Tim Reynolds Talks Guitars, Dave Matthews, and How Music Transports Him

If put to the test, American guitar player, Tim Reynolds, might be able to play the most notes per minute on an acoustic guitar. More than anyone else, he’s that proficient. But more than any finger pick parlor trick, Reynolds has moved audiences both as a soloist and as an accompanist to famed singer-songwriter, Dave Matthews. Reynolds, who burst into public consciousness with the release of the 1999 acoustic double album with Matthews, Live At Luther College, which featured the duo playing stripped-down versions of the Dave Matthews Band catalogue, is a master of the instrument.  

Reynolds, who now tours with both Matthews as an acoustic duo and with the full band, is also no slouch as a solo artist on his own. He’s released several standout acoustic records and full-band records with his trio, TR3. He’s a prolific artist, both in movements and in oeuvre. We caught up with Reynolds, who also been live-streaming on his Facebook page during quarantine, to ask him how he first learned to play – and love – music, what it was like collaborating with Mathews and much more.

When did you first start to play music?

It was in different phases. The first time I started playing music, I sang with my family in church. But only a very little bit because it was just what they did. They sang in church and they would get up in front, my mom and I’m not sure who all else, but I remember seeing movies of me two-feet tall wearing a little silly suit, hanging with the family, stomping my feet.

And then I can’t remember which came first, playing air guitar or taking piano lessons. I think before piano lessons, when The Beatles records were all the big rage in the mid-60s, I remember living in Alaska and we turned it up one day when our parents were gone and it sounded like the band was in the house and it was thrilling. I had to grab something and act like I was playing guitar so I grabbed my Tonka fire truck ladder and that became my guitar for a while, my air guitar.

Then eventually I wound up getting toy plastic guitars but since I didn’t really play them I would just take the strings off and air play them. Somewhere along there, my parents wanted me to learn how to play piano because my sister could play and my mom could play, so I started taking lessons. That’s when I started playing something. I internally rebelled against that because I really wanted to play guitar. But I did learn a good little bit about music from learning how to mess around on the keyboard a little bit.

Eventually, I started to play real guitar. My Uncle Bill came to live with us for a while and he played guitar. So, he got me started on playing chords and then I was off. I was still taking piano lessons. My sister was teaching me, but it was right at the point where you start to learn technique and since I was already not so much into it, that made it hard to practice. So, I bailed on it.

It’s funny because just a few years after that, when I was really getting better at guitar, it was all I did, practice scales and shit for a while. Later, at the beginning of junior high and the end of grade school, I started playing bass. Actually, the thing that was legit that my family would allow me to do when I was still living at home, was play bass in church. So, that was the first instrument that I really felt like I got a hold of and learned how to play by ear and sight and sound and internalize the music.

I was really into Grand Funk and The Beatles and whatever had a cool bass part. I’d learn it. Then my parents got me a bass for Christmas and I was just way into that for a while. But not long after that, when I was getting some facility on bass, I’d always still played a little bit of guitar, but then I was, like, “Wow, those little bass runs if you play them on guitar – oh boy! I’m off now!” I had music theory class in 11th and 12th grade right about the time that I was really internalizing the music and being able to play by ear really well. I put it all together.

How did you develop your nimble hand dexterity, simply from playing scales a million times over?

I think from Day One, I had some kind of facility, which is kind of a curse in a way because you learn how music isn’t all about that. But then you’re curious, you know? So, I spent a lot of years trying to develop that technique. Because, at the time, as I was graduating high school, all this jazz-fusion – mad guitar players were coming out, John McLaughlin, Allan Holdsworth. They were just sick. Those were the things I was going for at the time.

Over the years I kind of switched my focus from different styles.  Once I got into jazz, I got a jazz bug. Then when I moved to Charlottesville, I played jazz the whole time I was there for, like, 18 years. But I got kind of got bored with the formulaic standard mode. I played lots of society gigs where you did that. Then I started getting into metal. Not, like hair metal. To me, it was a new music of the mid-90s, Deftones, Nine Inch Nails. So, that drew me out of being such a hardcore jazz guy.

Then I got back to jazz when I started playing with [the Dave Matthews Band]. I realized, wow, that’s a big part of they do. When Jeff [Coffin] came into the band, he’s such an amazing, skilled technician on the saxophone and that inspired me to get back to listening and playing more jazz. Not necessarily out to find gigs. But just as a thing. I like that the essence of jazz is playing over harmony, soloing through changes, and I like doing that.

