, and away you go.

Did you play the twangy parts on “Make You Feel Real Good,” and “Like My Daddy Did”?

I’m playing those parts on a Gretsch 6120.

Do you have a favorite acoustic for studio work?

There isn’t one. Sometimes, you want a big dreadnought, but other times you might want a little Double 0. It just has to go to a microphone, so you don’t always want a bunch of the bottom end. Everybody thinks a loud guitar is what you’d want, but it will just get in the way of the bass.

What is your go-to gear for playing live?

I might take about a dozen guitars on the road. I’ve got Teles tuned standard, tuned up a half step, down a half step, and down a whole-step. Then, I’ll take a 335, a Les Paul, and two or three acoustics. I might also carry a five-string—like Keith Richards plays. The low-string is tuned to G, and you play in open-G, or tune the whole thing up or down a step. There are a couple of tunes on the new record that I played 5-string on. The first tune has that, and it’s a really neat rhythmic thing. It’s fun having all those great guitars out there every night.

Do you use all those tunings to avoid capos?

Yeah. I don’t capo on electric guitar much at all.

You play the hell out of the blues. Have you considered doing a blues record?

If there’s a blues shuffle, or something else where I get to scratch that itch in a tune, it’s enough. I don’t feel I have to do a whole blues record just to prove I can. The only record I’ve made that didn’t go all over the place was The Key, which was all traditional country songs. The rest of my records have been all over the map. I like being a country guy, a blues guy, an R&B guy, a big ballad singer, or whatever.

How do you think what you’re doing fits into the current world of country music, or do you care?

I don’t have a flippant attitude. I’m always hopeful people will respond to what I do, because that’s the best feeling in the world. There were times where I’d be making records and thinking they rocked too hard for country, but, these days, you don’t want to put a steel on the record, because it will be too country for the country music world. It’s screwed up and weird. I don’t like parameters. You don’t buy a rock record and go, “This rocks too much.” But in the country world you might certainly hear somebody say, “That’s too country. Radio won’t play that.” That doesn’t make any sense. I never worried about that—especially from the guitar chair. I didn’t say, “That’s a little too distorted. They won’t play that on the radio.” I just try to follow my ears. If my ears say it’s a good tone, I go with it.

Are there any aspects of your playing that you still want to work on?

I play western swing with the Time Jumpers every Monday night. I’ve always loved the music, but it’s also making me a better rhythm-guitar player. It’s a learning curve for me, but it’s always fun to find something new to play.

I’d say that you can’t find a guitar player who will tell you with a straight face that he doesn’t want to get better, or that he doesn’t think he can. That’s what’s great about music, versus athletics. When your body goes, you can’t dunk a ball anymore, or run fast anymore, and everything hurts. But with music you should get better, and what you learn in the later years is what not to play. I played a solo on an early session, and the producer came over and said, “This time, just play me half of what you know.” That was a great lesson.