Considering your jazz background,
where mastery of harmony is a requisite,
and the fact that you’re still currently
playing difficult, chord-changeintensive
Coltrane tunes like “26-2” and
“Moment’s Notice,” you probably can’t
un-know what you know. How are you
able to let go of your harmonic awareness
and just play freely?
I think that having played those kinds of
tunes definitely has a huge impact on what
my instincts are about—I’m not thinking
that way but I know it. It’s not a conscious
thing. No matter how abstract I get or
whether I’m thinking about chords or not,
having had the experience of playing that
kind of harmony definitely had an effect
on me. That’s why I keep playing that
song “26-2,” to get it to the point where
it’s so deeply ingrained that it feels the
same as if I’m just completely spontaneously
making stuff up.
This brings to mind Mike Stern. I played
“Giant Steps” thousands and thousands and
thousands of times, over and over again with
him—just the two of us. We would practice
that tune or “Moment’s Notice.” He definitely
took it to an incredibly deep level of
understanding. I did a lot of that stuff with
him and it was an amazing time.
The multiple layers on the tracks are like
a jigsaw puzzle and it’s fun trying to figure
out which part came first. For example,
in “Parade,” there’s a short guitar
solo. It starts off with the same two notes
the ensemble plays earlier in a repeating
two-note descending minor-third figure,
just in a slower rhythm.
I’m not positive. I’m trying to remember. I
played some guitar when we recorded the
horns. But it also could have easily been
something that was there in the track that I
was reacting to when I wrote the horn part.
A Frisell fan might hear a track like
“Do You Have It?,” which on the surface
just sounds like a layered groove,
and not “get it” until he understands
the compositional process behind it. I
hope this doesn’t come off the wrong
way, but is an awareness of the compositional
process integral to having
an appreciation of some of the tracks
on Floratone II? How would “Do You
Have It?” hold up as a piece on its own
compared to your other works, if you
removed the compositional process
from the equation?
Wow … only time will tell. I have no
idea. I guess the hope is that in the end,
it’s just going to be music. It’s more about
the whole overall sound of the thing than
solos. Hopefully you don’t have to understand
where it comes from. Hopefully it’s
going to be good to listen to.
You typically juggle a mind-boggling
number of high-intensity projects
simultaneously. How do you keep it all
straight in your head?
The music itself is never a problem. It’s all
kind of swimming around in my head all
the time almost simultaneously. So when
I’m right there with the people I’m with,
it’s never a problem. If I’m really playing
it’s all coming from the same place. As
soon as I’m in the music, the music takes
over and everything is cool. Where I really
get stressed out is just preparing for when
I go out on these trips and I’m gonna
have five different things that I know I have
to deal with when I get to wherever I’m
going. It’s more about just remembering all I
have to bring with me.
Jazz musicians tend to be pretty conservative
and true innovation is often met with
resistance. How did you find the courage
to pursue your own voice in what could
sometimes be a hostile climate?
I’ve been real stubborn about trying to do
my own thing, but at the same time I realize
it’s kind of a fragile thing. We’re all trying
to find our own way. Every once in a while
I guess I’d come up against some resistance
or something, but I think I’ve been super
lucky. Right at a crucial moment there’s
always someone there who encourages
me rather than discourages me. I’ve been
discouraged a few times, but more often
somebody will say, “Yeah man, you sound
great.” Playing with somebody like Paul
Motian was a huge thing for me as far as the
confidence in doing my own thing. Really,
it started with my parents, who were cool
about me wanting to play music, or thinking
back to when I was playing with Mike
Stern all the time. If these people hadn’t
come along right at a particular moment,
the story could be completely different.
Stern, Pat Metheny, and John Scofield
also attended Berklee College of Music,
and all four of you later became instrumental
in moving jazz guitar forward.
Were you all there at the same time?
Mike Stern wasn’t even really in school
anymore, but he was around town when he
wasn’t out with Blood, Sweat and Tears. Pat
was no longer teaching at Berklee when I
got there in the spring of ’75, but he was still
living in Cambridge and playing with Gary
Burton along with Mick Goodrick. He did
gigs at little places like Zircon and Poo’s Pub
with Bob Moses and Jaco Pastorius. Scofield
had already left town just before I got there.
