We tend to focus a lot on rock music and the gear people use to make it, mainly because it’s by far the most popular kind of music out there. But we also know how deep the roots of contemporary American music go into our country’s rich musical history, so we wanted to dedicate our editorial content this month to the bands and musicians keeping that tradition alive. From the hills of Appalachia to the deep South, from Chicago blues to California surf, America has been the flash point for numerous musical styles that still thrive and influence today. That’s something we should all take pride in regardless of our musical tastes.
Seth Avett and his band The Avett Brothers are keeping Americana music alive while adding their own contemporary sensibilities. That, along with his stunning new Martin D-35 Seth Avett Custom Signature Edition acoustic-electric guitar, made him the perfect artist for our May catalog cover.
Since their humble beginnings playing acoustic-based music around the turn of the century, The Avett Brothers have blazed a folk-laden trail through popular music, taking their unique blend of influences from busking on North Carolina street corners to headlining the 2013 Bonnaroo Festival. This year, Seth and Martin Guitars proudly introduced the D-35 Seth Avett Custom Signature Edition guitar, bringing his years of playing Martin guitars and the band’s success to a fitting full circle. We spoke with Seth from Munich, where the band had just kicked off a European run of shows, about his new signature guitar, the gear that fuels the Avett Brothers’ live performances and the band’s evolution over the past 13 years.
Musician’s Friend: How did your signature Martin D-35 come to be?
Seth Avett: I have a relationship with Martin Guitars that I’ve had for a couple years now, and of course I’ve had a relationship with the guitars they make for many years more than that, since I was a teenager. They came to me with the idea of doing a signature model, which I was ecstatic about. It was a dream come true for me.
Over the next year we worked on the design and materials, with a lot of attention toward exactly what I wanted and envisioned as well as keeping it true to what a D-35 is. We also tried to make it as accessible as possible. It’s handmade, so you’re not gonna be able to get the price down to $500. Relatively speaking, it’s an expensive guitar, but it’s a steal for the amount of care and attention that goes into making them.
MF: How is it similar to a standard D-35, and what are the departure points that make it yours?
SA: It has the same bracing and basic architecture as an HD-35 with a couple of frills and a couple of relatively exotic things as far as materials go, like the copper inlays and the koa in the back. So it’s a touch more flamboyant or extravagant in that way but not by much. I used the traditional Martin herringbone binding. And you know, it sounds like an HD-35—very powerful, very warm tone. It comes from the factory like a guitar that’s already been played for 10 years and has some rich tone coming out of it.
MF: You chose high-altitude Swiss spruce for the top rather than the D-35’s traditional Sitka spruce. Why was that?
SA: Fred Greene, who’s the head of the custom shop at Martin, and I were talking about materials and what they sound like versus what they look like. To be perfectly honest, I was looking for something that was going to have a similar tone as the Sitka, but would be a little bit whiter. I wanted it to start out with an almost bleached-out, really light-colored top. Something I really love about Martin guitars is how beautiful, dirty golden they get after decades of use. I wanted that to be a really drastic change, from when they’re new to when they get like that. So initially it was more of a tonal choice, but I tend to make decisions—either foolishly or wisely, depending on the scenario—because of how things look as well.
MF: What drew you to the Martin D-35 in the first place?
SA: Well, they’re loud, which is good. When Scott and I started playing we did a lot of street corner performances, or sidewalk performances, or playing in restaurants or coffee shops, and it took us a while before we were able to pick up a used, beat-up, cheap PA. So we were really straining to get people’s attention and really bring some volume without any electronic assistance. Playing opposite a banjo is always a battle too. Sothe 35 is loud, and it’s always sounded warmer than the D-28 or the D-18 to me. That warmth and body that the 35 has also took the place of a bass player in my mind when we didn’t have one. Also, you can’t kill them. I beat these guitars to death. I treat these guitars very badly. [Laughs] I’ve never wrapped them in velvet and put them away softly and quietly. Especially in the early days, when it’s 3 o’clock in the morning and you get paid your $100 and your tips, and you throw it in the case and into the back of the station wagon or the van and go. So they’re durable, and that was a big part of it also.
MF: They make ‘em to play ‘em, right?
