Bluegrass’ biggest ambassador continues expanding his sound with more pedals, more modeling, more Martins, and a dark-arts guitar. Plus, we find out whose ashes are inside his 1945 D-28.
It’d be hard to argue that anyone has changed their sound as much as Billy Strings has in the last 10 years. If you reference the pre-war traditional collaboration albums he first did with Don Julin (Rock of Ages and Fiddle Tune X), and his solo debut EP Billy Strings, and then witnessed one of his recent high-voltage shows, the songs and sounds are both worlds apart … yet familiarly rooted. He went from opening on the Bluegrass circuit to a crossover festival headliner that’s more Dead than Doc. He’s now filling arenas and amphitheaters as an evening-with performer that often crushes for over three hours by incorporating sideways jams and creative covers. However, each set still includes moments where the four musicians onstage stand around a single mic, just as their bluegrass forefathers did generations ago. So, even as he sends bluegrass into the cosmos, he keeps one foot planted in Appalachia.
Strings shared his thoughts on that juxtaposition during a 2019 PG interview: “Before writing my own music, I used to be boxed in by bluegrass, but enjoying other musical genres made me realize it’s a self-made, transparent box,” he said. “Music should be freeing, with no borders. I want to express myself emotionally with my guitar, however it pours out of me.”
When the Rig Rundown team traveled north to Indianapolis’ TCU Amphitheater at White River State Park, we didn’t know what to expect, but Strings’ full-monty setup did not disappoint. His rig still has delightful dreadnoughts, including some new old friends from Martin, but the many tricks rolled up his sleeve (or in his rack) allows this psychedelic sorcerer to cast spells over audiences all night long. Billy gave an hour to PG’s Perry Bean, where they covered electrifying acoustics, just whose ashes are in his 1945 Martin D-28, and how he continues coloring outside the traditional lines with stompboxes and modelers.Brought to you by D’Addario XS Strings.
This 2017 Preston Thompson DBA dreadnought, dubbed Frankenstein, is Strings’ No. 1 touring acoustic. Within his recent PG cover story with fellow bluegrass superstar Molly Tuttle, he elaborated on the guitar’s history: “It’s a Brazilian rosewood, spruce-top dreadnought. I’ve been playing it for several years and that’s the guitar that I play onstage. It’s been through hell. It’s been smashed and it’s been put back together. But it always sounds the best plugged in. I use a K&K pickup and I run it through a Grace Design BiX. Also, I have a ’45 Martin that I just put a pickup in. I just wanted to have an old one that I can play onstage. But every time, I go back to Old Faithful. I started calling that guitar Frankenstein—originally because I put all those different pickups in it, and the switch, and it’s got a Shure microphone installed on the inside that goes to my in-ears. And I had them make me another one just like it, and that’s The Bride.”
Additionally in the Rundown, Strings notes that this dread is the best plugged-in acoustic he has in his collection. Part of its voice is the K&K Sound Pure Pickup system that is underneath the bridge saddle, which he puts on all his acoustic-electric guitars. An added development since our 2019 Rundown was the incorporation of the K&K Sound Double Helix soundhole pickup that is hum-canceling and dual-coil. A Shure WB98H/C Cardioid Clip-on Instrument Microphone lives underneath the guitar’s top, giving a pure feed to FOH and his in-ear monitors. The switch on the guitar’s top (added by Scale Model Guitars’ Dave Johnson) engages the soundhole pickup when he wants to run his acoustics through his electric rig that hits pedals and a Kemper. All of Billy’s acoustic-electric instruments have this wiring.
Strings made sure to give a shout-out to D’Addario for their XS Phosphor Bronze strings (.013–.056), saying “Gotta have that medium gauge, gotta have that coated, ’cause we sweat like crazy. And they don’t break!” All his guitars take the medium set. He exclusively uses Elliott Capos and he plays BlueChip TP48 Speed Bevel Right Hand picks onstage. He landed on this particular pick because it’s what Bryan Sutton shreds with.
Frankenstein has not only gone through electrical updates, but it’s spent some time on Dave Johnson’s workbench getting repaired due to road burn.
Bride of Frankenstein
Four years ago, Strings toured with just one Thompson. His love and bond with Frankenstein, or Old Faithful, spawned into a pair of Preston Thompson DBAs. The Bride has the same specs and electrical DNA as its predecessor, but features a smoky charcoal sunburst finish. The inset photos show off subtle nods to the ’30s monster classic, including lightning bolts on the bridge and fretboard, while the headstock sports the iconic character originally played by Elsa Lanchester. He often uses it in a lower tuning for the title track off Home.
