Photo by Rosa Paolicelli
Ani DiFranco has long been a hero to independent-minded musicians and a symbol of the sorts of unadulterated, “to thine own self be true” success one might realize if they embrace a DIY ethic with all their guts, brains, and heart. Since her 1990 self-titled debut, DiFranco has retained creative control of her music by releasing it on her own record label, Righteous Babe Records. In the process, she’s become a role model for everyone from busking students to superstars like Prince, who once told CNN, “… she’s a brilliant musician, but she’s really inspired me with her take on life and … the music business … It’s self-evident what she stands for, and you either let that inspire you, or you let someone who sings about drugs and violence and goes to the top of the charts inspire you.”
Though some may not subscribe to the frequently heavy and political lyrical themes in her songs—she’s an avid commentator on political ironies/hypocrisies and issues ranging from racism to poverty and sexual equality—few could fault her stalwart refusal to let any corporation dictate what, when, where, why, how, and with whom she records. And no matter what you think of DiFranco’s worldviews, only the crustiest of curmudgeons could slight her instrumental verve and inventiveness. Though she mostly plays acoustic and insists, “I don’t really have what it takes to get off on hard rock or amped-up music,” her driving acoustic work is mind-bogglingly intricate—especially for someone who also handles vocal duties. Famous for its alternate-tuning adventurousness and a percussive attack that’s influenced as much by funk bass playing as it is folk, world music, and jazz, DiFranco’s playing is rife with hammer-ons, pull-offs, snaps, and pops—all amplified through a multi-signal rig that includes pro-audio outboard gear, a wah pedal, a Rivera combo, and, more recently, a ’60s Magnatone Twilighter tube amp that her husband and producer, Mike Napolitano, got her hooked on.
We recently spoke to DiFranco about her inner guitar nerd and how playing at protest legend Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday in 2009 impacted her upcoming release, ¿Which Side Are You On? (in stores January 17)—the first album she truly feels is an accurate reflection of who she is as a guitarist and songwriter.
You’re a hero to a lot of musicians and everyday people because of your courage to stand up not only for yourself but also for big causes—you’re kind of a thorn in the side of The Man, really. But we thought it’d be fun to mostly set aside that stuff and talk to Ani DiFranco the guitar nerd. How is your inner guitar nerd these days?
[Laughs.] Pretty good, pretty good. I have some new guitars in my stable these days. I have a new baritone that I’m playing onstage. I’m not touring with the other new instruments I’ve got—but I’ve been recording with them. I’ve been playing Alvarez guitars pretty much my whole career, and they’ve served me really well. The company has been a great friend to me and has designed guitars for me along the way, including this new baritone that I’ve been playing and really loving—and I think a lot of my stage sound is very related to those instruments and their strengths. I evolved my stage sound very much in relation to the Alvarez guitars that I’ve been playing. But more recently it’s been very exciting, because I’ve gotten into other instruments, too. I got an old Martin D-28 and an old Gibson.
Is that the dark-sunburst archtop you’ve been playing in some videos that are online?
No, that’s a tenor guitar. I have several 4-string Gibson tenors from the ’60s that I play onstage, and on “Zoo” and “¿Which Side Are You On?” from the new album.
Which songs did you use the Martin D-28 on?
I used that on “Mariachi” and “Unworry.” I also got a little handmade parlor guitar—it’s got no discernible manufacturer, and we’re not sure how old it is. It’s simply got a name carved in the face of it: “Ted.” So I call it Ted [laughs]. It’s just this little, beat-up thing that my husband found for me years ago when we were first dating. It needed a lot of work, and finally a few years back we brought it to a luthier and got it up and running. It’s just a beautiful sound. When I play it, I suddenly feel Brazilian or something—there’s just something rich and organic about it. It takes a lighter touch, though. Onstage, I tend to beat guitars to a pulp, but in the studio I take the opportunity to be more subtle.
Guitar Tech Jason Kendall on DiFranco’s New Custom Alvarez Baritone
What can you tell us about your new Alvarez baritones?
“Ani’s new baritone guitar is a custom Alvarez made after several consultations between her, myself, and Chrys Johnson, who was an artist rep for Alvarez at the time. It has their System 600 preamp and has all solid woods—a cedar top, mahogany back and sides, and an ebony fretboard. It has a Masterworks [Alvarez’s top-of-the-line series] mini jumbo body, and is 25.5" scale but is set up as a baritone. Its voice is superior to any of the other baritones she has—it’s very rich and requires very little EQ onstage.”
I’d been searching for an acoustic baritone that I could play onstage to get a huge, warm sound without feedback. And not only big and warm on the bottom, but y’know, magnetic pickups are not the loveliest, so it’s also an absence of that magnetic-y, high-end sound. But the new baritone has a longer neck and a somewhat bigger body than my standard 6-strings.
What other new gear discoveries have you made?
Playing is 90 percent your fingers, but a nice amp makes a big difference from a shitty amp [laughs], and the same goes for a nice guitar and a shitty guitar—even just on the level that it’s more inspiring to work with. My husband turned me on to Magnatone Twilighter amplifiers from the ’60s. I don’t know when they stopped manufacturing these things, but onstage and in the studio I tend to mic the acoustic guitar, take a direct signal, and also put it through sometimes two amplifiers—one for crunchier distortion and one for a cleaner and often tremolo’d sound. Then I mix them all together in various amounts to get the sound that I’m looking for in each song.
What is it about the Twilighter that you’re liking so much?
It has what you would call genuine vibrato. Y’know, when you see vibrato on a guitar amp, it’s usually just volume fluctuation, but the Twilighter actually bends pitch.
Is that what’s making the rotary-speaker-type sound on “Splinter” and “Albacore”?
Yeah. In fact, you’re hearing it really on most of the guitars on most of the songs [laughs]—and then also on many other instruments. Many things got plugged into the Magnatone on this record.
What other amps did you use besides the Magnatone?
Rivera gave me an amp many years ago, and I’ve been playing it live and in the studio often. It breaks up really well—especially for live purposes. I really drive it hard on the front end, because I mix it in just a little bit with the direct sound. I need just a little crunchy flavor in there.
Given how you use so many different signals live and in the studio, is it hard to dial in your sound?
Onstage and in the studio, I do a lot of EQ-ing. A lot of it is taking away all the high end—because that magnetic-pickup high end isn’t a nice sound. So, pretty much above 6 kHz, I start sloping my guitars quite radically. On the bottom end, I push 63 Hz, 80 Hz, and 100 Hz, if I can get away with it. That’s where I like my guitars to live, because that’s what I think of when I think of an acoustic guitar sound, whereas some people do the opposite.
Do you use acoustic EQ-ing gear or pro-audio outboard gear?
Outboard gear, yeah. I have a graphic EQ inserted on each guitar. So I travel with a monitor rig that includes a case that’s all graphic EQs. I rotate six guitars onstage, and each of them has their own multiband EQ.