Charlie Hunter’s Impossible Mission
How a monster musician fine-tuned his ability to play bass, guitar, rhythm, and melodies—and tell one-liners—all at the same time.
On an evening in June, I sat in the back room of McCabe’s Guitar Shop, the famed store and performance venue in Santa Monica, California, waiting to see Charlie Hunter play with his trio. Hunter strolled casually onto the stage and plugged into two amplifiers. He joked with drummer Scott Amendola and cornetist Kirk Knuffke while he warmed up a little on his custom Jeff Traugott guitar.
As Hunter also warmed up the audience with some witty observations delivered with impeccable comedic timing, he maintained an infectious groove on his instrument. His presentation was so low-key that it took a minute to register that he was pulling off the impossible: improvising single-note lines while accompanying himself with complex chords and an expert funk bass line—all while talking. It was kind of freakish.
Hunter, 49, has been regaling audiences with his uncanny guitar counterpoint for two decades. He rose to prominence in the ’90s while a member of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, a Bay Area political hip-hop group, and T.J. Kirk, which interpreted the music of iconoclastic musicians Thelonious Monk, James Brown, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Since his solo debut, 1993’s Charlie Hunter Trio, Hunter has been sharpening his conception on his specialized 8- and 7-string instruments, which include both bass and guitar strings and pickups. The way Hunter approaches his unusual axes is no mere party trick: he’s both a singular guitarist and bassist in one, and every note he plays is very clearly in service of the groove.
For his 18th album—the curiously titled Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth—Hunter leads a killer brass-heavy quartet comprising trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, cornetist Knuffke, and drummer Bobby Previte. This team of improvisers uses the blues as its operating system to create what’s both an enjoyable and deep listen.
Back home in New Jersey after the McCabe’s gig, Hunter called and told Premier Guitar about the balancing act involved in playing his current hybrid 7-string, the other tools of his trade, and, naturally, the supreme importance of the groove.
On your latest album—and in general—you play a pretty nonstandard instrument. Can you describe it?
The guitar I’ve been playing for a while was made by Jeff Traugott. [Editor’s note: a luthier in Santa Cruz, California, who mainly makes steel-string acoustics.] It’s got seven strings, but it’s not a normal 7-string guitar. The lower three strings are like the lower three of a bass, except tuned up a minor third. The remaining four strings are like the middle four on a guitar and are also tuned up a minor third. From low to high, that’s G–C–F–C–F–Bb–D.
Your instrument requires two separate amps. Which ones do you prefer?
I only own two guitar amps and I keep one on the East Coast and the other on the West Coast. I have a Carr Rambler that I got made into a class A/B instead of class A, and I really like that. The regular Rambler is an incredible amp that you can’t go wrong with, but because of the way my guitar is tuned, it makes sense to have an amp that delivers more of the percussive and less of the sweet.
For the West Coast, I have a Rambler chassis that actually houses a Carr Impala, with the master volume removed because I don’t need that. Sometimes those amps get swapped and the West Coast becomes the East Coast and vice versa. Both are absolutely great amps, and I’ve never had anything resembling a problem with either one.
For bass amps, I’ve got exactly the same East-and-West-Coast thing happening. Like with my guitar amps, I only own two, but they’re both the same: Mesa Walkabout heads with stock 1x15 cabinets.
You have a remarkably pure sound. Do you use any effects at all?
I’m in a phase where I just go straight into the amp.
How did you develop your contrapuntal approach to the guitar?
I started playing drums when I was a kid, and then I played a lot of guitar, of course, for many years. After high school, when I was a street musician in Europe, I played acoustic bass and was definitely the low man on the totem pole [laughs]. At the same time, I was really into players like Joe Pass, Tuck Andress, and a lot of the old country-blues guys. I started from there and played a regular 7-string for a while until the early ’90s, when Ralph Novak made me an 8-string guitar, which essentially had the lower three strings of a bass and the upper five of a guitar. I recorded a bunch of records for Blue Note on that one. My concept was just to try to blaze on everything all the time, because I was in my 20s, and that’s what your concept for everything is at that age.
How did you evolve into the less blazing and more thoughtful musician you are today?
Over the years I’ve been changing the tunings and trying to arrive at a much more personal style. The longer I play, the farther away it gets from being a guitar and bass in one, and the closer it gets to just being its own thing. I think I realized, like five or six years into it, how much effort it would take to get to a point where my instrument wouldn’t be an embarrassment to play. I’m almost 50 now, and I’m finally feeling like I’m getting to a place where I really like what the instrument does—the whole counterpoint thing and how independent parts work together. Time and groove—that’s what it does best and that’s what’s most satisfying to me.
When I play my instrument right, nobody even notices that it’s unusual [laughs]. The only problem is that we live in a society that values flurries of notes and pyrotechnical effects. I don’t mean to say that in a bitter way, because I’m not bitter at all. I feel sincerely lucky that in this world where everything has so been done—where most instruments have been impacted by the thousands and thousands of musicians who’ve played them incredibly well—I have this tiny, tiny little corner where I can wake up every morning and get down to brass tacks. Even though the boulder is getting pushed on my head every day, I don’t mind, as I’ve developed something a little different.
You mentioned experimenting with tunings. Do you change tunings to make it easier to play certain things?
Actually it’s harder [laughs], since I’ve increased the overall tension on the instrument. I’ve been playing with the tuning I have now for the last 10 years or so. Because of the range of the instrument, there’s always going to be a compromise. You’ll never get quite the bass sound of a Fender Precision or the guitar sound of a classic Fender or Gibson in the same instrument. Because there’s so much tension on the neck to begin with, you need to be careful not to put too much more, since you’ll have to work harder to get a good tone. I compare the difference between playing a standard guitar and mine to the difference between driving a racecar and a truck.
