On an early afternoon last September, Molly Tuttle, who was holding a spruce-and-mahogany dreadnought that appeared to be not much younger than 80, showed me the back of the guitar, which sported telltale lacquer wear. Tuttle explained that the instrument wasn’t in fact vintage but was recently made by Pre-War Guitars, which had applied a proprietary finishing treatment to make it appear as if it had been played for decades. “I don’t even know where Pre-War’s aging ends and mine begins,” said Tuttle, laughing, testament to both the realistic presentation of the distressing and to her being anything but precious with her boutique guitar.
Only in her mid-20s, Tuttle is one of the great pickers of her generation, and a fine banjoist and singer-songwriter to boot. She uses bluegrass and country as points of departure for a highly personal take on Americana and has already been recognized for these contributions in prestigious ways: In 2017, Tuttle won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year award—a first for a woman—and the following year she received the same prize and was also honored as Instrumentalist of the Year at the Americana Music Honors & Awards.
Tuttle, who is based in Nashville, had kindly agreed to film an exclusive video lesson for AG, and it was decided that an ideal place to do this would be Gryphon Stringed Instruments, in her hometown of Palo Alto, California, not far from AG’s headquarters across San Francisco Bay. The location was only fitting, as her father, Jack Tuttle, has been teaching various bluegrass instruments at Gryphon for 30 years; Molly bought her first Martin there when she was 12, not long before she began performing and recording traditional music with Jack and her brothers as the Tuttles.
Molly was in Palo Alto to perform at Gryphon’s 50th anniversary party, which had been held the day before. We filmed the lesson in a rehearsal room where the blue walls are decorated with portraits of jazz greats John Coltrane and Miles Davis, opposite West African folk instruments and cheap old cowboy guitars. Though there was a bit of hectic activity outside the room—the Gryphon team was apparently in the process of putting the shop back in place after the party—Molly seemed unflappable and intently focused on the music. She was soft-spoken but had a commanding presence when she picked her guitar, its brawny voice filling the room. The elder Tuttle filmed the proceedings and seemed to quietly admire his daughter’s prowess on her instrument.
In the lesson, the younger Tuttle, with her clear and logical teaching style, not to mention her rhythmic élan, demonstrated the secrets behind her wide range of right-hand techniques. She broke down cross-picking, clawhammer, fingerpicking, and other approaches through both the lens of traditional folk repertoire and the guitar parts and songs on her first full-length solo album, When You’re Ready (Compass Records). What follows is a condensed and lightly edited transcription of the lesson, in text and notation—materials no doubt sufficient for months of introspection in the woodshed.
Whether in your songs or in instrumental performances, you make excellent use of cross-picking. Can you break down this approach on a traditional song like “East Virginia Blues,” as you did with “Wildwood Flower” in the April 2017 issue of this magazine?
Cross-picking usually involves alternating between three strings—often the fourth, third, and second (Example 1a). On guitar, this pattern kind of sounds like a banjo roll. I also play three-string banjo, which might be why I’m so drawn to it. Because you’re letting the three strings ring out together, you usually have some sort of chord shape held down. For “East Virginia Blues,” we’ll be playing out of the open C shape (Example 1b).
The first thing to do is get comfortable with that basic cross-picking pattern. Since this is a repeating pattern of three notes, to make it fit squarely in a measure of 4/4, you need to go through the pattern twice, then add two more notes at the end. Now we have eight eighth notes (as in Examples 2a–b). And once you have that pattern down, there are a couple of different ways you could approach the pick direction. I like to do it alternating all the way through: down-up (Example 2a). The other way people like to do it is down-down-up (Example 2b).
Play those two to find the one that feels more comfortable to you—the one that you can play faster and more accurately. They have different sounds, and you might want to learn both so you can choose the one that works best for the song you’re using it on. To me, the alternate-picking approach has a little more defined sound to each note, while down-down-up sounds a bit smoother.
To play “East Virginia Blues,” start out by learning the melody and then transfer it to guitar, fitting the cross-picking pattern around it [sings “East Virginia Blues,” accompanying herself on guitar]. When you’re using cross-picking patterns to fill in a melody, a lot of times it offsets the melody notes, so they’re a little more anticipated or syncopated, instead of just falling right on the downbeats, as they would if you were just flatpicking a single-line melody. So, a really good first step is to play the melody and fill it in with strums (Example 3a). Then, instead of strumming, add cross-picking to fill in the spaces between melodic phrases (Example 3b). It’s a really nice alternative, and it sounds really pretty for a song like this, which is kind of based on the Stanley Brothers’ version featuring George Shuffler, who was known for his cross-picking style.
You get such a big sound out of your guitar—often courtesy of what you call rest strokes, which means something very different on the steel-string guitar than the nylon-string. Can you explain the technique?
My understanding of a rest stroke in bluegrass is that when you hit the string with your pick on a downstroke, instead of having the pick come away from the string like this [demonstrates on guitar]—as it does when I’m playing eighth notes [at fast tempos]—the pick comes to rest on the adjacent string, down towards the floor. Whether for playing a bass run or G run with a lot of downstrokes in a row, it helps cut through the band in a bluegrass setting. I use rest strokes with leads on slower songs like [the Carter Family’s] “Carter’s Blues” (similar to Example 4). That melody works well with a lot of downstrokes and you can play them as rest strokes to create this big, booming sound on the guitar.
