Fathers and music – two of the most influential things in the lives of most guitarists. No matter if their jams happen on a worldwide stage or the living-room floor, guitar players speak loud and proud of dear ol’ dad – the person who often put that first guitar in their hands! Each year, VG asks readers to help recognize those who formed their appreciation for music and the instrument we hold so dear.
This year, we also spoke to Frank Rogers, a music producer in Nashville who has helped craft 38 #1 hits by stars such as Brad Paisley, Josh Turner, Trace Adkins, Darius Rucker, and others on his way to 13 nominations at the Country Music Association (including a win for Album of the Year for Paisley’s Time Well Wasted), five consecutive Billboard magazine awards for Hot Country Producer, four MusicRow Producer of the Year nods, and five awards from the Academy of Country Music. To coincide, he has co-written three #1 hits – Paisley’s “I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song),” as well as “Alright” and “This” by Darius Rucker – along with several other hit singles.
Rogers’ story is phenomenal, and he was encouraged every step along the path to success by his father, Frank M. Rogers, IV – a.k.a. Buzz. We recently spoke with both to discuss the influence fathers have had on sons in their family – and as you might expect, music has played a key role in their lives.
As guitar “collectors” go, the two Rogers represent opposite ends in the spectrum. Buzz is the prototype; a babyboomer who came of age when the Beatles pushed rock and roll to the fore, he gathers guitars out of appreciation and nostalgia, but also because they help him recall the influence of his own father. Frank, on the other hand, uses guitars mostly to butter his bread. Both say sound and feel matter most!
“I don’t care what year it was made, I don’t care what color it is, I don’t care what shape it is,” he said. “If it feels right and has the sound I’m looking for, it can be a $200 guitar or a $20,000 guitar. It’s about tone and playability. They really are tools.”
Buzz, how did music become part of your life?
BUZZ ROGERS: I was always in a choir of some sort, from grammar school through high school, and also had a stint with the violin and clarinet, both of which I disliked. My father, who was 93 when he died three years ago, had a passion for music. He was an audiophile going back to the early 1950s and spent a lifetime buying speakers and amps, searching for the Holy Grail. We spent decades listening to music together. He had an ear for tone like no other, and Frank gets a lot of his producer’s ear from him.
Frank, what are the earliest memories of music registering with you?
FRANK ROGERS: When I would visit Dad, he was always strumming a guitar. I remember him playing along with Steve Miller Band records.
Who were your early guitar heroes?
BUZZ ROGERS: My father, first, because he taught me what he knew from his years playing saxophone – he adapted the notes in sax leads to chords. He was a Marine fighter-pilot instructor during World War II and stayed in California for a while after the war. He used to watch Les Paul play in a small club and would ask Les to help him with jazz-chord forms! As I got better at guitar, Dad would up the ante with more-difficult chords, and then I started learning pop songs from the ’50s and ’60s – I was born in ’47, so Elvis introduced me to rock and roll. I also loved Chuck Berry and I was taken in a big way by the Beach Boys and the Beatles, but I wasn’t driven by the players as much as the music – I grew up in a time when music influenced by the guitar was exploding; great players were coming up with things never done before. It was an exciting time, so I learned the chords and leads of songs I liked.
If I had to pick one guitarist as a musical hero, it would be George Harrison, who was at the forefront when the boundaries of rock-guitar weren’t fully discovered. He was a big part of my development – very tasteful and creative, and under-appreciated.
FRANK ROGERS: I never was a devotee of any particular band or artist or even style of music. If something grabbed me, I wanted to learn it, and that went from classical to country to R&B to rock to jazz – you name it. I grew up in the ’80s and the whole hair-metal thing, but at the same time I was a big fan of the Eagles and James Taylor, and on the country side there were a lot of pickers; Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou’s Hot Ban , etc. I learned certain guitar parts, but what really moved me was songs and how they made you feel..
What were your first guitars and amps?
BUZZ ROGERS: I got started at age nine, on my dad’s Epiphone archtop. My first was an Epiphone Casino; dad went to New York in 1964, to Manny’s Music, and told an impatient salesman, “I have flown here from South Carolina and I’m going to buy a Selmer saxophone, a guitar, and an amp if you don’t rush me.” He ended up sitting on a crate in the stockroom, trying out the semi-hollowbodies. I have the invoice framed in my music room. The next year, he bought me a Fender Bandmaster amp.
FRANK ROGERS: Dad gave me a guitar for Christmas one year and I messed with it a little, then put it in the closet. I was about 12 when I took it out one day and went, “This is cool!” In high school I had a Strat, a DOD American Metal pedal, and a Fender Sidekick amp. I could make it sound like a clean guitar or use the pedal to sound like a distorted guitar – those were my options (laughs)!
How did each of you learn the nuances in the way one guitar sounded compared to another?
