“I’ve never paid attention to my right-hand technique”: Molly Tuttle on her arresting playstyle, returning to her bluegrass roots, and her new live band

We chat to acoustic extraordinaire Molly Tuttle about her new album Crooked Tree.

Molly Tuttle is one of the most exciting acoustic guitarists and songwriters to hit the scene in recent years. With a new album and band that signals a return to her bluegrass roots, she’s only set to get bigger.

We chat to Tuttle on the phone from a coffee shop in Boulder, Colorado, to discuss guitars, G tuning and Golden Highway.

You’ve been touring through some beautiful landscapes and have endured some truly extreme temperature changes.

“That’s right! We were in Cancún last weekend with Dave Matthews, then we made our way to Steamboat, Colorado, and played outdoors at a ski resort. My suitcase was full of shorts, T-shirts and bikinis – and my giant, hot-pink snowsuit that I had specially made. It was the weirdest packing I’ve ever done for a tour!”

Your new album Crooked Tree marks your return to bluegrass following covers album But I’d Rather Be With You.

“This record came about last year when I started writing bluegrass songs. I’ve always wanted to make a real bluegrass record but, at the same time, I love exploring other genres. I got the chance to do that in 2020 on my covers record, where I explored a bunch of styles of music. After that I found comfort in going back to the first musical memories I had, of listening to bluegrass as a kid. I realised that was the direction I wanted to go in.”

“It was kind of fun to contact all my bluegrass heroes and make this recording. I
called up a bunch of artists that I’ve been listening to since I was a kid, like Jerry Douglas, Dan Tyminski, Old Crow Medicine Show, Gillian Welch – people I have admired my whole life. We went into the studio and made this record that I am really proud of.”

Molly Tuttle - Crooked Tree

For an artist who thrives on pushing boundaries, it’s interesting to see you return to your roots.

“Yes, that’s true. I enjoy pushing myself and stretching the boundaries of what I can do. With my last few records, I really did feel like I was stepping out of my comfort zone, which is exactly what I wanted to do at the time. I really don’t want to make the same record over and over again.”

“That said, this record flowed in a way that I hadn’t felt before in the studio. From the very beginning of writing the songs, recording them and now putting together the live show, it has felt so natural to me because I’ve grown up with this music.”

“From a songwriter’s point of view, I knew there were different templates of songs I could use and themes that I wanted to write about, where I felt I could bring my own experience and create something new while still staying in the tradition.”

Molly Tuttle
Image: Samantha Muljat

You have spoken of your love of writing and performing songs featuring female protagonists.

“Absolutely, especially the song She’ll Change. But there are other examples. I had covered the Rolling Stones’ She’s a Rainbow on my covers album and I had a lot of fun with that. I kind of wanted to write my own song about a badass woman. It’s always fun to sing songs that celebrate women in that way. It’s important to me.”

You have been seen with a variety of exotic handmade guitars over the years. What are you playing currently?

“I’ve been playing Pre-War Guitar Company instruments live. I go through phases with guitars, where I’ll play one a bunch and then transition to another. I’ve been bringing two on the road with me because I play in two different tunings. One is in Brazilian rosewood and one is in mahogany. So far I’ve been okay travelling with the Brazilian guitar – I haven’t been out of the country since the pandemic started, except last week when I went to Mexico and I took it with me. There were no questions asked – so far it’s been fine.”

“I hear such different things though. Some people say you need to register your guitar and get a bunch of forms. Other people tell me, “It’s fine, don’t worry about it”. I guess it may depend.”

Molly Tuttle
Image: Samantha Muljat

It’s relatively unusual for a flat-picking guitarist to move outside standard or drop-D tuning. What’s the other tuning you use?

“The other tuning I use is DGDGCD, and that’s a model tuning I use when I play clawhammer guitar. The banjo is tuned to open G, so I’m basically tuning my guitar to G but the B string goes up to C, making a suspended 4th chord tuning. It’s the same kind of chord as DADGAD but it’s in the key of G. That tuning is comfortable for me on guitar because it’s directly taken from the banjo approach. Of course, on the guitar you have one more string to play with.”

Acoustic musicians often sit in two distinct camps, favouring either vintage or modern luthier-made guitars.

“I have been thinking lately that I want to get a vintage guitar because I don’t have any. I haven’t bought a guitar in a long time. I have been connected with all these amazing luthiers that make such guitars that are a lot easier to take on the road. I tour so much. I was touring with a vintage ’44 Martin and I felt like I was just destroying that guitar, dragging it through extremes of temperature, humidity and altitude, and I really don’t want to do that and cause serious damage to a potentially irreplaceable guitar.”

“My luthier-made guitars are super-nice instruments that I love. But they are road guitars with all sorts of technological advances like truss rods, which you don’t have in the vintage Martins!”

Molly Tuttle
Image: Samantha Muljat

Amplifying an acoustic guitar has its challenges. You have a very natural and dynamic plugged-in sound. We’re guessing that involves some sort of hybrid pickup magic?

“I have fine-tuned my pickup sound over the past few years. It’s been a real struggle. For years I’d be plugging in and people would be telling me after the show that they couldn’t hear my solos, or that my guitar sounded kind of thin – helpful feedback!”

“I’ve got to the point where I’m pretty happy with my live sound. I’m using two pickups. I texted my friend Billy Strings to see what he was using and he put me in touch with a great tech. I now have a K+K mini under the bridge plate, and a K+K double-helix magnetic pickup in the sound hole.”

“I run both pickups through a Grace Felix preamp and blend the sources there. The soundhole pickup is surprisingly natural and blends well with the transducer. That seems to be working for me so far. I’ve only had this set-up for less than a year but I’ve had a great response from people. The Felix has a boost, which I use a lot for solos.”

Molly Tuttle
Image: Samantha Muljat

Much has been made of your exceptionally fluid and powerful right-hand technique. How did you develop that?

I’ve never really paid super-close attention to my right-hand technique but all of a sudden people were telling me, “Your right hand is so cool”. It didn’t occur to me that what I was doing was very different from other people.

I guess the main difference is that I don’t place my right-hand fingers on the guitar. I’m kind of floating over the strings while still resting my hand on the saddle when I want to. I think I got that from my dad, who was my first guitar teacher when I was a kid. I guess I just looked at his example and modelled my right-hand action after his – he also floats his hand like that when he plays.

I love exploring all the different sounds I can make by moving my right-hand position closer to the soundhole or the bridge. When I’m playing on the treble strings, my palm tends to rest on the bass strings and, when I play low, I tend to move back towards the saddle. So moving the right hand has become a part of my technique anyway. It’s not always necessarily an artistic choice.

What’s next for you?

I am really enjoying this time with my live band Golden Highway, which was put together after recording. I’ve been friends with everyone in the band for so long and it’s a nice feeling to look around on stage and feel proud to be making music with such great players. I can’t wait to make a record with this new band.

Crooked Tree is out now on Nonesuch Records.