Tone Talk with Sherry Rayn Barnett

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Photo by Maria Brunner Ventura

Hi All, Sherry Rayn Barnett here, lead guitar for Mustangs of the West, an all-female Americana/country band on Blue Élan Records. I’m based in LA, raised in New York City. I grew up playing folk guitar and then continued my studies as a classical guitar major at The School of Performing Arts in Manhattan. But it was the music from Southern California that lured me out west. The jangly guitar sounds from Laurel Canyon, pioneered by The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and The Eagles were my roadmap. Groundbreaking players like Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell were expanding guitar horizons for women and became inspirations for me.

I’ve also enjoyed a career as a widely published rock photographer, photographing many iconic musicians, with a book forthcoming later this year. Yet, I’ve always continued to play – and collect guitars, my downfall! I joined a band called The Mustangs during the heyday of the famed Palomino Club in North Hollywood, and we had a great seven-year run, both here and in Europe. Recently reunited as Mustangs of the West, in March 2020, we finally released our very first album, Time – a title that seems more relevant now than ever!

RELATED:  Mustangs of the West to Release “Time”
Album produced by Mark Howard
(Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris)

What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?

Tone equals vibe, to my ears. Specifically, for me, as far as guitar tone, it’s about what makes me feel the song, what echoes the emotion of the lyrics. I try to communicate that when I play. I play in a band, Mustangs of the West, whose original music falls into the wide range of Americana music, with country-rock leanings. Personally, I tend towards a cleaner tone, but with just enough grit to cut through. I’m more of a melodic player and don’t spend a lot of time up in the stratosphere of the neck of the instrument. Overall, I think now that we have so many choices of different sounds, we can get too caught up in all of that and drift away from the music itself. The amazing assortment of pedals and now modeling amps, too, give access to so much experimentation, but I tend towards the more basic. I know many players over the years tend towards a dirtier sound, especially in rock, of course, but that’s not my wheelhouse, or where I excel. I’m more about a clean low-end tone and twang myself, with a touch of reverb and delay – that’s my happy place!

Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?

I’m a classic Fender player by nature and have a Fender Blues Junior tube amp as my home and smaller venue rig. If the backline is provided, or if there are choices for recording, I usually request a Twin, Deluxe or Pro Reverb, Concert, Vibrolux, or something similar. When my band, Mustangs of the West, recorded our new album, produced by Mark Howard, I also recorded through his vintage Vox AC30, with a wall of tremolo, and I was hooked. My ’77 Fender Telecaster is my “go-to” guitar. I’ve changed out one of the original pickups for a Lollar, which I totally love! For our Mustangs of the West album, though, I also played my Fender Strat and brought out my ’62 Jazzmaster that I’ve had since childhood. My mom bought it used for me at a time that the Jazzmaster had lost popularity, so now it was a prime opportunity to put it to use. It’s definitely vintage and not a “road” guitar. I also played Wendy Melvoin’s (thank you, Wendy) original ’60s Fender Mustang, on a track or two, so I got to contribute a number of classic sounds. I’m also a big 12-string guitar and “jangle” fan. My 12-string collection includes an American made ’80s Hamer Prototype electric, a new D’Angelico Premier acoustic-electric, and just added a reissue ’59 Danelectro with those original “lipstick” pickups. Really looking forward to playing it onstage. For acoustics, I play a beautiful Blueridge Historical 000 with onboard Fishman electronics and just discovered a Nashville high strung tuning on an earlier Yahama A/E as well. Just recently, I was offered a new custom electric guitar to try out called a “Swingstang” by the Japan-based Suji Guitars, designed by Nick Sugimoto. He’s worked with Fender Custom Shop and others and showcased this guitar at NAMM in January. Looks cool!

Regarding pedals, and speaking of Danelectro, I just added a “Money Laundry” pedal that simulates a Leslie speaker sound, and it’s pretty wild with the 12 string. Not to mention that it’s color-coordinated too! In general, I’m fairly old school, pure tone and use a minimum of pedals, although there are so many cool ones out there. I rely on basic Fender amp reverb and augment with delay, overdrive, tremolo, and chorus pedals as my mainstays. I’m loving my Truetone H2O combo pedal (delay/vibrato/chorus), a classic Ibanez Tube Screamer, and just added a JHS Tidewater Mini Tremolo pedal. For ease of gigging/touring, I’m gravitating toward the right combination of mini pedals that take up less space and weight.

What about strings?

I’ve been pretty consistent in my choice of Ernie Ball Hybrid Slinkys on my electric guitars. Gives just enough punch in the low end, which I favor (!) and enough give in the higher strings for fluid bending. I’m sure there are other great strings out now that rival these. I’m open to trying ’em out, but I’ll always have extra sets of the Hybrid Slinkys in my gig bag!

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?

I prefer to work as closely as possible with the band in somewhat of a live setting and then adding overdubs. I always felt confined being closed up in an iso room by myself. My band, Mustangs of the West, just had a remarkable recording experience with producer Mark Howard, who was all about being in the room together as much as possible, making the experience more “live” and connective with each other.

How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?

I am working on that currently, as our band has done more recording than performing together since we reunited in 2017 and signed to Blue Élan Records, a great Los Angeles based label. Hoping to rise to the challenge when we eventually get to tour after this pandemic, to support our new album, Time. The tracks have a variety of different guitar sounds, so it’s important for me to keep my pedal settings consistent.

What does your practice consist of?

My practice varies. It can consist of playing along with tracks, doing some basic finger exercises like I did when I originally started out as a classical guitarist, checking out all the fantastic opportunities that YouTube provides with many of my favorites players offering up technique tips. Of course, sitting and trading licks with another player in the room is the ideal setting for me to stretch out — playing off of others gives me inspiration and is a helpful interactive practice method for me. Helps build confidence for going onstage too.

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?

My advice for young women coming up in any aspect of the music industry is to just be yourself and not feel like you have to be better than anyone else. This goes for interacting with male players or men behind the scenes in the industry as well, especially those who you might view as already being successful or “more talented.” Often it’s just about someone else having more experience. I started playing guitar at a time when female players were more of a novelty, but over the years, women have been kicking the door open, and now we are players, sound engineers, film composers, recording producers, and music biz execs. There’s still a lot of room to grow, and there’s still an inherent resistance. But music doesn’t have a gender, and it’s timeless. If you’re a female musician and doing it for the right reasons — because you love it — you’ll find your own voice, and there won’t be another one like it

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