Up-and-Coming Bluegrass Picker Molly Tuttle Talks Technique, Gear and Her Terrific Full-Length Debut

Molly Tuttle's debut album, 'When You're Ready,' proves that she is a true crossover artist with unbridled ability.
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Acclaimed bluegrass guitar virtuoso Molly Tuttle earned the Instrumentalist of the Year award at the 2018 Americana Music Awards on the strength of her 2017 debut release, Rise. The crowd-funded EP showed off her lightning-fast flatpicking technique, but for her new full-length release, When You’re Ready (Compass), Tuttle puts the focus on defining her unique musical voice.

“On Rise, I made sure there were flatpicking features,” Tuttle says. “But for When You’re Ready I was more concerned with creating interesting guitar parts for songs that make my own stylistic statement.”

When GP included Tuttle in its September 2017 “Youthquake” issue spotlighting fresh talents, she had just released Rise and was on her way to winning several prestigious awards. In addition to the 2018 Americana Music Awards honor, she became the first woman in history to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year award and has now taken the trophy home twice, in 2017 and 2018. Tuttle is a true triple threat, whose perfect pipes and stellar songcraft also earned her Folk Alliance International’s Song of the Year honor in 2018 for the Rise track “You Didn’t Call My Name.” 

As it happens, Tuttle has been groomed for musical greatness throughout her 25 years. Her father, Jack Tuttle, is a stringed-instrument teacher at one of the West Coast’s premiere acoustic purveyors, Gryphon Stringed Instruments, in Palo Alto, California. Molly learned guitar, banjo and violin, and performed with the family band at bluegrass festivals. After studying in the American Roots Music Program at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, she headed for Nashville in 2015 and quickly became the talk of the town.

Whereas Rise established her as a bluegrass force to be reckoned with, When You’re Ready proves that Tuttle is a true crossover artist with unbridled ability. Produced by Ryan Hewitt (Avett Brothers, Lumineers), the album kicks off with a simple descending guitar motif that heralds “A Million Miles,” a song that collaborator Steve Poltz started in the ’90s when he was working with Jewel (he co-wrote her smash hit “You Were Meant for Me”). Tuttle finished the tune and brought in Sierra Hull on mandolin and Jason Isbell for backing vocals. The powerful single “Take the Journey” showcases Tuttle’s amazing adaptation of banjo-style clawhammer technique on the acoustic guitar, while “Messed with My Mind” is a dreamy standout that demonstrates her knack for kicking back in a deeply swinging pocket. Tuttle sat down with Guitar Player for an insightful discussion of her approach to technique, gear and tone.

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Your guitar tones sound better than ever on the new album. Have you gotten some new gear over the past couple of years?

Yes, I have a new main guitar on the new album that’s made by Pre-War Guitars Co., and I used it on every track except “Sleepwalking.” I recorded that song with a Martin 000 on loan from the generous folks at Carter Vintage Guitars, which was pretty close to the studio where we recorded in Nashville. We wanted the tone to be super rich on that one, and while the Pre-War has an old-sounding tone, it’s a dreadnought with mahogany back and sides and a red spruce top, and using that vintage Martin triple 0 with rosewood back and sides delivered a fuller midrange that worked really well for “Sleepwalking.”

The Pre-War was the real workhorse though. Pre-War is a new company that’s exploding in popularity because they studied Martin guitars from the ’30s very closely and make their guitars totally to those specs. The first thing I noticed is that it feels a lot lighter than most new guitars, and it sounds a lot less bright and more rich. It has a “cooked” top, meaning that the wood is thermo-cured, and I think that contributes to the tonal quality. I use D’Addario EXP Phosphor Bronze Medium strings on it.

How did you approach the acoustic in order to generate the kind of personal musical statement you wanted to make?

I came up with riffs and fill licks, and I take a few solos, but I tried to keep in the mood of each song and not overdo it. I’ve worked really hard at guitar and I love playing it, but I also love singing songs, and for me that’s all about the lyrics and a story.

What’s the story behind the single, “Take the Journey”?

I wrote it in Nashville with my friend Sarah Siskind. We wanted to write a rootsy, almost bluegrass-style song, and we thought it would be fun to have a modal sound. From there my mind went straight to playing clawhammer guitar, because I love using that style with a modal sound. I went into an open G tuning that I use for that kind of stuff . From the sixth string to the first it goes D G D G C D. Then I went home to shed on the guitar part and treated it kind of like a fiddle tune, playing in between the verses. I tuned everything a half step down to lower the action a bit and make it more floppy sounding, and then I put a Schubb Fine Tune capo on at the first fret. I like that model because you can control how much it squeezes on the strings. Most capos squeeze too hard, which makes the guitar go out of tune.