SA: That’s exactly right. And Martin, you know, they’ve made plenty of guitars that are right at home in a museum or behind glass, but that’s not what this signature guitar is. It’s beautifully made, but it’s not made to just be looked at. It’s a player’s guitar—that’s imperative.
MF: Do you have a preference when it comes to strings?
SA: I’ve gone through a few different waves with strings, but Martin’s work perfect for me. I’ll be perfectly honest, I have trouble noticing the difference among quality strings. I can tell when they’re cheaper and when they’re higher quality, and the Martin strings are high quality. I’m really hard on guitars and I break strings left and right. I use the Martin strings because they’re in the upper echelon of quality and the tone is good. They’re always at the ready.
[Ed. note—Seth uses Martin M540 and SP LifeSpan 7100 strings.]
MF: Do you ever switch up gauges for different sounds?
SA: Occasionally. Even though it’s terrible for a guitar, it can sound good on certain songs, so I’ll string one up with 14s. Only in the studio, because the neck can only handle so much.
MF: Your new signature model is equipped with the Fishman Gold+Plus Natural 1 pickup. Did you put those in your other D-35s as well?
SA: I sure did. Since I first started playing them I’d always retrofit them with that pickup. My first D-35 was a 1977, and it still has the same one I put in it 10 years ago and it still works like a dream. Again, the gear you use, whatever attracts you to it in the first place, it always comes down to durability. A lot of times I have to find a nice balance with that, but those Fishman pickups are solid. I can beat them up. I put that pickup in all my guitars.
MF: How about in the studio? Do you mic your guitars solely or use the pickup too?
SA: I do both. Two signals are better than one. I like to have the tight, very controlled direct line for backup. But you go for a more beautiful sound, something that nods toward the shape and sound of the room and the walls of the room. I like to put a nice microphone in front of those. But I like having a couple of options to balance it a little bit.
MF: When playing acoustic guitar live, do you run through an amp or go direct to the mains?
SA: I go straight to the board. I run it through a tuner and that’s all.
MF: Any processing happening at the board?
SA: We like to keep it super straight. Sometimes for the room you may have to compensate, but every night it’s just a little session of EQing. Sometimes none at all, depending on the room. I try to sort a lot of that stuff out with the instrument itself and the playing.
MF: What’s your electric guitar rig look like these days?
SA: For a few years now I’ve been very consistent with a 1956 Gibson 225. I run that through, at the moment, a Guyatone Overdrive. The majority of shows I’ve played recently I’ve used that orange Guyatone Overdrive. I run it through one of these Marshall Bluesbreaker reissues, a 2x12 combo amp. Or the equivalent 2x12 Orange. That’s pretty much it, just one distortion pedal, a tuner, a Marshall Bluesbreaker or a comparable Orange amp and the mid-‘50s Gibson 225.
MF: Before the Avett Brothers you had Margo and Nemo, which were full-on rock bands. What were some of the challenges, from a gear perspective, of moving toward playing acoustic music?
SA: That was the beautiful thing about it. I was going from having all kinds of gear choices and problems to where I had no troubles whatsoever. [Laughs] That whole transition of our lives was about simplification, about stripping down. For the first little while I had this old ‘70s Alvarez that my dad gave me. Then I got that ’77 D-35, and that was it. Gear problem solved, right there. That’s what we did. It’s all been kind of haphazard and trial and error, but there really haven’t been that many trials or errors from my beginnings with acoustic music. There wasn’t even a lot of miking going on in the beginning. It was more like, let’s plug the Martin in and if it doesn’t sound good, turn a couple knobs and get going, because we’ve got to play for three hours and if we don’t, we’re not going to get our tips! [Laughs]
MF: How about from a technique standpoint? Playing electric can be much more forgiving…
SA: That’s right. Initially I didn’t put much thought into it, which contributed largely to this whole thing about us being punk-grass or grunge-grass or whatever, this whole “folk movement” thing about young guys playing their instruments like it’s a punk band. Not that I’m trying to take credit for some movement because I’m not, I just mean in our own scenario, I didn’t pay as much attention as I could have to changing some of how I did things. Gradually I did begin to understand. Vocally, I understood immediately that I had nothing to hide behind. You couldn’t just say whatever because the vocals would be distorted anyway and the PA wasn’t strong enough to push them over the guitars. That was all behind me, so I had to step up lyrically and as far as singing. That’s been a long journey that continues right now. But as far as approach and attack on the guitar, over the beginning years I definitely did realize the difference between my just banging it out and hearing the solidity and quality that someone like Doc Watson was bringing. How heavy he could make his delivery through intricate but simple-sounding guitar playing. It’s been a journey. At first I didn’t put much thought towards it, but it was unavoidable as we grew and changed and wanted to write different kinds of songs.