I actually didn’t meet him until I moved to
New York in ’79 or ’80 but everybody was
talking about him. There’s a quartet record
with him and Terumasa Hino, Tony Williams,
and Ron Carter that’s just incredible.
Another way that you’ve carved your own
path is with your equipment. While the
hollowbody is still the de facto jazz guitar,
you’ve used an SG and even headless
guitars at one point. Speaking of which,
are you still using the Klein guitar?
No, I haven’t used that for a long time. I sent
it back to get repaired years ago and it went
away from me for quite a long time, so during
that time I started getting back to mostly
Fender stuff. I’ve been playing Telecasters
a lot—different versions of it—and most
recently I’ve also been playing Stratocasters.
Mexican- or American-made Fenders?
A bunch of them. I had a Mexican-made
Thinline Tele. I changed all the parts on it
What swaps did you make?
Oh man, I’ve definitely gone off the deep
end. Getting into Telecasters you start
thinking, “What does this pickup sound
like and what does that pickup sound
like?” I have Lollar, Don Mare, Lindy
Fralin, and Seymour Duncan pickups—the
Antiquity model. I also use a Tom [TV]
Jones Filter’Tron pickup in the neck position
of a Nash Tele-style guitar. What’s
kind of seductive is that it’s all still this
basic Telecaster and I can get comfortable
with the scale, size, and shape of the guitar
to where it feels at home, but from one to
another—putting certain pickups in certain
guitars—there are amazing differences.
Any other guitars?
I also have a few Tele-style guitars that are
put together or modified by J.W. Black.
He also recently made me a Strat-style
guitar that is very similar to my original
’63 Strat, which I played a lot, along with
a Yanuziello guitar, on All We Are Saying. I
also have a Rick Kelly Tele-style made out
of pine from a piece of wood taken from
Jim Jarmusch’s old loft on the Bowery. It’s
got Lollar Charlie Christian pickups, and
I used that one on a lot of things—Sign
of Life, The Windmills of Your Mind. I Just
got a Collings I35-LC, which is an incredible
Your use of effects also opened the floodgates
for many jazz-based guitarists. First
off, let’s talk dirt pedals. Are you still
using the Pro Co Rat?
Sometimes I’ll use the Rat. Mostly though,
it’s an Ibanez Tube Screamer, and I also use a
Fuzz-Stang pedal, which is made in Portland.
Bill Frisell's Gear
Fender Stratocasters, Fender
Jaguar, Fender Jazzmaster, J.W.
Black T-style and S-style guitars,
Yanuziello, Rick Kelly T-style
guitar, Collings I35-LC, Nash Tstyle,
Gibson ES-125, Collings D1,
Gibson LG-2, Andersen Concert
Model flattop, Andersen Custom
17 archtop, Andersen Little Archie
Fender blackface Princeton,
Gibson Explorer 1x10, Carr
Sportsman, Jack Anderson
Line 6 DL4, TC Electronic
Hall of Fame, Ibanez Tube
Screamer, Pro Co Rat, Electro-
Harmonix Freeze, WrightSounds
Fuzz-Stang, Voodoo Lab Pedal
Strings, Picks, and Accessories
(sometimes .010s), Dunlop medium
(green), George L’s cables
What are you using now for that characteristic
I use the Line 6 DL4 a lot. I also have a TC
Electronic Hall of Fame reverb.
Does the Hall of Fame replace your
Lexicon MPX 100 rackmount?
Yeah, it started making noise and stuff.
This little thing is kind of amazing. I’m just
carrying all my stuff around—I don’t have
roadies—so it’s good if it’s small.
Do you still have that Electro-Harmonix
I wish. That’s one of the most amazing pedals.
I actually have two of them, but they
Have you tried the reissue that came out
a few years ago?
It’s totally not the same thing. A couple of
months ago I was in a store in New York
City and they had an original one in perfect
condition. I started messing with it again—
I hadn’t used one for a long time—and it
brought back memories like, “Oh man.”
Did you buy it?
No, I just got scared. It was $1,300. So, I
actually have to board the plane now.