April 17, 2020
This interview first appeared in the August 2007 issue of Vintage Guitar Magazine. Photos Courtesy Rusty Russell. Bryan and I spoke during a break while recording a Josh Turner album earlier that year.
Bryan Sutton is in the rare echelon of guitarists that are both a top session player and a successful recording artist. He makes bluegrass guitar records for the Sugar Hill label, and records as a sideman with everyone from Ricky Skaggs and Randy Travis to Dolly Parton and George Strait.
Born into a musical family in Western North Carolina, Bryan was surrounded by music, and never really thought of doing anything else with his life. Through attending jam sessions, playing in bands, and taking lessons, Bryan honed his skills as a guitarist, and would soon add banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and Dobro to his arsenal. After working as a session guitarist in his home state, Bryan made the move to Nashville. For a season he played with a gospel group until he found himself in the band of country/bluegrass doyen Ricky Skaggs. Sutton hit the scene in a major way with Ricky Skaggs return to his roots album Bluegrass Rules! and followed it by being a featured soloist on the Dixie Chicks album Fly. Bryan played the full-tilt bluegrass solos on their hit single “Sin Wagon.” He soon found himself playing on records with heroes like banjoist Bela Fleck and Dobro player Jerry Douglas. Besides his recording work, Sutton just released an instructional guitar DVD for Homespun Tapes entitled Secrets for Successful Flat picking.
VG: How did you start playing the guitar?
BS: I grew up in Western North Carolina, and grew up in a family that played Bluegrass. I officially started when I was 8 years old. My Dad gave me lessons.
VG: Was your father strictly a Bluegrass player?
BS: Bluegrass, and old timey country, he was also a fan of Blues, and rock and roll. He is a big fan of Jimmy Rodgers.
VG: What made you want to play?
BS: I think it was that my dad did it, and I wanted to do it too. My Grandfather played fiddle, so there was always music around the house. It just seemed to be a fairly natural extension of what you do in life to my little 8-year old brain. Once I started, it seemed to consume almost all my time outside of school. And it has ever since.
VG: Did you have friends that played?
BS: Yes, once I got going, we put a band together with my Dad, a couple friends, and my sister played fiddle. We kind of had a little family band thing going. There were a lot of older people around that played, and I think that’s what made it special. I felt a lot of support and encouragement from people that were 30 or 40-years older than me. It was great to be able to call older, more experienced players friends.
VG: You can usually learn much more from them than people your own age.
BS: There were also jam sessions at least 3 nights a week in that area; there was one in downtown Asheville every Saturday night. Through the various jam sessions I got to know most of the players in the area. Through theses jams, I got areal healthy sense of community, musically at least.
VG: What was your first guitar?
BS: A Gibson L-00. Don’t know what year it is. I took it down to Gruhn, and the closest it could be dated was mid-30’s. That’s from the appointments, and the script logo on the headstock.
VG: Who was your first guitar hero?
BS: Probably Doc Watson. He was the first live professional musician that I saw. I saw him at the Stomping Grounds. David Holt was the host there, and that was my first exposure to musicians outside of my area. I was really star-struck when I saw Doc. I really clued in to what he, his son Merle, and Jack Lawrence were doing. I remember listening to his Picking The Blues album a lot. I also listened to his Red Rocking Chair album a lot. After Doc, I got into Dan Crary through a Homespun teaching series called Flat-Picking Fiddle Tunes. I learned a lot from other players in the area, but the series really helped me look at arrangements, and work on improvising, and variations on a theme. I was always taking lessons from someone, whether it was flat-picking, or finger picking. I also was learning Jazz and Classical styles.
VG: Do you mainly play with a flat pick?
BS: Yes, but I use my fingers too. I got in to using pick and fingers from learning country electric guitar after High School.
VG: What was your next guitar after the Gibson L-00?
BS: Probably an Ibanez, but there were a couple guitars that floated between me and my Grandfather’s house; one of those being a 1942 Martin D-18 that had been re-topped. I also played my Dad’s mid-70’s D-35 that was brought out on special occasions. My grandfather, Grover Sutton, got me an Ibanez acoustic guitar. I still use it in the studio as a high-strung guitar.
