James Brown might have once held the title of the hardest working man in showbusiness, but for one Saturday evening in mid-October, Keith Urban was giving him a run for his money.
In London to promote his forthcoming 2020 UK tour – his first in over a decade – most of us would have considered an appointment to perform on the BBC’s flagship primetime TV show, Strictly Come Dancing, to be more than enough for one night, but Urban had other plans. The guitarist had friends playing in town that night – South Carolina rockers Hootie & The Blowfish at the Apollo, and country superstar Brad Paisley at the O2 – and they both asked him if he wanted to join them on stage…
“Normally we’re all playing on the same night, so it’s rare that I get to see somebody play live, let alone get up and jump in as well!” Urban explains as we sit down with him in his penthouse suite overlooking an autumnal Hyde Park a few days later. “It was insane that two of my friends would be playing on the exact same night, at the exact same time. And both would text me to say, ‘Hey, can you come and sit in?’ I was like, ‘How do I make this work!?’
“I asked somebody what the drive time was from the Apollo over to the O2 and they’re like, ‘On a rainy Saturday night? Maybe 1:40 if you’re lucky!’ And then someone said, ‘What about the tube? It’s like 30 minutes!’ So that’s how we did it!”
The notion of one of country music’s biggest stars riding the Underground to get across town for a gig on a Saturday evening like he’s heading to an open-mic night might seem a little incongruous, and yet it fits. As we chat about his life and career, it becomes apparent that despite the fame, the success, the Oscar-winner wife and the laundry list of awards, Urban remains very much the working-class boy from Brisbane who has loved guitars and music for as long as he can remember.
“My mum and dad gave me a ukulele when I was four. And my dad said I could strum it in time with songs on the radio,” Urban recalls of his earliest musical experiences. “Obviously, I couldn’t play the chords or anything, I was just hacking away! But I think he recognised that I had rhythm.”
Australia’s east coast isn’t particularly known as a hotbed of country music, but Urban grew up with the sounds of Nashville all around thanks to the influence of his father, Bob.
“My dad always loved American culture,” Keith explains. “He was a drummer, and he was a teenager in the 50s, right around rock ’n’ roll. So he got the bug – he was obsessed with Elvis, and Jerry Lee, and Chuck Berry… all this rock ’n’ roll stuff. And then he loved the cars! Then from the 50s through to the 60s, rock became a bit more folkish, and my dad went a bit that way, and then from there, he just sort of eased over into American country music.”
Bob wasted no time getting Keith and his older brother Shane immersed into the world of country music – taking the pair to see none other than Johnny Cash when Keith was barely into primary school.
“That’s a memorable concert when you’re five!” he chuckles. “I remember my dad buying us these little Western shirts and little bolo ties – we had the whole look going on! There’s a place called Festival Hall in Brisbane – it’s a 5,000-seat hall that they built for boxing matches, so it’s sort of a big square. And man, when you’re five years old, 5,000 people is like 500,000 people! And I just remember how boisterous loud and rowdy it was… everyone was smashed, I’m sure! Working-class city, working-class act… yeah!”
The man in black’s arrival, however, would have a transformative effect on both the crowd and a young Keith…
“I remember this guy walking out on stage with this singular spotlight, everyone going crazy… and then the whole place turning into a library – just dead quiet,” he recalls. “I still get chills when I think about that. I was like, ‘What is going on up there? What just happened? How did that guy do that?’
“It’s funny, I often wonder if it was a case of me thinking, ‘I’d like to do that’ or was it, ‘That speaks to me because I’m going to do that’. I love that I don’t know which one it is.”
At the age of six, Keith got given a three-quarter-size Suzuki nylon-string and a guitar teacher, and in no time, he was immersing himself in guitars and guitar music.
“I just wanted to play songs off the radio,” he reflects. “I look back, and it really was more that I just wanted to learn some chords so I could sing a song. I wasn’t thinking about lead guitar or anything like that yet. That all came a bit later.”
