Nili Brosh on playing with Cirque du Soleil and Tony MacAlpine, and what every guitarist can learn from horn players

Nili Brosh
(Image credit: Nili Brosh)

Of the new generation of internet electric guitar heroes, Nili Brosh could easily be one of the most well-rounded. Before you’ve even heard a note of her own solo music, the Los Angeles-based musician’s CV is proof enough of her jaw-dropping versatility.

After gaining initial recognition on YouTube for her cover of Jam Track Central’s Larry Carlton Style Track lesson - written and performed by none other than Guthrie Govan - she went on to cut her teeth playing in giant productions for Cirque Du Soleil and touring alongside neoclassical Shrapnel hero Tony MacAlpine, while also recording her own music and returning to the Berklee College Of Music, where she originally studied, now as their youngest instructor.

She also re-recorded her ‘Guthrie Govan solo played by an 18-year-old girl’ breakthrough a decade on, in celebration of the success and opportunity that came with the viral recognition for her unique talents...

“That Larry Carlton Style piece was a great example of inspiration to me,” she smiles, having just arrived back home in Los Angeles from completing her first Ibanez clinic tour in Canada.

“I remember hearing it and thinking, ‘Oh my god, this is exactly what I want to learn!’ It was the tonality I was most interested in so I decided to learn it right away. I never thought I’d be talking about that cover now in interviews all these years later, but I’ll take it! I guess I’m a bit embarrassed about the title and everything, though it’s still validating to be talking about it now...”

By own her admission, her experiences the second time round were far more comfortable - with professional recording equipment and an intense decade of experience under her belt. Mainly, she laughs, it was nice to be able to hear what she was playing and the backing track in equal measure and with crystal clarity...

10 years later, knowing his style that much better, it was cool to revisit it and feel like I could hear and understand every little thing. I’m glad I did it!

“It definitely felt easier. It’s still challenging, don’t get me wrong, but I think I was smiling because I could hear everything way better. My ears were also 10 years older, with that much more transcription experience - if I had to log my practice hours over the years, I’ve probably spent more time learning by ear than anything else.

“Guthrie was the player that blew my mind. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hear every little thing in there the first time but 10 years later, knowing his style that much better, it was cool to revisit it and feel like I could hear and understand every little thing. I’m glad I did it!”

Tell us about the concept behind your latest album, Spectrum...

“So the title is basically named after the concept - which is me exploring literally a spectrum of genres, fading from one to the next. I’m starting in one place and ending up somewhere totally different. I’ve always dabbled in other sounds, but when I started writing this record, I realized my ideas weren’t really in the same vein or genre or instrumentation or anything.

“I figured I had a bunch of songs that didn’t really work as one record - I didn’t know what I’d end up doing. After spending more time with it, I realized that no matter how far you think one genre is from another, there will always be some connection or musical commonality there...”

The track order must have been extra-crucial here, then...

“I put them in the order of how much in common they had to the next thing, coming up with a sequence that faded from one thing to the next. I think you could even listen to the record backwards to achieve the same effect!

“I remember when I got it in order for the first time, I realized it was going to work. I could take people into the Spanish world, leaving them wondering how they ended up there but also with some natural link to where I was coming from. That was the desired effect…”

You’ve generally been known for favoring darker and warmer tones...

“I think I just prefer those kinds of sounds, it’s probably more from fusion players. My main influences are Guthrie, Greg Howe and Andy Timmons, as well as Nuno Bettencourt. Through them I’ve learned to try not to overplay, though it’s hard.

If I played a horn, there would only be so many notes I could play before passing out. That teaches a sense of phrasing that we as guitar players normally don’t have

“We all have issues with bringing it back; it can be difficult not to go in with everything you’ve got. But phrasing is the key for that - if you have a good sense of where your ideas begin and end, in a way that’s also clear to the listener, that helps you focus on what works and not run around the fretboard confusing everybody.”

Was there a particular moment that helped you hone in on more melodic phrasing?

“My whole concept of it came from listening to a lot of guitar players complaining about it. I saw a Tommy Emmanuel clinic once where he said it best: ‘You can’t think like a guitar player; you have to think like a singer!’ And that’s true.

“Guitar players don’t have to breathe... if I played a horn, there would only be so many notes I could play before passing out. That teaches a sense of phrasing that we as guitar players normally don’t have. We can continue playing forever and ever. Nothing forces us to organize our thoughts unless we decide to.

“I also like vocal music, catchy things that might have simple melodies. It started a big conversation within me about organizing myself in a way that makes sense. I want my ideas to be conveyed; I don’t want to confuse anybody with what I’m trying to say.”

