My guest for this month’s column is musician Jeff Brown. He’s made quite a name for himself over the years on the country music scene, accompanying a long list of artists – solo and as part of a band, touring with The Washboard Union, etc. He’s a leader and inspiration in the community. Chances are you’ve seen him perform over the years at a country show. It was great to have Jeff answer my questions on his music career and his instrument: the guitar.
Tell us about your first guitar. Was it a case of picking it up and never putting it down?
My first guitar was a Jay Turser and it was a knock-off of a Fender Stratocaster with a tobacco burst finish. I got it for Christmas when I was 10 years old. My dad had played acoustic guitar and sang in the living room from as long as I can remember. So, I suppose that was my first inspiration. Then when I discovered the band KISS, I wanted to play electric guitar. My dad got me started, teaching me a few things on his acoustic; and I suppose I took to it well, because later that year for Christmas, my parents bought me that first electric guitar! It was definitely a case of never stopping for me. I played that guitar for hours and hours every day, once I got it. It was almost like nothing else mattered anymore. I just wanted to be able to learn how to play my favourite songs by my favourite bands. It was a challenge at first when I was learning, but there was something really rewarding about learning riffs, licks and solos and being able to recognize that what you’re playing is stuff that you are familiar with hearing in your favourite songs. At a young age, it’s so exciting!
Who are your guitar heroes? What are your favourite guitar solos?
This has evolved a lot over the years. From the beginning, my very first guitar heroes were rock icons Ace Frehley of Kiss, Randy Rhoads of Ozzy Osbourne, Slash from Gun N’ Roses. I was really into blues players such as Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan. When I was about 14, I got into Rockabilly and was drawn into Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats. He had such a hybrid style to his playing, combining sounds from blues, rock, jazz and country. From then on, I got really into country players. I first heard chicken pickin’ from Vince Gill and that changed my life. I went from shredding on Les Pauls and Marshall Amps to only wanting to shred Strats and Teles on a clean Fender tone – haha! Some of my favourite solos from these players… The outro solo from Sweet Child O Mine still moves me the same way it did when I first heard it. Brian Setzer did an amazing rendition of Sleepwalk; it’s a beautiful guitar arrangement. For Country, the one that did it for me was Vince Gill’s solo on Oklahoma Borderline – that’s what made me want to really learn how to play country guitar!
What has it been like touring & playing guitar with The Washboard Union?
Touring with Washboard has been amazing, everything about playing with them is just such a blast! This was my first major artist touring gig, so I was extremely excited when I got the gig. The guys are just such down to earth and fun people to be around; the other band members and crew are just fantastic too. We have a lot of good times and good laughs on the road. It can’t get any better than playing music with a camp like that. Aside from being wonderful people, everyone is extremely talented, from the vocal harmonies with the guys, to the songs, to the musicianship of the other band members Brent Farva and Brian Chiarcos, and to our sound crew Scooter and Colin. Everyone makes everyone’s job so easy and we just get on stage, play and have fun. When a band is having fun, they sound like they’re having fun, and I think that really translates to the audiences. It’s a really special feeling and I am incredibly grateful to be a part of that Washboard camp.
What advice do you have for young musicians? And for new bands – are there tips for avoiding breaking up?
For young musicians starting out, I would say to get out and play as much as you can! The best way to learn is by being thrown into the fire. You can practice as much as you want in your bedroom, but the real learning is done on the bandstand. Getting out and meeting people in the local scenes is very important too. I’ve always said, “You are who you know”. The more people you know, the more opportunities that you will come across. How to not have a band break up… Well, most times I think it’s because of personality differences. Be open to artistic decisions of other band members, be willing to adapt to changes in personal and artistic growth and be fair. Everyone can have an ego at times, but don’t let that get in the way of the music. Everyone is better at something than others. What brings a band together is understanding no one is above another, but everyone bringing their abilities together is what makes a band unique. You have to be a team!
Do you have words of encouragement and advice for beginner guitar players?
I would have to say – try to get your feet wet in as many styles as you can. Even the best guitar legends have pulled from all kinds of genres. Randy Rhoads was a rock player, but he had also studied classical guitar. Being able to apply influences from classical into rock music was what made him have his own sound. Brian Setzer had a jazz background and that made his style stand out as his own with Rockabilly and Country. You want to be able to eventually have a sound that sounds like “you”. I can still say that I am still searching for that, and it can take years and years. But the more you learn, the more you start to develop your own sound. Practice is important, and that doesn’t mean learning songs. There’s learning songs, and then there’s practicing guitar and the two are very different. It’s important to know what and how to practice. Technique on precision and time feel is what makes the difference from a good guitar player to an elite guitar player. Play with people who are BETTER than you, it will do nothing but keep you motivated to keep up with the caliber of the players or the show. The hardest part to stay inspired is that you can never see your progress right away. I still get frustrated practicing! Haha. But the more you work on things, eventually it will start to come out naturally without having to think about what you’re playing and that’s always really rewarding. And like I said before, get out on a stage as much as you can, take as many gigs as you can in different styles – it will always keep you moving forward!
How important is it for artists to experience Nashville?
I think everyone should check out Nashville at least once! It’s such an amazing city and there are some incredible players down there from all over the world. You hear about it all the time, but you really don’t realize how good some of these players and writers are until you go and experience it. It can be very humbling and inspiring.
What act(s) would you most like to join on stage?
If I could play with Vince Gill, I think I’d be set and able to hang up the towel. Or the Eagles, maybe if he’s too busy, I could sub in his role – haha. I’m sure I’d get my ass handed to me, but I’ve had that before; it’s always worth it!
Thanks Jeff! See you at a show soon.
Dave Woods is a monthly columnist for CMAOntario and hosts the popular podcast & social media page “In The Country with Dave Woods.” Dave runs various songwriters showcases, including “Country Nights In The City” at The Moonshine Cafe in Oakville and the “Heart Of Country Songwriters Showcase” at the Rec Room in Mississauga.