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Photo by Brantley Gutierrez.
Did your dad have an influence on your guitar playing?
Initially it was more my teacher John Moore, who was also teaching Chris. My dad didn’t really play. He had a guitar and he knew some folk songs that he’d strum along to, but he didn’t get into bluegrass until we did—and he actually took lessons from John, too, so he could play with us. When we got to be old enough and learned some songs, he would play rhythm behind Sara and me in contests and stuff. He still plays a little bit, too.
Early on, Tony Rice was a huge influence, and within bluegrass it was Russ Barenberg, Scott Nygaard, Dave Grier, Norman Blake, and Doc Watson. I’d say probably Tony Rice, Scott Nygaard, and Russ Barenberg were my three favorites when I was young.
How would you describe the essence of bluegrass rhythm guitar?
If you want to play bluegrass guitar, it’s definitely a specific thing. It’s a specific sound that takes a lot of the rhythmic role in the band. You’re kind of playing the kick drum and snare, with the bass notes in the strumming, so the rhythm guitar takes on a lot of responsibilities within a bluegrass band. Everybody does it a little bit different, and everybody holds the pick a little bit different, but it’s basically about keeping a really loose wrist, with your wrist pointed out so that your hand swivels, instead of just moving up and down. It’s kind of a whip-like motion, and when I give lessons I always get people to do that first without playing. It’s like shaking your hand out like it hurts [laughs]. Once you get it, it all makes sense, so it’s always fun to show someone how to do. All of a sudden you see the light goes on, and they’re doing it, and it sounds different. It sounds like bluegrass rhythm guitar.
You mentioned the tone of the J-45, and of course the strings play into that. What’s your preferred brand—and does it matter whether they’re new or have some mileage on them?
I generally use Elixir Nanoweb .013s, but sometimes I like the regular orange pack of D’Addarios [EJ17 sets]. I don’t like strings that sound new. When I’m recording, I like to have them broken in, and when I change strings it’s just because I break one. There are exceptions, though: We were doing promos the other day and I had the same set of strings on all week, and they were nice and worn in, but I had to change them for live radio. But the Elixirs don’t tend to be as bright as other strings.
What about picks?
I really like the triangular Wegen TF 120. They never wear down and they’re not scratchy—very dependable picks. BlueChips are great, too.
You also use a capo sometimes, right?
Yeah, that’s mostly just for where I want the open notes and chord voicings to be. In “21st of May,” that’s just where the melody happens to lie, with the capo on the second fret. I wanted the third to be on top, so by playing it in the C position, the open E rings out. I definitely mess around with capo positions, especially when I’m playing with other guitar players. I like to do something opposite of what they’re doing, so if someone is playing in open G, I’ll capo on the fifth fret and play it out of the D position, and try to get some different voices that are complementary. It’s a great tool.
Do you ever use open tunings?
Sometimes I’ll use dropped-D, but I haven’t messed around with it that much. DADGAD is always fun, too. I do that on a few of the older songs with Nickel Creek.
We hear you have your own solo record coming out in June.
Yeah. It seemed like I should wait until the first wave of Nickel Creek stuff happened. I recorded it in different places—some of it on the road with Jackson Browne. He likes to take days off just to help his voice, so there was a studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and another one in Iowa—Cedar Rapids, I think—where we went in with Jackson, a drummer, and a bass player. I did some more of it at a beach house in San Diego that I took over for a week or so, and then some at my house here in L.A. One song I did mostly in a hotel room. I haven’t really wanted to make a solo record for a while, but I had these songs that I thought could stand on their own if I was just playing solo. So I started there, and then I added instruments and extra voices. It’s much more of an acoustic bass record, with drums on maybe less than half of it, but it’s also more acoustic guitar oriented than my records have been in the past. There are more solos, and I really took time to get the tones that I wanted.
I guess we met maybe 10 years ago. I think we were on the same bill at a place called the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, and we got to know him over the next year or so. Sara and I have a residency at Largo in L.A., and I remember he came down to one of our shows and we started hanging out and playing. He’s been playing with us since then for years, and he’s taken Sara and me out on the road with him a couple of times. He’s a hero, so whenever we get to play with him, it’s just a great experience.
Bluegrass trio Nickel Creek—Chris Thile on mandolin, Sara Watkins on fiddle, and Sean Watkins on acoustic guitar—performs “Destination” from their new album.