Bill Frisell Interview: Rock Guitar, Jazz Atmosphere


Bill Frisell’s guitar playing often imitates the way he speaks: carefully, sometimes hesitantly. It’s as if he’s choosing his notes very carefully, just as he seems to be taking the time to carefully choose his words when he discusses his guitar playing, his lengthy career, and his inventive and innovative way of approaching music.

Frisell is usually referred to as a jazz guitarist. While he probably wouldn’t argue that, the Grammy-winning musician grew up listening to and emulating early rock and roll. And it’s been a theme throughout much of his music since his early ‘80s recording debut.

Certainly his training at Boston’s famed Berklee College of Music helped propel him along the path toward jazz -- he’d taken a liking to the music of Miles Davis before he attended the school --  but it seems he can’t help but keep touching on the rock, blues, and R&B that got him playing guitar in the first place. He has covered, over the years, Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and more -- even going so far as to release an entire album dedicated to the music of John Lennon with his 2011 entry, All We Are Saying.

With his latest album, Guitar in the Space Age, Frisell takes another look back at not only the music of his youth, but at the broader era of the 1960s in general. On ...Space Age Frisell and his band -- guitar and pedal steel player Greg Leisz, bassist Tony Scherr, and drummer Kenny Wollenson -- cover the Beach Boys, The Byrds, Duane Eddy, The Kinks, and a couple of classic surf tunes. He even delves into the music of Jimmy Bryant, Speedy West, and Merle Travis.

And remember, this is jazz we’re talking about.

Frisell is on tour in Europe through mid-November, then returns for a gig at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City November 21. In January he rambles out again, playing a couple of gigs in “Jazz at Lincoln Center” in New York City, then making a stop at his old high school, East High in Denver, January 21. He spends most of the rest of the winter touring the U.S.

In this exclusive interview, Frisell talked much about his early influences and how they’ve followed him, intrigued him, and come back to inspire him in 2014, 50 years down the line. He discusses the tools in use to create his atmospheric tones, describes his unique Bigsby-equipped guitar, and gives sage advice on where musicians should really focus their energies. Hi Bill. Where am I calling you today?

Frisell: I'm in Seattle. I'm walking around as I'm talking, and when I left home, at like 8 in the morning, there was this incredible fog. You couldn't see anything. And now it's just crystal clear, not a cloud in the sky! It's really nice. Kind of weird weather, everywhere, actually, but good. I've never spent a lot of time in Seattle, but isn't morning fog and then sunshine common for Seattle, like it is in Southern California?

Frisell: What's weird now, is it's probably gonna get up to like 80 today. Normally it would be way cooler and it doesn't really rain as much as they say it does. Do you live in Seattle?

Frisell: Yeah. OK. How long have you been up there?

Frisell: Quite awhile, since '89, when I moved here from New York. It is weird, because I realize I've been here longer than I've been anywhere in my life. So I guess this is where I'm from now. I grew up in Denver. And then I was on the East Coast for quite awhile, before I came out here. My wife went to the University of Denver.

Frisell: Oh wow. So we go out there once in awhile. Beautiful place.

Frisell: Yeah, I kind of miss it actually. I get to go there fairly often now. Yeah. So I'm diggin' this album, Guitar in the Space Age. Very cool stuff.

Frisell: Thank you. I know that you grew up in the rock era, and you routinely pull from rock. So how did you come to decide on the songs that you put on this album?

Frisell: Well, I'm 63 years old now, right, born in 1951. And I grew up in Denver, in a sort of -- I don't know, whatever you call that -- a super-normal, I guess, sort of "Leave It To Beaver," "Father Knows Best," world. Not quite.

But during that time, that music that was coming up at me was so powerful. I really sort of grew up as rock and roll was being born, really, and as Fender guitars were being born. The atmosphere, at that time, there was this kind of optimism in the air, with, "Oh we're gonna go to outer space," and "everything's gonna be so great!" Like "The Jetsons."

Frisell: Yeah! I remember seeing this film -- I wish I could find it. I think I was in like fourth grade... I would just love to find this film. I think it was probably in fourth grade, and they brought the whole school to the auditorium to watch a film on what the future was gonna be like. It was this animated, cartoon thing. And it was like everybody's gonna be flying around in these little rocket ships, and there's gonna be no doors or windows on houses, and no one is gonna be hungry. Everything is gonna be great! Utopia.

Frisell: Yeah. And it was awesome. So there was that kind of thing in the air. But at the same time there was the Cuban missile crisis, and we were wondering if the world's gonna blow up at any minute. I actually had to do all that duck and cover stuff, the air-raid thing. I remember -- I don't know how old I was -- but I remember not being able to sleep at night, because I was so afraid that the end of the world was gonna happen.

