Yasmin Williams only started playing the guitar after beating all the songs on expert-level on Guitar Hero II. "I figured, well, I beat that game, I can probably play a real guitar now," she says.
Nine years later, Williams is one of the stand-out entrants of this year's Tiny Desk Contest. Williams bills herself as an acoustic finger-style guitarist with the cheeky tagline "Music at your fingertips." Williams's music transcends the standard idea of what a guitarist should do. She uses a cello bow to make low droning sounds, an idea she got from the band Sigur Rós. At the same time, she finger picks melodies with the guitar on her lap and adds a beat with tap shoes.
"A lot of the stuff on the radio right now is very aggressive and kind of sounds the same and kind of in your face," she says. "I like my music to be more melodic, more calming. Just something easy to listen to but has substance." Her debut album is appropriately named Unwind.
She started with that aggressive sound, though, learning electric guitar by first mastering Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and yearning to emulate Jimi Hendrix. "Once I learned 'Voodoo Child,' I thought I was the best thing ever," she says.
She recently graduated from New York University with majors in music theory and composition. Her advice for others: avoid getting into a rut. "And, also, just to be patient. Don't expect things to just fall into your lap. Take opportunities, make opportunities for yourself," she says. "Be patient, things will come eventually."
Web intern Emily Abshire contributed to this story.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
In a darkened room, sunlight filtering through curtains, Yasmin Williams plays a thumb piano. It rests on a guitar placed flat on her lap.
(SOUNDBITE OF YASMIN WILLIAMS' "GUITKA")
SIMON: She strums the guitar with her left hand and taps the frets, and she wears tap shoes to add to the beat.
(SOUNDBITE OF YASMIN WILLIAMS' "GUITKA")
SIMON: This piece, "GuitKa," was submitted to this year's Tiny Desk Contest. NPR Music chose it as an outstanding favorite. And today, we're so happy to welcome Yasmin Williams into our studios here. Thanks so much for being with us.
YASMIN WILLIAMS: Thank you for inviting me.
SIMON: You're from Woodbridge, Va., I gather.
SIMON: Did you get interested in the guitar because of a video game?
WILLIAMS: Yes. My parents bought me Guitar Hero II, I think, for Christmas in seventh grade, maybe - sixth grade. And I became kind of obsessed with beating the game on, like, all of the expert levels. There's various levels for each song - beginner, medium, you know, expert. And once I beat the game, I figured, well, I mean, I beat that game. I can probably play a real guitar now. So you know, my naive seventh grade self (laughter).
SIMON: So videogames can lead somewhere then.
WILLIAMS: I guess so (laughter).
SIMON: So you wanted to play a real guitar after that.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. A real electric guitar, yeah.
SIMON: What did you begin to play when your parents got you a real guitar?
WILLIAMS: Nirvana - "Smells Like Teen Spirit" because that was kind of simple to learn.
SIMON: Were there other guitarists you listened to and admired and tried to emulate?
WILLIAMS: Yeah. Jimi Hendrix definitely was a huge influence.
SIMON: Gosh. Well, emulating Jimi Hendrix is a tall order, isn't it?
WILLIAMS: Yeah. Like, once I learned "Voodoo Child," I thought I was the best thing ever.
SIMON: You just released your debut album. It's called "Unwind." And we're going to listen to a little bit of the first track, "Restless Heart."
(SOUNDBITE OF YASMIN WILLIAMS' "RESTLESS HEART")
SIMON: Lot of different techniques in there.
SIMON: Well, help us understand them.
WILLIAMS: So in that section, the intro, I use a cello bow to get that low drone sound that you hear, and I use my left hand to tap the notes. It's kind of hard to (bows guitar)...
SIMON: You picked up the bow.
WILLIAMS: Here's the bow sound - the low drone (bows guitar). And with this, I just add my - (taps guitar) the tapping melody part (plays guitar). And I use the bow for the harmonic at the end of the intro, too (bows guitar), which was kind of hard to master because the rosin makes the strings really sticky.
SIMON: What put this approach in your mind? What kind of music were you dreaming of, and you thought this was the way to execute it?
WILLIAMS: I heard the band Sigur Ros, and the lead guitarist uses a bow in a lot of their tracks. And I thought, whoa, that's a really cool idea. But I couldn't get it to sound good on my electric guitar, so I tried it on my acoustic, and it sounded pretty good.
SIMON: It's not tuned like a regular guitar?
WILLIAMS: No, it's in open D (strums guitar). I actually really don't even use standard tuning anymore. I use a lot of open tuning (strums guitar). It just sounds - it's harder to mess up (strums guitar).
SIMON: What do you want your music to do?
WILLIAMS: Well, a lot of people say that it relaxes them, and I like that. I mean, I like to write relaxing music since a lot of the stuff on the radio nowadays is pretty aggressive and kind of sounds the same and kind of in your face. So I like my music to be more melodic, you know, more calming, just something easy to listen to but, you know, has substance.
SIMON: I understand you recently graduated from NYU.
SIMON: Major in...
WILLIAMS: Music composition - music theory and composition.
SIMON: What'd you learn?
WILLIAMS: A lot of music theory. A lot of ear training. How to write music in an intelligent way.
SIMON: Any tips you can - you can offer people who might be listening who'd like to avoid the $45,000 a year tuition, or whatever it is? Forty-five - probably 60 at NYU. But go ahead, yeah.
WILLIAMS: (Laughter) Like, a 65 - yeah. Well, I guess, just avoid getting into, like, a - or, like, avoid using the same patterns over and over again because that was a problem for me. Like, I would kind of fall into using similar phrasing or similar melodies in my songs, and everything starts to sound the same.
SIMON: And since it was NYU, they probably taught you that music just wasn't - just wasn't a hobby, right?
SIMON: If you're going to make a living at it, what do you have to know?
WILLIAMS: Well, they taught us a lot about business. Like, you know, it's a business, and you have to understand the business side of things. And also just to be patient. Don't expect things to just fall into your lap. Take opportunities. Make opportunities for yourself. Be patient. Things will come eventually. You know, just keep working.
SIMON: That sounds like good advice.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. It better be for $60-something-thousand tuition.
SIMON: (Laughter) Yeah.
WILLIAMS: At least that.
SIMON: You ought to be able to take away a sentence or two, right?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, at least that.
SIMON: Well, you're going to play us out with a song, right? What are we going to hear?
WILLIAMS: It's called, "On A Friday Night."
SIMON: Well, Yasmin Williams, been a great pleasure having you in our studio. Thanks so much.
WILLIAMS: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF YASMIN WILLIAMS' "ON A FRIDAY NIGHT")
SIMON: Yasmin Williams in our studio. Her new album, "Unwind." You can see her entire Tiny Desk Contest video on our website. And you can hear the full version of her performance in our studio, also. Well worth it.
(SOUNDBITE OF YASMIN WILLIAMS' "ON A FRIDAY NIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.