An in-demand indie collaborator and her trusty Strat step into the spotlight with an artfully layered solo debut, Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void).
There's an old debate among musicians on the topic of musical literacy. Some claim that a working knowledge of theory and notation detracts from creativity, while others say the more you know, the greater your musicianship.
Meg Duffy, 26, a formally trained guitarist and singer-songwriter in Los Angeles by way of upstate New York, makes a strong case for the latter argument. Duffy's command of fretboard harmony and her melodic inventiveness—not to mention her mastery of effects pedals—have made her a busy collaborator. In the last several years, she's enhanced the music of indie artists like Kevin Morby, Mega Bog, and Weyes Blood, among others.
But Duffy's vision is best appreciated by spinning her debut LP, Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void), which she released under the name Hand Habits. On the album, she sets her songs—as well as poetry by Kayla Ephros, Catherine Pond, and Lucy Blagg—to rich soundscapes that beckon you to peel back and discover their many sonic layers.
Reached via telephone, Duffy explained how she arrived at these uncanny sounds, how she captured them in the bedroom of a Los Angeles house, and about how music theory has informed her creative decisions.
There are so many great guitar sounds on Wildly Idle. What's their primary source?
I just used one electric guitar, and I've only ever had one. It's a Fender Lone Star Strat with a rosewood fretboard and single-single-hum Seymour Duncans. I use the tremolo system a lot. I made it really tight with an extra spring, too, because I don't like it when it has a lot of give. It's just not as physical when it's loose.
Why do you only have one guitar?
I've never found another guitar that I like that I was willing to spend money on. I've been thinking about getting a Jaguar or a Mustang, though. I want something that I can play behind the bridge. I had the pleasure of opening for Wilco, with another group that I play in, and it was great to hear those pointy sounds from behind the bridge. But yeah, I haven't gotten another guitar because I love mine so much.
What's your history with that Strat, and why do you love it so much?
It was the first guitar I ever bought for myself. I started out on an Austin Strat copy. After about a year, my uncle Richard, who is a luthier, was like, “Okay, now you should get a real guitar," and he took me to a place called Parkway Music in Clifton Park, New York. I went in wanting a white or seafoam green one, but I ended up liking this sunburst Strat so much I bought it. It was 900 bucks, which was a lot, because I was 18 and about to go to college.
The neck always feels so good to me. And I love the way the way the guitar sounds, although as my ear is evolving, I'm starting to recognize why it would be nice to have another guitar, in terms of tone. I don't always like the midrange on it.
Duffy's debut album as Hand Habits was recorded mostly in her bedroom using an Avid Mbox interface, Pro Tools, and a few borrowed microphones.
Maybe part of it is sentimental. I feel I've built up a relationship with my guitar. I know it so well, and I can pull off the things I want to execute on it. It's like driving a car.
Let's talk about the rest of the gear. What effects and amps did you use on the record?
I was originally using a vintage Music Man that was left in the house that I was recording in. I tracked a couple of rhythm guitars on that, and then it started to shit the bed. It wasn't having any output at all, and those things are notoriously heavy. I also didn't have a car, so I was like, “I can't really fix this. I can't bring it anywhere." I also didn't want to put money into it, because it wasn't mine.
And then, halfway through making the record, I bought a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe. That's always a fun amp I go back to because it's so simple and it has a lot of bass. I tend to roll off the high end on anything I do. I started using that amp, and then—I don't know if it was a tube problem or there was something rattling within the cabinet—any time I'd play the note D, it would rattle. That started driving me nuts, so I recorded the rest of the guitar on the album direct, through an [Avid] Mbox.
What about effects?
I have a bunch of pedals, which were always in the mix. I used an [Ibanez] TS9DX [Turbo Tube Screamer], which I keep on the TS9 setting. I also use a Boss Mega Distortion, which is really cool. I have a Strymon El Capistan that I use on guitar, as well as vocals, because the reverb sounds great, and it always adds a nice fake-tape sound. Their stuff is so good. I wish I could afford more.
I love using a Diamond Quantum Leap delay—especially in the pitch ramp mode—and after that I'll put the Strymon, with a really long decay time, so I get a lot of oscillation. The Quantum Leap's pitch ramp is foot-controllable, and when I hold down the footswitch, it gives off a subtle “whoo"—a lot more subtle than other pitch-shifting pedals.
