Wesman Todd Shaw started playing the guitar when he was 12 years old. He loves nothing more than to pick one up and pluck some strings.
What makes Billy Strings so Great?
I'm a guy who has been a huge fan of guitar music for more than thirty years now. So it is tough to get me excited about someone new. I normally feel like I've seen and heard it all before, but here comes this Billy Strings kid, and I'm blown away, and excited about guitar music as though I were a kid again.
Who is Billy Strings? He is a young man who, just a few years ago, was only known on YouTube for a video where he plays and sings a fantastic original song while sitting on a couch. He's gone from YouTube to The Grand Old Opry in a very short time. Billy Strings is a phenom. An absolutely fantastic guitarist.
I'm hardly the only guy bowing down to the newest king. Everywhere Billy Strings goes, he makes new fans, and leaves people in awe of him. It's been said the difference between Billy and others is, one day Billy strings started playing the guitar, and unlike the rest, Billy simply never ever stopped.
While Billy Strings is a fantastic guitarist, and is likely to always be thought of just that way, it's selling Billy short, as Billy Strings is a fine vocalist, he writes fantastic all original songs, and he plays mandolin and banjo extremely well too.
So the purpose of this page is to introduce you to Billy Strings. I'm giving a nice sample of music here, and I'm hoping that by watching some of these videos, you'll agree with me that Billy Strings is one phenomenal guitarist. Following that, I'll discuss a bit about flatpicking Bluegrass guitar, and the type of guitars Strings uses.
What Makes Billy Strings so Great?
- Unbridled enthusiasm. This kid is so excited when he plays, his excitement and joy in playing music is just contagious.
- He honors the traditions of Bluegrass music, and yet he also is pushing that music forward. He doesn't always do those two things at the same time, but there are times when he is capable of doing both in the same exact song.
- There is a massive youth movement in Bluegrass music where there are a lot of extremely talented younger musicians. Billy Strings is one of the best of the Bluegrass youth movement.
- Virtuoso musicianship, not just with Billy Strings, but also with his outstanding band.
- Completely original songwriting, progressive musical originals,and the Strings band is also fully capable of absolutely traditional renditions of timeless classics.
Bluegrass Shred Guitarist
William Apostol was born in 1992. He was trained in music by his stepfather, and gosh darn, he was certainly trained very well. His stepfather was an active musician in the Michigan Bluegrass music scene, and he raised young Billy on the music of Doc Watson.
Doc Watson, of course, was the great blind guitarist famous for bringing the guitar into the limelight as a lead instrument in Bluegrass music. Bluegrass is a fast tempo music, the music is very upbeat in sound, even if the lyrics are often rather dark. It's tough for guitarists to play leads at the Bluegrass tempos set by mandolin, banjo, or fiddle players.
Mr. Billy Strings has no problems in this. He's practically a Bluegrass shred guitarist. No he's not the first, there have been many, but only Tony Rice, Doc Watson, and Billy Strings have ever been able to play so well at such fast tempos, and also sing wonderfully.
The latest and greatest prior to Billy Strings was Bryan Sutton, and Sutton is still at the top of his game, and for a Bluegrass guitar fan, nothing could be more fun than to see Strings and Sutton trading licks. Maybe some day we'll get to see Billy Strings and Tony Rice as well.
Billy Strings and Bryan Sutton do Bluegrass Shred on Freeborn Man
Billy Strings - Pushing Bluegrass Forward
I hear people say things like, "this ain't your grandfather's Bluegrass!" Well, in lots of cases it is. Billy Strings absolutely plays very traditional Bluegrass tunes, although it is true he's a bit more of a flamboyant showman than what was seen in previous generations. He's got his own way of doing things, and he likes to toy with the crowd a lot.
The crowds love it, and how could they not? You're seeing unbridled enthusiasm. The way Strings plays and sings is rooted in traditions, but also pushing the genre forward. It all reminds me of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and what he did with the blues back in the 1980s. Strings the Bluegrass messiah now.
The youth movement in Bluegrass, with virtuoso musicianship, it started years back with bands like Nickel Creek, and Yonder Mountain String Band. Today it's going forward still with solo artists like Billy Strings, and the equally trailblazing Molly Tuttle. A female who can blaze away on stage on the level of Molly Tuttle has been long in the coming, seeing her cover classics with Strings is priceless.
Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle - The Youth Movement of Bluegrass Guitar
Dust in a Baggie
In Bluegrass music and all the festivals involved with the music, one simply must be able to do a bang up job of many many classic songs. The thing is, if you really want to become a great musician, you also have to do original material. Having a bit of a hit song has never hurt anyone.
So Strings has one, one he wrote. I'm not sure if it'll be on FM radio where I live soon, but maybe it will be. It's certainly a song with fantastic wide ranging appeal, as it is not just musical virtuosos playing very fast, it's a subject which, for the last thirty or so years has become something widely known in the United States. Yes, it's a tale of a methamphetamine addiction and trouble with the law.
Dust in a Baggie is extremely catchy, and this is the song Billy Strings performed alone, sitting on a couch at a house party, which was made into a major YouTube hit. Now there are probably more than a dozen different videos of Strings performing the song available, and he's made it from the couch all the way to The Grand Old Opry.
Strings sounds fantastic playing alone, or with any other player or ensemble, but he does sound especially good with his band. His band is composed of also exciting younger players, and they are, Billy Failing on mandolin, Jarrod Walker on banjo, and Royal Masat on upright bass.
