The master of the Fender Tele talks guitars, amps and more.
Brad Paisley is a critically acclaimed singer, songwriter and guitarist who has earned three Grammys, 14 Country Music Association Awards, 14 Academy of Country Music Awards, and membership in the Grand Ole Opry, among many other honors. Since his first #1 single in 1999, he has placed 21 singles at the top of the charts. His latest album, Wheelhouse, finds him as writer or co-writer of all of the tracks and, for the first time, stepping into the role of producer as well.
It all started with one guitar. Paisley has fond memories of his first guitar (now on loan to the Country Music Hall of Fame), which was given to him by his grandfather. “I had just turned 8 and it was Christmas. He was a stay-at-home player who worked on the railroad. He would spend most of his off time in an easy chair with an acoustic guitar. I was interested in it because I loved him. It was really a fun thing to get and a life-changing gift, more so than anything you could have ever gotten at 8 years old.” He continues, “Grandparents can have influence that parents can’t have. I’m watching that with my dad. He just has something with my little boys that I don’t have—in a good way—that I could never have as their dad. There’s something that carries a little more weight. Because most of the time, for a grandparent, they’re not disciplining the kids at all and they’re not being the hammer, the gavel that says, ‘no, you can’t’ or ‘yes, you can’ or whatever. When my dad tells them something, I notice how it carries a lot of weight.”
Long after his first guitar and local success, Paisley earned an ASCAP scholarship to attend Belmont University where he received a bachelor’s degree. A few years after graduating, his career was taking off and with it, a formidable guitar collection. Tragically, he lost a considerable amount of gear in the flood that ripped through Nashville in 2010. “There were guitars, nicer acoustics and things that I would keep at home, and a couple of older electrics and stuff that you wouldn’t want to beat up on the road, like Gretsches and Gibson hollowbodies and vintage Fenders. I’d say around that time I probably had 50 or 60 guitars. Then the flood came and wiped out everything I toured with and a lot of what was in storage. I literally went from like 50 to ten, something like that. Frankly, the ten that remained, a couple of them were really important.”
Having the foresight to take care of his main guitar far before the flood, Paisley managed to save that instrument. “My main old Tele is something that I always put in a safe place when I‘m off the road. It doesn’t go in a truck or into storage or anything. I had this rule from the day that I started that my tech would always take it home or take it to my house. Or it would go in my bus after the gig. It just never went in the truck or sat in a dressing room where somebody could pick it up and take off. I got a big gun safe, like the kind you would keep rifles in and I keep guitars in it—just a couple of the ones that, should the house burn down, I would want to be okay. When everything flooded, that’s where it was. In the end, it’s like there’s one thing I’ve done right, in terms of planning that way.”
Unfortunately, his amplifier collection didn’t fare nearly as well. “Every amp I toured with and most of the ones I record with were ruined. There were a couple that I never take on the road—like an old AC30 that I loved. When I sort of went all the way down to almost nothing, the next thing you know, insurance starts writing checks. Vince Gill and I, Keith Urban and people like that—we all lost hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stuff.”
Starting nearly from scratch, the guitarist known for his tone and gear choices began to get everything together again. “Insurance writes you a check and then says, ‘Here’s compensation for everything that you had insured.’ The next thing you know, it’s like—well, they’re going to tax that if you don’t spend it on instruments. I justified sort of going out and completing my wish list with it. Keith [Urban] and I were asked in a press conference after the flood, ‘Have you guys started to replenish those instruments that you lost?’ Keith said, ‘Well, I kind of feel like, out of respect for some of those old guitars, they’re sort of like old girlfriends and I don’t know that I can replace them. It’s not like I can just grab something else and it feels right.’ They said, ‘What about you?’ I said, ‘No, I‘m sort of like the loosest kid in the high school now.’” He says laughing, “I’m sort of just going around, ‘You’ll do.’” Quantity aside, he did get a few dream instruments he had always wanted as well. “A lot of different instruments were things I always wanted. I got a great couple of ‘60s Strats that were wonderful.”
