AFROPUNK INTERVIEW: Signatures, Alternatives, and Avoiding Being Diminished With Neo-Soul Guitarist Melanie Faye
By Ian Freeman
April 28, 2023
If guitar were a sport, when the name Melanie Faye was brought up, pundits would throw around words like phenom and generational talent. The Nashville native, by way of Alabama, first caught the public eye on Instagram, but her viral moment came from an awe-inspiring mashup of Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and Mariah Carey’s “My All.” She has earned the respect of peers and legends in the game, like Isaiah Sharkey, John Mayer, Noname, and Sza. And if a signature guitar deal is the musician’s equivalent of a shoe deal, D’Angelico just released the Melanie Faye Signature DC Limited Edition. Out of all the signature guitars made, including the over 200 currently on the market, she joins H.E.R. and Sister Rosetta Tharpe to become the third black woman to have one. How is that for a stat line? We had a chance to chat with Melanie about her Signature guitar, the Gales chord, and the pitfalls of being put in the wrong box.
Afropunk: How does it feel to be the third Black woman with a signature guitar?
Melanie: Honestly, it’s pretty cool. I always knew I was going to get a signature. Because I’m such an anomaly, I knew I would have a career by default.
Afropunk: What do you mean?
Melanie: How many people in the world are actually pursuing a career in being a famous guitar player? Not, how many people would love to do that? How many people dream about doing that? How many people are actually in the world making the moves and taking the steps to be a modern-day guitar hero? Probably like 0.000000000000001% of people. Then out of that tiny minority, what percentage looks like me?
Afropunk: How did it end up being D’Angelico?
Melanie: Here’s the thing. When H.E.R. got her signature model, that’s when all the other guitar companies were like, “Oh, shit. H.E.R. got a signature.” Every guitar company, like really every guitar company, reached out wanting to do a signature with me, but I guess I went with D’Angelico because I honestly had always wanted one.
Growing up, I didn’t have rich parents or anything, and I didn’t have a job. I would just look at guitars online, but I wouldn’t really buy them. Actually, when I was in middle school, I would save my lunch money so I could buy a guitar.
What always drew me to D’Angelico was the pretty colors. I love how it’s like the old-school, semi-hollow style of guitar. It has a very pretty color palette and a very modern appeal. It’s not like some big old man. It’s pretty. Like a nice little pastel, mint green, or rose gold. They had a chameleon color, which is like a color shift. In certain lighting, it’s purple, and then in certain lighting, it’s blue.
The colors drew me to them, and I just liked that it’s not a common brand. It’s underground and I like that. I like guitars that are different than usual. Usually, I’ll go for a limited edition or a rare guitar. That’s the style that I go for. I don’t like a super common color or a common-looking brand.
Afropunk: I imagine every guitar player would love to design their own guitar. What made you choose the things that you did?
Melanie: I guess D’Angelico was down for me going with really any style body that I wanted. I guess I went with the semi-hollow style because it was familiar with what I already had and what I’m already partially known for. That’s why I went with that body. Then we went with– You can’t really tell in the videos but it’s like a metallic paint. It’s not like a pastel type of paint. It’s like nail polish, like a slightly sparkly type of paint. I guess I went with that because it’s different than what I usually go for and just different than what they usually offer. Then that covered neck pickup with the uncovered bridge pickup, it was just a nod to some of the guitar players I’m influenced by.
Afropunk: I heard that you got into guitar from a video game.
Melanie: I had always been into guitar because of Michael Jackson. Me and my siblings growing up were obsessed with Michael Jackson, and I wanted a guitar because of the Beat It guitar solo. That’s Van Halen. Then Dirty Diana, Give in to Me featuring Slash, Black Or White, really all of Michael Jackson’s hits have either a very iconic guitar riff or a very iconic bass guitar riff. That’s why I always love the guitar. What really sold it for me, like, “I have to be a guitar player,” was that video game, Guitar Hero. Cliffs of Dover, I was like, “I want a guitar. I’m going to be a guitar player.”
