OK, so you're Lee Ritenour
and you've been playing, recording and touring for half a century. 50 years of plugging guitars into amps, tuning up, carting your gear into studios, and laying down your singular brand of jazz/rock/funk on thousands of different albums including Pink Floyd
's The Wall
, Steely Dan
as well as appearances on the Saturday Night Fever
soundtracks. Your 50th year in the business marks a major milestone and you want to celebrate the moment. So what do you do? Call on nearly 20 of the greatest guitarists performing in six different areas rock, jazz, acoustic, country, classical and blues bring them into the studio and commemorate the sessions on a filled-to-bursting guitar licks album called 6 String Theory
Who do you call? Well, after Eric Clapton
turns down the invitation due to scheduling conflicts and Jeff Beck
says no because he's also recently released an album, you phone close friend and studio rat buddy Steve Lukather
to help you assemble some players. And you come up with a list that includes these players and how you see them:
Steve Lukather (guitarist/co-producer extreme)
Slash (rock god)
Neal Schon (classic rocker)
B.B. King (king of the blues)
Vince Gill (country monster)
Keb' Mo' (new bluesman)
Taj Mahal (vintage blues wailer)
Mike Stern (insane jazz fusioneer)
Jonny Lang (young blues gunslinger)
Joe Bonamassa (young turk blues picker)
John Scofield (outside jazzer)
Pat Martino (jazz giant)
Robert Cray (blues wailer supreme)
George Benson (solo jazz icon)
Andy McKee (acoustic axeman)
Gutherie Govan (new generation fusionmaster)
Tomoyasu Hotei (Japanese rock superstar)
Shon Boublil (young classical whiz kid)
Joe Robinson (acoustic master)
Mix them and match them and come up with some intriguing combinations like Slash, Luke, and Neal Schon on a rocker like "68" and B.B. King, Vince Gill, Keb' Mo', Jonny Lang and Ritenour on King's own "Why I Sing the Blues."
It doesn't really matter that you've recorded over 40 albums, won a Grammy, and been part of a group called Fourplay
, one of the most successful bands working in the contemporary jazz field. The thing that counts is that every one of these players respects you and recognizes that there is no ego involved here. They want to be part of 6 String Theory and to help you etch in stone the 50 years you've spent bringing your craft to a level few musicians ever achieve.
And now you have a chance to talk about it.
UG: Did the guitarist who appeared on Captain Fingers back in 1977 have the vocabulary or depth of experience as the player on the 6 String Theory album? Would that musician from back in the day have been able to coordinate all these different guitar players and assemble them on one CD?
That's a really great question. I think I'm a much different musician; I think I'm a much more mature musician. I don't think I could have begun to have put a project together like this nor would have had the confidence or the experience. It's sort of a two answer question: I'm definitely 100 times more experienced as a producer and so that probably was more of it than even the player. But the fact that I had enough confidence to feel comfortable with all these amazing players, I would have never felt that comfortable back then.
When you first began coordinating the pieces for the 6 String Theory project, in the back of your mind was there the possibility that you might not be able to make this happen?
Oh, yeah, it had a tremendous anxiety until I actually got in the studio with all the guys because at every level it was a complicated project. People have asked me what was the most surprising thing about the project? And the most surprising thing was when we actually hit the studio with all these players and rhythm sections because primarily most of it was recorded live, that part of the record was the easiest part. Actually making the music and making the record and having all the guys play together and the comradeship and just the good vibes and everyone giving their best, that was the easy part up to that point.
What was the hard part?
To answer your question more directly was the anxiety-driven part because the first thing that had to happen, I had the vision almost from the very beginning. I had thought somewhere along the line I was reading about the theory of String Theory or had heard about it and I thought, I'm sure a bunch of guitar players have used that before and then I thought, Well, what about my version of String Theory? And I did want to celebrate the guitar in 2010 cause it's been 50 years since I've been playing the guitar. I started when I was eight in 1960 and this project has probably been rumbling in me for a long time because I've loved all these different styles of the guitar. I just continually get amazed how flexible the guitar is and how it morphs into our cultures and music and keeps changing with the times. And the way the guitar is played today is not anyway in the way it was played even 15 years ago.
What about the business aspects of putting this together? Dealing with different record labels and management and things like that?
"I just continually get amazed how flexible the guitar is and how it morphs into our cultures and music and keeps changing with the times."
I tried to put it together from a business point of view so I finally got Monster Cable [Monster Music] and Concord Records and Berklee College of Music and Yamaha all on the same page because I had to put together this other part of the project which was the international guitar competition. I wanted really to include some new talent and let a bunch of people through YouTube submit videos from around the world and connect all these young people. Not necessarily all young but connect amateur-style musicians who wanted to probably be pros into this project. So I had the vision and finally when I got all the business together with all these companies and they all said yes and gave me a budget, then it was really anxiety time.
Because you now had to go out and actually assemble all the guitar players.
