As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Special Edition 2022 – I Belong
When asked how she felt about seeing more Black female-identifying guitarists finally receiving recognition, Kat Dyson responded, “I am the BIGGEST cheerleader for more guitars in the hands of female musicians worldwide. Seeing current and future generations of Black female creatives embrace the instrument gives me great hope for the future of music.”
Kat is a guitarist, singer-songwriter, and composer from Montreal, Canada, by way of Minneapolis, Minn. For over a decade, Kat has graced the stage alongside some extraordinary artists such as Prince, Sheila E., Cyndi Lauper, Carlos Santana, Yolanda Adams, Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and many others. She has toured worldwide and is the definition of a virtuoso guitarist and musician. Guitar Girl Magazine got to chat with this guitar goddess to talk about her experience in the music industry, gear, and what inspires her to stay creative.
Let’s talk a little bit about the beginning stages of your journey. When did you know music/guitar was for you?
As a little girl growing up in the South, we all took piano lessons (strongly encouraged by my parents). It soon became apparent that piano was so singular and not for me. The boys in the neighborhood would get electric guitars, drums, etc., for Christmas. I would hear them jamming out and thought playing guitar seemed to be more fun. After much discussion with my parents, my mom bought me an acoustic guitar. She unexpectedly died within a year of that purchase, and my musical journey began. I approached the guitar as a puzzle to be solved. I took what I learned from piano and vocal music study in grade school and blended it with my knack for learning music by ear. I later entered university and majored in classical voice and music in media with a jazz guitar emphasis. This broadened my horizon and helped me grow in my approach.
What are some of your experiences as a Black woman in the music industry?
This is a broad question because I love so many styles of music and depending on the genre I was playing at the time, reactions would always be different. Playing talent shows in school with my friends was always great. Playing in clubs was a mixed bag. In the R&B scene, I was a novelty. In the rock clubs, I was an anomaly, as many Southern rock bands at the time took ownership of rock despite the presence of guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, and more. So, to be Black, female, and a guitarist in the South capable of playing rock was a “head-scratcher” for many.
Let’s talk a little about your experience performing and working with Prince and Sheila E. How did you come to work with them both, and what did you take away from your experience?
I had the opportunity through Rhonda Smith to meet Sheila E. at a NAMM show and later at the Musikmesse show in Germany. At the time, she was putting together an all-female recording project (I had been touring with Cyndi Lauper then). A few months after sending her my demos and promo materials, she contacted me and said that Prince was looking for female musicians for a project and asked if she could send our materials to him. I said yes; the rest is history.
Some of the most lasting takeaways from working with Sheila and Prince are that all the steps I developed from studying music formally (and informally) and sharpening my ears by listening to so many music styles were necessary. At the time, the road seemed long and hard, but the payoff was that I felt prepared, unafraid, and ready to learn and expand. They are both forward-thinking visionary artists constantly creating and pushing the envelope. You have to stay prepared!
Let’s talk about your setup. What amps, guitars, pedals, and pickups are in your rig? Who are some of the companies you are endorsed with?
My setup is extensive for this current tour with Italian rock/blues artist Zucchero, as is his catalog. He covers many styles and requires much from the guitar chair.
My amps are all tube amps designed by guitarist/inventor Thomas Blug. My leading amp is a Bluguitar AMP1 for my electric setup and a Hughes & Kettner Tubemeister for my acoustic setup. These amps’ warmth and versatile nature are unmatched in a lightweight, compact yet powerful package. He also designed the cabinets to complement the amps.
Pedals are like shoes; they are constantly changing. I have many and am always experimenting, but my mainstays are:
- XTS Custom Pedals Preamp – which has three of their best pedals in one. It also gives me many tone and overdrive options (blues, rock, metal, etc.).
- The DUDE pedal by J.Rockett Audio Design.
- As for delays, chorus, vibrato, etc., I tend to choose multi-effects pedals that can be customized and programmed — companies like Line 6, DigiTech, and BOSS.
I have been honored to have great endorsements throughout my career from companies such as Godin Guitars, Yamaha, Fender, Taylor, Luna, Gibson, Audio-Technica, Austrian Audio, Jim Dunlop, Cordial Cables, and XacT Tone Solutions.
How would you describe your sound?
As a professional working guitarist, I tend to change from project to project. I am rooted in the blues but also incorporate elements of rock in my projects.
What inspired your passion for music, and who are some of your musical influences?
My passion for music came from my parents (who were not musicians); music was the “joy regulator” in our home. Once my mother passed, my natural love for music became not only a passion but a mission to give it my all in her memory.
I have many influences from Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Muddy Waters, Odetta, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, Yes, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, Robert Johnson, Jef Lee Johnson, Allan Holdsworth, John Scofield, James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Tower of Power, Prince, Albert Lee, B.B. King, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Momma Thornton, and many more!
