After Brad Paisley and I exchanged greetings, I asked him, “How does it feel to be on the cover of People magazine?” In a voice that revealed a hint of mischief, he replied, “This is gonna be a different type of interview.” It was just that.

Brad Paisley’s star has burned like a blazing torch since his first CD, Who Needs Pictures, hit the charts in 1999. Mixing country music tradition with red-hot Tele picking, contemporary sounds, and cutting- edge production values, Paisley is perhaps the hottest country superstar in ages.
Photo by Kurt Markus

He’s scored over 10 million album sales, 14 No.1 hits, boasts a virtual army of fans that cuts across generations, and sells out wherever he performs. He has won three Grammys and multiple Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music awards. As of this writing, he has been nominated for seven more CMA trophies.

From the beginning, Brad managed to use his road band in the studio—no small accomplishment in Nashville—and he’s charted his own course every step of the way, fortunate to have management and a record label that have given him free reign to do as he pleases. Very few Nashville artists can boast his accomplishments as a singer, songwriter and prodigious instrumentalist. Unlike People, however, we’ll focus on Brad Paisley, guitarist and gearhead extraordinaire. From his home in Franklin, TN, Brad and I spoke about equipment, his influences, his equipment, tone, his wife’s tolerance of that peculiar affliction known as G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), his equipment … and more equipment, his trademark pink ’68 Fender Paisley Telecaster. And by the way, his last name really is Paisley.

Let’s start by talking about the Play album. Can you tell us how that came about and what you had to do to make it happen?

Not a lot. I did a Christmas album between
Time Well Wastedand5th Gear, and I had such a good time making it that I wanted to do another low-pressure record and not have to worry about hit singles. I enjoy making commercially viable records, but there’s something to be said about making an album that’s selfish in a way. I had always wanted to do an instrumental record. The records that stand the test of time to me are instrumental albums, like Ah Via Musicom by Eric Johnson. We didn’t want to do something that was self-important, and we weren’t out to save the world or win song of the year.

It sounds like there was some compromising that must have occurred with that record. I’m sure your record company wanted hit singles, didn’t they?

They didn’t expect any singles. It was really easy. They said, “Here’s your budget. It’s lower than usual, but if you can make the album for that much, go do it.” After we finished it, they were ecstatic. Joe Galante, the president of my record company, believes that artists need to grow, and I respect him for that. Of course, we had a hit with that track with Keith Urban, “Start A Band,” but it wasn’t a preconceived thing to try and have a hit. Doing an instrumental album was great for me personally. We played on The David Letterman Show around that time, and their guitarist Sid McGinnis came out and talked with me, along with Paul Shaffer, so it did a lot for me as a guitarist.

Photo by Ben Enos, 2008
How did the track “Cluster Pluck” come about, and how did it come together with all the guest guitarists?

Those were my top seven guys: James Burton, Albert Lee, Redd Volkaert, John Jorgenson, Vince Gill, Steve Wariner and Brent Mason. If you put them all in a blender, it would probably come out as me. They were all influences. I think all of us try to emulate our heroes, but we’re never as good as they are. It was a real thrill to have them all participate. James Burton is the father of all those great Telecaster licks, and it was an honor to have him as part of that track. He had requested to meet me because he’d seen me on TV. James played that Paisley Tele with Elvis and Emmylou Harris and made it a very collectible instrument. Today, those original Paisley Teles go for about $15,000.

I just saw his original Paisley Telecaster in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

They have so many great guitars on display there.

Do you agree or disagree with the Nashville tradition of using studio musicians versus an artist’s road band in the studio?

I definitely disagree. I use my band and have from the beginning. My band is highly capable, and I have great drummer, but I can understand that if you go into the studio with your road drummer or any musician who isn’t familiar with the recording studio, you will have problem. There are a lot of reasons why they use studio musicians. Nashville is a very small, tight-knit community. It’s also because those studio cats are just such great players.

Photo by Ben Enos, 2008
When I got my record deal, I kind of got on my knees and begged them to let me use my band, and they agreed. They said, “Cut four tracks and see how they come out and we’ll go from there.” I knew my guys could do it. Fortunately, those four tracks were all hits, so I have been using my road band ever since. I’m very, very lucky; I get to do what I want, which is a rare thing. I think the smartest thing an artist or band could do today is to find a producer with a studio, make a record without a deal then sell it to a label. They’ll buy it just the way it is if they like it.

How did you get started playing guitar?

It was my grandfather. He used to sit in a chair on the front porch and play guitar. He worked for the railroad and didn’t go to work until 1 pm, so he sat and played one song after another. He was in love with the guitar, and used to give me advice and tell me that playing guitar would be a life-changing thingfor me. He taught me how to play initially, and then I took lessons.

One of the reasons we wanted to feature you in Premier Guitar is because you’re a self-admitted “Gear Hound.” What were your first instruments?

I had a Sears Silvertone my grandfather gave me, then a Sekova ES-335 copy. I didn’t have a high-quality instrument until I got a Tokai electric. You know how it is—you want a guitar that’s different, one your friend doesn’t have, so you buy it. Then your friend gets something really cool and you have to have one like that, so you buy one. Next thing you know, you have a house full of guitars.

It’s Teles in the studio and onstage, of course, but do you use any other acoustics and electrics either live or in the studio?

I’m identified with that Tele sound, but I use lots of stuff. I use an old Gretsch. I have a Gibson ES-335 that I use in the studio. I have a Music Man Albert Lee model that’s like a Strat. I love Gibson hollowbody guitars: ES-335s, Byrdlands, and those later Chet Atkins models that Gibson made. It makes me look like I have some class! For acoustics, I like older Gibsons and Martins, as well some newer handmade guitars.

I have a ‘70s Les Paul, but I have never felt comfortable with it for some reason. It’s never felt right to me. It isn’t nimble, if that’s the right word.

It’s been said you were responsible for bringing the Telecaster back to country music after it seemed to disappear. Do you think that’s true?

Is it back? I don’t think it’s really back. I don’t hear a lot of Tele-heavy stuff going on. I was a big fan of Buck Owens and Don Rich, and most of my heroes play Teles, so it was natural for me. I was just hoping they didn’t laugh me out of town! Country music runs such a wide gamut these days, from stuff like mine to harder-edged music, so you have guys using different guitars.

Keith Urban plays a Les Paul Junior; that’s never been considered a country guitar.

That’s right, but it works for him. I can’t take credit for bringing the Tele back.

I saw the photo of you with an old non-reverse Firebird in the booklet of Play. Was that the guitar you borrowed for that track with Steve Wariner, “More Than Just This Song?”

Yes, that Firebird belonged to my guitar teacher, Hank Goddard, from Wheeling, WV. He was a fantastic jazz player and a great teacher. Had he gone to Nashville at the right time, I’m sure he would have done very well, made a lot of money, and would have provided a better life for himself and his family. But he wouldn’t leave West Virginia. He had this idea that Nashville musicians were always on tour, but session musicians do their playing like a normal job and go home and have dinner with their families.