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Blues singer, songwriter, and slide-guitar wizard Sonny Landreth’s 11th release, Elemental Journey, is his first all-instrumental effort. Given Landreth’s penchant for A-list guests [his previous release, From the Reach, included Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Robben Ford, Jimmy Buffet, and Vince Gill, among others], it’s only fitting that he enlisted Eric Johnson and Joe Satriani, two of the biggest legends in instrumental guitar history, to cut some solos on the album.
Landreth was very familiar with both guitarists, having shared the stage with both on separate occasions numerous times over the years [Landreth also made a guest appearance on Johnson’s 2010 release, Up Close]. And given his intimate knowledge of both Johnson and Satriani’s multi-faceted soloing styles, it might have been tempting for him to make suggestions as to which specific elements he wanted his guests to bring out on their takes, especially since he wrote the songs they played on with their musical personalities in mind. Instead, he gave complete creative control to the artists. “I basically just let them do whatever they heard because they’re all just great all artists. I knew it was going to be interesting because they could bring something completely different to it than I ever would have ever thought of.”
The humble Landreth even took to heart some of the sage advice he received from Satriani, “Joe said to me, ‘Making instrumental albums all these years, I’ve realized one thing that’s always important is to have an element of surprise.’ And for me, I recognized that as an opportunity to take it a step further,” explains Landreth, “I would have a melody and some changes and then say, ‘What would happen if we kept pushing, kept going more with it?’”
Without lyrics to work with this time around, Landreth found new ways to express his stories through music. He dug deep to recall the lessons he learned from his early influences to come up with the layers upon layers of interweaving parts heard on Elemental Journey. He says, “When I got into Chet Atkins and the right hand technique, it got me to think more about multiple parts—melody, rhythm, and bass line—going on at the same time. I learned to listen to the other instruments and what they were doing.” The all-instrumental format also proved to be an opportunity for Landreth to include string arrangements [written by Sam Broussard, guitarist in Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys], something he’d been wanting to do since 2005 when Mariuz Smolij, director of the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra invited him to do a slide guitar rendition of the Bach Cantata 140 with the orchestra for a Christmas show.
“This type of layering wouldn’t have happened if other people hadn’t gotten involved and that’s the stuff I live for—involving them on your project so that it becomes bigger and better,” says Landreth. The arrangements were performed by the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Smolij.
We caught up with Landreth to get insight into Elemental Journey, hear about working with two bona fide guitar gods, and talk about gear including his new Fender Signature Stratocaster and Dumble amp.
Elemental Journey is your first all instrumental album. What inspired this?
It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I really wanted to get back to some of my early influences that I hadn’t necessarily drawn upon in the vocal oriented albums that I’ve done up until now. It’s actually a throwback to my early influences with the Ventures albums—particularly Ventures in Space—when I was a kid. I started out playing trumpet and I also had a lot of heroes that made instrumental albums. I love the groove in that era of Mile Davis albums like E.S.P. or Four and More.
Did you find that having to accommodate vocals on your previous releases restricted what you want to do musically?
Well, what was more restrictive was my actual vocal itself. I’m not a gifted singer. I don’t have a great amount of range. But you know you can work that both ways because then you tailor what you have and you come up with other ways to creatively address that in terms of instrumentation, arrangement or even chord structure.
Since you weren’t using words to express your stories this time around, did you place a higher priority on melody than you had in the past?
Melody is the most important thing. I think even more so with instrumentals because it’s important to engage the listener on an emotional level and be able to hold their attention. Every time I sit down with the guitar something just occurs to me and it can become a song. I approached it the same way, but whereas I would stop and concentrate on how a lyric would be involved with that and where that would take me, instead of doing that, I just let that go more into the actual music I was hearing in my head. Part of that was to come up with a lot more melodies because I knew it needed to be more thematic. Although we don’t have the vocal line, there are a lot of counter melodies and the chord changes are much more complex.
Will this more thematic approach play a part in your compositions to come?
It’s already triggered. When you finish one project it just naturally opens the door to another one. It got me thinking, “The next time I do a vocal album, what if I pushed myself more vocally and found a place within these more complex chord changes?”