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.)
The guitar virtuoso sifted through his vaults for the nuggets that began his two new albums, The Book of Making and Yesterday Meets Today, and then let inspiration take over.
Eric Johnson knows that excessive pride gets in the way of true progress, and that having extraordinary talent doesn’t beget personality or, simply put, make you better than anyone else. “I’ve spent so long being involved in [playing music] that, at one point, you take a break and go, ‘Yeah, but that’s not me—that’s just something I do. Who am I?’” he shares. “Regardless of how well you do it and how appreciated you are, it’s not like a carte blanche calling card that gives you any kind of real entitlement in life. If you think it does, then you don’t know who you are.”
That philosophy, along with his passion for the instrument, has, over time, superseded any ego-inflating diversions that can come from fame. And rather than resting on his legacy, the guitarist is building on it with the release of two albums: The Book of Making and Yesterday Meets Today. The records came together in a process of creative reconnaissance, where Johnson dove into his vault of recordings to find forgotten song ideas that could be polished, fleshed out, and rejuvenated for release.
Eric Johnson - Soundtrack Life (Official Visualizer)
The 18 tracks that collectively make up both albums include those that fit into a classic Johnson style, such as the brightly textured lead single from The Book of Making, “Soundtrack Life,” along with ones that explore other territories, like that album’s gentle, piano-guided “To Be Alive,” co-written with singer/guitarist Arielle, and a cover of the blues classic “Sittin’ on Top of the World” by the Mississippi Sheiks (famously covered by Howlin’ Wolf). These new compositions range from panoramic instrumentals to lilting ballads, embroidered by the guitarist’s fluid, crystalline tone and uplifting vocals. And together, they offer a new look into Johnson’s characteristic finesse.
When the last few weeks of his tour got cancelled in March 2020, Johnson, amidst the societal standstill and isolated from his bandmates, decided that the best use of his time would be to revisit his old demos and musical sketches. As he navigated through the tiny snippets, little chord changes, and other bits and pieces, he discovered that he had far more material available than expected and set to arranging and recording.
“When I take the vantage point of a listener, it’s easier to tell if stuff really has merit.”
I felt, well, if I’m going to be isolated, let me go try to find something to work on,” he says. “There’s a handful of songs that were written from scratch, and towards the end of the period I brought musicians in and we recorded new stuff. Then there’s a couple of tracks that I didn’t do anything to. They were just left over from outtakes from other records. But predominantly it was just stuff that was barely started, and I did a whole lot of work on my own.”
The songs done from scratch include “Floating Through This World” and “To Be Alive” from The Book of Making and “Hold on to Love” and “JVZ” (dedicated to Johnson’s late tour manager and guitar tech, Jeff Van Zandt) from Yesterday Meets Today. The original idea for the former album’s “My Faith in You” dates back 20 years, although its oldest song is “Love Will Never Say Goodbye,” which was built from a rough mix on a 25-year-old cassette. “That’s all I had,” Johnson says. “I couldn’t find the master take. It had synthesizer, bass, drums, and a vocal that was a little too low in level, but I just went with it. Then I added several guitars to it, and background vocals and percussion.”
Johnson’s distinctive hybrid picking technique is partly derived from steel guitar players, leading him to pluck all the strings in a chord at once. He also favors picking near the end of the pickguard, to get a warm, round tone from single notes.
Photo by Ken Settle
Twenty-five years ago, Johnson was having an especially fertile creative period, despite his reputation as a painstaking studio craftsman. His albums Venus Isle and Seven Worlds sprang from that era, and his tenure on tour with fellow maestros Joe Satriani and Steve Vai was preserved on G3: Live in Concert. And while he’s more relaxed about record-making these days, he’s no less creative or prolific. The popular virtuoso says that every time he sets out to make an album, he usually ends up making two—and stashes the excess recordings in his vault. In this case, his efforts at rekindling his past inspirations resulted in 28 tracks that were pared down to the final 18, although he intends to eventually release five or six more of the original set on an upcoming EP.
Producer Kelly Donnelly, who has worked with Johnson on eight previous albums plus his 2014 collaboration with Mike Stern, Eclectic, helped with some of the engineering, but Johnson did most of it himself. In the process, he learned something interesting about the usefulness of low-fidelity recordings: If you pair them with recordings of a higher quality, the combination can create a compelling depth of field. This meant that he was able to salvage and build upon some of his more compromised cassette recordings. “I found that to be fascinating—it was like, ‘Wow, that kind of works.’ I didn’t know that was going to happen.”
