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 onThe 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 recordedZen Food, his debut release on Mack Avenue Records.

Eubanks cradles one of his favorite Abe Rivera solidbodies, which has a gargantuan 3-piece neck with a neck-through-body design and a beautifully carved heel that blends perfectly with the fi gured-maple back. Photo by Raj Naik
For this project, Eubanks brought in saxophonist Bill Pierce and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, both longtime collaborators. In order to give the rhythm section some new blood, Smith recommended bassist Rene Camacho. “Smitty brought Rene Camacho to my attention,” remembers Eubanks, “because we were looking for a new bass player—one that had maybe a little different touch. We’d never tried an Afro-Cuban-type thing in the rhythm section, and Smitty said the cat really loves playing jazz and different types of music. When we first got together, I said to Rene, ‘Do what you do in the Latin Side All-Stars, just bring something new to it.’”

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 fromThe Tonight Showband.

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 afterThe 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?

For nearly two decades, Eubanks’ dapper style, amiable demeanor, and ornate, Bigsby-equipped Abe Rivera Scepter were a fixture on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Photo courtesy of DL Media
Yeah, it was recorded a while back. I’d been on the road with my group, the group that recorded this record, all along. I wasn’t just doingThe Tonight Show. I was still going out and doing gigs, just not as much because I was too busy. This is just what we were bringing. This wasn’t made for a company or for anyone in particular. This is just music we were playing on gigs.

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 guitarbeforeyou 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.