As an overnight success ten years in the making, the Zac Brown Band have continued their upward trajectory since winning the Grammy for Best New Artist in 2010. They’ve been touring steadily to support their third and latest studio album, Uncaged, which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 its first week. Billboard calls Uncaged ZBB’s “deepest musical journey to date.” This is no small claim in light of the band’s well known blending of country, jam band, rock, reggae, and bluegrass with powerful vocals to create a truly must-see experience.
Keyboard caught up with multi-instrumentalists Coy Bowles (organ, piano, guitar, banjo) and Clay Cook (piano, organ, guitar, mandolin, steel guitar, vocals) to get the lowdown on sounds, deciding who plays what, why taking keyboards seriously can push guitar players further, and refurbishing a Hammond C-2 bought at a Goodwill store.
How do keyboards figure into your roles in the band, especially given that you both play guitar as well?
Coy Bowles: I was originally brought into the band specifically to play keyboards—out of necessity. They weren’t my primary instrument, but I knew I could do this. I mean, we’re not a 700-song variety band, and I knew that if I just practiced the parts, I could literally “fake it ’til you make it” by reaching beyond my current limitations. I’m fortunate to have very supportive parents who instilled confidence in me, and that probably pushed me as much as my formal music training did. When I was younger, I used to see Dan Seifert play Hammond B-3 with the Lee Griffin band, a blues/jazz trio that’s popular in the Southeast. Watching Dan was a big inspiration.
Clay Cook: I started out with basic keyboard knowledge—listening to Ben Folds’ piano lines during my days at Berklee. I picked up much more on the road, though. I was touring with the Marshall Tucker Band at age 20, and Paul Hornsby [Georgia-based producer with Marshall Tucker and Charlie Daniels] was playing Hammond. I learned a lot from Paul, including New Orleans piano technique he picked up playing with Doctor John. The Marshall Tucker Band also did a tour with Little Feat, and being on the road with Billy Payne was a learning experience. I still think Payne and Chuck Leavell are the guys when it comes to piano.
How do you sort out who plays which keyboard parts for each song?
CB: For Zac’s music, it depends on the guitar style needed for the song. Clay is a “chicken pecker” type guitarist who also has solid rock roots—Tom Petty and similar artists. I’m more of a slide/blues guitar player. So we first figure out what guitar approach works best for a song’s style and genre. That determines who’ll play the guitar part and who’ll play keys, and whether that keyboard part will be piano, organ, or something else. Zac has cool guitar parts, and there are fiddle parts, too, so the keyboard focus is often on pads and dynamics.
CC: I’ll usually look at what Coy’s playing on guitar to figure out my keyboard part. Keyboards are often the glue—or really the “oil”—that holds an arrangement together. Sometimes it comes down to where you are when a song is put together. For the piano-driven ballad “Colder Weather,” Zac and [songwriting partner] Wyatt Durrette had started writing the song together on the bus. Later, we were at Kid Rock’s house and I was sitting at the piano when we worked up that song’s arrangement, so that part fell to me.
How do you keep improving as keyboard players at home and on the road?
CB: For my own music, I often write material on piano first. That helps me stay focused on keyboard parts and my technique. Clay and I co-produced a record, Love Takes Flight,in 2011. The whole writing and recording process always helps me develop my playing. We came up with some nice B-3 parts on that record. Having the Nord Piano 2 will help me keep my chops up on the road, too.
CC: Our schedule on the road is busy. We’re usually up early, and there are workouts and the “eat and greet” events with fans before the show. Sometimes we’ll do jams at sound check before a show, and that’s when I’ll get some Hammond playing in. When I have a three-day run at home. I’ll usually focus on guitar one afternoon and piano for part of another. It helps me to “play what you already know.” I’m always trying to play and sing whatever AM Gold ’70s songs I feel like—focusing on the voicings, the tension. The songs are mostly jazz-ish, but not jazz. There’s a piano at the house, so I’ll pick things out in difficult keys. This works well because Zac tunes down a half-step—so the songs are in keys like F#, Db, B, Eb and Ab, instead of G, D, C, E, and A.
CB: The transposing saves Zac’s voice. He’s done this for years. Clay and I don’t transpose artificially; we play the songs in the tuned-down key. Learning songs in keys like Gb, Eb, and others actually helps me dream up new scales and melodies.
COY AND CLAY ON GEAR
Coy Bowles: In the early days, we had a chopped organ that wasn’t cutting it on the road—we needed real legs for support. I found a 1952 Hammond C-2 on Craigslist, and drove past Rome, Georgia to a Goodwill store in the middle of nowhere to meet with some guy who was trying to make a quick buck. I ended up buying it for $500, but it was noisy and looked terrible. I cleaned it up with wood filler and polish, and we took it to Nashville Pro Hammonds for a work-over. Our tech Murph put in new keys, drawbars, and Trek II percussion. It really came back to life! We use it on the road with two Leslies—a tall and a shorty so we always have a backup. The coolest part of the Hammond is that it drives the dynamics of the whole band. When I get loud, the band gets loud. It’s like the guiding soul to everything. I wouldn’t want to play without the C-2. If space were limited, I’d mike the Leslie and put it down the hall!
Clay Cook: Coy mainly plays Hammond, and I play more piano. We wanted something that sounded great and was portable, so we picked up a Nord Piano 2 to replace an older Nord Electro 2. It doesn’t have the synth section from the Nord Stage, but we don’t use that anyway. For gigs where we’re renting backline, we’ll use a Nord Stage 88 because that’s what’s available.
CB: Nords were the first keyboards we found that had nice, raw Rhodes and Wurly sounds. Everything we’d tried had that processed sound from 1981—until we plugged in the Nord!