Bill Cooley Interview

Fingerstyle Extraordinaire

Bill Cooley is a recording artist, and one of the most respected sidemen in Nashville. He is as musically gifted and melodically thoughtful as they come – listening to him play is a lesson in guitar thinking. If you are not hip to him, check out a great youtube clip here. I have personally worn out my copy of his second solo release, A Turn In The Road, and I am loving his most recent release, The Return Journey. Bill was kind enough to lend us his expertise in this interview. Read, enjoy, and learn! – Also, make sure you catch his next show with Kathy Mattea, and definitely do yourself a favor and order a few of his cds.

Bill Cooley

Nate: Bill, you are a master of using open strings to make interesting chords. Are there any tips you can give us to imitate your unique style?

Bill: I’ve listened to a lot of piano players and have been influenced by their chord voicings. Close voiced chords, which are easy on piano, are finger busters on guitar. The more difficult, wide spread voicings on piano actually lay down easier on guitar. Open strings come in handy when chasing those close intervals. An example: If you put both the 3rd and 4th in a chord, it sounds best to stack them as a half-step dissonance. (D on 5th string 5th fret, F# on 4th string 4th fret, G on open 3rd string, D on 2nd string 3rd fret, A on 1st string 5th fret.)

I also play in open tunings, which allow for more piano like voicings. I play in 3 open tunings (with variations) but have learned my way around them pretty well over the years. Get to know a few tunings well and avoid dabbling in too many tunings – you’ll find yourself learning the same stuff – just in a different tunings. That’s not necessarily musical progress.

Nate: You have a remarkable sense of melody. Is this something that you have consciously spent time developing? If so, how?

Bill: I think of any melodic idea as existing within a context. You can develop an idea several ways. Look at the contour of the melody (how it rises and falls). Is there a balance there? Does it ascend? Should it continue to go up? Diatonically? Might you answer the initial fragment by having the next phrase descend? Is there tension in it? Do I continue that or start resolving it? Does it suggest a chord progression? Should I look to that to lead the way?

Like any good story, a single idea should relate, sooner or later, to some other idea, a reply, if you will. Nothing should be hanging out there by itself. It’ll give your melodies a narrative, a resonance. Of course, this kind of analysis often comes after the fact, as you’re revising. Sometimes, the best melodies seem to just fall out of the guitar. When that happens, it’s best to try and just stay in the moment and capture it.

Nate: I know you play both recording sessions and live gigs. Do you have a preference? Why?

Bill: I don’t have a preference. Both are important to your musicianship. Live gigs give you the energy and immediate feedback of an audience, and just one shot to do it right. Recording sessions entail another kind of discipline. Everything is under the microscope – things that might get overlooked if you only play live. You’ll find you pay much more attention to the sound you produce. Finger squeaks, fret noise, pick scrapes all come under scutiny. Do you groove? Can you play expressively to a click track? Is your part meshing with what others are playing? And most important for live or studio – are you serving the song? Or are you just calling attention to yourself?

Nate: When you think about improvising over an easy progression, like a 1-4-5, what are some of the things you think through to spice up your solos?

Bill: My first source of inspiration for a solo is always the melody of the song I’m playing. Just taking a vocal melody and playing it on guitar will give it some spice if you add some guitaristic devices. Hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, slurs, string bending, volume swells, etc. are a few of the ways to embellish a melody. Beyond that, it helps to have a knowledge of scales and how they work over chord progressions. Also, I’ll superimpose arpeggios over different chords to create interest. Even if it’s a simple C chord (C E G), I can imply a maj9 sound by playing a G triad (G B D) over it: or a 7sus by playing a Bb triad (Bb D F) over it. Over a Cm chord, I can play an Eb triad (Eb G Bb) for a m7 sound or a Gm triad (G Bb D) for a m9 sound. More possibilities exist when you play 4 note arpeggios.

For more altered ideas, listen to horn players. They’re masters of playing outside the chords. Also, what lays down easily on a saxophone can be awkward fingering on guitar, so learning their lines will definitely open some new pathways. One last point, the principles I talked about in answer #2, concerning composing melodies, apply to soloing as well. Pat Metheny says one good idea per solo is enough, if you know how to develop it.

Nate: You have played professionally for years, in all kinds of situations, and had great success. Is there any advice you can give to players trying to make it?

Bill: When I was in my early 20s, a guitar teacher of mine told me that every professional musician he knew took a year and did nothing but practice. Basically locked themselves away with their instrument. So that’s what I did. I was teaching lessons myself at the time so I kept a dozen students and taught on saturdays to support myself and lived very cheaply. And spent the other 6 days a week practicing. All day. No social life to speak of. Nothing but guitar.

At the end of that year I got a club gig playing 5 nights a week, which allowed me to apply onstage what I’d only practiced in my apt. That was important, too. Some things you can only learn on the bandstand. But the result of that year was an ownership of my music – an authority to my playing that wasn’t there before. Like putting steel through fire to temper it, that quality can’t be taken away. It gives me a certain confidence in any musical situation that might come up.

Nate: Thanks Bill!