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.
And if you’re the Jeff Beck of country music, Brad Paisley must be the Steve Vai.
Brad is a really close friend of mine. He strikes me as a youthful guitar player. He plays a lot. I’m an economist. I feel like we’re polar opposites as players. That doesn’t take anything away from the gift he has to be able to do those things. They don’t appeal to me because I never have liked it that much, but we’re great pals. When he went to college, he got some scholarship money that I helped provide for that university. He’s a great kid and great friend and I’m really proud of his success.
What type of gear did you use on Guitar Slinger?
I have a pretty insane collection. There’s a handful of go-to guitars. There’s a 1953 Telecaster I’ve had for over 30 years; that’s probably a signature-sounding instrument that I’ve played most everything on for the most part.
It has the real chicken pickin’, real identifiable Fender Telecaster sound. I recently got a 1959 Strat that was bought brand new by Duane Eddy, and it’s so cool. His son sold it to me. He gave it to his son because he said, “I’m never gonna play a Fender Strat.” But he bought it brand new at Fender in 1959. It’s a vicious-sounding guitar.
I’ve got a bunch of old ones, a ‘54 and a ‘58 — a bunch of really good years. There’s something about the sound of it that’s really special. I want the guitar that fits. I want the guitar that sounds like the sound I play. There’s a 335 on the record on a ballad called “True Love.” There’s a Les Paul on “Threaten Me With Heaven,” the long rockish-type solo at the end.
I always use different amps. I have a wide selection of old amps, including a lot of old Fender tweed stuff. I have a ’59 Bassman; they have such a one-of-a-kind sound. I’d never played through one before, and I knew Eric would play through something like that. He would play in middle position on his Strat, and I would always say, “How does it sound like that?”
I put my Strat in middle position and crank it up and it’s just a little bit clanky. A friend of mine, Danny Nader, who lives in Cincinnati, just gave me this Bassman. He said, “I never use it. Please take it and use it.” I plugged in and I said, “Oh, there it is.” It went ahead and crunched in all the right frequency places that were missing, and it’s an amazing sounding amp.
There’s a new amp builder out of North Carolina named Phil Bradbury. His amps are called Little Walters. They’re just old technology. It’s really just simple, great parts, hand-wired, and it’s just a great, pure-sounding thing. So I’ve got a little bit of everything.
As far as acoustics, I’ve got a lot of great old Martins from the '20s, '30s and '40s that really just sound so much better than newer stuff. Some guys like toys, but that’s what I’m addicted to: finding nice guitars and putting them in my collection.
I have some old Gibson stuff. I found an AJ-38 or 37, advanced jumbo, which is the rarest of the Gibson acoustics, and a couple of great SJ-100s. Once again, I’m trying to fill a sonic space with the right sound. I have some archtop stuff. There are times you only want to take up a certain frequency when you’re recording. Not every guitar has to be loud and big and wide. Everything’s different, and I’ll go through a bunch of different ones and find the one that sits in there just right. I chase it pretty hard, just the right sound.
What are you playing on “When the Lady Sings the Blues”?
That’s the '59 Bassman and the Strat.
Did you ever consider recording a blues album?
You know, I would if I, at some point, thought I could really pull it off. As a player, I really dance around all these things and I don’t know that if I really tried to do a whole project of something like that if the authenticity would stay intact.
That’d be so important to me that the real blues guys wouldn’t listen and laugh at the white guy trying to play the blues. I may make an instrumental record someday or a blues record with somebody. I got to play on Sonny Landreth’s last record and Joe Bonamassa’s last record, and I did a thing with Johnny Winter, “Maybelline,” on his new album. I haven’t heard it yet, I don’t even know if it’s finished.
Yeah, it’s on my iPod.
Is it? We should go listen to it. I haven’t heard it. [Note: I gave Gill my copy of the new Johnny Winter CD, Roots, after the interview.]
What guitarists have inspired you along the way?
It’s pretty diverse. As a little kid, I think the first person I remember being completely blown away by was Chet Atkins, how seamless he made the sound of playing the guitar. He made it so simple. You never saw him fight the instrument or try to overpower it. He had such a touch, it was unbelievable. And I couldn’t play like him, that’s the other thing.
There was no way a 6-, 7-, 8-year-old kid could comprehend what the hell he was doing with his thumb playing the bass notes and the melodies. He made me play a lot of golf.