So there was this sort of double, incredible optimism, and then there was this really dark thing at the same time. And in the midst of that was the music. For as long as I can remember, the guitar and music itself is the thing that has gotten me through everything. Whatever it is I'm thinking about, or worrying about, or feeling good about -- anything -- the music has just been there. It's sort of like a model for the way things could actually work somehow.

The music itself, just being immersed in the melody and the harmony and the rhythm of it, is so extraordinary, but then I think also all the people I've known... As soon as I started to play, it caused this circle of people to be there where everything was cool somehow.

Now I totally forgot what the question was! But anyway, that's the framework... But now I'm looking back. I just wanted to go back and look more closely at the music that got me going in the first place.

And the other thing I thought about was how quickly I moved through all that stuff, at the time. From 1962, when I first started to touch a guitar, until '68: going from surf music to Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins and all that, in just these very few years. And thinking, "Wait a minute: There's no way I could have really absorbed all that stuff." Even though I was younger and I probably could learn faster than I do now.

But I felt like I should really -- I wanted to just check things out again and sort of firm up the foundation. And then by doing this I found that, "Wow! There's all kinds of stuff in that music that I never even..." you know? I'm looking through a lens of 50 years of playing now, so it's kind of a far out way to look at the music again. I go through some of the same things when I look back on music, because I'm a better player after decades of playing, than I was when that music inspired me as a teenager.

Frisell: Yeah, yeah. It's incredible. I think that's a normal thing, to go back. It's an amazing feeling to check things out again. The layers just keep peeling away. In particular, I know the Beach Boys were a big early influence on you.

Frisell: Yeah. That's one of the most personal... The fact that we did the "Surfer Girl" song, that was the first record that I actually bought. I had other records around, like that my brother or my parents had. But when I actually went to the store with my own money, and bought my own record, it was a single that had "Little Deuce Coupe" on one side and "Surfer Girl" on the other side. So that one has a real strong personal connection for me. I've read that Brian Wilson, when he used to assign all the vocal harmonies to everybody, that he had the capacity to have all of the vocal harmonies in his head, and sing them to each person... That's just amazing.

Frisell: Yeah. That guy! Boy, it blows my mind. The more I find out about him, he's definitely a genius if there is such a thing. Yeah. When you go back and listen to those recordings, maybe not necessarily the early Beach Boys, where it's more like Chuck Berry, but when you get into the "California Girls" era, and the stuff he was doing was just so deep. And the older and more experienced you get as a musician, the more you hear the sophistication. It's pretty cool.

Frisell: Yeah, and how it was so -- people could connect to it. It was popular music. But then if you actually analyzed it, it was like, "Woah! This is like some crazy stuff going on in there with, like, key changes and just really advanced stuff." So with your approach to guitar, a lot of what goes into your playing is the tone and the emotion that's coming through the guitar. How did you get to where you're at, to go from an early rock guy -- and I know you went to Berklee and you studied jazz, and through all these years of recording. But your tone, and the way you approach your tone, how did that all come about?

Frisell: Well, that's a hard one. Because it's like every day you take these tiny little steps, tiny little increments. That's what's weird with music: Today, after I've been playing for like 50 years or more, it still feels like, every time I pick up the guitar it's like "Oh my God, what am I gonna do?"

You still have as much out in front of you that you can't reach. It's always infinite what's out in front of you. Yep, that's for sure.

Frisell: And it always feels like that, no matter how well I'm playing, or how far I go, I'm never quite there. I'm always trying to get to something that's a little bit beyond my grasp. So somehow, whatever the sound is, I think it's just coming from the struggle to try to reach that. It's not like suddenly there's just this sound there. It's more like day in, day out, and then one day someone notices that I sound like something, and they bring it to my attention.

I'm not even aware of it, because inside of me it still feels like, "Oh man, how am I gonna...." Just trying to get it out somehow. It's such a slow, slow... You just take tiny steps. And I've been real persistent, I guess. I just keep at it. What kind of gear did you use on this album? Do you change gear a lot?

Frisell: On this album, I ended up using just one guitar for the whole thing. It's basically a Telecaster, but it was put together by this guy J.W. Black, who 's in Eugene, Oregon. He used to work for the Fender Custom Shop, and he's just this incredible... I know J.W. I used to run Fender Frontline magazine and I used to spend a lot of time in the Fender Custom Shop. I think it was him who tricked out a Strat for me.

