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Interview: Charlie Hunter - Get Rhythm

7-string jazz phenom Charlie Hunter details his new vocabulary, the economics of touring, and why he prefers recording in mono.

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.

“You want to have a drummer—at least I do—who understands narrative,” says Hunter, shown here with Scott Amendola. Photo courtesy of JP Cutler Media

Pocket is a big thing and it’s a wide-ranging thing, but it’s not just about pocket. You want to have a drummer—at least I do—who understands narrative. And it might be something as dense as Elvin Jones or as sparse as how Jim Keltner would play through a pop song. To me, the great ones always have that narrative going. Even if as a listener you have to tune in to hear it. The most powerful ones will be the narratives that are most honest to who they are and what their experience is.

What was your most recent musical breakthrough?
I have been messing around with a tuning. I’ve never really messed around with alternate tunings since I was a kid, but I have been detuning my low G-string to F and my high B-string to C, so it gives this weird way to get to some different fingerings and stuff. Also, just trying to deal with a lot of right-hand fingering stuff. Open it up a little more.

How did you first learn about Jeff Traugott’s instruments?
Ralph Novak had made my instruments for many years and I met Jeff because he offered to make me an acoustic. Then we got to talking and he just did some really cool stuff. I’ve had this same guitar for going on six or seven years at this point.

Traugott is more known for his flattop guitars.
Yeah, he is. I am hoping to get one someday. This guitar is really simple. Just a solidbody with a bolt-on neck, a bass pickup, and a guitar pickup. Jeff is making me another solidbody instrument with a shape similar to his Model R, but with a cutaway. After that, I will probably call it a day.

What pickups are you using?
The bass pickups are Bartolini pickups and Jason Lollar specially made the guitar pickups for me. They only have four pole pieces. I really like the way they sound and because they only have four pole pieces, it’s a really different sound. Technically, it’s a humbucking pickup, but since it has the smaller diameter it sounds and feels more like a single-coil pickup.

Since moving from 8-string to 7-string it seems like you have finally settled on a tuning that works for you.
Yeah, it has gone through some iterations over the years. Back in the day, when I was playing 8-string on all those Blue Note records, I was really trying to be a bass and a guitar and cover all that ground, but there are some inherent issues with that. One is that even at a low-string scale length of 29" and a 25.5" scale on the high side, the bottom E is super floppy, you know? There was a time when I tuned it up to F and the whole thing went up a half-step. I dumped the 8-string eight or nine years ago, and I have been using a tuning that really works for this scale length, which is G–C–F– C–F–B%–D, from low to high.

So, basically, it sounds really weird, but it’s not. It’s just the lower three strings on a bass and the middle four of a guitar with a capo at the third fret. And it works really well for the bass because you get that pumpy tightness that the drummers can really feel.

Photo by Greg Aiello

It seems like the intervals between the strings aren’t that different from a typical 6-string.
Its funny you should say that, because whenever I play 6-string guitar, I’m like, “What is this?” My instrument’s thing is to think vertically and how the beats line up and the interdependence. That’s how this thing shines.

Your tone on the last few albums is clear and pure. It sounds like you used very little effects or processing.
Yeah, I think it’s just a culmination of where I have been at for the last two or three years. About four or five years ago I really stopped wanting to be a bass player and a guitar player together, and finally fully committed to what this instrument is. When I changed the tuning on it I realized all of these things are really ultimately detracting from what I want to achieve with the instrument. Like the volume pedal, I got rid of that quickly, and the Leslie speaker thing, I got rid of that. I got rid of all those things because I felt like they weren’t helping me in terms of being more expressive. They were taking away from the rhythmic integrity of what the instrument had to offer because I was constantly thinking, “I am going to do something with my feet now.” I also felt I could just get so many different sounds without effects.

Another part of it, my friend Jim Campilongo has this thing going with his Tele and a Princeton. He gets like 20 distinctly different sounds from that setup. Who knows what will happen in time, I may go back to using more effects. I just like that sound and I feel like I can get to a lot of different sounds because I am playing with my fingers. Right off the bat that gets you further sonically than playing with a pick.

