By: Dr. Matt Warnock
Influences have a funny way of working themselves into our composing and playing. Oftentimes guitarists or genres that we listen to day in and day out will never fully materialize when our fingers hit the wood, while other styles or players that we’re not really devoted to will find their way into our phrases and chords. Growing up in Tennessee, acoustic guitarist Bill Mize spent his formative years surrounded by some of the most important, ground-breaking and diverse music of the 20th century.
In the last half century, every style of music, from jazz to blues to bluegrass to country, has made a mark on this Midwestern state’s musical heritage, and all of these genres have come together, as well as others, to define Mize’s current musical output. From a technical level, Mize’s playing is absolutely world-class, but it is his diversity and ability to focus on the melody, rather than chops, that really helps his music hit home with listeners. With such a strong background, and incredible new release hitting stores and a musical focus that is rare these days, Mize looks to have a bright future in a tough industry.
Guitar International recently sat down with Bill Mize to talk about his early influences, his latest album The Angel’s Share and his favorite guitars.
Matt Warnock: You kick of the new record with a cover of Ray Charles’ song “What’s I Say.” What is it about Ray’s music that draws you to it, and why did you choose to include this arrangement as the opener for the new album?
Bill Mize: The reason I choose that Ray Charles tune, is that way back in 1963, after two years of painting fences and mowing yards, I’d finally acquired my first nice guitar, a Dakota red Fender Mustang.
It was around Christmastime, I was sitting by the tree and all the lights were reflecting on the guitar, which made it extra beautiful and magical. I then figured out the opening riff of “What’s I Say,” which became my defining moment as a guitar player. Not long after Ray died, I decided to try for a finger-style arrangement of it, and that’s what you hear on the album.
Matt: Your music covers a lot of ground, fingerstyle, blues, rock, country and more. Is it a conscious decision to blend all of these styles in your playing or is this just how things worked out over time?
Bill: It’s never a conscience decision to blend styles. Ever since I first heard Elvis back in ‘58, I knew the power that music had on people and have listened to music religiously ever since.
Growing up in East Tennessee I was exposed to Soul Music, R&B, Gospel, Bluegrass & Old Time, Rockabilly & old-style Country. I’ve always loved those genres and still do. I’m like a musical sponge, soaking it all in and processing it all until it comes out through my guitar.
Matt: During certain songs you’ll use some percussive tapping, in a subtle way as opposed to Michael Hedges or Andy McKee, who are more overt with this technique. Do you think it’s a bit of a stigma these days for fingerstyle players to use this technique too much, as they’ll get compared to guys like Hedges or Phil Keaggy?
Bill: I feel very strongly that less is more when it comes to the guitar, and I personally love music that exercises restraint and subtlety. I asked a very accomplished keyboard player, Pete Wasner, who’s also Vince Gill’s keyboardist, if he would record a couple of tracks for me on The Angel’s Share. He said,” sure, send it on over and I’ll see what I can’t do to it.” That kind of says it all.
I don’t really listen too much to the new breed of talented fingerstyle guitarists, or know what their motives are. It does seem though that there’s an American Idol mentality running a muck these days. As impressive as it is, it seems to rely more on technique than melody. I also feel strongly that melody has to come from inspiration. The greatest reward to me as a musician, is to experience that melodic creation.
Matt: You also cover Charlie Rich’s song “Feel Like Going Home.” What stands out about this tune that inspired you to include it on the record alongside your original material?
Bill: “Feel Like Going Home” is one of my favorite songs. I never would’ve thought about arranging it until one particular day I was speaking with a friend, Rick Wolfe from Knoxville who was in declining health. Rick asked if I would someday try to pen or arrange a song for him. I immediately sat down and started playing “Feel Like Going Home.” It’s Charlie Rich’s masterpiece and after I had worked it out I decided to include it on the new album as well.
Matt: You dedicate the album to Kathryn Ogle Mize and Michael Coulon. Who are Kathryn and Michael and why did you choose to dedicate the record to them?
Bill: Kathryn Mize was my Mom and Michael Coulon was a great friend from California, who I had many, many great adventures with. They both passed away a few years ago and so I decided to dedicate the album to their memories.
Matt: What guitars are you using on the record?
Bill: The guitar I’ve used on all my recordings is a 1962 Martin D28. I picked it up back in ‘85 and it was hardly even broken in yet. I feel that that guitar has helped me develop my style.
Matt: Did you plug in through an amp, go direct or run a mic to record your guitar for this album, and does your rig change when you do a live show?
Bill: I recorded into 2 Neumann KM 84 mics and used a Millenia pre amp. My gig rig is a Rane AP-13 pre amp and a Lexicon MX500 reverb. My pickup is a Baggs Ribbon Transducer and a Joe Mills internal mic.