Bluegrass and jam bands kind of go together, thanks to the influences and influential shadow of Jerry Garcia and the Dead, and cool mountain retreats such as the annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival. String Cheese Incident guitarist Bill Nershi is no stranger to bluegrass pickin, having lived in Telluride for many a year during the small Colorado mountain towns early festival days. He learned his first bluegrass licks from a friend and mandolin player, and they performed around the now trendy ski resort long before it was trendy. Then he moved to Boulder, formed String Cheese Incident, and the rest is his-story.
Since the cancellation of the Lollapalooza tour dates with Janes Addiction, SCI hasn't slowed down their touring efforts. They're as busy as ever this summer and they're planning an aggressive tour this fall as well. They're also fresh on the release of their adventurous Untying the Not CD (produced by techno-guru Youth), perhaps the most far-reaching recorded work the band has ever done. And they've jumped into the political fray with their promotion of HeadCount, an organization dedicated to registering young voters in time for this years hugely important presidential election. (Come on 18 year olds, here's your chance to change the world!!!!)
In this exclusive Guitar.com interview, Nershi discusses bluegrass picking, gives songwriting advice on working with a co-writer, and describes his first impressions of various electric guitars, after many a year on the acoustic.
Guitar.com: Hi Bill. What are you up to today?
Bill Nershi: I'm down here in Nashville doing a little writing.
Guitar.com: Who are you working with?
Nershi: I'm working with a guy named Sean Camp.
Guitar.com: Have you written with Sean before?
Nershi: I have not. The only person I've done some serious co-writing with was Jim Lauderdale. That was really successful, and now I'm checking it out a little bit more. I'm meeting with different people down here and writing, and seeing how it goes.
Guitar.com: Is this for String Cheese, or other projects?
Nershi: I won't know until I write it. But I'd like to have some new stuff to use with String Cheese.
Guitar.com: What did you end up doing with the tunes you co-wrote with Jim Lauderdale?
Nershi: One of them we haven't learned yet, but we will play it with String Cheese. And Keith wrote a tune with him, and we've been playing that out.
Guitar.com: How does the co-writing thing work for you? When you sit down to write with someone you've never worked with before, where do you start?
Nershi: Well, you have to have some ideas. You can bring them in: titles, chord progressions, ideas even just feelings that you have that you want to write about. I'll have a title, and then I have just this concept of a song, but there's no lyrics. It's just, "Hey, I was thinking about this idea the other day and I thought it might be a cool thing to write about. What do you think?"
And then you start bouncing things off each other, ideas. And you can tell when something strikes a chord between you, like, "Oh yeah! That's good. Let's keep going with that." And at that point you can get the guitars out and start singing some ideas. And you just kind of hang out, pace around the room, and rant and rave to each other, until you create a song.
Guitar.com: In the sense of an article, I often write a lot before I come up with the final concept of where I'm going with an article, especially for the beginning. And as a songwriter and music instructor, I often advise people that they should be prepared to write a lot of stuff based on any given idea, before they decide that the song is finished, or that it's the way they really want it. Do you find yourself doing the same: writing a lot before you decide on a final format for your song? Or throwing away a bunch of ideas before settling on something that evolved from those not-good-enough ideas?
Nershi: That's a really cool thing about working with somebody else. You have some way to measure it. You can blurt out a line that you think is a great line. And if you're working with somebody that you respect, you can see by that person's reaction whether that particular line has the effect that you want it to have. Words and lines in songs have different meanings to different people, and sometimes something that you write seems so clear to you, but that doesn't necessarily mean its going to be clear to other people, and have the impact that you think it will have.So you can say, I have this idea for lyrics, and I'll read it to whoever I'm working with, and he can tell me what he thinks of it. And if we both think its great, we move forward from that point. But at the same time, he might say, I don't think that verse gets across the point that you're intending it to. And then we can work on it from there. But having somebody that you're co-writing with, not only do you have twice the amount of ideas, but you can get more of a pulse for what has the impact that you're intending.
Guitar.com: Probably one of the biggest hindrances of working with someone is everyones habit human nature, really of being overly polite about something theyre listening to. Oh it's great, when it really isn't. How do you get past that to the honest opinion? Is body language important?