When we ask Urban to look back on his earliest guitar influences, his dad is once again a huge factor. Bob loved going to watch local bands play in the pubs and bars of Brisbane, and would often take his sons with him – it wasn’t long before Keith had found his first guitar idols…
“These local guys never get props, but I’d bet that most famous guitar players were influenced by some local guy before some named person,” Urban explains. “For me, there was a guy called Dallas Alvin, another guy called Barry Clough, and another guy called Reg Grant. They were all playing in these local cover bands, and when I saw them I was like, ‘Oh man, I wish I could play as good as that guy!’
“Of course, they’re all better than you when you’re eight years old! And they all had great electric guitars – they were probably crap guitars, but they’re a lot better than my Suzuki nylon-string acoustic!”
Urban wouldn’t have to wait too long to ditch the Suzuki, however, and at the age of nine, he got his first electric guitar – one that would go a long way in shaping the guitar player he would go on to become.
“My dad took me to this place called the Australian Academy of Music, which sounds very fancy, but it’s actually a pretty basic guitar store in Brisbane,” Urban chuckles. “He said, ‘We’re going to buy you an electric guitar… I mean, you’re going to pay me back, but I’ll buy it!’ I think it was about $130 – it took me a while to pay it back!
“So I played a bunch of these different guitars, and it came down to a black Les Paul copy with gold pickups – I think it was a Katsuga or something horrible like that – or this Ibanez Tele Deluxe copy that was a natural walnut colour with a mother of pearl pickguard. And I played them both, and I really liked the Les Paul-looking black one – I think I just liked the black more than the wood grain! And my dad said, ‘Well, let’s ask the guy that runs the store…’ and for whatever reason, that guy said, ‘I think he should play the Ibanez, it’ll be better for him.’ And it’s funny because I later realised that in that moment, that set me on a Fender path!”
Later on, when he was a teenager, one of those local guitar heroes would continue to shape Keith’s love of guitars and guitar playing in significant ways.
“This guy again, Reg Grant, he had a Roland JC-120, and Fender Stratocaster in that Antigua colour – that guitar looked gorgeous,” he enthuses. “Through that amp, it sounded quite magical – that was the first combination of things that made me go, ‘Oh okay, this is proper gear!’ I think it’s because I was 15, which is a great age to start thinking about all that stuff!
“Reg also turned me on to Dire Straits, and man, I just loved Mark Knopfler’s playing. I got a Strat because of Knopfler… as you do. It was Candy Apple Red. They made one that was just called The Strat, just as they came out of CBS. It weighed a ton… but I had no idea! I just went, ‘Oh, apparently that’s what electric guitars weigh!’”
Urban remained a Strat devotee throughout his early years in Australia, but when at the tail end of the 80s, he encountered a guitar that would become his most trusted sidekick for years to come – a 1989 Fender Custom Shop 40th Anniversary Telecaster. While it’s an instrument from a period that’s not exactly held in high regard by vintage aficionados (“the Edsel era of Fender!” he jokes) it was a guitar that had a whiff of destiny about it for Urban.
“When I first came to America in 1989, I went to New York with my manager at the time, and we went to Manny’s [Music], because it was so legendary I just wanted to go there,” he remembers. “I also really wanted to find a nice Telecaster, because I’d never owned one. And so I walked in and there, and the in front of me was a glass box with this Telecaster guitar inside, that just looked gorgeous. I think it was $2,400 – ridiculously expensive, and way more money than I had!
“But I asked the shop assistant if I could play it anyway, and I’ll never forget the way he just looked at me and goes, ‘Yeah alright… but take your belt off, take your jacket off… bracelet off…’ Anything that could scratch the ‘Mona Lisa’! Then I played it and just loved it immediately – it was like the most effortless, beautiful sounding thing. So I borrowed some money from my manager, bought it, and went back to Australia.”
