The Ultimate Biography of Bill Frisell


Successful musicians are easy to spot; they come with a large and loyal fan base and their names make headlines. Success takes on a different meaning altogether, though, when fellow musicians clamor to listen to, learn from, and work with a particular performer. These musicians aren’t merely successful; they’re virtuosos.

Such is the case with William Richard “Bill” Frisell. His first personal experience with musicianship involved the clarinet he played in school but his adult fame is all about the guitar.

Although born in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 18, 1951, Frisell’s family soon moved to Denver, Colorado, where he grew up, fell in love with music, and attended the University of Northern Colorado as a music major. During this learning stage of life, Frisell played with Dale Bruning, his first guitar teacher; the two eventually recorded the album, Reunion, in 2000. During his college years, Frisell studied under the highly acclaimed jazz musician, Johnny Smith, before moving on to Boston and the Berklee College of Music, where he studied with Jim Hall and John Damian.

As it so often happens in the music business, success rides on a lucky break. Frisell’s lucky break came in the early 1980s, when Pat Metheny couldn’t make it to a recording session where drummer Pat Motian was working on Psalm, a 1982 release from ECM Records. Frisell came to the rescue and found himself a much-appreciated session guitarist for the music house. After a time working on other people’s albums, Frisell recorded his own as a solo performer. ECM released In Line in 1983, with Arild Andersen accompanying Frisell on bass for several songs on this debut album.

Soon a Frisell band was performing, with bassist Kermit Driscoll, drummer Joey Baron, and cellist Hank Roberts forming its core. The band became an active part of the New York City music scene and several albums were recorded, with guests artists rounding out the sound.

The end of the 1980s found Frisell settled in Seattle, Washington, where the albums Have a Little Faith and This Land were recorded and where Frisell worked on soundtracks to silent movies starring Buster Keaton and contributed to Heartbeat, an album by keyboardist Ryuichi Sakamoto. Frisell’s friendship with Washington-native Gary Larson led to Frisell’s creation of the music for the television run of the cartoonist’s work, The Far Side.

During the 1990s, Frisell’s style evolved considerably, moving away from the jazzy style for which he’d become well known and into other genres that include folk, country, bluegrass, and other forms of the music of Americana. His diversity is evident in the wide array of musicians with whom he has collaborated in recent years; Elvis Costello, Rickie Lee Jones, Loudon Wainwright III, Chip Taylor, Vic Chesnutt, Suzanne Vega, Sam Shrieve, Ron Sexsmith, Van Dyke Parks, Arto Lindsay, and Buddy Miller are just of few of them.

The distinctive Frisell sound is all about guitars, with the inclusion of other stringed instruments from time to time, including the banjo. His personal collection of guitars, numbering in the dozens, includes unique, one-of-a-kind experimental models and not-so-unique acoustic and electric models. His signature style comes with the help of a growing assortment of electronic devices that alter the sound and blend the layers to produce just the effects that have made Frisell’s involvement in a project so highly demanded. His Fender Telecaster is perhaps the instrument for which he is most well known.

In recent years, Frisell’s sixteenth album, The Intercontinentals, featured performances by Jenny Scheinman, Greg Leisz, Christos Govetas, Vinicius Cantuaria, and Sidiki Camara. It was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2003.

In 2005, Frisell won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album for Unspeakable and was nominated again in 2009 for his album, History, Mystery; the category was Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group.

Frisell and his wife, Carole, a painter, live on Bainbridge Island, in Washington’s Puget Sound, with their daughter.

  • The Bill Frisell Website - Find clips, videos, photos, press releases, tour information,and all sorts of other interesting links at Frisell’s official website.

  • Biography of Bill Frisell - This United Kingdom website refers to Frisell as “one of the most sought-after guitar voices in contemporary music.”

  • The Sound of One Man Dreaming - This Seattle Times article includes a discussion of a very vivid dream of music, a dream that’s inspired him to “invent music without borders.”

  • Bill Frisell Trio: Spontaneous at Kennedy - It’s been said Frisell “gets 1,000 different tones and sound effects” out of his Fender Telecaster; this National Public Radio (NPR) report tells how.

  • Frisell at AllAboutJazz.com - Learn more about Frisell and enjoy audio / video clips of some live performances. 

  • The Bill Frisell Song Finder Page - Click here to learn everything you always wanted to know about songs by Bill Frisell.

  • Frisell Interview with AfroPop Worldwide - In this 2003 interview, Frisell discusses his group, The Intercontinentals, and its band members’ shared musical influences from Africa, Brazil, and Greece.

  • Stories from the Heart of the Land - Go behind the scenes as Frisell and three string instrumentalists create the soundtrack to this NPR series funded by the Nature Conservancy.