Essential gear for country guitar - part 1: electric guitars

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(Image: © Future)

My name is Jim and I love country music. I care about getting it right. That means poring a lot of time and effort into the snaps, plucks, bends, and dead notes heard on my favourite country recordings.

90% of the tone can be coaxed out of the guitar, but the last 10% does come from gear

After the part is practised to the point where it becomes natural, the last step in getting it right is the tone. 90% of the tone can be coaxed out of the guitar, but the last 10% does come from gear.

Gear is sometimes hard to get a read on. The people who make the gear are very heavily financially incentivised to get you to buy as much new gear as possible. This creates a lot of fog because the guitars, amps, and pedals that get the most exposure and have the biggest marketing pushes aren’t always the best guitars, amps, and pedals.

This is why it’s really important to listen to and try out gear. Even if you can’t buy it, take the time to go to the music store and play the guitar/amp/pedal you’re dreaming about. Maybe it’ll sound great, but maybe it won’t! Either way, you’ll get a better idea of what your tastes are.

But to guide you along your journey, let me show you what historically has worked for country guitar players like me. This will take you through the three main parts of a country guitar rig: the guitars, the amps, and the effects.

Note: I tend to favor the gear that session guitarists use over road guitarists because that’s what you’re actually hearing on the recordings you listen to. Session players are under a microscope and have the highest expectation for their tone.

If you read these articles and have more questions, message me through the contact form at jimlillmusic.com/ama and I’ll be happy to get nerdy about guitar gear with you!

Part 1: Guitars

The Telecaster is king. It's an incredibly versatile guitar and it’s almost synonymous with country music. Its flavour of twang is unrivalled, the construction is rock-solid, and if you show up to play with a Telecaster you’ll be taken much more seriously than if you rock up with a BC Rich Warlock or a Dean Razorback. While lots of other guitars are used in country music, the Telecaster is the sound in your head when you think “country guitar”.

The Gibson Les Paul, Gibson SG, and on occasion Paul Reed Smith guitars also get used when a humbucker sound is needed, and for thicker parts that work well with lots of overdrive. Gibsons are often equipped with P-90 pickups for a sound that is janglier than a humbucker, but less focused and cutting than a single coil. These guitars are more popular in modern country and less popular for classic chicken pickin’.

Regardless of the guitar model, session players spend a majority of their time on the bridge pickup for a forward, aggressive sound

Stratocasters are used, as well, for parts that are best suited for a quacky or bluesy tone. Plenty of guitarists in Nashville enjoy the sounds and playing of Stratocaster heroes like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Eric Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and John Mayer, and those sounds can easily be layered into modern country recordings.

Hollowbody/Semi-Hollowbody guitars in the style of the Gibson ES-335 are another favorite among session muscians, due to their unmatchable warmth. They don’t sound like a “country guitar” and wouldn’t be the best choice for chicken pickin’, but they have a mellow sound that works well in recordings.

Niche guitars like Duesenberg, Fender Jaguar, Rickenbacker electric 12-string, or Jerry Jones Longhorn 6-string bass can be used for a unique sound in the mix.

Regardless of the guitar model, session players spend a majority of their time on the bridge pickup for a forward, aggressive sound. Switch to the neck pickup if you want to stay further behind the vocal in the verses or if the producer says “make it bluesier” or “make it sweeter/softer”.

1968 Fender Telecaster: a fine vintage favoured by Brad Paisley and Brent Mason

1968 Fender Telecaster: a fine vintage favoured by Brad Paisley and Brent Mason

(Image: © Neil Godwin/Future)

Most session players use vintage guitars. There was a narrow window in time where Fender was making incredible gear (roughly 1950-1970). In 1965, CBS bought Fender and gradually made many compromises to the guitars and amps for the purpose of cutting production costs. The Fenders from ’65-’70 are still great guitars, as many of the changes weren’t in effect yet. Brad Paisley’s number 1 Telecaster and Brent Mason’s number 1 Telecaster are both from 1968.

Vintage Gibson guitars from the 50’s and 60’s are also highly regarded (though the earliest models had inefficient hardware), and declined in quality around 1970 similar to Fender. Fender and Gibson aren’t the only options, which is fortunate because vintage guitars can have five-digit price tags. There are a handful of smaller companies that make session-worthy Telecaster, Stratocaster, and Les Paul style guitars.

Tom Anderson (my top choice) makes perfect guitars. Bill Crook makes perfect guitars. And there are companies like Suhr, Whitfill, and Jeff Senn that can give you the vintage tone of a guitar but with solid, modern construction.

