My years-long search for the “right” Bigsby-outfitted box finally paid off. Now how do I make this sumbitch work in my band?
Considering the amount of time I’ve spent (here and elsewhere) talking about and lusting after Gretsch hollowbody guitars, it’s taken me a remarkably long time to end up with a big Bigsby-outfitted box I truly love. High-end Gretsches are pricey enough that, for a long time, I just couldn’t swing it. Years ago I had an Electromatic for a while, and it looked and played lovely, but didn’t have the open, blooming acoustic resonance I hoped for. A while later, I reviewed the stellar Players Edition Broadkaster semi-hollow, and it was so great in so many ways that I set my sights on it, eventually got one, and adore it to this day. Yet the full-hollowbody lust remained.
I’ve long been more of a single-coil player than a humbucker guy, so the more I thought about it, the more intrigued I was by the idea of a hollow with pickups that weren’t of the Filter’Tron variety. I also liked the idea of a lower-key aesthetic. So in early April, after a bunch of research and listening, I pulled the trigger on a beauty from the other stellar “G” hollowbody brand. With its transparent blonde finish and P-90-esque Franz single-coil pickups, the Guild X-175B Manhattan I picked up ticks both boxes nicely. And for a very reasonable used price, too.
After outfitting it with a set of Thomastik-Infeld flatwound strings, I ended up loving the Manhattan’s woody resonance so much I had to try it with my band. Problem is, I play in a drums-and-guitar duo where my Vibrolux Reverb runs in tandem with a bass amp to fill out the sonic space (two of my main band axes are baritones, and a keyboard goes through the same pedalboard and amp array). As you might’ve guessed, the Manhattan did not initially love the bass amp. When I plugged in with my usual settings, the howling was so rabid I figured the Guild would never work out at band volumes—or at least not in that band.
You can’t ride the wild horsey without widening your entire playing mindset to be much more cognizant of when something … threatens to cause a fit of mad buzzing.
But the more I played the 175B through other amps and at quieter volumes, the more I realized I had to give it another go. The guitar’s acoustic depth and the Franz’s clear-but-mellow, almost Jazzmaster-esque response are so old-school charming but big and bold and vibrant that I decided it might be worth revamping settings for the entire bass-and-guitar-amp rig.
Figuring it all out has been a wild mustang ride. Tremolo and vibrato intensity needed to be increased a tad to yield the same vibes they do with other guitars. But my usual gnarly fuzz tastes are too out-of-control and indistinct with the Manhattan, so fuzz might be off the board indefinitely. The good news is that you can work that howling susceptibility to your advantage and create huge, pulsating sounds that are as bombastic in their own way as a fuzzed-out solidbody.
To bridle the beast, I tried shoving a sock or four through the f-holes. It worked a bit, but it also deadened the sound and killed that “alive” feeling that makes the resonating body so cool to work with in the first place. So out the socks went. Interestingly, bringing down the volume of the Vibrolux—not the bass amp—helped significantly, though I refuse to take it below 3 because it just won’t sound right. Being mindful of how playing positions and proximity to the amps exacerbate the problem are also key. Even so, you can’t ride the wild horsey without widening your entire playing mindset to be much more cognizant of when something—most often it’s simply sustaining a 6th-string note—threatens to cause a fit of mad buzzing. It’s an entirely new world of dynamics, dampening, and muting, with both your fretting and your picking hands.
We’re still experimenting with how all this might shake out in the band, but so far the sounds and overall vibes are so cool we’re considering adjusting song arrangements, instrumentation, and tunings to better coalesce around the Guild’s wonderful sounds. (The simplicity of one guitar, one keyboard, and not too many pedals has its attendant benefits, too, including a streamlined sonic aesthetic and reduced time and technical issues between songs.) Anyway, wish us luck!
Here’s a story about the most interesting man in the world.
“The guitar is my first love, my partner in life. We grew up together and we’ll most likely die together.” —Thom Bresh
One of the best benefits of being a musician is that musicians know musicians, and musicians are the most interesting people you’ll ever meet. Albert Einstein, Charles Dickens, Georgia O’Keeffe, the Marx Brothers, Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, Juliette Lewis, Jack Black, and Zooey Deschanel are or were musicians, albeit not full-time.
