While on tour to support his new album View with a Room, Julian Lage invited PG’s John Bohlinger to his soundcheck at Brooklyn Bowl Nashville to share his insights into why he likes a straightforward rig and “honest” tone.
When it comes to jazz virtuoso Julian Lage, you’d be hard-pressed to find an electric guitarist who uses less gear. “Any time I’ve [used too much equipment], there’s an awkwardness where I’m still grappling with the fact that I play here,” he says, gesturing to his guitar, then gesturing to his amp, “but the sound comes out there.” He continues, “It sounds like a joke, but it’s been a struggle for me. Any time there’s layers or filters or anything, I feel dissociated.” Of course, Lage’s rig, which buoys his clean, no-frills tone, makes sense for a musician like himself—whose playing often comes across fluidly, and as gently as his personality.
For Lage, that fluidity stems from his conception of music as a language. “I think that the way people speak is often more unfettered,” Lage told Premier Guitar in 2021. “There might not be an obvious correlation between the way people speak in a lecture and the notes on the guitar. But it's just a little stretch of the imagination to see that those are pitches, those are rhythms, those are phrases."
On View with a Room, Lage’s second release on the hallowed Blue Note Records, he’s offering a fresh, bold continuation of the conversation he’s created over the years. The album features his latest ensemble, made up of himself, bassist Jorge Roeder, and drummer Dave King—but this time, he’s added the legendary Bill Frisell. Together, the musicians help to expand Lage’s body of work with performances of 10 of his original compositions.
While on tour for the album, Lage invited PG’s John Bohlinger to the soundcheck before his show at Brooklyn Bowl inn Nashville to share his insights into why he likes a straightforward rig and “honest” tone. In the interview, Lage elaborates on his three main guitars (his Nachocaster, Collings signature, and ’55 Les Paul), explains why he prefers low volume on his amps, and offers a remarkably brief tour of his pedalboard.
Brought to you by D’Addario XS Strings.
Not Your Caster
As a bit of an anomaly in the world of jazz guitarists, Lage prefers Telecasters. His number one T-style is his Nachoguitars 1657 “Nachocaster”—a saffron-colored guitar equipped with an Ellisonic P-90-size neck pickup and Fatpups Blackguard bridge pickup, built by Spanish luthier Nacho Baños. However, Lage states that he never changes from the neck position. The Ellisonic pickup, which was created by Ron Ellis for Lage’s other primary instrument, the Collings Julian Lage 470 JL, captures the clarity and acoustic-like feel of vintage single-coils. The guitar is strung with D’Addario Flatwound Electric ECG24 Chromes (.011-.050) with a .020 unwound G string. Lage also uses Tortex .88 mm picks.
The Collings 470 JL signature was built as a collaboration between Lage and Collings. It features a solid Honduran mahogany body with a laminated maple top, Ellisonic pickups, and a Bigsby B3 tailpiece. He shares that the Bigsby was added mainly for weight, as the guitar was 5 lbs. before its addition and 6 lbs. after. “That gets you right to this place where the fundamental is still there, and you have this brilliant overtone,” says Lage, who adds that much like the bridge pickup on the Nachocaster, he doesn’t touch the Bigsby. He strings this guitar with .011-.049 D’Addario flatwounds. “Honestly, I think it’s more of a rock machine than anything,” he adds.
Lage’s 1955 Les Paul goldtop was a gift from Spinal Tap’s Christopher Guest, and sports the actor/guitarist’s signature. “I feel very much like a steward of it,” Lage says of the guitar. “I’m learning how to play it constantly. It’s so luxurious. Anything’s possible, so it really comes down to what do you hear, what do you want to play, what’s the voice of the music … and this guitar will be 8,000 percent there for you.”
Les Paul's handwritten message to Christopher Guest.
Lage is a longtime fan of low-watt, vintage Fender amps, in the past having remained ardently loyal to his Fender Tweed Champ, until it became impractical to bring it everywhere. On this tour, he’s playing a Magic Amps Vibro Deluxe, reminiscent of a 1964 Fender Deluxe Reverb. He plugs into the normal channel and sets his volume to 3, treble to 2, and bass to 2. As he describes, “This one has this miraculous thing where it feels like it’s being pushed at a lower volume. It’s not terribly interesting, but it is what I do.”
