Tone Talk with Molly Hanmer

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Molly Hanmer - Photo by Dave Clancy

Hi, I’m Molly Hanmer and I’m a singer-songwriter and play guitar and harmonica with my band Molly Hanmer & The Midnight Tokers. I’m from California, but I grew up in Pacific Grove, a small town in Monterey County.

My dad was a guitar player, lucky for me, and he had this really cool Lyle Dove acoustic guitar I used to eye as a kid. I first picked it up when I was 8, and it was pretty exciting just to hold it. My dad saw how interested I was and showed me some chords. Later on, he found me a guitar teacher and I took regular lessons.

In high school, I listened to a lot of Velvet Underground, Stones, Beatles, and Jackie Greene, and some Green Day as well. But it was when I first heard Bob Dylan that I knew I wanted to be a singer-songwriter. I had never heard anything like his lyrics, or the stories that he told in his songs. I think it’s fair to say he has been my biggest inspiration, but one of many.

My taste in music is all over the place, from the blues to soul, to traditional Irish, a variety which I think you’ll hear on my band’s debut album, Stuck in a Daydream which you can stream on Spotify or any streaming platform. We started working on a second album earlier this year with producer Sheldon Gomberg (Ben Harper, Shelby Lynne), release date TBD! Although my band’s live shows have been canceled, of course, you can hear me play solo on Instagram Live (@mollyhanmermusic) every Friday night at 7:30 pm. I would love to see you there!

What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?
I’ve always thought of tone as being a guitar player’s voice, and that is going to be unique to each player based on their taste in guitar, amps, pedals, strings, even their playing style. Jimi Hendrix for example, has an unmistakable tone. It’s hot and in your face with that Fuzzface, but clear and eloquent. When I was younger, I leaned toward the full and undeniable sound of my Gibson Les Paul Junior like you’d hear from the Replacements. But at the same time I was playing through an Epiphone Blues Custom 30 Amp, which could give a good crunch but ultimately was clean like Peter Green. More recently, I’ve been partial to my semi-hollow body Eastman T836 (essentially Eastman’s nod to Gibson 335) though a 1966 Ampeg ReverberRocket tube amp. I generally turn the treble all the way down and the bass all the way up to really bring out that hollow aspect, especially since the Ampeg is already treble heavy. I’ll take a warm hollow sound over a cold high end any day. Give me vintage or give me death!

Molly Hanmer – Photo by Dave Clancy

Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?
In terms of electric guitars, my main squeeze is the Eastman T836, but I love my Les Paul Junior as well. The Les Paul is no non-sense rock and roll with some really bold P90 pickups on it, and while they are buzzy as hell, I think it adds to the charm. My main amp is a 1966 Ampeg ReverbeRrocket. It’s clean but has attitude like some early Beatles, and it has a wonderful spring reverb, as well as a great tremolo. On top of that, I keep things simple with a Vintage TS9 Ibanez Tube Screamer that my keys player, John Bird, gave to me to give me an extra boost and more crunch. Not to mention some damn good sustain! My main acoustic guitar is a Gibson J-45/50. I call it the forgotten child of the J-45 and the J-50, because it appeared as an oddball combination of the two and no-one seems to know much about it. From what I’ve been able to find, this lack of information is because in the ’70s, Gibson was going through some changes, and their serial numbers really fell out of whack. But it’s a great dreadnaught guitar, and the Fishman pickup I had installed in it is pretty good too.

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What about strings?
I’m not particularly loyal to a brand of strings, though I mainly go for Ernie Ball for electric and D’Addario for acoustic. Traditionally, I’ve played 11 gauge, but because I’ve been messing around with slide and other tunings, I’ve been using 12 gauges as well. It hurts like hell to get used to but certainly holds a dropped tuning better.

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?
I always prefer to track live in the studio as opposed to tracking instruments individually. You can’t match the energy of a band playing together live, but it does have its limitations. There have been songs which we really would have liked to have TV mixes for, but because we tracked live, there was too much bleed between vocals and instruments. And sometimes, tracking everything live just isn’t possible because schedules don’t line up or space is limited. If that’s the case, I like to at least get a basic track recorded and then layer things like horns, background vocals, woodwinds, or extra percussion.

How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?
I keep my rig pretty simple, so that helps. But when it comes down to it, you have to know what your sound is and be willing to achieve that whatever a venue throws you because every room is different. If the room is super small, muffling the high end is a must. And if the room is big, I make sure my tone is as loud and full as I want it to be so that when the sound engineer mics my amp, it’s what I want to hear.

What does your practice consist of?
When I practice, I’m mainly learning songs that I love, whether it’s Led Zeppelin or Muddy Waters. It’s the best and most enjoyable way to learn new techniques, in my opinion. And while I do practice scales to keep my dexterity sharp, it’s always jamming to the songs I love. I’ve recently been dabbling with slide, which is challenging but fun.

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?
Remember that you’re doing this because you love music. Whether it’s playing music, producing, engineering, whatever, do it because you love the work. The music industry is not an easy one to get into. With ambiguous streaming revenues and live shows being up in the air no-one really knows what the future holds (and, as Steve Earle told me, anyone who tells you otherwise is lying). So do it for the joy of music. And don’t be afraid to be your bold, amazing, badass-pickin’ self up there on stage, because women are going to save rock and roll.

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