Checking in with one of the first families of country-rock.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is an American music legend—a Grammy-winning outfit that’s also been inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. In this group’s case, what becomes a legend most is still working as hard as when Jeff Hanna co-founded the NGBD in 1966.
So, when PG’s John Bohlinger recently checked in with Hanna and his guitar-playing son, Jaime Hanna, they were rehearsing at Nashville’s SIR for an ambitious spring and summer Nitty Gritty Dirt Band tour supporting a new album, Dirt Does Dylan, to be released May 20. The Hannas took us through their touring gear and gave us a close-up look at some guitars that Jeff has played since the beginning.
[Brought to you by D’Addario XS Electric Strings.]
This 1960 Les Paul, owned and long played by Jeff Hanna, was the inspiration for the Gibson Custom Shop’s Collector’s Choice #33 Jeff Hanna 1960 Les Paul Standard reissue, which lists for a mere $10,299. (Yikes!) It’s strung with D’Addario EXL-125s (.009–.046). Hanna has a great story about how he got this guitar, but for that you’ll have to watch the Rig Rundown!
And here’s that Gibson Custom Shop reproduction—a made-in-2017 #33 Jeff Hanna Les Paul with Ron Ellis PAF pickups. Like its inspiration, the guitar wears a set of D’Addario EXL-125s.
Light, in White
Jeff does a little less lifting onstage with his 1962 reissue Fender Stratocaster in Olympic white. It sports the neck from an earlier ’62 reissue he owned, which was made in 1989, and has samarium-cobalt-magnet pickups. The Hipshot Key Xtender is set up to take his low E string to D. And it’s wearing D’Addario EXL-125s.
No country-rock band is complete without a Gibson Jumbo. This long-serving 1955 J185 is just a little smaller than a SL-200, and has a Sitka spruce top and maple back and sides. Jeff has it strung with D’Addario EJ-16s (.012–.053).
Open D for Dan-o
This 1990s Danelectro U2 reissue—based on the model that debuted in 1956—stays tuned to open D and strung with D’Addario EXL-125s. With its lipstick pickups and hardboard/plywood body, this thing’s a midrange machine.
It’s Got the Bump
After years of using his beloved 1965 Fender Deluxe Reverb, Jeff has moved to a SoHo 65 Amp with a matching 2x12 cab, although Jeff usually only runs one speaker. This amp has a secret weapon: a “bump” function that allows a switch from American to British classic tone.
Board To Run
Jeff runs his acoustic through a Fishman Aura Spectrum DI and a Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner. The electric side of his board includes another Boss TU-3, a Paul Cochrane Tim overdrive, a Keeley Katana Clean Boost, a J. Rockett GTO, a Keeley-modded Boss TR-2 Tremolo, and a Keeley Mag Echo.
Jaime’s No. 1 acoustic is his 1964 Martin D-28 with Brazilian rosewood sides and back. It’s been aesthetically modified, with a bound headstock and delicate inlay work on the neck. This D-28 appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s eponymous debut in 1967. Although this guitar was at the rehearsal, it no longer hits the road.
The Tour Flattop
While on tour with Gary Allan in Canada, some bad weather and a faulty stage ruined several of Jaime’s guitars. So now he leaves the 1964 D-28 at home and brings his new Martin 2021 D-18 Standard with an LR Baggs Anthem SL soundhole mike on tour.
Wide Range Twang
This 1973 Fender Telecaster Custom offers all the twang of an older vintage Tele in the bridge pickup but opens up big with a Seth Lover Wide Range neck humbucker. It stays strung with D’Addario EXL140s (.010–.052).
This 2009 Gretsch G6128T-1957 Duo Jet with Alamo neck inlays has TV Jones Classic humbuckers and a Bigsby, and stays tight with D’Addario EXL140s. That’s Jaime’s brother Chris’ decal on the body.
Here’s the prototype for the Jeff Hanna Gibson Collectors Choice #33 1960 Les Paul Standard. These reissues come with Custom Buckers, but Jaime put PAFs in this guitar to get closer to vintage tone.
Jaime uses a reissue 1968 Fender Custom Deluxe Reverb amp modified with a Celestion Cream alnico 12". His summary: “It sings!”
Pedals Du Jour
Like his dad, Jaime combines his acoustic and electric pedals on one board. The acoustic side features a Fishman Aura Spectrum DI, Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner, and a Radial JDI direct box as a back-up. For electric, there’s an Ernie ball volume pedal that feeds a TC Electronic tuner. The main out hits a Mesa/Boogie Stowaway Class A Input Buffer, a Keeley Compressor, a Paul Cochrane Tim, a J. Rockett Archer boost/overdrive pedal, an MXR Super Badass Distortion, a Boss GE-7 equalizer modded by XTS, and a Line 6 M-9 multi-effects pedal. A Truetone 1 SPOT PRO CS12 provides the juice.
