It’s rare for a guitarist to communicate with a distinctly identifiable voice within the abundant sea of bluegrass and traditional flatpickers. Unique in her delivery, Avril Smith stands out. Her articulate guitar work is rich with a creative blend of quirky flourishes, poignant timing, double stops, and signature voicings that bend the ear just a little bit further than expectation would allow.
Growing up outside New York City in a town by the Hudson River, Avril Smith was too small to play the acoustic guitar when she was drawn to the instrument at age six. By age eight, she was taking lessons on a full-size guitar. “I had an attraction to the guitar,” she explains. “As a young kid, I was interested in classic rock, pop, and jazz.” A decade later, bluegrass “clicked” for her when a college friend’s soulful performance of the music inspired Avril. She dove into the bluegrass canon, listening and learning with a passion for the social connection and common language inherent in the genre.
Now residing just outside Washington DC, Avril is perhaps best known for her work with the all-female power group, Della Mae, of which Avril is a founding member. Avril departed from the band about a decade ago when the band’s touring schedule was no longer compatible with her responsibilities as a new mother; she says she rejoined the group when her daughter turned seven, and she felt more comfortable balancing the group’s touring and recording commitments with her family life.
Della Mae’s new release, Family Reunion, is an appetizing starting point for listeners unfamiliar with Avril’s guitar work. Her standout acoustic and electric guitar performances give nods to familiar traditional sounds, yet there’s a fresh perspective that balances her informed ear. She conveys her breadth of influences with a casual, easy grace. She comments, “I incorporate elements of things that are easier to play or more commonly played on electric guitar into my acoustic guitar playing and certainly those early influences of mine show up in my playing in some form—maybe not necessarily in a specific lick, but in spirit and aesthetic. I didn’t start out with Norman Blake and Doc Watson; I hadn’t heard them as a kid, but I got really deep into their playing as an adult.” Avril’s unique interpretation of her musical background brings a creative force to her work on Della Mae’s album.
Avril may communicate with an array of influences, but her sound has an artistic continuity whether she is playing on a fast bluegrass song, a pretty ballad or a more blues-influenced track. When asked about her stylistic use of double stops, she explains, “We’re all defined by our abilities and limitations. Bluegrass music is really fast, and it’s really hard. I think it’s fair to say that it’s the hardest to play fast on the guitar, because it’s the least efficient of the instruments. Bluegrass guitar is very demanding on your right hand, so sometimes I use double-stops as a way to give my right hand a break,” she explains. “Also, I think when there’s space in music, it’s an art. A lot of times the magic is in the white space, and the space around the notes; your brain can’t process a flurry of notes at 170 beats per minute. You’re not really hearing melodies, you’re just hearing that someone can accomplish something really hard. A lot of times that’s what people are reacting to more than the ideas, because it’s hard to capture them. You can hear drive, and you can hear power, and there’s a lot you can do, but I don’t think one of the things you can do as effectively is establish a melody and a melodic idea at those tempos; However, if you use space, sometimes you can say more with less. Part of it is a statement of my limitations. I can’t play at 170 beats per minute, nonstop. I just can’t do it. I can do a couple of bars, but then I just need a rest on my right hand. So I think some of it is that, and then it becomes part of your style.”
Avril encourages other players to listen to music in order to grow and progress. “It’s really hard to develop musicality if you’re not listening and really thinking critically. Who are the players, or what is the music that really speaks to you? And what is it about those players that draws you in?” She advises others not to focus on playing at fast tempos. “Slow things down. Think about tone, think about getting notes to ring as long as you can to create fluidity. If you focus first on the musicality, everything else is going to come over time. Playing good music—that’s what it’s all about. Your music is going to speak to people when you play with musicality and with intentionality.”
Practice More Efficiently
Having spent decades honing her craft, Avril says that while there are no short cuts to becoming proficient, there are ways to practice more efficiently. “I haven’t been as disciplined, and it’s cliché, but the people who are the best at music are the people who are the best at practicing. They’re the best at figuring out how to listen really hard to what they’re doing and figuring out what they need to change to achieve what they’re trying to achieve. It’s all about time spent, right? There’s no magic sauce. For most people, it’s just hard work.” And while it may be a result of years of hard work, Avril has achieved an element of the legendary ‘magic sauce,’ as she makes guitar sound so completely effortless.
By Rebecca Frazier