Bryan Sutton’s power- packed flatpicking, silky-smooth mechanics, and profound tone have earned him eight Guitar Player of the Year awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association—including the 2014 honors. Sutton’s blue chip pedigree dates back to a three-year tenure with Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder that began in 1995. That led to a progressively creative string of solo efforts that thread through to this year’s Into My Own [Sugar Hill], and an endless list of high-profile collaborations, including a recent resurgence of the band Hot Rize.
The quartet was founded in ’78 and reigned the newgrass scene at the time of its breakup in 1990. Hot Rize did scattered reunion gigs until original guitarist Charles Sawtelle passed in 1999. Sutton entered the fold in 2002, and has been the band’s guitarist when it reformulates to play gigs ever since. When Hot Rize gathered this year at electric bassist Nick Forster’s basement studio in Boulder, Colorado, it took under a week to knock out their first new studio record in nearly a quarter century.
When I’m Free [Thirty Tigers] showcases Tim O’Brien’s majestic mandolin and Pete Wernick’s banjo prowess. The instrumental barn-blazer “Sky Rider” provides the perfect platform for Sutton’s rapid-fire flatpicking. Sutton’s “I Am the Road” exemplifies his mastery of a dreadnought’s low-end capabilities. Hot Rize makes songs by Mark Knopfler and Los Lobos sound well suited in bluegrass apparel.
Sutton’s songwriting, vocals, and, of course, his dreadnought take center stage on Into My Own. Sutton’s fourth solo studio effort features notable contributions from mando maestros Sam Bush and Ronnie McCoury, as well as guitarist Bill Frisell, who lends his swinging electric to the jazzy Sutton composition, “Frisell’s Rag.”
Sutton was on the road with Hot Rize when GP caught up with him at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
What makes this the right time for a Hot Rize record?
We’ve seen a bluegrass renaissance during the past few years as it branches into the Americana and jamband scenes, affecting the crowds of acts such as String Cheese Incident, Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Mumford & Sons. Hot Rize influenced most of those musicians. It finally got to a point where the Hot Rize guys felt like we should help people remember what this music is about, why longtime fans are still listening to Hot Rize songs, and supply something to newer fans. It’s great that Phish does a cover version of “Nellie Kane,” but it’s also important that people hear Tim O’Brien sing it and know it’s his song.
How did you wind up getting the gig in the first place?
I’m not sure. I was just honored to get that call. I was a big Hot Rize fan as a kid. The band I was in played four or five Hot Rize tunes. I saw them at one of the very first bluegrass festivals I ever went to, and their show was amazing. It was a pretty easy step when I eventually got the call because I already knew all the songs.
Did you know Charles Sawtelle?
When I was first on the pro bluegrass scene with Ricky Skaggs, Charles was starting to get really sick. Sometimes I would see him at a festival, but he would be in and out. I never really got to be around him much.
Can you provide some insights on his guitar style?
Charles continues to be one of the most recognizable bluegrass guitar players. In his era, Tony Rice was wowing people with his facility, very muscular power, incredible note choices, and amazing rhythmic prowess. But Charles was a minimalist. Charles could make one note hugely dynamic. He would often lay back in the mix of the band, and then bring very powerful bass runs.
Bluegrass rhythm is defined by how you walk into specific chords. It dates back to the early string band tradition when there was no bass, so the guitar’s low end was the big rhythmic information leading the band into the next chord. Charles milked those extremely well-placed and incredible-sounding low notes for all they were worth.
Do you have insights on his instrument, and how his Hot Rize tone informs yours?
The D-28 herringbone Martin—a “prewar” one made between 1935 and 1945—is the bluegrass guitar, and Charles played a 1937 D-28. I’ve been able to use his guitar a lot over the past 12 years.
What’s it like?
The low notes on guitars made during that golden era of guitar building are really quick—not spongy. It makes sense that early bluegrass guitarists favored them. They were loud, and the low end punched through. It didn’t get lost in the mix of banjos and fiddles. There was often only one mic—sometimes no mic—and no monitors. So you needed a guitar that projected and had a certain definition in the low end. Those Martin D-28s do that, and Charles’ guitar is a standout for that particular sound.
How does its construction contribute to its standout tone?
It’s the quintessential approach: Brazilian rosewood back and sides with a red spruce top.
Is red spruce the same as Adirondack?
Yes. And it’s got Martin’s forward X bracing. The theory is that having the X a little closer to the soundhole allowed a little more of the top’s surface area to be active around the bridge plate, and yield more potential resonance for the whole thing. When Martin moved the X back later, it made the guitar sound a little tighter. The forward X is part of what signifies the ’30s era.