Tell us more specifics about finding a balance between scale length and string gauge—and bass and guitar sounds—on your instrument.
A Fender bass has a 34" scale, and for years the bass strings on my instrument have had a 29" scale. Now, a low E on a 29"-scale neck is just kind of sad. The intonation is bad and there’s not that much punch to it. You can always use heavier bass strings to fatten the sound, but then things can become too tubby-sounding and the guitar strings get choked out such that the guitar loses punch and warmth.
I tried to find the scale length and tuning that leave me with the least amount of compromise. In tuning up the bass strings a minor third, I lose three bass notes—E, F, and F#. At first, I thought that would be the biggest compromise, but I really don’t miss that. I like the character the bass takes on when tuned up. And the other thing you’ll compromise on is that the guitar can be slinky-sounding, but if you put on heavier strings, you’re looking at an instrument with well over 200 pounds of pressure—not something the instrument or I can live with.
It took decades of dogged determination for Hunter to fine-tune his concept, starting on drums, then playing 6-string, and then working as a bassist on the streets of Europe before finding his voice on hybrid 8- and 7-string guitars.
When you improvise, do you conceive of music as independent horizontal lines or as vertical chunks? What are your secrets to creating the illusion of multiple instruments?
You have to deal with the time, first and foremost. The groove is what’ll get you through everything else. So as long as you really have the time going, then you can get enough note combinations down to pick and choose from at any moment. You need to have realistic expectations of the instrument as well. You’re never going to have the linear beauty of a horn on it—that’s not going to happen. Many guitarists are informed by horn-like concepts, but in a lot of ways, that’s working against the instrument. You’re not going to have the harmonic complexity of a keyboard instrument, either.
But the thing you can do on guitar that’s so cool is occupy a certain space between linear and rhythmic playing where all this vernacular comes out. You can hear it in everything from bossa nova to country blues—in players like Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Blake, or the music of Joseph Spence and, later on, Joe Pass, Tuck Andress, and Ben Lacy. Even Wes Montgomery occupies that exciting territory.
Getting back to your question, because of the nature of the instrument, I have to develop things in a real non-linear way. The contrapuntal stuff comes together when the groove lets it happen. Another thing is that on guitar you want to shred, and that makes you tend to want to play opportunistically. But to make something happen that’s largely musical on my instrument, you have to go against that opportunistic way of playing. You have to keep a groove going as well as you can and take it from there.
You’re known for your impeccable sense of time. Did it come naturally to you or is it something that has required a lot of practice and maintenance?
I think it’s something anyone can work on, especially if you have a head start. Growing up in an environment where there was so much rhythmic music, I did have a head start. You can certainly develop killer rhythmic chops, but it can be a lot of work. Like anything else you do, the more the better—not just by working with a metronome, but by playing with people who are much better than you.
Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth is a great title for a record. Is it a specific reference, or something random?
It’s just a Mike Tyson quote that I liked. I thought, “Why not use it as the title for a record?”
Are you a boxing fan?
You know, I did it for a while when I was a kid—quite terribly. I’ve got a lot of respect for boxers, but I’m not really much of a fan anymore. I’m more of a baseball fan, to be totally honest.
Talk about the overall strategy behind the record—and what it was like to work with your co-conspirators.
The idea behind the record was that you have these guys with a lot of jazz information, but we decided to think of the ensemble more in terms of a blues band with improvisers in it. Bobby Previte and I go back a long ways, and Curtis Fowlkes and I do as well. Kirk Knuffke is a new musical acquaintance. I just love his playing and where he’s coming from musically. I really wanted a brass sound for this album, and it worked. It’s got that certain sound and sensibility. I called the right people, and it turned out pretty darn good, I gotta say [laughs].
“Big Bill’s Blues” has a lovely unaccompanied intro on which you really delve deeply into the blues. Talk about what the blues means to you.
The blues is really the foundation for everything I do. Coming up in the Bay Area, I was exposed to so much music with blues roots—soul, funk, and R&B—and now it’s in my musical DNA. The blues is really what the guitar is all about, for me.
On tracks like “(Looks Like) Somebody Got Ahead of Schedule on Their Medication” you can hear a hint of outside playing. Where does this come from?
So much of that comes from listening to people like Lester Bowie and Arthur Blythe—that kind of AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians] sensibility. And I guess maybe it just comes down to trying to get as much vocabulary together as you can—vocabulary you get from listening to those records and playing with those people, which just kind of creeps into your music.
Though the album was cut in a studio, it has a live vibe. How did you record it?
We set up in a big-ass room in a really nice studio that used to be a church in Hudson, New York, and we just played. That was it.
So there weren’t any overdubs or edits?
I think on one song maybe there’s an edit in terms of we liked the head better on one take and the body of it on another, but that’s about it. I don’t even think there were any fixes on it—at least I don’t remember any.
And you were all in one room?
Yep, we were all in one room. That’s the way to go—by far my favorite way to record. When you spend the majority of your time playing live and jelling with the musicians in your group, then you go into a studio and do what works best for the engineer, every little move you do to separate the instruments hinders your ability to communicate with other musicians and takes away incrementally from the vibe. I’m happy to sacrifice fidelity for vibe any time.
Watch Charlie Hunter and his studio band recording “No Money No Honey” for his new album, Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth. This performance perfectly captures the heart of his style, as he alternately drives and rides the groove while playing clean melodies and solos on his Traugott 7-string hybrid. Hunter’s first solo, at a little over a minute in, is stone blues.