By: Brad Conroy
Brad Barr is one of those truly amazing guitarists on the scene today. He has the ability to mix, fuse, and transcend styles that range from jazz, folk, rock, experimental, indie, improvisation, flamenco, and more, which really helps to give him a unique sound that’s all his own.
Barr has been establishing his name over the past decade as the guitarist, primary song writer, and creative force behind his long time rock band, The Slip, which also features his brother Andrew Barr (drums) and Marc Friedman (bass). The Slip got their start while they were still in High School, and the trio eventually enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston to help further their abilities.
The Slip can’t be put neatly into any category, on their early recording Does (2000) the band sounds like a straight ahead jazz trio with ripping guitar lines and killer grooves. They are such a diverse band that within their catalog you can also hear experimental instrumental music like that on Alivelectric (2003), acoustic folk on Aliveacoustic (2003), song writing skills that are ever evolving, and on their album Eisenhower (2006) they achieve an indie rock type of sound.
Barr is an incredibly versatile guitarist that’s able to play in almost any style he chooses. He pulls off complicated jazz lines with ease, his groove is incredible, a soulful feel, nasty pentatonic playing, creative sounds, finger style, and the main thing is that he isn’t only a guitarist of the highest caliber, he also sings, composes, and has really grown as a song writer.
Barr seems to be working hard to outdo himself, and there’s no doubt that he will be on the scene creating incredibly beautiful music and whaling on his guitar for a long time to come.
Brad Conroy: Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to pick up the guitar?
Brad Barr: There was always the one lying around the house, because our dad had one although he didn’t play very much, he knew a few Elvis tunes. I was playing piano from the age of six and by the age of eleven I was becoming curious about the stringed instruments. Funny thing is that my parents gave my brother Andrew the guitar first because they thought I had my hands full with the piano, and they gave me a drum set.
Andrew took lessons on the guitar for about a year and I don’t know what it was, but everything he was learning in his lessons I was able to play without trying too hard, and was having a lot of fun with it too. Andrew of course jumped on the drums and was having the time of his life, and it quickly became clear that I was the guitar player and he was the drummer.
The early guitar music that inspired me was all of the rock stuff that we would hear on MTV, notably Bryan Adams. Chuck Berry and the scene from Back to the Future; you know when Marty was playing at the Under the Sea Dance? It all trickled down through cultural coolness; this is what made the guitar so appealing to me in the early days.
At first I actually wanted to play the bass. I was totally mystified by it. I saw the guitar around the house, but the bass was a total mystery to me in the beginning. That first feeling of response from the strings was addictive. Just feeling them really resonate under my fingers and the sensation of it all, this was my first taste of guitar addiction.
Conroy: Did you take lessons?
Barr: I took one lesson from a guy where he showed me the pentatonic blues scale, and by the end of the lesson he was showing me how to the play the same scale in multiple positions on the neck. I remember spending the next year just really working on that scale and being able to transpose it to every key and moving it all over the fretboard. That one lesson was enough to sort of set my wheels in motion.
In high school I began studying with a jazz player who introduced me to Wes Montgomery and John Coltrane, which really set me off on a whole other path. From there I studied a bunch of different guys, ranging from guitar players, tenor sax players, trombone players, and pianists, but it all started with that one blues lesson when I was 11 or 12 years old.
I think that learning the piano first really helped me in understanding the guitar. It’s really a confusing instrument, and the piano helped me to understand how notes and chords worked. The alphabet is right in front of you on a piano, and for some reason I was able transfer this to the guitar and make sense out of the grid of frets and strings.
Conroy: What was it like studying at Berklee? Were you in attendance with any other names?
Barr: I was there in 1995 which was the same year that my brother and Marc Friedman (the bass player) graduated from high school. The three of us went to Berklee together, and by that point Marc and Andrew had been playing a lot together the last two years of high school, after I had already graduated. I started going down and playing with them in the high school jam space, so the three of us were already pretty solid as a trio.
We didn’t live on campus, but the three of us moved into a house and we were kind of removed from the day to day life at Berklee. I did make friends with a few guys that have gone on to be doing some great things, like Andy Hall, who tours with Dolly Parton. Another guy we became friends with right off the bat was Marco Benevento, who is like a brother to us now.
Marco was in The Slip for about three gigs, and he comes out and does stuff with us on occasion, and now he’s in Surprise Me Mr. Davis. He’s still doing his Marco Benevento trio and other stuff as well as playing with us. He’s one of the best friends that we made there at Berklee.
There is a lot of competition at Berklee, but I went there with Andrew and Marc and we had our own thing going, so I didn’t have that intense feeling of competition with other students. I mean, there were those moments when I would kind of freak out when I would see some kid four years younger than me just tearing it up.
Feelings like wow, what does that guy study, and how did he learn that? I’ve always felt pretty confident in my ability and secure in direction I wanted to take, so the competition was never overwhelming and self-defeating.
Conroy: How did the Band’s name come about?
Barr: It went back to the high school that we all went to. It was a band that we were in, which always consisted of a bunch of different members. I believe it was my friend John Buckley who made a very cool drawing and wrote the name The Slip in the drawing, and it’s funny because I wasn’t even around when he made this drawing, and I’m not sure actually how it even became our name.
