Sarah Zimmermann: the slide guitarist of Striking Matches on finding your best self

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Photo by Sarah Barlow

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine’s Summer 2019 Special Pop Edition

A random pairing in a college guitar class would bring together Sarah Zimmermann and Justin Davis to create the guitar-wielding duo Striking Matches. The pair has had songs featured on the hit TV series Nashville, has worked with legendary producer T. Bone Burnett, performed internationally, and made a name for themselves in the music industry. Drawing on influences of country, rock, and blues, with a touch of pop, they recently released an EP titled Morning which has been described as “blues pop.”

I was first introduced to the duo last month at a Gibson event in Nashville where they were performing, and when I walked into the room and saw them on stage, all I could say was WOW! I had to introduce myself to the slide guitarist that was killing it and feature her in this issue! Meet Sarah Zimmermann.

Striking Matches just released a new EP called Morning. Tell us a little about Morning, and what inspired the EP.

We really wanted to get as much music as possible out this year, and we wanted to push some of the boundaries in this new music. Morning was first in the series of three, (more on that below!) and it has more of the rock/alternative elements of what we do, which is reflective of our live show. It sort of worked out that most of the songs on this EP are a little bit sadder, but we had a challenging year last year splitting with our label, and some other elements of our team, which even though all of that was for the better, I think the emotion came out of in the songs.

So it’s the first in a series. What can you tell us about the next two EPs and the message behind this trilogy?

Morning was released in May, Noon will be later this summer, and Night will come out late this year/early 2020.

In the same way that morning, noon, and night are three 3 parts that make up one whole day, we wanted these EPs to showcase three parts of what make up Striking Matches, so they are each exploring different sounds and elements of what we do, while still keeping our guitar playing and our melodies the main focus.

Was it therapeutic to put all of those experiences and emotions into words? How did you and Justin approach the songwriting process?

I think songwriting is always therapeutic, no matter what’s going on, there’s always something to write about. But we always try and write the truth, so being able to put some of these feelings to music really was a healing season for us.

Where did you record the EP, and what was the recording process?

We actually recorded this in a lot of different places. Nothing But The Silence we made in one studio over four days. This EP, each song was done in a different studio, with a different producer. Our great friend Soren Hansen (of the band New Politics) mixed everything and added some additional production as well, and all of that was done in his space. Justin and I did all of the guitar work, and Justin did a lot of bass and some drums too. It was really fun to get to wear a lot of different hats for this one. A lot of the production was actually done while we were writing the songs, which goes back to that ‘whole not being able to overthink things’ thing, but doing it that way also takes the pressure off of having to rent a studio, book time with musicians, etc. We got to explore and kind of find the production within the songs which is, I think, an amazing way to record.

There’s a music video for “Don’t Hold Back” which was filmed in Nashville directed by Casey Pierce that has some great cinematic graphics. Share with us some of the behind-the-scenes stories of the filming.

It was so fun to make this video! Casey is amazing. His imagination knows no bounds, and if he wants to make something happen, he will figure it out. We got to use green screens and treadmills and had to build a house of cards. It was a lot of fun, and I hope people love watching it as much as we loved making it.

So you and Justin met at Belmont University?

We did! Justin is from outside of Atlanta, and I grew up outside of Philadelphia, but we both moved to Nashville to attend Belmont in 2007—both with the idea of becoming guitar players for other people most likely. We were thrown together at random to improvise on something in front of the entire rest of the class—kind of like a hazing type of thing! But he asked me if I played any blues, and I pulled out my slide, because no one was doing that—and I was one of only two girls in a class of over 100—so I wanted to do something a little extra and different to let them all know I wasn’t messing around. The rest is history.

When was it that you started performing together as Striking Matches?

It took us a few years before deciding to become a band and make that our full-time thing. We both had other gigs playing for people, and I think we both envisioned ourselves doing that and playing on sessions until we realized that we both loved to write songs and started performing on some writer rounds together, and we realized that we had a chemistry there.

You’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work with T-Bone Burnett on your previous album Nothing But The Silence. How was that experience?

Working with T-Bone was really, really special. We made our first record with him, which was crazy. We made the record live, to tape, and in about four days, so it really didn’t give us any option to over-think things, which I will over-think myself into oblivion, so being forced to just have to know when songs were done was a challenge that I really appreciated and still try and force myself to do now. It was also just very cool to sit in a room with Justin, a bassist and drummer, and just play these songs down and that was what we kept. We had always wanted to make a record that way, but since it was our first, we’ll probably have to go back and do another one someday that way!

Striking Matches also had songs that were featured on the hit TV series Nashville. How did that opportunity arise, and what were some of the songs that were played? Were they songs off of your album, or songs specifically written for the show?