Maybe interesting people are interesting because they’re interested. If you live a life driven by curiosity, it’s going to be a wild ride. Musicians are driven by curiosity. Pretty much everybody likes music, but musicians aren’t satisfied just passively listening. They need to figure out how to do it themselves. That curiosity goes way beyond music, turning life into one big art/science project. Of the many musicians I’ve know, there’s nobody more interesting than Thom Bresh. His life was that project.
I met Thom Bresh at Johnny Hiland’s Birthday Jam at Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley about five years ago. I had the worst imaginable performance slot for a guitarist: following Bresh, preceding Brent Mason. I stood side stage watching Thom play impossibly complex guitar, hearing his engaging stories, laughing at his hilarious jokes, and dreading my set. Bresh was so calm onstage, you forgot he was onstage. It was like the entire audience were his best friends and they were sitting in his living room, hanging on every word.
After my set, I went backstage to find Bresh in the green room with this Martin/Bigsby, singing a song to my girl.
I watched to the end, then sheepishly walked onstage to play. After my set, I went backstage to find Bresh in the green room with this Martin/Bigsby, singing a song to my girl. Bresh had the charm turned up to 10 and was regaling her with stories and songs, while shamelessly flirting … through my entire set. Years later when I gave him shit about trying to seduce my girl, Thom laughed and said, “I’m like a dog chasing a car tire. I wouldn’t know what to do with it if I ever caught it.” His smile was inscrutable.
Bresh’s life felt like a movie. He was born out of wedlock in L.A. in 1948, the biological son of musician Merle Travis and his mother, Ruth Johnson, who later married renowned Hollywood photographer Bud Bresh. Bud and Ruth raised Thom as their son in Southern California. As a young man, Thom learned that Travis was his biological father, but he vowed out of respect to not speak of it until after Bud Bresh’s death (in 1987). On the surface, Merle Travis was a family friend who taught Thom guitar, but the connection went a lot deeper. That had to be tough on a kid, particularly in the conservative ’50s and ’60s. But where it really gets difficult is to be the son of a legend working in the same field you’re trying to break into. But like every superhero, that weird origin story may have motivated him to excel in so many things.
The Breshman was a Grammy-nominated recording artist. He was also a performer, actor, comedian, and the world’s youngest stuntman, working regularly from age 3 to 17 at the Corriganville Movie Ranch (referenced in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). Bresh was a comedian, TV show host, top-tier impersonator, an engineer, music and film producer, photographer, and songwriter. As a singer, Bresh had a Top 10 hit, “Home Made Love,” that garnered a nomination for the Academy of Country Music’s Top New Male Vocalist. He was also nominated for an Academy Award. On top of all that, Thom was the only person given the honor of “Wine Lord” by the Bordeaux World Wine Counsel and the Mediterranean Wine Growers. In addition to everything else, Bresh had an incredibly developed palate that allowed him to identify tastes and smells out of reach by us mere mortals.
In addition to everything else, Bresh had an incredibly developed palate that allowed him to identify tastes and smells out of reach by us mere mortals.
Thom was surrounded by greatness. He grew up watching Roy Lanham, Speedy West, Thumbs Carllile, Jimmy Bryant, Joe Maphis, Les Paul, and, of course, Merle Travis play guitar in living rooms. When you see your dad and his friends do remarkable things every day, remarkable things seem normal, or at least within reach. Bresh was fearless.
The last time I talked to Bresh, he said, “I can’t believe it, but I can’t get booked.” He was as shocked as I was. It bummed me out, but looking at it now, it seems like the right ending for this movie. Bresh was so talented that he never knew the struggle of a normal musician. At age 15, he replaced Roy Clark in Hank Penny’s band, then went on to tick every box a guitarist could hope for. The only thing he’d never done during his 27,000-ish days on this planet was not be able to get booked. By the end, he truly had experienced everything.
Thom Bresh was buried June 2, 2022, in Muhlenburg County, Kentucky, next to Travis.