“There has to be an element of the music that has enough power and velocity to reach out to the listener, rather than just be sonically nice to listen to.”
In 2020, Johnson worked with Fender to create a replica of his 1954 “Virginia” Stratocaster, which he played on many of the tracks from The Book of Making and Yesterday Meets Today. The guitar’s body is made with the less commonly seen sassafras wood and set up with a DiMarzio bridge pickup and ’57/’62 single-coil Strat middle and neck pickups. On the albums, he played a handful of other models, including a 1957 Strat with a maple neck, a 1965 Gibson ES-345 semi-hollowbody, and a late-’50s Les Paul. He also plays a National lap steel and Danelectro Vincent Bell Coral sitar on some tracks.
When it comes to songwriting, Johnson comments that his self-proclaimed perfectionist tendency to overthink things can work against him. “The songs where you’re really pushing and striving and stressing end up sounding like that,” he says, while the ones that just flow are the ones that are, for him, most worth working on. His creative process usually begins with making recordings of musical snapshots on his iPhone. He’ll capture a phrase on guitar or piano, or sometimes record himself singing a vocal or instrumental melody to later revisit. “They’re pretty embarrassing, if anybody ever found ’em,” he laughs, referring to the latter.
Eric Johnson’s Gear
Although Johnson records with a variety of guitars, his weapon of choice—even before he immortalized his own version of the model’s sound via 1986’s Tones and 1990’s Ah Via Musicom—has long been the Fender Stratocaster.
Photo by Jim Summaria
- Eric Johnson Virginia Fender Stratocaster
- 1957 Fender Stratocaster
- 1965 Gibson ES-345
- 1950s Gibson Les Paul
- National lap steel
- Danelectro Vincent Bell Coral Sitar
Strings & Picks
- D’Addario EPN110 Pure Nickel sets
- Dunlop Jazz IIIs
- TC Electronic Stereo Chorus
- Electro-Harmonix Memory Man
- Vintage Echoplex (modded for use as preamp)
- ’60s Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face
- Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer
- BK Butler Tube Driver
- Marshall plexi 50
- Two-Rock Classic Reverb
- Marshall 4x12
- Fender Bandmaster Reverb
- Electro-Voice speakers
Deciding which compositions to keep or toss can be a curious process. To better judge his own writing, Johnson says it’s important for him to detach and act like an audience member or listener—so not to give himself any favoritism. “You have to dispel all that,” he says. “When I take the vantage point of a listener, it’s easier to tell if stuff really has merit.” While that can sound like a purely imaginative exercise, he has a rather practical way of getting to that perspective. Often, he’ll just crank up his studio monitors and walk into another room to listen.
“That helps you tell whether something’s really reaching you or not,” he elaborates, “because you’re not sitting there enveloping yourself and hyping yourself on something. There has to be an element of the music that has enough power and velocity to reach out to the listener, rather than just be sonically nice to listen to.”
“There’s nobody who’s going to be able to do what you do the way you do it.”
Johnson calls the evolution of his sound a “crazy process” that he says could go on forever, but he tries to let the music speak and will work to rise to the occasion to come up with a part that fits. “Sometimes that means I have to study a part that I can’t normally play.” Which means his self-labeled “perennial student” mentality has its benefits.
When asked if he experiences self-doubt, Johnson shares that he believes the habit of comparing yourself to others can be demoralizing, but he looks to practicing gratitude as a solution. “It’s just trying to be thankful for what you have and not compare yourself to other people. The more you’re in yourself and do your best.… There’s nobody who’s going to be able to do what you do the way you do it.”
Some of the 18 songs spread over Johnson’s two new albums trace back 25 years, to the era of his first G3 Tour and his records Venus Isle and Seven Worlds.
Johnson was born into a musical family, with a father who was an enthusiastic music appreciator and three sisters who studied piano. His parents have said that he loved records when he was 3 years old. They listened to a lot of swing and showtunes, he says, which he developed a taste for as a child. He got his own record player when he was 5.
The guitarist walks through the lightshow clouds on the Experience Hendrix tour in 2014, searching for butterflies, moonbeams, and fairy tales within his alluring sound.
Photo by Frank White
When Johnson got into playing music, he began to study piano at age 11, then took some lessons on guitar—though on guitar, he was mainly transposing what he learned on piano. His passion for wood and strings, however, quickly took over. “I loved it so much that I incessantly worked at it to get better, and it’s all I wanted to do,” he says.
