Next-Gen Pickers: 6 Rising Stars are Carrying on the Bluegrass Tradition by Making It Their Own
Bluegrass is often tagged as a traditional genre, and it certainly has many fans with a specific historical idea about what the music is—and isn’t. But in truth, there was nothing pure or traditional about the hard-driving fusion of string-band music, country, gospel, and blues that Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys pioneered in the 1940s. And over the decades since, players trained in this technically demanding genre have taken the music in new directions—mixing in elements of rock, jazz, Celtic, classical, and more, while tapping the power and precision of bluegrass instrumentation.
Today’s rising generation of bluegrass-rooted musicians carries on the tradition of remaking the tradition in their own way, as is clear from my recent conversations with six standout guitarists. Some were born into bluegrass (Molly Tuttle, Billy Strings, Courtney Hartman of Della Mae) while others (Grant Gordy, Dave Bruzza of Greensky Bluegrass, Dave Wilson of Chatham County Line) got hooked on the high-lonesome sound after exploring other genres. AG asked these players’ about their paths into bluegrass, the flattop guitars and tools they use, and their tips for upping your bluegrass game.
Bluegrass was all in the family for Molly Tuttle, whose father, Jack Tuttle, has taught aspiring pickers and fiddlers at the Northern California acoustic music mecca, Gryphon Stringed Instruments, since 1979. “I always wanted to be able to play like my dad,” she recalls. “He would play Western swing songs and bluegrass standards like ‘Sitting on Top of the World.’” Molly picked up the guitar at age eight, and at 11 started gigging with her siblings and dad as the Tuttles.
As a teenager, she expanded her chops transcribing solos by David Grier and other flatpicking luminaries, and then dug deeper as a guitar performance major at Berklee College of Music. Along the way, she says, “I got really into Gillian Welch’s singing and songwriting, and through that, I got obsessed with Dave Rawlings’ guitar style. He has such a unique voice. I was really inspired by that.”
At 23, Tuttle is a masterful flatpicker and clawhammer player (on both banjo and guitar) as well as a fine, Alison Krauss-esque singer—the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) honored her as an up-and-coming instrumentalist with a 2016 Momentum Award, along with Billy Strings. Now based in Nashville, Tuttle performs solo, with the old-timey group the Goodbye Girls—one of many young bands on the scene that started at Berklee College of Music—and with her own Molly Tuttle Band.
For a fresh twist on picking technique, try clawhammer style. Tuttle was inspired by San Francisco Bay Area guitarist Michael Stadler to apply this old-time banjo technique to the guitar, using the G-modal tuning (D G D G C D). In terms of your picking hand, she says, “It’s the same as the clawhammer banjo, except instead of having a high string on the top, which is your high-G string on the banjo, with your thumb you’re going to hit either the fifth string or the sixth string.” Tuttle’s clawhammer guitar tunes, like “Old Man at the Mill,” have incredible propulsion (see video demo above).
WHAT SHE PLAYS
Huss and Dalton TD-R Custom dreadnought, with a thermo-cured red-spruce top and rosewood back and sides. D’Addario EXP17 coated phosphor-bronze medium strings. Shubb FineTune capo. Dunlop JD Jazztone 207 picks. Amplification: external mic.
Like quite a few players raised on rock, Dave Bruzza of Greensky Bluegrass found a gateway into the bluegrass world through the Grateful Dead—more specifically through Old and in the Way (Ryko), Jerry Garcia’s short-lived, all-star progressive bluegrass project from the ’70s. (It also featured former Blue Grass Boy Peter Rowan and mando master David Grisman, among others.) “From there I went backwards and found all the old guys,” Bruzza says. “But Jerry Garcia is really the epicenter of why I do what I do.”
In founding Greensky Bluegrass in Michigan back in 2000, Bruzza and his bandmates were following the trail of such artists as John Hartford, the Seldom Scene, and New Grass Revival—in Bruzza’s words, “the whole bluegrass vibe, but in a real rock ’n’ roll sense.” Variously referred to as newgrass, progressive bluegrass, or jamgrass, this branch of bluegrass continues to thrive, led by Greensky and kindred spirits like Trampled by Turtles and the Infamous Stringdusters.
Originally a drummer, Bruzza, 36, approaches guitar with what he calls a “strong rhythmic edge.” One look at his pedal board makes it clear that he takes a wide-open view of where you can take bluegrass instrumentation. “I’d say we’re a very percussive string band,” he says. “We definitely like to push boundaries.”
One surefire way to improve your playing is to jam with musicians whose chops you admire. Bruzza often plays with his Colorado neighbor Tyler Grant, a national flatpicking champ, and finds he always learns from those sessions. “I try to play with people that I consider to be light years ahead of me technically,” Bruzza says. “I like that because it gives me a nice challenge. When I get in a jam with someone, I always pick up something new and just keep growing.”
