September 4-10, 2000
The "Artist of the Week" web site feature highlights a new flatpicking guitarist each week. With the recent release of the his CD Ready To Go, we felt like it was time to highlight Bryan Sutton.
He's Ready To Go
by Dan Miller
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Bryan Sutton is on fire. Consider an acoustic guitar player whose career accomplishments include touring and recording with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder; playing on two Grammy winning records (Skagg's Ancient Tones and the Dixie Chicks' Fly); filling in for the injured Tony Rice for two months with the Bluegrass Sessions Band tour (Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, and Mark Schatz); appearing on Dolly Parton's newest recording The Grass Is Blue and performing with her on the Tonight Show, Letterman, and Regis and Kathie Lee; and releasing his own solo project, Ready To Go, on Sugar Hill records. Not to mention also appearing on recordings by Jerry Douglas, Bobby Hicks, Jesse Winchester, Aubrey Haynie, Rhonda Vincent and various other bluegrass, country, folk, and gospel artists. Now consider that all of this has occurred since we last visited with Bryan about two and a half years ago. And, by the way, Bryan is only twenty-six years old.
Sutton has the ability to play incredibly fast while still maintaining clarity and volume, which is difficult to do, but his talent is not limited to fast tempo fiddle tunes. Bryan's years of studio work in gospel, country, and bluegrass as well as his study of musical styles ranging from classical, to jazz, to rock, have given him a well rounded perspective, which is reflected in his playing. Luthier Dana Bourgeois said, "The first time I heard Bryan play, I knew he was going to be a major force in the flatpicking world."
Bryan Sutton grew up near Asheville, North Carolina, where his first exposure to music was listening to his father and grandfather's old time mountain fiddle music. Bryan says, "My grandfather was a fiddler and he also made fiddles. My dad is a very good musician. He is a great rhythm guitar player, plays really good melodic banjo, he's a good bass player, reads music . . . he was a big influence when I got started."
Bryan got a plastic guitar when he was just three years old and says, "My dad and grandfather would be in the living room practicing with their band and I would sit in my room with my little guitar and strum along with them." His formal guitar education started when he was eight years old and he sat down with his father for a weekly lesson. When he was ten, Bryan's family formed a small band with Bryan on guitar, his dad on bass, his grandfather on fiddle and his sister on fiddle. At first they just played around the house, but as Bryan and his sister became more proficient, the family band also began to play out locally.
During his junior high and high school years Bryan continued to play in the family band and also participated in various guitar contests near his home. During his high school years Bryan also expanded his musical influence by taking jazz guitar lessons, classical lessons, and playing electric guitar in a rock and roll band.
Upon graduation from high school in 1991, Bryan had the opportunity to take his guitar picking on the road with a southern gospel group, Karen Peck and New River. He also began working heavily as a studio musician in gospel music. Regarding the studio work, Bryan says, "In gospel music there are lots of local singing groups and lots of recording studios that provide a place for them to record. Traveling with Karen Peck created opportinities for me to generate work in these studios. I was fortunate that this work led to work on larger productions."
While working in the studio Bryan met a talented multi-instrumentalist named David Johnson who was a big influence in expanding Bryan's musical talent. Bryan says, "David is the best multi-instrumentalist I have ever heard. He is equally as proficient on fiddle as he is on mandolin, guitar, harmonica, steel guitar, you name it. Wanting to do the work and seeing the hole that David filled in the studio, I had to be able to offer the same thing. So about the time I started with Karen Peck and New River I started learning how to play the fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and contemporary country electric guitar."
Bryan worked with Karen Peck's group, which was based in Dahlonega, Georgia, for about two and a half years. He then moved to Nashville in 1993 to work with a Christian country band, Mid-South. Bryan says, "Their sound was similar to Restless Heart. I played electric guitar, acoustic guitar, mandolin, and fiddle. We cut a record for the Warner Brothers Christian division, Warner Alliance. I played with them eight or nine months, but then the studio work really started to pick up and I had to make the choice of doing the studio work or staying on the road."
