The term "danceable" isn't one that's oftern used when describing music made by a solo acoustic guitarist, but it sure comes to mind when listening to 34-year
old Australian fingerstylist Adam Miller. Not only does he own the groove, he takes polyphonic
playing—with independent bass lines, melody, harmony, and even improvised solos—to incredible
heights, inviting comparisons to players such as Tuck Andress and Charlie Hunter. But
while Andress and Hunter are for the most part electric players, Miller’s most visible work is
on a 6-string flat-top, with the result being a highly original voice.
Miller discovered the acoustic guitar by way of a cassette of fellow Australian picker Tommy
Emmanuel when he was 12. Having already started to play electric guitar in bands at the time,
Miller wore that tape out, eventually building his own repertoire of Emmanuel tunes. His first
break came a few years later, when he was able to score a gig opening for his role model, a connection
that would lead to several stints of touring together.
Miller released his first CD, After One Day,
in 2001, and has since followed up with four
more albums, the latest being 2012’s Delayed.
But, although he chose the solo acoustic format
for all of his CDs, and it is how you’re most
likely to hear him perform at any of his gigs
in the U.S., it really is only one of the contexts
he is comfortable in. For starters, in addition
to playing a Jeff Traugott Model 00 cutaway
acoustic, Miller owns and plays a Traugott
7-string electric that formerly belonged to
Hunter, which he frequently uses on sideman
gigs. He also continues to play standard
6-string electrics, and has been a clinician for
the Premier Builder’s Guild, demonstrating
B3 guitars and Two-Rock amps. Many of Miller’s
hometown gigs include a trio in which he
plays both acoustic and electric guitars, and
he’s released the download-only live album
Underground at noisetrade.com/adammiller.
Miller also plays in a vocal/guitar duo with his
wife, Holly. Besides performing, Miller keeps
busy teaching guitar at the University of Newcastle’s
Conservatorium of Music.
How would you describe the guitar scene in
It is small, but of really high caliber, starting
with Tommy Emmanuel having been a
mainstream artist here for so long. He’s a
household name, and not just amongst guitar
players, so that was always the point to reach.
He set the bar pretty high.
And he helped launch your own career.
How did that come about?
When I was 19, Tommy came to play in
my hometown, so I contacted his management
and asked whether I could open the
show, and they said yes. It was pretty terrifying,
because that was actually my first solo
show. It went well, however, and from there
we toured together a bit, with me opening
more shows for him over the next few
years. It was definitely a shaping experience.
I don’t think I really wanted to play solo guitar
before that, but it kind of threw me into the
deep end. Up until that point, all I had been
playing were Tommy Emmanuel pieces and
arrangements, so it really forced me to create
something unique for myself. I didn’t want
to just play his songs before he came on and
played them better [laughs].
What is it about the acoustic guitar that
appeals to you?
When I played the electric guitar, I was
always trying to sound like someone else—
but when I played acoustic, I found it easier to
play in ways that sounded like me. I stopped
thinking about pedals and effects and amps,
and I just got out what I put in, particularly
with the solo stuff, where I’m playing bass
lines. The flat-top guitar just does that so
well, especially on my Jeff Traugott acoustic,
with the fanned frets, and the strength
of the bottom end.
What are the specs on that guitar?
It’s a 00-size, which is a pretty small body,
so I can get around on it easily. The case is
also smaller, which helps when traveling.
As a result of the fanned frets, the high E is
25 inches long, and the low E is 27 inches.
The back and sides are made from Indian
rosewood, and it has a spruce top.
How did you get into this really evolved
type of bass line/melody playing?
It was a consequence of two things. I
was playing funk and jazz in bands, and
Tommy Emmanuel and Chet Atkins material
when I played solo, because that was
pretty much all that I’d been exposed to.
The first sort of groove-style playing and
improvising while playing a bass line that
I saw was John Mayer performing “Neon”
live on a DVD. Then, someone said, “That
sort of sounds like Charlie Hunter,” so I got
into all of Charlie’s albums. I soaked everything
up from there, and he was really the
guy that made me realize that it was even
possible to play a bass line and improvise
over it at the same time.
What’s the most important thing to focus
on when learning to play fingerstyle guitar
with a great groove?
Timing. Whether you are playing with a
metronome, or playing with other people, you
need to be really aware of where your timing
sits. And I think especially for the way I play,
it’s having an understanding of the subdivisions
of the bar, like how one beat interacts
with the other beat. The funny thing about a
lot of my stuff is that while it sounds like I’m
playing two or three parts at a time, it’s really
only the parts between each other, and how
they work together that creates the overall feeling
of the groove, in the same way that a drummer’s
hi-hat and snare create a particular feel.
Is it a challenge to go from playing all the
parts yourself when you’re solo to playing
more sparse arrangements within the context
of a band?
Most of the time, especially through the
melodies, I tend to still play the bass lines,
at least the bass line that I’ve written for the
songs. One thing I’ve started doing recently
is having the bass players create their own
lines around what I’m playing, rather than
following what I do, and we get this big
sound that’s really nice.
What’s the story behind Underground,
the live recording with your trio?
That was a one-off night of just getting a
couple of amazing musicians together. There
was no rehearsal, and I basically just had
some charts written up, and a few beatbox
drum parts to start things off.
When do you play your Charlie Hunterstyle
I play it for live sideman work. Mostly pop,
soul, and R&B sort of things. What’s kind
of cool about it, and this comes back to the
whole approach, is that with the bass and
the guitar taken care of, you deliver such a
strong groove, and it really suits those styles
of music. You end up with very simple guitar
parts that don’t go over the top. Often it ends
up being just a drummer and me backing up
a singer-songwriter who plays keyboard or
guitar. It’s fun, because it takes the pressure
off me and allows me to focus on the groove
and the feeling of the music
What electric guitars do you play?
I have a b3 Water, a D’Angelico EXL-1,
and a Telecaster-style guitar that I built from
Warmoth parts. When I’m at home, they go
through an original Two-Rock Jet head with a
1x12 cabinet. I don’t really use a lot of pedals
anymore, except for sometimes a Line 6 DL4
Delay Modeler, which I’m using for some Bill
Frisell-inspired atmospheric things.
The thing is, I’m really starting to blur the
lines between my acoustic and my electric
setups. I’m using .012 sets with a wound G on
my electrics, and at the same time, I’ve started
using a Seymour Duncan MagMic pickup in
my Traugott, which I sometimes play through
the Two-Rock. This doesn’t sound as acoustic
as when I run through my D-Tar Solstice and
into a P.A., but it’s a very cool sound.
With Delayed having been out for a while
now, what are you working on?
I’ve got two projects in the works. One
will be a duo album with my wife, Holly. The
idea is to do it the way we play live, with just
vocal and guitar. I’m really hoping to introduce
the 7-string, because it’s such a great instrument
for accompaniment. Holly’s vocals just
sit really nicely in the middle of the bass and
the guitar parts. My own new album will be
called Shifting Units. The title piece is a tune
with different movements and time signatures,
and there will be recurring themes
throughout the album. It will continue with
the groove idea, and also explore new ways
of playing some of the tunes I’ve already
been playing live, like “Wrong Note Blues,”
and “Blow Your Horn.” It will be a combination
of acoustic and electric guitar, and it will
most likely feature a band on at least some of
the songs. I’m also planning on spending a
lot more time touring in the U.S. in 2014.