Billy Gibbons, Jimmie Vaughan, Gary Clark Jr. and the Dixie Chicks are just a few of the high-profile artists who’ve relied on guitar technician Tom Oatley for their instrument set-ups and modifications. Based in Austin, Oatley’s Guitar Garage has long been the go-to place for expert repairs and advice, for professionals and amateur players alike. “You have to do basic maintenance on cars, and that’s how I approach guitars,” says Oatley. “It’s the same thing. Guitars will tell you when it’s time to go in for a tune-up. When people leave my shop, I tell them, ‘You’re good for another hundred thousand miles.’”
Oatley has long been Gibson’s designated guitar tech for the company’s showroom in Austin as well. This Thursday (March 14), during the South By Southwest festivities, he’ll be in charge of all tech-related matters for Gibson’s “Rock SXSW” showcase, set to feature performances by the likes of John Hiatt and Richard Thompson. Oatley will also assist Gibson in a give-away event that reintroduces the company’s much-heralded J-35 acoustic. From his shop in Austin, Oatley spoke with us about the rewards — both tangible and intangible – that come with his line of work. He also revealed some surprising tidbits about Billy Gibbons’ setup.
How did you get into this field?
I was playing in bands at a fairly younger age, and I started messing around with my personal guitars. One of the first official repairs I ever did was replacing the pots on my Les Paul. I’ve always enjoyed fixing things. My love of guitars goes way back, to when I was eight years old. My Dad restored old cars, so we had a full shop in the basement. There were tools and machines lying around everywhere. I was never afraid to rip things apart, including my guitars. That’s how it all started.
What’s the most common damage you see?
I see a lot of general wear from playing, a lot of fretwork repair that’s needed. As far as actual damage, it’s probably broken headstocks. I’ve glued up a lot of headstocks over the years. But damage is sort of a relative term. Most of what I see is general wear and tear, either from being out on the road or from a lot of playing. Most of the people I work with are full-time musicians. Their instruments are their tools. Like any tool, you have to keep it in shape.
Is it fair to say every guitar has its own personality – its own characteristics – no matter how close the specs?
They’re all different. You could give me ten Les Pauls, and each of them will be unique. It’s not that they’re built different, or anything like that, but they all do have their own personalities. I refer to every guitar that comes across my desk as “my baby.” They’re all my children when they leave here. I have a vested interest in everything I work on. That’s simply because I love guitars.
Do you have favorite models you like to work on, more so than others?
It’s always a lot of fun to work on Les Pauls and SGs and 335s, because you can really dial those guitars in. I like working on any guitar that comes across my bench, but I can get a lot of reaction from players just by how fine-tuned I can dial in those models. One of the best things about my job is the insanely huge variety of guitars that comes across the bench.
If someone wants to get into this field, what sort of preparations should they take?
There’s the whole practical experience side of it, and then there’s the schooling side. There are some great luthier schools around the country. I look at that as providing a solid foundation, but on the practical side, just when you think you’ve got things figured out, that feeling goes out the window. You run across something that makes you say, “Wow, I’ve never seen this before.”
Can you give an example?
A while back a guy came in who was complaining about a scratchy noise his guitar was making. I could hear it myself, so I checked grounds, and tore the guitar apart. I was tearing my hair out, and spent three days trying to figure out what was going on. Finally, I cleaned the guitar up and plugged it in one last time, and the scratchiness was gone. I was like, “What happened?” The problem, it turned out, was static electricity being conducted through the polyurethane finish. (laughs) I’m pretty sure they don’t teach you that at luthier school.
Are higher-profile players generally easy to please?
That’s sort of a wide open question. All I can say is they like my work. I’ve never had any problems, honestly, with any of the artists I’ve worked with. I’ve been working with Jimmie Vaughan for close to 20 years. And I’ve worked with Ray Benson, of Asleep at the Wheel, for close to 15 years. I like them and they like me.
What does your work with Billy Gibbons involve?
The Gibsons I’ve worked on for Billy have all come from the Gibson showroom. I handle small shows here in Austin with him, every once in a while. I get the guitars, and then I go through them and set them up the way Billy likes. It’s a pretty unusual setup, although it’s also pretty simple. Billy uses 7s, for strings. GHS Custom makes that gauge for him. The setups I’ve done for him are with the 7s, with the action as low as it will go.
What does that provide him with?
You would really have to ask him. All I can say is that when I finish with his guitars, I can’t play them. It’s too light and too low for me. But when I give the guitar to him, he’s always very happy. You’ve got to have an extremely light touch to play with that setup, obviously. I sit there and very delicately and lightly touch the note, and think, “Okay, this seems to be right.” But if I were to play a Barre chord it would just [mute] completely — not make any noise. He goes out with that guitar, and no matter what he’s playing it through, it’s Billy Gibbons. It’s mind-blowing.
You’ve also done tours as a guitar tech. Do you often encounter emergencies – sudden problems with gear that you have to handle with finesse?
My approach on the road was always to be prepared as possible. I do everything I can, and hopefully that means there will be no problems during a show. But there’s always the weird stuff. For one of the shows I did for Jimmie Vaughan, the state police radio tower was on a hill about a quarter-mile away from the venue. We were getting massive radio transmissions coming through the amps. (laughs) You kind of go, “Hmmm.” Luckily we were carrying a bunch of different amps, and I managed to find a couple that weren’t too terribly affected by the radio transmissions. Sometimes you really have to think outside the box. You can do everything to make sure the gear is in top shape – and be as prepared as possible – but then you flip on a power switch and something unpredictable happens.
Is it true that you can put any guitar in a great player’s hands, and that guitarist will always sound like himself?
That’s absolutely true, and Billy and Jimmie are great examples. You could hand either of those guys any guitar on the planet, and the moment they start playing, you would know that’s Billy Gibbons or Jimmie Vaughan. I can say that with one-hundred percent certainly, because I’ve seen it happen with both of them.
You were friends with Les Paul. What’s your strongest memory of him?
The times I was fortunate enough to hang out and talk with Les, we never talked guitars, which I know sounds kind of weird. He’s from Waukesha, Wisconsin, and I’m from upper Michigan. In a way that was cool, because we would talk about things like bratwurst and fishing and all the things associated with Wisconsin and upper Michigan. His family used to vacation where I’m from, all the time. But on the other hand I sort of regret that I didn’t pick his brain, on the guitar side of things. He was a down-to-earth guy. It was always fun chatting with him, reminiscing about our hometowns and other things.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?
If the guitars are happy, then the people playing them are happy. If someone comes in and says they want their guitar set up a certain way, I tell them I can do that, but I also make sure they know that I’ll give them whatever the guitar gives me. Not to sound egotistical, but almost daily I hear someone say, “Wow, I didn’t know my guitar could play this good.” That’s what’s gratifying, to take the frustration out of their playing. A guy brought me a beautiful ’70 Les Paul three days ago – a killer guitar, very nice – but he said the intonation was driving him nuts. I went through it and did the setup and he picked it up. That night, I got a text from him that said, “Thanks so much. I’ve been rehearsing for four hours and I haven’t been this happy playing in a long time.” That’s the best part – taking the frustration between the player and the guitar out of the equation, and making them friends again.
What’s your association with Gibson been like?
It’s always been a special pleasure to be associated with Gibson. The heritage of Gibson being in Kalamazoo has always been a big deal for me, especially being from upper Michigan. Everyone I knew up north played Gibsons. The company is producing great instruments. Gibson Montana is certainly doing a great job. I’m looking forward to seeing what they send here [to SXSW], on the acoustic side of things.