BUZZ ROGERS: For me, hearing differences in tone started before the guitar. Dad and I would listen to records by Duke Ellington, Harry James, Count Basie, Woody Herman, then later to Doc Severinsen and Maynard Ferguson, to see how clearly we could hear sax parts, trombones, and trumpets. I grew up as electric guitars were developed in the ’50s and ’60s and always paid attention to the differences in tone between Fenders, Gibsons, Gretches, and Rickenbackers. I’ve learned about great guitar tone with acoustic guitars from Frank.
FRANK ROGERS: I started really zoning in on guitar tones in college; as I learned more and more about gear, I’d hear the subtleties, and of course players record with different rigs – some sound great, some sound awful! So at the same time, I started relating different sounds to various guitars, amps, and pedals… then you go down the rabbit hole and learn to hear the differences in strings, picks, pickups, cables, etc. It never ends!
BUZZ ROGERS: Frank has an incredible ear for a guitar’s balance, clarity, warmth, and vibe. I’ve watched him go down a line of acoustics at a guitar show or at a dealer’s store, strumming from one to the next as they hang from the wall. He might strum 10 guitars, stop at one, strum it again, take it down, play it a few minutes, then put it up and say, “It’s good, but…” Every now and then, though, his eyes light up and he breaks into a light sweat on his face. That’s when one of us gets out the checkbook! We found my ’62 J-45 that way.
Buzz, when did you start to collect guitars?
BUZZ ROGERS: When Frank got to Nashville about 25 years ago. At that point, I had more time to play and I was following his career, which sucked me into the vortex of great old guitars (laughs)!
Did you have a wish list, or what was your approach?
BUZZ ROGERS: Actually, yes, I had a list of guitars that interested me. It was driven by different kinds of music I like so I would research and find an instrument that I thought best represented that style. I’d talk to knowledgeable people and read voraciously.
When Frank was at Belmont University, he and I started going to the Arlington Guitar Show every year with producer Mark Bright and Henry Gross (VG, August ’12). I was looking for a jumbo Gibson, and Mark told me that most Nashville studio guitarists preferred the J-185 because the maple back and sides give it a balanced, bright tone. On the second trip, I found a beauty and Henry freaked over its tone. So it came home with me. Henry also helped me find a good Rickenbacker 12-string. In the end, for me it’s about appreciating the tone of the old ones and enjoying them for their sound. Each one I have is special in its own way.
What other advice have you gathered from Frank’s professional acquaintances?
BUZZ ROGERS: Bill Chapman, who at the time worked on guitars for Hootie and the Blowfish, is a Gretsch expert, and he told me the best was a ’59 6120 and what to watch for in a really good one. I’m also good friends with Wayne Henderson, and I learned a lot about Martins from him.
My M.O. has always been patience, research, and being around someone who could validate my opinion of a guitar’s tone and playability. I also rely on Joe Glaser for structural examination and opinion. I’ve made a few errors along the way, but for the most part I’ve navigated it fairly well. I want it as original as I can get, but it has to sound great and be playable. I believe that if you buy good-sounding guitars, beyond enjoying a fun hobby, the value of your pieces will go up, rather than down, over time.
Frank, what makes for a good guitar for you?
FRANK ROGERS: When writing songs, I look for a guitar that doesn’t make me think too much about trying to play something. It needs to be an extension of what I’m trying to express.
In the studio, certain guitars sound great no matter what you’re doing, while others fit little sonic “spots.” For years, I didn’t get what people saw in a Gibson SG – lots of people love them and they’re cool, but it just didn’t have enough uses to make me want one… until I was doing a band that had a second electric guitar, and it was the exact sonic complement to the Les Paul on the other side. They all have their purposes in the recording world.
Your dad talks about being less concerned with the condition of a guitar. Given that your guitars are tools, can we assume something like a neck repair doesn’t matter to you as long as it sounds and plays right?
FRANK ROGERS: Doesn’t matter at all!
Are you the same way with amps?
FRANK ROGERS: Yes, if it sounds great, great! If it doesn’t, let’s figure out why or get another amp or guitar. Let’s search until we find the sound we’re looking for. I have an old AC30 head and I couldn’t tell you what tubes are in it. I couldn’t even tell you what year it is. I only know that when I plug a Tele into it, it sounds great – a Strat doesn’t sound as good.
Speaking of, is there an artist who, when you first worked with them, had some less-than-stellar guitar tones?
FRANK ROGERS: Oh, absolutely – most of ’em (laughs)! Through the demo process and the first three or four records of Brad Paisley’s career, I wouldn’t let him use his own acoustic guitar – and to his credit, he didn’t want to! I gave him s**t about it all the time (laughs); “How are you gonna be a guitar hero playing a Takamine?” At the time, I had a good old [Gibson] J-45, a Kent Everett guitar, an old Martin, and my dad would let us borrow some of his. Brad has come a long way and now has some great acoustics. But we spent a lot of hours chasing tones. Most of the people I’ve worked with had to learn about tone. I’ve seen a lot of studio players in Nashville whose tone has improved dramatically through the years.
