Nobody plays acoustic guitar like Yasmin Williams.
For one, the young guitarist crafts uniquely memorable instrumentals, full of hummable melodies and motifs, all consisting nearly entirely of acoustic guitar. On songs like “Juvenescence” from 2021’s Urban Driftwood, Williams’s acoustic work flows and cascades, and bubbles into sections as emotionally connective as any pop chorus.
But also, like, literally no one plays acoustic like Yasmin Williams. Beyond her songwriting chops and technical mastery, Williams alternates between a semi-standard fingerpicking style and a lap-tapping technique explored by very few players. None switch between the two styles mid-song the way Williams does.
Williams, who plays the Studio at Stanford this Saturday, attributes her unusual lap style—along with her general education on guitar-based music—to one source: Guitar Hero 2.
“I started playing Guitar Hero when I was 12 years old,” Williams says. “Once you get to the upper levels, you get a bunch of songs that are basically hard rock and metal songs, and they require a lot of tapping. I liked to tap like that.”
Once she had fully mastered the game, she began playing a real electric guitar. However, she found the instrument somewhat limiting. As she saw it, “you couldn’t play solo with it. At least for my purposes, I couldn’t do what I wanted to do with it.” After a switch to acoustic, she quickly found a voice that felt like her own, especially after incorporating the technique she’d developed for smoking those pesky later levels of Guitar Hero.
“Acoustic guitar just let me get pretty experimental very quickly. I didn’t really feel that sort of freedom with electric,” she says. “Acoustic guitar, I didn’t know how that was exactly supposed to sound. I wasn’t trying to sound like anyone, which allowed me to sound like myself.”
On occasion, Williams will accompany herself on a guitar-mounted kalimba (thumb harp) or the tap shoes she wears while performing—both of which can be heard on the autumnal Urban Driftwood track “Through the Woods.” Williams says that album was recorded quickly, in four four-hour sessions. Most tracks capture her playing the whole song unaccompanied, though, at producer Jeff Gruber’s behest, she did make a few select overdubs.
“I’d never done it before and was kind of against doing it, but he steered me in the right direction,” Williams says. “He also did very cool things in the post production. He recorded my tap shoes in stereo and made them sound super spread out in the recording. He used like eight microphones on the guitar, all these things I’ve never done before.”
The added production gives the album a rich, bittersweet character. Someone at NPR must have been a fan, because mid-pandemic, the institution contacted Williams requesting a performance for its Tiny Desk series. Though she lived only about 15 minutes from the actual tiny desk, NPR was still in its “Tiny Desk (From Home)” phase due to the evolving COVID situation. Williams filmed her performance at an off-shoot studio of Blue House Productions, where Urban Driftwood was recorded, once again with producer Jeff Gruber.
“I again wanted to do it all live, but he got me to do something really cool,” she says. “The last song, ‘After the Storm,’ has four or five guitars in it. I used all different guitars and I have a different outfit for each take. Again, that’s something I normally would not have done because I thought it would have been cheating. It’s a Tiny Desk but we’re at home, so we can splice and dice things. So why not do that?”
Though filmed off site, her Tiny Desk is one of the best of the series. Her unusual playing style keeps the performance visually surprising throughout a technical and beautifully performed set. This weekend, fans have two chances to catch her play songs from Urban Driftwood, her debut Unwind, and maybe even a few songs from her as-yet-unannounced next album.
“Very exciting news that I cannot share right now, but I’m super, super, super excited,” she says. “It’s an expansion of sorts. There will be a list of collaborators on this one, which is pretty different than my other two records. Which, to me, is the logical next step.”
Sat, 7 & 9pm, $35+
The Studio, Stanford