As I got older, I was obviously listening to The Beatles and Led Zeppelin and The Stones and all the records of the day. So all those guys would be influences, and Eric and Jimmy Page and Keith. As a kid, I was a sponge trying to soak all this stuff up. I like folk singers. Then I started playing a lot of bluegrass music at 15 or 16. Then it was flatpickers, guys like Doc Watson or Clarence White, Tony Rice, guys like that. I was pointed in a whole new world and a whole new way, and I started finding guys like Larry Carlton, Robben Ford and those kind of folks.
I bought so many records of people I’d never even heard of. I would read the liner notes and go, “Oh, Larry Carlton played on this record, it would be worth buying just to hear what he does.”
As my career started, I started to get out playing in bands. I think my ears were good enough to point me to what was right and I started playing different instruments, and because I could sing, that’s generally what people would choose me for. Then I’d be in the band and they would be like, “Well, we need a mandolin player,” and I would be like, “OK, I’ll play the mandolin.” “Now we need a banjo player,” “OK, I’ll play the banjo a little bit.” I was always just good at plugging in the missing holes.
You played with Ricky Skaggs too, right?
That’s exactly right, around 18 years old. I moved to Kentucky, played with him for a short time. It was a great learning experience. In the world of bluegrass, that was about as good as it can get with Ricky. We were all really young, you know, trying to get going, and there wasn’t a lot of work and wasn’t a lot of jobs and I was the last one in, and they let me go. That’s why I moved to California and that really changed everything. I met guys like Albert Lee, he’s so good. I probably learned as much of a style of playing from him than anybody. I really liked playing in that kind of world.
Aren’t you on stage with Albert Lee on one of the Crossroads Guitar Festival DVDs when he plays “Country Boy”?
Yeah. We knew each other in the ’70s. We used to jam around together and play together back then. He was a really gifted musician.
And is this accurate? You’ve won 20 Grammy awards?
Yep. If you knew what they were for, like guest appearances, collaborating, instrumental, songwriting, singing, producing, it’s pretty, well ... I’m proud of the diversity of what they represent.
And you were offered the chance to join Dire Straits?
In the late ‘80s Mark Knopfler was a fan of my playing, and he came to see me here in New York City. I think it was ‘89 or ‘90. We had never met before, and I adore his playing. He said, “I’m just curious if you might have any interest in being in Dire Straits. We’re getting ready to go on a world tour.”
I was so tempted because I was really struggling, not making much money. I had just changed record companies; I went from RCA to MCA. I spent seven or eight years in Nashville trying to have some hits and not much luck, getting a record to chart every once in a while but never the big home run. I had just made a new record with MCA with my friend Tony Brown.
I said, “As much as I need to do this, and I could really use the help financially, what I’m afraid of is if I say yes it will be turning my back on what I’m trying to accomplish in the country music world, and it will feel like I’m kind of quitting or failing.” I said I really don’t have any reason to believe it’s gonna turn around, but right now I want to bet on myself. It doesn’t look smart from here, but I have to do this. So I turned it down, and low and behold, a giant hit came right after that and changed my life. The best part was he still stayed in touch and asked me to come work on the next record he made, and I got to make a great friend and didn’t have to go on the world tour. (laughs)
You play on two songs on the new Joe Bonamassa album, Dust Bowl, "Tennessee Plates" and "Sweet Rowena." [As we listen to "Tennessee Plates" on my iPhone] Is that you on the left speaker?
You know, I don’t know [laughs].
And "Sweet Rowena" is a cover of one of your songs, correct?
Yes, it’s my song. I just played rhythm and Joe plays everything else.
He does a good job of sounding like B.B. King on that one.
He's an unbelievable guitar player. That’s what I mean; when you get around someone who is "that," all the way to his core ... but I like dabbling in it.
I suppose just knowing guys like Joe are around might keep you from making a blues album.
Well, every guitar player is insecure. Eric’s insecure, I’m insecure, Joe, I know from working with him I found out is we’re all just a little bit the same. It was really neat to find out that everybody struggles with that. You know, the grass is greener. That guy's so much better, his tone is better, blah blah blah. We’re all the same.
Any final comments about the new album?
It’s a great collection of songs. It’s a very musical record and there’s something for everybody. It’s all over the map; there’s a blues tune, there’s a pop-ish commercial, contemporary tune or two, there’s a romantic ballad, there’s dark subject matter, singer-songwriter songs and real hardcore country stuff with lots of steel guitar. It’s all over the map, just like I am.
Photo: Jim Wright