What was your experience touring with Cyndi Lauper as a member of her band?
Cyndi was and still is not only an awesomely talented artist but a kindred spirit in my life. She had a clear vision to make her band look like her world: diverse, colorful, free-flowing, and equal. She is still such a champion for equality for everyone, everywhere! Playing with her is always a blast!
Who are some of your favorite musicians to work with, and why?
You don’t have enough space for all the names! Every music opportunity comprises amazingly talented musicians, engineers, technicians, designers, and extraordinary human beings!
What is some advice you can share with aspiring female-identifying musicians?
Let your passion guide you, and don’t let go! Once you do that, silence the naysayers and find your voice. It is great to listen and learn from the masters; it is like learning a new language; once you get the tools and the rules to make your own! Lastly, express yourself!
You got to jam with the ultimate guitar hero, Carlos Santana! Tell us about that experience.
Carlos is gracious and open, as is his music. We first met when I was on tour with Prince; we did a big encore medley of his songs that Prince meticulously arranged just for him to jam with us. As we rehearsed the medley, he kept trying to get me to interact with him and Prince (as I would on stage). It ended up being a fantastic night! We have become friends over the years, and he is also married to one of my best friends, drummer Cindy Blackman Santana. He gives me tips and little nuggets of wisdom whenever we meet.
What is your creative process? How do you rejuvenate your creativity when you feel empty?
Spontaneity has always been my constant companion in the creative process. Practice and shedding are different; sometimes, one comes from the other. New ideas often follow if I learn something new or a different technique.
To refresh myself, I constantly listen to guitarists and music from around the world and different styles that I have yet to learn. I am also a big fan of the visual arts; I love museums, reading great books, sports, and what I call “nature days.”
What has your experience in the music industry taught you about yourself and your art?
It has taught me that what you desire deserves all of your attention, heart, and soul if you hope to succeed. I have been blessed to work with artists who gave their all to developing and honing their gifts, and their talents gave back.
How has pandemic life changed your view on touring and recording at home? How did you stay motivated through it all?
The pandemic period crystallized my resolve to create, no matter what. It made my view clearer. I have always had a home recording setup, so finding the motivation to create still was not a big concern. I used that time and space to connect with many of my friends, and we found innovative ways to interact and create together. Since the Skype days (pre-Zoom) started, I have always implemented ways to teach, create, and complete projects remotely, so getting past the learning curves of new software was an okay process. During the pandemic, I did miss the sensory experience of traveling to different countries, embracing different cultures, seeing my friends, and making new friends through the touring experience.
Talk about your band, RockSugah. What is your band about, and who are the women you perform with?
RockSugah was created to be an all-pro female rock collective. It has always been open to female-identifying musicians who love to rock. Members of RockSugah have toured with Beyoncé, Childish Gambino, Lizzo, Lalah Hathaway, Fantasia, Prince, Adam Lambert, Maceo [Parker], and many more. During our tenure as the house band for the She Rocks Awards, we had a host of excellent players: Benita Lewis and Queen Cora Coleman (drummers), Divinity Roxx (bassist), and Lynette “Hammondgal” Williams and DRiN Elliot (keys players).
You played guitar on Bella Brown & the Jealous Lovers (BBJL) Rocket album; what songs were your favorite to record, and was there any behind-the-scenes process that made it difficult to record during the start of COVID-19?
The founders of BBJL, Carol Hatchett and Dan Pearson, are great friends of mine. We started the band pre-COVID by gathering some of the best musicians in the country to record and perform live; we weren’t going to let the pandemic stop us from creating, so we found different ways to still get the job done. They write great songs; it is hard to pick a favorite as they are each their soundscape and story. The behind-the-scenes process was different from song to song, as Dan may have had a specific vision for some songs guitar-wise and none for others which keeps things fresh and challenging. I am honored he trusted me with the creative process.
How do you feel about seeing more Black female-identifying guitarists and musicians finally receiving recognition in the music industry?
While we were prepping for the Prince GRAMMY Tribute TV special in 2020, it was so awesome to interact with the artist H.E.R. and experience her love for guitar. Meeting other female musicians is refreshing to see, considering the history of the industry not being adequate in representation. I am the BIGGEST cheerleader for more guitars in the hands of female musicians worldwide. Seeing current and future generations of Black female creatives embrace the instrument gives me great hope for the future of music.
Let’s talk about some of your upcoming projects; what is next for Kat Dyson?
During the pandemic, a genius drummer friend named Nikki Glaspie put together a funk band collective called Kamani, consisting of musicians from Snarky Puppy and Ghost Note. Things have shifted, but we are still building on that momentum and seeing what that brings next.
Lastly, Bella Brown and the Jealous Lovers are back on the live shows circuit so stay in tune with social media to catch our next event. I recently did an NPR Tiny Desk CD launch for a new artist Brittany Davis so be on the lookout for that!