Guitar Techs: The Guitar Heroes Behind The Scenes
Back in the days when CDs were the dominant form of music consumption, I remember reading every single word in every single booklet. It was part of the ritual: get the CD home, unwrap it, carefully lift it out of the case, place it in my cheap CD player and get ready to welcome in some kind of new musical adventure. And as the album played for the first time, I'd read through the lyrics, credits and thank-yous. It helped me to feel closer to the music that was inspiring me. I may have been thousands of miles away on the other side of the world to my musical heroes, and there may not have been anyone else in my small town who was into the same stuff as me, but I began to notice a few names recurring in the credits time and time again, and in a funny way they sort of became like old friends. I'd begin to spot the same names like, say, artist Hugh Syme, or mastering legend George Marino, or A&R man John Kalodner, who is so unique and revered in his approach that he's usually credited not as "A&R: John Kalodner" but as "John Kalodner: John Kalodner." And I soon started to notice that most players would maintain the same guitar tech for long periods of time - or that certain players might share certain techs.
Then it became a matter of cataloguing these techs in my mind, every time I'd see them mentioned in a guitar magazine. Sometimes they'd be interviewed, or at least would get a few words in during an article about their boss. And sometimes you could just glean a little bit of knowledge from reading about their methods. So with that in mind, here are a few legendary techs who helped to shape the music we listen to.
Thomas Nordegg has worked with Frank and Dweezil Zappa, Steve Vai and Mike Keneally, and he's well known for his attention to detail, his knack for extracting the maximum amount of utility from a roll of velcro, and his mad scientist's flair for creativity. His personal guitar rig is said to be a complex and yet astonishingly usable synergy of tone and control, and he does it all with a certain understated manner. I first met Thomas when I was a nervous 20-year-old who somehow managed to blag his way into a Vai soundcheck, and while it was undeniably cool watching Vai work, it was equally enlightening seeing how calmly and matter-of-factly Thomas took care of every little gear issue.
Buddy has several claims to fame. As a luthier he perfected the art of the high-performance hard rock/metal axe (and the legendary Kramer Nightswan is an example of his craftsmanship in collaboration with Vivian Campbell). He customized the lightning-accented guitar that would ultimately come to be Dimebag Darrell's main squeeze. And as a tech he's worked with the likes of Steve Vai, Great White and Nine Inch Nails. Buddy has an encyclopedic knowledge of the guitar, a reverence for the materials they're made from and a professional work ethic that allowed him to get the job done even amid the chaos of a Nine Inch Nails show. And if you've ever been to a NIN gig and seen Trent Reznor drop his Les Paul over the edge of the stage, you can imagine what a challenge that might be!
When Matthew Bruck was Edward Van Halen's tech, he told Guitar World that he got the job after initially meeting Eddie when they played on the same softball team. Bruck said he didn't want to bother Eddie with guitar talk, but he piped up when he heard that Eddie's beloved Marshall was struggling. Since he worked for a gear rental company, Bruck had access to some great vintage Marshalls to help with the sessions that would become For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Soon Bruck found himself with a new day job and he continues to be a part of the Van Halen inner circle to this day.
René Martinez is a self-described 'Texas Guitar Whiz.' He apprenticed under violinmaker David Caron, repairing violins, violas, cellos and basses, but his heart was with the guitar. After 13 years of repair work he became Stevie Ray Vaughan's tech, taking care of Stevie's battle-scarred instruments and their famously unforgiving setups, as well as his multi-amp rigs. Martinez has also worked with Prince, Carlos Santana, John Mayer and Jimmie Vaughan, and he is a strong believer in giving back to the guitar world, regularly sharing his knowledge and even offering live one-on-one chats via his website.
Billy Gibbons, Jimmie Vaughan, Gary Clark Jr. and the Dixie Chicks are just a few of the high-profile artists who’ve relied on guitar technician Tom Oatley. Based in Austin, Oatley’s Guitar Garage has long been the go-to place for expert repairs and advice, for professionals and amateur players alike. “You have to do basic maintenance on cars, and that’s how I approach guitars,” says Oatley. “It’s the same thing. Guitars will tell you when it’s time to go in for a tune-up. When people leave my shop, I tell them, ‘You’re good for another hundred thousand miles.’”
There are plenty of other well-known techs out there who have made huge contributions to the sound of the music we love - Adam Day (Slash, Neal Schon), Grady Champion (Dimebag Darrell), Mike Manning (Joe Satriani), Roger Mayer (Jimi Hendrix), Elwood Francis (Billy Gibbons), Scott Appleton (Def Leppard, Rush), Willie Gee (Dave Mustaine)… who are your favorite techs, and what have you learned from them?