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Rock guitarists do not age gracefully. At best, there’s something comical—or at worst, a little sad—about an old guy rocking an Explorer under a big gut, one unsure foot creaking on the monitor while the stage fan blows through thinning dyed hair.
There are exceptions: Keith and Ronnie, of course, will always be cool. Jimmy Page has successfully traded his sexy rock god stature for a regal presence, though his grey hair makes him look a bit like the Quaker Oat man. Steve Cropper, though technically a senior, looks like he could kick my ass, and therefore remains indelibly cool. Old black guys always look cool with a guitar in their hands. (Nobody is ever going to tell B.B. or Buddy they should consider retiring.) However, I’m not sure how well I’m going to fare when those bitches we call time and high mileage begin to steal away my boyish good looks. After giving this some thought, I came to a realization: I needed a Plan B.
That’s one reason I started playing pedal steel: Take an ancient, hunched-over fat guy, give him the requisite outfit—a Texas Taco cowboy hat, a garish Western shirt with piping, some baggy Wranglers pulled up to his armpits—and sit him behind a pedal steel, and he will fit in on any stage. I’m actually disappointed when I see a guy under 50 on steel. Mandolin, Dobro, and banjo, though not quite as uncool as steel, can also legitimize the old man out there onstage.
Musical opportunities grow exponentially with every instrument one plays, so I’ve picked up a few over the years. Though electric guitar remains my main squeeze, I also get gigs for acoustic, Dobro, mandolin, pedal steel, banjo, bass, and blues harp. Though I’m hardly an expert on any of these instruments, I can sound like I know what I’m doing for a few songs on each instrument. The truth is, most people can’t stand banjo, mando, reso, or pedal steel for more than a few songs anyway.
The utility thing really pays off in the studio, where different sonic colors can send a track into an unexpectedly beautiful and/or funky direction. It may take me a few extra passes than it would on guitar, but eventually we’ll get there. It’s particularly nice when you get to sign the “double” space on the union card during a master session. Producers and artists are happy because doubling gets them the flavor without the full expense of bringing in another player, and it turns a vanilla track into something more exotic.
What were once considered hillbilly instruments are now accepted as “world music” instruments. Listen to rock or pop radio long enough, and you’ll hear mandolins, accordions, pedal steels, etc. My wife, Megan Mullins, actually played banjo with Shakira. It doesn’t get more “world” than Shakira.
The multi-instrumentalist/ utility calling card has paid great dividends. Two weeks ago, Nashville guitar ace Kenny Greenberg called me for an amazing utility gig. Kenny was the bandleader for the Bama Rising concert, where they would accompany multiple acts. Kenny was handling the lead guitar duties but needed somebody to cover Dobro, steel, banjo, mandolin, acoustic, and electric guitar.
It was an amazing lineup of diverse acts, including Sheryl Crow (I played pedal steel and mandolin), the Commodores (electric), Sara Evans (mandolin and electric), Little Big Town (Dobro), Bo Bice (electric), Ashton Shepherd (mandolin, electric), Rodney Atkins (banjo), Luke Bryant (banjo, electric), and the Blind Boys of Alabama (acoustic). If I didn’t have those instruments in my bag of tricks, I would have been stuck at home.
To a certain extent, being the bandleader for a mid-level, major-label artist is a bit like coaching a AAA baseball team: Your pitcher has a couple of hot weeks and he’s called up to the majors. Similarly, your bass player can end up leaving mid-tour to work with Faith Hill. A quick fix is to move a few things around. Your second guitarist covers bass, your keyboard player handles some of the guitar, etc. When I’m putting bands together for new touring acts, I always take that into consideration. The goal is to be ready for anything, should somebody leave suddenly two hours before showtime in Cedar Rapids.
But guitar remains my go-to instrument. If I don’t pick it up once a day I feel wrong, whereas I can go for months without picking up some other instruments. In fact, I almost have to re-learn them in the studio or at the gig. But these instruments have definitely enriched my life and gotten me more work. These may not all be lucrative gigs, but fun has always been my preferred form of currency.
John Bohlinger is a Nashville multi-instrumentalist best know for his work in television, having lead the band for all six season of NBC's hit program Nashville Star, the 2011, 2010 and 2009 CMT Music Awards, as well as many specials for GAC, PBS, CMT, USA and HDTV.
John's music compositions and playing can be heard in several major label albums, motion pictures, over one hundred television spots and Muzak... (yes, Muzak does play some cool stuff.) Visit him at youtube.com/user/johnbohlinger or facebook.com/johnbohlinger and check out his new band, The Tennessee Hot Damns.