Interview: Vince Gill Discusses His Aptly Titled New Album, 'Guitar Slinger'
Country music star Vince Gill might be best known for his radio-friendly voice, his strong songwriting skills, being married to Christian music star Amy Grant — and, oh yeah, his 20 Grammy awards.
But Gill is a serious and often explosive guitar player who is well versed in a number of styles, including blues, rock, bluegrass and chicken pickin'.
His aptly titled new album, Guitar Slinger, which was released October 24 via MCA Nashville, finds him stretching out and cranking it up on his killer collection of vintage gear.
Gill recently stopped by the Guitar World office in New York City to discuss the new album, his influences, history, gear and penchant for surprising people with his mad skills.
GUITAR WORLD: With a name like Guitar Slinger, is there anything about this album that is more guitar-oriented than usual?
In several songs, there are really long fades with some guitar playing. I’ve never really tried to force my guitar playing down people’s throats too much. My objective was more about serving the song I was recording. In the country music world, there isn’t a long history of guitar-hero types, but I always figured as I played live, people would discover that I can play.
This record probably has as much or more than I’ve ever done. It’s stylistically fairly different across the board. Half the record is guitar-driven, half isn’t. It’s still trying to serve the song the best way it can. But on top of that, there’s a good bit more playing, even if it’s somewhat on the subtle side.
Based on this album, if I didn’t know the guitarist — in this case you — was a country player, I’d have thought he was a blues player. Is blues is a major part of your style and upbringing?
We live in a world that’s more driven about perception than it is about fact. I’ve always been a versatile player. I’ve played all kinds of music, and I think when people see the “country music” moniker to begin with, they’re going to expect the same thing from the guitar player.
I feel like I’m chameleon enough as a musician to play what fits. If it’s a bluesy tune, you play and find those tones and sounds. If you want it to be harder, you play harder. It’s really important that it’s authentic. If you need something like Eric Clapton, that’s what you choose to do. You don’t play jazz licks over a rock song.
Speaking of Clapton, you've performed at all the Crossroads Guitar Festivals. How did that come about?
Well, that was really one of the best phone calls I ever got.
Yeah, it must’ve been amazing.
It was great. I picked it up, and the voice says, “Vince, it’s Eric Clapton.” And I said, “Yeah, right. Who’s yanking my chain?” And he laughed and said, “No, it really is. I met you at the Grammys years ago and I’m having a guitar festival and I’m only inviting the people I like, the people whose playing I like.”
They were the greatest words you could ever hope to hear because I knew he saw me as a musician and not just a country music star. That was a great validation for me. It put me in front of an audience, I would assume, that once again probably perceived I was a country guitar player.
I admit, I was one of those people.
It stands to reason. I’ll admit I’m not gung-ho on saying, “Hey, watch me play the guitar.” I always try to play it in its proper place. Because of that, my favorite thing about that first time playing with him is I was sandwiched in between all these guitar gods. I was kind of dreading that I had to play after Joe Walsh.
He is one of the greatest live performers I’ve ever seen, and the crowds love him like no other I’ve ever seen. His crowds are as fun as he is. So my wife, Amy Grant, said, “I want to go watch this from the crowd’s perspective.” And so she went out there by the sound board and when she came back she said, “It’s really interesting. As soon as they announced you, everyone started filing out. It was like this mass exit. And you started playing and you were ripping it up, and it was bizarre to watch but all these people just stop and turn around and look at the stage. They all started filing back in.”
So I don’t have a big bug up my butt because people don’t know I can play. That’s OK with me. I knew that for me to be successful in the world I was living in, it was going to be about my singing and great songs, and the guitar playing would come along. It was always there; I was never hell bent to just prove to the world something. As times goes by, there’s never a night that goes by that I don’t meet somebody who was at a show who was like, “I had no idea.” It’s all good.
Yet the new album is called Guitar Slinger.
Yeah, that wasn’t even my idea. My manager, Larry Fitzgerald, we’ve been together for 28 years, all on a handshake. I’m so proud of that relationship. He heard the record and said, “There’s something changed about your playing. You’re really playing, you’re free. There’s something about you that has just completely freed up.”
I think that’s because it stretched out way more than an eight-bar solo. He said, “I think you should call this thing Guitar Slinger.” So I said OK.
Are you aware that your solo on “When the Lady Sings the Blues” has some Jeff Beck qualities? There’s something "wobbly" about it, and it reminds me of how Beck “pulls” the sound out of the guitar. And then there's the tone.
Wow, what a compliment. That's high praise. I recently played on a song on Alice Cooper’s record. When I got done, he was laughing his head off and he said, “I can’t wait to see my guitar player try to have to learn to play this.” It’s a little more unorthodox than how most metal-, hard-rock-type guitar players would probably play. But as he talked about the record, he said I had no idea I played like that. “He’s the Jeff Beck of country music,” he said.
I’ve been to all the Crossroads Guitar Festivals; they’re my favorite because I just get to go watch my all my heroes. I just adore the way they play, like Sonny Landreth and some of the ones that aren’t godlike in their persona. But what’s funny about the day is you’ll see all of them, you know, everyone will kinda wait up and watch a couple of the guys.
When you’re over there playing and you know Eric’s on the side watching, you and a couple of the guys are on the side watching you, maybe Ronnie Wood, whoever’s there, it’s pretty unnerving.
What was interesting, when Jeff Beck played, everybody was on the side. He’s so gifted, it’s freakish how good he is. Somebody looked around and noticed all of us standing there and smiled and said, “Well, there’s all of us and then there’s him.” So I take that as very high praise.