Interview: Brad Paisley on Fenders, floods and his career so far

Country music is hard to sell in the UK. You don't hear it on the radio for a start. Yet merely scratching the surface of the Nashville scene will uncover a wealth of prodigiously talented writers, musicians and producers.

Dig deeper and you unearth a mine of world-changing music. In the thick of it is Brad Paisley, the 37-year-old singing/writing/playing sensation originally from Glen Dale, West Virginia. Guitarist magazine caught up with Brad on a visit to London during the summer of 2010...

"It's the job of the songwriter to stray from the comfortable."

Beneath the brim of Brad Paisley's signature Serratelli hat you'll find the whole package: good looks, a velvet voice, immense guitar skills and a seemingly innate ability to write killer country songs.

The proof is 15 number ones in the US country singles chart - 10 consecutive at the last count - and reaching number two in the Billboard album charts twice. Paisley was encouraged to play by his grandfather who gave him his first guitar, a Sears-made Silvertone, when he was eight years old. He later received lessons from a local legend, Clarence 'Hank' Goddard, and from that moment the way forward was clear.

"I've always known from the time I was eight years old what I wanted to do," smiles a relaxed Paisley backstage at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire. "I would have been fairly content to be someone's lead guitar player," he continues.

"That would have been plan B, or be a session player." Plan A? "To do this - to be the guy that doesn't have to turn his amp down!"

So while lots of other kids were getting into Eddie Van Halen and rock and metal, you were the guy listening to Western swing and jazz?

"Yeah, and country - all that. It was a completely different upbringing. I got into the rock stuff later, but I gravitated more towards Eric Clapton, The Eagles, The Beatles… guitar-oriented music.

"Though I did learn my fair share of Van Halen stuff and ended up loving them! But they were different, you look at it now, is that even heavy metal? I don't think so. Van Halen was an emotion; it was about having fun, going to the beach…"

Did you get fixed on certain players?

"I tended to lean towards the guys who both sang and played, such as Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Steve Wariner… And at the other end of the spectrum I had Eric Clapton in a rock and blues sense, jazz guys such as Tal Farlow and Les Paul… Then Chet Atkins-type stuff.

"And guitar players that are iconic such as James Burton, Don Rich and Roy Buchanan - those Telecaster players that played with that twang. I always love that, that sound that came from Bakersfield."

As you were becoming more successful, did you come under any pressure to scale back the guitar and focus just on singing and looking pretty?

"The closest we got to that was when my first album came out. One of the heads of my label said, Let's not talk about your guitar playing for the first single or two. The first two singles I had were very serious ballads.

"They established me as a singer and a legitimate artist before… Y'know, it's a lot of information to say here's what he does: he writes, he plays the leads, this and this and this... People don't care, they just want to know whether they like it or not.

"Then when we started to do well, that's when we started to push [the guitar] side of things a little more."

With that in mind, you released Play in 2008, which was more overtly guitar focused - is that something you might do more of?

"With that I'd reached a really good cruising altitude so I went to the label and said, I'd really like to cut an instrumental record. They didn't flinch and just said, Yes… but it can't count towards your deal [laughs].

"It's nice to do a no-pressure record where it's not about hit songs; it's about having a good time, showing off - all of those things that guitar players like to do.

"Now the music landscape has changed. We've had these conversations; people's appetite for music has increased, while their attention spans have shrunk. So we're talking about doing little EPs for the internet, so you go on iTunes and release four or five songs.

"Y'know, I could go and record some things with BB King and Robben Ford, some of these guys I've become friends with, and maybe do more of a blues thing; release that on iTunes exclusively, or Amazon or whoever. I think the next incarnation of Play or something in that style will be like that."

You're a fan of the lyrical turn around - as used in the payoff line in songs such as Me Neither, I'm Gonna Miss Her, Oh Yeah, You're Gone and lots of others - did something specific inspire that?

"It's what I grew up listening to. My favourite old country music always had hooks like that. I try to write like the writers I admire - I rip them off in form. It comes from George Strait and Merle Haggard records, and country music in general is really good at that, the twisted phrase… So I'm always looking for that angle in my own work."

And the humour in the lyrics…

"That comes from Roger Miller, and Buck Owens was no stranger to a funny song. Johnny Cash did a lot of funny songs - One Piece At A Time, A Boy Named Sue… I mean he did more funny songs than he did songs about prison, but he'll always be the guy who sang about prison."

