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Keith Urban

Keith Urban


Behind the scenes with the country superstar

For many years country music was almost exclusively a product of musicians born and raised in the good ol' US of A, with only a handful of contributions from our Canadian neighbors. Born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, Keith Urban was a country music underdog from the start. He broke country music's unwritten "Americans only" rule by becoming one of the biggest non-American stars to break through in the United States, producing 11 Number One hits like "But For The Grace Of God," "Somebody Like You," "Days Go By," "Sweet Thing," "Better Life," "You'll Think Of Me" and "Only You Can Love Me This Way."

"When I was growing up, all my dad's records were American country records," Urban recalls. "He had records by artists like John Williams, Glen Campbell, Charley Pride, and Ronnie Milsap. When I started playing guitar I was six. I looked on the back of all those records and noticed that they all were recorded in Nashville, Tennessee. I said to my dad, 'Some day I'm going to go to Nashville to make records.'"

It took Urban a few years to finally get to Nashville however. He started his career the way most musicians do, playing in pubs to indifferent audiences. "Those pubs are quite rough," he says, "although it's probably not much different from growing up in Texas and playing at honky tonks and dive bars. They're all hardcore places where no one really cares that you're on stage, and you really have to step up to the plate to get everyone's attention. You also have to get used to dodging things that are being thrown at you."

Those challenging experiences and hard work paid off, and by the time Urban released his first solo album in Australia in 1990 at the age of 22 he was already a seasoned, crowd-pleasing performer. That album featured several hit songs that went to the top of the charts in three countries—Australia, Germany and New Zealand—which inspired Urban to finally fulfill his destiny and try his luck in Nashville.

"When I arrived in Nashville I felt like I was starting over again," he explains. "I think that anybody who has made that trek to Nashville from elsewhere knows that feeling too. My motive was to get there and meet some people who could help move my career along before my visa ran out and I'd be forced to return back to Australia, which happened to me several times. A lot of people thought I left because I was done with Nashville, but the truth is I had run out of money or my visa had expired. Every time I came back I thought I'd pick up where I left off, but actually I had to get in the back of the line all over again. It was like taking one step up and six steps back."

Urban settled in Nashville for good in 1992, but he didn't land a recording contract until 1995, when he signed a deal with Capitol. "I was just playing in all of the clubs around town all of the time," he says. "When you play all the time, eventually someone who likes what you do will probably discover you. In my band's case someone liked what we did and gave us a shot."

However, it took Capitol several years to finally release his US debut solo album, Keith Urban, which came out in 1999. Before that happened, Urban formed a band called The Ranch that gigged in clubs and recorded an album for Warner Elektra Atlantic. That album showcased Urban's soulful singing and considerable talents on a variety of instruments, especially guitar. (The instrumental "Clutterbilly" in particular provides a great sample of Urban's fleet-fingered guitar playing, and garnered him his first Grammy nomination.) The album also offered the first glimpse at Urban's high-energy hybrid of traditional country, rock and pop. That unique combination, and its considerable crossover appeal, eventually made Urban a superstar when his solo career finally kicked into high gear during the early years of the new millennium, when he released the albums Golden Road and Be Here.

To help up-and-coming artists and bands find their own path to superstardom, Urban is participating in Guitar Center's latest "Your Next Record" unsigned artist competition. Urban will hand pick the winner and appear on a recording with them. Along with this incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the winner will also get a $10,000 Guitar Center shopping spree, plus new gear and endorsement deals from Gibson and D'Addario.

"My goal is to help artists make music that they feel people can connect with," says Urban. "I want them to know how to achieve that. I'm looking forward to hearing the submissions and having the opportunity to give some guidance. I certainly had really good guidance when I started out, and that helped a lot.

"The songs that I write are all based on things that I feel a connection with," he continues. "When I start playing, I don't always know what that is. It's the same when I'm choosing songs written by other people that I want to record. If what they're saying resonates with where I'm at right now, I can hear the songs in a particular way. If they connect with me, I connect with them. I imagine it will be the same thing when I'm picking a winner for this contest."

