I was sitting on the beach in Port Aransas, drunk, watching Mike Tuck throw potato chips at seagulls, and I wondered how an immature 22-year-old guy like Mike was able to land a professional gig in the country music circuit. At that point I had never heard Mike play guitar; we had only met once before a mutual friend invited us both to the coast, so we never really had the chance to discuss music.
The discussion we had that day was revealing, to say the least. Mike spoke intimately about his decision to drop out of UNT’s music program to pursue his music career – a decision his family initially didn’t understand. But he was determined to prove to his parents – and himself – that the risk would be rewarding.
As we shared a few beers, Mike shared sentiments about his current gig: playing lead guitar alongside Zane Williams. He seemed sincere when he talked about how lucky he felt to be playing music professionally. Our day together was full of refreshingly candid conversations – and drinking.
During our drunk chats, Mike received what seemed to be an important phone call. I was stunned by how quickly his professionalism subdued his drunkenness. He was somehow able to carry on a coherent, mature conversation. When the call was over, he hung up, put some notes in his calendar, and proceeded to slam another beer. Something about that moment intrigued me, and I became eager to write about him.
It wasn’t until New Year’s Eve that I was able to make it out to Hank’s in McKinney to watch Mike play live with Zane. I’ll admit: Today’s watered-down, factory-assembled country music scene has made me a hesitant listener, but I think Zane’s music is sincere and well written. (My favorite song, “Overnight Success,” is a clever and cynical story about the misconceptions of what it takes to become a “success” in the music industry.)
Zane may have been center stage during the show, but my focus was on Mike, who maintained a high-energy performance despite the obstruction of a support beam inconveniently planted on his side of the stage. He put his Nash guitar and Matchless amp to work and delivered fast, finger-picking rhythm licks, giant country lead solos, and even the occasional slide. His variety of overdrive pedals created a vast range of sounds, from an almost completely clean tone to a fully compressed, heavily overdriven signal.
When he wasn’t playing lead, he was churning out meticulous guitar riffs to help sustain the integrity of each song – particularly between vocals. If the tempo calmed, he would switch on his delay and tremolo to soften the mood and create a more subdued ambiance.
In keeping with the New Year’s Eve energy, Mike approached everything with a “party hard” persona. He jumped on risers during his guitar solos, chugged beers during Zane’s vocal solos, and charismatically tipped his hat to the audience before throwing back shots they sent to the stage.
As I watched him charm the crowd, I started to understand his “Jekyll and Hyde” persona: One side of him is the rambunctious 22-year-old kid I met at the beach, but the other side is a tenacious, uncompromising musician who is truly passionate about his playing.
Mike’s passion for guitar started in the fourth grade when his parents gifted him a Fender Squire Stratocaster for Christmas. Over the course of the next several years, Mike’s guitar playing habits were typical: He practiced, went to lessons, and practiced some more. And like most of us, when it came to listening to music, he explored and experimented with all kinds, hoping to find inspiration.
When Mike was in ninth grade, he made the decision to pursue guitar as a career. “I don’t know why the heck I’ve always been this way, but I’ve just been like, ‘I’ve gotta plan for my future, I gotta figure out what I’m doing with my life.’”
So he set out to petition the masses, and after interrogating teachers and professional musicians, his path became clear. “It just sounded like everyone who was really good studied jazz,” Mike revealed.
Feeling motivated, he made the decision to join his high school jazz band. He even attended a jazz summer camp at UNT, where he ambitiously approached the head of the UNT Jazz Department. “Listen man, I really want to go to school here. Tell me what I need to work on to get into school here.” Mike was ultimately referred to Shayne Green, who quickly became his friend and most influential mentor.
Soon Mike formed his own jazz band, for which he carried around homemade clipart flyers in an attempt to book local shows. Before long, he was getting paid to play shows every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday – one gig even paid $750 each week. When I asked what fueled his persistence, he said, “I worked at a donut shop and just thought if I hustled harder, I could probably start making some real money. So I quit that job and started hustling with my guitar.”
Most days he’d wake up at 5:00am to practice, then skip lunch to practice even more. He originally pursued jazz to become a better player, but connecting with jazz on a deeper level helped him form a more intense love for the music.
Mike was able to enroll in the UNT jazz program, but shortly after his academic career began, his mentor, Shayne, started asking Mike to fill in for him on the days he wasn’t able to play shows with his country band. The more opportunities he had to step in, the more he realized how much he enjoyed playing country music. Suddenly his desire to be on the road with a country band outweighed his obsession with studying jazz at UNT.
After his freelancing stint, Mike wound up passing an audition to play with Jamie Richards. For the next seven months, he tried to tour while balancing school, teaching music lessons, and being a worship leader. “I always thought that if you have an opportunity to work and you have time in your day to do it, then you better be working,” he professed.
Despite his busy schedule, Mike also continued to sporadically fill in for Shayne, which put him on the stage with Zane Williams. The thought of being on tour with Zane was exciting, even early on. “I remember thinking that I would drop out of school for that.”
It was during his time with Jamie Richards that Mike received the phone call he had hoped for: Zane Williams needed a lead guitarist and offered Mike the job. The opportunity was too enticing to refuse. He subsequently decided he would leave UNT to cultivate his country music career.
Let’s learn more about Mike’s career and his passion for gear in this candid Q&A:
(All answers written directly by artist)
What do you like about your Nash guitar?
For my guitars, I’ve got three Telecasters: A Nash T-63, a Suhr Classic T, and a Fender Custom Shop. I knew that a lot of badass players in town were rocking the Nash Teles, so it made me really want to get one. It’s definitely my favorite of the three. Plus they just look cool.
With the wide variety of boutique amp makers, why did the Matchless Lightning Reverb stand out to you?
