Eight years ago, guitarist Nili Brosh, a teenager attending the Berklee College of Music, uploaded one minute and 25 seconds of herself performing a Guthrie Govan solo. She did it without ego or lofty dreams of stardom, but soon became an Internet sensation.
Today, Brosh is an internationally recognized and respected guitarist. She is a touring member of the Tony MacAlpine band, performs with own group, and often plays with popular tribute band The Iron Maidens. She released her debut album, Through The Looking Glass, in 2010, and followed it four years later with
A Matter Of Perception, on which she is joined by A-list musicians such as Bryan Beller, Marco Minnemann, and Virgil Donati.
Nili Brosh was born in Rishon Le Zion, Israel, and relocated to Newton, Mass., with her family when she was 12. At age 19, she became one of the youngest summer program instructors at Berklee, and graduated with honors from the internationally acclaimed school. Her brother Ethan is also a guitarist; she joined him on tour when his instrumental band opened for Yngwie Malmsteen.
Where do you see growth and changes in your songwriting and guitar playing from first to second album?
I think it’s in everything. It wasn’t just the fact that it was four years; it was four crucial years of my development. I guess most people would still call me young, but I was younger then and that’s when I started working with seasoned, professional musicians, so I got lessons in development that maybe I wouldn’t have necessarily had. The way that the timing worked out had a lot more to do with it than just four extra years of practice. They were also four years of playing with Tony MacAlpine, who is a legendary, virtuoso guitar player. You learn a lot from those experiences. I was exposed to new music and new influences, so those things come into the picture. If I hadn’t had those experiences at that time, I’m sure that I would have continued to improve, but I don’t know that I would have improved as much as I did.
What did those experiences teach you?
There’s only one way to practice being a professional musician, and it’s to be a professional musician. As much as we played gigs in college and outside of school, it still doesn’t compare to doing it “for real” and playing with people who have a lot more experience than you, who are mentoring you and showing you the ropes. I was very fortunate.
You co-produce your albums. What does that mean for you?
It means that I bring somebody I trust musically to have the outside perspective. I can’t have that perspective because it’s my music. I can be very hesitant about the decisions that I want to make, mostly with arrangements. Sometimes I know exactly what I want, but other times I don’t. I often can’t see it for what it is because I’m way too close to it, so it’s important to bring someone in who sees it from the outside perspective, and whose writing and production I really like. That helps me out a great deal. In the studio it’s exactly what you would think. Some of it is “Don’t do any more takes. We’ve done enough. You’ve got this,” when you don’t think you did, and you can’t tell because you just played it. Sometime it’s “The ending of that solo is not that strong. We should do something else there.” I guess it’s production in the traditional sense.
Are there specific ways that you like to mic and record your guitars?
Yes. I’m definitely old school about miking. I’m not an Axe-Fx player or anything like that, right now at least, but I have specific mics and mic combinations that I like to use with my amp. It’s specific from years of homing in on exactly where it needs to be. One of my favorite mics that I use for everything is the SE Electronics Voodoo VR1. It’s a ribbon mic and it sounds great on guitar amps, because guitar amps tend to sound cold and brittle if you put a 57 in front of them, especially by itself, which is what a lot of people start out doing. To me, the 57 never works out on its own, but it can work as a blend. Sometimes it’s a 57 with the VR1, sometimes it’s a [Sennheiser] 906. I start with the traditional placement and play around with it. When it comes to miking, I’m hands-on. I don’t really understand it if someone explains it to me. I only understand it by doing it. I’m not very technical in that sense. I use my ears and experiment until it sounds right to me, and then I keep it at whatever parameters work and go from there.
How do you keep the sound uniform when you work with multiple bass players and drummers on a project?
I don’t know if we did that. We tried our best. I had nothing to do with it, quite frankly. That was in the mixing. Sabi Saltiel, my co-producer, mixed and engineered, and he did a great job. You are talking about a lot of sources coming from a lot of different people, different recording techniques, studios, and of course different songs. Everything has to work for the individual songs as well as for the album as a whole.
When you send demos to the musicians and listen to their ideas, does the teacher in you sometimes come out as far as wanting to make suggestions, or are you able to stand back and let them interpret their parts as they hear them?
It depends, because that part of the process happens a little earlier, before I get it back. In the demos, if I have something specific that I want played verbatim, I will tell them, “Play it as written, with your touch.” You choose the people you work with because of their sound and what they bring to the table, so it’s still going to sound like them, and that’s what you want. Generally I’m happy with what I get back, and of course they know that they’re doing a job and their first pass might not be exactly what I wanted, so there’s always a little bit of back and forth. That’s very common. I rehash a lot of the music when I get those parts back, so whatever I had in the demo is a sketch, a blueprint. I re-tailor it around what has been put down as the final rhythm section. I know that the ideas I get back are going to help me grow as a musician. I’m going to get inspired by them to write new stuff and have different phrasing in my solos that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own because that content wasn’t there before. That’s the way I choose to work. It’s a way to challenge myself and help me grow. So the stuff does change quite a bit. The songs are written and the melodies are there, but once I get the stuff back, even if I wasn’t trying, it changes naturally because there are all these great new ideas.
