Tonal Calculus: Margaret Glaspy
A singer-songwriter from a family of guitarists dials in the gnarly sounds that bring her lyrics to life—with help from a Danocaster and a humble, rumbling Fender Champ.
Most people don’t grow up in a nest of guitarists. Margaret Glaspy did. “Guitar runs deep in my family,” the guitarist, singer, and songwriter shares. “My brother is an amazing guitar player. My dad, sister, and mom all play guitar. It’s always been around.”
Despite the guitar’s ubiquitous presence at home, her first instrument was fiddle. Her focus was traditional American, Irish, and Scottish fiddle music, but by her mid-teens, she was back to following the family muse. “It was a pretty natural progression between fiddle and guitar,” she says. “I was in the string world, so it all made sense. You had to back up other players when you were playing fiddle and it gave me more of a range of things to do.”
Glaspy, a Northern California native, moved to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music. She left Berklee after a semester, but stayed in town for a few years and found her footing as an artist. She played local haunts and bonded with other like-minded musicians her age, including the members of Lake Street Dive. “Bridget Kearney, the bass player, lived next door to me when I lived in Boston,” she says. “We’ve been friends for a really long time.”
New York was next. Glaspy continued to develop her chops as a guitarist and songwriter. She also took in the local music. “I’m a big fan of that scene,” she says. “There are a lot of players in New York right now that are making such beautiful music. I look at those players and kind of wish that I was that cool. I’m a big fan of Marc Ribot and Mary Halvorson. I’m a huge Julian Lage fan and Nels Cline is doing amazing things. That scene in New York is really special to me.”
But Glaspy is that cool. Her first full-length album, Emotions and Math, was released in early summer—although she’s been on the road supporting it since last January. The album is a showcase for her songwriting and Rickie-Lee-Jones-meets-Joni-Mitchell style vocals. But don’t let that distract you. Emotion and Math’s main attraction is Glaspy’s guitar playing; particularly her intricate finger work, contrapuntal chord motion, edgy tone, and abuse of low-wattage amps. Her music is raw and flirts with the edges of heavy, which is a welcome break from the predictable, wimpy-and-jangly singer/songwriter fare. She’s also far from one-dimensional. She has deep roots in Americana, has been a part of Jayme Stone’s retro-cool Lomax Project collaborative, and toured with bluegrass artists Ricky Skaggs and Del McCoury.
Premier Guitar spoke with Glaspy while she wasen route to a gig in Philadelphia. She discussed her unique approach to arranging stand-alone guitar parts, her tonal secrets, her general disinterest in effects (including reverb), and her brief apprenticeship as a luthier at Manhattan’s TR Crandall Guitars.
Were you living in Boston right before moving to New York?
I was in Boston for three years, total. My hometown spot was Club Passim. I played Club Passim very often.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts?
Yeah. They kind of adopted me and let me play there whenever I wanted. I cultivated my style as a musician onstage there. They let me do whatever I wanted—which was a huge opportunity when I was 19 years old—to be able to play at a cool club like that, figure out my songwriting scene, and do my thing.
And you had space to stretch out and experiment?
Totally. Every time I played there I had a different band, which was really cool—getting my friends to try on new things that I was excited about. It was a real luxury, for sure.
Some of your songs, like “Situation,” use a lot of cool dissonance. Talk about pushing your harmonic boundaries.
I think they’re just my preferences. It probably pays tribute to a lot of the music I’ve listened to in the last five or six years—or just all my life. I lean toward more dissonant chords or pushing myself to actually articulate myself harmonically. At times I can lean on the things I always do, but it’s more fun to push my own boundaries. I was listening to a lot of Elliott Smith and I became a really big fan of Jim Hall at the same time. I got privy to a lot of different kinds of music that I think asks [you] to think outside of just playing diatonically. It’s been fun to understand my own relationships to chords and melody. I think my constant goal is to actually articulate myself rather than get lazy and lean on things I’ve heard before—or just lean on the amazing things that I’ve heard before that are too hard for me to play. I think that’s what I’m doing all the time [laughs].
push my own boundaries.”
