Tone Talk with Kirby Bell

Photo by RoXplosion DC
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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 19 – Spring 2022

Kirby Bell (they/he) is a non-binary guitarist and co-vocalist of the electrifying Baltimore-based punk band BLKVAPOR. They also are the solo producer of the indie-pop project Babyfat

Bell picked up the guitar at age 12 and grew their talent through performances with their church youth group, learning Paramore songs with a neighbor and playing their original songs at high school talent shows and open mics. 

As a junior in college, Bell wanted to play in bands but reflected, “I didn’t see any representation of people who looked like me. In my mind, I believed it was something only cis men could do.” He began jamming with friends who shared this experience and would form BLKVAPOR together, booking their first shows in 2019. Kirby noted that members of the group are “extremely accepting and supportive of each other’s intersectional identities. When we write songs and perform live, there’s nothing to hold back — we just have a good time on stage together!” 

Kirby’s goal is “to encourage the next generation of young Black kids to reclaim the punk rock scene and see that you can do what you love, no matter how you identify.”

What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?
I’ve been told by people who have seen me play that my guitar is an extension of my voice. This ability to make my instrument sing is how I define tone. I basically use my gear to decide how I want to express myself to a room full of strangers! When I first started playing live, I was very modest and didn’t like being the center of attention. I didn’t use any pedals and always played with clean, smooth-sounding tones. I didn’t stand out very much. Over the years, I’ve grown out of my shell and learned to embrace the noisy, grungy vibe that I’ve always been drawn to in music. Now, my tone is as bold as I am. I think meeting so many different styles of musicians in the Baltimore scene has influenced me to think outside the box.

Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?
My go-to guitar is a Player’s Series Fender Jazzmaster, which has a jangly, surf-rock tone. It’s great for when I want to switch between riffing and playing rhythm. I’ve had guys tell me that a Jazzmaster isn’t good for playing heavy chords, but I disagree with that — rock is all about breaking standards and doing what you want!  

I also play a Danelectro DC-3 when I want a more noisy, garage-type sound. It’s super lightweight, which is perfect for when I’m planning to do a lot of jumping and headbanging on stage.

For amps, I play a BOSS Katana-50 which is easy to travel with, has two distinct channels to switch between and can be used for practices and small venues. Most recently, I’ve been rocking an Orange Micro Dark head with a Blackstar 2×12 cabinet. I like the tone of the gain that comes from the Orange Micro Dark, plus I can quickly plug it into my interface when I want to record.

For pedals, I use a Xotic SP compressor, BOSS Super Overdrive SD-1, Danelectro Cool Cat, and ISP Decimator II. Everything gets powered by a Walrus Aetos supply. My favorite pedal on my board is this old V8 Black Russian Big Muff pedal I found inside a broken amp last summer — it gives me such a unique, powerful sound. It’s by far the fuzziest pedal I’ve ever used and pretty much screams for everyone to drop what they’re doing and listen to me play.

What about strings?
I play Ernie Ball Slinkys. My Jazzmaster is set up with 9s, and I have 10s on the Danelectro DC-3.

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?
In the studio, I prefer to track with a live drummer. It gives me way more energy than if I follow pre-tracked drums. My only other requirement is that I have headphones to monitor the mix — I love recording with the volume blasted.

How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?
A trick I’ve picked up is to mess with my pedalboard backstage or in the green room so that I can focus on adjusting my amp settings during soundcheck. In my head, I always know exactly how I want to sound during a live set. I do my best to take it from memory.

What does your practice consist of?
I try to keep it fun when I practice. I like to warm up to some of my favorite artists: Smashing Pumpkins, the Internet, My Chemical Romance, Lalah Hathaway, Turnstile, Erykah Badu, etc. After warming up, I go through some scales and branch off into experimenting with my own ideas. When I practice, I always keep a mirror or camera in front of me because I want to make sure that my stage presence is exciting and memorable to someone who could be seeing me play for the first time.  

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?
Be yourself! There are so many men in the industry that will try to convince you to do what is popular or conventional, but the best thing you can do for yourself is to stay authentic to who you are. Follow your creative intuition and learn not to second guess your artistry.

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