Jody Like a Melody
Yes, that’s a pickup selector on a 1945 Martin D-28, but before you vilify Billy for such blasphemy, understand this acoustic was in shambles when he acquired it. The bridge had been incorrectly moved, there were holes drilled into it near the bottom strap button, the binding was cracked, and the neck was so bowed it had a hump in the middle. Prior to Strings, it belonged to longtime Willie Nelson guitarist Jody Payne, who died in 2013. Billy had Nashville tech Dave Johnson bring it back to life with all the required pickups and mics. Strings addresses potential criticism by sharing that “it’s a 1945 Martin that is now being played onstage in front of thousands of people each night, and that makes me happy.” Another thing Billy had done was handled by the Martin Custom Shop where they refinished and reshaped the neck into a more familiar modified-V profile.
Ashes to Ashes
This next bit has to be one of the more astonishing (and touching) revelations uncovered during a Rundown. While Billy was out at the Hollywood Bowl for Willie Nelson’s 90th birthday bash in April, he showed the instrument to Willie’s right-hand man and harmonica player Mickey Raphael. He couldn’t believe it was Jody’s Martin, so he suggested to Strings that he should sprinkle in some of Payne’s ashes that have been on tour with the Family since 2013. He obliged, and, as you can see, Jody has been on tour with Billy ever since.
Billy addressed the conflicting feelings behind that during the Rundown, stating that, “who are we to make Jody’s spirit continue to be onstage every night, but Mickey was his good friend, and he thinks that’s what he would’ve wanted. It’s a beautiful guitar, I love this thing dearly, and they all mean something to me. They’re both my tools and my children.”
All the Bells and Whistles
This stunner is a custom D-45 from Martin that is equipped with all of Billy’s mics and pickups. Unplugged, it is snappy, booming, and full. As you’ll see in all the photos, anywhere they could dress it up, whether binding, inlays, headstock, tuners, neck joint, or rosette, they did it.
Pride and Joy
This 1940 Martin D-28 will never go near a drill press or Dremel tool. Strings uses it for moments onstage when the band (guitar, standup bass, banjo, and fiddle) goes back in time and huddle around a mic for throwback jams. This prewar icon rarely leaves Billy’s sight and travels with him to the hotel each night.
If you ever wondered where Billy was going to take his music and sound next, we have seen his future, and it resides in this 1980s Casio DG-20 Digital Guitar Synth. To take it from the toy aisle to the stage, Dave Johnson had to work on the saddle and rework the MIDI pickups for each string.
Billy Strings' Rack
Bluegrass purists were shaking their fists at the sky when Strings’ 2019 Rundown revealed he ran his flattop through a DI, 10 pedals, and a Fender Deluxe Reverb. They’ll need to screw their calvaria back on after seeing Billy’s setup now. It now includes a DI, 21 pedals, two expression pedals, a pair of volume pedals, a RJM Mastermind MIDI switcher, and a Kemper Profiler. The amp he landed on inside the modeler is a high-gain SLO-100, based on the coveted Soldano screamer. Utility components in the rack include a pair of RJM Effect Gizmos, a Radial SW4 Balanced Switcher, a RJM Mini Effect Gizmo, and a Radial JX44 Guitar Signal Manager and Switcher.
Billy Strings' Pedals
When Billy wants to turn his acoustic into space dust, he’s got a hearty squadron of willing vaporizers. Starting at the top left, he has a Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive, Electro-Harmonix Micro POG, MXR Bass Envelope Filter, Source Audio EQ2, Boss DD-8 Digital Delay, Source Audio C4 Synth, and a Strymon Lex. A Strymon Ojai powers the pedals in this drawer. Moving to the right, he has a Jam Pedals Waterfall, Boss SY-1 Synthesizer, EHX Pitch Fork, Red Panda Raster, and an Eventide H9. All of these gizmos are powered by a Strymon Zuma. Going down to the bottom left, Strings assembles this drawer with a NativeAudio Pretty Bird Woman, a Chase Bliss Wombtone, Source Audio Nemesis, DigiTech Polara, Boss DC-2w Dimension C, and an EHX Freeze. Another Strymon Zuma powers all these creatures. The final drawer houses a Chase Bliss Audio Mood, Electro-Harmonix Intelligent Harmony Machine, and a Chase Bliss Audio Automatone MKII Preamp. Everything comes to life with a third Strymon Zuma.
This is where Billy Strings tap dances each night—an incredible feat given how much he’s already doing with his hands. A RJM Mastermind GT MIDI switcher is the brains of the operation as it engages all his pedals and the Kemper’s SLO-100 profile. The Grace Design BiX gives FOH a clean, pure acoustic sound. A pair of Mission Engineering SP-1 expression pedals handle manipulating time-based and modulation effects. His two Ernie Ball 40th Anniversary Volume Pedals bring in Leslie effects and the Kemper. A TC Electronic Ditto Looper remains on the board since our last encounter. A Peterson StroboStompHD covers any on-the-fly tuning needs during his sets. Nashville’s XAct Tone Solutions built out this tonal headquarters and features several of their custom devices and routing boxes. A couple Strymon Zuma units power everything on the floor, while a duo of Radial boxes helps organize. (The SGI-44 talks to the rack-mounted JX44, and the JDI is a passive direct box designed to handle gobs of levels without any unwanted crunch.)