“When I was a kid and saw all the cats playin’ guitar—Cream and the Yardbirds and all those people—I was like, ‘This is awesome,’” he shares. “Plus, it was kind of the first generation of overdriven guitar with fuzz tones. It was a sound that you’d just never heard before. That was really exciting.” He played in bands as a teenager, and tried going to college at the University of Texas at Austin but only earned three credits from taking an astronomy course, thinking it might be something he would want to pursue. But becoming a professional musician ended up being his clear choice.
Rig Rundown - Eric Johnson 
Despite his high profile and staggering proficiency, plus eight Grammy nominations and a win for his 1991 tune “Cliffs of Dover,” Johnson says he’s remained conscious of not letting things go to his head, saying, “It’s better to just let it flow, like when you were a kid just loving to play,” he says. “It’s best to let that happen naturally. Once you start becoming too aware of yourself and assimilating your legacy or living in your stature or fame or notoriety, you create a feedback loop where you’ll trip over yourself eventually.”
Expanding their sound into a raucously shoegazey and groove-driven new seam, guitar slingers Conor Curley and Carlos O’Connell take us inside the whirlwind of their latest album, Skinty Fia.
We all know how the Irish saved civilization—and if you don’t know the story, look for Thomas Cahill’s excellent tome on the subject—but what about rock ’n’ roll? From Van Morrison and Them to Rory Gallagher and Taste, or Thin Lizzy to the Pogues, U2 to the Cranberries, My Bloody Valentine to Snow Patrol, Irish rockers have given the British blues explosion a run for its silver, carving out an unbroken line from soul and blues-rock all the way to hardcore punk and ultramod art-rock, and they’ve done it in large measure while hewing close to the staunchly Irish traditions of myth, poetry, storytelling, rebel yells, and romantic longing.
It’s way too soon to refer to the five 20-something lads of Fontaines D.C. as rock saviors (they’d scoff at the prospect anyway), but Skinty Fia, the band’s third slab since their 2019 Mercury Prize-nominated debut, Dogrel, has rapidly turned up the critical heat, going straight to No. 1 on the U.K. Albums Chart upon release. The leadoff single “Jackie Down the Line,” a righteously gloomy but beat-driven rocker, sets the tone for the album, with frontman Grian Chatten transforming himself into the song’s dark narrator (“I will stone you, I’ll alone you”) as guitarists Conor Curley and Carlos O’Connell mesh together in a jangly, echo-laced interplay of crafty three-note chords, 12-string acoustic filigrees, and tremolo-washed sheets of sound. Add the locked rhythm section of Conor “Deego” Deegan (bass) and Tom Coll (drums) behind them, and the band’s tightness, augmented by their dogged desire to keep experimenting, instantly permeates every song.
Fontaines D.C. - Jackie Down The Line (Official video)
“I think when we first met, we were mainly just songwriters,” observes Curley, reminiscing on their early moments together. “I mean, obviously I’m a guitar player, but I saw myself more as a songwriter, and I think the other lads did as well. So the first album was the culmination of trying to be aware of our abilities, and keep things raw and exciting. We were playing 100-cap venues in Dublin, so there was no point in trying to overextend ourselves.
“After that, we felt we had more strings to our bow, in terms of the songs that we knew we could do. We went down more of an introspective path, and definitely got into more psychedelic music with the second album [A Hero’s Death]. And now it’s just a combination of all that. I think something that defines us as a band is that we never want to sit still in a sound. We’re always trying to be inspired by different things.”
Fontaines D.C.’s three albums were all produced by Dan Carey. The band’s first two albums were recorded at Carey’s London home studio, but for the third, Fontaines decided on a change of scenery, opting to record Skinty Fia at Angelic Studio in the English countryside.
The band also stuck with producer Dan Carey (Black Midi, Geese, Wet Leg, and plenty more), graduating from Carey’s home studio in London, where they recorded their first two albums, to the larger Angelic Studio complex in the idyllic English countryside, near Oxfordshire. But before they even took up residence, each band member made the most of the prolonged pandemic lockdown to flesh out detailed demos, either working in Logic or with handheld recorded snippets of vocals and guitar. Armed with well-prepped songs and the prospect of working with Carey in entirely new surroundings, as O’Connell describes it, opened up possibilities that led to a bigger, more multi-layered sound.
