Bryan Sutton: The Champion Flatpicker on Vintage Acoustics, Improvisation, and Blazing Bluegrass

April 7, 2017

“I try to keep my playing rooted in melody and tradition,” says champion flatpicker Bryan Sutton, “but I also seek a healthy balance when I improvise, keeping things as reactive and in-the-moment as possible.”

At a recent show at the legendary Freight & Salvage folk house in Berkeley, California, the core players that recorded Sutton’s most recent album, The More I Learn [Sugar Hill], gathered around a single microphone in the Freight’s acoustically impeccable showcase room. Sutton—along with bassist Sam Grisman (son of legendary mandolin man, David Grisman), Mike Barnett on fiddle, and Casey Campbell on mandolin—pushed each other into virtuosic flights that always honored the tunes at hand.


Bryan Sutton with his band and his “new” 1936 Martin D-28 at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley, CA. From left to right—Mike Barnett, Sutton, Sam Grisman, and Casey Campbell.
Jimmy Leslie

“A real challenge for folks to embrace regarding improvisation within the flatpicking tradition is the real-time variation-on-a-theme approach,” he says. “I’m not going to just blow over the changes, nor will I simply play a melody three times through and stop. I engage fully with an improvisational spirit, but remain aware of where I am in a given melody or chord structure, and I try to react with a sense of what feels melodically inspired.”

You announced onstage that this was the first time you’d taken your 1936 Martin D-28 on the road. What’s the story behind that guitar?

Guitars with 1 11/16" spacing started feeling a little cramped, so I’ve been making a switch to the 1 3/4" spacing over the past year or so. A guitar my pal Caleb Smith made was the only one I had with the wider neck. I settled in, enjoyed it, and started a search for and older one. I found a 1935 D-18 last spring, and I got into the deep end quickly, encouraging a search for a D-28. I happened to walk into Gruhn’s last fall, and they had just hung one on the rack. I knew it was the one from the first strum.

What are its key qualities?

That guitar is not a boomer, but it feels very present in a band. All of us bluegrassers hold Tony Rice’s sound as the gold standard as far as tone and mix balance. I’ll never sound like Tony Rice, but this guitar maintains some of the midrange and fullness of Tony’s sound.

Can you share some thoughts about your approach to rhythm?

When I teach bluegrass rhythm, my big point is to pay attention to context, and take note about what’s going on with the bass. For example, Sam Grisman is a more active player than a more traditionally minded bassist. I love our interaction within the pocket we create. When I play rhythm, I listen to him and react, versus trying to drive things so hard as to force clutter. I try to maintain a balance of groove, dynamics, and reactive little improvisational nuggets. I don’t want to compromise the pocket, but I don’t want to be too predictable, either. I’ll respond to things Sam does with more chord voicings, and playing in the higher register—like the right hand of a piano.

Watching you and your group work around the mic was interesting. What model was it, and what makes it work in a bluegrass setting?

That was the Edwina by Ear Trumpet Labs. I’ve found that when we use a single mic and no monitors, we listen to each other’s note choices acoustically, and react based on the organic thing happening onstage. It’s also just more fun. I’m not so interested in big volume. We can add pickups when needed, but everything usually works out fine. Everyone’s ears all kind of calibrate to the sound in the room. It’s a production technique that gets overlooked—playing music for and with people instead of at people. The Edwina is a very useable tool for this approach. It’s a full-range, large-diaphragm condenser, but it’s not quite as sensitive as, say, a Neumann U-47.

Can you describe what you listen for as you move the guitar around the mic?

After years of miking acoustics, you learn to locate sweet spots and hot spots. I’m sort of half aware as I move around. I mainly keep an ear out for things that feel too woofy. I’ll make slight adjustments to keep things feeling full, but not overwhelming.

There are lots of distinctly different guitar tones on The More I Learn. Did you use a variety of guitars?

I used several guitars on the new record, including a 1935 0-18, a 1942 D-28, a 1927 000-45, a 1949 Gibson SJ, a 1942 0-17, and a 1948 D-28.

When we spoke for the January 2015 issue, you were playing a 1948 D-28. Can you draw a general comparison about Martins from the ’30s versus the ’40s?

The ’30s guitars are different animals with forward X-bracing and wider spacing. The ’48 is one of the best recording acoustics I own—especially in a non-bluegrass situation—but the ’36 I’m touring with simply sounds bigger. It seems that guitars from the 1930s—and not just Martins—have an open, very impactful, and full midrange sound.

Most of The More I Learn features your vocals, but there are also a few strong instrumentals. Can you share a few insights on how you treat “Arkansas Traveler” for solo guitar in the key of D?

I put a McKinney-Elliot capo at the 2nd fret, and I work out of the C position using classic flatpicking inspired by Doc Watson and Norman Blake. I’ve played that tune since I was a kid, and I try to create a performance arc by playing with dynamics in various registers. I like to syncopate the B section with crosspicking—easier said than done!

What are your current pick and string preferences?

I’ve settled on Blue Chip picks lately. They make a TP-50 [1.25mm] that I have thinned to make it a TP-48—so far, so good. I’m still finding D’Addario EJ17 strings to be really consistent.

“Chase the Moon” is a prototypical bluegrass workout in G. Can you share tips on how to execute good rhythm guitar on such a blazer?

Lighter rather than heavier is the way to start here, taking advantage of phrase endings for dynamics and profile rising. I’m guided by Jimmy Martin and Del McCoury on this front. It’s important to keep tension management in mind when working so hard at such levels. Singing and playing this type of song has helped me create a better and more efficient balance. I also appreciate more and more how being aware of long flow streams can have a certain sense of rhythmic purpose. Like a clothesline hung between two buildings, the middle of the phrase can settle a bit. I focus on the first and last note of the phrase or stream, and I try to allow all the potential notes in between to find their spots based on this image. The result is a very tied together and settled phrase that could otherwise feel very tight and chopped.

What’s your pre-gig ritual to get ready to rip tunes such as “Chase the Moon?”

I don’t really have one. The bluegrass trail sometimes leaves you with lots of time before a set, and others when you only have enough time to walk up and go. I try not to get to bogged down with ritual. If I got dependent on that, I might freak out if I couldn’t go through the whole thing. I try to stay adaptable, and take things as they come—the Zen of bluegrass touring!

“Virginia Creeper” is an original with a slow introduction that kicks into a brisk, Appalachian-flavored instrumental. Can you talk about its origin, arrangement, and execution?

The intro is based on a little theme that had been in my head for years. I like that tune because it’s in C, but incorporates the modal approach of some old-time tunes traditionally played in A—such as “Red Haired Boy” or “Cattle in the Cane.” I’m actually thinking in F major a lot when I’m improvising. I love how the guys in my band help keep things joyful, and the feeling of confidence I have knowing they’ll react to audibles at the line of scrimmage with grace and professionalism. We’re living in an amazing time as far as mature young talent in the acoustic scene goes.

What bluegrass guitar players are turning you on currently?

I’m excited about what we’ll continue to hear from folks such as Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle, Jake Stargel, Jake Workman, Courtney Hartman, and Jordan Tice. These are immensely talented folks who are finding their musical ways, and their prospects look good.

What are your prospects for the foreseeable future?

I’ll probably make another record of some kind in the next year or so. I enjoy the energy of being a solo artist, but I’m not in a position to throw all my time into it. I’m searching for a balance between that, teaching via ArtistWorks, and recording and touring with other bands including Hot Rize. In the hectic nature of it all, I simply want to feel satisfied as a musician.

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