VG: Were you playing much electric guitar at this time?
BS: I was learning Jazz and blues on it. I was also very brand conscience at the time. I had an Ibanez acoustic, so it was very natural for me to get an Ibanez electric. During this time there were Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani, Paul Gilbert, and Frank Gambale playing their guitars. We had a great music store there called Musicians Workshop, and they had everything I wanted. They had Ibanez pedals, and the Ibanez pedalboard. I thought Ibanez was the way to go. I had all Ibanez gear except for a ProCo Rat. I also had my Dad’s 1959 ES-345 in black. It’s the only ’59 black 345 that Walter Carter could find in Gibson’s logs. They didn’t offer that color in 1959. Somebody tried to change the wiring to that of a 335, and put the wrong type of Bigsby on it. I banged on it all through High School thru my Dad’s mid-60’s Vibrolux. I loved it because it got really loud. Later, I bought an Ibanez Roadstar. Along with that I had the full gamut of Ibanez pedals. I had no idea what compression was for or anything. I just liked the fact that it changed the sound of the guitar. Towards the end of High School, I started doing sessions. I grew up near a musician named Anthony Burger. He was a piano player that did a lot of sessions, and toured with a gospel quartet called the Kingsmen, and later worked for Bill Gaither. I started working with him towards the end of High School. I had seen people like Mark O’Connor, Jerry Douglas, and Sam Bush playing with a variety of artists on TV, and I would see guys like Lee Sklar playing with different artists on MTV. I saw these guys, and decided that I wanted to be a sideman. I was really intrigued how things went down in the studio, and Anthony invited me to come and hangout. I got to meet all the local studio players. There is a drummer there by the name of Tony Creasman, that is one of the best drummers that I have ever had the pleasure of sharing a headphone mix with. I got spoiled playing with him. There was another guy who was a multi-instrumentalist, David Johnson that I kind of fell in to what he was doing. I wanted to be able to fill in for him on dates that he couldn’t do. I had mainly been playing acoustic guitar at that point, but added mandolin after being asked if I played it on a session. I owned one, but really didn’t know how to play it, but worked at it a couple days before the session so I could get around on it. I learned a lot from David about getting around in a session. We were mostly doing Gospel and Country sessions, and a little bit of Bluegrass. I really didn’t listen to a lot of Country music at the time. I listened to Jimmy Rodgers, and other older country artists, but was not real familiar with the current artists. I was familiar with Ricky Skaggs, and the country albums he was making at the time. I also was not really aware of the electric players in Nashville at the time. David played everything with strings on it, electric guitar, steel, acoustic, mandolin, and banjo. I tried to learn to play all of the instruments he played except for steel. I started listening to the electric country players. I learned how to do the pick and fingers thing. I was real intrigued by what an electric guitar player would do in the verses in a ballad. They were really just comping. I started to take the time to know what Dann Huff, Brent Mason, and Brent Rowan were doing. I went out and bought a mid-70’s Telecaster that had a pretty good sound, and I had a Strat. The tone people were after at the time was the out of phase Strat sound thru a rack. The overdrive thing wasn’t big yet; people wanted the big clean sound on records. I never was good at building those sounds with the rack gear. I never was good at that. I ended up selling most of my electric gear a couple years ago.
VG: How did you end up moving to Nashville?
BS: Through all of these sessions, I ended up meeting people in the Gospel music industry. I had never really been around it as a form of music. I was just trying to get on sessions, and that seemed to be what was going on where I lived. On a session that I worked on there was a singer named Karen Peck. She had left the group she was working with, and was putting a band together. I got hired to be in the band, and went on the road with them. It was with her that I came to Nashville for the first time not as a tourist. Through that, I started to get work all around the area I was in. At that time, people were building little studios in their houses with ADAT machines. I would travel anywhere from West Virginia to Georgia to do sessions for people. I started to get some work in Nashville, and decided to make the move here. I ended up joining a Country/Gospel group called Mid South. That was my excuse to get a trailer and haul all of my things to Nashville. I only knew a couple people,
VG: What guitars did you have when you moved to Nashville?