And then there's the looping. I use a [Line 6] DL4 to build soundscapes, and I also have the Electro-Harmonix 45000, a 4-track looping recorder that includes some amazing effects. I like to run both loopers at the same time.
Duffy plays only one guitar, a Fender Lone Star Stratocaster, but lately has been eyeing Jaguars and Mustangs, so she could get “those pointy sounds" by plucking strings behind the bridge. Photo by Chantal Anderson
The guitars sound very lush. Are you using anything for reverb?
Yes. I have a reverb pedal, the DigiTech Polara, that came out not that long ago. I feel like DigiTech gets a bad rap, except for the older stuff, but I really love it, especially the Hall and Halo settings.
What is your musical background?
I started playing guitar and listening to mostly classic rock and blues, because I had an uncle who was playing guitar in a cover band, doing Led Zeppelin and Stevie Ray Vaughan and stuff like that. I was into Stevie Ray Vaughan when I first started playing guitar. I'd listen to his version of “Little Wing" and think, “Wow, I wish I could do that with a guitar." It just sounded so physical.
I was in a lot of cover bands playing that kind of music in high school, jamming with friends, but I was also in the jazz band, even though I couldn't read music yet. I would go home after I got the music and spend hours trying to turn it into tab. After I graduated high school, I went to Schenectady County Community College for guitar performance. I was the only female in my guitar program.
What was that like?
It just made me feel that I wanted to be better than the boys at everything I did, always. I had a really good teacher, who was mostly a bluegrass player. I was in a pick-style program. We learned a lot of chordal melodies and we would have to read through Paganini pieces, too. But then, for my recitals, I would always play jazz chordal melodies. I think the last piece I performed was “Misty" or something like that. There was a lot of improv going on, and I always played a lot with people in the program.
How did you get into songwriting?
Once I was out of college, I taught guitar for a little while, and I started writing songs about that time. I didn't really share them with anyone. I think I was still writing, at that point, in a theory brain, because of all the part writing and voice leading I'd studied and become obsessed with. I would write all these weird guitar parts that I would now put on and be, like, “This is lame." I wasn't accessing this part of the rest of the creativity that I'm learning how to access now. It took me a little while to bridge the gap between having all this knowledge and being able to apply it with a creative mind.
What do you think helped you bridge that gap?
Just not being afraid of simple chord changes. Not being afraid of a I–IV–V progression, or staying in the key of G major, or just playing what comes to me, rather than “How can I make this interesting first?"
These days, do you ever feel tempted to use more advanced harmonic concepts, or is it something that you've moved beyond?
I think that there's a lot of it in my playing, even when I'm not aware of it. I was in a session a couple months ago, and I wasn't thinking I was playing anything theoretically advanced, but the guy who hired me said, “Wow, you're in that mode up there. What is that?" To me, it's just that I'm using the major scale in a different way. It's not something that most contemporary pop, folk-rock people think about when they're writing.
Would you say your training has given you a wider range of options when it comes to diatonic harmony?
For sure. And I always go back to the sentiment that when someone's really well read, and they have studied philosophy or language, they're usually able to express a very intricate thought without overwhelming someone with language.
Where did you record the album?
I recorded two of the songs, “All the While" and “In Between," in Saugerties, New York, with the help
of my friend Kevin Laureau. We co-engineered, and he helped me with a little arranging on one song.
The rest of it I recorded in my bedroom in a house in Highland Park [a historic Los Angeles neighborhood]. I'd just moved there, and Jeremy [Earl] from [the record label] Woodsist had heard some of my older songs and was really into them. He said, “We should do a record," and at first I thought, “Okay, cool, but I don't know when I'll have enough songs," because I wasn't really writing that much. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, I was surprised at how much I started writing.
But in terms of recording, I was creating all these roadblocks for myself, and venting to friends: “I don't know how I'm going to do this record. I think I'm going to have to work a lot first, and I want to go into a studio." Then I thought, “These are all problems that I'm creating for myself. I have an Mbox and Pro Tools on my computer. I can borrow microphones and I can just do this on my own."
After graduating high school, Duffy went to Schenectady County Community College for guitar performance. She was the only female in the guitar program. Photo by Robbie Simon
What gear did you end up borrowing?
In terms of microphones, I borrowed a Shure SM7B and a Blue Dragonfly, one of those condenser mics, which sounded great on vocals. As for Pro Tools, I was using the LE version, and just whatever basic plug-ins come with that. I'm a big fan of the stereo pan—there's a lot of hard panning on the record.