A main axe that came into his collection recently in the replacement process is his G-bender-equipped ’63 Fender Tele. “Here’s a funny story. That guitar was bought at Guitar Center in L.A. It’s a great old Tele—original pickup, original wiring and all that, but it was covered in goop and sparkly material. Somebody, like, went to Michael’s and decided they were going to make it a sparkle Telecaster. They just dumped glitter on it and it looked horrendous. But it weighs about 7 pounds, maybe 6 1/2. It’s like a featherweight guitar with great electronics and the worst finish I’ve ever seen.” Paisley gave it to his luthier to be refinished. “I said, ‘Somebody wanted it to be sparkle, so let’s make it sparkle.’ Which, as a Buck Owens fan, I’ve always liked a sparkly Telecaster.”
The flood also gave him a chance to connect with Gibson and work on a signature Brad Paisley model. “I had an old J-45 that was one of my main acoustics. There’s something about those that is really nice. They said, ‘Let us make you a signature model that’s based on that.’ They put a really high-end pickup system in it, too, which is a nice thing to be able to have.” Not being his style to limit himself to just one acoustic guitar, of course, Paisley has another. “I sort of use two different acoustics. They are very different, even though they’re similar looking. The J-45 is a good example of the Gibson slope-shouldered dreadnought guitar. Then I’ll use a Martin-type dreadnought—I have a herringbone D-28. It’s an old one from the ‘30s. It’s become my sort of best friend in a musical sense. They’re great. Those two, the Martin and the Gibson are two different animals completely. That’s what’s so interesting, is that a Martin is that deep, throaty, bluegrass acoustic that still has high end—it still cuts through a bluegrass jam session. And then there’s a rhythm-type thing that you would associate with the Beatles or rock ’n’ roll in a Gibson acoustic. The Gibson has this jangle to it that I’ve always loved. I could get by with those two types of guitars for an entire album, honestly.”
Paisley was also able to connect with Brian Wampler for a number of effect pedals he utilizes in his rig, including The Paisley Drive. “I was using already a delay or two that he had made. He’s just really great at being creative with these things. It’s not easy to do, to create new pedals that are—I mean, there are so many now. The boutique pedal market is unbelievable. He came to a gig and brought me a few things he was working on and said, ‘Would you want to do anything?’ So, he built me three or four prototypes. We ended up picking one I really liked that I felt like was really something unique and it had its own thing. It’s a great overdrive pedal. It’s loosely based on the Tube Screamer mentality, but it’s got a little more control and a really useful switch that changes your midrange spot in three different places. I think it’s great. I’ve heard nothing but great things from people who bought it.”
While Paisley does work with a few different builders, he hasn’t loaned his name to any one amplifier. “I feel like the last thing somebody wants to do, honestly, is stand there with a Brad Paisley amp. Even the biggest fan as I am of guys like John Jorgensen and Jeff Beck or Robben Ford or whatever, I don’t want to play the Robben Ford model on the stage. I’ll buy something just like what he has, but I want to make it my own. And I wanted people to be able to make amplifiers their own. It might be somebody standing on the stage that isn’t the biggest fan of mine, but if they’re standing there playing the Brad Paisley amp, then there is this sort of thing that’s like in your mind or in somebody’s mind seeing them do that, they must be a big fan of his.” As he explains, laughing. “That’s not true. You might just like really good amps and not this hillbilly idiot.”
Brad Paisley is currently on the road on the Beat This Summer Tour presented by Cracker Barrel Old Country Store®. With Paisley’s band members set since 2000, the tour promises to be another favorite for fans of live music. Enjoying the success of his first self-produced album, there’s no telling what the future may hold for Paisley, although it’ll probably include more gear and any number of new musical adventures. As he says, “I think all of us are the same way in music. We never stop looking for something new and exciting. It’s just never going to be that moment when you are done, where you’re just, ‘okay that’s it—I’m going to sound exactly like this from now on.’ No one ever does that.”