How far can you go with that?

"Yeah, you can go too far, and I'm pretty happy with where we haven't gone so far [laughs]. I don't regret anything we've sung about and we push it a little now and then. It's vernacular.

"There's an expression that [George D] 'Judge' Hay - who was the announcer at the [Grand Ole] Opry - used to say before he opened the curtain. He would tell the band, Keep it close to the ground, boys. Which just means keep it down to earth.

"Don't try to write above that; don't try to write for a high-brow, pretentious audience. That's not who's out there. I look out there and that's not who's in front of me."

So at one end is the humour and at the other are more serious issues, such as those you touch on in Welcome To The Future on the new record. Is that tough ground for a major Nashville artist?

"Racism, yeah. A little bit. Going in I knew the first two verses would be met with enthusiasm and the third verse [Paisley refers to people burning a cross in a black man's front yard] would be met with emotion, but also with a little look to the left and to the right and see what the person next to you thinks.

"But that's the job of a songwriter and artist; to stray from the comfortable, especially when you believe in it. For me, singing about racial progress in a triumphant, this-is-a-good-thing manner just shouldn't be questionable.

"We're very comfortable in country music just sticking to the themes; the four-wheel drive, the summer time, and prison and whiskey and all that. Then when you stray outside of that…

"I felt great about it because I believe that was progress, as far as the fact that we were able to look past race for the first time ever in our country to the degree that we elected a man from an ethnic minority to office. I was proud of our country for being that open-minded, because I didn't think anybody else thought we'd be ready for that.

"It wasn't a political statement at all for me, it was about celebrating that. All told through the eyes of hope and looking at the bright side."

Thinking about playing, a lot of people are amazed by the economy of the picking hand technique in a lot of country guitar playing - presumably you're pick and fingers all the way?

"Yeah, although I play a little differently in the studio than I do live. I would say live I rely more on a pick than I do in the studio. Live I'm playing these songs, and I'll run from one side of the stage to the other and the finesse that comes with the three fingers plus your pick and thumb can get lost, plus it's really easy to break a nail or something.

"So I'll use a more pick-based attack. Though I still use this [demonstrates using his second and third fingers to pull and snap the strings] - that's really important.

"In the studio there's a little more finesse, y'know, you're sitting in a chair, focused with your headphones on. And I'll build solos the way you'd build a vocal track.

"We'll play some things and I'll say, I really like the way that starts, but I don't love the end, so let's punch in to that. Then my challenge is to learn it! Playing it live is a different approach."

Do you hit the guitar hard?

"I hit the guitar pretty hard. I come from a couple of different backgrounds and one is a bluegrass background. You want a big, loud D-28 and you want big, heavy strings on it and you'll hit it as hard as you can.

"I dig in pretty deep on the strings. But not so deep - I mean ask Chad - Chad, when was the last time I broke a string? [Chad Weaver, Paisley's guitar tech confirms: "Um, you've never broken a string with me, in almost five years."]

"I broke one at a pick-up gig once, but that was somebody else's guitar - bad strings [laughs]. Actually that's an endorsement right there for Ernie Ball. Regular Slinkys - 0.010-0.046 - just as is."

It seems like you prefer the Custom approach to things - thinking about Crook Custom Guitars, Dr Z amps and Keeley effects - so what made you go with Gibson for your new J-45?

"I've got a really good old J-45, and the guitar that this new one is based on even more is my producer's J-45. J-45s are great, when you think about The Beatles, that hit-it-as-hard-as-you-can, rock-style acoustic.

"I wouldn't play a bluegrass song with it, but this guitar they built me is a fantastic instrument, plus it has one of the best pickup systems I've ever heard [Fishman Ellipse Aura]. It has acoustic guitar modelling combined with a bridge pickup.

Brad trades licks with pedal steel ace Randle Currie.

"They actually took the guitar into the studio after they'd built it, mic'd it and did four mic'ing set-ups, one of them being the one I use in the studio. It works great live. I just got a new one because I lost the last one in the flood and it's the best one I have. That says something, because it was never destined for me originally."

The Nashville flood: apart from the human tragedy, which was of course desperately sad, you lost a load of gear?

"I lost everything I toured with at the time. Every guitar but one, my main old Paisley Tele from the sixties was at home, and the rest of it was in a locker awaiting our rehearsals at the time.