Would you say the same thing with time signatures? 3/4 isn’t necessarily an odd meter, but you have a lot of songs that are in three as opposed to a standard 4/4. Are you pushing in that direction as well?
Yeah. It’s the same thing in terms of my chordal preferences, in terms of rhythm and time signature. Growing up in America and listening to a lot of music on the radio, you get 4/4 pumped into your ears and into your blood stream all your life—because that’s the comfort zone in this part of the world.
But it just comes out the way it comes out. There are some things that stretch out a little bit that don’t really snap to the grid. For the most part, it’s all really simple though. It’s pretty much 3/4 or 4/4 the entire time, but there are a few little things thrown in there that are a little bit crooked, which I always find fun. It isn’t me sitting down saying, “I’m going to write a crooked part to the song.” It often just comes out that way and then afterward I go, “Oh yeah.” Or playing them with the band they’ll go, “That’s a funny little part there.” But it’s not a conscious decision to try and be clever. It just happens the way it does.
You have a lot of contrapuntal and contrary motion in your solo guitar work. How much of that is crafted and how much emerges naturally?
I think it’s a little bit of both. I’m aware of contrapuntal movement. I’m aware of classical music and also structure, form, and arranging. I attribute that to all these amazing players I’m around all the time—pushing yourself and finding that you need tension and release in songs and in arrangements. You need movement in order for it to feel satisfied.
At the same time, both sides of my brain are firing. It’s a really big feel thing and also I’m trying to articulate myself. It’s all of that at the same time, but it’s not so contrived. I’m not writing these things out. I know from a bird’s eye view that this is going to need tension and release here, it’s going to need to go somewhere here. It’s like looking at puzzle pieces and fitting them all together. It’s really a matter of arrangement and just pushing myself and not getting too comfortable.
Although she played a Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster on her debut album Emotions and Math, Glaspy’s current road axe is this T-style Danocaster, which replaces a Harmony Stratotone Jupiter she toured with for many years. Photo by Ebru Yildiz
Do you come up with parts that are beyond your ability to play and then have to sit down and shed them?
Yeah, often. We’ve been touring this record for almost a year now—it released in June but I started touring in January to promote it—so I have been playing these songs for a while and I’m comfortable with them. Now I mess with them a little bit. It’s entertaining for me to stretch outside of the melodies, chords, and lines that I’ve written. I’m good at playing the parts and staying the course, but now I want to not stay the course and push myself past the course [laughs]. It’s fun to color outside of the lines because that’s what makes it exciting. I know the songs now, I wrote them, but to bring them to life in different ways—that’s the fun part.
Is your new material pushing even further?
I’m trying to. I’ve been writing some new songs. I’ve been playing them live a bit, but I haven’t gotten to demo them and really produce them yet, which I’m really excited about. That’s a happy zone for me. The songs will start out one way, in their baby form, and then really evolve. I really don’t know what the next record is going to sound like. I’m very curious myself. But the songs are coming out right now and we’ll see where they land sonically.
Margaret Glaspy’s Gear
• T-style Danocaster
• 1961 Harmony Jupiter Stratotone
• Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster
• Fender Champ (probably from 1958)
• Fender Vibrolux
• TC Electronic Spark Mini Booster
• Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Nano Reverb
Strings and Picks
• D’Addario strings (.011–.049)
• D’Addario 1.25 mm extra heavy picks
• D’Addario capos
You’ll probably end up with a seven-piece band and a full horn section. It’ll be great.
Yeah, it will probably be something completely different [laughs].
Your guitar parts are often very intricate and include bass lines, melody lines, and interesting chord motion. Talk about that.
I wrote the songs so I could play them solo, still feel satisfied, and not feel like they were stripped down versions of songs. They’re able to live in their full form when I play solo. Wanting to have the songs that way pushed me as a guitar player: I had to be a bass player, play rhythm, and play lead at the same time. That’s all very intentional.
Having a band with me, I’m learning to open up a little more. We play as a trio, live, and that has me more interested in being more of a lead player—being able to play lines while I’m singing and things like that. It’s a process to learn how to do that, but I’m working on it.