In your latest video for Primal Feels, you’re playing your favored Ibanez seven-string...

“That’s my RG1527 with a maple neck. I think they were discontinued back in 2012 - I got one of the last ones. It was one of my first guitars from them and it’s really been my workhorse ever since. It’s no coincidence it got used in the video!

“I love seven-strings, though I can’t really do eight-strings… I’ve tried a few but my hands weren’t big enough to justify anything on instruments like that. Leave it to those who have that vision, and all power to them- I just felt like I couldn’t fully utilize it as well as other people could.”

Did you find it easy switching from six to seven strings?

Tony MacAlpine was the reason I had to start playing seven-strings. His songs required them and I didn’t even own one

“The visual thing is the biggest mess-up of it, because it really is only one extra string but it can throw everything off. One thing that really helped was a tip that Tony MacAlpine gave me back in the day - he was the reason I had to start playing seven-strings. His songs required them and I didn’t even own one.

“He said it was helpful to use riffs and songs you know very well already to get your eye adjusted to the extra string being there. It really helped; you suddenly start appreciating it as the same thing. The perspective is a little bit different, but your hands can get used to it very quickly.”

And you’ve generally stuck with using a Peavey JSX head as your main amp...

“That’s been my main go-to for years, going through an Egnater Tourmaster 2x12 cab. My rig is pretty simple - I like to get the bulk of my tone from the amp.

“I use the EP Booster by Xotic Effects in the front - it’s my always on pedal that fattens the tone, rounding it all out. It’s a one-knob tone enhancer kind of thing. I have a [MXR] Carbon Copy delay, then other things for clean tones like compression, reverb, a volume or wah. That’s there if the gig requires it, but my overall usage is fairly simplistic, I’d say.

“I have also used the HeadRush Pedalboard a lot in the last couple of years. I have some signature tones that I created with them that are available through their website. I travel with it a lot because it sounds great and is very convenient - it solves all my problems and goes direct to the front of house.”

What did you learn most during your time with Cirque Du Soleil’s Michael Jackson: One show?

“That was a totally different thing to any other kind of gig. It was a residency in Mandalay Bay Resort And Casino in Las Vegas, because it was pretty difficult to tour with a massive hologram. It really had to live in just one theater. They’ve continued doing 10 shows a week, which is what I was doing for a while.

“It was such an amazing experience. The highlight was that it wasn’t the typical kind of show. Most of them have a pit orchestra, but in this one there were two musicians - myself and a female vocalist who rides in on the crest of the moon doing duets with Michael Jackson. So I was the only musician on stage at points...”

What did you feel was the biggest challenge?

It’s indescribable: so different to the normal guitar thing, but it opens your mind and skillset in ways that money can’t buy

“My job was to be a feature character and run around and interact. It’s not that the solos I played were secondary; I just had to find a way of playing with the showmanship at a very high level and intact. I learned all kinds of skills doing that. The solos were challenging, but it was such a machine; you’d do it over and over again.

“I did close to 700 shows, so I almost became desensitized to it. The initial challenge was getting it all under my fingers enough to make it look easy and do all the other stuff, too. If it looked like I wasn’t actually playing, I was doing my job right!

“So it was the combination of all that: playing solos while interacting. The dancers in my latest video were all from the show - you meet so many people from different art forms and learn from them. It’s indescribable: so different to the normal guitar thing, but it opens your mind and skillset in ways that money can’t buy. Where else can you learn those things?”

Plus, you got to play the Beat It solo in front of mass audiences on a daily basis...

I got to play the Beat It solo while shooting an arc fire out of my guitar at the same time. It was by far the best part of the gig

“Yup, I got to play that solo while shooting an arc fire out of my guitar at the same time. It was by far the best part of the gig. I needed my responsible face for that bit - I had to stand in the right place and aim in the right place, haha!

“My other favorite acts included Dirty Diana, which was a pole dance act. I was the force of good and the pole dancer Dirty Diana was the force of evil. We had a duel at the end where I was playing the solo while shooting her with my guitar.

“I also loved They Don’t Care About Us - they definitely made that act reflect all the messages in the song. There were screens showing all that’s wrong in the world, the good and the bad at war with each other. It was great for getting into character when I was new to it - because it’s basically a throw-down, angry stank-face kind of song. I knew how to deal with that; it was easier to adjust to.”

It must have felt like a different world to your experiences in the Tony MacAlpine band...

