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“I’m the only conservatory geek in the band,” says Bryce, who studied under the direction of Benjamin Verdery. An uncommonly forward-thinking classical guitarist and composer, Verdery would have a lasting technical and conceptual influence on Bryce and his work with the National. “In those kinds of classical environments— which are so based on pedagogy and the hierarchy of the institution—there is a bit of an ivory-tower feeling where you’re trying to live up to some archaic standard of the solo virtuoso Segovia. Ben is the exception to that rule, and I was lucky to have him as a mentor. He’s not only the best classical guitarist and teacher out there, but he’s also a great rock player. He introduced me to all kinds of repertoire, from Bach to contemporary, and pushed me to be very open-minded about what I wanted to do. And Ben’s been a huge and supportive fan of the National.”
At Yale, Bryce also studied composition with Evan Ziporyn, a prominent modern composer and clarinetist whose work incorporates many different idioms, from traditional Balinese to avant-garde jazz. At the same time, Bryce met 20th-century iconoclasts like the minimalist composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich, whose work would feed into his rock playing. “Technically speaking, contemporary composers have pushed me to do things that I never would have thought possible on the guitar,” says Bryce. “They aren’t limited by the instrument itself, so they’re not writing things that are idiomatic to the guitar, and you learn surprising things from that.”
In particular, Bryce—and by extension Aaron—has gotten a lot of mileage out of transferring Reich’s characteristic interlocking patterns and pulsating rhythms to the guitar. “In a rock band, musicians tend to play along with each other, whereas in Reich’s music you’re often playing against each other in unintuitive rhythms and in hocket patterns”—basically, instruments or voices stating a melody in alternation, with one playing a note while the other rests, a technique that dates back to sacred vocal music of the 13th century. “That’s something my brother and I do in the National to make the texture or detail more layered and interesting,” says Bryce, who several years ago helped premier Reich’s 2x5, scored for two electric guitars, electric bass, piano, and drums.
Aaron adds, “I’m not as highly trained as my brother, but somehow through osmosis I’ve picked up on a lot of the techniques he’s learned from playing with Reich. Usually what happens is I’ll hear him doing a certain thing and I won’t even think about it, but it will appear later in my playing and I’ll write a song with it.”
Aaron and Bryce don’t divide duties in a manner typical of a two-guitar band—that is, one doesn’t handle lead while the other handles rhythm. Their voices are equally prominent, and this works because of their contrasting styles. “Aaron has more of a punk-rock aesthetic,” says Bryce, “he plays louder and he likes big, fuzzy sonics, whereas my approach is based more on a micro scale—a carefully placed note here or there—and a slightly more virtuosic technique. We often have kind of mirrored guitar parts—he might play down the neck while I reharmonize things up the neck.”
Both brothers, however, are disinclined to stretch out and show off. “Guitar solos would just sound gratuitous in our music,” says Bryce. “They wouldn’t be in the spirit of the songs, which call for the guitar parts to be supportive.” That said, the agitated, nine-bar solo that Bryce improvised last May on a Late Show performance of “Afraid of Everyone” offers persuasive evidence to the contrary.
Bryce Dessner, who studied with noted classical composer Benjamin Verdery,
onstage with a 1970 Les Paul Deluxe. Photo by Keith Klenowski
A Taste for Vintage Gear
The Dessners have an enviable selection of equipment at their disposal—enough pieces to require a couple of storage spaces (see the sidebar on p.84 for full details). Bryce’s main electric guitars are a 1963 Fender Jaguar and an early 1970s Les Paul Deluxe with miniature humbuckers. Aaron’s go-to guitar is a 1979 Epiphone Sheraton whose trapeze tailpiece allows him to create colorful effects by picking the strings behind the bridge. On High Violet, the brothers also used an early 1960s Gibson ES-330TDC that belongs to producer Peter Katis.
Aaron and Bryce share a lot of gear, too, including a 1965 Guild M-20 steel-string acoustic, a pair of Penn Pennalizer boutique tube amplifiers (which are based on tweed 5F6-A Fender Bassmans made between 1958 and 1960), assorted Fender valve amps—mostly vintage—and a number of effects boxes, both standard and unusual: a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, a Boss DD-5 Digital Delay, a Klon Centaur overdrive, a Crowther Hot Cake distortion, an Electro-Harmonix POG Polyphonic Octave Generator, and others. Then there’s the private studio they built in the detached garage of Aaron’s Victorian house in Brooklyn, which gave them the luxury of recording High Violet at an unhurried pace.