Tyler Bryant is a force of nature. We’ve been lucky enough to see him play live twice recently – once with his band The Shakedown and once trading blistering licks with fellow Southern wunderkind Daniel Donato at Fender’s JammJam event at Winter NAMM 2020. One thing’s for sure: whether jamming in the round at an industry event, tearing up concert stages with his favourite Shell Pink Strats or even just rocking out on Instagram… Tyler Bryant goes all-in.
Originally hailing from Honey Grove, Texas – 90 miles northeast of Dallas with a population of less than 2,000, the city bills itself as the ‘sweetest town’ in the Lone Star State – these days Bryant resides in Nashville with his wife, Rebecca Lovell, singer/guitarist in roots-rock duo Larkin Poe. Their home is situated in a leafy suburb south of Music City, and as you might expect, there are a lot of guitars inside.
In 2019, both Tyler and Rebecca’s touring guitars went missing in separate incidents on British Airways flights from Nashville to Heathrow. Happily, the instruments were eventually located and Tyler’s gear is all present and correct at the time of our visit. It’s immediately obvious that Stratocasters are a prevailing theme, but it wasn’t always that way…
“My first guitar was an Epiphone Les Paul,” he remembers. “I never liked Strats at the beginning. I remember going to Guitar Center, picking up a Strat and playing the few things I knew, and hitting the toggle switch. I was like, ‘That’s a bad design! The switch is right where you’re playing!’
“Then I saw videos of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan… but most importantly, there’s a guitarist named Alan Haynes in Texas, and when I saw him, I realised he was using the switch to create an effect. He was doing like a wah effect, he was using it to accentuate certain notes where he would be on the neck pickup and flick down to the bridge and it would all of a sudden brighten up. So that was a huge selling point for me, and one of the reasons to play a Strat.”
Over time, making the most of that pickup switch has become second nature. “If you ever see videos of me playing, I probably change pickups 60 times a song or more,” he admits. “It’s just something I’ve worked into what I do and now I just love the Strat. The feel of it, the contours, everything about it is exactly what I’m after.
“I love Strats with humbuckers in the bridge position. I can get any tone I want out of that configuration”
“I love Strats with humbuckers in the bridge position. I can get any tone I want out of that configuration. The other guitarist in The Shakedown, Graham [Whitford, son of Aerosmith’s Brad – Ed] mainly plays Les Pauls, so he’s got this big humbucker sound, and with the single-coils and the humbucker I can kind of find where I fit in, in the mix of things.”
Remarkably, Bryant was gifted a sunburst 1960 Stratocaster by an NBA Hall of Famer when he was just 13: “It was a gift from Don Nelson, who at the time was the coach of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team. I was playing at this club called Gilley’s in Dallas and it was a honky-tonk crowd – I believe Dwight Yoakam was playing outside, so they had a bunch of cowboys wanting to line-dance on the inside.
“I was playing just slow blues after slow blues with my blues band and no-one was paying attention, except for this really huge guy in the front. So I went and stood on the table he was sitting at and soloed for like 15 minutes. Afterwards he asked me what my dream guitar was, and because Alan Haynes played a 1960 Strat through a Vibro-King, I said a 1960 Strat.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you have one?’ And I said, ‘They’re crazy expensive.’ A couple of days later one showed up at my house! It’s still one of my most prized possessions.”
Was there any danger that a 13-year-old wouldn’t appreciate the nuances of such an instrument? “Nah, I knew from the moment I opened the case, this is my guitar. And I’d spent so much time, pretty much from 11-13, just studying blues and guitars. I basically would get all of the guitar magazines and all the buyer’s guides – I nerded out a lot more at that age than I do now! So I knew exactly what it was.
“I knew from the moment I opened the case, this is my guitar”
“I really did appreciate it for what it was, but I always just treated it like any other guitar. I didn’t use kid gloves with it. We played at this club called Dylan’s in Paris, Texas, that was attached to a Denny’s. I was playing with my band The Blues Buddies and I set the guitar on top of my amp when we took a break – we’d play four-hour sets and take two breaks, or something – and someone put a beer right on it! And you can see a little circular ring on it! At that moment I realised a lot of people don’t know how special this is!”
