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Interview: Charlie Hunter - Get Rhythm

Interview: Charlie Hunter - Get Rhythm

“You want to have a drummer—at least I do—who understands narrative,” says Hunter, shown here with Scott Amendola. Photo courtesy of JP Cutler Media

Pocket is a big thing and it’s a wide-ranging thing, but it’s not just about pocket. You want to have a drummer—at least I do—who understands narrative. And it might be something as dense as Elvin Jones or as sparse as how Jim Keltner would play through a pop song. To me, the great ones always have that narrative going. Even if as a listener you have to tune in to hear it. The most powerful ones will be the narratives that are most honest to who they are and what their experience is.

What was your most recent musical breakthrough?
I have been messing around with a tuning. I’ve never really messed around with alternate tunings since I was a kid, but I have been detuning my low G-string to F and my high B-string to C, so it gives this weird way to get to some different fingerings and stuff. Also, just trying to deal with a lot of right-hand fingering stuff. Open it up a little more.

How did you first learn about Jeff Traugott’s instruments?
Ralph Novak had made my instruments for many years and I met Jeff because he offered to make me an acoustic. Then we got to talking and he just did some really cool stuff. I’ve had this same guitar for going on six or seven years at this point.

Traugott is more known for his flattop guitars.
Yeah, he is. I am hoping to get one someday. This guitar is really simple. Just a solidbody with a bolt-on neck, a bass pickup, and a guitar pickup. Jeff is making me another solidbody instrument with a shape similar to his Model R, but with a cutaway. After that, I will probably call it a day.

What pickups are you using?
The bass pickups are Bartolini pickups and Jason Lollar specially made the guitar pickups for me. They only have four pole pieces. I really like the way they sound and because they only have four pole pieces, it’s a really different sound. Technically, it’s a humbucking pickup, but since it has the smaller diameter it sounds and feels more like a single-coil pickup.

Since moving from 8-string to 7-string it seems like you have finally settled on a tuning that works for you.
Yeah, it has gone through some iterations over the years. Back in the day, when I was playing 8-string on all those Blue Note records, I was really trying to be a bass and a guitar and cover all that ground, but there are some inherent issues with that. One is that even at a low-string scale length of 29" and a 25.5" scale on the high side, the bottom E is super floppy, you know? There was a time when I tuned it up to F and the whole thing went up a half-step. I dumped the 8-string eight or nine years ago, and I have been using a tuning that really works for this scale length, which is G–C–F– C–F–B%–D, from low to high.

So, basically, it sounds really weird, but it’s not. It’s just the lower three strings on a bass and the middle four of a guitar with a capo at the third fret. And it works really well for the bass because you get that pumpy tightness that the drummers can really feel.

Photo by Greg Aiello

It seems like the intervals between the strings aren’t that different from a typical 6-string.
Its funny you should say that, because whenever I play 6-string guitar, I’m like, “What is this?” My instrument’s thing is to think vertically and how the beats line up and the interdependence. That’s how this thing shines.

Your tone on the last few albums is clear and pure. It sounds like you used very little effects or processing.
Yeah, I think it’s just a culmination of where I have been at for the last two or three years. About four or five years ago I really stopped wanting to be a bass player and a guitar player together, and finally fully committed to what this instrument is. When I changed the tuning on it I realized all of these things are really ultimately detracting from what I want to achieve with the instrument. Like the volume pedal, I got rid of that quickly, and the Leslie speaker thing, I got rid of that. I got rid of all those things because I felt like they weren’t helping me in terms of being more expressive. They were taking away from the rhythmic integrity of what the instrument had to offer because I was constantly thinking, “I am going to do something with my feet now.” I also felt I could just get so many different sounds without effects.

Another part of it, my friend Jim Campilongo has this thing going with his Tele and a Princeton. He gets like 20 distinctly different sounds from that setup. Who knows what will happen in time, I may go back to using more effects. I just like that sound and I feel like I can get to a lot of different sounds because I am playing with my fingers. Right off the bat that gets you further sonically than playing with a pick.

Since switching to your current instrument, tuning, and setup, how has your vocabulary changed?
I am a much better editor now. I think I have the same vocabulary but I found the stuff that is more honest in terms of how I am speaking through the instrument, if you want to use the vocabulary thing. I am just trying to condense it down to a more Ernest Hemingway-style of declarative sentences with as much meaning as I can muster. So, in that way, yeah, there is less of it and hopefully it’s more meaningful. But the audience has to make that decision.

If someone unfamiliar with your music wanted to check out what you do, would you recommend starting with this album?
Yeah, I think I would say this one, not because it is the latest one, but just because you feel like with this kind of thing, you are always working and refining what you are doing. On this album there is less extraneous bullshit or psychological issues I’m working out within the music. It’s just designed to liberate the audience from the tyranny of conscious thought. With my older stuff, there’s a record called Ready, Set, Shango that people like. It just had a vibe that you could only get with a band that is playing together all the time. But there is too much guitar noodling on it for me.

In addition to your Traugott 7-string, what was your amp setup for this album?
I didn’t use any effects. I had this Carr Rambler for the guitar side, and I plugged directly into it. The studio had an Ampeg V4B and I used it for the bass. We also used one of those old Fender amps [Pro Reverb] with a 15" speaker. We turned the bass all the way up and the treble all the way down, and it wasn’t on very loud. The only thing we were using it for was to get a little extra thunk out of the guitar side of the instrument, since we set up right next to each other in the room without headphones and just played.

As a listener, it really sounds like I’m sitting right between you two.
Yeah. Since that’s what we do most of the year, maybe when we make a record it should be that. We did use a little studio trickery. We recorded live to 1/2" tape and it was mixed while we were recording it. I usually like to record in mono, but this album isn’t exactly in mono. It’s this thing we call “mostly mono,” which means if you put it up on a scope, it would appear 90-percent mono. Basically all of the instrument information is mono, but the entire ambience is stereo. There are a couple of room mics up, and that’s the ambient stuff. It’s not even a very wide stereo, but it gives you the best of both worlds. You hear everything as one gigantic instrument, but it’s not all blocky and in your face because it has that stereo ambience to it.

Did I hear some tremolo on “Assessing the Assessors”?
Yeah, and that was just the tremolo on the Carr. That Fender was on so low, it was almost imperceptible. Because of the way we were recording it, the drums were eating up the Carr’s thunk, so we just felt like we needed something extra.

Charlie Hunter's Gear

Custom Jeff Traugott solidbody with Bartolini bass pickup and Jason Lollar guitar pickup

Carr Rambler, vintage Fender Pro Reverb

Strymon Lex Rotary, Strymon Flint Tremolo and Reverb

D’Addario strings (.100, .080, .065, .038, .028, .017, .013)

Are you thinking of taking any effects at all on the road?
I had this tour in Europe with Kurt Elling, and it was just him, Derrek Phillips, and myself. He wanted to have a little more sonic stuff and I think they wanted me to try out the Leslie sound again, which I personally just can’t stand. It’s like when you’ve worked in a pizza parlor for too long, you never want to eat pizza again. I know it’s a brilliant, wonderful sound, but I just had too much of it. I overused it. I called up Strymon and got their Leslie thing [Lex Rotary], and I can’t believe how good it is. It blew me away. It beats the living shit out of any other Leslie device I have tried, other than the actual cabinet. When I am doing tours where I have to backline stuff, the amps are always awful. Often times, the reverb doesn’t work, so I was thinking of the [Strymon] Flint as an insurance policy. At least I know that I will have this sound regardless of how bad the gig gear is.

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