BS: I had the Ibanez, the 1942 D-18, and a Southern Jumbo I got from Gary Burnett in Asheville at B3 Vintage. He is the vintage Gibson guy. I was pretty spoiled as far as vintage acoustics being around Gary, who would bring guitars like that to jam sessions. He would have a pre-war herringbone, or some first year advanced jumbo that he would have with him. I bought a 1950 Gibson Southern Jumbo through him that I carried around a lot. I also had a Takamine gut-string that my parents had gotten me for Christmas one year, and a mandolin, banjo, dobro, and a fiddle. I had a 2-door Ford Explorer that I would pack everything in. I didn’t carry an amp; I had a direct rack setup that I used. I also had a Collings guitar that was a good guitar, but I was finding out that what made for a good bluegrass guitar, didn’t necessarily make it a good country, recording guitar. I was also learning about using different flat picks for different sounds. Like using a heavy flat pick with heavy strings for one sound, then a thin pick with lighter strings for others. I got fired off of a session one time for having the wrong sound. They wanted that thin pick, high-hat with some tone sound. It has its place, but I didn’t know how to give it to them at the time.
VG: How did things progress once you moved to Nashville?
BS: I got to make 2 records with Mid South, which was my first bigger budget experience. Al Perkins, the great steel player from California, produced the first, and Larry Stewart; the lead singer from the group Restless Heart produced the other one. It was really my first experience with really talented people on both sides of the glass; one where the engineer was just as much of a musician as you are trying to be. I got real attached to that. As my sessions picked up, I was able to quit Mid South. I knew sessions were what I ultimately wanted to do.
VG: Were you playing more acoustic or electric at this point?
BS: About equal at this point, I wasn’t doing any of the Bluegrass flat-picking things except around the house. The bluegrass thing was way on the back burner at this point; I was just trying to get work as a session player. I met my wife Lori during that time, and we got married in 1996. I just kept working on getting sessions, but kept being open to doing roadwork also. I ended up getting a call from Mark Fain, who was working with Ricky Skaggs. Skaggs utility player had quit, and Mark recommended me for the job. I went and did the try out, and was in the band soon after that. Ricky was still doing a lot of country dates, and I played fiddle, mandolin, and acoustic rhythm, sang parts, and played banjo for him. Ricky’s country career was winding down, and he was starting to do some bluegrass stuff. I was able to do the country utility guy thing with him, and then as he moved back into bluegrass, I was able to use my background in that too. It was a great time in his career; it was getting new life. Grammy nominations and lots of recognition followed. While working with Ricky, I started to get more high-profile session work. I started doing more demo sessions, and just kept working from there.
VG: Is that how you ended up working some with the Dixie Chicks?
BS: They had seen me doing the bluegrass thing with Ricky, and had asked me to play on some of their stuff. Ricky also hosted a TV show at the time called Live At The Ryman. I got to play on that, and it was a great experience for me. I got to play with guys like Brent Mason, David Hungate, and Paul Leim. It was a lot of fun to work with them. Not only to play with them, but much of the time on a session you are hanging out. Through that I have really gotten to know these guys, and really gotten to feel like one of them. I love getting to play with these guys in the country realm, then to get to play with guys like Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas in the bluegrass world.
VG: When I first saw you perform with Ricky, you were playing electric guitar with him.
BS: That was during the period in which he was transitioning from a country act into a bluegrass one. Keith Sewell, who is now out on the road with the Dixie Chicks, is a great Tele player, singer and songwriter. He was leaving the band, and I wanted to have the lead position in both the bluegrass and country versions of his band. I was playing lead in the bluegrass band but not the country. When Keith was leaving, he put in a good word for me. Ricky had never heard any my Tele playing, but because of the recommendation, was willing to give me a shot. It was kind of a defense mechanism; I wanted to make sure I was the lead player in any situation. I can honestly say I was not the best electric lead player he had; especially when you think of the guys that had played on his records like Ray Flacke, Brent Mason and Albert Lee, but I could get through the parts.
VG: What was your electric rig with Skaggs?