WHAT HE PLAYS
Two Santa Cruz Vintage Southerners, one of which has a Hipshot Guitar Xtender tuner on the sixth string, for quick transitions to drop-D tuning. Elixir 80/20 bronze medium strings. Shubb capo. Dunlop Gator Grip 2.0mm picks. Amplification: K&K Pure Mini transducer into a Grace Design FELIX preamp and an array of effects (including Pigtronix Echolutions delay, Aria distortion pedals, and a Chase Bliss Audio Wombtone analog phaser) for getting “weird and psychedelic.”
Around age 17, Grant Gordy discovered what he calls “the coolest music I’d ever heard in my life”—David Grisman’s bluegrass/jazz/chamber fusion known as Dawg music, featuring such brilliant instrumentalists as Tony Rice, Darol Anger, and Mike Marshall. Gordy even decorated his bedroom with pixelated photos he scanned and blew up from the liner notes of the David Grisman Quintet’s DGQ-20 compilation. “If I could visit myself at that age and say, ‘Man, someday you’re going to be in that band,’ I would have died,” Gordy says. “It would have freaked me out.”
Gordy did, in fact, hold the guitar chair in Grisman’s more recent band for six years, up through 2014. Today, one of his many projects is the quartet Mr. Sun with fiddler Darol Anger. Listening to Gordy’s spacious, sophisticated playing, it’s easy to understand why he’s been tapped by his heroes. Though fully capable of high-speed lines, Gordy says he’s always been conscious of “not wanting to be the blazing guitar slinger guy. Just aesthetically, that’s not what I want to do—play a bunch of notes and blow everybody’s head off for the sake of itself.”
Now 34 and living in Brooklyn, Gordy leads his own quartet. He recently released a gorgeous acoustic-guitar duo album with Ross Martin titled Year of the Dog, which spans fiddle tunes, gospel, jazz standards, and Bach.
Practicing with a metronome is the key to developing good time—and the better time you have, the more space you can leave in the music. “With bluegrass guitar, you have to have that perpetual motion, that right hand going—that’s a critical part of the style,” Gordy says. “But at the same time you don’t have to state every beat. It’s like, you can stay engaged in a conversation without just talking the whole time.”
When practicing with a metronome, Gordy suggests finding different ways to relate to the beat. Start with the click on beats 1 and 3, and then try it on 2 and 4—where the mandolin chop would fall in a bluegrass band. For an extra challenge, slow down the metronome tempo and play with the click on every third beat: the sequence goes 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, and then repeats. (See music examples and video demo below).
Playing with a metronome is an excellent way to improve your internal clock and your rhythmic interactions with other musicians. Here are three exercises that stress the beat in different ways.
Begin by setting your metronome to 90 beats per minute, with the clicks on beats 1 and 3, as in Ex. 1.
Without touching that metronome, play through Ex. 2, but shift the clicks to beats 2 and 4—the beats on which a drummer or mandolin player would be most active. This makes you more responsible for what happens on the downbeats.
Now decrease your metronome to 60 beats per minute. Play Ex. 3, which has a click every third beat (1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, etc.): yet another way of relating to the beat, and a great exercise for increasing your sense of rhythmic confidence.
WHAT HE PLAYS
1944 Martin 000-18, 1998 Collings D1, 1975 Martin D-28, Hiroshi Suda dreadnought. Elliott capo. D’Addario EJ17 phosphor bronze medium strings. D’Andrea Pro Plec 1.5mm picks. Amplification: external mic.
Colorado native Courtney Hartman started playing fiddle at the ripe old age of three, and grew up around fiddle contests and such festivals as RockyGrass. So when she picked up a guitar at eight years old, she recalls, “What I naturally wanted to learn to play was fiddle tunes on the guitar.” And she wanted to play them fiddle style, getting away from the typical flatpicking approach of machine-like, continuous eighth notes.
“I didn’t want to play guitar like a guitar player,” she says. “[Grammy-nominated bluegrass musician] Russ Barenberg was one of the earliest guys where I remember very specifically being like, I want to sound the way he sounds. It wasn’t all about just the notes. It was about the shape of the notes.”
As a student in Berklee’s American Roots Music program, Hartman joined the string band Della Mae in 2009, playing guitar and banjo and contributing original songs. The band made a splash on the roots-music circuit and scored a Grammy nomination for the 2013 album This World Oft Can Be. Last year, when Della Mae took a hiatus from the road, Hartman released a solo EP, a sweet set of original songs titled Nothing We Say. Now 26, she tours and teaches out of Brooklyn, an unlikely hotbed of contemporary bluegrass.
To develop a stronger melodic style on guitar, take your cue from vocals. “When we talk, we talk in sentences, and when we sing, we sing in phrases,” she says. “So base your playing on that foundation.” She recommends an exercise in which you sing a phrase and echo it on the guitar (see video demo above). “If you’re singing and playing, you’re going to have to take a breath,” she says.
