This is a feature from the May/June 2017 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features from our Country Music Special Issue, including an interview with country music legend Vince Gill and top-flight picker Brent Mason, the opening of the new Songbirds Guitar Museum in Chattanooga, plus the guitar design innovations of late jazz giant Tal Farlow, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking here.
GUITAR SLINGER: The tools of the trade for country legend Vince Gill are as classic and timeless as his music.
By Alan di Perna | Photos by Jeff Fasano
Grooming by Debra Wingo for Salon Wingo
Vince Gill’s musical output has been both prolific and diverse. He can break your heart with a mournful country ballad like 2013’s “Sad One Comin’ On,” or knock you out cold with bursts of breakneck guitar picking like the 2011 tour de force “Guitar Slinger.” While firmly anchored in country’s rich legacy of song, Gill has been especially adept at finding the common thread that links many styles of American roots music.
“My career has been all over the map,” he acknowledges. “It’s been real traditional country; it’s been real pop. It still rocks pretty good; it’s bluesy—all these things. I never wanted to do just one thing over and over.”
Since emerging in the mid Eighties as a country crossover hit maker, he has released a string of impeccable solo albums that showcase his sterling songcraft, his high, lonesome, Orbison-esque tenor voice, and his formidable six-string prowess. But Gill has also found time for side projects like 2013’s Bakersfield, a collection of rousing, honky-tonk renditions of 10 classics by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard that Gill recorded with steel-guitar ace Paul Franklin.
“I feel a real commitment to traditional country music because I think it’s waning from popularity and people don’t hear it so much anymore,” Gill says. “So I want to stick up for it. There will always be an element in me that wants to be reverent toward great traditional music. People don’t realize how soulful country music can be. It can be just as soulful as Ray Charles.”
In that same spirit, another of Gill’s side projects is the Time Jumpers, an all-star coterie of Nashville players devoted to western swing and kindred styles, which Gill joined in 2010. In fact, he recently bagged the 21st Grammy of his career for writing the title track to the Time Jumpers’ third album, 2016’s Kid Sister. Voted Best American Roots Song, “Kid Sister” pays homage to Time Jumpers singer and longtime Gill backing vocalist Dawn Sears, who died of lung cancer in 2014. Much of Gill’s work has taken an elegiac tone of late. The aforementioned “Sad One Comin’ On,” from his most recent solo album, Down to My Last Bad Habit, is a mournful country ballad occasioned by the death of Gill’s good friend, country legend George Jones.
“I think ballads are mainly what I do best,” Gill reflects. “I grow weary of a lot of hot-shot playing. I love the melancholy side of music. A great ballad is where a vocalist really gets to soar. And a player, too. I find that emotional playing is more interesting than fast playing. The older I get, the more I kind of point there.”
Still, when the time comes to whip out some stunning, lightning-fast riffage, “yeah, I’m ready,” Gill says with a laugh. And he’s certainly got the guitars to suit whatever musical mood strikes him. Comprised of some 150 instruments, his collection is very much a set of working guitarist’s instruments. Ever since the Tennessee floods of 2010, which claimed a number of Gill’s beloved guitars that he kept at Nashville’s Soundcheck storage facility, much of the collection now resides in his Nashville home.
“I have a studio in my house,” he says. “I like to have a nice array of different guitars available, because I always want different tones for whatever I’m recording. I’ve never bought anything that didn’t feel good or sound good for me. I never tried to acquire a massive collection just for the sake of having a massive collection. Even though this collection is small compared to some of the others traveling around the world, everything I have is quite nice—not a lot of dogs. Even in the vintage market, just because a guitar is old, that doesn’t always mean it’s great.”
Gill grew up in a guitar-centric environment, which ended up shaping his destiny. “My father played a little bit, and he had an old Harmony, a Gibson ES-125, and a banjo, too,” Gill recounts. “Those are the first instruments I remember being around as a little kid. My dad also had a little tenor guitar, which was like an ES-125 as well. It only had four strings on it, so it was easy for my little hands to make chords on it. That’s where I got going, until my hand got big enough to play all six strings. When I was 10, my father and mother got me for Christmas—in 1967, I think—a red Gibson ES-335 and a Fender Super Reverb amp, and I was on my way. I had my own gear and a red coil cord, and I was a force to be reckoned with.”
That guitar, which now resides in the Country Music Hall of Fame, served Gill well in many teenage rock bands. But by the time of his sophomore year in high school, he’d become obsessed with bluegrass music. Shortly after graduating, he acquired a guitar that is still one of the cornerstones of his collection: a 1942 Martin D-28 herringbone in mint condition.
“It cost $2,500 in 1975, which was a lot of money,” he recalls. “I traded in a newer Martin I had, a ’71 D-41, plus $1,500, and I got that guitar. That was all the money I had in the world—everything I’d saved for my future.”