Urban primarily considers himself a guitarist, although he frequently also plays bass, banjo, drums, mandolin and piano on his albums. "I'm a guitar player that can play a little bit of keyboards, a little of drums and everything else," he admits. "I write most of my songs on guitar, although I've written a few songs on other instruments. My piano playing is limited, which actually benefits my songwriting process because those songs tend to be more melodic driven and I don't play too many chords. Playing different guitars also inspires me. Gibsons, Fenders and all the different brands and models are all unique. I think that's why I ended up with so many guitars in my collection, because they've all got something different to say."

Sadly, Urban lost several of the guitars that have inspired him over the years when the Cumberland River in Nashville flooded last May, although a few instruments survived the deluge. "A bunch of my guitars drowned," Keith laments. "But some were baptized because they got resurrected and they've come back better than ever. Joe Glaser, who is a luthier and repair guru here in Nashville, gave them some sort of heating kiln mojo treatment to dry them out and many of them came back sounding better than before the river swallowed them up.

"One example is a 40th Anniversary Telecaster that I bought in New York in 1989," he continues. "I was on my first trip to the States, and I walked into a music store that had it displayed in a glass case. I was captivated by it as soon as I saw it. I bought it and took it back to Australia, where I used it to record my first solo album. Since then I've played in on every one of my albums and it appears on several of my album covers. I was devastated when it drowned, but now it's come back better than it ever was."

In addition to the Telecaster, Urban is also a big fan of Gibson guitars. "I have a 1961 ES-335 that got destroyed in the flood," says Urban. "My 1963 Melody Maker got resurrected but it doesn't sound as good as it used to. My 1957 Les Paul Junior survived and still sounds great. The flood affected each guitar in different ways. Gibson electrics have an acoustic aspect to their sound that I really love. The 335 and Junior sound really organic, which inspires me to play them differently. I had 1952 and 1958 goldtop Les Pauls that I bought here at Guitar Center, but they didn't survive the flood. Those guitars had a great rock sound, especially the '58, which had PAF humbucking pickups in it, but they also responded well to bluesy, country licks. Sometimes it's appealing to me to play a guitar in a style that the guitar normally wouldn't warrant."

Urban also lost several amps in the flood, including an original Sixties Watkins Dominator that he still keeps around because its angled front and two-tone blue and white styling are so visually appealing. He says that his preferences for the studio and stage are always changing, although lately he prefers amp heads made by John Suhr, which drive speaker cabinets loaded with Scumback speakers. His favorite pedal is a Klon Centaur, which he uses for its clean boost capabilities, and his rig includes a variety of custom made Pete Cornish pedals.

No longer a stranger in town, today Keith enjoys status as a bona fide member of the Nashville establishment. His first four albums were certified Multi-Platinum, and his latest effort, Defying Gravity, is still holding steady on the charts almost a year and a half after its release. He's currently recording his seventh US solo effort with producer Dann Huff at a tiny studio outside Nashville, where he previously recorded most of Golden Road as well as his hits "Who Wouldn't Want To Be Me" and "You Look Good in My Shirt." While the Nashville establishment has warmed up to Urban's unique sound and style, he admits that it was a long, hard struggle to gain acceptance.

"Before I got signed, this guy named Cliff Aldrich, who used to work at Sony Records, came to see my band play all the time," Keith remembers. "It seemed like every time we played he was there, but we never got signed. I couldn't understand why. One day I asked him why he always came to our gigs. He said, 'Oh, I love you guys.' So I asked him why he didn't sign us. He went, 'I'm the only one at the label that likes you guys. No one else at the label is really interested.' When I asked him why, he said, 'You're really unique. That will be your biggest curse until it becomes your greatest blessing.' For some reason, the way he said that and the moment in which he said it caused those words to go so deep into me. I understood it to mean that it was a good thing that I was unique, but it was going to be difficult to stay true to myself and be patient. When my biggest curse eventually turned into my greatest blessing, that bit of advice carried me through all those years I spent in the wilderness."

 
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