Afropunk: Who are some of your guitar influences?
Melanie: Michael Jackson’s music is a huge influence on why I play guitar, but that Guitar Hero video game, really everyone on the video game is why I play guitar. That would be Slash, Tom Morello, Eric Johnson, Kirk Hammett. Who else is on there? I think, oh, was that a Bon Jovi? Aerosmith, there is an Aerosmith Guitar Hero.
Afropunk: The expansion pack. Yes, I remember that.
Melanie: Really, just everyone on that video game is why I play guitar. Other than that, I’m really influenced by Eric Gales. To me, Eric Gales is the greatest guitar player of the modern generation. His guitar playing is just everything. In his rendition of Little Wing, I reference the passing chords in that and the voicings in that a lot. Eric Gales is really the only guitar player I’ve ever heard use a– It’s an E7 sharp 5 sharp 9. Hendrix, does an E7 sharp 9, but Eric Gales, he’ll do an E7 sharp 5 sharp 9. I’ve never heard any guitar player do that. I use that chord because of Eric Gales. You could probably even call that chord the Gales chord.
Afropunk: Michael Jackson, Slash, Eric Gales, they’re very different from the style of guitar that you’re known for, which is like Neo-Soul guitar. How did you make that transition? What got you into the whole Neo-Soul world?
Melanie: When I first discovered guitar, I thought you could only play rock on a guitar because my only point of reference for a guitar was Michael Jackson and Guitar Hero. Then I started attending a performing arts high school. I went to Nashville School of the Arts, which is probably the best-performing arts high school in the country. Fun fact, I went to school with Natalia Dyer from Stranger Things. She was a grade ahead of me.
I went to that performing arts high school and all we ever studied was jazz. I finally figured out, oh, R&B chords are jazz chords, and R&B, Neo-Soul, some pop, all of that ties into jazz. Once I learned all those jazz chords from the performing arts high school, that’s when I was able to play R&B, which I always loved R&B music.
I’m 24, so I grew up on Justin Bieber. I grew up on pop, R&B type of music, Monica, Mariah Carey, young pre-Rihanna Chris Brown, give me that era Chris Brown. I’ve always loved that type of music, but I didn’t know that I could play that on a guitar. Now that I’ve learned guitar, I see that guitar has always been in R&B music. Usher, You Make Me Wanna…. Even hip-hop music. Mo Money Mo Problems by Puffy and Notorious B.I.G., that’s a Nile Rogers sample from Diana Ross, I’m Coming Out. Today Was a Good Day by Ice Cube. That’s an Isley Brothers sample.
Then back to R&B, there’s always a guitar. Even in modern R&B, every Summer Walker song has a guitar on it. Guitar has always been in hip hop and R&B, but I didn’t have the ear to notice that, I guess, until I became a musician. Then that’s when I was like, “Oh, that’s a guitar.”
Afropunk: You were on this path, “I’m going to be a world-class guitarist.” You’ve been playing with all the cool people, channels blowing up; what does the future for Melanie Faye look like?
Melanie: Basically, I have a vision for my career. I’ve had a vision for my career, but the trajectory of my career was thrown off by a management company that I had early in my career. I actually did do a post on it.
View this post on Instagram
Basically, what happened was I wanted to be a gen Z, alternative Black guitar player, and that was the lane I wanted to go down. My managers really couldn’t fathom my vision because they were White and they were older. In their mind, the music industry is very black-and-white. You’re either like hood or you’re just White. There’s no in-between. My management kept trying to whitewash my brand.
They had me working with Mac DeMarco, Maggie Rogers, John Mayer and Jason Isbell, and no disrespect to them, they’re all phenomenal talents. Mack is a very good friend of mine. I love him and his family. They’re very sweet people, but I wanted to be in the Willow Smith type of lane. Brent Faiyaz reached out to go on tour with me, but my management said, “No, that’s the wrong lane. We don’t think that’s a good look for you.”
