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more... GuitaristsAugust 2011Keith Urban

Keith Urban: Aspiring Outlaw

Keith Urban: Aspiring Outlaw

Knopfler, Vintage Guitars, and Old Cars
Urban’s musical career began not on a well-loved guitar but on a simple instrument more aligned with soothing island rhythms than with searing solos.

“My dad bought me this ukulele when I was four,” he says. “I don’t know why he bought it for me. He comes from a musical family, so maybe he just thought it would be a cool thing. I used to strum that in time with the radio, so he thought, ‘When the kid gets older, maybe we’ll get him a real guitar to learn some chords—because he seems to have rhythm.’ It was just a progression from that little ukulele I used to hack at.”

As his musical endeavors grew, Urban initially focused more on songs, chords, and rhythms than on obsessively scrutinizing guitar heroes. “I just wanted to learn songs,” he recalls. “I learned a lot of songs that I heard on the radio, and I would not have a clue who was playing guitar. I was not really thinking about the lead guitar—I was just playing chords and singing.”

But that all changed when Urban discovered Mark Knopfler while playing in a band as a teen. An older bandmate suggested he check out the Dire Straits axe slinger. “I just fell in love with his playing,” Urban says. “Mark had a real clean, compressed, Strat style that was right at home with the kind of country music I was listening to. He had a melodicism and a touch and feel that was like nobody else. It was such a recognizable tone.”

Today, Urban’s love of vintage guitars, amplifiers, and automobiles is well documented. The fascination with cool rides comes from his father, who owned a Pontiac, a couple of Chevys, and some classic Lincolns.

“Old cars were part of my family,” he recalls. “But I never thought much about vintage guitars until I had some money. Suddenly, I got to play somebody’s Les Paul or old Strat, and it was just a whole different thing—there’s nothing quite like it.”

One of Urban’s favorite acquisitions is the iconic black-and-white, leather-wrapped Fender that outlaw legend Waylon Jennings made famous. Added to his arsenal in late 2009, the 1950 Broadcaster is particularly special not simply because of its historical significance. There’s a very personal tie-in to Urban’s life and career.

Chris Rodriguez (left) backs Urban on 6-string banjo while the boss takes a solo on one of his Teles.

“I grew up listening to Waylon and, ultimately, I probably have a career today because he had the courage to come to a town like Nashville and do it his way,” Urban says. “He wanted to use his own band, he wanted to choose the studio, he wanted to choose the songs, choose the producer—and that was not the way things were done. So many of us have that freedom today in Nashville, and we really have Waylon to thank for that. So that guitar represents so much to me about just following your path. Even if you come up against the system, you can stay true to yourself. When I plugged it in and played it, it was just amazing. It’s so full of mojo.”

While Jennings’ Broadcaster obviously stays at home, Urban uses a number of pricey vintage guitars on tour. And several of those—including a 1952 Gibson Les Paul Standard and a 1962 Gibson ES-335—were damaged in the Nashville flood.

“The Les Paul was submerged for four days. It has some flaking that happened after it got out of the water and started drying out,” Urban says. “From the goldtop around the pickups, there are huge chips that have come off since then, and it has bits flaked off all around the neck. That is particularly worn from all of the flood damage. The ES-335 was also a flood victim that has been salvaged. It does not look overly damaged, but it has a muted look to the lacquer and got more worn looking—much more so than before it went into the river.”
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