BILL FRISELL IS SO PROLIFIC THAT WHENEVER YOU SPEAK WITH HIM IT’S DIFFICULT TO
do more than take a snapshot of his kaleidoscopic career. This year alone he has
released a stunning solo live-performance DVD called Bill Frisell: Solos, a soundtrack
album of his music for Leonard Farlinger’s film All Hat, and an album containing
music composed to accompany a collection of photographs taken in a rural Arkansas
town between 1939-1945 called Disfarmer. And that’s not to mention Films of Buster
Keaton, Music By Bill Frisell, a DVD that finally weds the music Frisell’s trio recorded
and released on CD back in 1995 with the films themselves.
Here, we’ll mostly talk playing and
gear. For and in-depth look at Frisell’s
methodology while creating the score
for the Keaton films, his lengthy and
extremely fruitful musical relationships
with legendary drummer Paul Motian
and pedal-steel master Greg Leisz, and
the value of making “mistakes,” please
You are widely recognized as having successfully
merged several different styles of music,
and consequently several styles of guitar
playing. To what extent has that been the
result of a conscious effort?
I don’t think it’s conscious at all. People
mention that, but it doesn’t seem
like anything unusual to me, because
that’s just what you do if you’re in music
and there are all of these possibilities.
I’m just trying to use what I know and
put my own experience into what I’m
doing without limiting anything. For
me, music has always been this world I
could be in where anything was possible.
I feel like I can go however far my
imagination can go, and it will all be
One of the most distinctive aspects of
your sound is your vibrato. How much of that
sound is generated by your fingers as opposed
to, say, pulling on the neck?
It’s a combination of both. And the
reason that happens is that I’m struggling
to get everything in tune. When I
play a chord, there’s almost always
something that won’t sound right to my
ear intonation-wise, because you can
never really get a guitar totally in tune.
So if a note is sharp I’ll instinctively
push the neck forward to flatten it, but
then all the notes will go flat, so I’ll pull
the neck back, resulting in a sort of constant
Kind of like a manual chorusing effect.
Yes, definitely, especially if there’s
also a little bit of delay on it. It’s something
that just happens. I never knew it
was happening until people started mentioning
Your solos never seem to lose sight of the
melody. How do you find that balance between
thinking about what to do next, and just going
with the creative flow?
Ideally I’m so deeply absorbed in the
music that there are no intellectual calculations
going on. Of course, there are
plenty of times when I’m thinking about
all kinds of things, but when the music
is really happening none of those kinds
of thoughts are occurring. To get there
the music has to have reached a certain
depth in my unconscious, where it’s
going in my sleep, and it happens most
consistently when I’m playing with
musicians that I’ve worked with a lot
When you are thinking about how to construct
a solo from the core melody, what are
a few of the ways in which you might work
with the theme while you are exploring it?
I begin with what’s already there,
and don’t start trying to change it right away.
I absorb the form of the song and the melody
by playing those things over and over until
they are so deep inside of me that I can deviate
from them while I’m still hearing the
original melody. And it isn’t as if I am trying
to deviate, it’s more like the song itself will
show me more and more possibilities for reharmonizing.
I also try transposing songs to
different keys, because if I learn a song in
one key, and then play it in another one, I’ll
usually learn something I can bring back to
the original key. For example, if I play something
in an open key—such as E or A—then
play it in Bb, it will force me to have to deal
with things that I didn’t have to deal with
before, and when I go back to the open key
I may see things differently. Similarly, I’ve
been using a capo on some things for the
past few years, and sometimes I’ll try to play
things that I’ve been playing with a capo
without using one, barring with my whole
hand while still trying to get open-stringsounding
things, and that can lead to new
melodic ideas and variations.
What guitars are you playing these days?
I mostly play Fender Telecasters, though
all but a couple of them have been messed
with. Right now I’m primarily playing an
instrument that was assembled from various
parts by Jay Black, who used to work for
the Fender Custom Shop. It’s a Tele, but with
slightly shorter-scale neck like a Gibson, and
it’s been hollowed out so it’s super light.