Julian Lage’s Pedalboard
Lage’s stripped-down pedalboard includes a Strymon Flint Tremolo & Reverb (just for reverb), a Shin-ei B1G 1 Preamp Gain Boost, and a Sonic Research ST-300 Mini Stomp Box Strobe Tuner.
A foray into the fretboard wizardry of one of the greatest of all time.
• Unleash the power of the superimposed arpeggio.
• Organize advanced language in a guitar-friendly way.
• Create excitement and forward motion in your solos.
George Benson is a jack-of-all-trades in the music world. He's known by many as a talented R&B singer and he's floored listeners with his melodic guitar-driven smooth jazz instrumentals, but to me (and my fellow jazz guitar nerds), Benson has all of the qualities that make him one of the greatest straight-ahead jazz guitarists of all time.
He is fiercely swinging, has a fluid command of the jazz/blues language, and possesses some of the fastest fingers in the business.
Influenced by instrumentalists such as Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, and Charlie Parker, Benson has a very deep bag of bebop licks and tricks. This style of jazz improv is notoriously hard to approach on guitar, but Benson's virtuosity lies in the way that he's reworked key elements of the jazz idiom to fit the nature of the guitar. Dense chromatic lines, chordal soloing, and blazing triplets sound and feel as natural as an A minor pentatonic scale using his intuitive ways of organizing the fretboard.
Ex. 1 is an excerpt from one of my favorite Benson solos, "I'll Drink to That," a blues in F off of organist Jimmy Smith's classic 1982 release Off the Top. Benson blazes through some otherworldly double-time ideas that almost knocked me out of my chair when I first heard them. This lick is textbook Benson: a muscular barrage of 16th-notes packed with superimposed arpeggios, sinewy chromaticism, and a punchy minor pentatonic idea to bring things back home.
The first measure of this lick is straight bebop, with Benson making extended use of the Dm7b5 (D–F–Ab–C) and Abmaj7 (Ab–C–Eb–G) arpeggios on a Bb7 chord. Superimposed arpeggios are often used to emphasize different colors on a chord or tonality, but in this instance, Benson uses it to generate forward linear motion and get from one area of the fretboard to the next.
Benson also utilizes a delayed melodic resolution in the first measure of Ex. 1, landing on a B natural directly on beat two, but immediately resolving it to a Bb by way of a chromatic enclosure. Delayed melodic resolution is a hallmark of the bebop idiom, having been pioneered by Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. The chromaticism in this idea also happens to be symmetrical, with the interval of a minor third anchoring the outside note to the key. Oftentimes without a common interval linking chromaticism together, it can sound random or unorganized. Guitarists like Benson and Pat Martino have employed this symmetrical chromaticism to great lengths, as it not only sounds great, but it feels great and lays out nicely on the fretboard.
George Benson Ex. 1
Ex. 2 gives you an idea of the possibilities of the superimposed arpeggio over a Bb7, and also happens to be similar to a lick that Benson plays in a variety of contexts. The concept is to move through different arpeggios over a given chord and connect to the various arpeggios using scales and chromaticism. In this lick, we're using the arpeggios Abmaj7, Dm7b5, and Fm7 (F–Ab–C–Eb) over a Bb7. The superimposed arpeggios also give you an idea of what other harmonies you can use this lick over: Bb7, Dm7b5, Fm7, and Bb7 are all interchangeable.
The picking directions for Ex. 2 will also include some insight into how Benson groups lines on the fretboard to work in favor of his right hand. A lot of times, he'll begin each string with a downstroke and end each string with an upstroke, a system that a lot of speedy pickers have favored. But when playing arpeggios like we see in this example, Benson will utilize short downward sweeps to execute them confidently and not run into any right-hand "hiccups."
George Benson Ex. 2
I demonstrate more symmetrical chromaticism over a Bb7 in Ex. 3. This lick uses descending minor thirds to connect chromatically from Bb to Ab, and then descending major thirds to connect chromatically from D to C. Gaining fluidity with this concept will really open up the bebop sound in your playing and will help thread together longer lines.
