Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek on the tunings, techniques and gear behind their expansive indie-rock sound

Big Thief
(Image credit: Burak Cingi/Redferns)

Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek, co-guitarists for Brooklyn indie rockers Big Thief, have earned the right to be tired. In the busy lead-up to the release of their hotly anticipated fifth album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, they finally found time to jam together – and so they did, until 3am, despite the full day of interviews that awaited them a few hours later.

Talking at length about the deceptively intricate guitar work they weave throughout DNWMIBIY perks them up, though, and before long we’ve cracked the Big Thief guitar code. Sort of.

“I gravitate toward the sound of open strings,” Lenker says, “even if I know I could play something without a capo with closed voicings. They inspire me. Instead of drop D where I’m dropping the low E to a D, I like to drop the high E to a D, which creates this nice drone.”

Lenker uses the trick on songs like the delicate strummer 12,000 Lines and the fingerpicked Heavy Bend, transforming well-worn chord shapes into something entirely new. 

“I play in open tunings as much, if not more, as standard,” she says. “I can figure it out if I think about it for just a second, but I don’t generally know what I’m playing. I just go by ear and think in terms of [chord] shapes. Some of them I know are common shapes, and then some of them I don’t know how ‘used’ they are. I’m not really thinking about what I’m playing.” 

Combining those techniques opens wide creative lanes for Lenker, who explores the sonic territory on her semi-hollowbody Collings SoCo, which has a pair of P-90 pickups.

Lenker’s laid-back folky vibe lays a clear link to ’90s-era indie bands like Pavement, but Big Thief are no slackers; all four band members attended Berklee College of Music and are accomplished musicians.

Meek, who studied jazz guitar and grew up playing Western swing, ragtime and country music when he wasn’t cranking his Marshall half-stack to speedy pop-punk like NOFX, often plays the foil to Lenker instead of merely being an accompanist. While Lenker’s vocals quiver with immediacy like Stevie Nicks as she quietly strums or fingerpicks, Meek’s guitar work is exploratory, bent on ensuring they don’t leave a lick of emotion or grandeur on the table.

“Often I’ll be pulling my guitar part from elements of the melody, whether I’m emphasizing certain words or certain melodic lines or harmonizing with them,” Meek says. “I’m just trying to lift them up, or to lift up what she’s playing on guitar, for instance, to emphasize it or create something interlocking to reinforce what she’s doing.

“If her guitar part is really dense, I’ll often just try to create a bed for that, something more liquid for it to rest on,” he adds. “But it’s always in service of the song, and I feel like we all have our own pathway to that.”

Lenker and Meek formed Big Thief in 2015 after initially playing together as an acoustic duo, recruiting the rhythm section of bassist Max Oleartchik and drummer James Krivchenia, and adopting a more electric sound. 

After releasing four acclaimed albums in as many years and racking up a pair of Grammy award nominations, the band pursued an unconventional path to create DNWMIBIY.

Krivchenia pitched the idea to his bandmates: instead of booking time at a typical recording studio and putting out the 10 or 12 best cuts as their fifth album, they would record four sets of songs, loosely grouped by theme, at vastly different locations, with four different engineers, and with him producing. 

The band put down a total of 45 songs, recording to an eight-track tape machine in upstate New York; at a more conventional studio in Topanga Canyon near L.A.; a castle-like studio high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, nearly two miles above sea level; and in a friend’s home studio in Tucson, Arizona, where a fiddle player joined them for spontaneous jam sessions that yielded the playful Spud Infinity and honky-tonkin’ Red Moon

Even as albums get shorter again in the streaming age, the band chose 20 songs for the final record.

Lenker and Meek are clearly supportive of each other’s picking proclivities, taking turns extolling their different techniques and how they serve the greater role of being Big Thief.

“Often Adrianne’s guitar parts are so lush, and they have so much information,” Meek explains. “Her right hand is so intricate. She’s often playing in these open tunings with a lot of fingerpicking asymmetrical patterns, and there’s just so much density in her guitar parts that I find myself trying to balance that out with feedback or some form of ambience or a drone or creating resonance, or using long strings of melodies or these repetitive patterns to create a drone of melody.”

Buck used to play a lot of jazz and studied that pretty hardcore… When we first started playing together, his foot would always tap on the upbeat and I used to get so confused

Adrianne Lenker

“Buck’s [playing] feels slanted and staccato sometimes,” Lenker says. “I used to be really into Michael Hedges and Pat Metheny’s acoustic stuff, which is all very open feeling and constant.

“Buck used to play a lot of jazz and studied that pretty hardcore for a while and has this swing rhythm. When we first started playing together, his foot would always tap on the upbeat and I used to always get so confused.”

By contrast, Lenker is apt to mix time signatures and throw conventional structures to the wind, leaning into syncopation and asymmetry of form. On Little Things, Lenker’s dreamy 12-string strumming and Meek’s buzzing complementary figures operate independently of each other and the percussion, but the sum of the parts results in a consistent underlying pulse. 

Meek played his hollowbody Collings I-30 through a Leslie on the song, “ripping as fast as I could to create kind of a river to tie her part together,” he says.

Elsewhere on DNWMIBIY, the guitarists’ gear choices range from traditional to experimental. Lenker got the blunted, percussive tone on Time Escaping by playing a resonator with a business card woven through the strings near the bridge to deaden the attack. 

Both play Magnatone Twilighter amps and Lenker recently acquired a Marshall Bluesbreaker and a Fender Deluxe Reverb, while Meek’s stable of guitars includes a Collings I-35 and a 1926 Martin 0-18K acoustic, as well as a wicked Flipperkaster built by luthier Flip Scipio.

“Flip Scipio in Brooklyn built me this Strat thing, a Flipperkaster, with this old Guyatone pickup in the neck and a Fralin Big Single in the bridge,” Meek says. “It’s wired in parallel and in series. The series wiring is really sweet. You push the Guyatone into the Fralin and then into the output, so it cooks this saturated output before it even hits the amp. I used that a lot on this record.”

When Lenker and Meek formed Big Thief in 2014, Lenker decided it was time to graduate from the Martin double-ought acoustic she had played for a decade and go electric. She went to a guitar shop in Brooklyn and snagged a relic series Fender Stratocaster, but it didn’t take.

“It was too much of a switch for me from acoustic guitar,” she says. “It was such a beautiful-sounding guitar, but it wasn’t quite right.” Instead, her friend Aaron Huff at Collings helped ease the transition with the semi-hollow SoCo she still uses as her main guitar today – despite the ’66 Strat she recently acquired.

“I’ve only been playing electric since I was 23, so for seven years,” she says. “I feel like I still have my rock ’n’ roll days ahead of me. Now I’m ready for the Strat.”

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Jim Beaugez

Jim Beaugez has written about music for Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, Guitar World, Guitar Player and many other publications. He created My Life in Five Riffs, a multimedia documentary series for Guitar Player that traces contemporary artists back to their sources of inspiration, and previously spent a decade in the musical instruments industry.