Yes! We had nine songs on Nashville, which was just amazing. We were very lucky to have gotten the opportunity through our publisher to get to sit down and play live for the music supervisors of the show (Dawn Soler and Frankie Pine, who are two of the sweetest people on planet Earth) and tell them our story, the stories behind the songs, and they just became fans which was, and is, so special to us.

The first two that they used (“When the Right One Comes Along “and “Hanging On a Lie”) were songs we had recorded for us, which was great because when people went to find the songs from the show that the cast had recorded, they would find our versions too. But some of the others were just songs that we wrote, that ended up really fitting what was happening in the show. We went on to become great friends with some of the cast, and I did a lot of the background vocals for Hayden Panettiere’s character. It was all such an amazing experience and an inspiring family to be a part of, and we will be forever grateful for that!

For the current EP, it has been described as “’blues-pop’ – an amalgamation of their blues and roots-based guitar riffs, combined with pop melodies.” On YouTube, there was a comment that mentioned you giving up on country music. Can you talk a little about that? 

The funny thing is, we’ve never really wanted to box ourselves into a genre. Our first record was labeled as “country,” mostly because of the success on the Nashville show, but it wasn’t really country by definition of country radio. It was roots, it was rock, it was blues. So if you really listen to the music, it’s always been that. We like to shape-shift a little bit because we have so many influences and are so inspired by so many things—and ultimately, it’s all led by the guitar and our vocals, and that has never changed.

Let’s talk a little about your musical background. When did you first get involved in music and who were some of your early musical influences?

My dad is a woodwind player and a wind instrument repairman by trade, so I grew up constantly surrounded by music and instruments. I picked up the clarinet at age 8 and just learned a bunch of songs by ear. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew it was fun. When I was 10, my dad taught lessons at a local music store, and I would go with him after school and do my homework and would see the guitars hanging on the wall. I was drawn to them for some reason. I asked my dad every week if I could have one, and it took him forever, but he finally bought me a junky little acoustic. I really wanted the red electric guitar, but he said if I stuck with it, I could have an electric in a few years. I think, ultimately, that really helped me build finger strength at an early age so that by the time I got my first electric, I was already able to hold down barre chords and move relatively quickly around the fretboard.

When I was 15, a program out of Philadelphia opened in my hometown called the School of Rock, which is now in pretty much every major city in the nation. My older brother became a drum teacher there, so I figured I would join, and I ended up really loving it. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an after-school music program where you take lessons on guitar, bass, drums, vocals, keys, etc., and then every quarter they do shows (for example, a Led Zeppelin show, or a Southern Rock show), so you have to learn your songs in your lessons and perform them every season with the rest of the kids. Each song basically has its own band of kids, so you’re playing with all experience levels and types (and ages) of players. It was an amazing learning experience.

After my first show, the owner of the program approached me and asked me if I would be a part of the All-Stars, which was an audition-based touring group of kids that showcased what the school was all about. We ended up touring all over the country, played the Zappanale festival in Germany; we toured with Jon Anderson from “Yes.” It was an incredible thing to get to be a part of.

So School of Rock was beneficial in preparing you for what you could expect to perform live on stage in front of an audience.

If anything, School of Rock taught me how to be prepared in all kinds of different situations. I traveled the world with them and learned to win in almost every performance situation imaginable…massive stages. I think most kids don’t get that kind of experience growing up by just taking lessons at their local music store. Doing School of Rock put me in front of thousands of people at a really young age, which is something that I wouldn’t trade for the world.

How did slide guitar come into the picture?

School of Rock was actually the first place I played slide. I was in a Led Zeppelin show and was assigned “Travelling Riverside Blues.” I had never touched a slide in my life, but it was my job to figure it out. It very quickly became my calling card in the school. If there was a song with slide on it, I was playing it. I kind of got the basics from my teacher, but I really just took off on it and made it my own thing. I put it down for a bit when I moved to Nashville, but realized it was something that made me a different player than most other people. Over the last few years with Striking Matches, it has really become my voice and what differentiates myself and Justin from each other, in the recorded space especially.

Striking Matches has had a pretty busy year so far with SXSW, performing at the Nashville NFL Draft Experience, Gibson’s media and music industry event, filming music videos, and releasing music to name just a few. What’s next for 2019?

We’re getting ready to release the next two EPs, and that will come with an extensive UK and European tour in the fall, as well as dates here in the states. We’ve had a really great year and are super excited to see where this music will take us next!

Sarah Zimmermann Guitar Gear

Guitars: 2014 Gibson SG  |  Takamine TAN45C  |  2019 Gibson SG Blueberry Fade

Amp: Fender Blues Jr. (with a bigger, modded speaker!)

Pedals: I like to keep it super simple! BOSS tuner, OCD overdrive, POG octave pedal, and MXR reverb.

Slides: I love Dunlop’s Moonshine slides. They are made of ceramic and are super warm and don’t shatter into a million pieces if you drop them.