George Benson, Ex. 3
I think that one of the coolest things about Benson's original lick is how he slips into a greasy minor pentatonic run in the second measure. This is a masterful display of bridging the gap between bebop and blues: two styles that are like bread and butter in the hands of a masterful jazz guitarist.
Ex. 4 shows another way of injecting blues into your bebop playing (or vice-versa). This time we start with an F blues scale run, which seamlessly transitions into a more bebop-oriented idea with chromatic approaches targeting Bb7 chord tones. The logic that ties these two worlds together is melodic voice leading. This essentially means that we're looking for areas where we can connect the two ideas (the blues scale and bebop derived ideas) using the least motion possible. To accomplish this type of voice leading, it's important to understand the shared notes between sets of scales, arpeggios, chords—whatever it is you're trying to voice lead between.
George Benson Ex. 4
This next example is one of my favorite ways that Benson commandeered a concept that is not typically guitar-friendly: soloing with chords (Ex. 5). Chord soloing, especially at any tempo faster than a ballad, is usually best left to the pianists. The nature of the guitar makes it very difficult to shift around different chord shapes quickly, but Benson remedies this by moving around the same chord shape quickly. By taking a stack of fourths (or a quartal voicing) and using it to harmonize a blues scale melody, Benson creates forward motion and excitement. It's important to note that the only consistent notes from the blues scale are the top notes of each voicing, the bottom and middle notes are usually non-diatonic.
George Benson Ex. 5
Ex. 6 will give you an idea of how you can extend this quartal idea to include more chromaticism. Getting accustomed to using ideas like this on a blues will train your ears to hear bluesy key-center based chordal lines on standards, which provides a nice contrast to strictly playing the changes.
George Benson Ex. 6
In jazz and blues playing, the notes are only half the battle. Playing along to recordings of guitarists like Benson, Wes, and Grant Green will show you how to swing and phrase in a way that's informed by the tradition.
For more great straight-ahead Benson, I'd recommend checking out the albums It's Uptown, Giblet Gravy, Big Boss Band, and my personal favorite, Cookbook. Finally, listen to hear the natural progression of the jazz guitar vocabulary in Benson's behemoth of a solo on the tune "Ready and Able."
On top of losing his home, studio, and gear to a wildfire, the jazz legend then had to undergo heart surgery. Once the pandemic arrived, he decided it was time to finally make his first solo guitar album, 'Dreamcatcher.'
For most of the world, 2020 could rightfully be called the worst year ever. The pandemic sickened millions, bringing with it a staggering death toll and necessitating lockdowns that decimated hordes of small businesses. In Lee Ritenour's case, it can be argued that 2018 was even worse.
That year, Ritenour—an icon with countless album credits, almost as many Grammy nominations, a Grammy award, and 45 albums to his credit—lost his gorgeous Malibu estate in Los Angeles' Woolsey fires. A week later, he was rushed to the hospital for aortic valve replacement surgery. In the fire, Ritenour lost his Starlight studio and about 100 guitars (including a 1958 Strat with serial number 0335), 40 amps, and every pedal he'd ever owned.
These tragedies motivated Ritenour to record his first-ever solo guitar album, Dreamcatcher. "Life threw some curves," he says with great understatement. "I came out of that and said, 'Now is really the time to put all the energy into the solo record.' It was really in the works for a while, but I never saw myself as a solo guitarist. I was always the band guy." Considering he actually spent his formative years studying with preeminent solo guitarists like jazz virtuoso Joe Pass (whom his dad, an amateur pianist, boldly cold-called and asked for lessons for his then-13-year-old son) and classical guitar master Christopher Parkening, it's long overdue.
The idea for a solo guitar album came about organically as Ritenour started doing unaccompanied, off-the-cuff interludes at his shows. "Over the last few years, I kept incorporating either improvised pieces or little set pieces in between or at the end of songs, and it seemed like the audience was enjoying those moments interspersed with the band pieces. So everyone kept encouraging me to do it.
