Fear & Freedom: Bill Frisell on the Panic and Pleasures of Playing Solo

Guitar genius Bill Frisell discusses why—after an 18-year-break—he decided to go solo again on 'Music Is.'
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There are only a handful of guitarists who can be said to have significantly changed the way subsequent players have approached the instrument: Charlie Christian, Jimi Hendrix, and Eddie Van Halen are among them.


And so is Bill Frisell.

Just as a generation of metal guitarists tapping away can be credited to Eddie, the current generation contains more than a few who play jazz-influenced versions of pop and country tunes on Telecasters, thanks to Bill. In the must-see movie, Bill Frisell: A Portrait, Nels Cline says, “He has had one of the loudest impacts on creative guitar.”

Over four decades—and on more than 100 recordings—this unique artist has brought his unmistakable sound to a wide variety of music, including jazz, country, pop, rock, and noise—sometimes all in the same band (check out John Zorn’s Naked City). He has also managed to fit his personal approach and distinctive musical vision into the equally defined art of such diverse employers as Allen Toussaint, Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Earl Klugh, Paul Simon, Salief Keita, Rickie Lee Jones, Loudon Wainwright III, Renee Fleming, Marianne Faithful, David Sylvian, and David Sanborn.

What brings artists at the top of their games to enlist his aid? In the same documentary, producer Hal Wilner gives some insight: “He just makes everything better, and takes it to a whole other level.”

Throughout a career of working with exceptional musicians, Frisell has released very few records featuring him alone. The first record under his own name, 1983’s In Line, started as a solo record, but eventually added bassist Arild Andersen to some of the tunes. In 1999, Ghost Town appeared, and a quickie, solo-free improv session for John Zorn’s Tzadik label, Silent Comedy, slipped in under the radar in 2013. Now, Music Is [OKeh/Sony] has arrived. It appears obvious that recording by himself is not a priority for this—okay, I’ll say it—guitar genius.

Why did you choose to do another fully realized solo record now—18 years after Ghost Town?

It has been this ongoing challenge. When I first tried to play solo it was—“traumatic” is too light a word. For me, the guitar and music has always been about playing with other people. But I’d hear piano players, like Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, or Art Tatum playing solo, and it felt like I had to figure out how to do it. The first solo gig I did was in Boston in the early ’80s, after I had been playing for many years. It was in this tiny place with probably only five people in the audience, and it was horrifying. I went through everything I knew, looked at my watch, and ten minutes had gone by. I still had another hour, and I didn’t have anything. I thought, “I’m never going to put myself through this again.” But, a year later, I did, and I gradually got more comfortable with it. It’s still different, but there was a point where it actually got cool. There’s a freedom in doing it that’s incredible. I can go anywhere I want to musically. By the Ghost Town record I was more comfortable. Silent Comedy was something else. I had wanted to do something with Zorn in the studio, and there was no preparation or thought—other than I was going to improvise for a little while.

You typically use looping systems when you play solo. Do you find they give you something to respond to, in the place of other musicians?

Yeah, but it’s so dangerous. The looping thing is like a safety net. It’s such a crutch for me. I’m trying to get braver about not going there. The most challenging thing for me is to not be afraid of space—to actually embrace it. There’s something to be said about letting the energy be in the silence. The ultimate thing would be to make a whole album with just an acoustic guitar and nothing else. I still haven’t gotten to that.

How did you approach Music Is?

The preparation was like anti-preparation. I had six nights to play at the Stone in New York, prior to going in the studio. Every night, I came to those gigs bringing piles of music I had either never played before, or not in a really long time. I tried to keep myself off balance for the whole week. I used the Stone to get myself in the frame of mind where I didn’t know what was going to happen. When I went in the studio, I kept that same thing going. We set up the studio so I could just grab any instrument and play whatever came to my mind. Everything about the sound and the structure of the individual pieces came from being in the moment.

Can we talk about some of the gear? What was the basic amp setup?

Live, I usually have one or maybe two amps, and everything is coming out of the same amp all the time. In the studio, however, we set up with two amps for the basic sound—a Gibson GA-18 T Explorer and a Carr Mercury for the loops. The loop amp was isolated, so when we mixed it, we could control the level.

What’s that striking loop in “Rambler”?

There was this weird sample-and holdtype loop from the Z.Vex Ringtone that was in the key of the song, so I played the song over the loop.

It sounds like there’s a bass at the end. Was it a bass guitar or an octave pedal?

I played a little bit of bass. That was a luxury I was afforded, because I brought a bunch of gear. So many of my albums are recorded with just one guitar.

It certainly helps vary the textures. For example, the guitars on “Go Happy Lucky” and “Monica Jane” have an acoustic tone. Were you using a hollowbody for those?

Yes. That’s an old ES-125 with one P-90 pickup. I love that guitar. They might have miked the body of the guitar as well as the amp.

It sounds like you used an actual acoustic for “Made to Shine” and “Pioneers.”

That was an incredible, early-’40s Gibson J-45.

What about the music box-like sound at the beginning of “Monica Jane?”

That actually is a couple of different music boxes being captured through the pickups of the guitar, and then routed into the Line 6 DL4 I used for looping. I can’t seem to shake that pedal. It’s just so easy for me to use. I also used a modulated tremolo setting on the Strymon Flint.

“Think About It” has a unique distorted sound. Do you remember how you got that?

It’s just the amp turned way up, and going into the strings of this upright piano that was owned by Richard Manuel from The Band. The amp was right up against the strings, and we held down the piano’s sustain pedal so that the overtones were ringing from inside the upright’s soundboard.


There’s some ring modulation on that, as well.

I’m pretty sure that’s the Ringtone—although I also used a Minifooger Ring Modulator in a couple of places. I used a Tube Screamer for overdrive and a Catalinbread Katzenkönig for more extreme distortion.

If you had to pick a desert-island amp and a guitar, what would they be?

I have a Gibson GA-18 T Explorer amp. It’s very low powered with one 10" speaker—like a Gibson version of a Fender Princeton. Whenever I’m home, that’s the amp. When I moved recently, I only had one guitar with me. It was this J.W. Black Telecaster. I realized it was all I really needed. Although, I might pick that J-45, or some big archtop.

Is there one pedal that is essential to your sound?

I love the Strymon Flint Tremolo & Reverb. I’ve done a couple of tours where I only brought that.

When you do get back to playing with other artists, is there anybody left with whom you really want to work?

I’ve been able to play with 90 percent of the people I would name. Maybe one song with Bob Dylan or Sonny Rollins, but so many of my dreams have come true beyond my wildest imagination.