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Rig Rundown: Billy Strings

Hear how the bluegrass-blazin’, death-metal-rooted wiz twists the traditional music of Kentucky toward the psychedelic sounds of San Francisco.

Born William Apostol, Billy Strings (a nickname given to him by his aunt because of his fluency on several instruments) sharpened his chops in bluegrass alongside his father in Michigan. But to play music with musicians closer to his age, he started shredding in bands inspired by death metal bands Cryptopsy and Cannibal Corpse. While the death-metal thing never stuck (he’s still a regular listener of the genre), the energy, string-splitting proficiency, and raw power trickled into his bluegrass performances. He and his stalwart bandmates logged over 200 shows for a handful of years before recording his 2017 debut Tinfoil and Turmoil, which has many pillars of bluegrass (acoustic instruments, no drums, lightning-fast picking, strong vocal harmonies), but also features the rowdiness of death metal, modern-day tales of drugs and debauchery, and hallucinating delays and reverbs that usher in progressive jams.

Months before his sophomore release, Home, hits the shelves, Billy Strings had the honor of headlining one of the Ryman’s Bluegrass Nights. And that’s where PG’s Perry Bean had the pleasure of spending some quality time with Strings to talk about the perfect acoustic guitar and why he uses pedals to break down bluegrass barriers while still paying reverence to the music’s forefathers like Doc Watson and Bill Monroe.

While Billy Strings spent his formative years on a Martin (or as he’d say, in front of the Martin watching his dad play), he’s been an avid user of Preston Thompson flattops that are handmade in Sisters, Oregon. He originally spent about two years on a their standard dreadnought model (with mahogany back and sides), but in 2017, he upgraded to a dread with Brazilian rosewood back and sides. He’s since added an Audio-Technica ATM350 mic taped below the soundhole and then also added a K&K Sound Pure Pickup system underneath the bridge saddle. It’s always strung up with D’Addario Phosphor Bronze Mediums (.013–.056) and prefers to play with BlueChip TD55 picks. Photo by Shelly Swanger

For most of the night, you’ll hear pure Preston Thompson tones, but when things get gnarly and Billy wants to push the headroom envelope, he engages this Fender Deluxe Reverb for a distorted signaled blended into the original DI feed.

To sculpt the Fender Deluxe Reverb’s tone, Strings will engage a Chase Bliss Brothers distortion and a Boss GE-7 Equalizer.

Things get real interesting with this flatpicker when he starts tapdancing on his board that includes a Chase Bliss Wombtone MkII, Source Audio Nemesis Delay, Eventide H9, Strymon Lex, two zany Electro-Harmonix creations—a Freeze and Pitch Fork—a Grace Design BiX DI, and a D’Addario Planet Waves Chromatic Tuner. All the stomps are controlled by the Boss ES-8 Switching System. (Not pictured: Whirlwind Micmute PP, Dunlop Volume (X) DVP3 Pedal, and an Ernie Ball Volume Pedal.)

Lurking under the board are Billy’s two secret weapons—a DigiTech Polara and Electro-Harmonix Micro POG. And everything (above and below) is powered by a Strymon Zuma.

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