I started playing guitar when I was three, I’m not sure why as my family isn’t musical. I probably saw someone playing on TV. Variety shows were big and there was always live music, which was followed with animated versions of bands (The Jackson 5) and animated versions of fake bands (The Monkees, The Partridge Family…), so guitars were everywhere. Actually, I think all the animation was the same…
My parents made sure I started with lessons, so Mrs. Boslow would come to the house every week and teach me how to read and count along. She threw big recitals for all her students, so that gave everyone a taste of performance. I stayed with lessons, mostly because I didn’t know any other path. On one hand, it was great for reading and theory; on the other hand, it didn’t do much for my ear…other kids were learning Stairway To Heaven,” and I was buying sheet music.
This evolved into recording; I figured it was the best way to know how and if I’m improving. So I’d drag my two track down to the band room on the weekends and start banging around on all the instruments — making stuff up and seeing if I can make it musical. Now that I think about it, I’m still doing exactly that every single day.
I recently co-wrote, co-produced, and performed on Sara Niemietz’s fourth studio album, Superman.
What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?
I’ve always loved a round warm tone; think BB King or Larry Carlton somewhere in there. But now I think of tone as a flavor for the song. Maybe the warm needs to be balanced with something sharp and spicy. I’m not precious about rules or ‘supposed to’s. For example, on Sara’s song “Every Light,” I wanted a metallic sound, even though I’m playing sort of a bossa nova part. So I played it on a dobro. Which obviously breaks about 5,000 rules. So my definition of tone is what works for the song; what colors and flavors do we need?
Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?
I lean heavily on my Divided By 13 amps; I really love what Fred Taccone is doing with these designs. They’re a modern take on vintage circuits, but Fred throttles them so they start overdriving and sagging at a lower volume. Of course, you can’t beat a Deluxe Reverb or an AC15. I’ve got some vintage tiny amps, like a Gibson GA5T, which is just old, sad, small, and absolutely wonderful. For Superman, it was very straightforward — humbuckers and amps. Only Les Pauls and 335s. We tracked my Divided By 13 BTR and my Deluxe Reverb on every tune, but when I mixed, it was mostly the BTR. I was generous with the trem, reverb, and of course, Wah-Wah. I found some cool pedals along the way, the Caitlinbread Topanga for reverb, the Dawner Prince Boonar for Delay, and the BFD SE for trem. That thing is a monster, hard to find, but just amazing sound.
What about strings?
Elixirs. Always. Love my Ernie Balls, but Elixirs last longer and are very even and consistent.
Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?
My starting place is two mics on the speaker, a Unidyne 57 on axis at the edge of the cone, and a Sennheiser 421 off axis at the center of the cone. I like a Neve 1073 on the Unidyne and an API 312 on the 421. This my starting place, but in all honesty, I don’t deviate that much. I may add some condensers around the room, but this is the foundation. Once the mics are lined up, there’s no problem with phase, and I mix the two mics evenly. Great sound, wonderful balance, present and wide and detailed. For Superman, I wanted a live sound, so we just put everything in the same room, including Sara.
Scott Campbell, the recording engineer, built this kinda fish tank-looking vocal booth for Sara, made of Marshall cabinets and plexiglass. My contribution was to take many pictures and drive through the valley getting the plexiglass sheets. The bass amp, a Portaflex, and my Deluxe were next to the drums, my BTR in a booth; I can’t even remember if we closed the door, keyboard amps fairly isolated in another booth, but we were all playing in the tracking room. It was loud and proud and made for some real mixing nightmares. And then there’s those moments where I can hear Léo changing sticks, my yelling woo somewhere, a phone going off. The beginning of “Come To Me” has so much snare buzz from the Wah it’s hilarious, a true Ugly Beauty. Sara and I discussed this over and over; we wanted messy and real. 14 songs in 4 days…go!
Having Sara out there in the tracking room was key. I couldn’t have tried this with a lesser singer; Sara has amazing strength and endurance, so she could sing four or five passes with the band and still go on to track by herself. When I was bouncing instrumental passes for mastering, I had to tell Dave, don’t worry, she’s muted. She’s just bleeding all over the room mics. Sara’s got serious power.
How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?
Oh, I guess that’s a function of knowing the room you’re playing. Smaller amps, lower volume, let the house do its job. I don’t experiment live; I know what’s on the pedalboard. I don’t try new stuff; that’s for private practice time and rehearsal.
What does your practice consist of?
Depends on how much time I have. If only a few hours, then simple warmups and some soloing with a metronome. I set the metronome to 2 and 4, or just 1, and solo, get some rhythm work in. If I have the luxury of time, I spend a few hours on the thinky stuff and get in my theory work. I’m working with Miles Okazaki’s “Fundamentals Of Guitar,” which anyone who has read it can tell you it’s anything but ‘fundamental.’ I’m at the beginning of the rabbit hole in Steve Coleman’s teachings and essays.
Favorite guitar riff or lick that inspired you to play guitar?
The acoustic guitar riff on “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon & Garfunkle. First record I ever had, and it was all over from then. I met Art and did some session work for him a few years back, and I can’t even believe that moment…totally fan-girled him. Started playing “Old Friends,” and he jumped out of the control room to come sing with me. Got in trouble cuz we were on the clock, but who cares?
What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?
Don’t be a ‘young woman.’ Be a musician, a producer, a composer, an engineer — never let gender be a part of your description. Others will; they’ll try to compartmentalize you. That’s not your worry. Put your head down and study. Respect the past, regale the future. Say yes. Do the work, put in the reps, and remember the whole point is to participate in the universal language of music.