Tone Talk with Grace Bernicker

Photo by Derek Brad
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I’m Grace Bernicker, a soulful singer-songwriter from right outside Philadelphia, PA. Growing up, I was definitely influenced by my parents’ record collection, Bonnie Raitt, Carol King, and The Marshall Tucker Band, to name a few. I was also really into artists such as Alicia Keys, Joss Stone, Christina Aguilera, and Sara Bareilles. Growing up, I played a bit of piano and was always singing, so I was really drawn to strong female vocalists or unique vocal stylings and still am to this day. I actually didn’t pick up my first guitar until I was in my early 20s. And up until recently, was essentially self-taught and played by ear. I actually started taking real lessons via Zoom during quarantine from an amazing female session player based in LA. It has been so cool to actually learn more about different picking patterns, playing styles, and guitar theory!

Stylistically, I’ve always been drawn to a more acoustic sound versus an electronic or synth bass sound. So my music is always rooted in that, be it guitar or piano, and then in the studio, we may add more on to it. For my live shows, I usually duo, so it’s always myself and a guitar player, really simple straight acoustic.

Right now, I’m working on a twelve-song acoustic cover video series, taking a few of my favorite songs and stripping them down to an all-acoustic arrangement. It’s been a lot of fun to create and takes me back to how I grew up singing. I’ll be releasing the third track and video of the series later this month.

What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?
For me, tone has to do with a few things. I used to think of it solely from a vocal perspective, but now it’s more about the groove of the song. From a songwriting perspective, I think about it in the sense of the space within the song, what’s the song feel like, are we writing up-tempo or ballad, is it guitar or piano-driven, and is it lyrically heavy or is the melody more at the forefront?

Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?
I play a Breedlove and absolutely love it. It’s an acoustic-electric and is part of their Atlas Series, the Passport Plus C250/SFe. We’ve been through a lot together, and it’s actually the only guitar I own. I love how it creates such a bright, full rounded tone. I’ve occasionally picked up an electric as well and would love to own an electric. One day!

What about strings?
I use Elixir strings most of the time. I like using a lighter string, and so far they have worked out great!

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?
I actually love recording live or at least doing a scratch vocal with the full band or whoever else I’m playing with versus being sent a direct track and then singing on top of it. I’m so used to playing live; it just feels natural this way. I always just felt that it gels better this way, as you get all the nooks and crannies and get to hear and play off of all of the nuances versus fitting in to a track that’s already been created.

How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?
For me, live shows are pretty simple. It’s usually just myself and a guitar player. We’ll check our levels, make sure we are both balanced, and that the guitars aren’t louder than the vocals. Also, having a good sound engineer is always helpful.

What does your practice consist of?
It depends on what I’m working on. Vocally speaking, I try and warm up every day or several times per week and will also work on whatever song or songs I’m working on at the moment. For guitar, I try and play every day, especially now. Some days it may be 20 minutes; other days, it may be two hours. Given I’ve started taking actual lessons during quarantine, it’s been really cool to actually have different finger exercises to work on, various bar chords to concur, and picking patterns to work on. I’ll usually start out with a few finger exercises and then dive into the chords for that specific song, make sure I’m good on all of them, and then dive into the rhythmic pattern. I find it really helpful if I have a track to go off of. Maybe that’s playing along to the actual song or setting a metronome at a certain speed and then trying to loop the pattern so many times in a row without breaking it. If I’m going to be singing and playing, I’ll usually try and master the guitar part first and then dive into the vocal line.

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?
Above all else, know your worth and don’t settle for less than you deserve. As a woman in this business, very often, you are the only woman in the room. That’s OK, but also don’t hold back. If you want to change a guitar line or don’t like the tempo, or a lyric line, say so. Don’t make yourself small to fit in; take up space. Also, always be prepared, know your part, and come in with ideas. When I was younger, I wish someone encouraged me to learn audio and production. I love the producing side as well and have spent time now actually learning it for myself. Learn how to do all of the things the guys do; you can produce, be a sound engineer, be a label executive, shred on guitar, be the drummer, be the lead producer, run audio—it’s totally up to you!

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