From the May/June 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY NICK MILLEVOI
Watching Yasmin Williams perform, it is immediately apparent that the 22-year-old guitarist has an uncommon approach to her solo playing. Her recent performance of the song “GuitKa” on NPR’s Night Owl opens with Williams holding her guitar on her lap with a kalimba placed on its top. Williams begins with a kalimba melody, played by her right hand, and soon adds her left hand, simultaneously strumming chords and tapping a melody. Percussive accompaniment is added by alternately hitting the body of the guitar with her right palm and elbow and using a tap shoe on a piece of wood placed atop her guitar case. The grooves and motifs of the song come to life with the rich variety of tones and textures that these techniques supply. Multitasking at this level may seem dizzying, but Williams handles all of these actions with ease.
While it can be hard to know what’s happening just by listening to Williams’ 2018 release, Unwind, YouTube videos help navigate her repertoire of techniques. Whether using tools such as a cello bow or a guitar hammer—a guitar version of a dulcimer hammer—in order to “problem solve,” as she explains, Williams’ methods are meant to contribute to the big picture in her compositions, creating unique colors and timbres that serve the song.
Despite the singularity of her approach, Williams receives plenty of comparisons to guitarists known for two-handed tapping, like Stanley Jordan and the late Michael Hedges. “Every time I play a show, Stanley Jordan will come up. He’s great but I sound nothing like him. I’m not there.” Mentions of Michael Hedges and his own use of tapping and guitar percussion aren’t far behind either: “People ask me, ‘Do you know Michael Hedges?’ but I’d never sat down and listened to the music. I’m starting to listen to it now, and it’s pretty cool. I don’t really take anything in terms of technique and style away from it, I just enjoy listening to him.” But while Williams’ music might not derive from artists such as Jordan and Hedges, it’s her adventurous and open-minded approach that invites these comparisons, and that just goes to show that she is on an exciting and less-trodden path.
Following her graduation from NYU last year with a degree in composition and music theory, Williams moved back home to Woodbridge, Virginia, where we caught up with her on the phone to discuss her background, inspirations, and creative process. With school behind her, the guitarist is now focusing on her next set of music and supporting Unwind by hitting the road.
You’ve said that you started playing guitar after you beat Guitar Hero 2. How did you start learning?
I started learning by teaching myself for a year. I was in ninth grade. I got an electric guitar first and started taking lessons. My teacher was a heavy blues and rock dude. He taught me a Beatles song, “Blackbird,” and I thought it was cool to play because I really like fingerpicking and I wanted to learn more of that, but he couldn’t really teach more of that so I quit and picked up acoustic and taught myself.
At first I thought acoustic guitar was kind of lame. I wanted to be a shredder, like Paul Gilbert and all those people, but I can’t do that at all. I switched to acoustic and I was a lot better and enjoyed it more.
As far as your development of technique and extended technique—such as the percussive stuff you do on the body of the guitar, finger-tapping, keeping the guitar on your lap, the use of a bow and tap shoes, etc.—how did you find those sounds?
I really only use techniques if the composition calls for it. If I see someone do something cool, I might try and imitate, but I usually don’t. The violin bow I got specifically from [the Icelandic band] Sigur Rós. I tried it on electric first and it was an epic fail, but it kind of works on acoustic.
Everything else I just came up with because I couldn’t do something. I started lap-tapping because I’m really bad at tapping the regular way; lap-tapping is a lot more comfortable because I have small hands and can see the notes better. I started using tap shoes for “GuitKa,” because my hands were busy and I knew I wanted a percussive thing throughout the entire song, and the only way I could do that would be if I used my feet. I’ve never used tap shoes before but I just figured out how to do it. That’s pretty much how I come up with stuff: I just figure it out. Problem-solving.
What is your composition process like?
It’s kind of like doodling. You know how you doodle in class? I’ll just doodle on my guitar. I might come up with an idea that I like and I’ll either record it or write it down, and a couple days after that I’ll keep playing it until I come up with something else that fits with it. Songs to me are kind of like puzzles. I come up with various sections and try and fit them together. It’s rarely a fully flowing thing.
Can you talk a bit about your composition process on a song like “GuitKa,” where you’re playing guitar on your lap with your left hand, playing a kalimba on top of your guitar with your right hand, and using tap shoes to keep a beat? How does that evolve?
With “GuitKa,” I bought this kalimba and had it for a few months. I was writing a song on guitar and had forgotten about it because I couldn’t figure out anything else to put into it, and I thought the kalimba would sound really good with it. I try to find something that matches what I have in my head.
It’s just kind of like, “I need a beat here; I need a different instrument timbre here.” I’d never done any of that before that song, I’d never used a tap shoe or played a kalimba. I knew about the kalimba through the Earth, Wind & Fire song “Kalimba,” and I just thought that would sound cool with this idea. I don’t know why it popped into my head; I hadn’t thought about that song in years. That’s why I can’t really describe it. I don’t know what I’m doing, it just happens.
Watching your videos, I’ve learned a lot about how you make your sounds that I wouldn’t have picked up from just listening to the record. What do you consider your essential tools?
Tap shoes are number one now. The cello bow. I have two kalimbas. The Engle Guitar Hammer I use on “On a Friday Night.” I use a Tonewood amp, which is necessary now, and a capo, too, because I use that a ton.
The guitar I use now was made by the Sublime Guitar Company. I think I got it six years ago. It’s got really low action and I really don’t have to do anything to maintain it, so I love it. The model is the Adelaide D2CE.
You’re also getting a custom Skytop guitar built. What’s different about that?
Instead of having a traditional soundhole in the middle it has two sound ports on the side of the guitar facing upward. And it’s just crazy—it’s like the sound surrounds your entire head; it sounds amazing.
The one I’m getting built has a Sitka spruce top that has Teredo holes in it. It’s wood that’s been buried under water for hundreds of years, and little [Teredo] mollusks burrowed holes in it. I really like the sound of that wood. The Skytop is multi-scale, which I love, and its overall shorter scale length fits my small hands.
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Where do you find your inspiration musically?
Jimi Hendrix was huge, just because of how he went about playing—he was really unorthodox and I admired that about him. He did things his own way. Nirvana was a big one, too, because it was really easy to learn their songs in the beginning and to play along with them, so I ended up learning all of their songs.
In general, I just really appreciate people who have their own way of doing things and don’t really care about the standard. I’m getting into Elizabeth Cotten now, and she plays guitar really weirdly. I like how she played left-handed and used her index finger to play bass notes and her thumb to play the melody.
Erick Turnbull—he was on CandyRat records. Kaki King is cool; Andy McKee is cool. I don’t listen to too much fingerstyle, I listen to older, more folk-y stuff.
Smooth jazz was big in my house. My mom always says, “You play guitar because I listened to smooth jazz when I was pregnant with you,” because no one else really plays in my family.
Smooth jazz gets the short end of the stick a lot.
It’s really bashed. I don’t know why. I don’t know what people have against it. It’s not meant to be Miles Davis or bebop or whatever. It’s its own thing. Most of my songs are pretty relaxing, low-key, kind of subdued. None of my songs are aggressive and that’s probably because of how much smooth jazz I listened to as a kid.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.