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Billy Strings: “There was a guitar hanging on the wall with a light shining down on it, like light from heaven – and I needed that guitar”

Billy Strings
(Image credit: Jesse Faatz)

Billy Strings grew up in a trailer park in rural western Michigan watching and listening to his father drink beer, smoke weed and play music with his friends. He wanted in, so his parents gave him a plastic guitar when he was three – and his first real guitar a year later. That one came about because of his stepfather’s generosity and the kindness of an antique-store owner.

“There was a guitar hanging on the wall of this place with a light shining down on it, like light from heaven – and I needed that guitar,” Strings says. “I threw a fit for it ’cause my dad just told me he didn’t have the money and the old lady there said, ‘He really wants it. How much do you got?’ My dad said, ‘I got 30 bucks to my name’ and she said, ‘I’ll take it.’ And my dad spent the last $30 he had in his wallet on that guitar for me.”

We should all thank them both, because Billy Strings has emerged over the last few years as not only the hottest young bluegrass picker in the land, but as one of the most original, fiery, inspiring guitarists, period. 

On his third album, Renewal, released last September, the 28-year-old continues to stake his claim to being not only a scorching bluegrass flat picker but a highly original talent. 

He runs his custom Thompson dreadnought through an extensive pedalboard, 27 effects that allow his stage shows to veer from straight bluegrass to covers of Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, even Slayer, played with proper tones, attack and intent. He never sounds like a dilettante.

Last summer, Strings joined Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann for a series of shows that had him strapping on a Les Paul and letting it rip on Dead songs with a dexterity that surprised even his biggest fans. 

“It’s fun because it’s just so different,” Strings says. “It’s not that I don’t know how to play electric guitar, because when I was a teenager I was in metal bands and my brother and I were heavy into classic rock, like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles. 

“But I pretty much abandoned the electric guitar at about 17 and went fully back into flatpicking. It’s been sort of an extracurricular activity ever since. I’m definitely the most comfortable with an acoustic guitar in my hands.”

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Alan Paul is the author of three books, Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan (opens in new tab), One Way Way Out: The Inside Story of the Allman Brothers Band – which were both New  York Times bestsellers – and Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing (opens in new tab), a memoir about raising a family in Beijing and forming a Chinese blues band that toured the nation. He’s been associated with Guitar World for 30 years, serving as Managing Editor from 1991-96. He plays in two bands: Big in China and Friends of the Brothers, with Guitar World’s Andy Aledort.