Buck Meek uses a hybrid style to coax different sounds out of his Collings I-30 prototype. “I do float my right hand, but I’ll also root my palm on the electric guitar quite a bit as well,” he explains. “I’m constantly shifting between a flatpick, storing my pick in my finger to fingerpick, and strumming with my thumb, even within one song.” Photo by Tim Bugbee
BUCK MEEK: “It’s more about an alchemy with my hands and the gear.”
Buck Meek grew up in Houston, Texas. He also has a degree from Berklee, but he and Adrianne Lenker didn’t meet until 2012, after they had both moved to New York City. Here, he explains how his years studying manouche-style acoustic informs his electric playing, his work on the Whizzer and how that changed his approach to pedals, and why he plays almost everything—including slide—in standard tuning.
You and Adrianne played as a duo before Big Thief started. How long did that last?
That was for a couple of years. That’s where it all started. We met in New York in 2012, and we started playing as a duo and touring. We bought an old Chevy conversion van and toured around the country a few times, just as the duo, and put out a record in 2014.
And that evolved into Big Thief?
Yeah, that evolved into Big Thief. That’s where we started to write our interlocking guitar parts. At that point she was playing acoustic and I was playing a Telecaster. We were writing songs together, developing our harmonies, and trying to write these woven guitar parts. Then she got an electric guitar from our friend, Aaron Huff, at Collings Guitars, and immediately started writing these rock ’n’ roll songs, like “Real Love” and “Masterpiece,” and it just became obvious that we needed a band. We built the band in 2014, which then became Big Thief.
You’ve been using Collings guitars for a while now.
We’re super lucky. I’ve been going to the Kerrville Folk Festival since I was about 13. I met Aaron Huff, who’s now one of my best friends, there, and he’s been going to Kerrville since he was a baby. It turns out that he’s in charge of the electric department at Collings. We became really close at the folk festival, and then, as Big Thief developed, he helped us fortify our rig with some Collings guitars. I have an I-35 with ThroBak humbuckers, and that’s my main guitar in Big Thief. I begged Aaron to prototype a fully hollow 330-style guitar. I think me and Anthony da Costa—who is a great guitar player—had both been begging him separately to prototype the fully hollow, which eventually became the I-30. I was lucky enough to get the prototype, and I play the prototype I-30. It’s pretty exciting. I also have a guitar on the bench right now from Flip Scipio. He’s building me his own version of a Strat, with a Guyatone pickup and a Fralin, and I’m super excited for it. I played one of my friend’s Flip Scipio guitars recently and it totally blew my mind.
But you’ve spent a lot of time on acoustic guitar, too?
I started playing my mom’s old Yamaha acoustic guitar. She gave me my first guitar lesson when I was 6 years old. She showed me the basic chords and taught me a couple of songs that she’d written back in the ’70s. We had a [Mohammed] Rafi VHS, the live concert, and I would play along to that every single day. When I was 8, my parents bought me a Strat, at Rockin’ Robin Guitars in Houston. I started taking electric guitar lessons at Rockin’ Robin. When I was in high school, a guitar player named Django Porter came in to teach at this charter arts high school I was a part of. He was this incredible manouche-jazz player, like Django Reinhardt, and I became his protégé. He took me under his wing and taught me to play that rhythm—like La Pompe-style rhythm, that French jazz rhythm. He plugged me into all these amazing players in the Texas Hill Country who were part of the Western swing scene, like some of the guys from Bob Wills’ old band and fellows like Slim Richey. I went full force into acoustic guitar in high school, and all through college at Berklee as well. I think that’s when I really learned how to find sounds with my hands versus pedals, which served me well when I then transitioned back into electric guitar.
I moved to New York after I finished college, and when I met Adrianne, I started playing electric guitar again. But from playing acoustic, I’d developed a real sense of how to coax sound out of the instrument just with my hands. Watching guys like Slim Richey, who’s this old jazz player, he would get a type of slapback delay sound out of his acoustic guitar, just with his pick. The whole technique for the manouche stuff—which I think Django Reinhardt essentially invented—was that he had his floating right hand. His picking hand never rested on the top of the guitar. It was just floating in the air, like with this kind of loose wrist, and I think that lets the top of the guitar resonate much more than anchoring your palm on the face of the guitar. It gives it an almost natural reverb or this kind of resonance. When Django played melodies, there was a lot of muting the strings with his left hand by releasing pressure. It’s almost like achieving the sound of a compressor. A really good manouche guitar player can almost create the sound of reverb somehow, too. It’s emulating these things that effects processors can produce, but just with the hand. That’s where I was coming from on the acoustic guitar. When I went to the electric world, I brought that with me. I’m always trying to do as much as I can with my hands. I recognize the importance of my gear, but I try to find equipment that steps out of my way, and that produces organic, rich sounds. But for me, it’s more about an alchemy with my hands and the gear.