Pink and perky
Tyler turned to the Fender Custom Shop to create something he’d be a little less worried about taking out on the road, and the first of his Shell Pink Relic Stratocasters – aka ‘Pinky 1’ – was born, complete with a neck profile inspired by the ’60. “I took the ’60 to the Custom Shop and the original pink Strat I have is modelled to a tee after that one,” he explains.
Pinky 1 soon became Bryant’s “favourite guitar in the world” and it was even adorned with handwritten lyrics by Steven Tyler and the signature of the aforementioned Alan Haynes. Yet even this instrument wouldn’t prove impervious to the dangers of touring – it was stolen from The Shakedown’s van in early 2013 along with three other guitars, a bass and a snare drum while the band slept at a hotel in Spokane Valley, Washington.
Happily, Tyler was reunited with his original pink Strat when it was recovered just over five years later, but in the meantime, he acquired a replacement in the form of ‘Pinky 2’. “Pinky 2 is actually the one I play the most now,” he reveals. “When the original one was stolen, my mother and father took out a little loan and bought the second one for me. And when I put that custom pickguard on it, I found that they’d etched their names on the inside, along with my sister’s name and the guy who’d loaned ’em the money!
“Because my original guitar was missing for five years, I did all those tours – AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses – with Pinky 2. When the original one came back it was like, but I love you both! And in that period of time the humbucker kind of became more my thing [Pinky 2 features a Shawbucker in the bridge installed by Tim Shaw himself – Ed]. But I can’t bring myself to put a humbucker in the original one, it sounds so good. Abigail Ybarra did the pickups on the original one.”
Pinky 2’s distinctive scratchplate was made by a friend, but originally intended for Shakedown bandmate Graham: “He made it for Graham but he had my address so he sent it to my house. I felt the package and was like, ‘That’s a Strat ’guard!’ Graham had a Strat but at the time he was mainly playing Les Pauls. So I went ahead and opened the package and decided I was gonna put it on my guitar and tell Graham about it later!
“I probably just admitted to a felony,” he laughs. “Isn’t it a felony to open someone else’s mail? But anyway as soon as he saw Pinky 2 with that ’guard he was like, ‘That is so sick! It’s perfect for your guitar!’”
A third Custom Shop Stratocaster also sees a lot of live action with The Shakedown, but this time there’s a serious hot-rod vibe. ‘The Judge’ got its name because it came to Tyler while he was taking part in jury service, and is a 2016 limited edition HS model with an EVH bridge humbucker and a Twisted Tele neck pickup. First encountering the model at the NAMM show, he remembers “flipping out over it” before contacting Fender “probably an annoying number of times” while attempting to get his hands on one. “They were already all sold or spoken for,” he remembers, “but I convinced them to make me one.”
Aside from the quartet of Strats we’ve encountered thus far, one of the most striking guitars in Tyler’s collection is a gold/tortoiseshell Flying V made by Matt Hughes of Banker Custom Guitars – a member of Gibson’s Authorized Partnership Program, which allows a small number of boutique builders to build Gibson-approved instruments using the brand’s trademarked body shapes.
“I’m a huge Albert King fan,” Tyler explains. “One of my favourite records is Live Wire/Blues Power and I always wanted to get a Flying V at some point. I wear the Fender flag very proudly – everyone who comes to a Shakedown show, especially when we go to Europe, a lot of times they’re chanting ‘Pinky’ more than they are for us! – and I can always depend on the Strats, but every now and then it’s always nice to kind of flirt with a different idea.
“I just got this guitar a couple of days ago, actually! But I can guarantee it’s gonna see some stage time. I wrote my first song with it yesterday. I’m gonna cherish this guitar because it was hand-made by a friend of mine and it sounds unbelievable. It’s the best Flying V I think I’ve ever played.”
Other deviations from the Fender path include a 335-sized, aluminium-bodied custom electric made by Meloduende in France. This remarkable, flamey beast is known as ‘The Big Fish’. “I’d seen the one that Scott [Holiday] had, but I never knew who made it,” Tyler explains. “Bertrand from Meloduende reached out to me through Instagram and said ‘Hey, I’d love for you to try a guitar,’ and he sent me this and it just sounds unbelievable.”