You can apply this vocal approach to all your playing, she adds. “When you go to learn something new, it’s really important to first make sure that you can sing it, that you can hear the melody in your head, and then go to play it. What we want to avoid is to have stuff based in our fingers, with just muscle memory.”
WHAT SHE PLAYS
Bourgeois Aged Tone Brazilian D, A. Lawrence Smart archtop, 1890s Bruno parlor guitar. D’Addario EJ17 phosphor bronze medium strings. BlueChip TP50 picks. Elliott capo. K&K under-saddle pickup on the Bourgeois, through a Radial Tonebone preamp.
In the mid-’90s, Dave Wilson had played in various rock and alt-country bands, and was just starting to put together the combo that became Chatham County Line, when he encountered an album that transformed his musical world: 1995’s Train a Comin’ (Warner Bros.) by Steve Earle. That album, on which Earle is backed by an acoustic band that includes Norman Blake, Emmylou Harris, and Peter Rowan, “seemed to encapsulate every single thing that we were trying to achieve—to tell a story with that great acoustic instrumentation,” Wilson says. “We’ve really never looked back.”
To play effectively in a bluegrass context, Wilson needed to do some woodshedding, so he bought all of Tony Rice and J.D. Crowe’s Bluegrass Album Band releases, put them in heavy rotation, and strummed along with his Martin. But playing alone in your room isn’t enough, he adds. “You’ll never really get the seasoning that it takes to play live without going out and being forced to play better than you can actually play,” he says. “Picking circles and jams are a great way to solidify your playing. You have to be really uncomfortable at times to pull out what it is you’re capable of doing.”
Last fall, Chatham County Line released its seventh studio album, Autumn, continuing to explore the possibilities of storytelling songs over core instrumentation of acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, and bass. With his band celebrating two decades, Wilson, 40, is gratified to see the next wave of bluegrass-based groups emerge from his home turf of Raleigh, North Carolina, including Mandolin Orange and Mipso.
If you’re writing or arranging songs in the bluegrass idiom, don’t be afraid of your natural tendencies, Wilson advises—let the songs reflect whatever music you know and love, from whatever era. “You can write songs pretending like it’s 1947, but in reality the best thing you can do for the world and for the genre and just for yourself is to be open to everything you hear,” he says. “It’s been very liberating for us as a band to feel like we can be a moving cog in the present-day world.”
WHAT HE PLAYS
Late 1960s Martin D-18, 1954 Martin D-28. D’Addario EJ17 phosphor bronze medium strings. Wegen picks. G7th Heritage capo. Amplification: Neumann KM 184 external mic.
Billy Strings got his nickname as a bluegrass-obsessed kid in Michigan trying to keep up with his dad’s all-night picking parties at the campground. “You’d see little me there on the cooler,” says Strings, aka William Apostol, who got his first guitar at age four. “I had to get up every time somebody went to grab a beer. I was just trying to hang and pick with those guys.”
Before long Strings was more than keeping up—he was blowing past players of all ages with his clean, super-powered picking. After gigging extensively for several years with mandolinist Don Julin, Strings relocated in 2016 to Nashville, where one of his roommates is fellow IBMA Momentum Award-winning guitarist Molly Tuttle. Says Strings, with serious understatement, “It’s like a little guitar house.”
These days the main focus for Strings, 24, is his own band, with Billy Failing on banjo, Drew Matulich on mandolin, and Brad Tucker on bass. Though he counts Doc Watson as his earliest inspiration—along with his dad—Strings is now exploring extended jams and stylistic territory that defies easy description.
“I grew up with bluegrass and old-time music, but I really like Black Sabbath and Yes and King Crimson and Kendrick Lamar—everything, all across the board. I don’t want to pigeonhole myself. What I like about music is that it’s boundary-less.”
One secret to better tone is to relax, Strings says, especially when the tempo is blazing, don’t be frantic and try too hard to go fast. “Instead of making the guitar sing, let the guitar sing,” he says. “Sometimes I think I play too hard. I watch guys like Bryan Sutton, who is so relaxed, but he’s still getting volume and great tone. I think there’s a sweet spot. We’re still using our muscles and we still need to play loud—we’re playing guitars over banjos. But if you overdo it, you can actually lose tone and volume.”
WHAT HE PLAYS
Preston Thompson mahogany dreadnought, with an Adirondack spruce top. Roy Noble mahogany dreadnought. BlueChip TP48 pick (because that’s what Bryan Sutton uses, confesses Strings). Elixir Nanoweb phosphor bronze medium strings. Elliott capo. Amplification: K&K pickup through a Fire-Eye Red-Eye preamp and, at times, effects including a phaser, distortion, and an envelope filter.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.