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Speaking of the acoustic tone of Rivera’s guitars, did you mic the guitar and mix it with your amp signal?
Yeah, on some of the tracks I did. Wow, you heard that?
Yeah! What amps did you use?
I don’t use any particular amplifier. I just use a preamp that was designed by Bruce Seifried from Éclair Engineering. The preamp is called a DMS-1. It took eight months to design. He didn’t want to do it, but we kept going back and forth until we finally got it together.
It doesn’t sound like you use many effects.
That isn’t my thing. I use an Ernie Ball volume pedal and a Klon Centaur. It was so long ago I can’t even remember the name of the guy who makes them. I just bought a bunch of them so I would have them. The distortion is really warm and you don’t lose the identity of the instrument. It really comes off as your sound. This is great for when you are using a hollowbody guitar and you want to crank a little distortion, but you don’t want it too crunchy and you want to retain some presence. You can play a chord and still hear the individual notes in the chord. It’s really a mysterious pedal, man. When you open the back up, there’s all this black stuff over everything, so you can’t see what it’s made of. It’s made by one of those cats.
Eubanks. “I thought, ‘Wow, I guess it’s not that big of a deal.’” Photo by Raj Naik
Tell me about the acoustic guitar on Zen Food.
I have an acoustic guitar Dick Boak over at Martin made for me [see sidebar at end]. That’s the one on the record, and I use it for live gigs too. It is just beautiful. It’s a custom guitar with a really wide neck. It probably more resembles a classical guitar than a steel-string acoustic.
You’re known for your fingerstyle technique. Did you always use your fingers or did you start with a flatpick?
Yeah, I went through a phase. I used a pick for about the first seven years I played. Little by little, I started using my fingers along with the pick, like a lot of country players do. I then just dropped the pick and started to use my thumb instead. It was a real natural process.
Was that because of Wes Montgomery’s influence?
It was happening anyway and I wasn’t even really aware that Wes used his thumb. Because I was mostly a funk and rock player, I didn’t come into knowing about Wes Montgomery until I had been playing guitar for a long time. I didn’t know about the whole history of Wes and jazz music at all. I remember the day I discovered that Wes played without a pick. I thought, “Wow, I guess it’s not that big of a deal.” But it wasn’t like I listened to Wes and then decided to use my thumb. That’s why I always felt weird about being labeled a jazz guitar player—I just didn’t come up that way. My main influence for probably the first five years I played guitar was Terry Kath from Chicago. Not until I was thinking about going to college did I start to really get into jazz. My brother, being a horn player, was getting more and more into jazz, so I thought it would be a good way to study music in college.
One of the bluesier tunes on the record is “The Dirty Monk.” The rootsy vibe goes great with some of the composed sections. Was that a conscious decision when you wrote the tune, or did it evolve into that?
I’m open to having the composition change as long as it keeps the personality. We play it and it gets interpreted and when everyone digests it, it comes out a little bit different. It turned into this bluesy kind of thing. I look at the compositions as a starting point and they get changed slightly here and there over time. But that’s all part of composition for me, watching all these changes happen and seeing more of the personality of the song come out. It gets better as we play because we have lived it and played it on a couple tours, or even just a few gigs. Once you play it enough, it’s like “Oh, there’s ‘The Dirty Monk,’ right there.” It’s hard to get the first time.
Has composing been a big part of your musical development?
Always. Composition has been a natural thing since I started to play music. I never really thought about it. It was fun to practice how to solo and fun to write music, so it all just seemed like the same thing. I never differentiated between writing and playing the guitar or being a musician. It’s another presence of music.
Were most of the songs on the album first takes?
We get them pretty early because we had been playing them at gigs for a while. It wasn’t like first takes in terms of the interpretation of the song, more so about the performances. This album wasn’t written for a record company—it’s just a picture of us being on the road during my tenure at The Tonight Show. Before we moved on to the next group of compositions, we wanted to record them because we’re musicians and that is what we do. So it was “in the can,” so to speak, and when I met up with Mack Avenue Records and told them about the album, they loved it.