MF: Vocals and harmonies are an integral part of the Avett Brothers sound. What do you use as far vocal microphones go?
SA: Live, you just use the (SM)58, because that’s it. You can’t kill it. The thing cannot be killed. So we use those every night. In my own studio, or if we’re working on an Avett Brothers record, I use a Shure (SM)7B for vocals. If you’re lucky enough to be around a mid-40s Neumann, that’s where it’s at. I like the (U) 47; everybody does. It’s impossible to refute the Neumann U 47, so I use that for vocals and guitars and whatever, even drums. I’ll use it for anything. But the Shure (SM)7B is a moderately priced microphone for what you get out of it. I’ve gotten a ton of use out of it. In fact, the majority of the vocals you’ve heard from me on Avett Brothers recordings were done on a Shure (SM)7B.
MF: What keyboards do you take on the road with you when it comes to keyboards?
SA: We have a Yamaha CP-33 that we travel with that seems to do well. It has a pretty good grand piano sound on it, and it’s not the most expensive one you can get by any means. Just a standard road piano.
MF: When it comes to reproducing piano sounds live, what do you place the most importance on?
SA: Really, that’s something I should have put a lot more time into. I think about it a lot more in the. With a traveling piano, what really matters is only three things. One is that it’s got realistic, weighted keys that feel like a piano. Two, that it has a relatively believable grand piano sound. And third, that you can beat it to death, as usual. I’m sure you’re hearing a pattern develop. [Laughs] It doesn’t really matter how good the sound is if you take it out of the case, plug it in and it doesn’t respond.
MF: You play organ on the studio albums. How do you recreate those sounds live?
SA: We’ve got a Nord Electro 4D onstage that we travel with now, and it’s incredible. Paul DiFiglia, who is now a full-time member of our band, he plays it. And that thing is just unstoppable as far as spot-on recreations of those sounds. Beautiful and mobile.
MF: Do you use any kind of "sketch pad" recording devices when writing?
SA: Oh yes. I have a Sony PCM D-50 field recorder. It has two mics you can position in different positions. I use the hell out of that thing. It completely revolutionized my traveling life. I take it with me wherever I go. On this three-week European run we’re on now, it’s the first time I’ve taken a Pro Tools setup with me. That’s for more dedicated and serious work, but that field recorder, I never leave without it.
MF: Do you feel that being rooted in Americana, with its rich legacy and fair share of purists, places an obligation on you in some way to hold up that tradition?
SA: I think we feel more of an obligation to make it known our appreciation for that tradition and our love and gratitude for those who keep that tradition alive. There are a lot of great bands—great string bands, great jazz and ragtime and folk artists that are dedicating themselves to keeping traditions alive that are highly important to different regions. Here in Munich, I’m walking around seeing traditions from many centuries past and it’s a beautiful thing. Regionally in America there’s a lot of that too. Mountain music, Piedmont blues…there’s a great American tradition there and a lot of warranted and deserved pride in that.
But as far as us being a part of that, it’s just not accurate to say that we are in that same school. We connect more and are more connected in our fabric, in our makeup, to artists who want to tell their own personal story, thematically and aesthetically. We’re more on the kick, hopefully, along the lines of Tom Waits or someone like that, who’s basically making up a new rule every time they write a song and not really held by any certain thing. Tom Waits has made some incredible folk-sounding songwriter music, some incredible jazz-sounding music, but god knows the man has gone off some some crazy dark-circus tangent that’s just him. That is just his bizarre, quasi-fictional path in his mind that I am so thankful for. And I am so much more thankful for him expressing that rather than making another jazz record, you know what I mean?
That’s our path. If the song calls for it to be a polka, by God, we’re gonna write a good polka song. Or a metal song, or whatever. We’re not chameleons, but the songs are pushing us to different places, and we want to let them push us all over the place. When you let songs push you around like we do, you’re not allowed to be a purist.