Vernon Ice Black is one of his generation’s great session guitar players. Even if you don’t recognize the name, you’ll recognize his work. Anyone who has been near a radio in the past 30 years will.
For some 13 years, Black was a first-call guitarist for Mariah Carey. He has played with Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan and Herbie Hancock, and also served as musical director for the Spice Girls, which is a rare thing for a guitarist – the MD is a role typically given to keys players.
Last week, Black sat down with Mason Marangella of Vertex Effects to discuss his career and share the stories behind some of the biggest hits he has played on – and to play licks from some of them, too.
The video segment is one of a series of superlative conversations Marangella has conducted in recent months with some truly legendary session players, and is essential viewing for anyone with an interest in pop, or with designs on making it as a session pro.
But it is also essential viewing for gearheads, because Black brought along his go-to electric guitar, and this is one S-style that you won’t find in any stores.
Black’s hit-maker is named Sunnie. It has a Stratocaster-style body, fitted with an early-model Floyd Rose vibrato and a trio of Seymour Duncan Hot Rails single coil sized humbuckers. So far, so typical of a session player’s instrument; they like them versatile. Thereafter, it gets weird.
Built in 1982, Sunnie has a trio of pickups but no pickup selector. Instead, there are seven push buttons plus volume and two tone knobs. It’s the sort of guitar that should ship with a manual, a quick-start guide for the perplexed. Black says there’s nothing to it.
“It’s pretty simple actually. I love, first of all, the Strat,” he says. “We love the Strat sound and that natural out-of-phase sound that you can get. I just love that vibe. That was the reason I wanted to find a pickup that was shaped like [a Strat pickup]. And to learn that Seymour [Duncan] is my favorite. Seymour is my dude. Period. He had two double-coils but in the same size as the [single-coil] pickup. I said, ‘Sold!’ When we plugged them up it was like, ‘That’s it!’”
But what about the buttons? Well, as Black explains here, you can use them to turn the guitar off, which is a pretty useful feature to have as a session player if you’re waiting for your cue.
There are buttons to select each pickup individually. You can have any combination of them. Next, you’ve got a coil-split mode for the pickups. Then there’s the pièce de résistance – an onboard preamp.
“It’s a little hotter,” says Black. “And this preamp adds a little bottom and a little top, like a smiley EQ.” In any position, Sunnie sounds incredible. It’s rare to see it up close like this.
Speaking to Guitar Player in 2020, Black explained how the guitar was borne of necessity. Back in the early ‘80s, before he had made his name, he hardly had any money to buy anything else, and with the help of San Francisco luthier Dan Ransom, Joel Tosta, and Gary Brawer (a Guitar Player columnist and tech expert), Black managed to put together a serious guitar from parts.
“I was a kid with $27 to my name, so I bought a body shaped like a Stratocaster,” said Black. “Dan Ransom built me a custom bird’s-eye maple neck with an ebony fretboard and Dunlop 6100 frets. Gary installed the early model Floyd Rose tremolo you see on there today. The push-buttons on the pickguard allow for different coil combinations. One of them boosts things by activating a custom preamp/EQ. I call that the ‘whoop-de-doo button.’”
It’s an ingenious build. But Black has always had a mind for gear that broke the mold, and was instrumental in the design of one of the most legendary pieces of studio kit, the ADA MP-2 MIDI-programmable tube preamp, which alongside a rack-mounted tube power amp, would form the basis of his tone for those early Mariah Carey hits like Emotions – which is just one of the hits Black runs through in the video above.
You can check out more at the Vertex Effects YouTube page.