Plenty of conventional instrumental guitar music is geared toward expressing a sort of athleticism with the instrument. California native Molly Miller has the chops for all that and more, but she takes a straighter path to musical enlightenment – one steeped in creative phrasing and genre-blending, like the music she plays in the Molly Miller Trio.
“Instrumental tunes that stand on their own as songs, but also have the element of improvisation and arranging, ring true to me,” Miller says. “[We] think of things like Booker T., early R&B tunes, surf tunes – the tagline we say sometimes is, ‘bringing back the instrumental.’”
On the Molly Miller Trio’s recent long player St. George, the bandleader performs gently emotive, jazz-adjacent music with bassist Jennifer Condos, who previously backed Stevie Nicks and Ray LaMontagne, and drummer Jay Bellerose, who also performs with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. But the music Miller composes has less in common with be-bop than the funk, soul and folk she also cites as influences.
“I very much think of myself as a guitar player,” she says. “I don’t think of myself as a jazz guitarist, per se; more just like a guitarist-musician. I have an eclectic taste in music and I think all of that led me to wanting to create music that resonated with people as songs.”
Miller has built her life around her love of the guitar, recording and touring with artists such as Jason Mraz and the Black Eyed Peas while chairing the guitar department at the Los Angeles College of Music since 2016. Her life has revolved around the instrument for far longer, though.
From ages 7 to 14, she played top 40 music and classics by the Beatles and the Beach Boys in a cover band with her siblings, while moonlighting with friends on blink-182 songs and also playing in a jazz band. Despite spending so much time centered around music, though, she wasn’t very serious about her talent at first.
“Before high school, I was notoriously the worst disciplined of the family band,” she admits. “I was always trying to get out of band practice and hang out with my friends, extend our bathroom breaks, [making] every excuse. I never practiced. And then I got into high school and I was like, ‘Well, I actually love this.’”
Miller, who furthered her music studies at Berklee College of Music camps and earned a doctorate in musical arts from the University of Southern California, has a tendency to play behind the beat in a subtle way, hanging her notes right on the edge of the beat.
"I feel like singers do it a lot, where they lay behind the beat and play with time in a cool way,” she says. “I try to play not, like, just a guitar player all the time, but also how someone would sing it. I think what I'm doing is kind of like Billie Holiday, where she can lay so behind the beat or just play with where time is.”
Having Condos and Bellerose to keep time behind her gives Miller the liberty to explore around the pocket so freely.
“Their sense of time is crazy and they're such deep players, [and] it’s fun to play with that,” she says. “Some of my favorite vocalists can lay so far behind the beat, but they always know where it is, and as a listener, you know where it is, too. It’s not like, ‘What’s going on,’ you know? I think that’s what’s happening [with us], too, on a guitar.”
During her considerable music studies, Miller studied fingerstylists Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family and Elizabeth Cotten, the left-handed folk-blues pioneer remembered for her unique technique of playing the basslines with her fingers and the melody with her thumb, on a guitar strung for a right-handed player.
“I’m an avid hybrid picker, so I always have the pick in my first finger and thumb,” she says. “I always use a Fender heavy celluloid confetti pick, and then with my middle finger and ring finger, I’ll be using fingerstyle. I love hybrid picking, ’cause it’s the flexibility of everything.”
Miller runs a simple setup that keeps her signal and her tones clean, leaning on the 1978 Gibson ES-335 she’s had since she was 17 and a relic Telecaster as her main guitars in the Trio. A Benson Nathan Junior Combo recently replaced her modded Princeton as her amplifier of choice, and she adds a Line 6 Helix effects unit for her Mraz gig.
For the Trio’s next album, due in 2023, she went deeper into her tone explorations, running two separate rigs to get a clean tone and a funkier tone, which she plans to blend in the mixing process.
“St. George was one guitar, one guitar amp and one pedalboard,” she says. “I played it pretty safe with sounds, ’cause I get kind of scared to go off too far out there, but I wanted to be a little bolder on this [next] one. I had been listening to Mickey Baker and wanted to not be so afraid to use more delays, use more modulation.”
- St. George is out now.