Since switching to your current instrument, tuning, and setup, how has your vocabulary changed?
I am a much better editor now. I think I have the same vocabulary but I found the stuff that is more honest in terms of how I am speaking through the instrument, if you want to use the vocabulary thing. I am just trying to condense it down to a more Ernest Hemingway-style of declarative sentences with as much meaning as I can muster. So, in that way, yeah, there is less of it and hopefully it’s more meaningful. But the audience has to make that decision.

If someone unfamiliar with your music wanted to check out what you do, would you recommend starting with this album?
Yeah, I think I would say this one, not because it is the latest one, but just because you feel like with this kind of thing, you are always working and refining what you are doing. On this album there is less extraneous bullshit or psychological issues I’m working out within the music. It’s just designed to liberate the audience from the tyranny of conscious thought. With my older stuff, there’s a record called Ready, Set, Shango that people like. It just had a vibe that you could only get with a band that is playing together all the time. But there is too much guitar noodling on it for me.

In addition to your Traugott 7-string, what was your amp setup for this album?
I didn’t use any effects. I had this Carr Rambler for the guitar side, and I plugged directly into it. The studio had an Ampeg V4B and I used it for the bass. We also used one of those old Fender amps [Pro Reverb] with a 15" speaker. We turned the bass all the way up and the treble all the way down, and it wasn’t on very loud. The only thing we were using it for was to get a little extra thunk out of the guitar side of the instrument, since we set up right next to each other in the room without headphones and just played.

As a listener, it really sounds like I’m sitting right between you two.
Yeah. Since that’s what we do most of the year, maybe when we make a record it should be that. We did use a little studio trickery. We recorded live to 1/2" tape and it was mixed while we were recording it. I usually like to record in mono, but this album isn’t exactly in mono. It’s this thing we call “mostly mono,” which means if you put it up on a scope, it would appear 90-percent mono. Basically all of the instrument information is mono, but the entire ambience is stereo. There are a couple of room mics up, and that’s the ambient stuff. It’s not even a very wide stereo, but it gives you the best of both worlds. You hear everything as one gigantic instrument, but it’s not all blocky and in your face because it has that stereo ambience to it.

Did I hear some tremolo on “Assessing the Assessors”?
Yeah, and that was just the tremolo on the Carr. That Fender was on so low, it was almost imperceptible. Because of the way we were recording it, the drums were eating up the Carr’s thunk, so we just felt like we needed something extra.

Charlie Hunter's Gear

Custom Jeff Traugott solidbody with Bartolini bass pickup and Jason Lollar guitar pickup

Carr Rambler, vintage Fender Pro Reverb

Strymon Lex Rotary, Strymon Flint Tremolo and Reverb

D’Addario strings (.100, .080, .065, .038, .028, .017, .013)

Are you thinking of taking any effects at all on the road?
I had this tour in Europe with Kurt Elling, and it was just him, Derrek Phillips, and myself. He wanted to have a little more sonic stuff and I think they wanted me to try out the Leslie sound again, which I personally just can’t stand. It’s like when you’ve worked in a pizza parlor for too long, you never want to eat pizza again. I know it’s a brilliant, wonderful sound, but I just had too much of it. I overused it. I called up Strymon and got their Leslie thing [Lex Rotary], and I can’t believe how good it is. It blew me away. It beats the living shit out of any other Leslie device I have tried, other than the actual cabinet. When I am doing tours where I have to backline stuff, the amps are always awful. Often times, the reverb doesn’t work, so I was thinking of the [Strymon] Flint as an insurance policy. At least I know that I will have this sound regardless of how bad the gig gear is.

YouTube It

Opening with an introspective, harmonic-laden intro before launching into a serious groove, Charlie Hunter was in fine form at the Portland Jazz Festival earlier this year.

While on tour, Charlie stopped into Premier Guitar headquarters to talk about the blues and play some tunes.

While on tour in Europe this year, Hunter teamed up with Kurt Elling to deliver the tender ballad “Save Your Love for Me.”