Brittany Howard performs on acoustic guitar in one of her side projects, the alt-country band Bermuda Triangle, during the 2018 Newport Folk Festival. Photo by Douglas Mason
How far from the demos did the guitar parts travel on this record?
Literally all of the guitar parts on the record except for “Presence” are from my demos. I just had it in the moment for some reason.
It’s inspiring that an artist with your success is still down to create at home with very basic tools that almost anyone can afford.
I’d really encourage people not to get caught up in the trap of expensive gear and expensive studio time. If you have a mind to do it, you can do it. I wish I’d known that when I was younger because when you’re a teenager, you want all of the gear. You want a full stack because you think that’s going to make you a better guitar player, but it’s a waste of money! I talked my dad into getting me an Ibanez half-stack, because that’s what he could afford, but when he went to the music store, they gave him the full stack by mistake. I don’t think my dad had ever seen me that happy! I would practice in the room next to his bedroom and he was really cool about it, man. I would play until like 11 at night and he’d just be like “Alright Brittany, that’s enough.” It’s a good feeling playing through something like that, then walking away from it and coming back to it. I totally remember that feeling.
Speaking of, let’s talk amps a bit more. I’ve seen a pretty arcane-looking amp rig behind you onstage lately. What is that thing?
It’s not a guitar amp at all. It’s actually an old Italian PA. I was looking for a tube PA because I really like the way tubes sound and I really hate the way most new PAs sound, like the typical ones you can buy at a guitar store to practice with. So I thought, how cool would it be if I sang out of a tube PA? I found this ’70s Semprini [ST280-20/M] and had to get it doctored up a little bit because the inputs and outputs are all different, and I plugged a guitar into it one day and it was killer, so it became my guitar amp.
Could you describe what the raw tone of it is like?
I’ve never heard anything exactly like it before. It’s shockingly clear and everything is very distinct. It never gets too muddy, but it still has a lot of growl and when you really lay into your guitar, it becomes kind of twangy. It never really breaks up, and because it has such big speakers you get a lot of bass out of it. I run two identical Semprini [BF 110 16-ohm] cabs with it and they have a 15 and a giant tweeter—it’s crazy in there. You can’t really find them. I’ve only found the one and I looked for forever! But Natalie [Hernandez], my guitar tech, actually tracked down and called the son of the guy that made them and he has one and I’m buying that one, too.
You’re also running a Roland Space Echo live these days and I’m curious how that effect came into your life and how you’re using it?
The cool thing about those Roland Space Echos is they all sound different and they all have their own quirks. The one I have made my amp sound even cooler and colored the tone in a great way. Tape tends to do that, but it made my amp sound a bit glassy, twangy, and even bumps the bass a little. So I like it almost more for what it does to my tone and the way my guitar sounds when it hits that tape and comes out of the other side sounding amazing. I feel like I’m doing analog equalizing with it.
Did any other effects play a major role on the album?
I don’t use a lot of pedals and I never have. I think that started from not being able to afford them, so I missed that thing where teenagers get dumb and think having more pedals makes you cooler. So I usually just run an overdrive and I always have a Big Muff and a tuner and that’s pretty much my whole setup. The Big Muff is a new one and all I need it to do is sustain my notes.
Any advice for women as guitar culture continues to shift away from the boys club it’s typically been?
When women play instruments, for some reason it feels and sounds different than when men do. Not all the time, but I do notice when women play guitar, I’m a little more curious about what they’re about to say with it. It’s not what you’d expect a lot of the time and I really enjoy that. Someone like St. Vincent, who writes guitar parts that are so cool, man! Her choices as a musician are cool and I’d tell young female guitar players to look up to people making their own choices and not just playing to be technically amazing. There’s a lot of creativity that goes into playing and you shouldn’t shun that side of yourself, or that freedom to be what the establishment defines as technically the “best.”