They used a wider neck too. Just having a bigger neck that’s not necessarily heavier seems to help create an acoustic mechanism. From the headstock to the lower bout, the whole thing moves a lot as you play— the guitar is really working for you. When you play the right bluegrass guitar it feels sort of like a race car. You have everything you need, but there’s always an extra gear of volume that you don’t have to use. Many bluegrassers think they’ve got to play hard all the time in order to be heard. When you have the right instrument in your hands— like Charles’ guitar—you don’t feel like you have to play hard.
How do strings and picks factor into that equation?
Like Charles and most bluegrass players, I use medium-gauge phosphor bronze strings. I’ve found D’Addario EJ17s to be real consistent over the years. I usually use a thick pick. 1.2mm to 1.5mm is my personal preference, and I go back and forth on brands. BlueChip and Wegen make prime picks. Most picks used in bluegrass are trying to replicate the sound of actual tortoise shell, which is strong and light.
Did you use Charles’ guitar on the new Hot Rize record?
I was playing a 1948 D-28 a lot at the time, and I used that for the majority of the record, but Charles’ guitar is on two cuts. One is an old cover called “A Cowboy’s Life,” and the other is gospel-influenced song I wrote called “I Am the Road.” I actually had Charles’ guitar in my hands when I came up with that little melody, and it just seemed like the music came out of the guitar. There’s no bass on either of those recordings. “I Am the Road” is just vocals, mandolin, and guitar. I really tried to milk a lot out of the low E string on that one.
It sounds especially deep. Did you detune for “I Am the Road?”
No. It’s based around an open-ish B power chord in standard, and I hope I don’t hit the open E strings until we get to the E chord [laughs]. I utilize the F#min11 option you can get out of that position as well.
Do you always stick to standard tuning?
I hardly ever do anything altered. Sometimes I’ll do something such as throwing the E strings down to D for effect, but I’m primarily a standard tuning guy.
How do you achieve the chiming open strings in the key of F on “Blue Is Fallin’?”
I use a McKinney-Elliot capo on the first fret, so I’m basically playing in E. It’s a bluesy song, so I do a lot of E power chords where there’s no thirds—just roots and fifths. I like that sound, especially with the first and second strings ringing.
You really fly on tunes such as Hot Rize’s “Sky Rider” or “Cricket on the Hearth” from your new CD. What adjustments do you make for the jump to hyperspace?
A lot of my recent discoveries are about learning to relax at faster tempos. My goal is to allow my mechanics to settle into some kind of repeated movement. I think about gears, and about an engine that actually works efficiently at faster tempos. If I can settle at a faster tempo and be aware of what that feels like—as opposed to pushing into that tempo and trying to force that to happen—I’m better off. It’s a tricky little mental trust game, but it works.
There’s always a struggle in bluegrass with volume as well. Playing faster doesn’t mean you have to play louder. It’s similar to a golfer who thinks he has to swing harder to make the ball go farther when it’s really about a relaxed, bigger technique. You have to ward off all natural human tendencies that go against fast, fluid flatpicking. I try to use bigger muscles and reduce tension by not forcing things. Tension comes from closing off or preventing bigger muscles from working, and trying to make smaller muscles do the work. Examples include gripping the pick too hard, tightening the wrist, and playing exclusively from the wrist. Take a look at the good metal shredders that are really powerful and smooth. You see very fluid guitar mechanics. It goes by so fast that you often don’t see much movement at all.
James Nash of the Waybacks noticed that about your flatpicking. He observed that your hand and fingers look similar to fingerstyle rest strokes, and wondered if you have any classical influence in the way you use a pick.
It’s based on the same principle as classical rest strokes with the fingertips basically up instead of down. The general hand position is real similar because I believe that there’s an advantage to having your wrist farther off the bridge. I don’t mean at some unnatural angle. But when the wrist is off the bridge, it’s freer to move naturally at the hinge of the wrist—up and down and in rotation. You get a lot of accuracy and power out of that rotation because you’re playing back into the strings. I actually apply more classical technique to the fretting hand and arm. I try to have all the fingers readily available, and think more about arm technique than finger technique.
A lot of bluegrassers have an unrefined way of approaching the neck—they grab it like a baseball bat. That prevents the pinky from being in a good position. If your fingers are out of position when you’re playing fast, then you’re going to be fighting tempo with your pick. That’s one of the big pitfalls I see in practicing bluegrass guitar players—their hands are out of sync. There’s a lot of tension in the picking hand, the fretting hand is out of position, and they’re sort of fighting themselves all the time.
You seem to use the weight of your hands and arm more effectively than most— gravity instead of muscles. How did you come to play that way?
I was put in the professional position of having to sort of put up or shut up. When I got with the Skaggs band I was coming out of a spell when I hadn’t been flatpicking a lot. I had to get it together pretty quickly, and I was also fighting some painful tendinitis. It led to me figure a better way. I got into deeper mechanical concepts about how to play bluegrass guitar more effectively and efficiently. It doesn’t always work, but I’ve become very aware. I feel and listen for any tension, get settled, and try to make sure both hands are working for me.