Interview by Andrew Daly
Photos by Ron McKeown
Samantha Fish can shred when she wants; make no mistake, but it’s her slow-burning feel that makes her special.
As one of the finest players within an energized blues circle, the Midwest native has firmly wrenched her grip around her share of the market through an enticing live show, sometimes sultry, but more often brazen solos, and the type of vocals that can lull you to sleep just as quickly as they’ll choke the life out of you.
Sounds pretty great, right? We think so. And so does Fish’s growing fanbase, which is becoming stouter by the day on the backside of her latest records, Faster (2021), in which she undertook solo style, and Death Wish Blues (2023), which found Fish sharing the limelight with fellow off-the-beaten-path sometimes blues, other times outlaw country guitarist, Jesse Dayton.
For Samantha Fish, a Gibson SG in hand may as well be an assault rifle; as she hisses and hums her way to infamy akin to the heroes, she’s putting space between through her idiosyncratic brand of modern-day and oh-so-rocking blues. In short, one listen to cuts like “All Ice No Whiskey,” “Twisted Ambition,” or “Rippin’ and Runnin'” tells you all you need to know—at 34 years of age and with a growing stable of gritty yet pretty records under her belt, Samantha Fish isn’t going anywhere.
We talk about generational talents, the type who will be remembered for their exploits when they’re dead and gone… Fish is one of those players. A long, dark shadow of Delta, Chicago, and any and all blues has long been cast across the modern-day landscape, but Fish, along with a few brave others, is stepping out from that shadow and now casting their own.
While on the road doing what she does best, Samantha Fish dialed in with Buddy Magazine to dig into the recording of Death Wish Blues, her tone secrets, approach to riffs and solos, love for Gibson SGs, dialing back on the use of pedals, and more.
How would you describe the evolution of your guitar playing that got you to where you are today?
Over the years, you grow as a player; the more you do it, the more stage time, and the more hours you put in, things naturally progressed and changed, and I’ve become more melodic. When you start, you learn the scales, then your riffs, and you rely on that to get you going. I find cool melodies and make them a counterpoint to the song or a secondary hook, and I focus on that with my guitar playing.
Where do you pull inspiration from as you grow as a guitarist?
I pick it up from all over. Other guitar players are always very inspiring; it’s cool to go and listen to an old recording and try to figure out the synth or horn parts; it just gives you a different perspective on the music. Learning everything, the ins, and outs of what makes a song, and trying to figure out how to play it on guitar. That adds this other dynamic to your playing that is important. It makes you a well-rounded player and gives you new rhythm ideas.
What’s your process of putting together a riff?
My phone is just full of recordings. It often starts with me singing something into my phone, and I’ll come back to it later and think, “Okay, is that the vocal hook? Is this a guitar hook?” You can diagnose it, see where it fits into a song, and see what you can build around it. I like to focus on making it singable; I’ll use “Deathwish” as an example song I wrote with Jesse. There’s a hook on the guitar that is the recurring melodic theme throughout, and if it’s singable, people can get into it along with a repeated phrase in a song to make it catchy. If I’m going for a more intricate sound, I try to make sure it’s gutsy, something a little different. You have to try and figure out a way to make something unique to you.
Do you approach solos the same way?
Solos I like to approach with consideration for the song I’m playing, “Are there any themes that you can quote or chase? Maybe the keyboard is playing this cool part and something you can make a counterpart off of.” I liked doing stuff like that, creating these countermelodies that become their hooks as strong as the leading hook in the song. Do whatever you can to make the song more infectious and stick with people. There’s a time and a place for flashy, over-the-top guitar playing that people enjoy. I love doing that, and you, I like hearing it. But the most important thing is finding something that makes the solo memorable.
What’s the recipe for your impeccable tone?
I used one amp for the entire record, and I like to go for smaller amps. We often fly into these studios and only have a portion of our arsenal of guitars and amps. That’s just how I record: get to the destination with just the tools in the studio. A lot of times a studio will have a killer Fender Deluxe and that works for me, you just crank it up, put a mic on it, and we’re set. With Death Wish Blues, it was a little tricky because we’re both guitar players, and we wanted to figure out a way to stand out from one another sonically but still be just as present and in-your-face.
And how do you do that when you’re competing within a smaller sonic zone?
That’s where John Spencer came in because he’s been doing that with the blues explosion for years, figuring out how to have two guitar players that complement each other and stand out and they’re both just as exciting. We experimented with mixing solid state with tubes on songs; we just went and found different textures.
The studio we worked at in Woodstock for Death Wish Blues had this room full of beautiful old amps; I’m talking old-school Fenders, Supros, and Airlines. I think I did a lot of the recording through a deconstructed PA speaker that was sitting on the ground. It was from Woodstock Elementary School, and I got a lot of cool rhythm parts playing through that thing. Just going in there and experimenting, turning knobs, seeing what happens, you can come up with cool tones that way.
How do you intermingle your two very different styles from different yet familiar places?
Jesse is rooted in this outlaw country world; he has all that chicken-pickin’ shit down for days with a real aggressive style. His rhythm is incredible, and the tone that he gets out of that King guitar is so ballsy, and along with his voice, he’s just an incredible artist. I love playing with Jesse; the challenge was that I come from the blues world, so we’re comparing apples to apples rather than apples to oranges, like Granny Smith to a Pink Lady. Blues and country are closely related in the music world, but we talk about it like we’re from different planets.
