Roots Troubadour Brooks Williams

October 20, 2005

“My career has always been about the grass-roots interconnection between myself and the audience,” says guitarist, singer, songwriter, and teacher Brooks Williams. Over the course of 20 years, 14 albums, and thousands of concerts, the self-described troubadour has been presenting his emotionally austere songs in courageously intimate solo settings. His latest offering, Guitar Player [Solid Air], is his first completely instrumental solo-guitar record, and it demonstrates stylistically rich, harmonically sophisticated, and breathtakingly beautiful fingerstyle artistry.

What inspired you to make a solo-guitar instrumental record at this point in your career?
When people ask me what style of music I play, I tell them I don’t know, because I’m motivated by the whole rich tradition of guitar music—jazz, Latin, blues, folk, rock, classical, and beyond. Guitar Player is my attempt to capture the full range of styles I play, in as personal a setting as possible.

How did these diverse stylistic influences impact the songs on Guitar Player?
Several tunes are inspired by Brazilian music, particularly the work of the great Luiz Bonfa, from whom I learned how to play muted bass lines against ringing chords to give the illusion of two guitarists. Another stylistic reference is the American Primitive school of John Fahey and Leo Kottke, characterized by ringing triads atop alternating bass thumps.

Can you detail other elements of your technique—one hand at a time?
I usually employ a hybrid technique, using a flatpick on the bass notes. This way, my thumb and index together become p, my middle finger becomes i, my ring finger becomes m, and my pinky becomes a. This allows me to draw different tonal shades from the guitar. For example, I’ll play rest strokes with my middle finger for a warmer sound on certain notes.

With the left hand, I like to hammer-on and pull-off chords on the high strings. Add an alternating bass line on the low strings, and it gives you this rolling effect.

Do you use different guitars for different styles?
I used a Yamaha classical and a Brad Nickerson Little Lion on a few songs, but my main guitars are the small-bodied Flammang GC, and Flammang EL, made by David Flammang. I find that the intricacies of my playing get lost on dreadnoughts because of their low-end woof, and the Flammang’s have a tonal clarity and piano-like brilliance that has actually taught me to play differently. For example, the Bach Cello Suites inspired “The Bright Field,” in that single notes sustaining against one another imply the chordal harmonies. The notes on the Flammang GC rang so clearly that I didn’t have to work to fill the empty spaces, as if the guitar was telling me to speak simply and let it do the work!

You do several arrangements of other people’s material on Guitar Player. How do you choose songs to re-interpret for solo acoustic?
I practice by playing jazz standards, Beatles songs, folk tunes, whatever—and if something seems to work, I’ll present it to an audience for their reaction. For example, the jazz-waltz version of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” was something fun I’d worked out for a student. On a lark, I did it as an encore, and the audience went nuts! A good song has diplomatic immunity—it traverses the globe, transcends time, survives different cultural interpretations, and still moves people.

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