"I grew up with classical guitar players—the Segovias, the Christopher Parkenings, and the Julian Breams. I was very aware that, in my mind, I'm not in that league as a solo guitarist."
"I was putting myself up against Joe Pass, who was a hero of mine, and knowing that there are unbelievable acoustic guitar players out there like Andy Mckee and Joe Robinson. I grew up with classical guitar players—the Segovias, the Christopher Parkenings, and the Julian Breams. I was very aware that, in my mind, I'm not in that league as a solo guitarist. But I knew I had my style and I knew I also had my compositional skills, and I knew that I was going to orchestrate the album so that it had variety. So what I considered my weakness of not being a solo guitarist ended up being a strength because I ended up orchestrating it with different guitars, with different sounds, with even slightly different styles, but all still sounding like a Lee Ritenour record."
Up Against the Wall
A first-call session player constantly faces situations where parts have to be masterfully created and flawlessly performed under extreme time constraints. If Quincy Jones is staring at you in a multi-million-dollar session and the clock is ticking, you better deliver or you'll probably never work again. Ritenour, more than just about any other guitarist on the planet, has managed to thrive in these incredibly stressful situations for decades. After all, he's played guitar on albums as diverse as Pink Floyd's immortal The Wall (including on "Run Like Hell" and "One of My Turns") and Sheena Easton's A Private Heaven.
In complete contrast to the chaotic pressure-cooker environment of the session world, the Dreamcatcher sessions took place in the serenity of the media room in Ritenour's Marina del Rey rental house (where he is temporarily staying as his home is being rebuilt). "Turning up to 10 is not necessarily an option anymore," he admits. "I kind of enjoyed it because the playing field was level again. Whether you're in a one-bedroom apartment with three roommates or you're in a colossal house, the new playing field is that everybody is shut down. I didn't have my studio, which I had for 40 years. My engineer of 40 years, Don Murray, couldn't come over because of the COVID lockdown. I was in a different environment, and I was down to the seven guitars that I walked out of the house with in Malibu that day."
There's no shortage of buoyancy in Ritenour's onstage demeanor and sound.
In addition to those seven guitars, Ritenour also acquired and used several others, including a Taylor baritone, a high-strung Baby Taylor, and an Xotic guitar synthesizer.
In light of recent tragedies, Dreamcatcher proved to be not just a lifesaver, but transcendent. "When I was making the album, it almost felt like a first album," explains Ritenour, who took complete control of virtually every aspect. "What I found myself doing was producing a Lee Ritenour record. It was my skills as a guitarist, as a composer, arranger, producer, and even an engineer that actually created Dreamcatcher. It's all my compositions and I'm getting the sounds."
While the pandemic playing field might have been leveled a bit, unlike the typical guitarist, Ritenour still had access to longtime high-profile associates. And he tapped them continually for feedback. "I'm sending stuff to my engineer over at his place and asking, 'Is this okay, Don?'" says Ritenour. "And he says, 'It sounds great,' and I don't know if it really does because he's polite, and after everything I've been through, he might be going 'Yeah—whatever!'" [Laughs.]
Lee Ritenour’s Dreamcatcher Gear
• 1960 Gibson Dot ES-335
• Two Gibson Custom Shop Les Pauls made by Mike McGuire
• Ramirez classical guitar
• 1949 Gibson L-5
• Yamaha NCX3
• Yamaha Silent Guitar
• 2019 Taylor 326ce baritone (tuned down a fourth)
• Taylor BT2 in Nashville high-strung tuning
• Xotic guitar synthesizer
• Mesa/Boogie California Tweed
• Fender Twin Reverb
• Ladner G-1 Hellion
• Strymon Iridium
• Neo Instruments Mini Vent
• Aphex Punch Factory
• TC Electronic Flashback
• Xotic Super Clean
• Xotic pedalboard
• Two Schoeps microphones
• Shure SM57
• Apogee Symphony interface
• Mac computer running Logic
• D'Addario strings gauged .009–.011–.015–.026–.036–.046 (Les Pauls and ES-335s)
• D'Addario flatwounds gauged .011–.013–.017–.032–.042–.052 (hollowbody guitars)
Navigating the Seas
With lockdown giving everyone more time on their hands than they know what to do with, Ritenour had to be disciplined and decisive in the recording process. There was the never-ending temptation to add more and more—and Ritenour certainly indulged. "When I got to 'Couldn't Help Myself,' it was like, "Aw, fuck it. I'm just gonna layer as much as I want." He ended up with 20 tracks for that one song, "That title was friggin' perfect."
