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A Conversation With Lee Ritenour

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In the spring of ‘93 when Lee Ritenour’s CD, Wes Bound, came out, WBRH was giving a lot of airplay to “A Little Bumpin’” — it was my first exposure to the work of a man that had been playing since he was eight years old.  I’ve been a fan ever since.  I caught up with him last Sunday by phone at his home in Los Angeles.  We shared a few laughs and talked a lot about music, the wealth of talented guitar players on the scene today, the instrument they all love, and of course, his latest project, 6 String Theory.

6 String Theory — tell us about it, inception, planning, organizing.

2010 is the 50th anniversary of when I began playing guitar. I started when I was eight years old. So I wanted to do something to celebrate not only my years of playing, but the instrument itself — the guitar.  I thought, six strings, six styles and six categories of guitar playing.  

I love so many different kinds of guitar playing and always have since I was a kid.  I love the jazz guitar playing, blues, classical, country. I don’t really have any prejudices when it comes to music —  just that it’s done well and certainly played well on the guitar.  On the Six String project, we could have had a couple of other genres, I was trying to get one of the flamenco guys. We could have covered some of the more serious sides of country and bluegrass better, but it finally came down to locations, budget, how many cuts we could get on the record and how many people I could hire.

The other thing that played an important part was the technology.  Over the last few years an incredible number of guitarists, amateurs, were just putting up their videos, from all over the world. I thought how great it would be, if I could get all these guitar players together and cover the six styles and six categories of guitar playing on one record.  So I had a contest.  Everyone from rock, jazz, blues, classical joined us — it was an international competition through YouTube videos. Have a winner, give them some prizes and have them perform on the record.

So we were able to do that and we actually ended up awarding the winner, a sixteen year old, Shon Boublil, a classical player from Montreal, Canada, a chance to play on the record and a four year scholarship to to Berklee College of Music. He starts in September.  Yamaha gave him a guitar and Monster Cable did the same. It was really fantastic.

Is he destined for fame? Will he get a nice contract from this?

It’s very possible.  He certainly had ice in his veins when he came to the competition.  He played two very  complicated pieces and we were shocked to hear later that he’d only been playing for five years. He definitely showed that he’s got the sound, the tone, the feeling, the guts, the charisma, and the confidence. All the things that are needed to make an artist. He can go on to do whatever he wants.

I do notice that a lot of the young phenomenal guitarists that put their stuff up on YouTube is that sometimes they can learn how to do one very specific thing and they sort of show that off.  But, then, the depths of all the other learnings just go by the wayside.  I think that just because a kid is phenomenal at twelve years old doesn’t necessarily make him destined to even have a career at all, or do great things.

Have you ever done any bluegrass?

No! (He chuckles) That’s one thing  I’d have to say I’d probably come up short against all those guys. (Now he’s laughing out loud.)

A surprise for me on 6 String Theory  was the participation of Vince Gill.

[Laughing] Oh! Man! He’s phenomenal!  He’s a phenomenal musician and he’s just such a versatile musician.  I did want to add someone in the country territory, so I called Vince.  I really didn’t know him and a friend of mine said, “Here’s his cell phone number, call him.”   I said, “No. I can’t call Vince Gill, he doesn’t know me.”

My friend says, “He’s a fan of yours, just call him.”  He was the sweetest guy and he pretty much gave me an open pallette. He said, “It sounds like a great, fun project. Count me in! I’m down for it. I’ll play anything you want just don’t put any music in front of me.”

So, the funny thing was, months went by. Vince was one of the early ones, he said “Yes” right at the beginning and months went by.  I was looking for the vehicle for Vince. For a minute, we were going to put him with Eric Clapton, because Eric was going to Nashville for a gig and we couldn’t get with his schedule, he was on the road too much. He couldn’t find the time. Then Vince got involved producing a record and we had to wait on his schedule, so finally, I called him up and said, “Vince, this is not a country track,  but what about you join B.B.King, Keb’ Mo’, and Johnny Lang in “Why I Sing the Blues” and he said, “Now that’s a nice challenge!”. I sent the chart to him and he did it in Nashville and he did an amazing job.

