THE GUITAR LEGEND ON GEAR, HIS NEW RECORD AND A THRIVING CAREER
WITH A CAREER SPANNING FOUR DECADES AND MULTIPLE GENRES, VINCE GILL IS RENOWNED AS A MUSICIAN, SINGER AND SONGWRITER. HE IS A MUSIC INDUSTRY POWERHOUSE, WITH 26 MILLION RECORDS SOLD, 18 CMA AWARDS AND NO LESS THAN 20 GRAMMY WINS TO HIS NAME, AND PLAYERS ADMIRE THE DAZZLING TECHNICAL PROFICIENCY HE BALANCES WITH TASTEFUL, RESERVED PLAYING. WHETHER HE’S CHICKEN PICKIN’ ON A TELE, BLAZING THROUGH BLUEGRASS ON A FLATTOP, OR PLAYING WESTERN SWING, GOSPEL OR ROCK, VINCE GILL IS A CONSUMMATE ARTIST.
2016 finds him with a brand new release, Down to My Last Bad Habit, fresh off the presses and a number of other projects in progress, including a partnership with Guitar Center for OnStage With Vince Gill. He
sat down to talk with us about his career, new record and, of course, guitars.
Before his massive success as a solo artist began in the 1980s, before his earlier days fronting Pure Prairie League and playing with the likes of Bluegrass Alliance and Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill was a kid
growing up in Norman, Oklahoma with a passion for music. “From the very earliest memories I have, I was already wanting to flog a guitar,” he says. “Any time I had the opportunity to play, I took it. I practiced a lot
… when you’re a kid, you’re a sponge and you learn as much as you can.” He laughs and adds, “Then you spend the rest of your life trying to weed out what you don’t need.”
After his earliest days, teaching himself to play on his father’s Harmony archtop, Gibson ES-125 and a tenor guitar, Gill received the instrument that would launch a lifetime of dedicated playing. “I got a Gibson [ES-]335 when I was 10 years old,” he remembers. “It was the Christmas of ’67. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. I got that guitar and a Fender Super Reverb amp, and that was the greatest gift I ever got … I had no idea that those tools I was given at such a young age would be so impactful. I still have both those pieces.”
In fact, Gill has kept nearly every instrument he’s ever owned. “In my life of acquiring instruments, I’ve only gotten rid of one by choice … I lost a 1971 D-41 Martin … I traded it plus some cash for an old prewar
herringbone Martin D-28,” he explains. “I was 18 and just getting out there trying to make my way, and I spent all the money I’d saved for my future on his guitar. I found this unbelievably great old prewar
Martin and I had to have it. I started out dead broke, but I sure had a good guitar.”
After high school, Gill relocated to Kentucky to play with Bluegrass Alliance and Ricky Skaggs’ Boone Creek Band before taking a job with fiddle great Byron Berline. “He played with Bill Monroe. Had
quite a pedigree in bluegrass,” Gill explains. The Berline gig took him to Los Angeles. “I moved out there as a 19-year-old kid and the whole world was out there … You can’t even imagine, in the mid ’70s,
who was available and who was playing and where you could go. [I] soaked all that up, and was out there playing with Byron and then stumbled into the Pure Prairie League gig. I did that for a few years, then
played with Rodney [Crowell] and Roseanne [Cash] in the same time period, doing sessions … Then I started making my own records in the early ’80s and plowed away. And nothing’s changed. Forty years
later, it’s about the same,” he laughs.
While playing with Rodney Crowell in the Cherry Bombs, Gill picked up the tenets of professionalism that he holds to this day. “I remember great advice from Emory Gordy [Jr.], the bass player who played with us—had a brilliant career. He told me, ‘Man … don’t ever be the best musician in the band. You’ll never learn anything.’ So, the whole run, I’ve tried to surround myself with people I know are much better than I. It gives me room to improve, and great players will make you play better. They’ll bring you along. It’s inspiring to be around that kind of musicianship.” He brings this energy and philosophy to ONSTAGE with Vince Gill, which will award a winning guitarist with an opening gig for Gill, plus a package of other career-boosting prizes. “I think it’s going to be a great experience,” he says. “What’s interesting, though, is that I still feel like a student, even though I’m almost 60 years old. I look back on my youth when I was coming up … anytime someone that I looked up to was nice to me, I have never, ever forgotten it … The people that weren’t, you know, it puts a pretty sour taste in your mouth … I think it’s a bit dangerous to start thinking of yourself as the
mentor. It think it’s good if they come to you and want it, but if you think you have it and you should impart this wisdom on people—you stand to look like a knucklehead.”