Nershi: A lot of it is reaction. You have to realize, when you're working with someone else, that you're both working toward the same goal. You want to create something that you're both really psyched on. And it's always good to be encouraging, and it's bad to be discouraging. If you make someone feel bad about some idea that they came up with in the song, then you're potentially blocking them from coming out with anything they want to from blurting out anything they want to. There might be some great idea that they have, but they're afraid to blurt it out because you made them feel bad about a line they wrote in a verse, or something like that.
For instance, when Jim and I were writing the song that we wrote, I had a verse and a melody on the guitar. And I told him what the song was about, and this is the first line. And he said, "That;s great, but I think if you change the words in the first verse a little bit, it would be less about you and more of something that more people could relate to." And I understood. And we continued to write verses, and we got to a point where there were four verses, and there was one verse that kind of weighted the song toward being a love song, which I hadn't intended it to be. And I said, "I think the song would go more in the direction I pictured if we didn't use that verse." And that was an entire verse that he came up with most of the ideas on. And it happened so fast, but you just go, "Oh yeah, maybe you're right." And we played it without that verse and the song was more about life and less about love.
So it doesn't become something that's about whether your ideas are valid or not. It's more about deciding which direction you want the song to go, and going through the different ideas and deciding which ideas are taking the song in the right direction, and which are detracting. And that was only that one co-writing experience, outside of the band.
In the band, maybe I'll write the music, and give it to someone to write lyrics. And I won't have to deal with the nitty-gritty of ideas and working it out. And hopefully after I do this a few times, it will be something I can bring into the band and we can do more.
Guitar.com: Where you really analyze the songwriting together, in depth.
Nershi: Yeah. And just to hang out all day and talk about a song, and talk about the different ideas, and how to get that point across. And what's a really catchy line, or whatever. It's fun.
Guitar.com: Let's talk about your gear. On your website, it says you primarily use your Martin D-28 and a Santa Cruz H model.
Nershi: I play exclusively the Martin D-28, as far as an acoustic guitar. I've been playing electric lately, and I've been playing a PRS McCarty.
Guitar.com: How long have you had the Martin?
Nershi: I bought that Martin in '82. I keep getting all these other guitars, and I try them out, but I keep going back to the Martin because it just has the sound.
Guitar.com: How did you get into the PRS?
Nershi: They got in touch with me and asked me if I would be interested in trying their guitars. So they sent me a guitar that was amazing, a really great electric guitar. I had been playing a Les Paul with the band. And then I also have I have a bunch of guitars and I'm trying to figure out which are working. I know the Martin works, but I've only been playing electric guitar for like a year. So I really like that PRS, and my brother built me a Tele. I really like it because it's got such a different sound, and that sound is really good for my style because its really clean. I can do a lot of the bluegrass-esque picking with the Tele and it comes through really well.
Guitar.com: What is the difference for you between the Les Paul, the Tele, and the PRS, in terms of feel?
Nershi: The Tele plays the easiest. The PRS plays really well. The Les Paul has one of those baseball bat necks. It's really good for slide, but the action is a little more difficult.
Guitar.com: What kind of strings do you use?
Nershi: D'Addario. On my acoustic guitar I use bluegrass gauge, EJ19, which is medium on the bass strings and light on the top three strings, so I get the full bottom-end, but I can bend strings on the top end.
Guitar.com: Bluegrass was a big influence on you, wasn't it?
Nershi: Yes. I got into bluegrass in the late-80's and started playing a lot of bluegrass. I had a good friend back in Telluride, Colorado, who learned to play mandolin and became a really great mandolin player. He showed me my first flatpicking fiddle tune on the guitar. I did a lot of playing with him back then. We had a bluegrass band.
Guitar.com: Telluride has the great annual bluegrass festival. When did you live there?
Nershi: I lived in Telluride from like '81 until like '94, or whenever we moved to Boulder.
Guitar.com: One more thing before you go: I wanted to ask you about some of the causes that you represent. String Cheese gets involved in a lot of issues. In particular, why do you feel that young voters should know about the Headcount organization?
Nershi: Well, I'd rather just tell people who to vote for (laughs). But I don't feel comfortable with that. So, in the end, I think it's just important for young people to vote, because I think that's something that's really been missing. I think that just by young people voting it's important for us to try to really turn this alleged democracy into a real democracy. And I think that one of the real important things is that each of us have a voice in elections. So I feel really good about that being a focus this summer at String Cheese shows.
Guitar.com: Cool. Well, keep up the good work on that end Bill, and have a great writing session today.
Nershi: OK . See ya.