Line array sound for the masses!
Recorded direct with a Taylor Builder's Edition Grand Concert 912ce through a Focusrite 2i4 interface.
Immaculate sound. Handy, easy-to-use app. Powerful EQ features.
EQ controls can feel vague. Limited reverb control. Only three inputs.
Bose L1 Pro 8
Ease of Use:
Nothing can make or break a gig quicker than a temperamental sound system. So it’s nice to be able to eliminate worry about a borrowed or house P.A. by using your own. Obviously, toting your own P.A. can be a cost prohibitive and space intensive for a lot of folks. But the original Bose L1 system was a big step forward for solo acts and small groups confronted with those problems. It was a true grab-and-go line-array PA that was affordable and easy to set up. Better still, it sounded great. The line-array system dispersed sound through a room with remarkable efficiency and it was way more powerful and detailed than its compact dimensions would suggest.
The new-generation L1 Pro8 reviewed here is even slimmer and lighter, thanks in part to a 7" x 13" oval RaceTrack subwoofer. The Pro8 is also enhanced by the new downloadable, Bluetooth-enabled L1 Mix app, which can help you mix wirelessly, save your own presets, and access Bose’s ToneMatch library of EQ presets, which are effective and sound fantastic.
Maximum Dispersal, Minimal Hassle
Modern PA systems usually fall into two categories: line array and point-and-shoot (or point source). The main difference between these systems is how the sound is dispersed. Point-and-shoot models project sound in a very direct manner, and can sound drastically different depending on where the listener is in relationship to the speaker. Line-array models, like the L1, use many small but powerful speakers arranged to spread sound more evenly through a space. The L1 Pro8 accomplishes this feat via eight articulated 2" neodymium drivers arranged in a tall enclosure that is affixed to the mixer/bass driver enclosure.
Setting up the Pro8 couldn’t be much easier. It comes in three pieces: the mixer/bass driver enclosure and two speaker sections that make up the tower. Before firing up the Pro8, I downloaded the L1 Mix app, which is available in both iOS and Android versions. With the app, you can remotely control EQ, reverb, and volume as well as access preset “scenes,” and use the system’s ToneMatch library of presets. The app is easy to use and could be indispensible to groups who want or need to mix on the fly in the absence of a front-of-house engineer.
The Pro8 is the smallest of the trio of new L1 models. (Bose also offers Pro16 and Pro32 models, which have 16 and 32 speakers, respectively, and can be supplemented with an optional subwoofer.) The output, however, is impressively loud. My first test was to crank up a playlist from my phone via Bluetooth, and in this simple, straightforward application the Pro8’s fidelity was excellent. The app controls were responsive and I didn’t notice any lag or latency when it came to volume or muting.
One standout feature on the new Pro8 is the ToneMatch function. It’s essentially a library of EQ presets designed to best match and enhance the characteristics of common acoustic guitars, basses, electric guitars, mics, and keyboards. You simply choose the closest approximation to the make and model of your instrument and the Pro8 adds a customized EQ profile.
I tested the system with a Taylor 912ce, so I went into the app, opened up the Taylor section and found 11 different options based on the model and whether I wanted to fingerpick or strum. Although the lack of a graphical EQ readout makes it hard to tell exactly what settings make up an EQ recipe, the ToneMatch preset really made the Taylor sound more alive, full, and crisp compared to the settings I found intuitively. The differences between the strum and fingerpick settings aren’t huge, but the high end seemed more pronounced in the latter mode. It can even be fun to assign a ToneMatch preset for, say, a Gibson Hummingbird or Guild D-25 to an entirely different guitar. Even without the ToneMatch presets, the EQ is flexible and powerful. And once you have a tone dialed in, it’s a snap to save it as a “scene” that you can recall later. You can also “share” scenes by connecting your app to a different L1.
When it comes to portable, all-in-one sound systems, the Pro8 sets a high bar. Assembly is easy enough that I was up and running with top-notch sound in five minutes. The mix app is also super-effective and easy to use and download. If you’re working with a bigger band, you might want more than the three inputs that are available here. But if you’re a solo performer, instrumental duet, or a band that primarily needs sound re-enforcement for vocals or an acoustic instrument or two, it would hard to find a more well-designed, simpler, or more convenient solution than the Pro8.