Your family moved around a lot when you were a kid. Did that affect your psychology or your fate of becoming a musician?

I think so. At the time, I didn’t see it as such because I was just growing up. We moved around. But I’m sure it had a little bit to do with jumping from style to style. It’s funny, because when I was a kid it seemed like we moved a lot but as an adult I’ve moved more times. When I was a kid, I was born in Germany. We moved to Indiana. Then we lived in Alaska and we lived in Kansas and we lived in Missouri. That was my childhood.

Then I chose to go to Virginia and I lived in New Mexico and I lived in North Carolina and now I live in Florida. Still, after about 10 years of being somewhere, I kind of like the – I guess it’s engrained in me since I grew up like that – I like being in new landscapes where you live. It’s an education. Going from Charlottesville to New Mexico – wow! What a difference! And then New Mexico to North Carolina – whoa! And then North Carolina to this part of Florida, Saratoga, which is really cosmopolitan. It’s unlike being in the south. But, yeah, moving around literally and moving around in music informs that.

And touring, too.

Oh yeah. I didn’t really tour with DMB in a fulltime way until 2008. I’d sporadically played a couple months with them on tour in ’98 and a one-off gig here and there before that. Then I would mostly just do the live with Dave acoustic shows. We did a tour with Dave Matthews & Friends. But at the time mostly my life before 2008, I was really into being independent and doing my own thing.

DMB, at the time. toured, like, all year for many, many years. I couldn’t make that kind of commitment then because I was still into writing music. But in 2008, when I moved to North Carolina, it just seemed natural to get into that. I recorded a record with them and I hadn’t done that in a long time at the time, Big Whiskey & the GrooGrux King. So, after recording that, we mulled around would I tour? I thought about it and I realized, for me, my own touring schedule was always the least busy in the summer, so it made sense to go tour in the summers with DMB. Then I’ll have the rest of the year to do other stuff, which I kind of do. But we often tour a lot.

Last last year, DMB toured a bunch and then I did two TR3 tours. At the end of the year, I think I played, like, 120-plus gigs. So, in a way, I guess it’s kind of natural – well, it’s natural because it’s nature – but [the pandemic] has caused us to take a break. So, I’ve been at home for, like, two months. It’s the longest I’ve been home for, like, many years.

Was there a moment in your early musical life when you faced a choice, say, between being an insurance agent or going on some big U.S. tour?

Well, not necessarily. Because I never really had any other skill. My first job was just walking, delivering different advertisements on doors. That was a cool. My last couple years of high school, classes didn’t start until 1 PM because they were split shifts. So, I started doing this job during the day. Then the next job I think was McDonald’s. You know, I never had any other kind of skill set. But I always was playing music and always sneaking out and trying to get gigs.

But it was never really, like, do this or that. Other than when I was in Charlottesville and I worked for K-Mart for, like, three years. I had started integrating myself into the area, you know. I’d been there a couple years and I started having enough guitar lessons that I realized if I taught X-amount of days teaching guitar I would make more than I made at K-Mart working almost 40-hours a week. I remember going into the office and saying, “It’s my last day.” And they were like, “You know, Tim, you’re never going to get anywhere if you don’t stick with the job.” And I thought to myself, “Don’t worry, I’m going to stick with the job but it’s the one I’m supposed to do!”

Do you remember the vibe or feeling you got from Charlottesville bartender Dave Matthews when you guys first met each other?

Oh, yeah! He was just a sweetie. He was a sweet dude. It was almost like – I didn’t know him in high school but it felt like it even though he was 10 years younger than me. But he was into the same stuff. You know, we had common ground. Led Zeppelin, classic rock and stuff like that. I didn’t even know he was a musician. I knew he was an actor. He was kind of a famous actor in Charlottesville. He was the shit. He did, like, one-man plays and monologues. He was kind of a star in the small town like that.

One night after me playing at Miller’s [the bar where Matthews worked], I was curious about drum machines. I didn’t know how to work them – I still don’t much. But he said, “Let’s go hang out in my basement, we’ll play so music.” He’d made some drum things and we started jammin’. Then I was like, “Wow, this guy’s really musical. He hasn’t even touched an instrument yet.” He just sang along to some shit I made with the drum machine and some tracks that he made.

Then, right before I left, he sat on piano and was like, “Oh, yeah I like to write songs.” And he played some on the piano and it was like some Paul McCartney shit and I was like, “Whoa! This guy has been a bartender and an actor but he’s got mad songwriting skills.” But I didn’t even know he played guitar. I saw a red eclectic guitar at his house so I thought he must play.