Is that more challenging when you’re sending files back and forth?
Even though remote recording sounds so inorganic, the back and forth thing does work because musicians feed off of each other. They feed off of you when you give them the demos, they play what they think that song is asking for, and you build on that. It’s not like someone throwing you something out of left field. It all caters to the same thing, and it can build very nicely as a final result.
How do you ensure that your songs speak to the audience, particularly the people who aren’t musicians?
I really like melodies. I want there to be a song; whether I’m writing instrumental music or not is arbitrary to me in that sense. I never chose instrumental music to be a vehicle to play guitar solos all the time. I just happen to play guitar, and that’s the instrument on which I’m going to play my melodies. That can end up being notier sometimes because I’m playing and not singing and I don’t have to breathe, but in general my focus is always on the composition. I think people respond to that because they can feel that it’s where you spent your energy. I think that makes a difference.
How often do you practice and what does it consist of?
Every day, and it varies based on what I have to do, whether I have to prepare for gigs or I’m practicing for myself. It’s usually between three and four hours a day. I want to have it be a healthy mix of all the aspects that I want to work on — improv, transcription, writing, and technique — but keeping a focus on everything being musical. I’m not big on exercises, so I want everything to be in the context of playing a song, playing things that I like, improvising over songs that I really like or music that I’ve written. I incorporate things that I want to listen to, so that it’s fun and to remind myself that I’m doing this for music and for no other reason.
Do you play much acoustic guitar?
No. I’m a terrible acoustic player. I don’t even own one. I play it when I have to, but in my life it has not come up all that much. Whether it’s cause or effect, I don’t know, but that’s how it’s been so far.
You signed with Ibanez in 2011, with EMG in 2014, and now with Dean Markley. How did each of those endorsements come about?
Ibanez came up when I started playing with Tony MacAlpine and I was looking for a seven-string guitar. The company that I was endorsing before that, Inspire Guitars, is a small, custom company out of Virginia. They make really nice instruments and they made me a seven-string, which was their first seven-string. I have nothing but good things to say about them. But for the music that I was going to be spending so much time on, I wanted a specific Ibanez because it’s more appropriate for what I was about to do. Again, as a result of organic growth and development, my writing became more in that style. I was writing for seven-string because I was playing it, so it made sense that those were my instruments. I never felt a need to leave; it just kind of became what I am. It was similar with EMG. I was looking for new pickups, and they happened to hit me up around the same time. I had a very good rep who knew my playing and which pickups to send me to fit my sound. Within the context of the guitars and the music that I play, EMG pickups fit very well. Dean Markley makes great strings and they provide the amount of tension that I need. A lot of people like more tension than I do. I have fairly small hands and I play 9’s, so I like it a certain way and sometimes it’s hard to nail that. Strings are similar, but when you’ve been playing for a long time, you notice little things. Dean Markley strings have worked out for me.
You grew up in Israel. What were those years like for you? Was music a part of your life at that time?
It was a part of my life, but I don’t know if it’s a function of where I was living or the family that I’m from. I have older brothers who were listening to classic rock and metal and stuff like that, and I think they would have been doing that had we lived elsewhere. The music that I was exposed to otherwise was mainstream music of the late ’90s, like pop music, and if I lived here, we’d probably have been watching MTV and heard all the same pop artists. So I don’t know that it would have been different, other than you have Israeli music and stuff like that that most people don’t know about. My childhood was different than where I ended up moving to. I was 12 when we moved to the suburbs of Boston. In Israel, I lived in the city and had the kind of childhood where kids play in the street all day long with their bikes, meet up after school, and you knock on your friends’ doors without calling them. It’s warm all the time and you can be outside all year round. I went from elementary school there to middle school here, which is already a big change, in a suburb, in a place where it gets cold early in the school year, and as a 12-year-old you have to nail down play dates with your school friends three weeks in advance, which was a concept I didn’t understand. I remember, even as a 12-year-old, thinking, What? How is your schedule so busy? You’re 12! Why can’t you just come over and hang out with me? It wasn’t that simple at first. That was a big transition. I wouldn’t trade my childhood for anything. Now that I live in California, I have kids in my neighborhood, Mexican families all around me, and they seem to have a very different culture than the suburban American thing. It seems very similar to what I grew up with in Israel, so it’s nice to almost reconnect with that from a different angle and watch it as an adult. It reminds me of how grateful I am for what I got to have. The suburban thing didn’t really agree with me, and that’s why I’m back in a city now.
Was it difficult to assimilate when you arrived in Boston? Did you feel like an outsider?
Yeah, I did. It wasn’t as difficult as maybe somebody would have expected, because I spoke English very well, so at the very least I didn’t have to take any ESL courses. I went straight into an American seventh grade class. Now that I think about it, I don’t know whether it hurt or helped, because maybe if I had that bridge of being with the other international students, I would have felt more at home. I was dropped right in the middle of everything, and culturally it was more of a shock. There was no language barrier, but it did feel very different. There were a lot of Jewish kids where I lived, and at first they thought, Oh, it’s really cool that you’re from Israel, but then they realized that it’s a very different kind of Jewish person than they were, and that there was a much bigger cultural difference than they thought. It was tough. Seventh grade is tough anywhere, I think, so add to that being the one new kid from halfway across the world, who is already into different kinds of music than they had even heard of. I think I was an outsider, for sure. That’s an understatement, probably.
