“Very few people get a T-Bone Burnett lesson on their first day at work”: Nashville star Charles Esten on his guitar journey

The actor and musician talks old Gibsons, improving his playing, and why a terrible first guitar almost put a stop to his career before it had even begun.

Charles Esten

All images: Christie Goodwin

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The moment it all started

“I think the first acoustic guitars I liked would have been Simon and Garfunkel’s. Not just the jangly guitars you hear on Scarborough Fair but the rhythmic slapping that’s all over Mrs Robinson. My mom says, when we used to go to the grocery store, I’d be in the front of the cart singing that one at the top of my lungs. Like a lot of people, the first time I went, ‘Oh, what are those, electric guitars?’ was when I heard The Beatles.

“My first attempt at playing guitar did not go well. I think we lose a lot of great guitarists to terrible guitars – especially those with young fingers. I was very young at the time. I might have been in fourth grade – that’s how early I knew that I wanted to do this. I was already writing songs, so I figured I needed a guitar. A kind uncle loaned me his classical, with its tree-trunk-sized neck and strings that were really hard to get down. It just hurt my fingers so much. My family still tease me that I quit because it hurt my fingers. It stuck with me.

“Now, whenever I see little kids that want to take a stab at guitar and their parents are going, ‘What kind of guitar should I get them?’, I tell them not to get a guitar at all. What I ended up doing with my kids was buying them a baritone ukulele, because it has the same four-string tunings so, when your fingers are ready, you can play those chords instantly on a six-string guitar. If I’d know that back then, I would’ve been 10 times the guitarist I am today.”

Charles Esten

I couldn’t live without my

“I have some nice guitars from my time with Nashville that I’m very attached to. I have a Martin D-28, which isn’t old or anything – I think it’s from about 2012 – but it was one of the first guitars they put in my hands as Deacon [Claybourne, Charles’ character].

“I’ve also got a ’55 J-200 that they had me play at Nashville On The Record, a big concert we did at the Grand Ole Opry. Danny Rowe is my wonderful guitar guy. He took care of every instrument you saw on Nashville. Everybody who’s in the know and watches that show is a little astonished at how legit the instrument choice is – we were never playing something that wasn’t the sound you heard or that our character wouldn’t own. That was all because of Danny. Danny got that for me, for the concert, and I’ve been saying to him and Collin Linden [who played most of Deacon’s guitar in Nashville], ‘Guys, I want to buy a great guitar. I’m ready to finally spend a little money. I want you to help me find the one.’

I’d never had a great guitar in my life and I started the show at 46. Well, they didn’t even have to say anything, because when I had that J-200, they couldn’t stop looking at it – and they couldn’t stop asking to play it. And I’m like, ‘So… this might be the one?!’ And they said, ‘Yeah, that’s the one!’ I basically ended up not getting paid for that show – I turned my paycheck over to get this guitar.”

The one that got away

“My first electric guitar, a Hondo – just because it was my first electric. I didn’t have much money. This was me looking at the rack and that being all I could afford. Just for sheer historical value, I would love to have that in my hands. And when you’re as old as I am, it’s probably a collector’s item by now.

“My son in Boulder, Colorado, has one of my Martins, the one I had when they were little kids – I think I bought that when I was playing Buddy. I have to admit, I was in his room playing it while visiting recently, and going, ‘Yeah, I might try to get this one back. Are you playing this a lot? Can I give you another one that doesn’t mean anything to me?’”

The first thing I play when I pick up a guitar

“I think the fact that I had a guy play a lot of the guitar for me on Nashville should go long way in telling you that I am not as great a guitarist as I should be by now. I’m not a guy that can just sit down and play wicked licks.

“When I first came to Nashville, I was writing with somebody and they strummed the guitar and I was like, ‘Oh, what’s that?’, and they were in double drop D. So I like to put it into a quick double drop D and just strum that one time and feel how much it rumbles in my arms and in my lap. I love double drop D because it takes out that third – sometimes the major’s too happy and the minor’s too sad.

“I think that has a lot to do with the character I played – the human experience is a little more complex than that. You’d ask him, ‘Are you happy or are you sad right now?’, and Deacon would go, ‘Man, I don’t know, I’m just in double drop D!’ [laughs]

“So that’s what I do and I generally try to play something short enough that nobody else in the store hears how crappy I am.”

Charles Esten

The best advice I’ve ever been given

“When I started on Nashville, I met T-Bone Burnett [the show’s executive music producer at the time] and went over to the studio in his house to record the first song. When I got over there, we were just sitting around talking and he asked me to play a little something. I started banging on that acoustic, showing off all I could, and I’m probably breaking his heart with how I’m playing it. And he just said, without any judgement, ‘You’re just strangling it – you’re grabbing it too tight!’

