Editor’s note: Cindy Lee Berryhill began her career as a cofounder of the mid-1980s New York City antifolk movement. But after two albums in the late-’80s she moved on from that ragtag group of punk-inspired folkies that would later go global and launch the careers of Beck, the Moldy Peaches, and Regina Spektor. By the turn of the decade, Berryhill had returned to her native Southern California, where she began creating sprawling, highly arranged, orchestral albums—but retaining the acoustic focus—inspired more by Brian Wilson than Woody Guthrie or Joe Strummer. That meant Berryhill needed to graduate from a loud-fast-hard acoustic strummer to an advanced guitarist who could do intricate interplay with cellos, timpani, and vibraphone. In this edition of Guitar Talk, Berryhill tells how she made the transition.
If you go back and listen to my earliest albums, Who’s Gonna Save the World and Naked Movie Star, I’m a strummer. In the early days of antifolk, we were all about being vigorous strummers. We wanted to be loud, simple, hard—and break lots of strings. We were folkies, but we were punks at heart.
But that gets old.
At a certain point you get tired of strumming. I knew that I could do other things, but I couldn’t do as much as I wanted to do. I’d sit down and play and get frustrated: How come I’m not playing more riffs?
About 14 years ago, I started teaching guitar, and that’s when I started seeing the change in my playing. I always could read music—I learned to play classical music as a kid—so I could teach that with no problem. But the kids I was teaching wanted to learn specific stuff—they wanted to learn AC/DC, so I’d have to learn AC/DC riffs, or they wanted to learn a Beatles song, so I’d have to learn Beatles songs.
I also had to learn how to read tab, which we didn’t do when I was a kid. The only people I knew who knew tab when I was starting out were bluegrass players. We learned by reading notes. You’d buy guitar books and it was notes—it wasn’t tab. So, I had to pull it together and learn how to read tablature and all these other things I hadn’t learned before or that had changed from when I was first learning to play.
By teaching kids riffs instead of just chords, I started to get comfortable with playing riffs myself. I’d go to parties and play a couple of songs and my friends would be like, “Whoa! What happened? You’re playing ‘Cinnamon Girl?’ Dang! You’ve gotten so much better on the guitar.” And I hadn’t realized it. It hadn’t occurred to me that my own guitar playing had stepped up several notches along with the kids I was teaching.
So, my main message for players who are tired of strumming is this: If you want to become a better guitar player, start teaching. It can be kids on your block. Or it can be kids at the local music store. Kids challenge you. Teaching gets you out of your comfort zone, and that’s what I needed to do.
The icing on the cake is that as I became more comfortable with riffs and other non-strumming techniques, I started writing new riffs for my own songs and my songwriting improved. So then I started coming up with new tunings. Everything just stepped up several notches. It was quite a transition, and it’s interesting when people see me who knew me back in the antifolk days. They’re like, “What happened to your guitar playing?” And I say, “You know what? I have to play every day.” But it’s not like, “Oh, God, it’s practice time.” It’s more like, “Oh, wow, this kid wants to learn how to play ‘Dear God’ by XTC,” so I have to figure that out. And then I learn more about a song I’ve known for years: Oh, that’s such a great descending line on the bass! It takes the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” descending line and sort of turns it on its head and adds some other parts to it. It’s pretty much the same thing, but reinvented. I could do that, too!
It’s been interesting getting out over the last couple of years and playing guitar with people, because I was not used to people coming up to me and saying, “Your guitar playing puts me to shame.” But I actually heard that recently. And it was amazing.
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine. The photo of Cindy Lee Berryhill is by John Hancock.