Tone Talk with Sarah Zimmermann

Photo by Beth Blankenship
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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine’s Summer 2019 Special Pop Edition

A random pairing in a college guitar class would bring together Sarah Zimmermann and Justin Davis to create the guitar-wielding duo Striking Matches. The pair has had songs featured on the hit TV series Nashville, has worked with legendary producer T. Bone Burnett, performed internationally, and made a name for themselves in the music industry. Drawing on influences of country, rock, and blues, with a touch of pop, they recently released an EP titled Morning which has been described as “blues pop.”

I was first introduced to the duo last month at a Gibson event in Nashville where they were performing, and when I walked into the room and saw them on stage, all I could say was WOW! I had to introduce myself to the slide guitarist that was killing it and feature her in this issue! Meet Sarah Zimmermann and learn about her definition of tone.

What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?

Tone is your voice. Your tone is what makes your playing yours, and I think tone speaks so much to who you are as a player. I think tone largely comes from the fingers, and the soul, and person who is behind the guitar. You can have pedals for days, but I think in the end, the tone will come from you, the player.

Over the years, I really have just grown in confidence as a player. I also really gravitated towards the slide, which has become my voice in particular in my duo, Striking Matches. Since we are both lead guitar players, me being on slide allows us to have different voices and complement each other, and it gives the listener the ability to tell who is who, in the guitar playing when we’re not singing.

Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?

I honestly keep things very simple. This has allowed me to be able to jump in almost anywhere, without having to rely on effects, etc., and still be able to play something great.

I used to be all Tele all the time. A few years ago while we were making our first record, T. Bone Burnett, who produced it, told me I should try out an SG. I got one, and never looked back. I love the length of the neck, and I play a lot of slide, so having that long neck is a huge bonus. I also love it because it’s not heavy. I’m not a very big person, so I love something lightweight that I can get around for a few hours and not be weighed down. I keep my pedalboard super simple—fewer items=fewer things that can go wrong! I have an OCD overdrive, an MXR reverb, and a POG octave pedal. And I usually play through a Fender Blues Jr. that I’ve had modded with a bigger speaker.

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?

For me, it’s mostly about vibe and comfort. I just want to be in a place where I can get lost in the song and not worry about getting in my own head. I need to feel free in the studio, free to make mistakes, free to go nuts, etc. That’s how you tap into things that you wouldn’t predict that you would do.

How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?

Because every stage and every room are different, I think the best thing I can really do is just know that the gear I do have is going to work for me in the way I want it to, and beyond that, it comes down to my fingers. Sometimes you get thrown into a weird situation, and you’ve gotta go straight into the amp, or a pedal goes down, or you’re playing someone else’s guitar, and you have to just roll. I think so much of the consistent sound really comes from the fingers and how you just simply play the guitar. If you can rely on that, it will always sound like you.

What does your practice consist of?

My favorite thing since I started playing guitar has always been to just learn songs. If I hear something on the radio that I love, I’ll learn to play it. And solo over it. I’ll even do songs that aren’t guitar songs. For example, there’s a song called “Armor” by Sara Bareilles on her new record that has this wild piano riff and I thought, “I bet I could learn that on guitar.” So I did, and it was a challenge, but it was really fun to do. Or, I will take a beat drop on a pop song, and whatever that riff is, I’ll learn it on slide. I love to give myself impossible challenges that seem like they make absolute zero sense on guitar and see if I can figure them out. I believe very few things are ACTUALLY impossible once you break them down.

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?

I think my best advice is just to keep going, do exactly what you want to do, and don’t let anyone tell you, you can’t. I have never thought of myself as an anomaly because I am a girl, and I play the guitar—it’s just what I do, and what I have always done. I think if you can have an attitude of just knowing what you do is great, and not letting anyone else tell you otherwise (even if they do, don’t believe them), then you will succeed. Also, I think there is still, unfortunately, a stigma of “girls can’t play guitar.” And there is joy and gratification in proving those people wrong. I can’t count the amount of times after a show someone said, “When you got on stage, I thought you were just the singer, but then you played.” And that feeling of accomplishment that I beat the stigma is something that really powers me through to keep going.




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