THIS GUITAR BLOWS MINDS: Yvette Young's technique is truly something to behold. Photo: Harry Who.
Her fingers fly up and down the guitar frets. Both hands strike at chords, hammering on and pulling off, hitting notes high and low, occasionally triggering a shimmering harmonic and allowing it to ring. Leaning in close, the careful observer notices that the pinkie finger on her left hand flares out at an unnatural angle. And then in comes the arpeggio—or, more precisely, the chimeric, cluster bomb of notes.
The euphoric, rushing sound demands attention—not only from the listener, but from the band as well. And as such, it serves as a reminder that her guitar work is not whirling about in a vacuum. She is, in fact, flanked by two additional players. Her bass player can’t contain contain the sheer joy that the musical eruption inspires within him, and he smiles broadly. Later, after the band has finished playing, he’ll comment that the riff gets him “every time.”
This is Covet. Led by the 25-year-old Yvette Young, the South Bay instrumental rock trio rehearses in a Saratoga garage, preparing for a forthcoming nationwide tour. The song they’ve just run through is “Hydra,” from their debut EP, Currents, released in late 2015.
It’s a fitting name for a record of sweeping guitar, bass and drums. Like the ocean, or a mighty river, the music is complex and multifaceted. Even as it shimmers on the surface, the driving bass and rock-solid drumming of Young’s bandmates and collaborators David Adamiak and Keith Grimshaw course powerfully along. Still waters run deep indeed. And even when the music is ostensibly violent and turbid, there is an undeniable beauty in its thrashing—a flood of sound.
Like an expert crew, Covet navigates these treacherous waters with aplomb, building dynamic, infectious, challenging compositions that rise and fall like the tides. Grimshaw’s spare and purposeful drumming serves as a foundation. Adamiak lays down a plush, low-frequency carpet atop Grimshaw’s rhythmic slab, which at times merges with Young’s rhythmic guitar work, but is not so thick as to prevent her most ascendent melodic strands from taking flight.
Their work has not gone unnoticed. In the three years they’ve been playing together, Young’s band has amassed 13,000 likes on Facebook, culled 1,400 “supporters” on the streaming music site Bandcamp (a large figure for the platform), and they are currently being courted by three separate record labels. Polyphia—another instrumental outfit signed to Equal Vision Records, is taking Covet on a nationwide tour, which kicks off Feb. 18.
Despite all this, Young is nervous about what the future holds—not because of a dearth of prospects, clearly—but rather because she never counted on finding herself here, fronting a band on the verge of breaking big.
“For me, it’s scary,” Young says, speaking to the prospect of giving herself over entirely to the life of a professional musician. Five years ago, as she was nearing the end her undergraduate term at UCLA, she flirted with the idea of playing in bands. She even took a year off to pursue the dream in Los Angeles. But ultimately, she says, her heart pulled her back to the Bay Area.
That’s when she recorded her debut solo effort, the Acoustics EP. Tracked in a friend’s Oakland garage and released without much fanfare, the five-song collection was never meant to be more than a passion project. Instead, it blew up. She sold out of physical releases four times over. And that was before she started playing with Adamiak and Grimshaw.
“I thought I would just be working a teaching job,” Young says of the life she envisioned. Currently, Young is balancing her band and a part time job as an art instructor. She loves her gig and she says her boss loves her too—there’s been talk of bringing her on full time. But, as it now stands, Young’s boss is looking to hire a replacement for her while Covet is on tour, and while she’s optimistic that the job will still be there when she returns, there are no guarantees.
“I have this chance to be stable, but I’m giving it all up and pushing it all aside to do the touring thing,” she says, giving voice to her deepest doubts.
But it may be that Young is selling herself short. After all, this is the same young woman who once took second place at the San Jose International Piano Competition with a broken finger.
When Young was just 13, she broke her left pinkie finger—hence the awkward angle of her little digit. The way Young remembers it, she fell while walking down some stairs, and in an attempt to catch herself, she snared her finger on the handrail.
In spite of the injury, Young continued rehearsing for the 2002 SJIPC. She went on to nearly win that contest—tying for second place, hobbled as she was.
Of course, wherever there is an athlete working through an injury, there’s also a coach—either tacitly allowing the decision, or actively encouraging it. In Young’s case, it was her parents who pushed her to go forward with the competition. It’s something she can joke about now, though at the time, she wasn’t happy about it.
“It made me hate music,” Young says of her adolescent years, studying piano and violin at the Los Gatos-based Gingis Academy of Music. “I only did it for them. I won them competitions.”
It is said that time heals all wounds. Of course, that isn’t true. In Young’s case, her finger never quite went back to normal. She says sometimes it gets stuck in weird positions when she is playing her guitar.
But at least she doesn’t hate music anymore. These days she says she really enjoys playing piano and violin. “I’m so grateful that they made me do it,” she says, referring to her parents. She’s even come around on her pinkie, and now views the injury from a positive vantage.
“It extends my reach, just a little bit,” she says with a laugh, alluding to the fact that she can stretch her hands a bit further up and down the neck of her guitar.
And, as Young has demonstrated on multiple occasions over the course of her life, the episode at the piano competition is not simply an example of her parents attempting to live through their child. It also speaks to Young’s own determination and grit—and an innate love for music.