“Bertrand from Meloduende sent me this and it just sounds unbelievable”
Oversized custom control knobs are a feature of Meloduende instruments. “I wanna get some of these knobs for other guitars,” he enthuses, “they are so sick! If the light hits it right, you can see that it has gold paint on the neck, it’s very cool. Yeah this thing sounds unreal. It’s got these really crazy harmonic overtones.
“I was hesitant to pull the trigger because I’m such a Strat guy, but it’s cool to have different colours in the colouring box, you know, different tools. Especially when you are going into the studio. That’s kind of how I got into D’Angelico stuff, too. It’s the same thing with the old Nationals and stuff… I just love guitars!”
“That’s my main resonator,” says Tyler, pointing at the metallic red National Duolian which, even among this stellar collection, is difficult to take your eyes away from. And when a killer slide player like Tyler is playing it, it’s impossible to ignore.
“That’s another story of me kind of stepping on Graham’s toes! Graham found this guitar on Craigslist. He texted me and said, ‘I think I wanna go buy it’, and I went and bought it before he could! It’s a 1931 Duolian that was originally owned by [Nashville session luminary] Tom Bukovac. It’d had a neck replacement and it had been Plek’d and someone had painted it with car finish!”
The mods don’t end there. “I got the Hot-Plate from National, it has a Lollar Tele neck pickup in it. I’ve had so many resonators where I’ve cut into them to put pickups in – this is so functional and it sounds amazing. I don’t have to stuff the resonator with foam and I can play it with a 100-watt Marshall. I mean, it feeds back but in the cool, Chris Whitley Terra Incognita kind of way. It’s a really beautiful one. It’s the right amount of warm and bright for me. Some of ’em are really bassy, some of ’em are just only tinny… for example this guy!”
“Graham found this guitar on Craigslist. He texted me and said, ‘I think I wanna buy it’, and I went and bought it before he could!”
Tyler pulls out the other red National in his life. “I actually bought this the same day that the original Pinky came back. This is a 1954 Reso-Phonic student model.”
The guitar’s wonderfully plunky, lo-fi tone sounds like it’s emanating from an ancient record player. “It sounds like a banjo,” Tyler asserts, “but it has that cool Johnny Winter-type bite to it. This one’s never made it onto a record but I always try. I wrote a lot of the songs for the new Shakedown record on it [2019’s Truth And Lies]. When I woke up this morning it was the first thing I reached for. I keep this one by my bed.
“I was going to try to put a pickup in it, and then I thought, there’s something so magical about it just being an acoustic instrument that you just carry around and write songs on. The hardest part with this guitar is that everything’s metal, so everything vibrates – I had to track down all the right screws, and then get ’em all in there really solid. So there’s a lot of glue in there making sure it doesn’t vibrate.”
The conversation circles back around to Fender as Tyler produces a fine-looking Shoreline Gold Telecaster that was a Christmas present from his other half. “Rebecca got me this guitar for Christmas, it’s a Custom Shop 1959 Tele, which we call ‘Mary Dow’ – it was my grandmother’s name. It’s basically modelled after a stock ’59 Tele, with the rosewood neck, but the neck feels eerily similar to my Strat. I love this guitar and I love the colour.
“It was like a floor model for Fender that was sent around to a lot of the different Fender showrooms, and I went into the one in Nashville, played it and loved it. And I’d ordered a Custom Shop Tele, ’cause I kind of got the Tele bug in 2018.
“Rebecca reached out to Fender and said, ‘Could you guys rush Tyler’s Custom Shop Tele for Christmas?’ They said, ‘No, but we have one we think he would like.’ And that’s where this one came from! It’s a brilliant sounding guitar. It’s been on the road and it’s been on the record.”
Although Pinky 1, Pinky 2, The Judge and the ’31 National Duolian are Tyler’s ever-present touring companions, he’s starting to add more and more arrows to his quiver for live shows and jokes that he’ll soon need a semi-trailer truck to transport all the guitars. Whichever instrument Tyler Bryant picks up, you can guarantee he’ll be playing the hell out of it.