How are your parts different when you perform with the rest of the band?
It’s a slightly different gig when I am playing with the band, which is the main thing we’re doing right now. It opens me up and pushes me as a player, because I’m focusing on other things rather than just playing all the parts constantly. Also, I’m able to lay out a little bit more. I play with phrasing and put things in unusual places. Sometimes it’s fun to lay out completely, let the band do their thing, and come in and out as I please.
Have you thought about adding a second guitar or keys to fill things out?
We just played our first show as a quartet, which was actually so much fun, with Tyler Chester—he overdubbed some keys on the record—and we played our first gig with the entire band recently in L.A.
We tracked the record live as a trio, which is with Timothy Kuhl on the drums and Chris Morrissey on the bass. That’s the main touring band I use. There’s a soft spot in my heart for trios. I really like playing in a trio a lot. In the studio, it’s cool to have a different process than live. But live, there’s a certain amount of space and also a certain amount of pressure on me to deliver as a guitar player—because a trio is a pretty transparent setup.
The album is very raw. Most of it was recorded live and with minimal overdubs?
Yeah. We did all of the recording live with the band. I sang along and then redid the vocals, for the most part. It was a pretty quick process. It was about an hour for every song, vocally, and that was pretty intentional. We kept the recording process really quick so we wouldn’t be overthinking things. I think I make dumb decisions when I overthink stuff in the studio, so I like keeping it really brief. We recorded the record in three days and I did the vocals in a day. Then I sent the record to Tyler in L.A. and he did his thing. We mixed it in L.A. a little while later with [engineer] Shawn Everett.
What did Shawn bring to the project?
Shawn is a really brilliant guy. We never worked together before. I showed up in L.A. and he had put it in a spot and got it going. I came in and we reworked the whole thing together. He’s an adventurous mixing engineer and he doesn’t really have an uncomfortable zone, in a good way. He’s okay to take chances. He doesn’t have a big ego, which is the coolest and most valuable thing. I feel that while I had some pretty forward opinions about what I wanted, he was able to achieve those while still keeping his style intact, which was very easy for us to do together. It was a really cool process.
Are the guitar sounds a good representation of what you were playing at the time or was there a lot of processing done afterward?
It’s pretty representative. Essentially, the guitar sounds are mainly through a Vibrolux and then reamped through a Champ. Not all of the things are reamped, but a lot of them are.
Do you use the Champ live?
On tour, I’ve been playing a lot through a Champ. I’ve graduated up to bigger amps as of late—similar to the Vibrolux vibe. The live show is pretty representative; it’s similar guitar sounds to those on the record.
The Champs break up pretty quick.
Those are kind of a secret … not a secret I suppose, but to me it’s a weapon in a good way. Champs are so amazing. It just depends on what kind of context you’re playing in whether it works live, because it is a 5-watt amp. They’re so small. Some people feel they are too small to be playing with in a big venue, but I did it for a while. I was playing smaller venues and loved it. Lately I’ve been wanting a more “lush” sound. I’m always trying to seek out a bigger amp that crumbles soon, just to get more wattage out of it. But that amp was perfect to reamp things through. You put it on 5 or 6 and it has the best distortion you could ask for. Put one of these bigger tweed amps through a Champ and it’s pretty magical.
Is your distortion coming from your attack or are you riding your volume knob?
Often I’m riding the volume on the amp. I put the amp up pretty loud. It’s not super quiet—I’m still figuring it out really—but lately I’ve been putting the amp up loud and playing lighter so that the tone is still intact. I like the sound blooming at a certain spot when the amp is turned up, but if I’m attacking it hard the tone of the guitar loses its integrity. Turning the amp up pretty loud and then playing with less attack in my right hand—that’s the sweet spot for me. It’s harder to do, but I’m getting better at it.
Your tone sits in an interesting space: It can be clean but has a bit of hair on it as well.
I also use one pedal. It’s just a boost pedal—a TC Electronic Spark pedal—and that’s just raising the volume. That’s the only pedal I really use. Sometimes, depending on if the amp I’m using has reverb on it, I’ll use a Holy Grail—a tiny bit. It’s probably at 1. I don’t really like reverb that much on the guitar.
