As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 18 Winter 2021 – Women in the Music Industry
With a Doctorate in Musical Arts from the University of Southern California, it’s safe to say that Dr. Molly Miller knows her way around a fretboard. The Los Angeles native makes great use of her expertise as a skilled performer, songwriter, and educator. Not only does Miller perform regularly with her own Molly Miller Trio, but she is a highly sought-after guitarist that can be frequently found on tour with renowned artists such as Jason Mraz and Black Eyed Peas. When not on stage or in the recording studio, she helps cultivate the next generation of guitarists as the Guitar Department Chair for the ever-evolving Los Angeles College of Music. In her latest release, St. George, Miller breathes new melodic life into instrumental music. We were able to squeeze a few minutes into her busy schedule to discuss instruments and inspiration.
How did you first get into playing guitar?
I’m the middle of five kids. When I was seven years old, the five of us started a family band. I used to describe it as kind of like Selena [Quintanilla]’s family where like one day, like my parents brought home a bunch of instruments and they said, “Okay, you’re going to play this, you’re going to play this.” I was like, “What?? Cool!” It wasn’t really a conscious decision, but then it kind of defined my childhood. Every single day we were practicing, and we had gigs all over. I grew up in LA, so we would like play street fairs, private parties, and a bunch of random events. That was my whole childhood. I was probably the most rebellious in the band, and I wouldn’t practice. Then in high school, I started taking guitar pretty seriously; I started actively studying and seeking out my own opportunities, like forming rock bands with friends, playing in honor jazz band, things like that. I just started thinking, “Hey, I actually kind of want to do this thing, for real!” and that revelation happened at Berklee College of Music summer camp.
Who are some of your musical influences?
When it comes to guitar, my first sort of “a-ha!” guitar moment was Jimi Hendrix. Then, I had a big revelation with Sister Rosetta Tharpe; she’s a huge influence and hero of mine. Some other influences are J.J. Cale, Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, Johnny Smith, some contemporary artists like Blake Mills and Julian Lage I adore, but also many of my peers; there are so many amazing musicians that inspire me within the community, like Adam Levy, Rich Hinman, Arianna Powell, Emily Elbert, Mason Stoops, Ariel Posen, I could just go on and on and name all these other people that are so inspiring. If we’re focusing on female players, like Memphis Minnie, Maybelle Carter, Mary Osborne, some of those players are super inspiring to me too.
What gear do you currently use, and why?
My baby is my Gibson ES-335. It’s a 1978, and I learned how to play guitar on it; it feels like a limb to me; that is my baby. I don’t like to travel with it. I have a shell pink Telecaster that I just got a custom neck put on. It’s just a ‘52 reissue, but it’s awesome. Mike Cornwall is a tech in LA, and he built me this very cool custom guitar neck. I play that a lot. There’s a small builder in Nashville named Kevin Equitz; he just made me a custom guitar that’s this very beautiful lavender, and I took that with me on tour. I love my Taylor acoustics, and I’m messing with a prototype electric right now that is pretty beautiful. I actually just got a gold top Les Paul; that’s been so fun to play. I’ve always been anti-Les Paul, but I like this gold top with P-90 pickups. It’s heavy, but it sounds so good. My go-to amp is my modded Fender Princeton. It’s a ‘65 reissue that has like the Creamsicle look, which is fun too. As for pedals, I’m a big fan of EarthQuaker Devices. Their Dispatch Master delay and reverb pedal is my go-to, and I love their Dunes overdrive pedal. I also love Keeley Electronics; they make so many wonderful pedals. I use their Oxblood overdrive pedal; I love that one. Their HYDRA Stereo Reverb & Tremolo pedal is really cool. I love Chase Bliss Audio, too. I have way too many pedals! I love the Clyde wah pedal from Fulltone. A3 Stompbox has been setting up my pedals, and I used their volume pedal, which is great. I also have a Voodoo Lab Tremolo that I love. My go-to setup is probably my 335 into a simple pedalboard going into my Princeton, but then I get on certain gigs, and I think, “Wouldn’t it be fun to–“ and fill in the blank, and I just like go crazy. I could just go on and on about gear; I could easily take up a whole page talking about it!
Do you have a particular favorite memory from touring with Jason Mraz?
