Bill Frisell

September 1, 2009

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 visit

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 okay somehow.

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 wavering.

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 it.

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 before.

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 parts.

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 sound.

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.

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