Tone Talk with Emily Duff

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I was born a storyteller in the most ancient tradition of storytellers. I play and sing my stories/songs as if the melody sprang fresh from a well of emotion, color, and syllables. Rhyming word-play, harmony, and chords are my food. They sustain me and nourish me to places of adventure and fancy. Born in NYC in 1966, I grew up steeped in The Greatest Tradition of Songwriters in the Golden Age of Song. My mother taught me guitar; my father taught me how to lie.

My dream was to live in the Brill Building and play every musical instrument I would be lucky enough to touch, and I got very lucky indeed. I live to play guitars still. I play at least four to five hours a day and it is my weapon, drug, lover, tool, instrument of choice. Musically, I long jump from Hayden to Nina Hagen to Neil Diamond to The Clash and skitter over Dolly Parton and Dory Previn on my way to Billie Holiday and Led Zeppelin. They don’t seem to mind tho.

I grew up in the streets, so I’m always a punk at heart, and I mean that in the truest sense of the word. My latest project, “Razor Blade Smile” (7/23/21), speaks to that essential core truth in that, yes, I might be somebody’s wife and mother, but I am who I am, and “I’ll give you something to cry about….”

Listen to Emily’s first single “Done & Done” via the SPOTIFY.

What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?
Cool question cause Tone is Everything, AND it really captures how we perceive ourselves, change over the years, and mature as we grow. Tone is vibe, color, shape, and personality of the player, the instrument, and the song. Each note has its own tone, shape, and color, but the overall tone is a defining moment for all those things. My tone used to be a lot more “aggressive” and “edgy” and still is at times when I need it to be. But I think my tone as a guitarist, which depends on the guitar I am playing at the moment, reflects more of who I have become recently. It also matches the tone of my voice, which ironically is more “pear-shaped,” reflecting my youth as a cellist.

Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?
I have been firmly rooted in acoustic guitars these days, especially since the pandemic. I rely heavily on my Blueridge Jumbo with LR Baggs pick up and my custom Martin OM with K&K Pure mini pick up. I recently purchased a Recording King Acoustic Amp, and I’m LOVING it! I really dig my Mad Professor Mellow Yellow Tremolo Effects Pedal as well as my Maxxon Analog Delay. Tone & Texture — both help me pair my guitar sound with my voice.

What about strings?
I Love John Pearse and the Martin Vintage strings — all light gauge.

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?
Working with Producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel has been great for me as a singer and guitar player. We usually track live with the band, with me in isolation. I play and sing at the same time, live to create what Eric calls a “map.” Then when we have the take, I go back in and play along with just guitar on a separate track, following what we all did. Then I go back in and just sing the song through a few times, each time pulling back a little bit more for a different feel. This enables us to comp a vocal performance with different “tone” (there’s that word again) in order to really tell the story effectively cause sometimes a vocal is really about just getting through the tune and not messing up! LOL. This takes the pressure off.

How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?
I’m very aware of keeping stage volume low and allowing the sound person to do their job. I’m also really aware of nuance and feel. Each tune guides the way to its sonic place in the room and on stage. And I do not need reverb in my monitor!

What does your practice consist of?
Each morning I teach myself a new chord. I find something that is difficult and puts my fingers in an uncomfortable position. Every day I try to do something that sets me off balance as a writer, artist, and musician. It is then my job to have the work set me right again. Back on my feet; so I start with a difficult position and practice going from that chord to a familiar position until I can do that easily and then, I use that exercise to write a new song or riff. I work on that for about an hour or so. Then I move on to teaching myself someone else’s song, something I love, and writing an arrangement for that….that’s just plain fun. Then I run my tunes and look at my fragments folder and see if I have an a-ha moment. That all happens every single day cause I just love the work.

Favorite guitar riff or lick that inspired you to play guitar?
Chuck Berry and Johnny B. Goode. Without a doubt!

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?
Never show up to a gig to play your instrument. Show up to play the song, and THAT will put you inside the music and invite others to join you there. Living inside the song, serving the song, and sharing the song is what makes Music “Industry.”

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