How could anyone say “No” to B.B.King?

Exactly!

You assembled an incredibly talented group, was that easy? Did you have to talk anyone into it?

No, not really. The record had this great charisma about it, a lucky kind of thing. The sessions went amazingly smooth and every player that I called said, “Yes”.  Sometimes scheduling or a question about material, things like that would come up. Everyone was very gracious. The budget was not huge for any of the guys, I had to spread the love, and many of them did it for free. Some cases, a nominal fee, but it’s not much though. Again, it’s for the love of the guitar and respect and wanting to do the project.

Did you get enough material for a second album?

I chocked it full with most of the stuff we had. There’s a version at Best Buy right now with seventeen tracks (instead of the original fifteen) and we used pretty much everything we had.  We could have definitely done a second or third version.  I’ve got a list as long as my arm of another wave of guitarists we could have called. There’s limitations on the disc space, on the budget side, and on the time side.

The 6 String Theory Competition, will it be an annual event?

I don’t think it’ll be annual because it was so humongous to put together.  I did have the 6 String Theory CD as the final gift.  It was such an interesting and fun and a great way to include so many different styles I think we will continue with it down the line, maybe every two or three years.

What are you listening to now?  

I run the gammut.  When I was putting the record together I was on the blues stations a lot. The blues were essential to the album.  Then it got to be a habit so I’m staying on that station a little bit. I still love my jazz stations and straight ahead stuff and I’ve got Brazilian music floating around for mellow stuff. I’m kinda all over the map, you know.

Of all your influences, who influenced you the most?

Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, and Joe Pass, those three and maybe Howard Roberts if I added a fourth.  Also, on the classical side, because there’s a lot of foundation — my playing as a teenager, when I was studying classical guitar, Segovia would be right up there.  I’ve been checking out all styles of guitar my entire life.  I love everyone from James Burton, to Chet Atkins, to Merle Travis, Segovia, Hendrix, Clapton and Wes.

With whom would you like to work — that you haven’t already worked with?

Fortunately, in my travels I  covered a lot of the guitar players and there are a lot of guitar heroes out there that would be great to work with but I did have the chance to sit with or play with nineteen amazing guitarists, so I’m fairly satisfied (he begins to laugh) for the moment.  There’s always some interesting people for me, like Peter Gabriel, people you don’t normally get to cross paths with, different genres. There’s just so many amazing talents that continue to be out there.

Courtesy Lee Ritenour

Tell us about Les Paul.

He was just amazing. I saw some YouTube videos of him and Mary Ford recently and I was amazed at what a terrific guitar player he was, but he lived such a long life and he did so many other things. You forget how much guitar playing he did in the forties and how many hits he had with Mary Ford and such amazing stuff he did on the guitar. He also had this amazing memory!

The last time I saw him, he was already in his nineties. I was at Capitol Records in Hollywood and he was there in another studio. I went in to say “Hi.” and we were visiting and I said, “Les, you probably don’t remember the first time I met you but I’m going to tell you –” and he interrupted me, “Oh, no, no, Lee, I remember! I was playing at a jazz club on a Monday night and you were about eighteen and you walked in and everyone said you were the hot hand kid.” And I said, “Jesus Christ! How’d he remember that?”  He had never told me, but at one point the hospitals and universities studied his mind, because he had an incredible memory. He remembered stuff his whole life.

Another thing happened on this project 6 String Theory that was a great inspiration because of Les Paul. I ordered a Les Paul guitar, one that I don’t normally play. I play a Gibson 335 and an L-5, and Yahama acoustic guitars. I decided I wanted a Les Paul for this project because I knew I was going to play the Moroccan blues. It took about four months for Gibson to make it for me and it showed up at my studio here in L.A. the day Les Paul died.

