“I always wanted that guitar and I always thought it was the one for me,” says Brittany Howard of her 1961 Gibson SG Custom. “I don’t like Les Pauls because they’re too heavy and I was just never really around Fenders.” Photo by Matt Condon
One of your calling cards as a guitarist is riffs that are really deep in a rhythmic pocket, but deceptively tricky. Do you have a specific approach to writing those rhythmic, riffy ideas?
To me, it’s pretty simple: It just has to feel good. It has to make me want to play it again and you have to enjoy playing it—it can’t be tedious or annoying. I’m really feel based, and it has to connect to a part of you that feels right. When something doesn’t feel right, it’s definitely not good. For example, something like “Don’t Wanna Fight” started as a pretty standard funk thing, but then I asked, “How can I take this and orchestrate it in a way that reminds me of [jazz and soul producer] David Axelrod?” It has to be both simple and off-kilter at the same time. Simple enough to work, but different than what people are expecting and used to hearing.
You’ve said in the past that you don’t have aspirations to master the guitar or conquer the technical side of the instrument, but you’re obviously very passionate about it and it’s a major part of what you do as a musician.
I definitely don’t want to master the instrument; it’s just the instrument that I know the most about. When I sit down with a guitar, I like to approach it like I’ve never played guitar before, you know? It’s more exciting for me not to know everything because I feel like if I knew everything, I’d definitely be bored and I’d come up with stuff that makes too much sense, and I doubt I’d like what came out. I like not knowing what’s going on or what I’m doing and the mystery of sounds.
Things can get very clinical for players that are also songwriters when they know too much.
I don’t necessarily want a great understanding of music, but it obviously depends on what your goals are. For me, it’s just a means to get this stuff out of myself and it’s about pure creativity. When I pick up the guitar, I think, “what’s something I’ve never done before?” or “what’s something I don’t understand?” or “what’s something I’ve never heard?” and I try to start there. It’s all about finding a fresh place, or at least a fresh place to myself. I start getting really bored of the instrument when I start linking too much of it together and start thinking about things like the circle of fifths and all of that.
Are there any guitarists that you found inspiration in while writing this album?
I really like the way Dave Davies plays. He’s always been one of my favorite guitar players and I love how he can be really raucous and noisy, but also really technical and beautiful. I’m also really into Chuck Berry and I just love the way he played guitar. I always thought of Chuck Berry as the pinnacle of rock ’n’ roll, and that his stuff was when rock ’n’ roll was at its best and most vital.
You’ve been an outspoken fan of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s for quite a while and a lot of people argue that Chuck Berry stole his best moves from her.
Well she created rock ’n’ roll, that’s for sure! I think it’s so exciting that people are finally finding out and talking about her. Her personal life was crazy, too! There’s a great book about her I read called Shout, Sister, Shout! and she was absolutely rock ’n’ roll before rock ’n’ roll was happening! I think Sister Rosetta just understood a lot of things about performing and being a performer, but also coming out of the gospel world and singing like that, having that niche as a female guitar player—what’s not to love? Her songs were good, too. My favorite thing is just watching her play and she did it for so long that it wasn’t even work to her. It just seemed so effortless.
I was surprised to find out that the green Gibson Les Paul SG Custom that you use found its way into your life by accident rather than being a nod to the white SG Sister Rosetta used.
Yeah! I didn’t even know about Sister Rosetta when I chose that guitar, but I always wanted that guitar and I always thought it was the one for me. I don’t like Les Pauls, because they’re too heavy, and I was just never really around Fenders, so I didn’t really know much about them. What happened was that Heath [Fogg, guitarist of Alabama Shakes] let me borrow his SG because I didn’t have a guitar to play at the time and that’s where it all began. I kept playing his SG and then I saw the one with three pickups and was like “whoa!” And then I saw the white one Sister Rosetta used. Now I’ve got like five of ’em! I use .010s on all of my guitars and I just keep that middle pickup out of the way a little. I tilt the pickups so that they’re higher under the low strings so they get a little more growl to them.
The guitar accompaniment and interplay with the vocal melody on “Short and Sweet” is really beautiful. Do you typically think of a vocal melody before or after a guitar idea?
That song in particular started with that opening chord. I don’t know what that chord is called, but it sounded to my ears equally happy and sad. I was like “Whoa! Cool chord!” and then I dropped it down to a G and rolled with it from there. When I was constructing that song, it was both of those ideas at the same time, and that song was really about finding a balance between sadness and happiness. I think that combination inspires great love songs because isn’t that what love is?
There’s a cool guitar drone in the right speaker of “13th Century Metal” and there’s a lot of cool atmospherics like that on the album. How do you approach adding that stuff into your songs?
I listen to what we had a bunch of times and I said, “You know what’s missing? Some doom and gloom.” At the end of that song I really wanted you to feel like you’re entrenched in chaos and confusion, and you have to be overwhelmed, so that gave purpose to adding those metal-sounding guitars at the end. I really needed the end to be bombastic.
Sometimes you have to be careful not to add too much, but it all depends on the song. For that song, I felt it needed too much because there was already so much there and it called for it. Songs like “Short and Sweet” don’t need any production because I think it would take away from the song.
The guitar conversation in the solo section at the end of “Presence” is another great example of how you use the guitar to add color and drama without relying on typical ideas.
Yeah, I just hate the idea of being boring. With that one, I was trying to think of a solo and everything I tried wasn’t right. Then I just said, “Let’s get weird” and did a three-part harmony solo specifically out-of-time, and thought, “This is cool!” It worked!
You seem very comfortable with embracing weirdness while making it approachable.
Getting weird is literally my favorite thing to do! I had songs so weird they didn’t make it onto the record. Like Brian Wilson weird, but I don’t think they would’ve been enjoyable to listen to on the record. But they’re fun!
You worked closely with Blake Mills with Alabama Shakes. There’s no denying that Blake’s become one of the most influential producers and guitarists working today. What did you learn from that experience as a player?
The whole reason I wanted to work with Blake is his attention to detail and the fact that he realizes that everything matters. Details matter to him. Blake leaned into carving out the things that shouldn’t really be on a track and is great about asking questions like “why is that there?” and pointing those things out. It was details like octave range and figuring out that if something is in a different octave, it leaves more space for other sounds.
I definitely get the Blake thing: He’s probably the best guitar player I’ve ever encountered. That said, I suppose I don’t really try to be like anybody when it comes to music. It’s funny to be doing an article about playing guitar, because I use the guitar as a means to an end. I don’t think of guitar the way a lot of guitarists do. It’s really just the instrument that I can play the best and I’m trying to paint out my ideas with it. That might explain why some of my compositions are a little odd or off-kilter. That’s also what makes me excited about the instrument: I like to see how far away I can get from making such “guitar part” music.
Which I think at its best works to the opposite effect, because it makes for unexpected and interesting guitar parts that people then want to analyze!
Oh God, I wish I could send you the guitar stems from this record, you’d be like, “what the fuck?!”