Urban would use the Tele to record his self-titled debut album the following year, but despite being a professional musician, he found himself in a situation that many of us can relate to…
“When I started touring, I didn’t want to take my pride and joy out on tour,” he says, shaking his head. “So I got this piece of crap Squier Strat to take out, but then I would come home from tour, and I’d pull that guitar out from under my bed and go, ‘Oh, I love this guitar! I wish I could play this on the road… oh, well, back under the bed!’
“And then one day, I was like, ‘What do you mean ‘Oh, well’!? Just play the bloody guitar!’ So I took it out, and the first time it fell off a stand and got a scratch on it I was like, ‘Alright, here we go! The gloves are now off.’ And it became my road guitar from then on. It was so stupid.”
A good vintage
In the years since, Keith has expanded his gear options dramatically – with a jaw-dropping selection of battle-hardened vintage guitars at his disposal at any given moment. Today, however, he’s travelling light – with his arsenal scaled down to two guitars stowed in the Mono M-80 Dual gigbag propped up against the table next to us – they just happen to be an all-original 1951 Nocaster and a heavily worn 1964 Strat.
In recent years, the ’63 has taken over from the Anniversary Tele as Keith’s main onstage guitar – “his number one dance partner” in the words of his tech, Chris Miller – and it’s an instrument that shares some of the effortless playability that made him love his Tele so much.
“The neck is quite thin for a ’64, look you can feel it,” he says handing us the guitar. “But it’s really fast! I’m not sure if I got hoodwinked into buying this guitar by a very smart shop owner in Sydney! I went to try out an amp at this guitar shop, and I’m sitting by the amp and I’m like, ‘Well, I need a guitar…’ And I lean around to look at the wall of all these guitars, and right behind me is this ’64 Strat. The guitar didn’t leap out at me or anything, I just grabbed it.
“But then I plugged it in, and I went, ‘Oh my God, this guitar is amazing!’ So I bought the amp and the guitar. And then later on I wondered, was he just being a really smart guy, and placed that guitar right behind me on the wall so I’d play it?!
“I have a love/hate relationship with this guitar, funnily enough. The effortlessness of it as a playing guitar means that I sort of squash it with the aggressiveness that I play with sometimes, and it just gets all thin and shitty – and I hate it for that. But then I just have to lighten up, and get back into it.”
The other guitar in his gigbag, however, is in no danger of getting neither thin nor shitty…
“The ’51 right here, this one’s got more to it – as you can feel!” he exclaims as we get to grips with its monster neck. “I mean, it’s a ’51 Nocaster! It’s got some real fight – it’s not a friendly guitar!
“I wish it was easier to play, but once the adrenaline kicks in, it feels way easier. I keep tolerating it because this pickup is hands down the best I’ve ever played – it’s the best pickup I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s the original ’51 – every single thing is stock on this guitar, except it’s been refretted. The guy that owned that guitar for 20 years is Tom Kiefer from Cinderella. Apparently, that’s the only guitar he had on all those Cinderella records, but then sold it to Gruhn’s and I went and bought it!”
“I just love that single P-90, it’s just a basic ‘all you need’ guitar,” he enthuses. “I want to pick it up acoustically and know that it just roars, because then you’re most of the way home. Really, it’s the Gibson Tele, isn’t it? In so many ways, with the simplicity of it – almost the crude simplicity – it’s so appealing to me. There’s nowhere to hide, which I really like as well.”
His love of simple stripped back instruments doesn’t mean Keith doesn’t enjoy the finer things in guitar, however, as his most recent purchase attests…
“I just got a ’58 Burst about two weeks ago,” Urban reveals. “It’s not 100 per cent original, which put it in a much more affordable range, but all the electronics, body, neck is all original… and it’s just ungodly great! It’s incredibly balanced. It’s just got some beautiful, rich dimensions to all the harmonics, even acoustically – it’s really quite magical.
