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Out Front With Chris Duarte

Chris Duarte lives in the shadows of giants— constantly compared to SRV and Jimi. He sat down with us to talk about his gear and who he really is.

Chris Duarte is not Stevie Ray Vaughan. And yet, if you believe everything music critics say, Chris Duarte might as well be the second coming, playing searing Texas blues on a worn-in Strat. Which is not necessarily a bad thing—there are certainly worse musicians to be compared to—but the whole thing begs the question: just who is Chris Duarte anyway?

It’s bit of a slippery question, because even at the age forty-five, and after decades onstage, Duarte has avoided falling into musical ruts, all while clothing himself in one of the most rut-prone genres in music. It’s an interesting strategy for a player who would admittedly rather spend a jam session exploring George Benson’s back catalog than noodling over 12-bar turnarounds, but one that has helped the guitarist garner legions of blues-crazed, guitar-centric fans without losing them in the midst of an extended solo. It is very likely a musician’s survival instinct, developed during his earliest, underaged days in the clubs of Austin and taught to him during his time backing Bobby Mack: give the people what they want. And so, while the house band jammed on tunes like “Snake Oil” privately, they also had a few shuffles up their sleeves for when it was time to dance.

Instead of burying those jazz and pop longings, Duarte has spent years blending them all together in a stew heavy on familiar blues refrains palatable enough for newcomers, but complex enough for the diehard fans. Admittedly, a lot of musicians strive to blend all of those genres together; perhaps it works for Duarte because he makes it look particularly effortless. A Chris Duarte album really is what you make of it. If you’re listening for some high-powered Texas blues played with a characteristic flair, you’ll find them in spades; if you’re listening for something more cerebral, you’ll hear the influences of Allan Holdsworth and John McLaughlin poking out in tracks like “Woodpecker.” His newest album, 396, due out in January 2009, promises to continue that trend, with Duarte acknowledging that he’s taken it in a decidedly rock direction.

We sat down with Chris Duarte to talk about his beginnings in Austin, the pressure of working under a cloud of SRV/Hendrix comparisons, and of course, his gear. 

I guess I’d just like to start off with your beginnings. Where were you born and raised?

I was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. I got interested in music by the Beatles growing up. I may look young, but I’m kind of an older cat—I’m forty-five, born in 1963, and I remember distinctly the Ed Sullivan Show and Tom Jones and all of that. My parents had the Beatles’ second album. A friend of mine down the street had the Hey Jude album, and we used to play it all the time. I used to love “I Should Have Known Better.” AM radio was the thing back then; KTSA was the big radio station down there. Slowly, I shifted… when I was fourteen years old, I got a job working as a bus boy in a restaurant that featured jazz musicians. That’s when I started getting into jazz.

It’s interesting that you had such an eclectic musical upbringing—coming from the heart of the blues scene and listening to your stuff, you’d think you grew up in a house full of blues musicians.

You know, I didn’t really start getting into blues until I was like seventeen. I moved to Austin on my own when I was sixteen years old, and I started networking with musicians. Blues just seemed to be the big thing at the time. The T-birds were a real big band at the time, and Stevie Ray was coming up. The Cobras with Paul Ray were big. But I didn’t think much of it. I always thought, “Jazz is so sophisticated and complex,” and that’s where I was with it. But in truth, I really couldn’t play the stuff at all. I played more jazz-rock stuff, honestly. I was a huge Yes fan… Steve Howe was like my first real big guitar hero.

That’s not a bad first guitar hero to have. You both have a diversity of influences— Howe was a big Barney Kessel fan.

Oh yeah. I remember Steve Howe winning “Best Overall Guitarist” in Guitar Player like five, six years in a row. “South Side of the Sky,” “Going for the One,” “Heart of the Sunrise,” I used to plug away at all that stuff.

And I remember a long time ago before that, too. My neighbor next door when I was still in San Antonio… this kind of eclectic, hippy guy… he was smoking a joint and put on “Birds of Fire” and said, “Check this out.” I was completely stunned, like “What the hell is this?” It jumped out at me because of its sheer ferocity.

Also, back in 1978, somebody got me Land of the Midnight Sun by Al Di Meola. And I had never heard anybody who played guitar like that. So I was completely like, “This is what I want to do. I want to play like this.” I mean, I love Santana and all of that rock stuff, but hearing those notes blow by like that with such power and ferocity… I thought, this is what I want to do. That’s kind of when I moved to jazz, right before I moved to Austin.

Were you playing prog rock stuff when you began playing in bands in Austin? Or were you playing the blues because that’s what everyone else was doing?

Well, unfortunately that wasn’t the stuff we were playing in clubs, but I would sit in with some friends. I used to hang around with David Murray, who is a celebrated guitar player and a really good friend of mine… with Denny Freeman and Derek O’Brien. They used to all go down there. And I used to play with Bobby Mack—we were playing the Holdsworth stuff off of Tony William’s Believe it album, like “Snake Oil.”

And “Snake Oil” is actually an easy solo, because it’s just a real melodic, lyrical solo. And then we’d try to play “Red Alert,” or we’d play some early George Benson off the It’s Uptown with George Benson album. But then we’d have to supplement it with the blues; I’d kind of begrudgingly go, okay, dunka-dunka, let’s go.

But is that what paid the bills at the time?