Inventive bracing, uncommon tonewoods, and a shorter scale make this small-bodied flattop both big voiced and super playable.
Loud for its size. Ringing, detailed top-end. Punchy, defined bass. Super playability. High quality.
Hard picking can generate harsh, compressed overtones.
$1,399 street; $1,599 street as tested with Expression System 2 electronics and included AeroCase
Taylor GTe Urban Ash
Taylor’s new GT Urban Ash breaks a lot of ground for one guitar. It marks the introduction of another specialized Andy Powers-devised bracing pattern. It introduces a new-for-Taylor 24 1/8" scale length. It also underscores Taylor’s recent adoption of, and commitment to, shamel ash—a beautiful wood harvested from Los Angeles street trees.
But the GT, or Grand Theater, is also evolutionary—an extension of a concept for a compact, portable, sweet-playing flattop that was born with the Baby Taylor and evolved into the GS Mini. Unlike those guitars, the GT is a U.S.A.-built, all-solid-wood guitar. And with dimensions similar to a 00 Martin, it isn’t exactly a travel guitar anymore. But its design enhancements make it a more complex and forceful sounding instrument than the smaller GS Mini.
Taylor design maestro Andy Powers has a pretty restless engineering mind. His V-Class bracing, now just a few years old, grabbed the attention of an acoustic world that rolls with change reluctantly. In very general terms, V-Class bracing was designed to deliver even resonance and greater projection. Powers adapted some of the lessons from the V-Class design process to the asymmetric, cantilevered C-Class bracing on the GT. And if you’re even vaguely accustomed to peeking at a flattop’s innards, the deviations from the norm are plain to see. The bracing sections are arrayed irregularly. Even the back bracing is, unconventionally, slanted aft on the bass side. The build quality inside and out is, no surprise, near immaculate. Setup and intonation are perfect, too.
Though shamel ash appears elsewhere in the Taylor catalog, Taylor made it a featured option in the GT line. It’s beautiful wood, with lots of cool figuring and walnut-like dark, deep grain that make it fun to look at and hold. The satin finish enhances its rustic qualities to lovely effect.
Tonally, it’s probably more akin to mahogany than anything else. But it also seems to emphasize fundamentals and sounds more responsive and full of reflective energy than mahogany. Combined with the C-Class bracing and the Sitka spruce top, the shamel ash enhances the snappier, more detailed facets of the GT’s personality. For players that want to chase more familiar tone recipes and explore the way they interact with the GT’s dimensions and bracing, there are also rosewood (GT 811e) and koa (GT K21e) versions.
Big, Bright Little Buddy
One of the striking things about the GTe Urban Ash is its occasionally forceful personality. Pick hard and it can be downright brash. But in general, the sum of the GTe’s wood recipe, bracing, and scale is a harmonic profile that’s punchy in the low end and full of energized, ringing treble tones.
When you use light-to-moderately-intense touch, the pronounced bass and trebles co-exist harmoniously with the body’s natural midrange. Not coincidentally, fingerpicking, hybrid picking, and strumming with a thin pick bring out the most balanced version of the guitar’s voice. Using these gentler approaches also mean you can utilize the instrument’s ample headroom to very dynamic ends.
Playing hard activates a very different personality—emphasizing the fast, punchy bass and the high-power treble at the expense of some midrange presence. If you play or record a lot of rhythm-driven rock songs acoustic style, you may well dig this aspect of the GTe’s makeup. The GTe is flat-out loud. And thanks to the low action and the beautifully shaped neck (which has more than a few echoes of a shallow, vintage-Fender U shape), it feels incredibly fast.
While there is no denying the GTe’s overachieving loudness, heavy pick attack tends to compress into a very punchy but washed out whole. That said, if you love Pete Townshend’s most aggressive rhythm playing, or Peter Buck’s and Johnny Marr’s flurries of arpeggios, you might find this sound an asset, and it’s easy to hear how the GTe would excel at layering extra-exciting rhythm parts in the studio.
The Taylor GTe Urban Ash tackles many tricky feats with aplomb. It almost manages the feel and speed of a well-set-up electric—even with .012 strings. It achieves head-turning volume and projection for a guitar of its size. Its bright-with-punchy-bass voice is unique, too, allowing opportunities for creative arrangement of acoustic rhythm and melody parts in performance and the studio.
But by growing in price and size, the GTe enters the ring with many formidable, top-quality small-guitar challengers, with more traditional tone palettes. If you like an acoustic with a lot of high-end definition, crave a small-bodied guitar with more detailed bottom end, or want to get the most possible projection from a smaller-bodied instrument, the GTe can deliver in spades. For players of such proclivities, the GTe’s fast, comfortable playability could awaken many creative possibilities.
Be sure to watch our First Look demo of the Taylor GTe Urban Ash: