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How did you transition from that sideman gig into your own group?
The Chris Duarte Group was really born in 1991. It actually came about when I was with Bobby Mack. We were playing a gig in San Antonio and Bobby was going to be late. The club was packed, and it was like, “Well, I’ve got to go out there and do this. I’ve got to carry the band for at least an hour or so.” I had learned like some Stevie stuff from bootleg tapes, and I had learned how to carry some songs by myself, and although I really couldn’t sing, I just went up there and started doing it. And people were digging it, jumping up and having a great time. And it sort of instilled some confidence, made me think, “Maybe I can do this. Maybe I can take a trio.”
I wholeheartedly promote the idea that younger musicians should be a sideman in a group. They need to learn the ropes. Don’t just immediately go towards learning your chops. If you look at all the great musicians, they all had some sort of sideman gig.
After you got picked up by Silvertone and released your debut, Texas Sugar/ Strat Magik, the SRV/Hendrix comparisons began coming almost immediately from the music press. Did you feel those comparisons helped or hurt you?
I actually do think it helped, because at the time there was a big void in the American public, this appetite for Stevie-sounding sort of stuff. And I have to give credit to myself because my music was thrown against the wall and it stuck; people kind of dug it. That’s the only way it works, because there’s been many examples of record companies pouring millions into a group and it doesn’t stick, even when you thought it would have.
I mean, take Eric Johnson’s follow-up to his Ah Via Musicom album. I thought, “Oh man, people are going to grab this album up. It’s Eric, it’s what the people want.” And it did fairly poorly, compared to what he had done before.
Did you ever feel pressured to live up to those comparisons?
You know, I kinda did, and with the second album I might have shot myself in the foot because you start believing the hype. It happens in a lot of bands… people start calling you a great guitar player, and you start thinking, “Yeah, I am a great guitar player, and you know what, I’m an artist too.” So for my second album, I felt like I was going to flex my artistic muscle. That’s why we did loops and some really different stuff, and there’s not really that much Stevie-sounding stuff on it.
I was just listening to Blue Velocity and I was floored by the fact that you’re not readily stuck in these ruts of just blues, or just rock—you can really get out there and explore for minutes at a time. How do you balance that line between that instrumental creativity that you want as an artist, and the pop sensibilities that the industry demands?
You know, I really don’t. Looking back, I feel that I’ve been so lucky in my career that I’ve been able to go out and pretty much play whatever I want. And my fans have come to expect it; they never know what I’m going to play. I’ve been very blessed to make a living at doing that and not having to play a certain way. Now, that’s not to say that I don’t mind playing “My Way Down.” I’ve got pragmatism to me, too. I know I’ve still got to play it, it’s a big hit. But it’s my song, so what the hell? It doesn’t bother me at all.
Tell us a little bit about 396, which will be out in the beginning of 2009.
I’m re-establishing myself, and we’re reestablishing ourselves as this group. And I think this new album has some songs that could hit on rock radio. There’s one song that sort of sounds like it could be an old Santana tune, kind of Latin. There’s some Allman Brothers-like stuff, some Americana.
Are you still playing all of this stuff with a Strat?
I am, actually. Sometimes I do like taking out my Les Paul, but I do most of it on a Strat.
What kind of Strat are you playing right now?
The Strat that I’ve had for many, many years is a 1963. I lost my first one—it was ripped off in New York right around when I was going to sign the record deal—and it’s still the best Strat I’ve ever heard. I could still pick it out, just the sound of it, if anybody pulled out a bootleg tape. It had a great sound. But then I got another one, a 1963 Strat, serial number 71699, and that’s the one I’ve had for all these years… since 1993, I believe.
I basically just played that ‘63 into the ground. There’s not enough rosewood left on it to do another fret job. I’m such a physical player that I wear frets down, and I have to get a fret job at least every year, or every other year. I play the biggest frets you can get because I like the tone on them. And if you’re from Texas, tone is real important to you. [laughs]
You’re probably nearing the natural end of that neck’s life.
[laughs] Yeah, right. I’ve also got an American Standard, but now I’m playing an Xotic. Xotic Guitars stepped in, and they said, “We’ll help replicate your Strat and use your exact measurements, but it has to be one of our guitars.” The measurements were really the most important to me… how the neck felt. So, they took measurements of everything and built me a guitar, and I’ve been playing those ever since. Of course they can’t use the exact Strat shape—it looks a little smaller— and the headstock isn’t the traditional Fender headstock, but I’ve gotten used to the guitar, and now it’s the one I’m most comfortable on. And to tell you the truth, I don’t even know the model number on the thing.
I should mention that I’m also having a guitar made for me by this guy in Japan, a really exclusive luthier that just started making guitars. They’re called Getoh Guitars, and the luthier, Ko, just produces Strat copies, specializing in certain years. He’s making me a ‘63 copy that’s supposed to be just like mine. He took all the measurements of my guitar, and he does everything: he makes the bridge, the pickguard, the body, the pickups, and they just sound great. They truly sound like an old, pre-CBS Strat. I’m excited to pick it up when I head back over to Japan in January.