Even so, creativity and an arranger's mind kept "Couldn't Help Myself" from devolving into a sea of excess. "Orchestration was the key, because there are things that you would never be able to ascertain, listening to the whole thing. I think I'm playing a high-strung guitar at one point, doubling the lead on the Les Paul, and I've got distortion on the high-string [guitar]." [Editor's note: Ritenour played his Taylor BT2 in Nashville high-strung tuning. It's as if you took only the octave stings plus the two unison strings from a 12-string guitar, and deleted the typical primary strings. That leaves the E, A, D, and G strings an octave higher than normal, with typical B and high E strings.]
"I didn't use as much distortion, because the other songs were so pure—either a jazz guitar sound or an acoustic guitar sound."
While Dreamcatcher started strictly as a solo guitar album, Ritenour's fertile imagination led him to include more than just guitar. "On a couple of other songs I started to add guitar synthesizer, a little bass part here, and a little programming." From there, he added a drum section. "My hardest decision on the whole album was whether to keep the bass drum and a little snare drum backbeat. My son Wes is a pro drummer, and I kept asking him for a better sample for the snare drum. He said, 'Dad, are you sure you want to have programmed bass drum and snare?' I said, 'I just need something for this tune.' I tried to resist but I couldn't help myself." [Laughs.]
In a Silent Way
At a time when many musicians were in a state of creative malaise, Ritenour found inspiration for the track "Abbott Kinney" by sheer circumstance. On a typical day, Abbott Kinney Boulevard, the main drag in Venice, California, is bustling with traffic at shops and eateries that line the road.
Ritenour were five months into the making of Dreamcatcher when he and his wife decided to take a bike ride to Abbott Kinney.
TIDBIT: Ritenour composed, produced, recorded, and performed all 'Dreamcatcher' tracks in the media room of the home he's renting while his own house is rebuilt.
To his surprise, he arrived to a ghost town, "It's usually jammed with people and a lot of stuff going on, but it was completely empty." Upscale boutique fashion shops were boarded up, and neither locals nor tourists were anywhere to be found.
The scene was incredibly depressing to Ritenour. Then something unexpected lifted his spirits. "All of a sudden I hear this—I assume it was a kid—but somebody had taken out their guitar and said 'Fuck it, I'm gonna turn up to 10 and rock out!'" laughs Ritenour. "And it sounded so good!"
The echoing of random wailing from an apartment atop a storefront became the catalyst for "Abbott Kinney." "I went home and couldn't get that sound out of my head. I thought, 'Wow, maybe I should try a distortion solo guitar piece.' I wouldn't have thought to do that, but I got inspired."
Given the more tender overall nature of Dreamcatcher, however, Ritenour felt he had to strike a delicate balance. "I didn't use as much distortion, because the other songs were so pure—either a jazz guitar sound or an acoustic guitar sound. I was keeping all that in mind as well."
A Spark Reignited
Ritenour's 2010 release, 6 String Theory, celebrated 50 years of his guitar playing and featured guests like George Benson, B.B. King, John Scofield, and Slash. Dreamcatcher coincided with 60 years of Ritenour playing the guitar, and, as a solo album, was a reinvention of sorts. "After you've done 45 albums and thousands of sessions, to be excited about music, about making a new album, that's something that doesn't happen for a lot of people," he admits. "That an album can feel completely fresh … that was the gift."
Lee Ritenour resides under the contemporary jazz umbrella. But that label only tells part of his story, as this live show featuring a broad range of styles and guitars displays. This live set from Jakarta's Java Jazz Festival features his son Wesley on drums and starts with "Smoke 'n' Mirrors," one of his signature numbers.