Is it a guitar? Is it a synth? How on earth did she do that? How on earth do I do that?
These are all questions you may find yourself asking when listening to the brilliantly inventive, genre-subverting discography of St. Vincent, patron saint of pitch shifters, fuzz and other out-of-this-world guitar tones.
If you’re not already familiar with her story, St. Vincent is the nom d'artiste of Annie Clark - a Berklee College of Music drop-out who grew up in Dallas, Texas on a heady mixture of ‘90s grunge, rock and metal, as well as some jazz - thanks to the influence of her uncle, guitarist Tuck Andress of husband and wife duo Tuck & Patti. After leaving Berklee, she cut her teeth playing guitar in choral rock collective The Polyphonic Spree, before joining up with Sufjan Stevens’ touring band.
Even back then, her non-conformist approach to the instrument and its tonal possibilities were already helping her to stand out from the crowd, and from the large ensembles she worked within. Speaking about Clark’s magic touch with The New Yorker back in 2017, Stevens is quoted as saying:
“At that time, there were a dozen musicians touring in my band, and there was always a moment in the set where people could ‘take a solo.’”
“All the men usually just played a lot of notes really fast. But, when Annie’s turn came, she refused to do the obvious white-male masturbatory thing on the guitar. Instead, she played her effects pedals. She made such weird sounds. It was like the Loch Ness monster giving birth inside a silo.”
While not all guitarists would necessarily take the latter part as a compliment, it somehow perfectly encapsulates Clark’s utterly beguiling knack for making us hear the guitar anew.
But, unlike some members of the ultra-nerdy gearhead community, Clark is not only a tamer of wild, alien tones, but also a crafter of brilliant songs. Her solo career began in earnest in 2006 and, to date, she’s released six full-length studio albums - each with a distinct feel or “palette” - as well as her celebrated collaboration record with ex-Talking Head, David Byrne.
She’s also straddled a broad cross-section of the pop culture spectrum; from fronting Nirvana at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to working with rappers Kid Cudi and Cage. From appearing with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, to cutting tunes for mainstream movie soundtracks, including the Twilight and Minions franchises.
Whatever the context, St. Vincent always brings her trademark postmodern rock heroine identity, and - since 2016, at least - will usually be seen wielding one of her signature Ernie Ball Music Man guitars.
With a striking angular profile and lightweight build, these are guitars for players who, like Clark, see beyond the confines of tradition. Available as versions with either a trio of DiMarzio mini-humbuckers or a trio of Ernie Ball Music Man gold foils, they’ve been adopted by the likes of Tom Morello, Jack White and J. Mascis, as well as St. Vincent herself.
An unstoppable creative force who shows no signs of slowing - or even repeating herself - anytime soon, here’s our introduction to five essential tracks that every guitarist must hear by the great St. Vincent…
1. Now, Now – Marry Me (2007)
Part ethereal, part metallic, St. Vincent opened up her debut album, Marry Me, with the chime of natural harmonics on Now, Now, and it’s absolutely magical.
With her guitar shifted into an open tuning, she picks out a melody using the harmonics that can be found with relative ease by gently touching the strings directly over the fret wires at the fifth, seventh and twelfth frets. But the really cool part is her clever usage of rapid delay and harmonising effects, which give the illusion that there are two guitars being played at once. Add to this some playful pitch-shifting upward bends at the end of each loop of the phrase and you have an example of what St. Vincent does best: elevating an already compelling melodic line with the use of exciting effects combos.
Clark’s pedalboard is a complex and ever-evolving beast, but a Boss PS-5 Super Shifter or a DigiTech Whammy, set to pitch up by a 4th, will do the trick for the harmonising side of things, if you want to have a crack at this yourself. To complete that doubling effect, you’ll also need to pick a fast delay time on your digital delay pedal of choice and blend it about 50:50 with the original signal. A little reverb will also help to fill out the sound, but not so much that you start to lose the definition of the delay.
Further into the track, you’ll also find contrasting acoustic tones, washes of synth and an angrily avant-garde guitar assault à la Jonny Greenwood at the track’s fuzz-filled crescendo.
Is all of that really to be found in album one, track one? Yep. So, strap in because it only gets better (and weirder) from here on out…
2. Marrow – Actor (2009)
When Annie Clark returned home from the road after touring her debut record, she looked to the world of classic films for the inspiration to conjure her second. Reportedly, she’d watch her favourite movie scenes with the sound off and imagine her own score, and Marrow is said to be based on the moment in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy encounters the Wizard for the first time.
Utilising her chamber pop pedigree to orchestrate a fluttering array of woodwind instruments in polar contrast to her spiky guitars, Marrow sets out to capture a spectrum of human emotion in all its manic intensity. Most importantly for us, though, it’s got an absolute banger of a riff in it.
"Because I got so obsessed with the idea of being a filmmaker who was making music, I started to think about casting in terms of the instrumentation, and started thinking, 'Oh, well, the woodwinds will be this thing that represents this absolute purity and whimsy,'" she said in a contemporary NPR interview. "And then the guitar will be this sort of scary monster that comes in and threatens to topple the entire piece."