Turmoil and Tinfoil
Turmoil and Tinfoil is the name of the brand new Billy Strings album, and if you're a fan of guitar music, or Bluegrass music, then this is something you simply must possess. The album's title reflects the darkness Billy grew up around in his small hometown. He says substance abuse was rampant, and people around him all had trouble figuring out what to do with their lives. It's something very relatable all across America.
Evoking at times the pathos of Hank Williams, and much of the hard edged technical mastery of Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys, the Billy Strings band, and Turmoil and Tinfoil, bring Bluegrass into the modern day. It's everything and more than we could ask from a bandleader who is still years away from thirty.
There is more than a touch of the psychedelic involved with Turmoil and Tinfoil, and while this could annoy certain segments of the Bluegrass audience, there are more than enough staples of tradition on the album, and the other members of the band stretch out and solo ferociously and interestingly.
Speaking as a huge fan myself, I can't wait for the next album. This guy and his band are so good, so energetic, and represents such passion, I'm only going to be excited for more and more.
How to Play Guitar like Billy Strings
So how do you learn to play guitar like Billy Strings? It would be very hard to do, but the foundations of the Billy Strings guitar style are easy to explain, and it's simple to lead you in the right direction. If someone is paying attention to Billy at all when he speaks, he's laying it all out right there in the open.
The key is Doc Watson. You learn to flatpick like Doc Watson, and you've got the foundation of the Billy Strings guitar style right there. This is not to say it is easy to learn to play like Doc Watson. Flatpicking is a physically exhausting thing to do. You're playing on a big Martin or Martin style dreadnought guitar, and you're absolutely using medium gauge strings.
That's just Bluegrass. You won't sound as good using light gauge strings. You're not getting all the sound out of your guitar that way. You must learn to use mediums, and this means you are wearing the skin off your fretboard fingertips, building callouses, and you're taxing your picking hand and wrist to the absolute limits. Welcome to what every professional flatpicker must endure and maintain, and now you've only got to build yourself up to speed.
I'm just another massive guitar fan, but I've met some flatpicking greats, and among the greatest flatpickers I've met was Steve Kaufman. He let me play his seven string Gallagher guitar at the Winfield festival one year. Steve Kaufman is also the premier teacher of flatpicking, and his Learning to Flatpick is the best place to start.
If you're already an amateur guitarist, and flatpicking is something you can do a bit of, then you merely need study the style of Doc Watson, and from there you move on into contemporary Bluegrass shredders like Larry Keel.
Billy Strings Gear
No question about it, Billy Strings, like almost every single last other flatpicker you will ever hear of, plays Martin style dreadnought guitars. These guitars are in the exact same vein as the revered Martin HD-28 and the D-18. Billy is mostly not playing Martin guitars. Rather, his primary instruments were custom built for him.
You sure can't fault a person for sporting the best a custom builder will make specifically for you, and Strings is playing Preston Thompson guitars, which are hand made in Sisters, Oregon. Strings is currently in love with his Brazilian rosewood Preston Thompson dreadnought, which he says plainly, is basically the same thing as a Martin HD-28, but with Brazilian rosewood and Adirondack spruce for the top.
These very high end dreadnought guitars are the sorts which sound the best the louder you can play. Strings digs into his guitar's strings like a miner with a pickaxe digging for gold - he's nailing every note with a ton of force from his right hand, and he's using medium gauge strings. This is how you get the Billy Strings tone.
Thanks for reading. I hope I've introduced someone to a fantastic guitarist and a fantastic band. There's an entire concert below.
A true pioneer for Bluegrass, Strings literally uses a pedalboard. He's got lots of effects pedals, delays, distortions, reverbs, and all other manner of such. You may have never before heard of a Bluegrass picker with a pedalboard, but now that Billy Strings has came into the world, you'll likely see more of it. We're all about pushing boundaries here. Thanks for reading.
© 2019 Wesman Todd Shaw
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on December 18, 2019:
Sounds like paradise to me, James. I wish I had anyone around into Bluegrass. I used to, but I was a teen and blew too much of it off.
This kid is the face of Bluegrass all of a sudden. He deserves to be too, I think. He's just so excited when he plays, and that make it all more exciting.
Molly Tuttle is another fantastic one to watch. There's never been a woman who could play Bluegrass guitar on her level.
You told me about the uncles before. The Dobro is such a cool instrument. Weird how you only tend to see one in Bluegrass, when it could clearly be used in lots of other settings.
Wish I knew how to play one :/
James A Watkins from Chicago on December 18, 2019:
I love it! I had not yet heard of this virtuoso, I appreciate you turning me onto him. "Dust in a Baggie" is awesome. I love bluegrass. Two of my uncles were in a touring road band in the 1950s playing old time country, including some bluegrass, too. One of my uncles stuck with it and became a Nashville session player on steel guitar and later handmade dobros he called 'Raybros' (His name was Ray Watkins). I grew up around jam sessions that would draw pickers from all around who'd take turns playing into the wee hours with a hog on a grate over a hole in the ground and moonshine being passed around.
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on December 16, 2019:
Well thanks very much, Pamela! I think this kid was going places regardless,but that original YouTube video was just some house party out in the sticks, and WOW. At least YouTube is still good for something.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 16, 2019:
I think it is really great how people start on YouTube and some get a wonderful career. I like Billy's music and he is new too me. Thanks for presenting a newer star.
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on December 16, 2019:
Thanks a whole bunch, Reginald. I only very recently checked the guy out on YouTube. I'd first heard of him a month or three ago, but I didn't think about it much, and didn't search for anything.
Then one day on r/bluegrass, I saw a video,a nd I was like OH MY GOD!
Reginald Thomas on December 16, 2019:
Great Hub!!! This guy can play. Very true to the energy of bluegrass music. He adds his “spice” which is very cool.