It may seem a given that an outstanding guitarist would try to achieve fame and fortune. But despite prodigious chops, a gorgeous sound, and excellent compositional skills, Tim Miller has eschewed such a path for a life largely dedicated to teaching and family. A professor of guitar at Berklee College of Music and the creator of internetguitarlessons.tv, Miller has also authored a book with performer/educator Mick Goodrick, Creative Chordal Harmony for Guitar [Berklee Press/Hal Leonard].
Even with his full teaching schedule, however, Miller has found time to perform and/or record with Dweezil Zappa, Paul Motian, Randy Brecker, Mike Stern, Ben Monder, Gary Burton, George Duke, Gary Husband, and others. Though he remains under the guitar-hero radar, his latest recording, the self-released Trio Vol 3, may help change that. It is replete with the kind of lush chords, breathy, fat-toned legato soloing, and lightning runs that might sound familiar to Allan Holdsworth fans. This is not surprising, as Holdsworth and Miller’s relationship was as much friends as musical peers and creative foils.
What do you see as some of the similarities and differences between your style and Holdsworth’s?
I admire his playing so much. He was a huge influence on my style, and I’m happy to embrace that. We became friends, and we’d talk a lot on the phone and trade gear. But what separates me from his style is the diversity of my influences, which include Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Mick Goodrick, Eric Johnson, Van Halen, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Frank Gambale, Mike Stern, and many more. I put it all together with my own ideas, which took me to a different place.
You’ve been playing guitars made by Rick Canton that are based on Klein designs.
I’m a very tall person, and the slightly angled Klein neck helped me sit up straighter when I’m playing, and it also straightens my wrist so I can get in more hours of playing. When I wanted to blend electric and acoustic sounds as part of my tone, I asked Rick to hollow out one of his instruments and put a microphone in the soundhole. I also wanted a MIDI guitar system onboard, and I use the Fishman TriplePlay wireless MIDI controller. Recently, I have been using a Kiesel Zeus as my main guitar.
How did you get such a big electric sound on Trio, Vol. 3 with little or no distortion?
It’s a blend of a bridge-humbucker sound processed in stereo, and a Neumann U87 or sE Electronics microphone positioned next to the guitar body. Because a loud amp will bleed into the mic, I process the electric-guitar sound with amp models from a Fractal Audio Axe-Fx II or AX8, along with speaker impulse-response plug-ins. For the miked signal, I use the Fractal or plugins for processing. So the two signals are treated separately, but then I mix them together. This achieves a full-range sound, giving me overtones and upper harmonics that a straight electric-guitar tone can’t achieve.
You also go to great lengths to craft the acoustic element of your sound when performing live.
Yes. I’ve tried piezo pickups and all kinds of IRs, but I still couldn’t get my acoustic tone to sound like it does in the studio. So I did a multi-sample recording of my guitar, and I trigger the acoustic samples via MIDI. I blend the samples with the electric sound, but only for a small part of the high-frequencies. All of the dynamics still come from the electric. This approach doesn’t have the attack of an acoustic piezo pickup, and, in fact, it’s not the best acoustic sound, but it does add air to the overall tone.
It’s interesting that you consider your pick as an essential component of your tone.
The pick is important, because it’s the start of the sound. The angle and the attack controls the EQ. I’ve worked on a technique where the more I angle the pick, the more bass I can get out of the note, so I can control the low-end frequencies in my tone with my touch. Also, when I play a low-volume gig or session, I’ll use a Fender Heavy for more bass and more volume. But the louder I get, the lighter I go with picks, because a lighter pick attenuates the low end.
Why did you adopt hybrid picking?
It began as a departure from other people’s styles. I found I couldn’t do what they were doing, so I found a way of picking that would work for me. I was also hearing things in my head that I couldn’t do with alternate picking, sweep picking, or any of those techniques, so I started using my fingers, and I came up with this system of arpeggios.
Do you have any tips about how to keep scales and arpeggios used in solos from sounding like exercises?
Deliver the phrase as if you were singing it vocally. I always try to make music—even if I’m practicing something technical.
What amps do you use live?
I have two rigs, depending on my mood. If I use the Fractal AX8 for its amp sounds, I’ll send some outputs to the front of the house, and the other outputs to full-range QSC K10 powered speakers. Blending the acoustic and electric sounds doesn’t work with a conventional guitar amp. My other rig is either a Paul Reed Smith Sweet 16 or a Quilter Overdrive 200, and I use the Fractal solely as an effects pedalboard, along with a Maxon SD-9 for overdrive.
How has your music changed between your last record and this one?
I started a family and had three kids—which changed my life completely. I’m more focused when I practice, because I have less time. As a result, my music has become clearer, and my technique has gotten a little better.
You’re on par with any player who is making a career as a guitarist, yet you decided to concentrate on teaching.
I love to teach, but I can also see myself doing a lot more playing and touring soon. I don’t think about it too much, though. I just think about the music.