LEARNING THE ROPES
Young reconnected with that estranged love after she moved away to college—this time on her own terms. She began tinkering on the acoustic guitar and, with little formal training on that instrument, taught herself to play, developing the complex and impressive finger-picking and finger-tapping technique she now deploys in Covet. And she did all this while earning a double major in fine art and arts education—completing her dual degree in just two years and one quarter, by taking 20 units nearly every quarter and attending summer session.
“I didn’t intentionally develop a technique or anything,” she says of her playing. “I just did what felt comfortable.” Apparently, what felt “comfortable” for Young, was to let her picking hand wander up from its common position near the bridge of the guitar, to assist in tapping out notes on the neck of the guitar, playing the instrument like a piano.
In some ways it makes sense that someone who started out playing music on piano would gravitate toward finger-tapping on the guitar. The piano, after all, allows an individual to plonk out polyphonic arrangements—to play chords, bass lines and melodies simultaneously.
“It’s like a language,” Young says of music, drawing a parallel between the way many people must translate words, phrases and sentences spoken in a second language back into their native tongue before achieving complete comprehension. “In order to figure out what I want to play on guitar, I have to think of it in terms of piano first.”
Here one suspects that Young—an inherently humble person—may be attempting to deflect the suggestion that her style is in any way extraordinary. She insists that her approach to the guitar was born out of necessity, and even goes so far as to suggest it may be due to personal awkwardness and a lack of friends.
“I didn’t really have a bass player or any other band,” she says, recalling her college years. Back then, Young says, she wasn’t interested in attending parties and preferred to keep to herself in her room. This, combined with her ability to hear polyphonic arrangements in her head, led her to tapping, she explains. “I said, ‘OK, if I tap this, I could pick this other part and I could use these other strings to fill out the sound.’”
Hardly. Some of rock & roll’s best-known guitar heroes—Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Slash—only occasionally employ this advanced technique. Young’s entire sound is built around it. And that’s not even to mention that Adamiak, Covet’s bassist and a talented musician in his own right, says he can’t hear polyphony in his head.
“She is a very gifted person,” says Nataly Gingis, Young’s piano instructor from the ages of 4 to 16. The co-founder of the Los Gatos academy Young attended speaks highly of her former pupil’s abilities on the piano and violin. And while she hasn’t been in as close contact with Young in recent years, Gingis says she’s heard good things about Covet. “As far as I understand, her guitar technique is pretty advanced.”
Other musicians agree. Brent Walsh, guitarist of the Bay Area prog-emo outfit I The Mighty, has long appreciated Young’s work and counts himself a Covet fan.
“She got really good, really fast,” he says of Young’s playing. Walsh has known Young since before she even began playing and says the discipline she learned on the piano has definitely played a role in her rapid development. “She’s one of the most driven people I’ve ever met.”
Plus, Walsh adds, Young is a rock star when it comes to social media. “She’s always been really engaged,” he says, noting that she is great about responding to her fans and giving them sneak peeks into her process. Mainstream radio play, appearances on late night shows and record sales don’t matter as much for a band like Covet, Walsh says. For indie groups, he explains, it’s about slowly building a fan base and keeping them engaged, so they’ll come to shows, buy merch and continue to show support.
“I think they can expect the typical indie rock band process,” he says of Covet. “Keep putting out music and keep touring and if it’s genuine and it’s good, they’ll keep climbing.”
If Young seeks to downplay compliments concerning her guitar chops, it may be more than a function of modesty. As a female in a male-dominated field, she says, fawning praise can quickly take a condescending or creepy turn.
She explains that sometimes fans approach her after shows to tell her how impressed they were with her abilities. Often these people offer genuine praise, but sometimes there is a not-so-subtle subtext: that she is an amazing guitar player… for a girl.
And then there is the outright sexism—the suggestion, which she sees online more than hears in person—that the only reason she has found success is because of her gender and appearance. That she’s a novelty act and little more.
In an effort to head off haters at the pass, she and her bandmates have sought to take their physical appearance off the table altogether.
“I don’t want to rock the girl-guitarist angle,” Young says, quickly adding that she would never judge any woman who decided to do so. It’s just not her personal style. And so, in music videos, like the one Covet just completed for their forthcoming single, “Aries,” Young, Adamiak and Grimshaw wear costumes. “Just to completely take that problem out of the equation, I’d rather it just be about my instrument. I just want to be a guitarist, a musician, a person.”
For someone who has had their doubts about pursuing the life of a rock star, Young certainly doesn’t act like it in the “Aries” video. In the clip, she and her band completely destroy a room—which they built specifically for the shoot in Young’s parents’ garage. She laughs as she excitedly explains the concept. The video, she says, should come out around the time she and her band hit the road with Polyphia in February.
The fact that her parents have the garage—and were willing to sign off on her crazy music video concept—is not lost on Young. As a touring musician, it’s unlikely that she’ll be able to afford a home of her own in Saratoga anytime soon, if ever. She says that now, at 25, she feels the pressure to find a place of her own and to fully support herself.
But at the moment, her resolve is strong—as it was when she was powering her way through college and playing through the physical and mental pain of that piano recital at age 13. And so, she is committed to ride her current wave of good fortune, allowing it to take her where it may.
“Everything in my life is pushing me to do this,” she says. “It’s not the ‘smartest’ move, but my gut—and my heart—tells me this is the right move.”