What did you learn from the process of recording yourself?
Anything I didn't know how to do, I just looked at a YouTube tutorial—things like how to automate reverb without creating another track. If I couldn't find an answer or didn't have the capability, I would try to figure out how to do it a different way, which was cool.
It sounds like you sweated the details.
I'd actually try not to spend that much time on every track. I've been in recording situations without time constraints, and I think people can get really obsessed with options, in terms of getting sounds. I didn't have a lot of experience, obviously, up until this point. So I made a promise to myself not to spend too much time on the sonics.
In terms of songwriting, do you start off with a strong idea of what you want before tracking or do you write your songs as part of the recording process?
I usually have a strong idea of what I want a song to sound like—at least for the rhythm section—and it's usually very simple. My process is, like, “Oh, I'm going to record a scratch guitar and vocal, and then I'll record over it and just do a lot of layering."
Obviously, there's a lot of overdubbing, because it was just me. A lot of the songs started with just a guitar and me singing a scratch vocal, and then I would add the real guitar and the real bass before spending a lot of days trying to come up with some cool percussion parts.
On “All the While," you play some slide guitar, first just single notes, and then harmonized, with some intriguing effects.
That was just me running my guitar through a [Boss] DD-7. During the take, Kevin live-manipulated the oscillation, to get it to feed back. The DD-7 pedal was before that Diamond Quantum Leap that I was telling you about, with the pitch modulation. It's super subtle, but you can kind of hear the warble at the end of it.
“Book on How to Change" has other cool guitar moments, like the spontaneous lead lines beneath the surface.
I did a couple passes of that one where I was like, “Okay, I'm just going to solo over the whole thing, and see what I get." There are some cool little riffs in there that I was pretty proud of. I feel I should apologize to Nels Cline for ripping him off so much, but he's my hero. And then just a lot of the soundscape building was fun because it's like jamming with yourself.
You're going on tour soon and will presumably be playing these songs with a band. What do you think that will be like?
I'm still learning how to communicate to a band how I want things played, especially since I made the record mostly on my own. Actually, I'm rehearsing these songs with other people for the first time next week, and it'll be interesting because I get a little bit protective of some parts. There are so many subtleties that come out of making a record, and then the songs kind of grow around the recording, and they feed into each other.
It'll be fun to let go of that—a little bit at least—and allow the other players to have their own voices within these songs I've created. I'm interested in facilitating a good time for people, too, musically speaking, and something that's fulfilling for them, as well as for me and the listeners.
In this recent solo performance recorded live in Paris, Meg Duffy creates a huge shimmering sound with her trusty Fender Lone Star Stratocaster and delay pedals.
Curious about modern gold foil pickups? Start your investigation by checking out these 10 options.
Historically associated with inexpensive student-model guitars of the 1960s, gold foil pickups are now all the rage. Before you go down the eBay rabbit hole for a vintage set, do yourself a favor and check out one of the numerous modern replicas available.
These handmade single-coils were designed to offer clarity and power, with a pristine top-end and a wide dynamic range. Nickel, chrome, or gold covers are available.
These single-coil soapbars contain flat, alnico bar magnets that are meant to serve up a warmer, rounder high-end than the company’s ferrite versions.
Designed to have the same character as an original gold foil at an affordable non-vintage price, these fully wax-potted pickups are housed in standard humbucker-sized cases.
These handwound gold foils were designed to replicate those used on late-’50s to late-’60s Silvertones. Made to DeArmond/Rowe specs, these pickups can also be ordered with custom specs.
This affordable set housed in mini-humbucker-sized covers includes a bridge pickup at 10.2k ohms and a neck pickup at 10.8k ohms.
Down to the specialized rubberized magnet, these pickups are exact clones of gold foil pickups from the ’60s and are intended to sound clear, powerful, and harmonically rich.
Taking cues from the originals for clear and thick single-coil tones, these modern-version gold foils will fit any humbucker-equipped guitar.
Designed to deliver lots of warmth and clarity with enough output to produce that P-90 grind, this vintage-inspired gold foil comes packaged in a smaller, handsome mini footprint.
Lowrider single-coils are flat-magnet, surface-mount pickups with spacing for a standard Strat-style guitar and are underwound to come in at just under 5k ohms.