Frisell: Oh wow! Cool. Yeah, he was at the Custom Shop, and then left there. And now he's just working on his own at home. I met him, I guess it was in the '80s, or early '90s, in New York. He was working for Roger Sadowsky. That's where I first met him. And then years and years went by, and we weren't in touch. And then since I'm in Seattle, and he's in Oregon, somehow we re-connected. It's been amazing having him -- I have a few guitars that he's put together -- and his knowledge of Fender stuff is just awesome. I'm kind of spoiled having him that close by.

But for this record, I thought -- when I travel I can only take one guitar. I don't have roadies and all that stuff. I just carry one guitar, and usually it's some kind of a Telecaster. But somehow for this record that one guitar did everything I wanted it to do. Do you have special pickups in it, or electronics?

Frisell: Yeah. The pickups are from this guy -- and it's confusing because there's two guys with similar names -- but it's Callahan Pickups. I think he's in Eureka, California, or something like that. He's a guy that J has been working with, and that's what's in this guitar. I'm super happy with those. And then do you have any other electronics in the guitar -- active pickups or anything?

Frisell: No. I guess the most unusual part of it, it has a Bigsby on it. It's a Telecaster with a Bigsby vibrato. And then there's also this Mastery bridge on it, which is really awesome. That's the most sort of non-traditional thing on it, I guess, the bridge. It's made by this guy John Woodland in Minneapolis.

He designed these bridges first for Jaguars and Jazzmasters, and they're just amazing the way they transform those guitars into...making them work right (laughs). And then he started making them for Telecasters. And then he made one that works with a Bigsby. That was what got me fired up about having a Bigsby on a Telecaster. What's so special about this particular bridge?

Frisell: I don't know the technical things he's doing. I guess if you look at his website it will explain the technical things better, but a normal Tele bridge, they'll either have three or six bridge saddles. But this one only has two. And it's made out of some kind of super high quality stainless steel or something. There's more string pressure that's being -- because there's only two pieces -- it sort of puts more string energy into the body of the guitar. There's nothing there that's vibrating or rattling or loose or anything. It's just super solid. But it lets things ring out somehow. There's nothing constricting the strings. It just brings it to life.

And then also with the Bigsby, whatever the quality of the metal, it's just super smooth. It doesn't get caught. It works really great with any kind of vibrato. Like I said, first he made them for Jaguars and Jazzmasters and they worked so great on those. So with the Bigsby, it stays in tune real well for you?

Frisell: Yeah. It's wild. It's so rare these days -- I hate to say it -- but he just cares so much about... He's not just trying to crank out a bunch of stuff to sell. He really cares about each thing that he makes. It's really inspiring, somebody like that. So what kind of amps are you using these days, and what did you use in the studio?

Frisell: For this record, I have this old -- I think it's from like 1960 or '61 or something like that -- it's a little Gibson. I think it says Explorer on it. It's kind of all wiped off. But it's small. It has one ten-inch speaker, and it's got volume, tone, and tremolo. It's just this super simple little old Gibson amp. And then I used that and a Carr Mercury that was in the studio. I used both of those together. Both of them on at the same time?

Frisell: Yeah. Sometimes I used just one at a time, but a lot of time I'll go stereo with both of them. Are you putting different tones through each of them, or is it the same signal?

Frisell: It's kind of the same thing, just going through a reverb thing that splits it. And then the pedals I was using were a Tube Screamer, and then this Electro-Harmonix -- what is it called? A Micro-Muff, or something. It's like a small Big Muff. When I was a teenager I had the Electro Harmonix Big Muff. I loved that thing!

Frisell: Yeah! So this is kind of like that, but just a smaller version of it. And then that goes into an Electro-Harmonix Freeze pedal, which I love. I use that on a bunch of stuff. I'm not familiar with that pedal. What does that do?

Frisell: It's the weirdest thing. I've sort of been waiting for that thing my whole life. You play something and you push it and it will just hold whatever it is that you're playing. It almost sounds like an organ. If you play a chord, and you hit it right when you play the chord, it will just sustain the chord. It's not like a delay. It'll just hold it right there. But then you can play something over the top of that, like a loop pedal?

Frisell: Yeah. It's really cool. You can play two chords at the same time, or whatever. Or you can solo over it.

Frisell: Yeah. It's real simple. It's just one button, and you push it, and it holds. And then you push it twice and it will turn off.

So then that goes into a Line 6 delay. And then that goes into a -- I think it was a tc electronics reverb unit that split the signal to the two amps. And then I used a wah-wah pedal a lot on the record too. Very much a rock and roll set-up.