“What I love about Dan is his process is in two stages,” O’Connell says. “We were in a bigger studio this time, so he wanted to take advantage of that. There’s the live guts of the recording [from the floor], and that’s just getting the sound right at the start. We spent a couple of days gaining up all the inputs, so when it hits the desk, it’s pretty much a very balanced mix. Then it’s just about playing well and having the songs arranged properly so they work.
“The first album was very much in a fighting mode, with the two guitars EQ’ed the same and just smashing off each other. On the second one, we learned to play together a little better.” —Conor Curley
“And then at the second stage, we do overdubs. We rarely add new parts, but we’ll redo the parts we have, either with a different instrument or treated differently.”
Both Curley and O’Connell also brought some of their earliest influences to bear, including the slashing surf guitar leads of the Birthday Party’s Rowland S. Howard, along with the snakebitten Fender Mustang kick of Kurt Cobain. “We also played a bit more with a blend,” O’Connell says, “like what happened with rock and roll and electronic music in the ’90s, you know? Primal Scream, Death in Vegas, even U2 went through that phase, but they all used actual synthesizers and drum machines. Our idea was to make it sound like that with our own instruments.”
Carlos O’Connell’s Gear
Carlos O’Connell bought his ’67 Fender Mustang online without knowing it was a 3/4-scale smaller model, but it’s become one of his main road warriors.
Photo by Simon Reed
- 2019 Johnny Marr Jaguar
- ’67 Fender Mustang 3/4 scale
- 50th Anniversary Fender Jazzmaster [prototype]
- Martin J12-15 with L.R. Baggs M80 active humbucker
- Seagull Artist Studio 12 Burst with L.R. Baggs Lyric acoustic microphone system
- Fender ’68 Custom Twin Reverb
- Fender ’68 Custom Deluxe Reverb
- 1975 Fender Deluxe Reverb (used only at Angelic Studio)
- THD Electronics Hot Plate
- MXR M133 Micro Amp
- Electro-Harmonix Soul Food
- Strymon Lex Rotary
- Moogerfooger MF Flange
- Moose Electronics Cosmic Tremorlo
- Moose Electronics Reverb
- Boss TR-2 Tremolo
- Electro-Harmonix Op Amp Big Muff Pi
- Electro-Harmonix POG
- Boss GE-7 Graphic Equalizer
- Dunlop Volume (X)
- EarthQuaker Devices Life Pedal
- Vein-Tap Murder One Killswitch
Strings & Picks
- Ernie Ball Burly Slinkys
- Dunlop Tortex .60 mm
The album’s title track “Skinty Fia” (roughly translated, “the damnation of the deer”) delivers on the idea. Wielding his trusty ’67 Mustang through Carey’s own ’75 Fender Deluxe Reverb, O’Connell avails himself of a chaotic wash of tremolo (aided by a reverb pedal from Dublin-based Moose Electronics, which he unconventionally places first in the effects chain, ahead of his overdrives) to propel the song’s relentless, hypnotic churn. Meanwhile, in the left channel—throughout the album, each guitarist occupies his own side of the stereo image—Curley knifes into the mix with an echo-drenched melody on his Johnny Marr Jaguar, routed into a Fender Twin Reverb, to accentuate Chatten’s menacing vocal, while Deego and Coll hammer out a beat that recalls Nine Inch Nails with a thick, dub-style low end.
“I think we’re trying to be more patient, and more conscious of the texture,” Curley says, describing how he and O’Connell have worked together to refine their sound. Like most bands with a two-guitar attack (the well-known Irish precedent of Thin Lizzy comes to mind), the symbiosis comes with time, practice, and subtle lines of communication. “The first album was very much in a fighting mode,” he continues, “with the two guitars EQ’d the same and just smashing off each other. On the second one, we learned to play together a little better. We’re still working on it, and sometimes we still try to become as one almost, when the song needs it, but I think now we’ve learned to fit in with how we’re EQing everything. It feels really good.”
Fontaines D.C. - Full Performance (Live on KEXP)
The confidence shines through on Skinty Fia, especially when the two axe-slingers choose to embrace a little sonic chaos. On the dark drum-and-bass-influenced opening track “In ár gCroíthe go deo” (“In Our Hearts Forever”), O’Connell tees up another locked tremolo effect, eventually morphing into an otherworldly chorus effect, mirrored by Curley, of what sounds like distant dogs howling. “It’s only at the end where my guitar comes in,” Curley clarifies. “I’m just following the bass with the chords, at a very high frequency, and with delays at the end of every phrase. I hit my [Industrialectric] Echo Degrader, and that’s what really sends it into a spin.”