Another right-hand technique you’re known for is clawhammer-style guitar, where that hand creates a flurry of notes. How did you first come across this approach, and can you explain how it works?
It’s more commonly played on the banjo than the guitar—you hear it in old-time music a lot. As a teenager I was getting into a lot of old-time music and also listening to Gillian Welch, who plays clawhammer banjo on some of her songs. So I started learning the style on banjo and then, when I was at a music camp in California, there was a guy named Michael Stadler who taught a class on clawhammer guitar. I’d never heard of it on guitar before, but I thought it was very cool, and he showed me the tuning that I still use a lot, which is similar to a banjo tuning. It’s basically open G, but instead of B, which is third of G chord, you tune the B string up to a C—something banjo players sometimes do on their instrument as well. So the tuning on guitar is D G D G C D, which has a cool modal sound.
The first pattern most people learn is called “bum-diddy.” Try it by making your hand into a really loose claw. Guitarists have different techniques, but I use my index fingernail, and sometimes my middle fingernail as well, to hit the strings with downstrokes. As you’re hitting those strings, your whole hand should be coming at an angle, with your thumb catching one of the lower strings. On banjo the fifth string is a high drone, but on guitar, the drone is low. So in this tuning I’m usually hitting the fifth string—the G note—with my thumb. Each time my hand comes down, my thumb catches that string, and on the upstroke, I pick the string (Example 5a). The very first song I learned on clawhammer-style guitar—“Little Sadie”—uses that pattern a lot. Listen to how the bum-diddy pattern fits into the melody (Example 5b).
I practiced that song a lot at camp, and when I got home I created my own rhythms and syncopations using this style. From there, I started applying clawhammer technique to writing songs. “Take the Journey” is a song that I co-wrote with my friend Sarah Siskind. When I started it, I was playing it in standard tuning, with a pick, but I instantly heard the melody was modal and could work really well in the modal tuning and with clawhammer style. So after we finished writing the song, I got home and came up with this (Example 6).
Your song “Sit Back and Watch It Roll” also sounds as if it’s in a modal tuning.
The song uses the same tuning that I taught for the clawhammer guitar—again, open G with a suspended fourth—which creates an ambiguous sound, no third in it. One day at my house, I was just messing around with the guitar after playing clawhammer style, but using a pick, and came up with this riff (Example 7). From there, I harmonized it and that [the upper line of the riff] became the melody to the song [plays and sings a bit of “Sit Back and Watch It Roll”]. I use some cross-picking on the bridge (Example 8). And on the outro I trade leads with Sierra Hull, who’s playing octave mandolin (Example 9).
You’re also obviously an accomplished fingerpicker, as is heard on “The High Road.”
On “The High Road,” I’m playing without a pick and doing fingerpicking with three fingers. I grew up playing three-finger banjo, which made it a little easier for me when I wanted to learn fingerstyle guitar. But it is still a different technique on the guitar—you have these bass notes, which are played in a steady rhythm, instead of the more syncopated, rolling patterns used on banjo. I play “The High Road” with a third-fret capo in G major—which causes it to sound in Bb. Here’s a bit of the solo that I do throughout the song (Example 10).
The title track of When You’re Ready also seems to have a capo at the third fret. Can you break it down?
The riff on this is a kind of cross-picking and it sounds a little banjo-y. I like using a capo on it, so I can get all those open, ringing strings. If I weren’t using the capo, I’d have to barre a lot and wouldn’t have that flowing open sound that I love on this song. It starts out with just a guitar riff (Example 11).
I’m keeping my pinky held down on that high drone [on string 1], which is what evokes the sound of that high fifth string on a banjo. The high drone is the seventh on the Am7 chord as well as the ninth of the Fadd9 chord, so I’m able to have minimal movement between chords, though I do play around with the inner voices on the G-shaped chord and with the suspended fourth [C] on that chord.
Talk about the rock influence that is apparent here and there on the new album.
On my song “Light Came In (“Power Went Out),” the final rhythm came from when I was playing around with an electric guitar I had just gotten from Collings [an Eastside LC]. I listened to punk rock when I was in middle school—a lot of Operation Ivy and Rancid—and when I was in a rock band, I learned the basic rhythm style of groups like that [plays a power chord in steady eighth-note strums].
Years later, my friend Maya de Vitry and I were playing guitar at my house one day, and we came up with the chorus for “Light Came In,” with that chugging rhythm. Then when we went to record the album, I was working with [engineer] Ryan Hewitt, who has collaborated with a lot of punk rock bands. He and I had that in common, and we thought it would be kind of cool to incorporate it in little ways on the album. So, I’ll just play a chorus and then go into the second solo (Example 12).
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What were you thinking about when you played that solo?
I’m playing a harmony with myself—thinking in terms of little triad shapes up the neck. I’d say that came out of my time at Berklee—learning all those shapes and intervals all over the fretboard, and always thinking about how to connect them in new ways.
What She Plays
Molly Tuttle is currently playing a Pre-War Guitars dreadnought with a torrefied spruce soundboard and Honduran mahogany back and sides, as well as a Thompson D-BA custom with an Adirondack top and Brazilian rosewood back and sides. She uses D’Addario EXP17 Coated Phosphor Bronze Medium strings (.013–.056), a Dunlop JD JazzTone 208 pick, and a Shubb FineTune capo. Though she played the Pre-War unamplified in our lesson, for live work, she has been plugging into an Audio Sprockets ToneDexter preamp.