After leaving Mid-South, Bryan focused his career on studio work for gospel music until July of 1995 when he went to work with Ricky Skaggs. Bryan had been friends with the bass player in Ricky Skaggs band, Mark Fain, who had come from a similar gospel background. Ricky was searching for a "utility guy" to play in his band, someone who could play mandolin, fiddle, banjo, guitar, and whatever else was needed. Mark recommended Bryan. When asked if he had to audition for the job Bryan says, "Yeah, it was kind of scary. I had talked to him on the phone a couple of times and I had sent him a demo tape of some stuff I had thrown together. He told me to come on over to his house and we went up into this room above his garage and played for a little while. It was neat. He hired me right then."
Bryan says that when he first got the job with Skaggs they were doing more country than bluegrass shows, but lately that ratio has switched. Bryan says, "That first year I was with Ricky we may have done 15 or 20 bluegrass dates, last year we did around 40 and this year we have about 60." Initially filling the utility spot, Bryan was playing the twin fiddle parts with Bobby Hicks, doing some work on the mandolin, guitar, and banjo, and singing. When the band's electric guitar player, Keith Sewell, moved on to pursue a solo career, Bryan filed the guitar spot and Ricky hired another utility guy.
Although the work with Kentucky Thunder keeps him busy, Bryan still also keeps up with the session work because he wants to keep that as his base for the future. Although Bryan plays a variety of instruments in a variety of different styles of music in the studio, he says he is most comfortable on the acoustic guitar. Recently, in the bluegrass realm, Bryan has lent his lead and rhythm flatpicking talent to the new releases by Aubrey Haynie, Bobby Hicks, Jerry Douglas, and Tina Adair.
In the following two interviews, one conducted during the IBMA convention in Louisville, KY, in 1997, and the other conducted with Bryan over the phone in early 2000, Bryan shares some of his ideas and experiences:
First interview - October 1998 (Reprinted from Flatpicking Guitar Magazine Volume 2, Number 3 March/April 1998)
When you began learning how to play guitar, were you learning the flatpicking style?
Yeah, I listened mainly to Doc Watson. I also listened to Dan Crary. I learned a lot from his Homespun teaching tapes. Outside of just the songs, I was able to take what I learned about interpreting fiddle tunes from his tapes and apply that at jam sessions.
There was also a weekly summer event in Asheville called "Shindig on the Green" that we went to. Everyone would come in and play from six in the evening until two in the morning. There are a lot of good pickers in that area. I have known Marc Pruett for a long time and I took banjo lessons from Tom McKinney. They really taught me what bluegrass was all about.
My grandfather also really encouraged me. He bought me an Ibanez guitar when I was ten years old. He was making fiddles, trading fiddles, and he always had guitars around. Me and my dad also have a neat relationship. He has always been behind me. He was with me the first time I played on stage and he is always there for me.
Although you began learning to flatpick, you said that when you were in high school you explored classical, jazz, and rock?
From eighth or ninth grade, and on through high school, I got interested in a lot of different things. I was in rock bands and played everything from Bryan Adams to Ozzy Osbourne to Eddie Van Halen. Eddie Van Halen is still on of my favorite guitar players. I was really interested in all of it. I like to know that I can do a lot of different things. I don't play a lot of classical now, but as far as jazz and rock are concerned, I like to know that I have a good basic knowledge of how that stuff is supposed to sound and feel.
When I play the electric guitar, I want to sound like an electric guitar player, not an acoustic player playing an electric guitar. There is a difference. When you hear an electric player playing acoustic, they usually don't have the strength that most acoustic players have. When it is the other way around, a lot of acoustic players playing electric will tend to overdrive the thing.
In a workshop you gave earlier today you said that you learned a lot about note clarity and consistency in volume through your study of classical guitar. Can you comment on that?
I was always impressed by the way classical players maintain a consistent volume utilizing hammer-ons and pull-offs. Through that study I learned to be aggressive with the left hand. As far as the pull-offs go, you try to pull-off into the fingerboard as opposed to pulling away from the string. It gives you a stronger sound, stronger tone, and more of an equal volume between the notes that are hit with your pull-off.