It’s always seemed to work though, through all of our different phases of the band, from the beginnings where we were covering The Doors and the Grateful Dead, and into our experimental jazz phase, The Slip has always seemed to work well for us. We tried to change it a few times because another band was using it, or this and that, but we finally decided to keep the name so that our fans would know when and where we were playing, all 75 of them. [Laughs]
Conroy: Almost all of your albums have such a unique and different kind of sound, how do you explain such diversity?
Barr: It’s hard to explain, but maybe the lack of a decisive focus for the band, the fact that we all listen to so much The Slip just became our outlet for experimentation. We were musicians and aspiring song writers and this was our way to explore and try new things in the comfort of friends. We never really gravitated and committed toward one sound or style of music. It never even occurred to us that we shouldn’t throw our audiences for so many loops, back then it seemed like kind of a virtue to be able create so many different sounds and dabble into so many different genres.
I guess for me it always seemed so available, and it was easy to get sucked into writing a jazz song, or folk songs, a rock song, or then maybe make one of these long abstract instrumental pieces we’ve been known to do. I just never focused on one particular style. I like it all, and have been influenced by so much that it all just comes out in my music.
Conroy: Being involved in so many bands, how do you find time to keep up with it all?
Barr: Well it certainly can get away from me sometimes. When I zoom out and look at it, I do realize that there is enough time here. Like anyone else I waste time on the computer, or drinking coffee, but there’s a lot of time in a day, in the week, and in the month.
I usually divide myself up a few weeks at a time. I’ll focus on The Slip for a bit, then ten days on Surprise Me Mr. Davis, and then the rest of the month with the Barr Brothers. It’s not like any of the bands I’m in have really taken off where it’ll require me to spend all of my time on one thing.
That would be really nice, if Surprise Me Mr. Davis was on a world tour with Wilco, but it hasn’t happened yet. So I’m able to divide my time between a few different projects and still get a lot out of each one of them.
Conroy: Can you give us a run down of your rig?
Barr: Sure. My favorite guitar right now that I’m playing is a 1967 Guild Starfire five, which I can only compare to the Gibson 335 from the same year, but this Guild is so different and unique, it’s really a special instrument. My 1954 ES175 is still getting a lot of playing in the studio. I also have been using a 1964 Danelectro Convertible, it’s the guitar you see Jimmy Page playing on a few songs on The Song Remains the Same.
I have a J45 from 1951 that is just the sweetest sounding acoustic. It has a great mid rang and a real growl which I also use a Fishman pick-up on it. I have a Martin Ns10 nylon string guitar which is perfect for me because it isn’t so precious and is a bit clunky, but you can hear it on “Poor Boy” on the Live Acoustic album, and it really has kind of a piano type sound to it.
The amp I have been using the most is a Fender deluxe reissue which I think is a 1956 and it is a truly amazing sounding amp. Sometimes I’ll combine it with a Gibson amp that I have called the Super Medalist, which is just two twelve speakers stacked and it has crazy reverb. This is just a great combination of sound.
My pedals are basically the usual suspects like a volume pedal, Wah, boss tuner, tremolo pedal, distortion, DOD digital delay, HBE ufo pedal, holy grail reverb, and the boomerang loop pedal.
Conroy: Do you still practice?
Barr: I do. I have days where I practice scales, and I tend to get into new techniques that can open doors for me as an improviser. I’ve been getting back into pentatonic concepts, some simple approaches.
I’ve been trying to work more in terms of intervals rather than scales, something I like to think of as a little cell of notes, a cluster of notes. For example: a group of three notes which creates two intervals, like a 2nd and then a fifth, C-D and then D-A, now that is a cell, and I have been using things like that as a guide toward improvising as opposed to a scale.
Finding the sonority in ideas like that is a concept I picked up on from a guy that I studied with who really kind of challenged my ideas of improvising. He helped me get away from the formula of licks, scales, arpeggios, and he really pushed my idea of what improvising is and what it can be.
Conroy: What kind of advice can you give for the aspiring guitarist as to what it takes to make music a career?
Barr: My expectations are totally different now then what they were ten years ago, in terms of making a living with music. I’m trying to focus on enjoying this opportunity that I’ve been given. I think it’s important to find a lot of players you can play with and connect with, and it’s so important to be able to work well with others and to be able to speak the language of music with other people.
You never know which connection you make is going to get you a gig or a session in the future. It’s important to know your craft and have plenty of tools to draw from, that way when you’re playing with your friends you can try to make their eyes pop out with the new and cool things that you’re playing. You can learn everything you need to know about life through music, meditation, concentration, humility, it just trains the brain, and I guess that’s the spirit in it for me.
Conroy: What’s next for The Slip and Brad Barr?
Barr: The Slip has about 20 songs which are nearly tracked and we plan on releasing an album in 2011. Meanwhile, Brad Barr is going to keep playing in his bands, and his newest group The Barr Brothers. I would say to look out for that group in the near future because it is a really exciting band.
Surprise Me Mr. Davis is going to be recording for another 2011 release, and the nice thing about that is that no one is standing over our shoulder to see what we are doing, which gives us a lot of room and freedom to make things the way we want.
Until then I’m going to keep plugging away, keep writing, and I have a studio up here in Montreal that I’m at every day. I’m just going to try to keep one upping myself I guess.