Wood&Steel Interview


***Originally published in the Wood&Steel Magazine. Volume 45, Summer 2005.***

Techs get a bad rap. They’re often presumed to be either frustrated guitarists who grudgingly schlep around axes for those in the spotlight, or obsequious fans, eager to get close to their hero’s (and the attendant groupies). Preconceptions aside, the four techs we spoke to for this piece – Rocky Harrison (with the Alan Jackson Band), Pete Leonardo (America), Kelly Macaulay (Norah Jones and others), and George Webb (Pearl Jam) – certainly do not fit those descriptions.

Surprisingly, not one of these techs is a guitarist, yet, ironically, each knows much more than the typical professional guitarist about maintaining an instrument – everything from cutting a nut to improvising a bridge saddle to mending electronics. And without any prodding whatsoever, all claimed that their gigs have been made much easier because the artists play Taylor guitars, which arrive from the factory sounding great and ready to go.

 

Perhaps, Harrison put it best: “We recently did the Academy of Country Music Awards, and we flew out another guitarist and his instrument – I’m not going to tell you who made it – to play with us in Vegas. When the guitarist got there , he pulled out his guitar and was kind of freaking out, like, ‘Man, I need you to fix the neck!’ I said, ‘That’s funny, my [Taylors] are all fine. ‘I’ve had Taylors out here on the road for two or three years, and I’ve never had to adjust a rod once – not once.”

Harrison has been in the business since 1982, when he started working for Henry Lee Summer, whose bar band played in the Indianapolis area. Summer enjoyed a couple of Top 15 hits in the ’80s, and Harrison got to join him on the road, where the group opened for some of the day’s biggest acts, including Doobie Brothers, Richard Marx, Eddie Money, and Stevie Ray Vaughn.

At First, Harrison set up lights and drums while the band tuned their own guitars, but meeting people on the road led to bigger gigs. In the early ’90s, Harrison started handling backlines [all the equipment performers use on stage, including amplifiers, basses, guitars, keyboards, drums, percussion, etc.] for Harry Connick, for whom he also stage-managed. Harrison connected with country star Alan Jackson in 1997 and has worked for him ever since.

Rocky Harrison in Auburn

 

Wood&Steel: What’s your typical working day like?

Rocky Harrison: Well, I get up at 7:30, have breakfast, then kind of walk around – my truck is the last one unloaded and the first one loaded, so it usually dumps at about 9 or 9:30 a.m. At that point, I break out all the guitars. I have three racks of six, plus four mandolins, three fiddles, and a banjo – let’s not forget the banjo [laughs].

On the first day of a three-day run, every string has to be changed. I’ll change the strings until soundcheck at 3 p.m., with out taking lunch. I do take about an hour in there to set up the amps and pedals, though. Then, I’ll eat dinner at about 5:30, the opening act goes on at 7:30 or 8, and we’re onstage generally between 9:15 and 9:30. I don’t have to do a whole lot of guitar changing because those racks I mentioned go up right at the players’ feet. That way, I can concentrate more on Alan, even though he’s not that demanding – I hardly ever do guitar changes with him.

On the second or third day, I do a lot less string-changing because many of the guitars – especially the electrics – are used for only one song.

W&S: How does working for a country band differ than working for a rock band?

RH: Bigger rock guys can be very high maintenance, and as a whole, the country guys are more easygoing. A lot of rock groups have a tech for every single guitar player, but country bands aren’t normally like that. With Alan, I tech for 10 musicians, and eight of them play guitars!

Also, on a lot of rock gigs I’ve done, I’d tour for several months out of the year, and still end up having to work through holidays. But with Alan, we work year round. We’ve all got families and kids, so he gives us holidays off and we still make enough money the rest of the year. So, I say, give me the country guy over a rock ‘n’ roller any day!

W&S: Who in Jackson’s band plays Taylors?

RH: Basically, all my guys play Taylors. Alan’s got a custom 610 with quilted maple back and sides, and what makes it really nice – in addition to its excellent sound – is its beautiful abalone fretboard [marlin] inlay. Man, it’s just gorgeous. Alan also has a backup “stock” 610, and all the other guys’ guitars run gamut – from the 710ce to the 514ce to the nylon-string NS44ce. And they all love their Taylors. I tell you, I’ve worked with just about every acoustic and electric there is, and I can honestly say that Taylor guitars have been the most consistent in their sound and durability.