So, he does it his way, you do it yours, and you meet in the middle, then?
He does it in his way when he plays a lick, and when I play a lick, I do it in mine. We’re two players who chose different backgrounds and shared this love for rock and roll. We were in a honeymoon phase when we first got into the studio. We were tiptoeing around each other, trying to be as respectful and careful as possible because we didn’t want to step on each other.
Now that we’ve been playing together for about a year, it’s like, whatever, do your thing. In the studio, John was very encouraging and helped us find the way forward because, to be honest, we probably would have been a lot shyer since it was such a new thing, and wanting to let the other shine, we might not have been as out there as we were on the record.
Jesse is from an area of Texas that borders Louisiana, which you can hear in his playing. With you being from Midwestern Missouri, do you feel what you were exposed to bleeds into your playing, too?
Totally. We are all just a product of our own experiences, and I came up in Kansas City at a perfect time when the scene was pretty hot. Like anything, the scene ebbs, and flows, but many young adults were doing well in Kansas City then, and there was room for me as a young player to come in. People were very accommodating and welcoming. They encouraged me to do shows, perform, and play.
And I got to spend a great deal of time on stage. You can’t help but soak up your surroundings in that situation. Kansas City shaped me as a player. My musical tastes, exploration, my love for different styles of music, and colors my playing in another way. I moved to Louisiana about six years ago, and sure enough, that’s seeped in some ways; you can’t help but soak up the surroundings.
You and Jesse switched between lead and rhythm, something many artists struggle with. Which role are you more comfortable with?
I’ve never really thought about that; it just feels natural. I’ve only ever played as a single guitar player in my band, so I’ve always played rhythm and lead simultaneously. Only now that I’m working with Jesse, I shift gears slightly. We’re constantly filling in little things, playing like little riffs here and there, so neither of us abdicates.
Either of us will do the entire rhythm or the entire lead, and we’re just both figuring out our parts and getting what feels right and fits in. While I’m singing, I will lean heavier on the rhythm while Jesse will fill in these little riffs. When Jesse’s singing and playing rhythm and I’m filling in, I’m just looking for the holes between his phrasing and what will support the story in the song and the lyrics, what will help us build to the dynamic, the apex of the song.
Jesse mainly uses his hollow-bodied King guitar, and you mostly use your Gibson SG. What about that guitar made it the right choice?
I didn’t know if it would be the right guitar in that setting. It’s just the guitar that I’m most comfortable with. It suits my hands best and what I think to be more versatile. It’s a great guitar, becoming my signature guitar that I play everywhere. Jesse brought his signature thing, and I brought mine, and it was like, “Well, let’s see if this works.”
Can you remember your first SG?
I’ve only ever bought one, and I bought it in about 2015. It was the first time I’d ever bought a guitar online. I knew it was a great guitar because I pulled it out of the box at a gig that they shipped it to, and I plugged it in, tuned it up, played it, and it was perfectly fine. For any other guitar, I would have had to get it set up and fine-tune it, but this thing is a workhorse. I could throw it across the stage, then pick it up, put it on, and play it. There’s a lot to think about on stage: the pedals, tables, microphones, there’s no room for fussing with the guitar.
Are there any pedals that you lean on heavily when shaping your tone, or are you mostly guitar-to-amp?
For rhythm, I like going guitar to the amp for a clean, true tone with minimal reverb, just something with a bit of sustain. When I do lead, I can play and do some crazy stuff. I have entirely too many pedals on my board right now, but one of my favorites is King of Tone by Analogman; it’s a significant gain boost that sounds like a warmed-up tube amp; it doesn’t have distortion or compression on it, and it sounds like my sound but louder and more kick-ass.
I like playing with my delay and the octave pedals; it’s always a crazy tone. I’ve got an EHX Micro Pog that always seems to be a crowd-pleaser because it sounds so weird. Early in my career, I would lean on pedals for the wrong reasons to get the tone I needed, but now I use them more for fun. If I was at a gig, I could unplug the pedal board if I was having problems with it; we could do the whole gig without it. Effects are just color and shaping.
Which song on Death Wish Blues best represents you as the player you are today?
We tried to make the album as even as possible. Naturally, when I sing a song, it would make sense for Jesse to play the lead and vice versa. I’m currently out on a solo tour and not playing anything off Death Wish Blues because it’s our record. It’s about this combination and collaboration that we had. If there was a song, I felt people could recognize and go, “Oh, that’s Samantha,” it would be “Rippin’ and Runnin'” because it features my cigar box guitar.
Jesse has a fantastic lead on it, and I support him with the cigar box guitar, but it’s the tone people are familiar with when they hear me. “No Apologies” was a good singing highlight for me, with Jesse playing fill-in on the lead. It’s a soul ballad that will fit into my catalog well down the line. I’d also say, “Settle for Less” is recognizable as “Samantha.”
You’re on tour now and have this record out; what’s next for you?
A follow-up solo album is needed. I’m out on a solo tour right now, and we’re revisiting songs from my past catalog and reconnecting with them. Playing these old songs has been fun, but I’m ready to write something new. It’s almost time for me to go into a record because I’m starting to get bored. We’re coming up with new ways to play, which keeps things exciting, but I like recording new music and figuring out how to make it work on stage. That’s an exhilarating challenge, putting ideas together and trying to make them work.