Rex Brown on how the Epiphone Thunderbird taught him to play

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Rex Brown on how the Epiphone Thunderbird taught him to play

Rex Brown Epiphone
Words by Jamie Colic

“You learn how to play bass with a fuckin’ Thunderbird.”

Now in 2024, it’s safe to say that a reinvigorated Pantera led by vocalist Phil Anselmo and bassist Rex Brown have gone forward to silence naysayers internationally. With metal veterans Charlie Benante (Anthrax, S.O.D) and Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne, Black Label Society) joining the fold as fill-ins for the legendary Abbot brothers, the band closed in on the end of a mammoth two-year world tour and Australian audiences at this year’s Knotfest were ecstatic to witness the steel.

On July 13th 2022, Billboard reported that heavy metal behemoth Pantera were reuniting for their first world tour in 22 years.  This news was polarising due to the fact that the Abbot brothers “Dimebag” Darrell and Vinnie Paul, cornerstones of the band’s lineup since its formation in Arlington Texas back in 1981, had both tragically passed away since the band’s breakup back in 2003.

Rex Brown

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Amidst the chaos and fury, we were fortunate enough to catch Rex Brown for a chat. From working in Willie Nelson’s home studio, to the first time he witnessed the wrath of the Gibson Thunderbird, Rex emanated nothing but passion and gratitude for both heavy metal and the generations of fans who have followed him through a storied 40-year career. 

Cheerfully greeting me on the line, Rex doesn’t sound like a man who has endured a two-year run on the road, “We have just gotten off the plane here in Sydney, and it brings back so many memories!” Having last played Sydney’s fabled Hordern Pavillion back in 2001, a 23-year absence seems to have done nothing to dull Brown’s appreciation for the land down under.

Suddenly the tone of the discussion retracts from jovial to somewhat serious as Rex remarks “Look man, I wanna make this really brief… we are grateful, and honoured to be here, doing what we do again, seeing the multitude of fans all across the world.”

The sincerity of this sentiment hits home even harder when one acknowledges that fans who caught the band back in 2001 are perhaps returning to Knotfest in 2024 with their own children in tow, spreading metal across generations via their adoration for the Texan legends.  

Epiphone Thunderbird

The appreciation doesn’t end with the metalheads though, as Rex has recently been honoured with his own Signature Thunderbird basses by Gibson and Epiphone. Thinking back on his first introduction to the Thunderbird’s striking silhouette he is quick to turn the discussion over to London, highlighting both The Who’s John Entwistle and UFO’s Pete Way.

“Those guys were massive influences in the 80s, when I got the Lights Out record in ‘78, that record was really the gateway into the bands that came after.” Rex recalls. “Thin Lizzy came first, then you had UFO and then you had the first Def Leppard record, and all of those guys were using either the big Explorer basses or the Thunderbird.”

An immense appreciation for the English hard rock stalwarts of the ‘70s and ‘80s ensues with Rex reeling things in to highlight his love for guitars. “I’ve been an avid collector of vintage guitars for going on four years now. I was down in Willie Nelson’s studio working with Terry Date on some tracks for some television stuff, and I had this old bass in a coffin.”

Rex continues to detail how his tech at the time had enquired about the remnants of a vintage Thunderbird that he had acquired back in 2002. $500 and a call to EMG Pickups later and the ol’ Bird was back in action, sporting nothing but Rex’s favourite gold Hipshot hardware.

The discussion rolls on to become a love letter to the different eras of Gibson’s timeless bass shape, “That bass has a really thin neck on it, I think it dates back pre-86.”

He further details that Thunderbirds with this thin neck profile were only made during a period of time “When they first came out in ‘65 to ‘67, then they put some out between ‘71 and ‘75, then in ‘76 they came out with the bicentennial model which is always a killer bass.”

Rex’s own Thunderbird dates to a period between 1981 and 1986 in which the model was issued with the original thin-neck profile. He expresses a subtle disdain for any model outside of these aforementioned periods “They have this big fat neck on em’ that I hate, y’know, so I got one of the good ones!”

Later on, when Rex became acquainted with the good people over at the Gibson Custom Shop, it was only natural that he would introduce them to his beloved Thunderbird stating “I’ve got this Thunderbird that will knock your fuckin’ socks off!” and the rest is history. 

“I’d say the Epiphone bass is more me than the first one was,” the bassist exclaims, whilst deep in thought. “It has passive pickups, and the same neck as my old Thunderbird, but it’s a neck-thru and has nine plys of wood going through the body and it sounds brutal.”

“The punch of those pickups I had done by a guy called Richard Aker who has been with the company for 40 years! How cool is that,” he explains excitedly. 

At this point, it’s apparent to me that the discussion is much more than a mere listing of artist specs as Rex demonstrates his astute knowledge of the history of the Thunderbirds and a genuine passion for the Gibson and Epiphone companies, “I can’t thank them enough for letting me in the door.”

“I’ve got eight or nine, or 10 basses with me [on tour] and I’m playing two! But you’re talking about Epiphone and they are my favourite basses, they are worth every damn penny, you learn how to play bass with a fuckin Thunderbird, It’ll make you learn how to play the son-of-a-bitch and that’s just how it was back in the day”.

For local Epiphone enquiries, visit Australis Music.