"It flooded five feet high. Every guitar, every amp. Every Dr Z amp, every Tony Bruno amp, every Vox that I had in there. Every Tele that I would use on a nightly basis, every acoustic…"

Necessity is the mother of invention - did losing your gear spur any set-up changes?

"Yeah we started buying stuff! The guitars are a new Gibson acoustic, the first of the production ones, and all new Teles other than my '68. Bill [Crook] just built me two right off the bat - he was actually about to ship one out to a customer who had ordered a duplicate of the black and white paisley one I play and he called him and said, Can you wait a couple weeks? I called the guy and thanked him because I had it that weekend for our first show.

"We were scrambling. I had to use some guitars that I don't usually have on the road - and I didn't have them for a reason, because they weren't as comfortable to me. Then Bill [Crook] flew in to our rehearsals and started rewiring, trying to get them to sound like I wanted, and now I have a collection of guitars that are all brand new. I'm getting to know them every night."

Given the name, was it inevitable that you'd end up with a Paisley guitar?

"It probably was. I didn't have one until 1993 or '94. People were always saying I should be playing a Paisley Tele, but I just thought they were ugly. And then it evolved.

"I was always into James Burton, he was one of my heroes, so I went and found one at a guitar show and that's the main one I have now. It came from San Antonio. I had a bender put in it, fell in love with it, and it's my main guitar.

"The late sixties Teles are the best value you can get for a vintage guitar. They hadn't become the homogenised CBS guitars; they were still basically made by the same exact people that made the fifties and sixties Teles.

"They just aren't worth as much, although the Paisley ones are now getting $20,000. Then the seventies, man, you could pick up a Tele and it'd be 10 lbs. Mine is real light."

What do you look for in a Tele-style guitar - what are the important things for you?

"For me it's the weight of the wood - I like 'em light, pretty much the lighter the better as a rule. I haven't heard many light Teles that don't sound good - there's something to that.

"I like a thick neck, I like a certain sized fret - just bigger than vintage, but not like the oversized ones…"

Something like 6105s?

"Yeah, something like that. I think that's what he puts in most of them. I like a pickup that's not too bright. I have all kinds of pickups; Lindy Fralins are what's in my '68 Tele.

"Two songs into my first album, Who Needs Pictures, the winding started coming apart on the pickup, so I had to go find some. I went to a music store, tried a bunch and picked a Fralin and that's been in there ever since. He builds some great sixties-style pickups.

"But I usually gravitate more towards the fifties-style pickups. I have some Seymour Duncans that he built for me - sort of a '52 Tele-type thing. I have an original '52 Tele - a re-fin with the original pickup - there's something about them. The notes have a glue to them that maybe time gives them.

"Voodoo pickups we use a lot. There's a Klein in something - every manufacturer has different ways, but I like them around the same level. But I'm not like Eric Clapton, where he could walk into a store and pick a guitar off the shelf and it'll sound like every one he's got. I don't like that."

There's a sound in the intro to American Saturday Night - it sounds like a halfcocked wah or something…

"It is. That's exactly what it is, through a tiny amp that Dr Z makes called the Mini Z, just eight watts. When you crank that thing up and put a [Shure SM] 57 or something in front of it, it sounds like a Marshall stack! Then we just half-cock the wah. It's a Real McCoy wah.

"I like it when two sounds complement each other, but are way different on a record. You wouldn't associate that halfcocked wah/Money For Nothing sound with a country thing, but it really works for us. I like to take what is essentially a country music piece, then see what you can get away with as a guitar player."

Steel guitar - it must take a lot of working out to balance parts, given there are a lot of shared frequencies?

"Yeah, we have to trade off quite a bit. But I have a more British thing in my sound than a lot of Nashville guys who maybe use a Fender Twin. The 'Blackface', thick, deep thing, that's a Tele player channelling steel. I'm more of a Bakersfield-meets-British tone in the sense that I'm always trying to be John Jorgenson, that's what I'd call probably my favourite guitar player and tone.

"The Desert Rose Band, that was the first time I heard a Vox AC30 that I knew of - obviously I'd heard them on records before that. They were running them not up to distortion, more like noon on the volume; bright and clean.

"This overly harmonic Telecaster, which to me just blew away 'Blackface', because I'd heard so much of it, from what Albert Lee was doing, to Vince [Gill] and Ricky Skaggs."