BS: I had a custom shop Tele that Fender had made for Ricky that he let me use. It was blue with a cool curly maple top, and a maple neck. It was a bright guitar, but it worked well for what I was using it for. It also had a B-bender on it. Ricky had used it on some TV shows and such. I also had a Jonathon Rose guitar with a 3-pickup setup. I had a rack setup with a Mosvalve amp and some type of effects unit.
VG: When Ricky moved into bluegrass, you became more known as a player.
BS: I never had put too much stock in myself as a bluegrass player; it was just something that I had grown up around. It was just always something that I did. I never thought that I would have a viable career as a bluegrass guitar artist. I have always kind of had this worldview of whatever I have to do as long as I can make a living as a musician. Maybe that’s been to my detriment. I have never made my decisions according to wanting to make it as a bluegrass guitar instrumentalist. I just wanted to make it as a guitar player. I am very glad that I have had the opportunity to do it, and have tried to do my best. It was really strange to go from playing on records that not many people heard, to playing with Skaggs and being on the forefront of what was going on in acoustic music. Everybody was watching to see what he was going to do when he started playing bluegrass again.
VG: On your website, you indicate that Ricky influenced the way you play rhythm guitar, how so?
BS: While working with Ricky, I got to record quite a bit with him. Many times he and I would record acoustic guitars at the same time. I remember always liking what was going on with the acoustic guitars on Ricky’s records. You could tell a lot of thought had been put into the sound and parts that were played; even the way the whole mix of the band worked. I looked to his country records to pattern my acoustic playing on sessions. I was listening to his stuff, and then other great acoustic players like James Taylor. I learned a lot of good habits and thought processes from Ricky.
VG: What’s an example of a recording technique you learned from Skaggs?
BS: Stacking guitars. After doing my initial pass with the band, I’ll go back and add another rhythm pass that complements it. Usually it means using the capo in another position. Sometimes this can get funky because of phase cancellation. Right now I don’t do a lot of it. Things are more raw, and organic right now. Not so big. I really like to use different tunings, and sometimes just tuning lower than normal to create a certain sound. To really make it doing this (session playing) one has to figure out how you fit in. A lot of has to do with losing your ego. I just try to make my parts really fit. I strive for the best tone as is practical. I have done this long enough to know which guitar to use for which situation, and how they work with each other. I also have to be aware of what the electric guitar player is doing, and what the producer is looking for. You really need to get inside what guitars do. One thing I have learned is that whether I am picking out a guitar to play live, or in the studio, the audience is going to hear me through some kind of electronic device. Be it a speaker, or headphones, it’s going to come through a microphone first. I have really tried to pay attention to mics, and how records are made, how things are eq’d, compressed, or mastered. A lot of times I can pick up a guitar and tell within the first couple seconds how it will record. I’m only going to sound as good as whatever the audience is listening to me thru. I can’t really be in a situation where I play for people completely acoustically; that just doesn’t happen anymore. I have to find guitars that really practically translate what I want to do. Sometimes they are not the best acoustic sounding guitars to an ear in a room. But the way guitars mic is a different thing all together sometimes. Another thing with Skaggs is that he has taken that journey too. He really understands tone, and how things blend with each other; it's like artists learning to use colors, and different mixtures of paint.
VG: When did you leave Skaggs band?
BS: In about 1998. I continued to do freelance-work, and toured with Jerry Douglas. I then started to make some bluegrass guitar records. I then got to play on Dolly Parton’s bluegrass records, and started playing on a lot of new artists records. One of the big things I got to do during that time was to play on the Bluegrass Record with Jerry Douglas, Mark Schatz, Stuart Duncan, and Bela Fleck. Tony Rice was normally the guitar player in that situation, but had been in an accident. Jerry put me in the loop for that one, and it was a very good thing. It really raised my profile in the world of bluegrass.
VG: That must have been a little intimidating to be filling the shoes of Tony Rice?
BS: It was a very watched situation. Everybody was wondering how this kid was going to do. I really thrive on some of that kind of pressure. It’s the same way with playing on sessions; you could play some great intro that could help some artist sell a million records.
