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Ani DiFranco Chooses Sides

May 15, 2012
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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 debut album?

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 instrument.

Ani DiFranco’s Guitar Tech Jason Kendall on the Making of Her Custom Alvarez Baritone

“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.”

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