Photo by Greg Aiello

“I have an unfair advantage,” says Charlie Hunter. “I was exposed to all of that blues stuff at a very early age. That was just the music that was on in my house all the time because of my mom.” Thanks to mama Hunter, that music has inspired and influenced one of the most progressive and unique guitarists to come out of the free-flowing Bay Area jazz scene of the early ’90s. And even though Hunter didn’t follow the musical path of the rural blues artists he was listening to, you can hear where his deep sense of rhythm came from.

That rhythm is what sets Hunter apart from every other 7-stringer around. His contrapuntal style has baffled guitarists (and bassists) for nearly two decades. Building on the vernacular of jazz guitarists Lenny Breau, Bucky Pizzarelli, and George Van Eps, Hunter has expanded the instrument by combining the lower three strings from a bass guitar with the middle four of a standard guitar to create something entirely new. “A guitar player could get on my instrument and get around on it after a couple of hours and figure out a few things,” says Hunter. “But if you are doing it ‘right,’ you aren’t really doing it like a bass or a guitar.”

Creating a singular bi-polar sound from one instrument is the centerpiece of Hunter’s latest album, Not Getting Behind is the New Getting Ahead. Along with longtime collaborator, drummer Scott Amendola, Hunter gets to the essence of his sound by stripping away extraneous elements. We spoke to Hunter just days before heading out on a lengthy fall tour to discuss touring in tough economic times, finding a drummer with a death-ray pocket, and why he loves to record in “mostly mono.”

You have played in several different configurations. What prompted you to record a duo album?
I have been touring duo for quite some time. I have done a lot with Derrek Phillips, with Eric Kalb, with Bobby Previte. I’ve done duos with drummers for years. Scott [Amendola] and I have been playing together for like 20 years.

Does that go back to before the T.J. Kirk days?
Yeah, and a bunch of those Blue Note records as well. We just have a great rapport. I had been working on music for a while and we had played a lot of gigs together and also it was obviously a recessionary thing.

Was that because of the expense of taking a band on the road?
It got to the point where I couldn’t go out with a trio. It wasn’t the guys’ salaries so much, although that was a big part, it had to do with the travel and hotels. At the end of the year it was time to pay the bills and I didn’t have any money. Also, it created a situation where I was like, “Wait a minute, I really like playing in this format for more reasons than just the economic ones.” There’s a certain, more intimate kind of vibe when you’re playing this thing. It brings the audience in. And also, when you don’t have the horn element in it, you don’t have the overt jazz element in it.

That feeling must be really liberating.
The sky’s the limit conceptually because you can do treatments of music you really can’t do with the horn—for better or for worse. The horn is the jazz instrument and when you play drums or guitar or even something crazy like my instrument, you really have to defer a lot to the horn player sonically. It’s real easy to wipe them out and generally that means having to play to their strengths, and not always your strengths. Your palette widens in terms of the stuff you can get to, so what you lose with that third voice you make up for in an ability to really pick from so many vernaculars.

Charlie Hunter digs into his custom Jeff Traugott 7-string, which features a Bartolini bass pickup and a Lollar 4-pole guitar pickup. Photo courtesy of JP Cutler Media

When you compose, do you have the group format in mind?
I wrote everything on this album specifically for this format. Of course there is some jazz stuff through it in terms of the improvisation and some of the structures, but I wrote it really with my instrument’s vernacular in mind. I was thinking a lot about players who are the quintessential guitarists I really admire, like Blind Blake, Joseph Spence, and John Lee Hooker—more open, rhythmic kind of playing. I merged that with whatever you want to call that improvising sensibility. With most of the guys I play with I don’t even do a rehearsal. Maybe, just maybe, I will let them listen to the record. But sometimes I don’t want them to.

Were the arrangements done in the studio?
We had played these tunes for a while on the road. The arrangements, you know, I hate to say it, but we will change the arrangement from night to night just on the fly. Because that is what you can do with a duo. Mostly, I just explained to Scott what the mood of the tune was and we would take it from there. The most important aspect of this way of playing is to really deal with space. And I don’t mean dealing with space in an abstract way, but really using the rests between whatever musical gestures you are making— really feel those rests and use them as a kind of gesture by and of themselves. When you are dealing with less sound, the space becomes more dramatic.

Is there a way you can practice that?
I have always been practicing that and what that comes down to is really being rhythmically astute. I practice a lot of drums and I don’t practice drums to be like, “Oh man, check out that guy. He has chops.” I get on the drum set and I try to get a half hour or hour in with a metronome. Just really dealing with a very simple beat, the subdivisions, and the rests. I really want to make that pocket thing as deep as possible. When you do that, it’s a great tool for expression because if you are a guy like me and your instrument is kind of complex rhythmically with the counterpoint, your gestures become a lot more powerful than if you are just noodling all over the place as much as you can.

Some music educators claim that using a metronome can make your time feel stale and stiff. Are you adamant about using a metronome when you practice or do you sometimes work on time away from the click?
I do both. You should be able to do both. I think everyone has some kind of natural sense of beat. A lot of the New Orleans people I play with have a slightly “behind” kind of thing. Where I come from in the Bay Area, every 16th-note is accounted for and ahead of the beat, pushing it. Some people, they really spend a lot of time trying to get on the beat—even guys around today like Matt Chamberlain, Shawn Pelton, or Steve Jordan, guys who play more pop gigs. Those guys are complete and total masters of that.

“The most important aspect of this way of playing,” says Hunter, “is to really deal with space.” Photo courtesy of JP Cutler Media

That’s the kind of thing you always think of when you are playing with the metronome. You are trying to feel how big that beat is and explore as far back as you can go, as far forward as you can go, and then playing right on it. It also becomes a thing where you are playing with it. It’s your friend. That thing is your buddy and you are playing with it, and then you start to really feel and appreciate counterpoint and where the beats are actually supposed to feel interdependent. I don’t feel stale ever. It always feels good to me.

What do you look for in a drummer?
Generally, there are a couple of things. It’s great to have a fantastic death-ray pocket. But then again, everyone has their own. For instance, if you listen to someone like Tony Mason, who is a guy I play with a lot in New York, he has one of the deepest, straight-groove pockets I have ever played with. It’s very obvious when you hear him play. He gets very creative with it. Then you can hear a guy like Paul Motian and you think, “It’s all over the place, this is crazy. I don’t get it.” But when you really listen, you realize that although he may be playing in an abstract fashion, what you are hearing is an incredible pocket.