Guest Post by Zac Childs — Many of you have seen Brad Paisley on stage or on TV playing a variety of colorful and certainly toneful Crook Custom Guitars. A little over a decade ago, there was only one Crook paisley in Brad’s collection of gear. With its stellar performance, it wasn’t long before the guitar was joined by two more that would become very important tools in Brad’s climb to superstardom.
Now for a bit of background information: Brad and I were students at Belmont University in the mid 90’s, and despite our best efforts, we both graduated. During our college days, we spent our time tearing apart guitars and amps, swapping pickups and necks, eating breakfast at the Pancake Pantry, going to pawn shops looking for gear and fitting in classes when it was convenient.
While touring in 1999-2002, Brad did not schlep his gear or string his guitars. Multiple members of Brad’s team did these tasks in double-duty fashion. But once Brad had a big summer 2002 hit with “I’m Gonna Miss Her,” I received a call from him on my answering machine asking if I was interested in teching for him. After some hemming and hawing on my part, I agreed to try it out for a weekend.
Blue Paisley T-Style
My first show was in Columbus, Ohio. A bit starstruck, I headed to the stage to check out what I would be possibly working with. At that time, Brad’s rig consisted of a trio of Dr. Z amps, an effects rack, two Larrivee acoustic guitars, a 1968 paisley Fender Telecaster (aka “Old Pink”) and an incredibly cool looking blue paisley T-style guitar with “Crook” on the headstock. I had never heard of Crook, but I was very impressed with the build quality and the tone of the guitar.
Brad indicated that his friend Bill Crook had made the paisley as a backup to his ’68 and that he really enjoyed using it. I thought the idea of doing a paisley finish in a color other than pink was a bold stroke of genius. At the time, there was absolutely nothing like it. As my curiosity got the best of me, I opened up the control cavity and looked under the pickguard to find that this Crook chap had lined all the interiors with shielding tape. It was no wonder the single coils in it were so quiet at the near face-melting volume that Brad liked to play.
Everywhere we went that weekend, guitar players wanted to see the cool blue paisley guitar that Brad had played that night. When the weekend was over, I gave my notice at work and was headed to Nashville as Brad’s first full-time guitar tech.
Meet Bill Crook
Brad was headlining his first tour for CMT, and it was a busy schedule to say the least. While on tour, I finally met the mysterious Bill Crook at Brad’s old stomping grounds of West Virginia. Bill gave me some pointers on setting up Telecasters, and we were able to talk about why he built guitars the way he did. In a nutshell, Bill was addressing the guitar problems he encountered when he ran sound for the band, America. Things such as the already mentioned shielding to make sure the notes played are louder than the buzz; a soundman can’t do much with a buzzy guitar except turn it down. Also, the headstock accessible truss rod adjustment makes the touring player’s job easier to adjust for all the bumping around and changes in temperature, altitude and humidity. Additionally, Bill even ground the bottoms of his bridges to make them perfectly flat, allowing better coupling that let the guitar sustain as much as it possibly could.
I quickly put Bill’s number on speed dial, and I can’t tell you how many times he saved my job, even helping me with noise issues with our effects rack. Early on, Brad felt that the Crook and the ’68 were not close enough tone-wise, as the old Fender was brighter. I asked Bill for some insight. He felt the 1meg pots in the ’68 might be making it a bit brighter that the 250k in the Crook, so Brad and I decided we’d rather go darker, and Bill sent us 250k pots to put in the ‘68. With the modification done, the guitars were close enough in tone for easier transition when exchanging instruments. Brad ended up liking the sound of Old Pink better with 250k pots in her.
Charcoal and Maroon Paisley T-Style
Although Brad and I were happy, I felt like we needed a backup or two. Digging in Brad’s guitar trunk, I found an old gunmetal blue American Standard Telecaster with McVay G-bender. He used this guitar in college, and I believe it had the first bender that Charlie McVay installed. Although it was a solid instrument, it was not in the same league as the Crook, so it was time to contact Bill about building another instrument.
I had no idea, but Bill was in the process of building a pair of Crook T-style guitars: a maroon paisley and a charcoal paisley. Bill came to an Ohio Valley show the following month and was of course greeted with big smiles as he carried in the new pair of Crooks. We were glad to have them, and after having G-benders installed, they were both in high rotation at every stop of the tour.
Along the way, Bill and I began experimenting with both bridge pickups and saddle materials of the Crooks. We liked the Fralin Blues Special, as it was in the blue Crook and in Old Pink, but with four T-style guitars on hand, we were able to tailor certain guitars for certain sounds. We began to use a variety of custom-wound Peter Florance Voodoo pickups as well. With saddles, we found that we liked brass on the high E-B strings, and tended to like either steel or aircraft aluminum for the D-G and A-E strings.
Besides the experimentation while touring, we were working anytime we were home on what would become the Mud on the Tires album. We had no idea how much this album would change the path of Brad’s career and our lives.
Zac Childs is a columnist and regular contributor to Vintage Guitar Magazine, and is currently the Director of Distributor Sales for Visual Sound. He is a 1996 graduate of Belmont University, and also studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. As a guitar tech, Zac worked with Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, and as a performer with Vince Gill, Buck Owens, Hank Thompson, Alison Krauss, and Chris Hillman. He is also a 2013 inductee into the Country Music Association of Texas Hall Of Fame.