VG: What kind of picks and strings do you use?
BS: I have a whole bag of picks that I carry with me. Picks to me are kind of like eq with an acoustic guitar. I know the basic sound of an acoustic guitar, and strings and picks direct it. As a general rule I use phosphorus bronze strings. I do have some guitars that I like to use 80/20 or bronze strings on though. Within that world, I like to use the D’Addario J-17’s untreated strings. I think those are about as good a string as I have ever heard. On some guitars I keep the Elixir’s so I don’t have to change the strings as much. As far as picks go, I am a big fan of tortoise shell picks; just the way they pull the sound out of a guitar. Its interesting how different kinds of attack change your tone. People already think about the difference between a thin and thick pick, but you can also use 2 picks of the same thickness but different material and get a very different tone. I hear a big difference in-between tortoise, nylon, and plastic. It’s almost the same things as different pickups for an electric player, or different tubes in an amp. With acoustic guitar it’s all about how it blends with the other instruments. That’s one of the things I really like about my 1950 Gibson Southern Jumbo; it really sits in a track great. It puts just enough midrange, and just the right amount of tone to fit well with piano, drums, and electric bass. It works well without having to do a lot electronically to it. I like to just have a mic with no eq. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. It a worthy endeavor though.
VG: Tell us about some of the guitars you brought to the session today?
BS: When I was carrying my own stuff, I used to just take the ‘50 Southern Jumbo, and the ’42D-18. That was like taking a Strat and a Tele to me. Now I have a cartage company bring all of these guitars to the sessions in a couple of trunks. Its really nice to have all that stuff thereon a session for options.
VG: Lets start with the re-topped Martin there.
BS: My re-topped 1942 Martin D-18 has been on more sessions than any of my other guitars. Its got a great midrange, but also a nice airy punch to the low end. It’s a great guitar for solo finger picking kind of stuff. It has a natural midrange to it. It speaks somewhat like Tony Rice’s guitar speaks, and its nice to hear that type of sound on country records. I got it from my Grandfather.
VG: Did he have it re-topped?
BS: No it was already like that. It had a really gross epoxy resin on it when I got it. I went down to Lowe’s and got some furniture stripper and went at it. I then covered it back up to protect it. I call it what’s left of a D-18.
VG: What about your Bourgeois guitars?
BS: I found it in my search for a real practical guitar that recorded well in the studio and worked well for live bluegrass. Dana has a real talent for voicing guitars. He and I agree a lot on how it should be. When he sends me a guitar down and says that it is good, its great. With a lot of other makers we have not been dead on, but Dana and I have been. He has never missed with me. I initially bought one of his guitars here at George Gruhn’s shop a while back. That’s the one that ended up being called the banjo killer. I use that one a lot on bluegrass and country records. It has areal pronounced midrange; it’s a very loud guitar. I use it a lot more these days on more rock and roll stuff. Its real hard driving, and it has a real thick presence to it. The guitar has different woods and bracing than Dana normally uses on a guitar.
VG: And the 30thAnniversary guitar?
BS: It’s kind of a reissue of the banjo killer, but its to commemorate Dana making guitars for 30years. The one I have is #1 of 30. Thu the years, people have been curious about the banjo killer, so he decided to make a reissue. I think the round-shouldered versus the regular dreadnought shape gets more midrange. Its kind of the classic Gibson thing. Getting that, but with that dreadnaught low end is really versatile. Its got midrange that’s great for flat-picking, but its got low-end that’s great for rhythm. And they are loud. This reissue does the same thing.
VG: Tell us about the ’64 Gibson J-50 and ’68 J-200?
BS: I discovered more and more about the greatness of those 60’s Gibson’s; even the ones with ceramic bridges. They have this great spongy low-midrange that’s just warmth. They have this thick, gooey sound that’s just great. To me a lot of acoustic music that I have heard recently seems a little hard and bright. Some of that good soupy midrange has gotten eq’d out, just in the interest of trying to put more stuff in the mix. These Gibson’s have offered me a new look into that world of midrange. I have the’64 J-50 and a ’68 J-200 that both really bring that spongy sound to the table. I think of records like what Keith Richards did on the Let It Bleed records, that type of stuff. I also think of some of the acoustic stuff that the Beatles did on things like the intro to “Hey Jude.” I really like how that works.