Frisell: Yeah! (laughs). In "Turn, Turn, Turn," it almost sounds like you're playing a 12-string.

Frisell: There is a 12-string, but that's Greg Leisz playing 12-string on that. He overdubbed that. I was wondering if you emulated the 12-string with a chorus and delay.

Frisell: No, it's a real 12-string. There's not very many overdubs. Most of the record is pretty much live, the way we played it. But that song Greg overdubbed the 12-string part, and then there's a couple other places where he played regular guitar, and then he overdubbed pedal steel later. But mostly the record represents what we sound like when we're really playing, live. Sometimes when you're playing with your band, it's almost as if there's two pedal steel players, because of your tone and the way you play.

Frisell: Well I've definitely been influenced by that sound, with the way I'm sliding around and stuff. And Greg, I love the sound he gets. It's hard not to be affected by that. We talked about surf music, but you've also got something in here by Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West. Did you grow up listening to those guys too?

Frisell: No, that's definitely more later. Certain things on the album are like super-personal things that really affected me as a kid, like "Turn, Turn, Turn," or "Tired of Waiting," or the surf songs and stuff like that. But then there's other stuff that I would discover much later, like the Jimmy Bryant/Speedy West stuff, or the "Cannonball Rag." Merle Travis: I don't think I knew who he was until... That wasn't somebody I heard as a kid. It was more like, the more I got into the guitar, and realizing how important he was to the history of it.

So there's certain things on there that are more like tributes to these iconic guys. And then there's certain things that have a real personal resonance with me. When you get up in the morning, do you pick up a guitar pretty early? Do you play a lot during the day, on a normal day?

Frisell: I hope to (laughs). It seems like those are the best days I have. Like I was saying before, something about the music, it just sets me up right, or something. If I start out playing first thing in the morning, it's the best thing. It just gets my mind in order, somehow. But it doesn't always work out that way. There's so much stuff coming down on me all the time. I mean, you know, just normal whatever it is: I gotta take the garbage out, or I gotta answer a bunch of emails, or I gotta do something. Everybody's got that. I'm so lucky that, mainly, all I've got to think about is music, don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining.

There's also a lot of travel. I guess the price, these days, for having the luxury of playing all the time is that you have to travel. So I spend a lot of time in airports, or sitting on airplanes, or trying to get from one plane to another. I understand what you mean though, about, if you play early in the morning, like you said, it kind of sets you up right. That really resonates with me. I feel the same way. I can get so much more done the rest of the day after a little playing.

Frisell: Yeah, it's amazing how it just gets my -- I don't know. What it does to my imagination, and my whole outlook on everything. It just puts it in the right place. Right. And it's not just a musical thing either. For me, like you said -- outlook. It puts my outlook toward everything else I have to deal with for the day in a better place.

Frisell: Yeah, for sure. So when I write up interviews like this, I like to be able to inspire and educate. So if there was a young kid reading this interview, what kind of advice do you have for them as far as being open-minded with music, or where they should try to get with music, or how they're going to get where they want to go?

Frisell: It's just becoming more and more and more clear -- I mean it always was clear -- but as I'm getting older, and then I hear what, even people who are older than me, like the real master musicians, what it gets down to is just, it's so simple. It's just the music itself, and just practicing. Just stay in the music.

I recently saw this interview with Sonny Rollins, the great saxophonist. He's in his 80s now, and someone asked him that question. And all he said was "Just practice!" That's what he's done his whole life. All the other stuff -- if you're gonna be famous, or if you're gonna do this or do that -- all that sort of extra stuff just doesn't have anything to do with it.

The most happiest I've ever been, if I really get down to it, is when you're really, really immersed in the music itself. It's got nothing to do with money or fame or success or anything. Just practicing every day and staying -- just like we were talking about: You wake up and you play first thing. That feeling is the most amazing thing.

I don't know if that makes any sense. Yep.

Frisell: It's super simple. Just forget all that other stuff and just play your guitar. Try to stay in it, and try to stay in touch with that. I think we all have that, and we all know what's true, and what's false, and what feels right for us, and what's honest for us. If you just stay with that and you can't go wrong. I agree. So I really appreciate your time today Bill. Thanks for speaking with us.

Frisell: Thank you for talking to me. Take care.

Related Links:

Video: The Making of Guitar in the Space Age

Listen to Guitar in the Space Age

Bill Frisell Official Website

Bill Frisell on Facebook

J.W. Black Guitars

Mastery Bridges


Callahan Pickups

Carr Amps

Electro-Harmonix Effects

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