Bluegrass Trailblazer Billy Strings on How He Brings Psychedelic Stylings to the Genre on His New Album

The 27-year-old guitarist blazes a singular path by expanding on impeccable traditional sensibilities with a psychedelic flair.
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“I love bluegrass the most,” Billy Strings says, “but I want to jam and play a bit of everything I like, from folk to funk.”

On September 28, the day after Rounder Records released his sophomore album, Home, Strings was named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player and New Artist of the Year. The 27-year-old guitarist blazes a singular path by expanding on impeccable traditional sensibilities with a psychedelic flair. 

He was born William Apostol in Michigan and grew up a self-confessed “grasshole,” obsessed with legend Doc Watson and modern icon Bryan Sutton. Strings’ guitar-playing father was the first to hook him on bluegrass, but his dad also exposed him to rock music.

“I’ll never forget the time when I was seven and my dad made me listen to the first Black Sabbath album,” Strings says. “It scared the shit out of me. But it was awesome, and I became big on Black Sabbath by age 12. It wasn’t until about eight years ago that I got pulled into jam music that really stretches out.”

Strings brings it all to the table on both Home and with his massively popular band. Frets witnessed the first of a pair of sold-out shows on September 20 at the Independent in San Francisco, where Strings let the music flow in all sorts of interesting directions. 

He’s one of the few acoustic players to incorporate a considerable pedalboard, facilitating tonal trips from pure earthy bluegrass tone to the dark side of the moon.

After practically owning the IBMA Guitar Player of the Year award since the millennium, Bryan Sutton advised us in his 2017 Frets feature to watch out for Molly Tuttle and for you, and you (and Tuttle) have now won the past three awards. Can you share a thought on Sutton?

What an honor it is, and that’s crazy how Bryan saw the future. He’s been a strong supporter and a good friend. Bryan is my favorite player, for sure. He can play very interesting stuff really clean, loud and clear. He never plays too much or too hard; it’s always just the perfect amount of pressure to make each note in a sequence pop out. 

He always sounds so relaxed, even when the band gets loud and fast. On the acoustic guitar, it’s easy to make the mistake of hitting the strings harder for more volume, especially with the banjos and fiddles ringing out on faster songs. I’m always tempted, but Bryan has a zen thing that makes him the best. He’s like a samurai master.

Onstage at AmericanaFest 2019 in Nashville, September 11, 2019.

Onstage at AmericanaFest 2019 in Nashville, September 11, 2019.

It was awesome to witness your live act and watch you push bluegrass’s boundaries toward psychedelic rock, which sounds very different coming from a true-schooled bluegrasser rather than the other way around.

I had an old friend come do cool liquid light–style visuals in San Francisco, which helped take the shows in a more psychedelic direction, but I come from the bluegrass tradition of focusing on the melody-playing songs, like “Black Mountain Rag” and “Salt Creek.”

Listening to Jerry Garcia inspired me to explore the freedom in music. The guys in the band Greensky Bluegrass have as well. We’re old friends from growing up in Michigan together. When we first hung out, I was still a grasshole, but now I’m the opposite. On any given night, my band will mix in covers by anyone from Johnny Winter to the Beatles to Cher.

How do you amplify your acoustic onstage?

I have three channels for the guitar in the live mix. I have an Audio-Technica 350 lavalier mic taped on the lip of the soundhole that sends a pure signal to my in-ear monitors. I also have a K&K pickup in the bridge that feeds into a Grace Design BiX D.I. 

One line from there is the second signal, which is pure pickup tone, and the third channel is the pickup signal from the D.I. into a Boss ES-8 effects switcher. One output on that goes to a volume pedal, a Chase Bliss Brothers overdrive/gain stage, an EQ and then to a Fender Deluxe Reverb. 

That winds up being a layer underneath my clean acoustic guitar signal. I use the volume pedal to activate the amp signal, and my sound man has that on a separate channel. So the clean acoustic sound is always there, and we blend in the overdriven signal.

Do you have a special way of dialing in the overdrive to account for the harshness of using a piezo rather than a magnetic pickup?

I try my best to dial out the problematic frequencies with an Empress ParaEq, but the truth is that the distortion still sounds like shit. I’m not done messing around with the whole acoustic distortion thing because I haven’t got it where I want it. I’m going to be checking out the new Fender Smolder acoustic overdrive pedal. It’s specifically designed for acoustic overdrive. 

Fender called me, saying, “We know you do that.” Right now, when I have the overdrive engaged, the guitar will simply feed back if I take my hands off. I’ve gotten used to dealing with it, but I’m very interested in that acoustic overdrive.

How about the way you incorporate echo. Are you a tap-tempo cat?

I use a Source Audio Nemesis Delay, mostly the sweeper effect, which is like a traditional delay with some kind of modern modification. I do like to use the tap-tempo function, but it isn’t actually working right now, so I’ve just been estimating the tempo and letting the band come to me. 

Normally I’ll hit the tap tempo on every other beat. I’ve found that often ends up being interesting because instead of every note being delayed, it’s every other note, which leads to cool timing effects when the decay trails start to overlap and interact. You can end up playing some cool rhythmic stuff because of that.

Strings performs during the ACL Music Festival in Austin, October 6, 2019.

Strings performs during the ACL Music Festival in Austin, October 6, 2019.

What are your other primary effects, and how do you use them?

I’ve got an Eventide H9. I’ve mostly been using the Liquid Sweetener effect, which is kind of like a chorus. Shimmer Shimmer is another cool preset. I use a Barn3 OX9 to scroll through options. I have only begun to scratch the surface of that pedal’s capabilities.

Do you use the Eventide to get the watery effect on the intro of “Away From the Mire”?

No. That’s a Chase Bliss Wombtone phaser, which is one of my go-to pedals when we’re jamming. I have it hooked up to an expression pedal, which I have set to control the rate. When I increase its speed, the sound goes from wow-wow-wow-wow-wow to wow-wow-wow-wow-whoaow!

What’s the make and model of your main stage guitar?

It’s a Preston Thompson dreadnought with an Adirondack spruce top and shipwreck Brazilian rosewood back and sides. I have another Thompson dreadnought made with mahogany and a third coming with Madagascar rosewood. They’re also coming out with a signature model based on my main axe, but instead of Brazilian rosewood back and sides it will have East Indian rosewood. 

It’s like a modern version of a Martin herringbone D-28. Preston Thompson is in it for the right reasons. He’s in love with wood and how it can make sound.

What guitars did you bring to the sessions for Home?

I bring all my guitars to the studio and use whatever they have on hand as well, if it’s right for a particular song. On Home, I mostly used a 1948 Martin D-28 that I bought from Bryan Sutton.

It sounds as if you recorded the band together live. Is that right, or did you use a click track?

No. Hell no! We don’t play to a click, but I will ask to hear the tempo we’re aiming at via a click in my headphones for reference before we actually start recording. Then we’ll turn it off and start playing. We were all in different booths, so if one of us messed up we could still fix that track. 

I had my pedalboard, and we had the signal split to an amp blaring away in the basement. I’ve got K&K pickups in all of my guitars, so it’s the same situation as a live gig.

How did you achieve the creamy distortion tone on the “Home” solo?

That’s the one track I played on electric, and there’s a good story behind it. My grandfather built a wild electric guitar when he was in prison back in the ’60s. It’s like a SG had sex with a Jaguar, and then the Jaguar got too drunk and crawled in bed with a Stratocaster! 

The tone has almost like a Charlie Christian vibe, because Steve Mather custom-wound the pickups really hot. Dave Johnson does scale-model guitars in Nashville. He completely restored this guitar, and now it kicks ass. I wanted to give it a cameo, and it wound up being the guitar solo on “Home.”

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How did you write such an epic song?

My friend Lindsay Lou in Nashville does these crazy songwriting exercises where we’ll set a goal of writing a bunch of songs in a single day. We’ll get together in the evening and show each other what we’ve got. “Home” came from one of those days when I tried to write 10 other songs. I got one good one out of it.

There are a slew of fast flat-picking rippers on the album like “Running,” “Taking Water,” “Hollow Heart” and “Everything’s the Same.” Do you have a basic M.O. for that kind of material?

It’s mostly flatpicking in standard tuning with a capo placed on one of the first three frets. One of the main things with that kind of style is utilizing open strings. Take the key of Bb, for example: Instead of playing out of a closed position with the root on the first fret of the fifth string, put the capo on the third fret. 

Now your root is on the sixth string when you play from an open G chord position, and you have a lot of open strings available to play all the cool bluegrass licks you know. You can’t really play those same licks in a closed position. Even if you play the same notes, it doesn’t sound as good because the guitar is not ringing out the same way. And that even applies to songs in common open-chord keys, such as A and D. 

There are some licks available, but not as many as there could be with the root notes on lower strings. A song in the key of A sounds better playing from an open G chord position with a capo at the second fret, and so will a song in the key of D because you can play it out of open C position. I prefer an Elliott capo because it stays right above the nut when you’re not using it.

What’s your pick of choice?

I use a BlueChip TD55, or sometimes a TD50, because it won’t wear down quickly. It’s also the closest thing I’ve found to an actual tortoiseshell pick.

The penultimate Home track, “Guitar Peace,” stands out for being a guitar instrumental with an Eastern raga vibe. What’s the backstory?

My girlfriend and I watched a documentary about George Harrison in which Ravi Shankar talked about making music with no real chord changes or anything specific written down, just letting the music move through spiritually. 

That’s what I wanted to do - something out of the ordinary. So I smoked a bunch of weed, put a rosewood Martin triple 0 from the ’40s that they had at the studio into some open tuning - maybe DADGAD - and said, “Okay, let’s turn on the mics!”

What’s on the horizon?

The road. I’m road doggin’ in the van with the band playing shows all the time. We’ve got a lot of folks coming out. We’re having a blast and trying to keep it between the lines.

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