Austin is a hotbed of musical talent. Its denizens have a voracious appetite for live music, and the city’s numerous establishments have storied reputations in the music world. The Continental Club. Antone’s. ACL Live at the Moody Theater. It’s these institutions that have earned the city the title of “Live Music Capital of the World.”
Of course, live-performance venues, the counterpoint to controlled studio environments, present a unique set of challenges. Performers need instruments that are functional, durable and sonically true. For most, finding the perfect setup is a never-ending pursuit. But seasoned musicians have honed their live rigs to a stable balance of road-tested gear. Every piece of gear has a purpose, and after years of concerts, every piece of gear has a story. We asked four local legends to share the stories behind theirs. This week: Ray Benson.
Though Ray Benson was born in Philadelphia, he’s lived in Austin most of his life. Three years after forming the Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel in 1970, Benson relocated to Austin on the recommendation of Willie Nelson. For near a half century, with more than 30 albums to his name, Benson has remained the driving force behind the band, which has won 10 Grammys in five different decades. A powerful constant in American country music, Benson retains a heavy touring schedule and is on the road over half the year.
Early ‘60s Gibson ES-335
“I got this in ‘72 or ‘73, when I signed my first record deal. It used to belong to Ernest Tubb’s guitar player, Leon Rhodes, who was my hero. Ernest Tubb’s band always had a Lone Star sticker on there ‘cause they’d give them free beer, and I was actually doing Lone Star commercials too, so I put that on to be like the Texas Troubadours.”
Gibson J-200 with Kerry Wilcox Hand-Tooled Leather Cover
“This was a J-200, which was a good guitar, but it wasn’t special. When Kerry [Wilcox] asked me if I had a guitar he could cover, I went, ‘Sure, here, take this.’ And then, when I got it back, I went, ‘Wow, this thing sounds incredible, especially electrified.’ For whatever reason, dampening the top made it a better guitar.”
Late ‘80s Custom Samick Valley Arts Telecaster, a.k.a. ‘Woodie’
“Samick guitars came to me — they had bought Valley Arts — and they wanted me to endorse their guitars and have a Ray Benson model. So we did, and there at the NAMM show [National Association of Music Merchants], this was on the wall — just the body, no pickups, nothing in it. I don’t even know who made it. So I said, ‘Man, that is gorgeous. Why don’t you put a neck and some pickups in it.’ They did, and I picked it up and went, ‘This is a great guitar.’ I’ve played it since.”
String Gauges 12, 14, 17, 36, 40, 52
“They’re heavier than most rock and rollers. The heavier the string, the better the tone. Stevie Vaughan was a good friend of mine, and Stevie tuned his guitar to E-flat and used really heavy strings. But on E-flat, they were looser so he could bend them. I can’t tune to E-flat. I have big hands and I can bend the shit out of stuff. I think that’s part of it. I can bend a G string that’s seventeen.”