Kurt Vile: "A guitar or any piece of gear has to look cool – it’s almost equally as important as the sound"

Kurt Vile with a vintage Fender Jaguar
Kurt Vile with a vintage Fender Jaguar (Image credit: Marina Chavez)

What was the first serious guitar you bought with your own money? 

“In my teens, I had a cheaper Les Paul called The Paul. My early recordings have that cool sound from The Paul, along with a Fender Vibro Champ and some filters. Around 2010, I was borrowing my buddy’s Martin dreadnought. I would always take it on the road and, finally, it got stolen, much to his chagrin.

“So I had to get two of the same model guitar [DC-16RGTE] from the Martin factory – one for him and one for me. That’s what’s over most of Smoke Ring For My Halo. It’s great for live and in the studio. It’s also on the song How Lucky [from Kurt’s new EP, Speed, Sound, Lonely KV (ep)] featuring John Prine, which is a special thing.

“But the guitar I bought right at the beginning of Wakin On A Pretty Daze is a Martin Custom Shop. It’s a 00, a 2011 Philadelphia Folk Festival 50th Anniversary model. I play and sing live on every song on that record with that Martin. It was a smooth guitar then, but it’s even smoother now. They evolve.

“I got the neck reset, which I regret, because now it feels like a different instrument – the action is too low. It’s kind of tricky with acoustics because you’ve got to take care of them. Martins stay pretty solid, but acoustics just get beat up by the road. I have two little Martins, but the neck on one of them is loose and is literally moving around.” 

Go and play the guitar first and see how it feels, then you should know for sure if it’s for you

What was the last guitar you bought and why?

“I was up in Massachusetts recently hanging out with the guitar god that is J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. It was pretty inspiring being around him. He’s a friend of mine and we’ve toured together. I happened to be up there when he was working on some music and a ’65 sunburst Fender Jazzmaster fell into my lap. It came from a friend of his.”

What’s your best guitar-buying tip? 

“Go and play the guitar first and see how it feels, then you should know for sure if it’s for you. You kind of know right away when you play something. It’s a little trickier these days because people are selling online so much, and with lockdown it was even more difficult. Sometimes you’ve got to roll the dice.

“I recently dragged my feet with a 1950 Gibson J-50 I was coveting, and it got sold, unfortunately. It was [producer] Rob Schnapf’s guitar and I played it on Pretty Pimpin’. I should have bought it. I regret not getting it because I could use playing an old 1950 J-50 right now!” 

What’s the most incredible find or bargain you’ve ever had? 

“My other bandmates are good at bargaining, but I’m more impulsive and if I want it I tend not to haggle too much. That said, the ’65 Jazzmaster I got through J was cheaper than I thought it might be, so I’m stoked about that.

“My guitar was always a pre-CBS Jaguar, but Rob Schnapf had this Jazzmaster I was playing and I got so used to the longer [648mm/25.5-inch] scale neck it was hard to go back to the [609.6mm/24-inch scale length] Jaguar, to be honest. Jaguars still have their thing, though, and I use them a lot playing around the house.”  

Kurt Vile

Kurt Vile with a Fender Jazzmaster, now his favourite offset (Image credit: Jo McCaughey)

You can capture some mojo in most things, if you’re not a pessimist. It’s the wizard, not the wand

What’s the strongest case of ‘buyer’s remorse’ you’ve experienced after buying a guitar or piece of gear? 

“I feel buyer’s remorse often because I’ll get something impulsively, like a pedal, and I won’t use it for a while. But I usually come back to it, and once I start using it I get ecstatic about it again. I don’t really regret anything I’ve bought.

“I like nice guitars and I like beater guitars. Same thing could be said of lo-fi versus high-fidelity – I can usually get some magic out of something. You can capture some mojo in most things, if you’re not a pessimist. It’s the wizard, not the wand.” [laughs] 

Have you ever sold a guitar that you now intensely regret letting go of? 

“Well, no, because I can never bring myself to get rid of stuff – even if something’s not being played as much or doesn’t sound as good any more, I’ll remember a song I wrote on it or where I was at the time. I just don’t want to get rid of those ghosts.”

Are there any common design features on electric guitars that are an instant turn-off for you when you’re auditioning potential new guitars? 

“I think, in general, a guitar or any piece of gear has to look cool. I joke and say, ‘That’s more important than the sound,’ but it’s almost equally as important because that gives you the inspiration to look at it. I do prefer things to look vintage, and as long as it’s got that vintage feel I usually gravitate towards it.” 

If forced to make a choice, would you rather buy a really good guitar and a cheap amp – or a cheap guitar and a top-notch amp? 

“I’d definitely rather have a really nice guitar because I’m going to be walking around the house playing it a lot more than I’m going to be plugging into an amp. That said, I did just buy a rare early 60s Gibson [GA-19RVT] Falcon amp. It’s beautiful. It’s almost broken, but that is kind of the beauty of it. They’re just so effortlessly warm. I’m into the small amps for recording. I’ve been recording on my own at home with Pro Tools. It’s a good time to focus on whatever’s around you, whatever that might be.” 

If you could only use humbuckers or single coils for the rest of your life which one would you choose and why? 

“It’s a tough choice, but I think single coils take to pedals better and they’re cleaner in general. I do love to dig in with the sound of humbuckers, but if I could only choose one, I would have to say single coils. Even if they do sometimes buzz like crazy.” 

What’s your favourite guitar shop and why? 

“My bandmate, Rob Laakso, schooled me on pre-CBS Jaguars; that was his main guitar back in the day. I was at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville and there were two ’64 sunburst Fender Jaguars next to each other, and I got exactly what I wanted. That’s my favourite shop. It’s an amazing place – beautiful guitars everywhere. I look forward to going back.” 

  • Kurt’s new EP, Speed, Sound, Lonely KV (ep), is out now via Matador 

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Rod Brakes

Rod Brakes is a music journalist with an expertise in guitars. Having spent many years at the coalface as a guitar dealer and tech, Rod's more recent work as a writer covering artists, industry pros and gear includes contributions for leading publications and websites such as Guitarist, Total Guitar, Guitar WorldGuitar Player and MusicRadar in addition to specialist music books, blogs and social media. He is also a lifelong musician.