When do you step on the boost?
For a lead and for a couple of songs where I just like the guitar to be even more distorted throughout the whole song. We do that on songs like, “Love Like This” and also on a cover of a Björk song called “Who Is It.” I’m boosted the entire time during that song, too.
You’re often pictured with a Telecaster these days. What kind of Tele is it?
It’s a Danocaster. It’s got a rosewood fingerboard on it. It has Ron Ellis pickups. It’s a really great guitar. It’s on permanent loan right now from my boyfriend, Julian Lage, who is also a guitar player.
That’s why you like his music so much!
We’re a guitar couple for sure. That’s been my main touring guitar. On the record I played a Strat, actually. It’s a shell pink Strat that was one of these custom masterbuilt guitars from Fender that really was a special guitar. I wanted to buy that guitar, but it wasn’t for sale. I borrowed it from TR Crandall Guitars, which is definitely my guitar shop of choice in NYC. That is my guitar home. I worked there for about five or six months, too.
Did you learn a lot about guitars working there?
Totally. Those guys taught me a lot. I apprenticed with Tom Crandall and worked on guitars. I couldn’t do it for very long because very quickly after I started working there I started touring quite a bit. I reset a neck with him on a little Harmony acoustic guitar, which was really fun. I worked the floor at that guitar shop and learned so much about the lineage of guitars—both acoustic and electric, where they come from and where they’re going—for sure.
Playing her T-style Danocaster, Margaret Glaspy presents a clinic in how to overdrive a Fender Champ, performing “You and I” with her trio, including drummer Timothy Kuhl and bassist Chris Morrissey, on Conan. Dig her melodic solo break at 1:10!
A Harmony Jupiter Stratotone for Little Chester?
The Harmony Stratotone Jupiter was made from 1958 to 1965 and sports a spruce or maple top, a 3-way switch, double pickups, and was less than $150 new. Bluesmen Howlin’ Wolf and Hubert Sumlin were among the model’s best-known champions.
Margaret Glaspy’s main guitar is a T-style Danocaster on loan from Julian Lage, but that’s a recent development. Before that, her main axe was a 1961 Harmony Jupiter Stratotone. “I played that guitar for a long time,” she says. “It was always slightly problematic … but I’m in love with that guitar and I always will be. I feel bad ever saying that it’s not amazing. I feel like I’m cheating on it or something like that. That guitar served me really well for a long time and has gone through different versions of itself.”
Harmony started making their Stratotone line in the late ’50s and produced them until the mid ’60s. They were affordable guitars and came in various models named after the planets (like Mercury, Mars, and Jupiter). The Jupiter was the high-end Stratotone and featured two pickups (the other models had only one) and a chambered body. Back in the day, people like Steve Winwood and Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones played them. Nowadays, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys tours and records with one, although Auerbach’s guitar tech, Dan Johnson, explained to PG in a September 2014 Rig Rundown that it’s heavily modified with new tuning pegs, Lindy Fralin pickups, and a Bigsby vibrato.
Modifying Stratotones may be the only way to bring them up to professional standards. Glaspy brought hers to TJ Thompson, a Massachusetts-based builder, and he replaced the neck. “She asked if there was anything I could do to improve the playability of her guitar,” Thompson says. “I took a quick look and said, ‘No.’ The neck was the same width at the nut and the 12th fret. I love these funky, old, inexpensive guitar-shaped objects, but they were never really intended to be serious musical instruments. They sold for pennies on the dollar and were often marketed in automotive supply stores in hopes dad would run out to grab a set of spark plugs, maybe a fan belt, and a guitar for little Chester."
For Glaspy, the guitar’s tone may be its most endearing feature, but it may also be the reason she put it down. “It had these foil pickups that are really sensitive and cool; they kind of bark in this really cool way,” she says. “But I think I grew out of that guitar only because I wanted more of a solidbody sound. The Stratotone is partially hollow under the pickguard. It’s got a real specific sound to it and I eventually craved something different. But that guitar served me well for four or five years.”