Heritage guitars are made in the old Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, MI, and the best Les Paul style guitar I’ve ever played was one of theirs. A top Nashville pedal steel player named Russ Pahl makes a small number of Teles and Strats for people, too! Session players use these newer guitars alongside vintage guitars, often as equals.

Pickups

Voodoo, Bill Lawrence, and APC all make great Tele pickups that suit the country guitar style well. Tom Anderson builds his own pickups from original designs, often with Neodymium magnets as opposed to the traditional AlNiCo. Brad Paisley has a Fralin Blues Special in the bridge of his ’68 Pink Paisley Tele.

But a major consideration for choosing pickups is hum cancellation. The last thing you want to hear when a heartfelt country tear-jerker is fading out is the sound of loud 60-cycle hum coming from a single-coil pickup. Humbuckers in Gibson style guitars accomplish this, but for Tele, Strat, and P-90 style pickups you’ll have to search for hum-cancelling models.

Seymour Duncan's Vintage Stack is a pro pick for hum-free single-coil tone

Seymour Duncan's Vintage Stack is a pro pick for hum-free single-coil tone

This is why the Seymour Duncan Vintage Stack is the bridge pickup of choice for session legends J.T. Corenflos and Brent Mason, who account for 70% of the twang in the known universe. J.T.’s number 1 blue Tele and Brent’s number 1 grey Tele both have a Seymour Duncan Vintage Stack in the bridge and a Seymour Duncan Mini Humbucker in the neck. Both reject hum and sound perfect on countless major-label records.

In addition, J.T., Brent, and many others have Stratocaster pickups in the middle position to give their guitar the most versatility possible. Time spent on the middle pickup is fairly minimal, but if you need to cop Strat sounds it can be useful to have the option to flip to the middle pickup on your Tele, like Brad Paisley does on She’s Everything.

Fender's Deluxe Nashville Telecaster boasts a middle pickup for Strat-like sounds

Fender's Deluxe Nashville Telecaster boasts a middle pickup for Strat-like sounds

You can also go the opposite route and minimise the number of pickups with an Esquire or Les Paul Jr. An Esquire is a Telecaster with no neck pickup. A Les Paul Jr. is a Les Paul with no neck pickup. The absence of a neck pickup means there’s no magnetic field in the neck position sucking the strings down and the guitar will have a bit more sustain.

Esquires and Les Paul Jrs aren’t a top choice in sessions because they lack versatility needed for doing five different songs in a three-hour block, but it’s good to know what they are.

Specs

Tele and Strat body wood is usually ash or alder, and the necks are almost always maple, sometimes with a rosewood fretboard. In my experience, a rosewood fretboard will dampen some of the high frequencies and attack of the guitar, making it sound a little smoother. It’s a subtle difference, though. Gibsons are usually made of mahogany with set-neck design, where the neck is glued on instead of bolted on. SGs have thinner bodies than Les Pauls, tending to be midrangier with less low-end.

As far as the other minor details like pots, nuts, tuners, and even bridges, different guitars will work best with different solutions and there isn’t a clear “winner” across the board. Some people like six-saddle bridges and some people like three-saddle bridges. Some people like having a Strat-style trem system, some like a Bigsby, and many swear by traditional hardtail style so their bends always stay in tune. It’s preference.

Rare and beautiful B-Bender electrics - in pictures

It’s also worth noting that some session players’ Telecasters have “benders”. A string bender is an apparatus that is installed in the body of the guitar, and it lets you pull a string down through the bridge a small amount when you tug on your own strap by pushing the guitar toward the floor. This makes the string get tighter and the pitch raises by a whole step (or however much you set it to). Benders are usually put on the B string, G string, or both.

Joe Glaser and Charlie McVay are two of the main bender makers/installers. It is not necessary to have a bender in order to play crazy country bends, as evidenced by people like Johnny Hiland and Jerry Donahue, but it is part of the flavour of players like Brad Paisley and Diamond Rio’s Jimmy Olander.

And a big part of the guitar that is often overlooked and unfortunately not widely available is a professional setup. Joe Glaser is the go-to guy in Nashville for professional guitar setups. He and his employees work on everybody’s guitars and were prominent in restoring and repairing water-damaged guitars from the Nashville flood of 2010.

Almost every session player has their necessary setup work done by Joe. One cool thing about Joe’s shop is the presence of a PLEK machine that does mathematically perfect fret work along with Joe’s proficiency and knowledge in operating it.

The main goal is to find a guitar that resonates well unplugged, feels comfortable in your hands, stays in tune, and sounds great when you plug in.

If you enjoyed this article so far, check out my YouTube channel at youtube.com/c/jimlillmusic, and if you like the videos on that channel you’ll probably like the full courses at jimlillmusic.com/full-courses. Join me in part 2 of this series where we go over the amps used in country music!