Ani DiFranco has made a career of combining
razor-sharp critiques of societal injustice and inequality
with an expansive folk-rock outlook. Feminism, racism,
poverty, and reproductive rights are just a few of the topics
she explores within the incisive lyrics of her new album,
Which Side Are You On? [Righteous Babe]. Musically, the
record infuses pop, funk, soul, and ambient influences—
not to mention a marching band—into her borderless
sound. A stellar cast of musicians is also onboard to help
DiFranco tell her provocative stories, including folk legend
Pete Seeger, Ivan and Cyril Neville of the Neville Brothers,
guitarist Adam Levy, and avant-saxophonist Skerik.
Which Side Are You On? is DiFranco’s 17th album in 22
years. She established her signature guitar style on her
self-titled 1990 debut release and has continued honing
it ever since. DiFranco takes an aggressive, percussive
approach to her instrument, employing snapping, popping,
thrashing, hammer-ons, and pull-offs as vehicles
to help get her equally intense messages across. She is a
big Alvarez fan, and the company’s instruments comprise
the bulk of her live rig, including two Alvarez Yairi WY1
Bob Weir Signature acoustic-electrics, a Yairi DY62C, an
MSD1 short-scale dreadnought, and a custom baritone.
You’re touring solo for the first time since
2003. What opportunities and challenges has
that created for you?
It’s really fun playing solo. It feels free.
I can take a left turn at Albuquerque and
not worry about thwarting my fellow musicians.
I definitely notice that I get more
into folksinger mode. I have to make things
much more interesting on my own, which
involves bringing in levels of talking, sharing,
and pacing. It’s also more exhausting
emotionally. For example, I’ve been playing
solo in a lot of big clubs lately where
the whole audience is standing. As an
audience member, your feet start to hurt
if things are too low key and you’re standing
all night. So, there’s kind of a pressure
there. The sort of spleen you have to put
into things to rock a room like that solo is
much more fierce than when you’ve got a
rhythm section behind you.
You have tenor, baritone, and standard guitars
in your arsenal. How does the type of guitar
you use influence your songwriting process?
Everything comes from the instrument.
These are instruments I had in my house.
I’d pick them up and write songs on them,
and the types of songs that come out of a
tenor guitar are very different from those
that come out of a baritone. The instrument
you play has a voice. A tenor guitar
has a much higher, midrange voice with a
lot more twang. A baritone guitar has a big,
full, rich voice, with a lot more luxuriousness
to it. When you write on an instrument,
you’re engaging in a kind of dialog.
Your voice and the voice of the instrument
are collaborating and harmonizing. A much
different thing will come out depending on
what the instrument is talking about and
what you’re talking about with your voice. I
have many other instruments at home, too.
At some point I say things to myself like,
“Do not write on that ukulele” [laughs]. I
can’t afford to bring any more stuff around
with me when I tour. So, I try to stick with
the baritone, tenor, and regular old 6-string
acoustic guitars when I’m writing.
What motivated you to pursue a custom baritone
guitar with Alvarez?
A lot of my live sound—and really my
entire take on acoustic guitar—is about
dampening the high end and taking away all
of that scratchy, tinny stuff. And if I’m playing
through a magnetic pickup, I’m trying
to get away from that ugly magnetic sound
by emphasizing the low end. A lot of that
comes from playing solo and being my own
rhythm section in which I’m trying to get a
bass line and a sort of drum thump out of
the guitars. With the baritone guitars I used
previously, I was looking for even more of
that big-booty sound and I wasn’t getting it,
so I kept searching.
Alvarez has been a great, supportive company
for me over the years. I played a couple of
their off-the-rack baritones, but they required
too much equalization to get them to sound
the way I wanted. Alvarez then attempted
to make me a custom baritone, but I erroneously
thought that having a bigger body
meant having more resonance, and the guitar
they made not only had a bigger and deeper
body, it also had a longer neck. It was like an
oversized Alvarez WY-1, but it wasn’t actually
any bigger and fuller sounding. Then I
started coming across all these little parlor
guitars, like old Martins. They’re beautiful,
tiny, glorious guitars with such warm,
rich sounds. I realized, “Okay, maybe bigger
doesn’t mean warmer. Maybe there’s something
more to it.” So, I started to dialog with
Alvarez about how we could get a meatier,
fatter, less tinny sound, and they eventually
built me the great baritone I use today, which
is the best one I’ve ever played in terms of
achieving that kind of sound.