Blues was so big… it was so happening. And so when Bobby Mack hired me to be his second guitar player when I was still seventeen, he realized that I had this sort of recalcitrant attitude toward the blues. He said, “Okay, we’re going to play this Freddie King, and I want you to learn this solo, note for note. And here’s some Hubert Sumlin stuff I want you to learn. And we’re going to play some Marvin Gaye.” And I would go about learning these solos, because Bobby was smart. He could see I was from San Antonio, which had a lot of cover bands, so he sensed I had a knack, a predisposition to learning that kind of stuff, going note for note. He felt learning this stuff would help me increase my vocabulary and my appreciation of the music, which it did. Which just shows how smart he was and how good of a bandleader he was.

Being that young, did you develop an early appreciation of the merits of versatility as a musician?

Definitely. I always thought [the blues] was easy, but when I started learning it, playing that stuff note for note, I thought, “I don’t sound anything like what’s coming off these records; I sound like halfway there.” I wasn’t sincere enough; I wasn’t getting the feeling. So, I really started to delve into the blues, and I really started gaining a much greater appreciation for it. And to this day, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters are my favorites. I love all three Kings—and old Hank Ballard tunes.

You were in the right place at the right time for a blues education. Didn’t you see SRV at the Continental?

I saw Stevie once at the Continental Club. I went over there, paid my measly two dollar cover or whatever it was… actually, I think it was like four dollars, which was like, “Whoa! Four bucks?” I caught his second set. And to this day, I still remember that night. He opened up with “Let the Good Times Roll,” and went right to “The Sky is Crying.” I was just amazed. I know I’ve used the word ferocity already, but the passion and ferocity with which he attacked his instrument was really mind-blowing.

And you’ve got to remember that this was before people had all of these pedals and couture amps. And that’s always what I’ve subscribed to. I know this one guy that’s been looking for pickups for years—for years!—and I don’t know how many dozens of kinds of pickups he’s gone through. And I’ve tried to explain to him the metaphysical things… it’s not the pickups, it’s how you approach your instrument, and it’s in your hands.

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.

Tell us about your amp setup right now.

Right now I’m down to only one amplifier. I used to play a huge wall of amps: a Fender Vibro-King, a Marshall JCM 900 and two Riveras. One was a custom job, a Rivera 15 with one 15” and then they gave me a 4x12 with their modular system in it—although I only used a few tones, so I didn’t switch around the modules too much… a blackface Twin sound and a Deluxe. I’m using a Chicago Blues Box now.

Those are some really well-made amps.

They are! I was contacted by a friend that said they were interested in me, and at the time I was doing the record, Vantage Point, which came out in September 2008, and they sent me out their Humbolt head, which is like a master volume Marshall. They also sent me out a Bassman and a little Kingston combo. And I really liked the Humbolt head, so they sold it to me and threw in the Bassman. The Humbolt sounded really good, so I just started working on that and trying to adjust myself to it, and now I sound great on just that one amp.

What do you like about the Humbolt?

It gets a good range of clarity. I have to hear all of my strings when I play. I can’t just have it grunge out. With the style of music I play, I have to hear all of the strings when I hit that big 9 chord. I don’t want it dirty on one end and twangy on the other. And that amp’s doing well with it; I’ve learned how to work with it.

When you’re playing through such a simplified rig, do you have many pedals in front of you, or do you just run straight into the amp?

Well, I used to use a Cesar Diaz Texas Ranger pedal, which Cesar personally gave to me, and it was actually a great pedal with my other rig. But now with my new rig, the tones have changed and it doesn’t work as well, so I’m using the Xotic BB Plus as my main distortion right now… mostly for low-volume situations. I’ve also got a CE-5 Chorus that I use for a Leslie sound—turn the Rate and Effect all the way up, and turn back the Depth so it’s not detuning. I also use a BOSS DD-3. I used to use Echoplexes, and I still have three of them, but they’re temperamental when you get them out on the road. So I just learned to use the DD-3.

I also have a Hoochie-Mama pedal, built by a guy out of North Carolina, and it’s just like a boost. On occasion, I’ll have that on all the time if I have to play real quietly. I’ll turn the Output up and the Drive down so it rounds out my tone. And then I have a Univibe sort of pedal handmade by a guy over in Japan. It’s called the Sobbat Glow-Vibe. He’s given me one, and Eric Johnson gave me his.

Chris' Gearbox
When Chris Duarte hits the road or the studio, here’s the gear he’s packing.
Fender American Standard Strat, stock
Fender 1963 Strat, serial #71699
Xotic XS Series Strat

Chicago Blues Box Humbolt head
Chicago Blues Box Bassman
1970s Marshall 4x12 cabinet
Effects/ Accessories
BOSS CE-5 Chorus
BOSS DD-3 Delay
BrownTone Hoochie-Mama Boost
Guyatone CB-3 Cool Booster
Peterson Strobe Tuner (used with ABY)
Sobbat GV-1 Glow-Vibe
Xotic BB Plus
Final question: You’ve been a lot of places and have played with a lot of big names in your career. How have you matured as a player over the years?

You know, I think I’m starting to use space more, I’m starting to phrase things more. I’m still just as hungry as I was when I was a young man, but I use space more and I try to be a little more tasteful. Because I think everybody’s got what I call “Young Man’s Disease,” where you play as many notes as you can as fast as you can to fill up all the space available. And of course I went through that phase, but after working with [producer] Mike Varney on the last couple of albums, and seeing how a song is really built… the way he changes things has made me look at songs differently.

Before, I would write a song and that was it. It was like, “What do you mean I’ve got to change it?” But I’ve learned to look at a song after I’ve written it, and ask myself, “Is this the right way? Can we try something else?” It’s made me look at a lot of things differently.
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