Then the first time we played together, I just played an African drum. It was a TR3 gig. Then we started playing together with guitars and all of a sudden it was like, “Oh, cool!” That was when DMB was getting their start around town and we were playing these little duo gigs in a coffee house in Charlottesville. So, that’s how that got started.

How did your life or career change once Live At Luther College came out?

That’s when I moved to New Mexico. I was ready to continue to play with Dave but I wanted to move. I was so, at the time, enthralled with New Mexico and all things west. So, it was a big fantasy and I could afford to do it. I was almost going to buy a house in Charlottesville. But I remember thinking, “I don’t want to go into debt, let me go to New Mexico.” So, that album enabled me to do something like that. Before, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.

It also enabled me to do my own thing and not have my own thing be the thing that supports me, which made it really cool because then I didn’t have to – I don’t know, I could just do it on my own terms for a while, which I still do. But then you wonder sometimes if it were to be a different kind of challenge if you had an organization trying to make you get over. But that’s a whole different level of musical commitment that’s not as much music as business. Which is really cool but I was fortunate to be able to have more freedom of movement in the world because of Live At Luther College.

It enabled me to do my own thing more but also stay in touch with Dave. Because we released a couple more of those records live, in Vegas and New York. It also made it possible for me to go out and do solo acoustic gigs. I hadn’t done so many before that time. I had done some but it wasn’t a consistent mode. But when I moved to New Mexico some different things happened and it was a challenge to start writing more music for that.

I had already recorded one or two CDs of acoustic solo music. One was strictly acoustic and one was more spacy looping and stuff. But, yeah, that just set me on a course of really liking making and writing music, you know?

What was it like writing together with Dave on some of the earlier albums?

For the most part, Dave comes up with songs and then he brings them to the studio. With Crash, working with [longtime DMB producer] Steve Lillywhite, we just fleshed them out with the band, you know? Then with different songs, different people would add things. But it usually starts out with a song. Like, I remember when we started recording the song, “Crash,” he didn’t even have the lyrics. It was kind of silly stuff but I remember thinking, “Well, this is going to be a record, man! This is going to be a hit because this song is so sweet.”

What about your collaboration like on the band’s first studio album, Under The Table And Dreaming?

On the first couple of albums, Steve Lillywhite would have be double everything that Dave did so it would be, like, stereo guitars in unison, kind of like when you do metal guitars. In each side there is a guitar doing the same thing and it sounds really fat. Then once we would do the basic tracks like that, then Steve would have me start doing overdubs and that sometimes you just free form into it or you mess around for a while and you find a part the producer likes or that you think is cool. Then they’ll say, “Do that!”

Everybody will spend a couple days with the producer doing overdubs. And after you do a couple weeks of the band all playing more or less live in the studio, double tracking the guitars, then everybody would get their couple days or a week, depending who it was, to go in and do more stuff. Like, you know, a couple days with [saxophonist] LeRoi [Moore], [violinist] Boyd [Tinsley], myself. So, that was a cool learning process.

That’s how it started. It’s not so much that anymore. But that was just the period at the time. You’d play all the parts that Dave does so they get so fat. Nobody’s going to not notice that guitar part because you’re all playing it together, you know? Then we changed up over the years. That was how we did it for the first couple of albums, like that.

Then the next album, we did it like that but we started distorting the acoustic guitar. Because Steve Lillywhite – I swear to god – because he knew I was way into metal, he told me this, I’m sure in jest, “Timmy, the next record’s going to be metal!” And he saw my face. So, of course, I’m ready to play electric. I’m like, “Yeah, yeah!” And I hardly played any electric on that one, the next one, which was Crash. Instead, he just distorted the acoustic guitars.

On the first album, Under The Table, and the next one was, Crash. Yes, Crash was the one that Steve Lillywhite said, and I’m sure he was just trying to make me happy, “It’s going to be metal!” I was like, “Whoa, really, okay!” Then it wasn’t metal at all, of course. That was the album with “Too Much” on it, right?

Yup!

I remember when we were recording that song. Steve Lillywhite, he wanted us to all play that song way too slow and get really drunk and play it for a couple hours really slow. Then we went back to tempo and recorded it and it was really funky. But it was just an exercise in what it’s like when you slow stuff down. The muscle memory has to dig into the details. He said, “Okay, let’s take it at the tempo. I bet it will be funky.” I don’t know if we recorded it while we were really drunk but I remember part of the process of slowing it down, we all got pretty drunk.