You currently use 53 different tunings. How did
you arrive at such a large tuning library?
Fifty-three tunings isn’t that many if you
think in terms of hundreds of songs written.
I’ve written so many damn songs that it’s
ridiculous. When I discovered the world of
open tuning, I thought, “This is a vast territory
that I could explore forever and never
get bored in, so why not?” So, I started messing
with the strings. I don’t know the notes
half the time, but I know the sounds and
relationships by ear.
I understand that it’s a lot of work to get
from standard tuning to some crazy-ass tuning
onstage. So, I try to write two-to-four songs
in one tuning or tuning family. That way, if
I was asking my guitar tech to go to one of
those crazy tunings, we could at least stay
there for a few songs. I work my set list very
much around the open tunings, so it’s not
an insane back and forth thing. Having said
all of that, I’ve been playing a few shows on
my own in New Orleans where I live. I’m
trying to get back to basics and prove that
I can show up at a bar with a couple of guitars
and an amp and play a show by myself.
I’ve been thinking, “What if I can’t always
afford a guitar tech?” So, I’ve also been writing
more in standard tuning lately, with the
idea of self-sufficiency in mind.
How do you communicate altered tunings to
your guitar tech, Jason Kendall?
If I have a new song, I’ll come to sound
check on the first day of a tour and put the
instrument into that tuning. Then I’ll rehearse
the tune and hand the guitar to Jason. I’ll
say, “Here’s the tuning for this song, whatever
those notes are” [laughs]. He’ll figure it
out, write it down, and get the guitar back
into that tuning every time I need it. He’s
awesome. Jason really loves a challenge and
doesn’t consider it work to go back and forth
to try and figure out these crazy tunings.
You use a 1957 Magnatone Twilighter 260 2x12
combo amp on the new album and tour. What’s
appealing about it for you?
My husband, Mike Napolitano, who coproduced
the album, is educating me about
the world of guitar amps. All of this has
been quite foreign to little acoustic-playing
me. He noticed the amps I was playing
on stage and the tone I was getting and felt
there was room for improvement. He came
up with the Magnatone and said, “It’s really
the only true vibrato.” It does pitch bending
and has a watery, sort of ethereal beauty
in its vibrato sound. I thought “Whoa. Love
it. Never going back.” Onstage, I have two
volume sends to two different amps. The
one that goes to the Magnatone is what I
use for a cleaner sound, often with a little
vibrato. The other goes to a Rivera Sedona
1x15 combo that I use for crunch and distortion.
I sometimes also dial in a touch of this
or that by employing both amps to enrich
the sound of the acoustic pickup and give it
a more organic tone.
How have you evolved as a guitarist since your
I’ve been pulling, snapping, and attacking
strings from the beginning. Now, I think
there are many more shades of gray, and I
can express more subtle things. Also, when
great players pick up their instruments, they
start talking to you through them and you
can hear what they’re saying. Sometimes,
my playing is like that. Some nights, I stand
onstage and feel like everything I have to tell
you, my hands are saying, and my head is
singing along. Other nights, it’s just okay.
Maybe my voice is coming through my mouth,
but my hands are feeling clumsy or lost. But
I now know more intimately the feeling of
my hands being directly connected to my
soul. That’s something that comes through
the process of spending your life with an
Ani DiFranco’s Guitar
Tech Jason Kendall on the
Making of Her Custom
“The baritone is a little thinner for comfort
and has a mini-jumbo body, so it’s naturally
pushing the desired low-end frequencies
that are usually pushed with EQ. The guitar
sounds really good with flat EQ, though sometimes
we might use a little top-end roll-off.
It has a 25.5" scale length compared to the
26" scale length on theAlvarez Yairi WY-1.
We also asked Alvarez to use a non-glossy
finish to try to reduce brightness.”