The Tele I’m playing on the Solos DVD is a
Fender Tele Relic with John Suhr pickups in
it. I’ve also gotten into Fender Jaguars again
recently. My first electric guitar was a Fender
Mustang that I bought in 1965, which I
traded for a Jaguar about a year later. I’ve
always liked the really comfortable shortscale
necks on Jaguars. John “Woody”
Woodland makes an unbelievably good
replacement bridge for Jaguars and Jazzmasters
called the Mastery Bridge, which
eliminates all the problems with those guitars,
like rattling, buzzing, and strings falling
off the bridge.
Do you have favorite picks and strings?
I use Dunlop Tortex M3 Jazz picks. For
the longest time I used heavy picks and just
recently I started using medium ones. And
I’ve used D’Addario strings forever. I mostly
use .010 sets on my Telecasters and .012 sets
on my archtops. I string my acoustics with
light gauge or medium gauge strings.
How about amplifiers?
When I travel I just ask for Fender Deluxe
Reverb amps, but when playing and recording
at home in Seattle I use a 1x12 combo
made by Jack Anderson. I also have a beefedup
Fender Princeton with a 12” speaker and
an old tweed Gibson GA-18 Explorer that I
sometimes use for recording.
Do you have a standard effects rig?
I have a Lexicon MPX-100 that I use
mostly for reverb, and to split my signal into
stereo to feed two amps. I also use its output
control as a master volume, because
when I’m playing with a band my volume
can fluctuate quite a bit. I might also want
to get a really distorted, over-the-top sound,
but I’ll want it to be quiet, so I can turn the
volume on the Lexicon down and crank
everything else up.
Are you using many effects pedals?
I have a Pro Co Rat and an Ibanez Tube
Screamer for distortion, and Boss DD-4 and
DD-3 delays. The DD-3 was modified by
Robert Keeley, and has a little switch that
cuts the highs slightly. My other delay is a
Line 6 DL4 that I use mostly for looping. If
I want to go completely haywire I’ll use Z.Vex
Fuzz Factory and Ringtone TT pedals, and I
also have an Electro-Harmonix Micro POG
that sounds great. I’ve been doing some gigs
without a bassist, and the Micro POG’s low
octave sound almost lets me cover some bass
How about compressors? Aren’t they a big part
of your sound?
I used to always use a compressor, and
although that sound is really seductive, I’m
trying not to use it these days because I don’t
want to compromise the dynamics of what
I’m playing. I do have a Keeley compressor
that sounds really good, which I use occasionally,
but when I do I use it more as an
actual effect rather than as part of the overall
You said you used the DL4 for looping, but in
the Solos DVD you are looping with an old
DigiTech PDS-8000 Echo-Plus pedal.
Yeah, I love that thing, though I haven’t
been using it lately. It does the coolest stuff,
but it kept getting noisier and noisier to
the point that there was just a huge hiss
coming out of it all the time. What’s cool
about the DigiTech is you can change the
pitch. Like if I’m playing a chord that is
sustaining, I can turn the pedal on and off
really fast, and it will record just a split
second of the chord. Then I can make the
pitch go up or down using the speed control.
I can also keep adding to the loop and
changing the pitch, so that I get all these
completely random sounds that would
never come out of the guitar normally. I’ll
move the pitch and have no idea where it’s
going to go, but it seems to work more
often than not, and if it doesn’t I’ll just be
forced to deal with it.
You used an Electro-Harmonix 16 Second Delay
before that didn’t you?
Yeah, I have two of those and they are
awesome, but they’ll only work for about
five minutes before they shut down, so I
haven’t used them in a long time. I got one
when they first came out and I freaked out,
because it was just what I’d been waiting
for. To me, it is the coolest looper that has
ever been, but they don’t make the parts for
them anymore, and you can’t get them
repaired. Electro-Harmonix reissued them,
and I was so excited I ordered one before
they came out, but it was not anything like
the original. It does all kinds of other stuff
that I haven’t figured it out yet, but not what
I want it to do.
Do you ever feel that people are not getting
some critical aspect of what you do, and if so, what
would that be?
A lot of times people talk about my
equipment and particularly my use of electronics,
and sometimes I get a little tired of
the emphasis on the presumed importance
of all that stuff, because about 90 percent
of the time I’m just playing a Telecaster into
an amp. I’m a totally over-the-top obsessive
guitar nerd myself, but what’s in your imagination
is way more important than the
brand of guitar you’re playing or the amp
or whatever effects box you’re using. Its fun
to talk about all those things, but when it
gets to just playing music, all of that stuff
kind of goes away.