Let me ask you about one of your songs. Can you tell me some of the backstory behind the song, “You Are My Sanity?”

That was one of the simplest things ever. I was camping. It was one of the first times I was out camping on this mountain, Reddish Knob, in Virginia. It was just me and my partner and I had my guitar and I remember just setting up the tent and walking up a path that was, like, 20 feet away from where we camped and I just started playing that. It’s really, like, four chords. So, it was easy to remember. It was just a simple thing. “Stream” was written like that, too, in my kitchen. I sat down and it came out. Some things are just like that, you know?

Some things take a lot more time. I’ve been writing stuff during the quarantine and that’s been kind of cool, too. It’s hard sometimes to find time. Last year and the year before that, I recorded a record with TR3 and then I was just on tour with DMB or TR3, constantly, it seemed like. So, it’s nice in a way to have time to write music and not feel rushed about it.

I imagine you were an avid music listener as s kid and young adult, a very studious person when it came to music. But what form does your curiosity take today?

Well, it goes on many tangents. For a while, though I haven’t done it much lately, but last year and the year before I was way into studying this particular string quartet. Even though I listened to them in the late 70s and early 80s a little bit, I always liked how they sounded creepy and, like, “Whoa, what the fuck?” Like, all wrong notes but all vibrated so that they sound sweet. So, a couple years ago I just dove way deep and really wanted to get to know that shit. It’s not new music but to me it was very new and modern.

But also the technique of how they write something over a half an hour with three or four different sections and how they will bring back a melody but also make it a little different. I really enjoy that because I realize once I got deep into that, one of my favorite bands, Yes, did the same thing. And I realized that was the prog rock thing going back to string quartets in the long form. Genesis was a little bit like that but they were more, like, the way The Beatles did Abbey Road with that one section that’s a whole side of all these songs that go together.

Genesis with these long pieces, they were more like that. Instead of this classical idea. Yes was much more adventurous as far as being very intense, I guess. That was their thing. The guitar was always doing crazy shit.

You know so much about the guitar. Does it color the way you watch or appreciate other players?

It does. But I also realize that there’s always more to get. I never playing anything perfect so there’s always the next thing, you know? Once in a while somebody will send me a video of some guitar and I’ll just go, “Well, that guy makes me not want to fucking play! Fuck that shit!” [Laughs] Somebody sent me a video of Eric Gales playing a melody of “Kashmir,” “Back In Black” and some “Beethoven” thing he does solo on guitar for a minute. And it’s so wicked badass, fuck. It’s ridiculous. I was like, “Man, I would never be on a stage with that guy. That guy has way so much soul and he’s playing the funkiest shit, whoa!” So, I’m a student still. Big time. I think I know but I don’t. When you were young, you thought you knew so much. And you knew a lot of things, but it’s a weird kind of irony.

What is it about music that you love?

It transports you. The one thing that I’m loving about being home all this time is that I can just listen to music all the time. And I’m always on a tangent of an in depth deep dive of some shit. This weekend I have a bunch of 1917 shit ready to go. And I also have a lot of modern stuff that I like to balance with, like, Rival Sons. I mean, they sound like they’re from the 70s but they’re a newer band. I love that band! And Anderson Paak. He’s a funky, soul player. He’s so good. So, I’ll just pick a year and all that music, in a certain mood, will take me to a place.

That’s what I love about writing a song. I mean, I love to improvise, I love to shred and go ape shit. That’s all part of what learning to play an instrument is. But the thing about music is how the simplest thing like “You Are My Sanity” or a Bob Marley song with three chords can take you somewhere and it’s just magic, fucking magic.

Stuff like that is magic to me. Because it’s like where does it come from and where does it go to? And I’m sure you could scientifically explain it. But that’s no fun! I mean, I love science, believe me. I’m way into physics and all that shit. And I know you can interpret things in a very artistic way like Carl Jung, his interpretation of dreams, that is art on the highest level to me. But also a different side could just say, “Well, it’s just a bunch of neurons” and they could explain it and make total sense, too. Both of these thing seem to me to balance each other out.

I understand the technical aspect of music but there are some songs that I’ve never learned because I didn’t want to spoil the mystery. Although, once in a while I have to dive in and do it anyway. But my favorite thing to do practicing is to put on records that I like and I can jam with my heroes any time. We’ve always had fun playing music. I’ll go in and play along with Radiohead, although it’s harder to jam with them because you kind of have to follow them because they have the coolest chord sequences. I really like those kinds of things. The chord, the melody, how does it touch you when it hits?

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