“I’ve got a ’58 Goldtop that I’ve had for a long time, which is hands down the best Gibson electric I’ve played, and I’ve compared some of those Bursts to that Goldtop and found myself going, ‘Nah, the Goldtop’s better!’ But then I played this Burst and went, ‘Okay, that’s… that’s a different thing to the Goldtop!’”
Step into a room of guitar players and say the word ‘Dumble’ and it’s likely an argument will ensue over the fabled amplifier creations of Alexander Dumble, but as someone who currently owns no less than five Dumble amps, Urban is perhaps better placed than most to comment on their merits.
“Y’know, I went down the rabbit hole last night on YouTube looking at Ben Harper’s rig, Carlos Santana’s rig and a few of the other Dumble cats… because I was just curious, you know? But the truth is that we all love them for the same reason – they just have these sonic dimensions, that are unlike any other amps.
“It was actually John Mayer set me down this path. It was maybe 12 years ago, I did a show with him, and I said, ‘I’m interested in buying a Dumble…’ and he said, ‘Well, I’ve got a head I could sell you’. And he told me how much he wanted for it, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s an outrageous amount of money for an amp!’ But he said to me, ‘Well how much is the most expensive guitar you have?’ And I told him, and it was triple what the amp was. And he said, ‘Right, so that’s one guitar… what are you plugging that one guitar into?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah okay, I see where you’re going here, John!’
“It was the best argument for an expensive amp I’ve ever heard in my life! Because he said, ‘Okay, so you don’t know if you want to spend all of this money on one amp, that you can plug all of your guitars in to. But how do you justify spending that much money on one guitar, but you don’t want to spend that on an amp?’ And I was like, ‘Well… I guess I can’t justify it, that’s a really good argument.’ And so I bought his amp!”
Any Dumble is obviously pretty special, but Keith’s most recent acquisition is a very special one indeed – an Odyssey bass amp with the serial number 001, and a very fine pedigree.
“I only just got this recently, and so I contacted Alexander and asked him if he knew about the amp,” he explains. “Apparently it was his amp, that he used to use touring around the Bayside area in the late 60s, so I was really giddy about that.”
Alexander has a reputation for being a recluse, and something of a difficult character to deal with, but Urban’s experience certainly alters that impression.
“It’s been great!” he exclaims. “We email back and forth, and he’s just a fascinating guy. What’s crazy is how he doesn’t see the financial results of his labours as much as all the owners have. He’s a bit like Banksy – he’s the Banksy of amp builders!”
Keith’s Dumbles don’t come with him on the road, and while his rig is somewhat in flux at the moment, he predominantly favours a mix of old Marshall Plexis for overdrive tones and Fender Dual Showman amp for clean headroom – though this is something of a recent development, as until recently he was using Fractal’s Axe-Fx for all his live amp sounds. He still uses Fractal for all his live effects stuff, but he eventually found himself yearning for the physical punch of real amps
“I went down the Fractal route for a while, which started with a fascination with its consistency,” he explains. “But then I just missed… I don’t know? What happens when a guitar signal goes through all those tubes and then goes into a speaker cone, and then all of that is mic’d… so I just went back to amps!
“I feel like we’ve gone through that little terrifying moment where amps were just about to go the way the horse and buggy! But there’s nothing like the feeling of your guitar hitting the back of your shins. The way a guitar reacts with an amplifier… there is no substitute for the harmonic things that happen because of that resonating relationship.
“And it’s a trade-off, too, because do you want consistency? Because that’s not going to be consistent – amps are just not gonna be! But in the end, it was worth it for me. Because a mannequin is consistent, but you don’t want to date a mannequin!”
Keith Urban’s Live 2020 tour visits London, Manchester, Glasgow and Birmingham in May 2020. Tickets are onsale now from AXS, Eventim, SEE Tickets and Ticketmaster.
Watch Keith Urban perform at The CMA Awards, BBC4, Friday 22 November. For more information, visit keithurban.net.