PG corrals a half-dozen of the market’s most compelling 8" replacement speakers, from budget delights to high-end heavyweights.
Everyone questions their existence, yet we all hold out hope for a sighting of our own. No, I’m not talking about yetis or UFOs. I’m referring to the phenomenon of stumbling across big-name vintage gear being sold at a decent price. For most of us, stories about finding, say, old Fender or Gibson gear at anything other than multiple times its original price is nothing short of urban legend. But I’m here to tell you this stuff does still happen.
My story isn’t about an amazing score of a $200 ’67 Jaguar or anything, but finding a silverface Fender Vibro Champ for significantly less than six or seven bills is still unusual. Unusual enough that I was tempted to dismiss the Craigslist ad with a single blurry photo and an asking price of $400. Was it real? Was it busted? Was it ruined by a stupid mod?
When I showed up to test the little 1x8 combo, Telecaster in hand, the owner led me to his garage and proceeded to relate how he got the amp: A friend had purchased a repossessed cabin still stocked with the previous owners’ contents—including a Fender M-80 combo in pretty bad shape, and a Peavey amp that they’d decided to throw in a bonfire with other junk they determined wasn’t worth a drive to a second-hand store. (I was tempted to ask if alcohol was involved in this careless, dangerous decision, but I bit my tongue.) Neither guy played guitar, but the nice fellow I was dealing with had recognized the Fender brand name, figured he could make a little money, and stopped his buddy from burning the M-80 and Vibro Champ.
The 6V6-powered combo was dusty, scuffed, and pretty dirty, but to my great surprise everything functioned properly when I plugged in, strummed, and twiddled the knobs. Flipping the cab around, I examined the tube chart and serial numbers, quickly cross-referencing online tools to determine that it was built in 1976. As I noodled for a few more minutes to make sure it didn’t fart-out under consistent use or heavy playing, the only thing I couldn’t figure out was why it was so much quieter and less dynamic at full-bore than the silverface VC I’d (stupidly) sold years before. So I took a closer look at the speaker and discovered it was a cheapo replacement that looked like something a budget-strapped teenager might throw into a makeshift extension cab for his car stereo.
I explained to the owner that the horrible speaker wasn’t original, he knocked $50 off the price, and I headed home with the grimy little thing—crossing my fingers that the speaker was the only real issue. Not being remotely qualified to open it up and diagnose its health, I then sent my “new” Vibro Champ off to amp guru Tim Schroeder at Schroeder Amplification in Chicago. A few days later, Tim called to say the amp checked out fine and was all stock—he’d simply cleaned it up a bit, upgraded the power cable, and swapped out a 12AX7. It was now ready for our voyage into the adventures of speaker replacement.
Replacing an 8" speaker isn’t remotely as daunting as looking for a new 12" speaker. The total number of models from all mainstream manufacturers is a tiny fraction of what a single big company offers for full-size amps. Even so, we didn’t have the resources to test every compelling 8" on the market and were forced to narrow it down to six 4-ohm models.
Each speaker was installed in the ’76 Vibro Champ—which features a tube complement of a single 6V6 in the power section, two 12AX7s (one for the preamp, one for the tremolo circuit), and a 5Y3 rectifier—and tested with a Telecaster and a Schecter Ultra III. The Tele is outfitted with vintage-voiced Curtis Novak pickups (a traditional Tele unit in the bridge, and a Jazzmaster neck unit), while the Ultra III has a TV Jones Magna’Tron bridge pickup and Duncan Designed mini humbuckers in the middle and neck positions. I tested each speaker at various settings, but to streamline the sound samples I recorded each speaker at two settings: with volume, treble, and bass all at 5, and then with them all at 10. The samples were captured with a Royer R-121 dead center on the speaker and up close to the grille. For much of the playing, I also used a J. Rockett Audio Designs Archer (with output and treble at noon, and gain at minimum) to push the amp a little. I also used Catalinbread Topanga and MXR reverb pedals, and at times engaged a Jordan Fuzztite.
7-oz. alnico magnet
Clip 2—Tele Bridge & Vibro Champ - Vol, Treble And Bass - 5
Clip 3—Tele Bridge & Vibro Champ - Vol, Treble And Bass - Max
Clip 4—Tele Bridge + Neck & Vibro Champ - Vol, Treble And Bass - 5
Clip 5—Tele Neck & Vibro Champ - Vol, Treble And Bass - 5