It sounds like a percussion player is tapping right along with the guitar part. Are you simply transferring banjo-style clawhammer technique to the acoustic?

Yes, and that’s the sound of my hand hitting the guitar. It’s called clawhammer because you start by forming your hand and fingers into a claw shape; you strike down with your index or middle fingernail. I mostly use my index fingernail for that melody. Sometimes I’m just strumming using multiple fingers for the downstroke, and then when the hand comes back upwards you can strike up with your thumb to pluck a bass note on one of the lower strings. Sometimes I’ll do a “drop thumb,” where you drop your thumb down and play the lower-pitched strings with the thumb in order to play more intricate melodies with quicker notes instead of only doing downstrokes with your fingers. I wind up getting percussive sounds when the knuckles on my fingers and the underside of my thumb hit the guitar.

Did you develop the technique on banjo and then adapt it to the guitar?

Yes. Guitar was my first instrument. I started when I was eight. I wanted to learn banjo when I was 10, and I started out learning the three-finger style, but then I discovered old-time music and I wanted to learn clawhammer. Tom Culbertson at Gryphon taught me to play clawhammer on banjo, and eventually, when I was around 16, a player named Michael Stadler taught a clawhammer guitar class at California Coast Music Camp using the tune “Little Sadie.”

You’re mostly a dedicated pick player. It’s interesting that you keep a closed hand and pretty much stick to the pick rather than using hybrid picking, with pick and fingers.

For some reason I’ve never been attracted to the hybrid-picking style. I do a little bit of full-on fingerpicking, which probably comes from playing three-finger banjo. I do some of that on “The High Road,” where I simply play the chord shapes and alternate the bass notes. But I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of trying to fill out the chords with just a pick. I do a lot of cross picking [picking individual notes across strings to simulate fingerpicking or a banjo-style roll], and I took a lot of that from David Grier’s playing. On some of his songs, you’d swear he was fingerpicking because you can hear all the different chord tones around the melody. But he’s somehow doing all of that with a pick.

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For me, it’s all about accuracy, and being able to jump down to a low string to hit a chord tone and then go back to the melody. I’ve practiced cross picking a lot, and I’ve worked on accuracy the most. It’s about making each note sound as clear as possible, so you’re not just skimming over certain notes — you’re really articulating. “A Million Miles” is a good example from the new record.

What pick do you prefer?

I use a Dunlop JazzTone 207. It’s really thick and shaped like a teardrop. I don’t see many others using it, but I find its thickness helps me get a rounder tone, and since it’s rather small, it helps me with accuracy and speed. The tip is slightly rounded, and I like to use the same one for a while so that it’s worn down a bit.

Can you detail how you approached the rhythmic feel as well as the solo on “Messed With My Mind”?

I worked a lot on the swinging feel of that rhythm, pushing the eighth notes a bit behind the beat. I cleared the part out quite a bit to give it the proper vibe to match the lyrics, and I tried to keep the solo sparse and spacious as well. I’m a big Dave Rawlings fan, and his playing influenced my playing on “Messed With My Mind.”

The title track is a ballad with an acoustic guitar intro that sounds almost like a banjo. Did you do that on purpose?

Others have mentioned that as well, but I wasn’t thinking about that at all. It’s probably just because I play bluegrass banjo and sometimes the licks and patterns filter into my guitar playing. I play “When You’re Ready” in standard tuning out of a C position, with a capo at the third fret.

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What’s your current stage guitar setup?

After I made the record, I got a Preston Thompson dreadnought with Brazilian rosewood back and sides that I’ve been taking on the road a lot, so I’ll alternate between playing the Pre-War and the Thompson onstage. I’m playing with a full band, with loud drums and electric guitar, so I can’t just use a mic pointed at my acoustic anymore. I’m using a K&K pickup right out of the guitar into an Audio Sprockets ToneDexter preamp. I like anything that gets me closer to a mic sound, and the ToneDexter is cool because it can map any mic sound. You plug a mic into it and play, and then it makes a WaveMap of the tone in order to make your pickup sound like that mic. You can save up to 22 of them, and I have a friend who works at Sennheiser, so we tried out a bunch of mics and saved 13 of them into the ToneDexter. When I arrive at the venue, it’s fun to audition different ones until I figure out which mic sounds best in that room.

Have you any insights on giving a great guitar performance?

Guitar is such a technical instrument if you’re flatpicking, and if you get too caught up in your head about it, the groove suffers. It’s hard to get into a deep groove on guitar the way a good fiddle player can. There’s something about fiddle playing that carries the groove with it. So that’s what I like to think about when I’m performing. I focus on getting the feel and meshing with the other instruments. I try to clear my head and let everything go.

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