Do you use those techniques, floating the right hand and damping with both your right and left hands?
I’ve developed a hybrid style. With the electric guitar, in some instances, I do float my right hand, but I’ll also root my palm on the electric guitar quite a bit as well. I’m constantly shifting between a flatpick, storing my pick in my finger to fingerpick, or strumming with my thumb, even within one song. I’ll switch a lot of different right-hand techniques to get different sounds and different resonances.
Instead of pedals, you get your dynamics from your hands?
It’s all from our hands and from our amps. We had this fellow in Chicago prototype a device based on Neil Young’s Whizzer for us. Neil has this device that his guitar tech and electrical engineer built for him. It’s an actual robot that sits on top of his old tweed. It turns the knobs for him with these robotic servos, and therefore boosts the actual amp for his solos. I put out this request online to see if anyone could prototype something like that for us, and I found this dude in Chicago who works for Shure Microphones. He spent a year prototyping it for our Magnatone Twilighters, and he came up with this beautiful device that essentially bypasses the volume pot in the circuit with a TRS cable. There’s an auxiliary box with two robotic pots for volume and for master, and a footswitch that turns those robotic knobs to your presets. Essentially, it’s just a hand turning the knobs up and down for you.
That’s that white box on top of the amp?
Exactly. That white box is just an auxiliary volume knob that has a robotic pot that I can set with a footswitch, but essentially it’s not adding anything to the signal other than just bypassing the pot. I have four buttons on the floor and I have it set so that one is the amp at 4. The second footswitch is the same volume but with the gain—as if the amp is at 10—but with the master down so it’s equal volume to the clean sound. The third setting is a boost of that, which I can use as a boost or if I switch to a guitar with a lower output like a single-coil guitar, I can use that to bring my volume up to the same level. Then the fourth setting is full dimed, so the amp on 10. It’s so nice because it’s like having a third arm to turn the knobs, and to my ears, it sounds so much better to have the amp actually pushed versus an overdrive pedal. No overdrive pedal can give me that dirt sound that an amp can.
Did you have the Whizzers with you in the studio?
We had it starting at Bear Creek and Sonic Ranch for the U.F.O.F. and Two Hands sessions. Adrianne is playing the guitar solo at the end of “Not,” and that’s her Whizzer going up to 10.
How about at the end of “Contact”—same thing?
Yeah, for sure. We owe Neil Young a humble thank you for setting us off on this idea.
Adrianne uses a lot of alternate tunings. Do you use them as well?
I’m just in standard. I’m excited to dive into open tunings eventually, but I’ve always played in standard. When I was at Berklee, I found a great professor named David Tronzo, who’s a slide-guitar player. His whole philosophy is to play slide guitar in standard tuning. So even with slide, I always play in standard. I mute the unused strings with my right hand.
That must help distinguish your parts.
Yeah, for sure. That’s part of the interlocking that we’ve developed. At least half of our songs seem to be written in open tuning. A lot of Adrianne’s tunings are in lower registers, some of them are even almost in baritone registers, so there’s this natural spread of register between us a lot of the time, too, which is nice.
The different pickups and instruments must help you distinguish your tones sonically as well?
It’s mostly in the hands. For me, the gear is more to stay out of our way. We try to use equipment that stays in tune, and these Collings guitars are such good machines, they step out of your way. But beyond that, it’s all in your hands.
Do you experiment with different gear when you’re in the studio?
I experiment more with amps. On Two Hands, I’m playing a Fender Champ for almost the entire record. The session was mostly live in one room and the Magnatones were just too loud for how compact the session was. I switched to a little tiny Champ—an old ’50s Champ—and just cranked it up all the way. It was still quiet enough to have in the room without bleeding too much in the vocal mic.
Do you experiment with other guitars, too?
The first couple of days I always go crazy and pull every guitar out of the case, but I generally end up just going back to my Collings.