Amid the rockin’ songs on Vince Gill’s latest album, Down to My Last Bad Habit (MCA Nashville), you’ll find a pair of ballads soaked in acoustic guitar: “One More Mistake I Made” and “I’ll Be Waiting for You.” But even the most rockin’ songs got their start on an acoustic.
“I write most of my songs on an acoustic,” Gill says, during an interview from his home in Nashville. “Then I take it from there.” While Gill is known as one of country music’s hottest pickers—you often see him with a Fender Strat or Tele, or Gibson 335 in hand—acoustics play a big role in his career, and his life. Recently, he took the time to discuss the acoustic side of his guitar playing.
You’ve said that you write a lot of your songs on acoustic guitars. Any preferences in terms of the type of guitar you use?
It all depends on the song, but I like parlor guitars, and 0s, double-0s, and triple-0s. They’re smaller, and more fun to sit around and play, and they sound great. Unfortunately, a lot of folks equate loudness with tone, but those aren’t the same thing. A loud guitar is just louder, it doesn’t mean that it has great tone. A small instrument can have beautiful tone, but it won’t be as loud. You need to listen to the tone of the wood—every piece is different and it’s all alive in its own unique way.
How important is the guitar itself to achieving the sound you want?
Great tone is in the hands. A great player can pick up a $99 guitar and make it sound great, but that $99 guitar can only go so far. When I select a guitar, the most important thing for me is that it feels right in my hands. If you have small hands and a thick guitar neck, that guitar is going to be hard to play. When I pick up a guitar, it either feels good in my hands or it doesn’t. I know right away that even if it’s a great guitar, if it doesn’t feel right, it will be hard for me to play and I steer away from it.
‘Therein lies the quest for great tone—it’s all in your hands.’—Vince Gill
So technique trumps build?
Every pair of hands goes on the instrument differently, the hand attacks a string differently and in different places and different angles. It seems like there’s just so many different ways to play the same note and, if you really listen, they all sound different. So while you could use this guitar, or use this pick, or use this kind of string—at the end of the day the tone is in the hands.
You know, Keith Urban and I are great friends. One day, he had a bunch of new guitars, amps, and all, and he had it all set up the way he likes it. He said, “Play through this rig so I can hear what you sound like.” And I did. He looked at me a bit downhearted and said, “You just sound like Vince Gill!”
So, the lesson is that, regardless of the gear, we’re all going to play it uniquely our way. And therein lies the quest for great tone—it’s all in your hands, it’s not in my telling you what to get and how to do it and all of that.
So you should play a lot until you find the sound that’s right for you?
I think so. At the end of the day, we all try to get better. It’s interesting that the first 30 years I played I was trying to acquire as much knowledge as I could get. In recent years, I only want to use what I need. What sounds tasty to you can change over time. I’m much more economical now—I want to say the most by playing the least. So it’s all about an economy of what you wind up playing. The real object is to serve the song that you’re playing and only that. The song will dictate what it needs. Sometimes the key to a good performance is what you leave out.
When I was starting out, I played at a session and thought that what I had played was pretty nice. Then the producer says, “Now play half of what you know.” [laughs] So, it’s not how much you can play, it’s what you play that is the key to great playing. Fill the space, but let everyone else have a voice, too. That’s what’s great about when people play music together.
Still, do you have techniques that work best for you?
It all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. I mean, higher action and a taller saddle and the guitar will sound a little louder. Most of my playing [on stage and in the studio] is through a microphone, so I only need to move the sound a few inches to get it into the mic. Playing live is a different animal than playing in the studio—it’s a real kettle of fish. [laughs]
A thicker pick will make a guitar sound a little fuller. I often use heavy picks, though I also use Fender mediums when that’s called for. I like to play with the round edge of the pick because it sounds warmer. And sometimes I play with the meat of my fingers or even a combination of pick and fingers, so some of the notes are with the pick and some with the fingers.
There are no rules—that’s the good part. There’s no right or wrong way to play the guitar.
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.