Will Toledo’s main axe is this early ’90s Telecaster, but he sometimes writes on a Squier Mini Strat for fun because it doesn’t weigh him down as much. Photo by Debi Del Grande

Do you have a main acoustic that you use?
I’ve got a Yamaha steel-string acoustic—the same one I’ve had since 8th grade. I’ve recorded most of my acoustic parts with that guitar. I also have a nylon-string Yamaha. It sounds pretty good. I’ve been practicing my picking style more on that. I’m growing fond of the softer sound.

What about effects?
When we were recording Teens of Denial, I didn’t use too much, other than distortion. We had reverb from the Twin Reverb we were using, so yeah, it was pretty much a Boss Turbo Distortion. That pedal keeps breaking, unfortunately. I’ve been through a lot of distortion pedals in the last year. I wish I had better luck with them. I like the Boss sound, so I’m trying to stick with it, but it’s proven difficult.

Do you use Twin Reverbs live?
When we have the ability to leave from Seattle and take all of our gear with us, we take Fender Cyber Twins. I’ve been using a Cyber Twin since I got to Seattle. It’s good; it’s basically a computer because it has all these different settings on it. It’s very similar to how I was used to recording, with all the different settings being immediately available to me. Our other guitarist uses a Marshall amp. He likes the darker tone on that.

“For the majority of my recording career, I’ve been recording the guitar as basic as possible to the computer. I’d put the amp effects on afterwards.”

You get a great, unadulterated guitar sound on “Fill in the Blank.” It’s crunchy and dry, almost British sounding. It kind of reminds me of early ’70s Free.
Free? I’ve never heard of them. That’s funny, because when I wrote that song, I was thinking of Guided by Voices. That poppy kind of riff is definitely Guided by Voices, but there’s a repeating chord progression in the song that, sound-wise, reminds me of early Green Day. It’s kind of an untouched guitar sound.

How did you get that guitar sound? What’s going on there?
It was a pretty simple process. It was my Boss Distortion with the Tele guitar. I used a Fender amp, but I can’t remember what it was. So it was one guitar and that amp. It was one of Steve Fisk’s amps—I think he said that Jimmy Page used it in the early days. It blows up a lot without having to turn it up much. We recorded it relatively quietly and just kind of boosted it in the mix.

Was it a Supro?
Yes! Yeah, that was … I think.

You mentioned Pete Townshend before, and to my ears, parts of “Vincent” recall his playing on “I Can See for Miles.” There’s a lot of reckless attitude and joy at the racket you’re making.
I think there is definitely some overlap and flavor there. Not just in the way he plays, but in the way he arranges songs. Now that I think of it, there’s definitely some inspiration from stuff like “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” I really like the sound that he got out of his guitars, and I know I was trying to get that vibe in my early days of recording. Performance-wise, he’s an influence, too. He’s just this great condensed nugget of guitar pop.

Will Toledo’s Gear

Guitars
Early ’90s Fender Telecaster (Mexican-made)
Fender Squier Mini Strat
Yamaha FD02 acoustic (steel-string)
Yamaha acoustic (nylon-string)

Amps
Fender Cyber Twin PR393

Effects
Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion
Red Panda Particle (granular delay)
TC Electronic PolyTune

Strings and Picks
D’Addario EXL110 Regular Light strings (.010–.046)
Dunlop Medium picks

In a lot of your songs, you seem to favor trebly, droney riffs on the top strings. Do you just play around numerous iterations of a pattern until it feels right?
I do like those kinds of riffs. Definitely. It seems like riffs are good in the higher register—you can put cool rhythms underneath them. There does seem to be a limitless array of possibilities to how you can play riffs on the top strings. Whenever I write a riff in a lower register, it tends to be a chord, like the one for “Destroyed by Hippie Powers,” which is just E on the low string and then an E barre chord that sort of gets pushed sharp a little.

I like the cool noise solo you do in that song. It’s very Neil Young.
Neil Young is an influence, but I wasn’t thinking of him there. “The Ending of Dramamine” has a very minimal intro, and Neil Young was sort of the guide for that. On “Hippie Powers,” I was actually thinking more about Pavement. There’s that noisy bridge between the two verses—just lots of distortion, like a cacophony—and you have a little bit of melody in there. So you’ve got Pavement and Neil Young.

Talk to me more about your process for guitar orchestration, particularly on something like “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia,” which is an epic blend of acoustic and electric guitars. You’ve got horns on there, too. It’s pretty grand.
I was listening to lots of stuff that was heavily orchestrated. I don’t know that so much of it was really guitar oriented. It was stuff like Brian Wilson, stuff that put me in a mental state, and I was trying to replicate ideas that put me back in that place. It’s sort of an imploring state of mind—that’s the feeling I get from certain artists like Brian Wilson. Interestingly, it seems that there’s a lot less on the Beach Boys’ tracks than I originally thought. I’ve gotten better at listening to things and picking them apart.

Are there any areas on the guitar that you would like to improve upon?
Oh, sure. I’m not a great soloist, so I’d like to get better at that. I never really learned the scales, so sometimes I’ll be halfway through a riff, or I'll be improvising, and I’ll have no idea where to go and I'll just peter out pretty pathetically.

You’d like to become a better finisher?
Right. I want to be able to finish musical sentences.

Or, you could just do what Sting does. I’m paraphrasing, but I think he said something like, “Whenever I make a mistake onstage, I just play it again, and people think I meant to do it.”
That’s great! Yeah. I could do that. No problem.

YouTube It

For most live shows, Car Seat Headrest is a four-piece group, with Seth Dalby handling bass duties. For this performance from last April, they’re a raucous power trio. Be sure to check out “Vincent” at 7:17, in which Will Toledo combines transfixing single-string lines and slashing power chords for maximum rock glory.