The class A, EL84 sound with the EF86 up front - how does that feel as a player?

"Well, you don't need a compressor pedal. I don't even use one. I do have one in the rack and I've used it for certain songs live, but I've never recorded a lead guitar track on any of my records, as far as I can remember, with a compressor pedal.

"What I find is that when you stick a compressor on a 'Blackface' amp, it smoothes it out, gives it a sag and a catcher's mitt for each note that's not there because 'Blackfaces' can be harsh. They have a 'V' [EQ] scoop, and what you're doing is smoothing out your highs and creating more evenness.

"No matter how good kids are at Guitar Hero, they're going home alone... they'll figure that out."

"With a Vox, I never liked what the compressor did, because it's taking away some of the harmonics. Your harmonics are going wild on what you would call class A, which isn't technically the right term for it - cathode-biased or whatever you want to call it.

"But that thing where more harmonic structure gets through to the power amp, which is then a very hot, non- [fixed] biased, not A/B-type thing. It's more aggressive, but at the same time it has a chokiness to it. Forgiving, maybe."

Did the love of AC30s lead you to Dr Z?

"I had an old, red-covered '63 AC30 - one of the best AC30s I've ever heard. I cut the whole of the first record with it. But it was on the road and it was starting to gasp a little bit, so I went down to a small store in East Nashville.

"He had a Mazerati there, that's more of an A/B design, but it's a four-EL84 amp that he'd sort of built for Joe Walsh. It had two 10s and I plugged into it and it was really cool. Then I thought, I wonder what it would sound like with Vox Blues [Celestion Alnico Blue].

"So I took it to Kendal's [Marcy, keyboards, banjo] house and he had my speaker cab there. And there it was. They weren't making really good AC30s at that time, 1999 - they hadn't done the hand-wired ones then, and I didn't like the sound of the printed circuit board ones. But I was finally able to leave my Vox at home.

"I got to know Dr Z, and then we started to evolve. That amp was good for me, but it wasn't perfect…"

Hence the Z Wreck we've seen on stage…

"The latest one he's built me is really fantastic. It was built in cooperation with Ken Fischer and he built me that 220-volt one for this tour."

You've had lots of great guitar players guest on your records - from Vince Gill to Steve Wariner and Albert Lee. On the latest record is Robben Ford…

"We've become good friends. He's a huge, huge influence for me. I went out and bought Talk To Your Daughter when I was in high school, then I listened to some of the Yellow Jackets stuff. That's one of the rare cats of the world right there.

"We had the best time writing, it was neat to have him on it - we'll do some more, and let me tell ya, he ain't scared!"

Before we wrap things up, how do you feel about the general state of guitar playing? What about Rock Band and Guitar Hero, for example - are we in a good place?

"The jury is out on whether that's positive. It's positive if it allows kids… if that's where their interest begins, as long as they go somewhere else with it.

"If a little kid picks up Guitar Hero and learns Smoke On The Water, he soon finds out that if he wants the chicks to look at him, he'd better learn it on the guitar! No matter how good they are at Guitar Hero, they're going home alone. I have faith they'll figure that out and want to learn the real thing.

"We're in a period of time where it's been uncool to have great guitar solos in your music in a lot of formats. Other than John Mayer on the pop side, it's all just about banging. But it used to be cool - even some of the best Michael Jackson songs had amazing solos - Lukather and those guys.

"Then came the eighties where every rock band had the household name guitarist, CC DeVille, Nuno… but less so now.

"In the positive sense, perhaps because of Guitar Hero, kids are going back and looking at those guys. I mean somebody told me that Ibanez Jems, Yngwie Malmsteen Strats and those kinds of guitars are selling well. That's got to be from Guitar Hero, 'cos that stuff is not getting played on the radio."

What about you then, because now you're the guitar hero. Kids are looking at you…

"Ah they just don't have anything else, that's all [laughs]. The guitar is fun, and it's more fun than just being famous. I'll talk to guys who are bored because they don't like to tour, but they need the money.

"Then there's Vince Gill, and guys like him. He just loves to play guitar for anyone who asks, and for anyone who'll pay him what he's worth. Robben Ford is another one. All of us, we're just in heaven when we're up there playing in front of an audience. That's the fun part."

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Editor-in-chief, Guitars Group