On an evening in January 2019, Billy Strings came home from a long day of tracking at Blackbird Studio in Nashville and joined his girlfriend in watching George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Martin Scorsese’s documentary about the late singer-songwriter. “It had a lot of Ravi Shankar talking about this Indian music, which just comes from the soul and reaches down deep,” Strings says.
The next day Strings returned to the studio with a riff in his head, inspired by the Shankar scenes in the film. When his collaborators took their lunch break, Strings grabbed a choice old guitar that happened to be in the studio—an early-1940s Martin 000-28. “I told our engineer [Glenn Brown] just to leave the tape rolling,” Strings says. “Then I put the guitar in a weird tuning, smoked a bunch of weed, and got into the zone.”
With Brown playing low droning sounds on a harmonium, Strings improvised on his riff for a good four minutes, treating it with a range of right-hand approaches, like tremolo picking, cross-picking, and string skipping, and toggling between a free sense of time and a more metered feel. “I don’t even know what I was thinking; I just wanted to play from my soul, make something up on the spot, and find weird things that worked. It was a total experiment,” Strings says, adding that the later inclusion of a Buchla (a type of synthesizer) provided a layer of further strangeness.
To play “Guitar Peace,” which appears on Strings’ 2019 album, Home (reviewed in the March/April 2020 issue), first tune your guitar to open D. Lower strings 1 and 2 a whole step, to D, and string 3 a half step, to F#. If you haven’t spent any time in this tuning, play around it in for a few minutes, exploring how the fretboard is transformed from standard tuning. Then, rather than trying to plow through the whole transcription, work on the main riff, which first appears in bars 13–16.
Note the lack of chord changes in the riff—in fact, the entire piece is harmonically static—and the emphasis on the raised fourth, the note G#, elements that give the piece its Indian flavor. Focus on picking evenly and cleanly, using whatever combination of pick strokes work best for you. Let the notes ring together, and in bar 14, when you toggle between the sixth and third strings, take care to avoid accidentally sounding the interior strings.
After you can play the riff solidly at tempo, work on a few of its variations—like the phrases in bars 17–20 and 25–28, which bring pull-offs and harmonics into the mix—and anything else that captures your ear. But to really play “Guitar Peace” authentically, you’ll want to improvise on Strings’ riffs. To do this, he recommends, “Just try to reach into your heart and play what you feel. Play your guitar as if you’re humming a melody.”
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 of Acoustic Guitar magazine.