Playing guitar with Bruce Springsteen during a tribute to The Boss and premiering a classical-guitar piece at a prestigious concert hall in Manhattan might sound like career highlights for two very different guitarists. But Bryce Dessner gave both performances within 48 hours. A bit of an overachiever, Dessner performs regularly as a solo-classical guitarist, plays rock guitar in the National, gigs with the Sap Dream Electric Guitar Quartet, and soars into the unknown with improvisational new-music quartet, the Clogs. And if that didn’t keep him busy enough, Dessner often sits in with the Michael Gordon Band, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and the Philip Glass ensemble.
“The hardest thing is managing my time effectively to record and tour with all these groups,” understates Dessner about juggling so many projects. “But, musically, I learn so much from playing different kinds of music, and from migrating between such different artistic scenes. It may seem like I’m schizophrenic, but it’s actually very natural for me to exist in all these bands simultaneously. What’s really hard is when I get too busy with one thing, and I don’t feel like I’m getting enough musical stimulation.”
Dessner credits his jazz-drummer father with triggering his love of eclectic and diverse musical styles. Early rock influences included the Beatles, the Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young, while Ralph Towner and Leo Kottke inspired him to play classical guitar. Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, Lee Ranaldo, and Mark Stewart triggered his interest in experimentation. Dessner ultimately pursued a master’s degree at Yale, where he studied with former GP columnist Benjamin Verdery—who remains a mentor and close friend—and won the Eliot Fisk Prize in performance.
“In general, there is currently a lot of very interesting and adventurous music out there all across the spectrum,” says Dessner. “I constantly hear these really inventive bands that place no limits on the types of sounds they can create—and that’s a very open musical space to inhabit. For example, [New York experimental
guitarist] Alan Licht uses the handle of a screwdriver to create endless, single-note tremolo. You place the guitar on your lap, lay the handle across the desired string while muting the other strings, and rotate the screwdriver. The ridges in the handle make a sound akin to bees buzzing.”
For classical gigs, Dessner plays either a ’91 Greg Smallman or a ’96 Jeremy Locke, using a B-Band pickup when amplification is required. With the National, he uses a ’71 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe (“The mini humbuckers on that guitar provide the perfect tone for switching between fingerstyle and lead playing”), a Fender Twin Reverb, a Pro Co Rat, a Klon Centaur, a DigiTech Whammy, a Boss DD-5 Digital Delay, a Boss FV-50H Volume Pedal, and a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler.
Blending—and bending—classical, rock, and avant-garde styles to inform unique musical directions is something that also seems to come naturally to Dessner.
“It’s not so strange or difficult, and the examples are everywhere,” he says. “John Cale was a real innovator in rock music when he was in the Velvet Underground, and he was also a fixture in the New York experimental scene. Terry Riley influenced minimalist exploration in electronica. Concert composer Paul Lansky was heavily sampled by Radiohead on Kid A. The Clogs trace their origins back to things such as the humor-esques of Erik Satie and Brian Eno’s ambient explorations. It’s actually very easy to abduct chords and ideas from a lot of different places.”
Originally published May 2006