VG: What about your 1940 Martin D-28?
BS: Its kind of on the other spectrum from the Gibson’s. I bought it about 2 or 3 years ago from a buddy I had been hounding for him to sell it to me. For a bluegrass player, the Martin Herringbone D-28 is as good as you need. I was fortunate to get this one. It has been interesting to try and bring that guitar into country sessions. Most of the time a good bluegrass guitar does not make a good country, recording guitar. But this 1940 D-28 kind of blows all of that out of the water; it seems to be good at whatever I use it for. Its Brazilian rosewood with a good red spruce top. Its been beat up in all the right ways.
VG: On the session today with Josh Turner, what did you use that guitar for?
BS: I used it for traditional country strumming with a more worn-in set of strings. With newer strings, it has a very immediate sound. I like to use it when I need a very forward guitar sound. Along with buying older guitars, I have gotten in to mics. I have learned about Neumann mics, and what they do. How single mics work, or how micing in a stereo pattern works. Its been a fun thing to get into.
VG: How did you find that guitar?
BS: I got it from Greg Luck. I just kept hounding him until he was willing to part with it. Since then I have had to do some work on it. Joe Glaser did some really great work with the fingerboard, and Marty Lanham did some interior work moving the bracings some. As you can see from the picture, its been a little hacked up. I just wanted to get it worked on enough where it wouldn’t move around any more. I would get a little work done at a time, then play it some and let it settle in. Last year I did a bunch of live work with it. I did about 30 shows last year with Bela Fleck. I also so did some work with Earl Scruggs, and Hot Rize. I used it in more acoustic type settings. I didn’t want to put a pickup in it. Recently, I have been doing some work with Chris Thile. Its been great to see that guitar grow. They are all kind of organic, living things. Guitars change with time. Its been great to see how that guitar has changed since I first got it.
VG: The 1958 MartinD-18?
BS: Sometimes I’ll walk into Gruhn’s, and be in too much of a good mood, and walk out with a new guitar. That was one of those. To me there is a classic Nashville acoustic sound from the 1960’s. Most of those guys were using D-18’s. This guitar has that sound. The guitar has been refinished, but it just has that sound. I don’t care if a guitar is not original. I am just looking for the sound.
VG: And the archtop?
BS: It’s a 1934 Gibson L-4. Sometimes its fun to use an arch top for things they weren’t really meant for. They have such a thuddy sound, but its fun to use it on certain things. It's great as a swing guitar, but it also works well for more outside the box kind of playing. Its fun to use guitars outside of their initial purpose.
VG: Today you also played some banjo on one of the tracks. Is that common for you?
BS: Banjos have been real popular in Nashville the last couple of years since the Dixie Chicks and Keith Urban have popularized it. I end up playing it a lot. Maybe not during the tracking, but certainly as an overdub. I don’t feel like a real player especially after playing with guys like Earl Scruggs and Bela Fleck, but I feel like I know how to make one of those work on a country session. Its fun sometimes to track with it instead of acoustic guitar. It inspires everyone to do something a little different. The banjo eats up a little different sonic space than what they are used to. It really makes the other players get outside of their normal box.
VG: Any guitars you are looking for right now?
BS: I just got this ’68 J-200, and it has kind of filled the last niche that was missing in my collection. I really don’t buy guitars for investments; I buy them for their sound. I feel like I have got with me everything I need to get the sounds a producer is going to ask for. At some point I would like to have a mid-30’s D-28. I played a friend’s the other day that was one of the better guitars I have ever heard. I played a 1937 D-28 in Missouri the other day that might be the best guitar I have ever heard. People are playing close to $100,000 for those guitars, and I am not prepared to go there. When I got this ’40 D-28 I was determined to really use it. I knew it was an expensive guitar, of course it’s not in mint condition, but I wanted more of a player guitar. I don’t want to buy a guitar just to have it sitting around the house. I want something I can rare back and make it work.