Nashville has held a reputation for chewing up and spitting out some of the most talented musicians in the world. Surviving is difficult, and thriving can seem downright impossible, but with the right formula, Nashville can be a promised land. For John Prestia, the formula is loads of talent, the ambition to stay in the city, and an insatiable desire to find great guitar tones.
John moved to Music City from sunny Sarasota, Florida a decade ago with hopes of becoming a better songwriter. He had been working 300 days a year as the frontman of the John Prestia Group, while simultaneously writing and co-writing songs – his “No One to Run With” with Dickey Betts was an Allman Brothers hit. He’s been releasing albums since the vinyl age, with 18 releases under his belt.
After spending part of his first year in Nashville as tour manager for Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, John found himself faced with the opportunity to wrangle guitars with Tim McGraw and his band, the Dancehall Doctors. This opportunity turned into a steady gig as the guitar tech for one of the most successful organizations in the entire music industry – the Tim McGraw/Faith Hill tour of 2006 broke all of the records of the time, grossing $89 million and selling 1.1 million tickets.
I met up with John in his workshop space, surrounded by mountains of amps, guitars and in-progress pedalboards, to chat about his demanding gig, Nashville, and – of course – the gear.
How did you get hooked up with Tim McGraw and company?
I had never dreamed of being a guitar tech, but I have always been a guitar “nerd.” I had spent 25 years making my living playing 300 nights a years, singing, writing and making my records – just doing my thing. All the while I’ve had an interest in the gear, building pedalboards and the like. I’ve always done my own guitar stuff ever since I can remember.
We’re surrounded by old Fender, Supro and Marshall amps, custom-built Hammonds, a rack of guitars marked with masking tape and Sharpie, old cases everywhere… Looks like a great job!
A sampling of John's gear room
I bring mountains of these amps into the Tim McGraw sessions for the producer and players to use, and we dig in for tones that work on the particular songs. Fortunately they give me a lot of leeway and trust to discover tones for the records. If the guys are sitting on the outer edges, I can listen to the near-field monitors with Byron, the producer, who is also a great guitar nerd, and point out spots where I hear the possibility for a certain tone. We might break out the '49 Supro, or if we want a big lush tone for a part, I’ll bring in the Marshall 4x12 cab with a Marshall head – whatever combination fits the track.
By not being in the cans concentrating on a part, I get to see the whole rainbow. I get to pick out colors, and it's really cool. I would have never thought of being a guitar tech, but I’ve since gotten hired to go into the studio for other records. I bring up an arsenal of tone machines and sit with the producer of the record, saying, “Maybe we'll tremolo this part or get nutty with the tone, or get a big fat rich tone,” that kind of thing. I'm way into that, and I'm lucky that Tim and the guys in his band are real receptive to my ideas.
How many guys do you tech for?
There's Denny Hemingson, a fabulous player, on steel and electric guitar; Darren Smith, the band leader and lead guitar; the bass player, John Marcus; and Bob Minor, the acoustic player. We also hire another guitar tech to tour with us, but I'm the full-time guy.
We have more than just an A-team of players here – we are like a family. That's what keeps me on here; I don't feel like I'm just a guitar tech, I'm part of the family. And I don't say "just a guitar tech" lightly, because we all have an important job to do out there on the road – they are all important jobs. If the lighting guy is rolling in a dimmer pack and something goes haywire, things get crazy and it could affect the show. We are all important to the end result. I think Tim spreads that down to all of us.
Tim McGraw must have amazing turnouts -- how many people come to the shows?
Between 15 and 20 thousand. On the last tour with Tim and Faith, we traveled with 22 tractor trailers and 18 busses; there were 130 people traveling and 50 to 60 local hands in each city to set up and tear down. It’s amazing to watch this thing start at 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning with trucks backing in and out, and by 3:00 in the afternoon we are sound checking. Watching it all come down is amazing – massive rigs, masses of people, and they all know what they're doing. It's like a dance and they all know the steps. My world is always the last in and the first out – you can't be bringing in the lights with 35 guitars in the racks set up.
What about the backline?
Yeah, I do the backline and I build the pedalboards. We run a clean stage, in that there are no amps in sight. We run stereo paired amps in big isolation boxes that we roll up under the stage and mic up. We have an incredible in-ear monitor system that all of the musicians use. I have the pedalboards pre-loomed to the amps, so the sound guys come in and mic the amps up, and the rest is all pretty much pre-set. In a realistic show-world, we have to be able to scroll through the sounds that are set up for each song in the show, just like the lights, so I build the pedalboards to be able to see the tones and find them quickly and be song or set specific.