Some might say that Sophie Burrell did things backwards, whereas others would explain that she’s just figured out what success in the music industry looks like in 2023.
Either way, the British guitarist made herself a near-household name online before she ever had a hit single or a breakthrough band. Instead, she racked up a half-million followers (each, not total) on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok thanks to her virtuosic covers of popular rock songs and other entertaining digital guitar-based content.
Now, she’s parlayed that digital success into her own band (BXRRELL) for original music, a unique tone and playing style that brings classic rock sounds to a modern audience, partnerships with brands like PRS and d’Addario, and a stable career made out of the same passion for guitar she’s had since childhood.
SPIN caught up with the rising guitar hero via Zoom to talk about the internet, her beloved PRS Custom 24 Wood Library, BXRRELL’s new music and more.
SPIN: As someone who was obsessed with playing guitar as a kid, how does it feel to now be able to play guitar for a living?
Sophie Burrell: It’s pretty wild. I don’t really know what I expected, but I’ve known that this is what I wanted to do since I was 5. It’s been all I’ve ever really thought about — not necessarily exactly what I do — but I knew that I wanted to be in the music industry. The fact that I’ve managed to do it on this scale is very cool. If you told me as a 12 year old that I was gonna be endorsed by PRS and stuff, I probably would’ve cried. I mean, I did cry when I got the call, but I wouldn’t have believed you as a child. It’s amazing that I’m able to do what I’m able to do, and I’m very grateful.
And you’ve done all of this in your own way, without a giant band or a hit single or anything like that. What do you make of your different approach to the music industry?
It’s been a learning curve, and it’s kind of weird. Before I started, I didn’t know that social media was the way to do things these days. I thought that was weird, and I still think it’s weird. I understand why this is the way it is, but it feels a bit strange that it’s not just about the music anymore. There’s a lot that goes into it, so it’s been a very strange learning curve. You have to treat it as a business, and I’m still figuring that part out. I still don’t know everything and I’m forever learning.
How did you come up with your musical style, which is a lot more straightforward — almost classic — rock rather than the insane math rock and prog that seems more prevalent now?
It’s funny you say that, because prog and all of the really technical styles make up a huge part of me. When I’m playing the really technical stuff is actually when I’m happiest, because it’s when I feel the most challenged. But I also have a really special place in my heart for the artists I enjoyed growing up like Slash and Pink Floyd and the stuff I was raised on when I was a bit younger. It wasn’t until my mid-to-late teens where I got into the heavier stuff. I’m still figuring out my tone, but it’s hard to settle on just one with all these cool products and plugins coming out all of the time. It just depends on what I’m playing. I play a lot of lead stuff for the most part — or at least that’s what people see on social media most of the time — and I feel like the tone I use just serves it well. It feels appropriate, but I’m still experimenting with it. It’s still so new to me, and there’s still so much to explore with tone.
We touched on it a little bit earlier, but let’s talk about social media. Considering how many artists struggle with socials, what do you think has helped you stand out?
That’s where the whole “you have to treat it as a business” thing comes into play. a little bit. I find it extremely hard, because of the mental side effects that you deal with from being in that space so much. It’s very confusing and messes with your head quite a bit. That being said, it’s really cool that I’ve finally been able to connect with a community who likes what I do. I grew up being really unpopular. I was an outcast at school, and I never had many friends — and I still don’t really have many friends. But it’s been really cool to stumble into the world of other people that like the same stuff as I do. I completely understand the artists who really struggle with the social media side of things, because we never really signed up to be influencers. We just wanted to be musicians, but it happens to be that social media is incredibly integral to the music business in the age we live in. They go hand-in-hand now, and you can’t really get away from it. It’s a bit of a strange one and a very philosophical debate.
Is there any message you have for the next generation of guitarists and musicians who watch your videos and look up to you?
First and foremost, I would tell them just make sure you’re enjoying what you’re doing, always and no matter which direction you go in. Don’t let other people’s opinions or comments change who you are. Remember why you started in the first place and what it actually means to you. Make sure you have that set in stone in your head, because social media is a pretty crazy place. If you’re going to start posting, you’re going to be open to a lot of people telling you what you should and shouldn’t do all the time — what is good, what is bad, and just a lot of opinions. But if you’re enjoying what you’re doing and have that part set in concrete, you’ll be fine.
What do you think separates your favorite PRS from the many other guitars you’ve played over the years?
The way my Custom 24 Wood Library feels is like nothing else. I have never played another guitar on the planet that I’ve gelled with as well as I have with that guitar — and nothing even comes close. It’s really strange, but kind of amazing at the same time. I know what I like and what suits me, and it just feels so nice to play. It’s fun and effortless, and I never have to fight it. It feels like it works with me, and I really love it.
As part of the younger generation representing PRS over some of the more traditional brands, why do you think PRS is so appealing to the next generation of guitarists?
I would say that Fender and Gibson — especially Gibson — are kind of dad guitars, not that it’s a bad thing. It’s just that a lot of the bands that are known for using them are from that era. PRS sits in between the two generations, because they are incredibly versatile. They offer a lot of different models, but just speaking about my Custom 24, you can do a lot with it. It keeps up well with the modern day guitars, but it can also do the older genres real justice at the same time. I think it’s great, because it means they’re suitable for a wider audience. I feel like there’s a PRS for everybody, and I really like them.
Seeing as it was one of your dream sponsors, how has your relationship with PRS been up to this point?
It’s still surreal to me just that it would happen, but they’re really, really supportive and so lovely. I’ve only ever been to their European warehouse, but I would love to go to the factory in Maryland. I was supposed to go a couple of years ago, but COVID made it so that couldn’t happen. But all of the staff I’ve encountered and stuff have just been so supportive and lovely. I’m really happy to be part of the family.
What’s it like to now have BXRRELL as a fully functional band for your original music?
We’re just getting started still — like we’re about to play our first show in November — so it’s still very new, but it’s so fun. I can finally start to show people who I am, because I spent a long time playing covers and stuff like that. I enjoy that, but there’s nothing that comes close to playing your own stuff. I’m really excited to see where we can go with it, and I’m so excited to just get back on stage again. It’s been a really long time since I last played the show, and now I have a way to do it again, so I’m really, really excited.
Other than the first live show, what’s next for BXRRELL?
We have a new release coming out at the end of October called “UFO,” and it’s about my obsession with UFOs and aliens. It’s very riff-y, and it’s probably my favorite riff that I’ve written for this band. It’ll be out the Friday before Halloween.