The Lightning stuck out to me because it has that EL84 British sound. The amp is also pretty bright, which is great for country guitar.
What is your pedal signal flow?
First is my wireless Shure Glxd16. Next is the One Control Iguana Tail Loop, and into that I have a Wampler Ego Compressor, then my Morning Glory from JHS, then the RC Booster from Xotic Effects, then the Lightspeed from Greer Amps, and the last one on the Iguana Tail is my Chicken Soup pedal from Rocket Pedals.
From the Iguana Tail I go into my Ernie Ball JHS Active/No Loss Mod with a T.C. Electronic tuner out. From the Volume Pedal I go into the Strymon Mobius, then the Strymon Timeline, and then out to the good ole Matchless.
Why do you play with four different overdrives?
I could definitely get away with only having one overdrive on my board, but I like the option of having so many different textures at my disposal during the gig. For example, one night I’ll use the RC Booster on a song like “Damned,” and then the next night I’ll use my Morning Glory on that same song. They both sound great and they both fit the song. I just like to change things up and I’m still in the process of figuring out which pedals I like the most. I feel like that’s a never-ending process for guitar players.
With the amount of options they have, your Strymon pedals can be intimidating. How do you like to utilize them?
I definitely do not use my Strymon pedals to their full potential. They can do a lot of stuff, but I only have three to four presets on the Timeline and Mobius that I switch between. On the Timeline I go between either a dotted 8th, slap back, reverse, or just a delay with a few repeats on a quarter note tap tempo. On the Mobius I go back and forth between two different tremolos. One is that classic trem sound you can get off a fender deluxe or twin, and the other is a more “square” shaped tremolo. I think that’s what it’s called. Similar to that sound at the beginning of Luke Bryan’s “Country Girl (Shake It For Me).”
What jazz musicians have influenced you?
My biggest jazz influences (for guitar playing at least) would probably be Clint Strong, Wes Montgomery, and Pat Metheny. Not to say I sound anything like those dudes – I just enjoy their playing a lot. One of my all-time favorite albums is Wes Montgomery’s Smokin’ at the Half Note.
I also really like non-guitar-playing jazzers like Dave Brubeck and Dizzy Gillespie. Those were the first jazz guys I really started listening to. The album Dave Digs Disney is a great one to listen to to get you into the jazz world if you think all jazz is just a bunch of people “playing the wrong notes.”
How do you feel your jazz background influences your playing as a country musician?
Studying jazz and music theory definitely helped open up the fretboard for me quite a bit, and all of that theory transfers over to my country playing. I think country playing and jazz have a lot in common. That’s basically what “western swing” is, I think. I’m definitely not an expert on that by any means. If you listen to dudes like Brad Paisley or Brent Mason you can hear a lot of bebop-ish lines in their solos. I remember when my teacher Shayne Green first showed me Brad Paisley’s solo from his version of “Jingle Bells.” That song had a lot of pretty sick jazz lines going on in it and I loved it. After hearing that, I was pretty hooked on that country/jazz sound. I really wanted to sound like that so I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make my jazz lines fit into the country songs I was playing without going overboard. A lot of getting that sound, I think, is about knowing when to use chromaticism.
Some good songs that have that type of playing on them are:
· Dixie Chicks – “Give It Up Or Let Me Go”
· Alan Jackson – “Burnin’ The Honky Tonks Down”
· Brad Paisley – “Camouflage”
· LeAnn Rimes – “Swingin’”
· Joe Diffie – “Good Brown Gravy” (Live at Billy Bob’s)
· Kevin Fowler – “Fat Bottomed Girls”
What do you think has contributed to your strong musical work ethic?
The big thing for me is having the desire to always get better. The more I play shows and hear other players, the more I realize how much room I have to grow. Just this last weekend we were in Houston playing a festival and one of the other band’s guitar players was so freakin’ badass. It can be super inspiring just as much as it can make me want to burn all of my guitars and quit. It’s really a healthy balance of crippling self-doubt and inspiration.
What made you finally decide to drop out of college to pursue your career?
Whenever I realized I could make a living doing music without a degree. Well, that, and for some reason I always had in the back of my mind – even as a high school junior – that if Zane asked me to go on the road with him, I would drop out of college. So when he did, I didn’t think twice about it. I tried to balance school, teaching, church gigs, and playing full time for Jamie Richards for one semester, and it made ma almost insane. It was too much for me and I started to realize that finishing a degree wasn’t going to do a whole lot for me given my chosen career path.
How did your family respond to this decision?
Well, Mrs. Rosemarie Tuck is still not crazy about me dropping out of school, but both of my parents have always been extremely supportive of me pursuing music. I’m very thankful for them. It makes a world of difference when you’ve got your home unit behind you 100%.
What are some of the benefits or stresses associated with being a hired musician as opposed to an original band member?
Well, no matter how many people come to the show, you still get paid the same. You can always play for other artists if you choose to. If you don’t like your gig, you can always quit, and they can just find someone else as opposed to the band “breaking up.” But at the same time, hired guns are pretty disposable. Not to sound negative, but they just are. And that can be viewed as good or bad for you, depending on how you think about it. There are a lot of people who could do my job and a lot of them could do it better than me. It’s a good way to stay humble and a good way to keep working hard and to keep trying to up your value as a hired gun, with that in mind.
It’s fair to say that my initial judgement of Mike Tuck was harsh and inaccurate. Mike likes to have fun, like any 22-year-old would, but he takes his playing and his career as serious as any musician out there. He’s certainly deserving of the success he’s had and hopefully he’ll keep receiving. Zane Williams is equally hard working and almost always on tour. I encourage you to check out his tour dates and go watch these boys in action. And while you’re at the show, be sure to buy Mike a beer.