When one has had a career as long and distinguished as Gill’s, one will pick up quite a bit of wisdom along the way. “Once you get a bunch of years under your belt, you find that it’s oftentimes the subtleties that people play with that are more inspiring than the amount that they play to try to impress you,” he says. “That very thing happened to me as a kid. One of my earlier sessions I played, it was my turn to play the solo
or whatever. I played it, and the producer comes over the talkback and says, ‘That was great … Let’s try it again,’ And he goes, ‘This time, just play me half of what you know.’”
That advice didn’t fall on deaf ears, and as his playing style matured, Gill’s reputation grew not only for his deft ability with solos, but also for the subtlety of his playing. “I’m not looking at music to be wowed,” he says. “I’m only looking at music to be moved.”
When it comes to playing, Vince Gill is most closely associated with the Telecaster, experimenting with its bright, tight tone much like his Tele heroes, including James Burton, the “Master of the Telecaster.” “I think one of the reasons I like Tele playing so much is that a lot of it seemed to emulate the steel guitar,” he explains. “James Burton put banjo strings on his Telecaster and [started] bending those things like a
steel guitar would … I’ve always been a huge lover of the steel guitar, the sound of it. I think my style of Telecaster playing is always pointed toward emulating what a steel guitar does.”
Gill found his prize Tele in 1978. “I wanted a Telecaster, because I was trying to figure out what James Burton and Albert Lee and all those guys were doing. Before that, I’d been mostly a 335 player.” The guitar he found is an unusual white 1953 Tele from an era when most Telecasters were butterscotch blondes. “That’s a rare bird,” he says. “And then to sound like it does, play like it does … The neck’s just a tad smaller than any of the others from the early ’50s that I’ve ever picked up. Fits my hand like it was meant to … It’s my Holy Grail, if I have such a thing.”
Another treasured Fender in Gill’s collection is a 1959 Stratocaster that once belonged to Duane Eddy. “I have several Strats—it’s embarrassing how many Strats I have from the ’50s,” he says. “But I play this one and the neck profile, the pickups, everything about it is suited for what I hear and what I’m looking for … It sustains a little longer, it’s a little sweeter sounding and a little smoother sounding, and it just stays with you forever. The thing I love about this guitar… it’s sweeter up top. Sometimes that top end can part your hair. And I don’t have much left, so I don’t want to part it.”
His versatile style requires a wide array of instruments. “I think that, trying to be a complete guitar player, you want to have all the tools in your arsenal,” he explains, and his massive collection of instruments attests to it. He favors Martin and Gibson acoustic guitars, and his amp collection ranges from the hottest boutique amps to vintage beauties, including a 1959 Fender Bassman.
On his newest release, Down to My Last Bad Habit, Gill harkens back to his earliest electric guitar days, playing a Gibson ES-335 on tracks like the single “Take Me Down.” “[It’s] all blown up and sustaining and throttling pretty good,” he says. Gill is constantly reinventing himself, with this new record taking a big leap from his recent efforts. “It’s got pop songs, blues songs, country songs, folk songs. It’s got a jazzy song on there. I just love all kinds of music and I don’t think there’s much point in just trying to be one thing.” That sentiment encapsulates Gill’s approach to songwriting and to his career. “I come at it from a musician’s heart—a musician’s point of view,” he says. “That’s all. I never saw myself as just a country singer.”
With this new release as well as new recordings and gigs with his Western swing outfit, The Time Jumpers, Gill is going to be busy for quite some time. “I’ve got my next two or three records in my brain. I think that all you really want to do is continue to be creative.” Once more, he laughs and adds, “I’m still nimblefingered, I don’t wheeze like an old dog yet, and I’m still improving … my songs are better and I’m singing better. So, away I go.”