I spent a lot of time trying to make sure I could play a solo fast, but also keep it as clean by utilizing those techniques that I learned while studying classical guitar. I never got to go to a master class. I never got to that level. But I would hear people talk about things that they learned and I would experiment with it. One time Christopher Parkening had his students practice vibrato with the left hand to a metronome. I thought that was cool. I learned how much the strength you apply in your left hand affects your tone.
(In reference to tone) a lot of people talk about the pick and the right hand, but I feel that if there is not a groove between your left and right hand the notes will not be clear. I feel that I am grooving the best when I feel every note jumping out of the guitar the same way, whether it is a pull-off, an open string, or whatever. I feel that part of being a strong guitar player is being able to be heard in any circumstance. My goal is to sound as confident as I can.
So you feel that the left hand is just as important as the right hand in developing good tone and power?
Yeah. There is so much involved in the left hand. If you just barely push down on a fret, there is not much tone. The harder you push down, the clearer the tone is going to be. When you get into a solo, those factors might seem small, but as far as the overall sound, it really makes a difference.
Whenever I have heard people describe your playing the words they use are "fast, clear, and powerful." How is it that you can play so fast, yet retain your clarity and power?
When the tempo picks up the tendency is for volume to go down. I try to be the other way around. Sometimes it is scary having that kind of approach because when I mess up, I really mess up. It is like pushing it right on the edge. When you are driving 90 miles an hour your wrecks are a whole lot more tragic than when you are driving 20 miles an hour.
What would you recommend to players who are trying to maintain clarity and volume when the tempo is fast?
Comfort and confidence are important factors -- to make it sound easy at the same time. Ricky has inspired me in that way. He is one of the most confident musicians I have seen. Anything he picks up, he owns. When he plays he is right in your face, so full of confidence. Jerry Douglas and Doc Watson are the same way. I couldn't imagine Doc Watson hitting a note that was just accidental.
Lets talk about your Bourgeois guitar. How did you get involved with Bourgeois?
I got the first Bourgeois in January of 1996. It is a round-shouldered mahogany guitar, like a J-45. I went to Gruhn's looking for a guitar I could use in the studio and in a bluegrass situation with Ricky. I knew I couldn't afford to own both the perfect studio guitar and the perfect live bluegrass guitar. I was searching through the rack and found one of Dana's guitars. I raked down on the strings in a full chord strum and, once they put the glass back in the windows and I paid for that, I also paid for the guitar.
The one I have now is Brazilian Rosewood with a Red spruce top. Ricky liked my first Bourgeois guitar so much that he got one for himself and later worked out a deal with Dana Bourgeois to make a Ricky Skaggs model.
Did Ricky have a Bourgeois guitar before you did?
No, I never really heard of the guitar until I bought that one at Gruhn's. It was a good price and I bought it. I started corresponding with Dana and when we were playing in Maine last September he came to the room and I got to hang out with him. He was very nice, very open. He built the rosewood guitar for me and he built one for Ricky, which started their relationship.
What is it that you like about the Bourgeois guitars?
Dana's guitars offer a really dry, warm sound which is loud and clear at the same time. A lot of times certain guitars tend to get real boomy on a microphone. I feel that all of Dana's guitars are tuned perfectly for the type of wood that is used and the situation in which they are going to be played.
I know that prior to the Bourgeois you were playing a mahogany Collings Clarence White model and a 1941 Martin D-18. Your first Bourgeois guitar was also mahogany. Why did you choose a Brazilian rosewood guitar after being so accustomed to the mahogany guitars?
I have always liked both mahogany and rosewood guitars, but I could never find a Brazilian rosewood guitar that I could afford. Since I already had a mahogany Bourgeois, when Dana offered to build me another guitar I asked for the Brazilian rosewood.
I think that the mahogany guitar is more functional in the studio and I still use the mahogany Bourgeois when I am recording. Since the Skaggs show is traditional bluegrass, I think the rosewood fits better in the live situation.
Bryan Sutton Interview #2
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