So, the guitar has been very special for me. It’s been a surprise how much I play it now.  I wound up writing “LP” on that guitar in a matter of about fifteen minutes. I was working on something entirely different and all of a sudden this song came out. So I got a feeling Les was looking over this project.

Talk about Pat Martino.

Pat was another “first call” on the record, I wanted the ultimate bebop jazz guitar players.  Pat represents that.  Everyone was almost intimidated to play with him because he’s such a phenomenal monster.  I ended up getting the slot.[more laughter]  I wrote “LP” thinking of Les Paul and also of Pat Martino.  It was so fun to play with him.

Who gave you the nickname, “Captain Fingers”?

In the early days some of my fans started calling me that. They’d come to the gig and say, “Hey, Captain, what’s happening? How’re the fingers?” It was a funny moniker and I decided to write a tune called “Captain Fingers” and it stuck with me ever since.  Even to this day,6 String Theory was produced by me, for Captain Fingers Productions.

What’s the most difficult piece you’re ever played? “Etude”?

Wow! That’s a great question. “Etude”. That was a hard piece to play initially when I wrote it. It didn’t end up being that hard anymore, I’ve played it so often. I did a classical crossover record with Dave Grusin– we’ve actually done two of them — there was a Bach prelude that we put on an album called, “Two Worlds” and I would probably say that Bach piece was one of the hardest ones that I’ve had to do.

Golfers rely on “muscle memory” to repeat shots they’ve practiced for hours and hours, does that come into play with music, and of course, specifically guitar?

Absolutely! Muscles get worked a lot like when I’m on the road playing every day then, the chops are up. Then as soon as you get home or you start doing other things or you’re in the studio producing and not necessarily playing everyday or you’re not around the guitar — you’re taking care of business, as you know it’s called the music “business,” the muscle chops start to dissipate. There is a musical muscle memory that is there and it usually comes back if you keep working at it.

You have a huge catalog of work.  If you could only pick one of your albums, which would you say best defines Lee Ritenour?

The funny thing about it, and that’s a great question. I’m not saying this because it’s the newest, most artists would say, “It’s the new one.” [Laughing] But as we said in the liner notes, 6 String Theory  “Is it a Lee Ritenour record? No. Is it a Lee Ritenour record? Yes.”   In a way, it probably does represent me the best, because even the tracks I’m not playing on, I feel such a kinship. And that’s fifty years of playing the guitar and loving all the different styles of guitar playing. I loved working on all fifteen of these tracks, seventeen actually all together.  I feel like it’s overall, a pretty good representation of where I stand through the fifty years.

Would you be shy to admit that you probably influenced several of those other nineteen guitarists (on 6ST)?

{He laughs out loud again.] Well, you know, aaah, Scofield and a couple of others — George Benson is always saying, “Lee, I love what you’re doing to get my sound on my guitar.”  I think they were (Keb’Mo”) doing the same thing, checking out how I get my sound. I think a few of the guys were checking out my thing as much as I was checking out theirs.

What advice would you give to a beginner?

When your just starting out, it really is important that you can afford to get a teacher. Try to find a good teacher. There’s a lot of teachers out there but not necessarily all of them are good teachers. That’s not the easiest thing to do but with the help of parents or other musicians you can get a good recommendation.

At the same time, it’s important to learn how to read music. There’s a wonderful catalog of music out there if you know how to read and reading music on the guitar is not the easiest thing.  It is also not one of the most popular things to learn on the guitar but using your eyes to read the music, using yours ears to develop your musical sense, and your heart. Those three things are very important.

What is your next project?

Promoting 6 String Theory, it was such a huge undertaking that there probably won’t be another record for a little while. We’re hittin’ the road (have been already) with tours in Europe and Japan.

His tour schedule is available on his website.

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  • http://www.mavorarts.com Elinor Mavor

    Fabulous interview with one of my alltime favorite jazz musicians. Thanks, Chip. I DUG it. Cheers.