We recently had the chance to catch up with John D. Willis, a musician our ears are more familiar with than we realize! John is based in Nashville, TN and is not only an impressive guitarist in his own right, he has extensive experience in recording on the banjo, including 5 string banjo, long neck 5 string banjo, and 6 string banjo.
For over two decades, Willis’ guitars and banjos have become constants on country and pop radio with recording credits including Kenny Chesney, Shania Twain, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Luke Bryan, Taylor Swift, Georgia Florida Line, Rita Wilson, Leann Rimes, Craig Morgan, Gretchen Wilson, Taylor Swift, Toby Keith, Alabama, Jewel, and India Arie.
When he is not hard at work in a Music Row studio, you’ll find John Willis at Willisoundz, his home studio where much of the magic happens, and where it has branched out into the world of composition and production with original songs featured on CNN, The Sci-Fi Channel, PBS, The 700 Club, Lifetime, the CMA Awards Show, and more.
We had the chance to ask John about advices and experience in recording with banjo, and specifically his take on the 6-string banjo, and get to share his answers with you here.
What are your thoughts on the character of a 6-string banjo as opposed to other instruments one could choose to play?
For starters, I’m in Nashville, and even with the industry becoming more “Pop” every day, banjo is still a staple. It instantly makes songs sound more “rootsy,” and lets artist,producers, and record labels have rock guitar, crazy synth sounds, and huge drum beats while still claiming “country” as the genre.
What is the roll of the 6-string banjo in your personal recording career, how much has it been used?
It was an accident. I was in Gruhn’s Guitars looking at an old Gretsch Nashville model. Just wandered around the store and my eyes landed on a B6 banjo. I thought it would make a nice addition to the arsenal. About a year later, I was in the Bahamas overdubbing on a Shania Twain “Up” album, and that banjo ended up on 17 of the 19 tracks. Next thing you know, I’m getting calls from LA, Nashville, NYC, and Europe for that special banjo. Truly a wise investment. I’d say even now I probably put 6-string banjo on at least 5 songs a week.
Any notable moments or memories?
I work a lot at Dan Frizsell’s place, Legends Studio, where we record demos for artists and songwriters. The number of those songs I hear on the radio a few months later is pretty astonishing. One night, Dan told me to put some banjo on a song called “Doin What She Likes,” and then he put a cool envelope follower on it. It became such a big part of the song that Blake Shelton’s folks decided to use my track for the record. Billboard Country ended up doing a piece on cool mix of banjo and technology.
What sounds can you get out of it and where has it been useful in recording?
Well, besides the normal “country sequencer” role that banjo plays in current popular country, it also makes a very cool bluesy tone for funky songs. I’ve done slide parts on it, played some jazzy fills, dixieland, and it works great stacking licks with fiddle, dobro, and mando. Since I play with a flatpick, it’s an obvious choice for anything guitar wise that needs a more unique tone.
Oh, and if you pitch-shift it down an octave , it makes a great acoustic bass!!
What would you tell a guitar player who is contemplating getting a 6-string banjo?
Are there any advantages of a guitarist playing a 6-string banjo as opposed to hiring a banjo player?
I guess that depends on the situation, the guitarist, and the banjoist. If you want it exactly your way, you have to do it yourself!
Are there any recording techniques, microphones, etc. that complement the banjo sound?
I use several mics specific to the song and tone desired. I have a Shoeps stereo mic for precision playing. A Wasaphone mic if i need it nasty and filtered sounding. An SM57 for rockier stuff. And a stereo pair of Thuressens for pure beauty of tone.
I have one 6-string tuned down a whole step using bronze acoustic mediums. And another tuned regular with nickel-wounds.
I’ve had great luck with V-picks small pointed ultra-light picks (not that lite) to get the notes coming off the pick fast and fluid.