I could talk about a few specific moments, but in general, Jason is an incredible performer and human being. I love being a part of that camp because it all stems from the top. Jason is this incredibly thoughtful, intentional human being who is so passionate about all the things he does. That trickles down to the entire camp. The whole crew was so sweet, and everyone there loves what they do. We would all do things like work out together, do yoga, and go hang out, like really good friends. The whole camp is a bunch of friends and people who are passionate about the thing they do. They are just like kind people. The experiences are so sweet because we would all go get coffee together on our days off and go for walks and hang out. There’s so much love involved in that camp, and that comes from not just the band, but the crew, the merch people, the whole team. My heart just lights up. There’s such a joyous feeling when I think of Jason, the whole Jason crew, and the experience. He’s so kind to me; one of my favorite things is that Jason doesn’t hire people to say, “You have to do this.” He hires people to show up and like do their thing. He puts so much trust in everyone, which is so cool. I know I’m there because he wants Molly Miller to play the guitar, not for me to try to sound like the Edge or something. One performance highlight for me was playing the Hollywood Bowl and having my entire family there. That was a special show. Another is when I turned 30 at Royal Albert Hall, that was a cool one. Of course, our Brazil tour was pretty special; we were playing to these huge, excited audiences, and it was one of my first tours with him. That was pretty special too.
What was your inspiration for your newest Molly Miller Trio album, St. George?
On our first record, we were just playing arrangements of songs. I would bring my arrangement of a song to Jay [Bellerose] and Jen [Condos], and we would finish it together, but they were always covers. I feel like St. George is our first real record. It started with the support of Jay and Jen to write original music. Jen has been so instrumental as a songwriter because she would always say, “You have to write more tunes; you have to write!” It first started with us doing a lot of co-writing; she would send me an A section, then I would send a B section, and vice versa. One of the concepts behind the record is our intentionality in bringing back the instrumental as the tagline, the thoughtfulness of a song in the arrangement. So often, in instrumental music, the focus is just improvising. For us, we thought, “Of course we can improvise; we are trained musicians,” but what we’re trying to focus on is songwriting and how to tell a story with the arrangement. It’s about focusing on things like the subtleness of our builds and our drops, and how one part interacts with the other, and the melody. We’re going back to like the concept of a song and making an instrumental piece into a song, and storytelling within that.
Do you have a specific approach for coming up with melodic ideas on the guitar?
When I sit down with my guitar, especially while warming up, part of my practice is just sitting down with my instrument and connecting and seeing what comes out. Sometimes through those moments, when I’m starting to mess around, I find something that sounds cool. Then, instead of doing my planned practice, I’ll just sort of sit there for an hour. All my favorite songs I wrote pretty quickly. That’s one big inspiration, just connecting with my instrument, being in the moment, and not having a goal. Sometimes I’ll write a section, then I get stumped, and I’ll send it over to Jen, or vice versa, and that will be an inspiration. We ask ourselves, “What is this song trying to say?” Sometimes it will be a mood; I like that it can come from different things. Sometimes I will feel frustrated, or I will feel so much love in my heart, or whatever the sentiment it is, and try to say that with my guitar. I often do have some lyrics in my head when I’m writing, because even though these are instrumental songs, they still should be very lyrical. When they are performed, you could still be able to put words to them very clearly. Once I’m playing the song, I ask myself, “Is the sentiment I’m feeling inside my body right now coming through with the music, and how do I do that? How do I accomplish that?”
As the chair of the Guitar Department for LACM, what do you enjoy most about running that program?
What I’ve enjoyed most is seeing my students grow and knowing that I played some role in their development. I get to watch them grow over four years, and even seeing them develop so much as a musician and a person just a couple of years in, that’s always a great feeling. I’m also proud of how I developed the curriculum. That’s one of the things I do at LACM, and we’ve done a lot of curriculum shifts since I started that job four and a half years ago. Putting on the academic hat of curricular development is really fun. I think back to my own education and then look at my students’ experience and asking, “What’s going to be the most efficient way for students to learn, and what skills are really most important for 2021 and beyond?” because it is constantly shifting. That’s why I think we have to shift as a program, too. It’s also about asking, “What are the core values that still are needed regardless of the year?”
As an educator, what are some good practice habits that you recommend for players of all skill levels?
What set me free was when one of my USC mentors, Bruce Foreman, made me realize we’re always playing; we’re not practicing. Just like that word, “play,” it should be this joyous experience. I remember that someone was asking Simone Biles about how it feels to win all of these awards, and her response was, “I’m just having fun!” I thought, that’s so true with music, too. No matter what the level is, if you’re too focused on trying to get this line or sound like that person, that’s going to get in the way. Just remember that this is a joyous thing and that we should be having fun. We’re playing regardless of whether we’re learning scales or performing at Red Rocks. It’s all fun and joyous and exciting.