With his scruffy surfer-heartthrob looks, his celebrity lifestyle (he regularly shows up in paparazzi pics with his wife, actress Nicole Kidman), and his incredible string of hits—which includes 15 singles on the US charts, 10 of which went No. 1—Keith Urban is one of those success stories that’s so big it’s hard for serious musicians to take seriously.

But that probably says more about the skeptics and haters than it does the man himself. See, although Urban has been a mainstay on the American contemporary-country scene for the past 12 years or so, he started slogging it out as a session guitarist in his native Australia 20 years ago before scoring a record deal with his band the Ranch in the late ’90s. And though most of us are used to seeing him singing and wearing an amazing vintage guitar on a TV program or in a Target endcap display, that guitar isn’t just a stylish pendant. The man is a hardcore player—and not just of acoustic and electric guitar: He also plays bass, banjo, keyboards, mandolin, drums, bouzouki, and sitar.

Given that Urban’s audience is a lot larger than the world’s population of guitarists, it’s natural that people focus a lot more on his singing and songwriting abilities. Reviewers point out that his recent albums focus primarily on love. His November 2010 release,
Get Closer, is a largely upbeat affair full of happy songs dedicated to the positive influences of a solid relationship. He sings about putting his woman in a tune, taking her for a drive, loving her since the first day, and savoring the change she introduces into his life. Gossip magazine readers quickly assumed these songs were all about him and Kidman.

Urban inspires a toast from a fan with his double-cutaway Les Paul Junior.

However, given Urban’s enviable collection of vintage guitars, these sentiments could just as easily apply to his love of the instruments he uses onstage each night. Many of those axes were tragically damaged during the catastrophic flooding in Nashville, Tennessee, last year. As a guitarist who felt more like a caretaker of fine instruments than an actual owner, Urban was heartbroken when his guitars floated in dirty river water for days. He and his team struggled to resurrect the instruments, making the lyric, “Hiding from the world with a broken wing, But you better believe you gonna fly with me” particularly meaningful to this conversation. Currently, many of those rehabbed guitars accompany Urban on his 50-plus-city Get Closer 2011 world tour.