Yasmin Williams’ singular palette—which includes percussive accents on her guitar’s body, “lap-tapping,” using a tap shoe to keep time, and incorporating instruments such as kora and kalimba in real time—is on full display on Urban Driftwood (Spinster), an update of her celebrated debut, 2018’s Unwind, and a showcase for her multiscale Skytop Grand Concert guitar.
“Some people need to sit down with an instructor and be forced to learn the fundamentals,” says Williams. “For other people, like me, exploration starts right at the beginning. Otherwise, why bother playing?”
The Northern Virginia native started on clarinet in third grade, and when she picked up guitar in middle school, little did Williams know how much she’d be influenced by the grooves she heard growing up, as well as the nonwestern approaches, especially Hindustani music, that she absorbed while attending New York University on the way to a 2017 degree in theory and composition. The results may recall the distinctive stylings of giants like Michael Hedges and Stanley Jordan, but the fact that Williams has come this far by pursuing a mostly internal agenda hints at exciting possibilities. (She confirms that there may be film scoring and a trio in her future.) Most of all, she’s comfortable with herself while being aware that she has lots of living to do.
“When I get a new instrument or try a new technique, I don’t look up what other people have done, because I don’t want to be influenced in any way that’s not true to myself,” says the 25-year-old guitarist. “If I’m at a loss, I shelve it, live life, have more experiences, get better, and come back to it.”
The compositions on Urban Driftwood are soothing, especially in these harried times. Was that by design?
I wrote most of the songs last year, going through the emotions of everything that happened, politically, socially, and personally. I was hoping that once people hear it, they can do the same thing—use the record to reflect, meditate, or just listen to it and feel uplifted, too.
Were you thinking of a particular audience while you were writing material for the album?
Most of what I write is for me. If you’re true to yourself and there’s an audience that enjoys stuff that’s true to you, then there’s no real need to think about anything other than what you want to write.
How did you develop the confidence to listen to your inner voice?
My parents and my family have always been very supportive, so I didn’t put any limitations on myself in terms of developing my own voice. I’ve been free to have my voice, at least in my household, for my entire life.
What did you grow up listening to?
R&B, hip-hop, soul, and smooth jazz. Go-go [a sub-genre of funk] was definitely big in our house: My dad is a go-go connoisseur; my parents were both in the scene, and I played guitar in a go-go band with my brother. Chuck Brown is a favorite.
How did that music influence your approach to acoustic guitar?
I think it was more subconscious at first. When I first started playing guitar, and even when I released my first record in 2018, I was completely unaware of go-go being an influence. I didn’t realize that I was taking all that in, but now I know how much of an influence it’s been on me.
You also played clarinet for a long time. How did you settle on acoustic?
In middle school,I started playing Nirvana and Hendrix stuff on electric. Playing covers is fun, but I was like, “What is this really doing?” I eventually gravitated toward acoustic guitar because it lets you do so much more—it’s like ten instruments in one.
Were you ever interested in studying classical guitar?
In tenth or 11th grade, I wanted to get into a classical guitar program, so I locked myself in my room and taught myself whatever it was—one of the Bach cello suites, I think. After the program, I was like, “Man, this sucks!” I remember sitting in my room going through scales, but it was only a few months before I got tired of that.
So you learned from books?
I’ve bought two guitar books in my life, and at this point, I don’t even know where they are. I taught myself by learning songs that I enjoyed listening to. The first fingerstyle song I learned was “Blackbird” by The Beatles, and that’s what got me hooked. It really is just about using Google and having patience.
I’m assuming you picked up lots of stuff from YouTube.
I didn’t really look at YouTube. I didn’t like the fingerstyle stuff I was hearing, and none of the players looked like me, so I wasn’t really interested. I figured I could come up with something better myself, anyway. I know that sounds relatively vain, but whatever [laughs].
You were driven to find your own path.
Once I began writing my own tunes and figuring out alternate tunings, chord shapes, and chord voicings I liked, it was a wrap. Figuring out how I like to play was most important for me, and that’s why it never felt like a chore to practice. It’s just something I enjoy doing for multiple hours every day.
What are some of your favorite tunings?
One of them is D A D F# A D#, capoed on the third fret; another is D A D F A D, or open D minor, capoed on the seventh. Those both sound pretty good with kora. Another favorite is C G B G B D, which I used on “Swift Breeze,” from Urban Driftwood. Open D, usually capoed somewhere, is my go-to tuning for basically everything. And I settled on F# G E G B D for my harp guitar. It’s weird, but it works.
You also seem to use more than a few extended techniques.
I don’t think of them as extended anymore. Actually, I don’t know if I ever did. I just think of them as ways to make the sounds I hear in my head. If I want a metallic sound on the guitar, I use a guitar hammer so it sounds like a hammered dulcimer. If I want to have a bowed sound, I use a bow. I love harmonics, and if I want a chiming sound, I’ll use harmonics. Even lap-tapping itself is an extended technique, but to me, it’s just another natural way of playing.
How do you see yourself in the mostly non-Black world of acoustic guitar?
When I first started, I didn’t want to think of myself in terms of being anything other than just a guitarist. I didn’t want to delve too deeply into what being a Black guitarist means. Thanks to my parents, I’m very comfortable with myself, and I’ve never had a problem being in majority white spaces. But nowadays I’m reveling in growing up the way I did. I have so many different points of reference that people don’t have in this genre. Why not use them?
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.