“Yeah! As well as a band [Seven The Hardway], we did one tour that was all of Edge Of Insanity and then a few years later we did the Maximum Security thing, too. No track was really any harder than the other; they all had bits and pieces that were challenging.

“For that gig, I wasn’t really a lead player or a rhythm player; I was a combination of both. Tony would play a lot of keyboards, so I knew at points I’d need to switch in and out of different parts. Blazing through one thing is much easier; the mental and physical switching between lead and rhythm was the main challenge. You can’t stay in one frame of mind.

“I guess if I had to choose a track, something like The King’s Cup would have been on the more challenging side. That was the uniqueness of that role - in any other shredder's band it would have been more like sticking to the rhythm parts. It made the gig a lot more interesting as well as helping me grow and learn more. Why not push yourself, especially if that’s being asked of you?”

When did you realize you wanted to explore more of the fusion approach to rock?

“I guess it was when I was going to Berklee, I remember thinking, ‘I really wanna learn how to do this fusion thing!’ I felt like I was stuck in a jazz culture that I didn’t really understand.

“I really liked bebop lines and that kind of vocabulary. I really wanted to learn how to use it in the context of my own music. I’m glad people find it audible in my playing. That’s what I was searching for...”

Was there anything that sped up your understanding of theory and outside scales?

Always be a listener. Try to come from that perspective as much as you can

“Theory is a tricky thing, you know. There’s the concept on paper and then there’s what you really do with it. Things don’t sound natural to the ear at first; it’s harder to reconcile the ear and the paper.

“I know when you’ve studied theory and worked hard to get it, you can start delving into the paper a bit too much. You start thinking about rules and how it’s supposed to be written out, whether it’s technically right or wrong...”

How do you get around that?

“My advice for a lot of things is just listen. You are what you listen to. You are what you immerse yourself in. Always be a listener. Try to come from that perspective as much as you can.

“It’s hard enough being a musician, we all know that. If you’re not doing it for the right reasons, it doesn’t work. Remembering we are here to use our ears and listen is what has gotten me past whatever ruts I’ve found myself in.

“If you’re hitting a wall, just listen to a player whose sound you like. That’s the biggest help; you’ll start finding out the spots on the neck you like and analyzing them.

“At least in those scenarios you are dealing with theory that you chose and actually like the sound of. It’s the best shot you got! That will always make a difference. It has to come from inspiration, but the drive has to come from you.

“I’ve had numerous frustrations… I don’t just want to say it’s experience and time, but it is. Sometimes you just have to live it before it can click.”

As for picking accuracy, was there any particular exercise or approach that helped synchronize the hands?

“I’m not a big believer in exercises for the sake of technique. What changed the game for me was how I worked with the metronome.

“The go-to way for most people is starting out with moderate speed and gradually increasing it as you get better. And there’s a lot of logic in that, I’m not saying it doesn’t work, but I found myself pushing the metronome far beyond what I was ready for. All it brought was mistakes and frustration!

Now I keep the metronome at a slow speed and don’t really speed it up. I find the tempo where I can play it confidently with no mistakes

“So now I keep the metronome at a slow speed and don’t really speed it up. I find the tempo where I can play it confidently with no mistakes. It doesn’t matter to me how slow it is because I know my muscle memory is being developed right there. It reinforces habits through repetition.

“If you nail it every time, that’s what your hands will memorize. When you hear people complain about their hands not synching or an issue with their fretting or picking hand, quite often they’ll be going too fast to notice where exactly they’re going wrong. Find the tempo that exposes where you could be going wrong but also where your hands can just do it and keep going.

“It’s good for your psyche, too: you will trust yourself that little bit more and not want to throw your guitar out of the window… we’ve all had those days! If you’re slowing things right down, it might as well be something that you like.

“An exercise might get you there, but to me, why introduce a middleman into this deal that doesn’t need one. Work with what feels like real music and the results will be better.”

Spectrum is out soon.

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Amit Sharma

Amit has been writing for titles like Total GuitarMusicRadar and Guitar World for over a decade and counts Richie Kotzen, Guthrie Govan and Jeff Beck among his primary influences as a guitar player. He's worked for magazines like Kerrang!Metal HammerClassic RockProgRecord CollectorPlanet RockRhythm and Bass Player, as well as newspapers like Metro and The Independent, interviewing everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy to Slash and Jimmy Page, and once even traded solos with a member of Slayer on a track released internationally. As a session guitarist, he's played alongside members of Judas Priest and Uriah Heep in London ensemble Metalworks, as well as handled lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).