Studying with avant-garde guitar master Fred Frith informed Mendoza’s approach to challenging music, but her improvisations draw on all the elements of her rich background, including classical and roots music. Photo by Peter Gannushkin
Many people associate free playing exclusively with jazz, but classical music has a strong experimental tradition as well. Do you draw inspiration from that, too?
There are a lot of modern classical compositions that I love—Karlheinz Stockhausen and Conlon Nancarrow are people that I really like. But I think, just coming from rock music, there is a lot of improvising that doesn’t make it into modern blues and soul-rock music, but in the tradition there sure is.
Who are some examples?
Coming from blues and R&B music, there was always tons of improvising—Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix—they are all people who were like that. Getting more into punk rock, the Minutemen were into doing long jammed out things at their shows. As were the Contortions with James Chance.
In your solos—to my ears at least—you seem to maintain a strong sense of tonality even when the music isn’t tonal. What is your harmonic and melodic approach?
A lot of times I’ll pick a mode—some weird mode that I think sounds interesting—and I’ll use that. I might use that for the whole solo or midway through I’ll switch modes. Usually I start from something that is modal and then maybe I go atonal or get into tonal sounding stuff as it goes along, but I’m usually starting from a mode.
Do you mean that you sound out because of context? If you were to take away the rest of the band would your solo sound more conservative?
No, I don’t mean that, actually. I try to pick a mode that has an interesting outside flavor with what’s going on.
What modes do you use?
I’ve been working a lot out of the Nicolas Slonimsky book, Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, which is a modes book. Many people have used it—Coltrane used it a lot. They are not traditional Western modes and I try to work them into solos and songs that I’m writing. When I say modes, I don’t mean the traditional Dorian, Phrygian, Ionian, and so on, necessarily, but stuff out of that book. Or I just make them up.
Do you work on chord theory and harmony?
Not really. When I have time to work on music I just try to write something of my own. It’s not really rooted in traditional theory, rather I’m trying to come up with something I want to play in front of human beings. However, because I have long improvised sections in the stuff that I do, I work on technique, stamina, and picking chops—tremolo picking chops—and different hybrid picking techniques.
I work on different picking patterns with the flatpick and middle and ring fingers to make sure those are all playing evenly together. That is the hardest part of hybrid picking for me—to get an even tone.
How do you approach free improvisation? Do you work with predetermined structures or look for signposts along the way? How do you avoid making a mess?
Well, sometimes I do [laughs].
And sometimes that’s a good thing!
I listen and react. It is so different based on who I’m playing with. I try to use everything I know about music and everything I’ve trained my ears to hear. I try to react either melodically or with sounds to whatever is going on around me.
So both the songs and the other musicians inspire or dictate how you are going to play?
Yes. Definitely. But I don’t think about it like, “Oh, I better play this way because I am playing with such and such a person.”
How about your band, Unnatural Ways? You call it a rock band, but your songs are not the traditional verse/chorus type of song structure.
It’s definitely still eccentric rock. I listen to a lot of metal and a lot of music that has a more open approach to songwriting. It’s not verse/chorus/verse—it’s more proggy. The songs are more written out and there are fewer sections where it is free improv.
Pedals often dictate the way you play. Do you start with a sound in your head and try to duplicate it with a pedal, or is it the opposite?
I buy them because I’m thinking, “I want to get this sound.” But when I start using them—depending on what they are—I have to wait for them to start talking to me. I try to dial in the sound I thought I could get, but then it turns out to do something really different. With the Whammy pedal, for instance, most people use it for octave stuff or harmonizing a line, but I started to use it to get these big interval leaps. I use it in ways to get sounds that aren’t really what it was meant for. For example, I have it in the octave setting and set it midway so it is at a random interval. I play, hit it on and off, and get these big interval leaps in what I am playing. I can get big, wider range interval leaps than I can with my hands. They sound like an ’80s synthesizer or something.
Ava Mendoza’s masterful hybrid picking technique and control of effects are in conflagrant display in this performance with her rock band Unnatural Ways, featuring bassist Tim Dahl and drummer Sam Ospovat. At about 4:27—perhaps inspired by Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns—she tears into some exotic runs and wraps up with reversed washes of sound.
Does it make cool, glitchy noises, too?
Yes—especially the original Whammy pedal that’s in a little smaller case than the recent ones. That model has this warble to it, almost an organ sound. You get one note that sounds like normal guitar and then you get one note that has this “whoo whoo whoo” vibrato sound.
You have a looper pedal, too. Do you use loops in a band setting or only when playing solo?
I use loops in almost every setting. With a band, I mostly use it in a solo, where the loop will be part of the solo. I get an asymmetrical loop going, play over it, and harmonize with myself. Usually it is at the end of a solo where things are getting epic and I am wrapping it up. But I use it to add another layer of harmony—to play these kind of out-of-time harmony lines with myself. I’ll pitch it up an octave and stuff like that. For a while, when I’d play solo I did use it for looping a bass line. But I don’t really hear that now. I much prefer to play with a bass player.
And you use the Line 6 DL4?
Yeah. It does reverse and it does the pitch up an octave and the pitch down an octave. I’ve gotten really adapted to it—it’s part of the instrument for me.
What else do you do with pedals?
One thing pedal-wise is that I’ve always played with a volume pedal, but I’m actually trying to get away from that. I’ve found that if I can move around more, I can adjust my mix onstage. For example, if I’m playing in a rock club, I can adjust my mix because I move around to where it sounds good to me. I also think I play better when I’m not working a volume pedal and always wondering “is this part too quiet or too loud?” I just forget about that and deal with it in my actual playing.
You teach guitar lessons as well. How does that inform or help your playing?
Teaching has helped me realize what I think is a healthy balance for kids who are learning music. That includes jamming, playing with people, understanding their own style, learning to read music, and learning some theory at the same time. A lot of times music education is slanted one way or the other—usually it is more reading things off a page or learning other people’s styles, but not a lot of developing your own. Seeing kids flourish has made me think about the balance that is healthy for everybody musically.
It’s hard to express it in proportions. The way I grew up, playing classical music, I didn’t think about what sounded like me until pretty late in the game. I think a lot of people who come from classical music are that way. Ideally, I guess it would be more of an even split.