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Kevin Eubanks with one of his Abe Rivera-built guitars. “He is very selective in his wood,” Eubanks
says of Rivera. “And he likes to build a nice, fat neck, which is what I like.” Photo by Raj Naik
For 18 years, as bandleader on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Kevin Eubanks had one of the highest profile guitar gigs around. Every night, millions of people tuned in to see Eubanks, armed with his arsenal of custom Abe Rivera guitars, direct one of the most revered musical institutions on late-night TV. In May 2010, Eubanks left the show to focus on recording and touring—two parts of his career he’d neglected due to his demanding schedule. While still serving as Jay Leno’s musical (and sometime comedic) counterpart, he recorded Zen Food, his debut release on Mack Avenue Records.
Even Eubanks had to adjust to the new rhythm section. “I got lost for a long time because I’ve never played in a Latin group like that. But it all came together.” Rounding out the quintet is keyboardist Gerry Etkins, another musician brought over from The Tonight Show band.
When Eubanks announced his departure, Leno asked him what he’d do first after leaving. Eubanks replied, “I just want to go somewhere where I can finish a song.” Not only does his latest album prove that Eubanks can do more than provide bumper music for commercials, it also shows the depth of his musicianship and influences.
One of the more laid-back tracks on the album is “Adoration.” With its rolling, gentle acoustic intro, it wouldn’t sound out of place on a late-’70s James Taylor album. On the opposite end of the sonic spectrum, the burning feel of “Los Angeles” will make you think you’ve walked into a jam session on the Lower East Side of New York City. Recently, we caught up with Eubanks and talked about life after The Tonight Show, his preference for acoustic guitar, and how Terry Kath rocked his world.
Where did you record Zen Food?
I recorded it at Spirit Studios, a facility I built a few years ago. This is the first real project we’ve put out, so this is like our first run, though we’ve been recording stuff here for a while. The only thing is, I don’t like saying it’s my studio. People always think it’s subpar because it’s not Capitol or one of the others. It took over a year to build this place. We have a nice Neve console, and I like to think we did a good job.
Did you record this when you were still on The Tonight Show?
Did you record it yourself, or did you bring in an engineer?
I brought in an engineer. Robert Byles recorded this album, but I like to be very much a part of the mixing session. We mixed the record together. My ears are really good, but I don’t have the technical expertise for the recording part. In the mixing, I’m really good at feeling where the energy in the mix comes together.
What is it about Abe Rivera’s guitars that you like so much?
The tone. He is very selective in his wood and he likes to build a nice, fat neck, which is what I like. His overall approach is about the sound of the guitar before you plug it in. Actually, my favorite instrument is the acoustic guitar, just because it feels so personal and warm and everything matters. It comes out of your hands and your body before you plug it in. He wants the guitar, whether it’s a solidbody or hollowbody, to have a certain tone before you plug it in.