Is it still a big part of who you are?
I think I’m a melting pot of all these different things. I’ve been in the U.S. for 15 years, and sometimes I feel really Israeli, and sometimes I feel really American. I don’t feel completely one way or the other, ever. I don’t come from a religious family. I feel Jewish in culture, but I don’t know; I’m just me. I’m happy to have life lessons from both cultures, and I choose to look at it as a pro and not a con. I have points of view and worldviews from two places instead of one, so I learned more. I could look at it as “I don’t identify with either,” if I wanted to, but that doesn’t help me.
You attended Berklee with the goal of being a session player. Is that still of interest to you?
I did say that somewhere, didn’t I? It is one of the things I wanted to do. I do sessions for people, mostly privately and usually guitar solos, but session work was something that I idolized in high school because I thought that was the way I was going to learn to be a versatile player. I don’t know that I had an idea of what being a session musician really looked like. Once I got into school, I started playing shows because that’s what I naturally wanted to do. Having a band in college, and going on to play with the people I have after college, was a very natural turn of events for me. It’s still a big part of what I do. But I do a little bit of everything now, so I would say it worked out.
The YouTube video: “Guthrie Govan solo played by 18-year-old girl” — how did word get out about it?
I can’t get away from that! That’s exactly the thing — there weren’t so many videos at the time. And I think the title helped. Of course, now I’m totally embarrassed that that’s what I called it. Having been 18, it was probably my idea of, This is how you strategically get views on YouTube. It was 2007, and YouTube was a couple of years old, maybe. It was a lot less saturated. Guthrie wasn’t even known yet, but that’s how he was getting known very quickly. He was YouTube famous. That’s how people found out about him. That’s how I found out about him, a month before that happened. That’s what inspired me to do it, which is really funny to say now, considering how the guitar community looks today. It was my first YouTube video and I thought, This is the solo I want to do, because I really like it, and I’ll see what happens. I wasn’t really trying. I just wanted to put something out there. I think it was a combination of all these things, and for something that “gets a lot of hits,” there are a lot of videos that have way more hits than that. I don’t think it was that substantial. It was one of those “right place at the right time” kind of things.
Was it your age, your gender, both, that made people curious, and then sheer talent that won them over?
I thought it would get people’s attention, and it probably did. I don’t know if age or gender comes first in this case. It’s hard to pinpoint. They’re things we can just speculate about. People do unfortunately think in those terms. If you’re young and really good, that means something, or if you’re a girl and you’re really good. I don’t think people are so sexist that they think a girl can’t play as well as a guy. I think they’re just surprised to see it because it’s still rare. That’s what I’d like to believe, at least. I don’t know what gets their attention first; a combination of things, I guess. It’s what I was covering, too. Let’s not forget about that.
You say it’s still rare. As a teacher and artist, do you see and hear from more females than before?
I do see more and more female guitar players. I think there are a lot of us now, but there’s still not a lot of girls at shows, unless they’re girlfriends of the guys. It’s getting better, but it depends on who you’re going to see. The ratio is still pretty skewed. I have only had a handful of female students over the years. I think I have the least amount of female fans out of these categories of students and guitar players and general music fans. I have way more male fans. I don’t know how many, but that’s the biggest discrepancy.
Social media is such a powerful promotional tool. What is the key to using it wisely?
I don’t know that I have the answer for that. I try to research it as much as I can and do what’s right for me, and present the image that I’m comfortable with and that I feel is really me. I don’t want to portray some version of myself that’s not real. I don’t feel comfortable with that, and I don’t think that’s what social media was intended to be. Unfortunately, people like to convey what they want people to believe sometimes, but I want it to feel like me. So I do what I feel comfortable with and I take a chance on that. I don’t know if it’s the smartest marketing. I’m just trying to go based on research and guts as best I can.
How do the projects you are involved with fulfill different sides of your goals and creativity?
I think the different roles I have in every project cater to that naturally. Obviously, when it’s my music, I play what I want to play and no one is ever going to tell me to play something different, but it’s a whole lot of responsibility both in the business sense and in the psychological sense. There’s more riding on you because it’s your gig and all eyes are on you. I like being the side woman in someone’s band for certain things. It’s different aspects of your playing, and you’re communicating with the fans differently, too. I like filling all those roles. Each one gives me something different, and that makes me feel like I’m evening out.
— Alison Richter
Gear List — live and recording:
Ibanez Prestige RG1527m
Ibanez Prestige RG2727FZ
Ibanez Premium RG927QM
Ibanez Artcore Expressionist AS93
Peavey JSX amp with Egnater Tourmaster 2×12 cabinet
Xotic Effects EP Booster
MXR Carbon Copy delay
Digitech Digidelay (which I use for reverse delay)
MXR analog chorus
TC Electronic Polytune mini
Dean Markley Blue Steel strings
Dunlop Big Stubby 2 mm picks