“In my defence, when I was playing acoustic, I was generally by myself. When you’re playing by yourself, you end up playing it like a drum, a bass and a guitar – you’re trying to get all that sound out… so I was over-squeezing it and overplaying it. He taught me the concept of letting a guitar sit in your lap or hang on you in a way that just lets that soundboard ring.

“I’m lucky – very few people get a T-Bone Burnett lesson on their first day at work. I always say that six years of Nashville was six years of paid guitar lessons for me – but I was the one who got paid! There’s literally no better way to learn anything than to be told you’re going to be doing it on TV in five days.”

Charles Esten

My Spinal Tap moment

“Oh, I’ve had way too many. Mistakes mean something different to great guitarists, because great guitarist can aim for perfection. I don’t have a shot at perfection so I’m always aiming more for connection. Not that you can’t get both. I’ve been to some Mark Knopfler, and Stevie Ray Vaughan concerts, and they were was perfection and connection. But that must mean that the trainwrecks must hurt even more for them.

“I had one last night, where my where my Martin’s wiring stopped working, so I finished the last repeat of my last chorus a capella and made out like it was on purpose. But there’s one that sticks out – and it’s quite a story…

“When I was playing Buddy, there was this great extended scene where Buddy and the Crickets went to New Mexico to record for their first producer, Norman Petty. The set had a recording studio on one side, where me and the Crickets were, and on the other is where Norman and his wife were, set up behind all this recording equipment and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. At the very end of the scene, it’s early the next morning, everyone’s tired and they’re ready to go and get breakfast, and Buddy says, ‘There’s just one more…’, and everybody goes, ‘Buddy, we’re so tired’, and Buddy says, ‘I’ll do it in one take!’, and Norman hits the reel-to-reel and I start playing Every Day.

“What was amazing was that the audience would buy into that moment, and it would just get pin-drop quiet as I was playing and singing, and the reel-to-reel was spinning in the corner. But this one time, halfway through the song, for some reason the reel-to-reel popped off the wall and fell to the floor. But it didn’t just fall to the ground – it landed on its side, rolled across the gap between us and the tape just slowly unspooled right in front of me, right across my feet, and the audience is trying not to laugh in the silence.

“Generally, I’m a good improviser, but I know there’s not much I can say because the cue at the end of the scene is when I say, ‘Did you get that?’, and Norman whispers into the mic, ‘We sure did, Buddy’. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, so I just lean into the mic and say, ​‘Did you get that?’, and I’ll never forget, he leans in and says, ‘Tape was rolling…’ and it brought the whole house down!”

My guilty pleasure

“I have no guilt over anything. But I do have things that I know I’m supposed to like, where I’ve been told that I’m really supposed to love this and I don’t. I guess it’s the opposite of a guilty pleasure – it’s a guilty non-pleasure. It’s like I’m hearing what’s different and excellent about it but I’m not able to get what everyone else is getting out of it. But they’re probably saying the same thing about my one-hit wonder.

“That’s a major thing with country music today – the criticism of what is considered too ‘pop’. Believe me, I love the greats but, man, if something has given a lot of people pleasure and enriched their lives somehow, then it’s hard for me to be judgemental about it.”

I’m in the band

“It’s hard not to say The Beatles, to be a part of that moonshot. Maybe I could have been The Beatles’ maracas player or something – because who would I replace? I’d just want to be there. It’s the same thing with the Stones but more like, well, could you survive being in the Stones?! That would have been more of an actual physical, emotional and mental rodeo.”

I wish I was there

“A lot of these questions, as you can tell, send me down slightly adjacent paths. I was never a concert-goer because I was in a single-parent family, raised by my mom after a divorce. We didn’t have that much disposable income to be going to a lot of shows, so I certainly could have gone to more.

“I’m going to say early Springsteen in Asbury Park, when he had just started to get all the songs that would become the roots of the great tree.

Charles Esten

The most important thing on my rider

“There’s no rock-star rider, I just need some basics. I’m afraid of what it will say about me if I say whiskey. It’s probably not the most important – that’s probably a little hot tea with honey and lemon. Hot tea and a little whiskey is probably the answer.

If I could just play one thing

“I’m the kind of guitarist you might want to reverse that question for – ‘Is there any song that you have been able to play?’ [laughs]

“It kind of amazes me – some songs just sound incredibly difficult to you. There are songs that I never thought I would get. But then once you just spend time on it, it’s crazy how good your fingers can get at one particular thing.

“It’s weird to me that it doesn’t translate to the next solo you’re trying to learn. I’ve got to start from the ground up on every single one! But still, I’ve been amazed at where I’m able to get these fat sausages to on any given song

“But I’m never able to get it across the finish line of tonal excellence and perfection. I love Stevie Ray Vaughan so much. His Little Wing is astonishing. And I know it’s utterly unapproachable for me or for most of us. So I would have to say that one.”

Catch Charles Esten on the 2020 Country 2 Country tour, which kicks off at London’s O2 Arena on 13 March.

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