On the Curley-penned “Nabokov,” the layers of noise lean heavily on classic shoegaze and dub, with Curley again availing himself of the Echo Degrader. “That pedal is so unpredictable, it’s almost like it doesn’t sound the same every time you use it. I’ve been using that and an RV-7 [by Digitech Hardwire] for gated and reverse reverb. There were definitely a lot more shoegazey elements that we were trying to get to, and, obviously, if you start talking about Kevin Shields or even Robin Guthrie from Cocteau Twins, the stuff they did, to me, is almost unreachable, but if you try, you might end up with something new anyway.”
Conor Curley’s Gear
Conor Curley often toggles between this ’66 Fender Coronado II and a Johnny Marr Jaguar.
Photo by Debi Del Grande
- 2019 Fender Johnny Marr Jaguar
- ’66 Fender Coronado II
- Fylde 12-string (loan from Richard Hawley)
- Fender ’68 Custom Twin Reverb
- Lazy J (used only at Angelic Studio)
- THD Electronics Hot Plate
Strings & Picks
- Ernie Ball Burly Slinkys
- Dunlop Tortex .60 mm
- Industrialectric Echo Degrader
- DigiTech Hardwire RV-7 Stereo Reverb
- Moose Electronics Reverb
- Moose Electronics Delay
- Strymon Sunset
- Strymon Deco
- ThorpyFX Chain Home
- Electro-Harmonix Nano POG
- Dunlop Volume (X)
By contrast, both guitarists reached for a 12-string acoustic on a pair of songs: Curley on the aforementioned “Jackie Down the Line,” and O’Connell on the smoldering groover “Roman Holiday.” Oddly enough, the Fontaines acquired the guitar, a beautifully finished Fylde custom 12-string, from British crooner and troubadour Richard Hawley, who met the band on a recent jaunt in Sheffield. “We were struggling to find a really nice sound on a 12-string,” O’Connell says, “so it was like, let me just text him. He was really excited about being a part of it and lending us the guitar, and it was magic. Just a beautiful guitar. Someday I’ll get one, but you can never play it live because it’s just too precious.”
And on tour, Fontaines comes across as anything but precious. Chatten often prowls the stage like a wounded animal between verses, wielding the mic stand like a cudgel and seeming to goad the band into wilder forays of sonic exploration. At a recent packed house in Brooklyn, Curley and O’Connell whipped “Too Real,” one of their earliest singles from Dogrel, into a feedback-laden, psych-rock deluge, while an encore of “Nabokov” made the most of the dueling washes of noise that each guitarist can deliver, with precision, from either side of the stage. As a unit, they’re brash, tough, and confident—typically young, and typically Irish.
Carlos O’Connell utilizes his prototype 50th Anniversary Fender Jazzmaster when he’s going for a deep, low-end guitar tone.
Photo by Tim Bugbee
“We’ve found refuge within each other, and within our identity,” O’Connell observes when asked about the band’s recent, and inevitable, move to London. Chatten in particular, as frontman and lyricist, has been outspoken in interviews about some of the prejudices he’s encountered, a sentiment that inspired the song “In ár gCroíthe go deo,” which pays tribute to an Irish woman in Coventry who was initially denied permission to bury her late mother with the Irish inscription on her gravestone.
“We also found that accumulated frustration with a very ignorant misunderstanding of Ireland from Britain’s point of view, which started to piss us off quite a bit,” O’Connell reveals. “But then we wrote this album, and ever since, it’s starting to open up a lot. It’s given me the dream of what I thought I would find in London: a place where we’re more anonymous and where there’s less expected from us, you know?”
“We were struggling to find a really nice sound on a 12-string, so it was like, let me just text him [Richard Hawley].” —Carlos O’Connell
Surely those expectations will grow in urgency as time goes on, but for now Fontaines D.C. seems content to ride the lightning. “There’s been a lot of self-discovery along the way,” Curley says. “There’s always inspiration to be found in Irish art and culture, and we’re also massively into Irish traditional music. Me and Tom got really into Paul Brady and Andy Irvine and Planxty, and we wrote a good few Irish ballads. At one point, we actually thought of doing Skinty Fia as a double album, which I guess might’ve seemed a little gratuitous. Hopefully those songs will see the light of day in a different context.
“But now that we’re back on tour, whatever happens, I think we’re definitely not gonna take any of it for granted. We’re just trying to enjoy all the things we see, and trying to put on really good shows.”