The "scary monster” sound in this case relies on oodles of glitchy gated fuzz tones and a synth effect of some sort, all blended in seamlessly with the indignant honk of a saxophone playing the same riff. In terms of the execution, there’s an almost mechanical stop/start feel to the rhythm that relies on some ultra-precise picking with a good amount of attack behind it.
In the solo, woozy bends add a layer of intentional dissonance for a little extra menace disorientation.
It’s conceptual. It’s cool. It’s out there. It’s classic St. Vincent.
3. Cruel – Strange Mercy (2011)
Possibly the catchiest little number St. Vincent has ever committed to record, Cruel is an absolute party of earwormy guitar licks and cool fuzz pedal tones, set against a contrastingly dark lyrical storyline and a driving disco beat.
The main guitar hook, which is played throughout the chorus, has an octave effect on it as well as a generous helping of overdrive to fatten the sound. Clark also frets then clips each note with expert timing to stop the whole phrase bleeding together, almost giving the impression of it being played on a dirty analog synth rather than a guitar, as is often her wont.
On top of that, you’ll hear cleaner rhythmic bursts of a riff Clark once described as “Ali Farka Toure lite”, that utilises an African-influenced double-picking technique to add extra bounce to the track’s already propulsive rock-tronica groove.
Speaking with Guitar Player Magazine back in 2012, she revealed the secret weapons that gave the whole album its distinctively angular tonal identity:
“I stuck with a pretty consistent guitar tone compared to the other records. I played a ’67 Harmony Bobkat through a Death by Audio Interstellar Overdriver Supreme pedal, usually straight into a late-’70s Fender Princeton - not lots of pedals, more driving the amp pretty hard.”
The stand-out guitar moment skids into earshot around the 1:21 mark, with a completely unconventional solo. Played exclusively on the low E string - and with the Interstellar Overdriver working overtime - Clark slides into every note and engages a Boss PS-5 Super Shifter at key moments to achieve what can only be described as an awesome, motorbike-revving-in-outer-space type of sound.
Watch her do it live above in this killer 2012 performance from BBC Two’s Later... Live with Jools Holland
4. Rattlesnake – St. Vincent (2014)
Taken from St. Vincent’s GRAMMY award-winning self-titled fourth album, Rattlesnake is a funky, glitchy masterpiece of electro art-pop. On the studio version, the guitar parts are pretty well camouflaged against a bedrock of synths, and when performing the song live, Clark will often only don a guitar part way through the song. But, Rattlesnake earns a spot in this list for the primal and gloriously noisy solo that seems to spring from nowhere right at the end. And boy, is it worth the wait when it hits.
As with the solo in Cruel she takes a linear kind of approach, seeking out the melody by sliding up and down the length of one string. Highly proficient in the art of making her guitar sound like many fantastical things, she described the aim of the game in this solo as “trying to cop the style of a Turkish instrument called the saz,” when speaking with Guitar World back in 2014.
“I was listening to a lot of Turkish music, and you know, they just overshoot the note and slide into it,” she went on. “It’s a really sexy approach. I spent a lot of time trying to play different melodies on just one string. And I have a slice in my finger to prove it!”
Tone-wise, the out-of-this-world sustain comes from an Electro-Harmonix Micro Synth pedal, but the wild, dangerous energy that really makes the solo such a stand-out can only come from Clark herself.
Like observing a chemist working with nitroglycerine, her live renditions are particularly explosive, and she’ll often unleash her inner metalhead by throwing in some two-handed tapping and whammy bar action to up the ante, just as she does in this Live On Letterman performance…
Around this time, she frequently opted for a black Ernie Ball Music Man Albert Lee HH signature guitar in live performances, with this being usurped by the release of her own signature design with the brand shortly after.
5. The Melting of The Sun – Daddy's Home (2021)
When St. Vincent was working on Daddy’s Home, she was also in the prototyping stages of the reimagined Goldie edition of her signature Ernie Ball Music Man guitar. Fitted with three vintage-inspired gold foil humbucking pickups - the modern day answer to the DeArmond gold foils in her beloved 1967 Harmony Bobkat - the character of the guitar provided sonic inspiration for the entire record.
“With Daddy’s Home, a lot of the guitar playing is more lyrical [than on Masseduction, her previous release],” she said, speaking in the Guitar Center video interview above. “You know, it’s more subtle. It’s more about time and space and patience and bending and psychedelia. So, that was definitely inspired by the tone of the Goldie”.
Lyrically, The Melting of The Sun celebrates a number of Clark’s female idols - the likes of Joan Didion, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, Marilyn Monroe and Tori Amos - while the melting sun represents the fiery dissolution of the male power structures that repressed and abused them.
Musically, Clark conjures a psychedelic, woozing heat haze of sound with melty slide tones and the hallucinatory twang of a Danelectro electric sitar that makes for such a perfect sonic representation of the song’s theme, you could almost warm your hands off the speaker as you listen.
The highlight is the song’s solo, which features what sounds like two similar but non-identical takes weaving in and out of one another. The result is a seriously immersive and slightly trippy listening experience. Like molten lava, there’s an amorphous fluidity to Clark’s playing here that’s the polar opposite of the angular riffs that characterised so much of her early work.
It’s inspiring stuff and only leaves us wondering: What will St. Vincent do next?