Solange actually reached out, and my management was telling me, “No, Melanie, that’s not the right look. We feel like you should go in this lane. You should go on tour with Maggie Rogers instead of Solange because we’re looking long term and we feel like this is the best appeal for you.” Basically, my manager’s like really skewed my trajectory.
Basically, what I’m having to do now is rebrand. Had I just gotten it right the first time, I wouldn’t have to go through the struggle of rebranding because what happened was when the social media algorithm sees a certain demographic interacting with your content, they’re just going to keep pushing you to more of that demographic. I want to perform Afropunk, I want to go on tour with Solange. I want to be in that lane. I want to be on tour with Blood Orange or somebody.
Afropunk: Your guitar, what does your rig look like? Usually, I see you with a guitar.
Melanie: When I do my Instagram videos, I use my iPhone camera and just the mic that comes on the camera. I use a little miniature practice amp, actually. It’s a little $150 Yamaha TH-10. It’s battery powered or you could plug it into a wall. It’s just a little miniature digital amp.
I’m not really a finicky gearhead because, growing up, we didn’t have the money for all the hottest gear. I’m so used to just owning one guitar, and it has the stock pickups in it, and it was made in Mexico or made in Korea or something. I’m just used to having like a little $100 digital amp. That’s just what I’m used to.
I know the specs, but I just don’t care. [chuckles] I’m not really that particular. For me, a guitar is just a guitar and I’m going to sound good regardless.
Afropunk: You’re definitely one of those people that say the tone is all in your fingers. If you had the opportunity to get anything, any guitar, any amp, what would you choose?
Melanie: Wow, that’s a good question. I would choose my signature.
Afropunk: What advice would you give every aspiring guitar player?
Melanie: There are a few pieces of advice, but the very first I would give is to start really small. I think a lot of guitar players or a lot of people wanting to learn guitar get discouraged because they’ll try to learn stuff that’s just too technical for their skill level because they’re under the assumption that’s what guitar prodigies and guitar virtuosos did. That’s not true. I actually have a video of me from when I was in sixth-grade playing guitar and I had only been playing for four weeks. I was strumming a G chord, a C chord, and a D chord. You could tell I had only been playing for four weeks. I would say you have to start really small and just take little baby steps.
I remember when I first learned guitar. My teacher tried to teach me this really fat bar chord shape, the common bar chord shape that you usually see. I got so discouraged that I cried. It was just too difficult. What I did was I just said, “Let me come back to that and let me do something else.” I worked on other stuff and then I returned a year later to do bar chords and they came effortlessly to me because they were now within the capabilities of my current skill level. I would say start really small.
Then another thing I would say is, people think guitar is, you got to learn things quickly. Really, guitar is where you learn things like really, really slowly. It’s not about the amount of stuff you’re learning, it’s about the depth of the things, of the concepts you’re going into, and the attention to detail that you’re paying. When I was in high school or in middle school, learning a song, and I hadn’t been playing guitar for as long, it would take me weeks to learn a song because I’m not just learning how to be in the ballpark of playing the song. I’m really learning the song to a tee. I’m really replicating the part. I’m learning which finger is fretting which string on which fret. I’m learning whether we’re doing a downstroke or an upstroke. I’m learning the inflection of the note. I’m learning the way the vibrato is done. I’m paying a high level of attention and detail to the songs and the concepts that I’m learning.
That’s why I can hold a candle to the artist that I covered. Because I went to music school and studied jazz theory and whatnot, I can put my own spin on it. That’s what really makes you stand out as a guitar player, where you can hold a candle to a song that you’re covering and you put your own spin on it. You put your own little interpretation on it. That’s the key to unlocking the guitar God door. You can be guitar famous, get endorsements and go on tours and stuff.
I have a lot of students who’ll want to skim over things and go really quickly because in their mind, it’s like, “The faster I go, the quicker I’ll get better at guitar.” That’s not how it works. It’s all about just studying and micro-analyzing every single note of the riff or every single note of the solo. Just taking it note for note, just one note at a time.
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