Brad Paisley talks about scoring his trademark ’68 Telecaster at the Arlington show. You and he used to go to that show with your dad, right?
FRANK ROGERS: Yes, for years we went together, and we’ve picked up several guitars and amps there. That’s where we met Kent Everett – one of those times when you’re walking down aisles, strumming guitars, and all of a sudden it’s like, “What’s this?” It blew my mind how great his guitars were. I got my J-45 at Arlington, and an old Tele I use as high-strung guitar.
BUZZ ROGERS: I used to give Brad a hard time about the Tele he had at Belmont! It had a clear pickguard with paisley paper under it! I kept telling him to get an original.
Buzz, when Frank was a teenager, you recognized he had penchant for songwriting…
BUZZ ROGERS: Yeah, he definitely had a gift for writing songs, and of course I wanted to encourage it. When he was in high school, I booked some time for him at a local studio to record some of his songs. Right away, the owner noticed that he had an easiness about himself in that environment. Several years later, he had been accepted to the College of Charleston, where he was planning to major in business and minor in music. In fact, we had paid a deposit on tuition…
But then there was a Butterfly Effect moment…
BUZZ ROGERS: Yeah, we went to the music store in Charlotte in early July to get him an electronic keyboard as a graduation gift, and we walked in just as the salesman was about to go to lunch. Well, he stayed to help us, and while doing so, we started talking. Turns out the guy had attended Belmont, and by the end of the discussion, the seed was planted. Five weeks later, Frank was on campus. We’ve talked a lot over the years about what would have happened if we’d so much as missed a stop light on the two-hour drive that day and ended up talking to with someone else at the store. Frank wrote a line in the chorus of the Darius Rucker song, “This,” which was a number one hit, that talks about missing a stop light. His life – and country music – wouldn’t be the same if we had that day.
Most parents don’t like pushing their children to a career in music, but I thought he had something special. He had the gift, he applied himself to get the education, he has the work ethic, and he caught a few breaks.
Frank, do you recall feeling at ease in that recording studio the first time?
FRANK ROGERS: Yeah, it seemed natural. And when I moved to Nashville, I loved being in a studio. Whatever I could do to be there, I would do it – whether they needed an engineer, a bass player, guitar player, background singer. The first time I ever sat at a B-3 organ happened when someone in the studio said, “Hey, do you play B-3?” I said, “Heck, yeah” and while they were getting sound on it, I pulled the draw bars, wondering to myself, “What do these do?” I totally faked it just to get in the studio because I loved the process. And no matter what my task was, by the end of the session, it seemed that I ended up kind of running it. I thought, “There’s a name for that… I’m a producer!” Even back in high school, I was never the greatest player, but I was the one arranging songs, picking out parts, and doing the set list. I got asked to play in a band because I knew a handful of chords – which was a lot for my hometown – but I remember taking two cassette recorders, playing a guitar part into one, playing it back, then playing a track into the other one while listening to the first track. I was always recording just to see what I could do.
You mentioned that certain songs caught your attention more than any certain players. Was that influence apparent in the way you learned to play guitar?
FRANK ROGERS: Yeah, as soon as picked it up, I remember hitting the E string, open first, then pressing down the first fret to make an F, pressing down on the third fret to make a G. Right away, I started writing a three-note song – literally the first time I picked up an electric guitar, I wrote a song. I wanted to create. I never really got excited about learning other people’s stuff.
Being a child of the ’80s, do you see yourself having played a role in country music becoming what some critics and music writers refer to as “Def Leppard Lite.”
FRANK ROGERS: I don’t think of myself as that important (laughs)! But I guess there are some records I’ve done that have probably influenced the scene one way or the other. More of my hits have probably swung the pendulum back to traditional rather than taking it toward Def Leppard. When Brad first came out, he was very much on the traditional side. Josh Turner, certainly – “Long Black Train” was not like anything else on the radio at the time. But, some of the Darius Rucker stuff is a little more pop, and I’ve done some Trace Adkins stuff that’s more rock, really. And “Whiskey Lullaby,” by Brad and Allison Krause, I’m sure influenced a few people who thought, “Oh, we can get away with a hardcore drinking ballad?”
Really, though, country music has become just “American” music – it’s not necessarily all country. There’s country music on country radio, there’s rock music on country radio, there’s folk music on country radio, there’s pop music. In a way, country has become the “pop” format – you hear Les Pauls and Marshalls and wah pedals and all that, but you also have drum loops and steel guitars and banjos, so it really is wide open, which I think is good.
I do know that influencing future records is never the goal. I record something that I would want to go buy. If I do something I hate, that’s not good for anybody (laughs)!
This article originally appeared in VG August 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.