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While watching the Ken Burns documentary Jazz, I realized all the music I love was born from the jazz and blues of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.
Ancient Egyptian paintings and sculptures all look like they were created by a sixth grader. They are stiff, flat profiles with feet, nose, and chin pointing in the same direction: no depth, no realism. All art was this primitive until the 5th century, when Greeks took a giant step forward … literally. They developed contrapposto, where a standing human figure is posed with their weight resting on one leg. The weight shift brought organic movement, bringing the paintings and sculptures to life. (Check out the 5th century Kritios Boy, which is the earliest known Greek statue to use contrapposto.)
Similarly, look at European art from the medieval times, or the Middle Ages, from the 5th century to the 15th century. Much of it is cartoonish—flat, distorted, and unrealistic. Baby Jesus almost always looks like a weird little man, not an infant. No wonder they called it the Dark Ages. Then Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and others, inspired by the ancient Greeks, built on this realism and brought about the Renaissance, pushing the world forward and making art come to life. I look at Ancient Egyptian art and feel nothing. I look at Michelangelo’s Pieta and weep. That’s what art is about.
I recently rewatched Ken Burns’ 10-part miniseries, Jazz. Sometime during the 2,280 minutes of running time, it occurred to me that American music went through a similar evolution as the world of visual art. Much as the Renaissance artists brought realism to art, jazz musicians— specifically Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong—brought realism to music. Here’s a little backstory.
“I listen to vaudeville; I feel nothing. I hear Armstrong and I weep.”
In 1877, when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, he was looking for a way to improve telegraph communications, going for what he called a “speaking telegraph.” Maybe it’s because Edison’s first recording was of him singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but quickly people figured out that if you’re going to record something, music is probably a solid option.
Partly fueled by Edison’s game-changing inventions, the United States was becoming a true superpower, leading the world in industry, tech, finance, etc. The Burns documentary suggests this was when U.S. leaders, trendsetters, and titans of industry thought that it was time for an American Bach to legitimize the nation’s contribution to the world’s music. They looked to the universities, the military, and the establishment to provide this musical genius.
One of the earliest recording artists (in the late 1800s) was John Philip Sousa, “the March King” of America. With all due respect, it’s amazing that records caught on. I’m as patriotic as the next person, but who in their right minds pours a class of wine and cranks up “The Stars and Stripes Forever” to relax at the end of a long day? Sousa’s marches feel as stiff and lifeless as an ancient Egyptian wall painting.
Louis Armstrong: When it comes to authenticity and swing, the buck starts here.
A decade later, in the early 20th century, vocalists dominated record sales. They were mostly vaudevillians like Billy Murray and Arthur Collins, who had hits like “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy.” They were theater performers, trained to act melodramatically while singing and speaking in a loud, affected manner so they could be understood in the back of a theater. It was a stage voice—not the voice of someone genuinely communicating or expressing emotion.
Then, in the 1920s, music took a contrapposto step in an unlikely way. One of the biggest artists of the early 1920s was Al Jolson, who performed in blackface, stealing bits from African-American culture and making it more palatable to a xenophobic white audience. Based on Jolson’s success, Columbia Records execs thought, “Hey, instead of a white guy in blackface singing a white guy’s interpretation of Black music, why not record the people they’re stealing from?”
“The powerful were looking to themselves for the answer when what they sought came from slaves and their poorly treated descendants. The poetry of it all.”
Columbia found and recorded Bessie Smith, a Black orphaned blues singer who grew up supporting her impoverished family by busking on the streets of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Smith’s genuine performances connected with record buyers. The “Empress of the Blues” became a wildly successful entertainer, which opened the gate for Louis Armstrong. Not only did Armstrong introduce the world to a swinging groove, his genuine, conversational voice made those trained, affected voices seem wooden by comparison. I listen to vaudeville; I feel nothing. I hear Armstrong and I weep.
It’s the classic unlikely origin story, like baby Jesus being born in a manger. The necessary hero/savior rarely comes from the establishment. The powerful were looking to themselves for the answer when what they sought came from slaves and their poorly treated descendants. The poetry of it all.
Duke Ellington, Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, the Stones, Miles Davis, Prince, Zeppelin, Clapton, and pretty much everything I love descended from the jazz and blues of Bessie Smith and Satchmo. When Duke Ellington was asked how he felt when he couldn’t stay at the hotels where he performed, he replied, “I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.”
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Akron's finest make a staple OD nastier, more flexible, and more refined.
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