I kept talking the talk like, Yeah, I can get this guy and I hadn't called anybody yet. So I was like the super salesman but that was the only way to do this project. Because in these times, companies as you know are in a really hard time; everybody is. To put a project of this magnitude together was not the easiest thing.
Was B.B. King the first call you made?
Yeah, I think he might have been the first and also during last summer of 2009 I was out on the road quite a bit and doing all the European festivals and US places and Asia and every time I'd run into a guitar player, I'd hit on them. I'd say, I've got this project coming up; would you consider it? I jammed with B.B. at the Montreux Jazz Festival with George Benson and Susan Tedeschi and George Duke and it was a great jam and I've done that with B.B. many times. So I asked B.B. and then finally talked to his manager and he was one of the first ones who said yes.
Why was B.B. King so special to this project?
First of all he is the ambassador. He is so generous with his time and the encouragement that he gives other artists and musicians and especially guitarists. He's in his 80s and he has done every kind of sort of pop, blues, rock-oriented kind of project. Also in his day when he was coming up and he's still a strong guitar player but back then he was ridiculously strong. And he was one of the few that had such an identifiable sound. I mean Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Albert King, Buddy Guy and a few others but not everyone of those guys had such a strong identity. He, like a very few other guitarists, a couple of notes and you know who it was.
Can you talk a little about B.B.'s track, Why I Sing the Blues Were you there in the studio with B.B.,Vince Gill, Keb' Mo' and Jonny Lang?
That particular track is the one track that is probably the most produced in the sense that I had to kind of put it together. Keb' Mo' was very helpful; he was sort of like my blues guy on the record. He'd sort of help and get together and talk about tunes and concepts and what we felt was important to have on the record from the blues point of view. And I knew picking a song of B.B.'s was probably wise; a sort of a classic delta-type blues. Like Am I Wrong was cool and then more of a rocker blues that Joe Bonamassa and Robert Cray portrayed [with Give Me One Reason.] So those were the three areas of the blues that I wanted to cover. But back to Why I Sing the Blues, Keb'. I picked that tune and then we decided to do a track but we couldn't get B.B. down to L.A. at that time so we did the track with Keb' singing and playing pretty much the whole tune with the band. Then from there I started to overdub people. So I went to Vegas and overdubbed B.B. and Vince Gill actually did his part in Nashville and Jonny Lang overdubbed for me here in LA; Keb's part was pretty much done live on the date. That one was a little more produced.
Is this the first time you really had a chance to hear Vince Gill play?
Yeah; I really wanted somebody to represent the country area and when I started checking it out there were some fabulous players Brad Paisley and a bunch of others but everyone said, Lee, for this record Vince is the most versatile of those guys. And my friend at Gibson, the head of the custom shop, Mike McGuire, I asked him down there and he said, Oh, yeah, call Vince. I said, Well, I don't know Vince and he said, Well, here's his cellphone, call him. I said, I ain't gonna call Vince on his cellphone; he doesn't know me. [And Mike said] No, trust me, he's a big fan of your. So I called him and he was just the sweetest cat and he said, Yeah, I'm in; put me on anything, I'll play anything. Just don't put any music in front of me.
Was Vince Gill also one of the first guitar players onboard for the project?
The funny thing is with Vince is that he was one of the first to say yes but then I never quite had the right vehicle for him. We were gonna try to get together with Clapton for a minute but we couldn't get with Eric's schedule and he was on the road so much. And then we were gonna try a country combination but finally I had this slot open on Why I Sing the Blues and I said to Vince, Vince, what about if you do somethin' a little different? You wanna give it a shot? And man, he sent it back and it was just perfect.
We did an interview back around 1990 and you said, The fans who admire me are real music fans. The fans who admire rock and rollers admire them because they think it's cute. On the Theory record you have several different rock players including Slash and Neal Schon playing on a track called 68. Certainly you knew who Slash was and the whole Guns N' Roses thing but bringing him in does seem like a bit of an odd choice for you.
Again, Luke was very instrumental in the rock tracks. He's one of my closest friends and I admire his playing greatly and he's just an amazing musician. He's also amazing in the studio. So I knew Luke would be the right call to bring in on the record and we ended up co-producing those three tracks he's involved with [In Your Dreams, Shape of My Heart, and 68.] I said, Luke, one of the pieces, let's write a stone instrumental rock/jazz ballad and we came up with In Your Dreams and that's a really cool track that features him and I. Then we added Neal at the end when he was in the studio with us. We said, Hey, man, overdub some stuff on the fade for us. And he was very cool.
And how did Slash end up on 68?
I said, Luke, why don't you write a tune that features you and one other guy that you want to play with and we tossed about some names. And he said, You know what? I think Neal would be great to do something with; a lot of people have been wantin' to hear us play for years and he's a great player and he can kinda cut something if I wanna write something a little more complicated. And I said, That's great. So he called Neal and I hadn't really known Neal either. And almost as an afterthought, we said, Geez, it would be nice to have a little more firepower. And he said, Well you know what? We've got this vamp on the end where nobody's playing yet. What if we put Slash on the end of it?
So Lukather did bring in Slash.
That was Luke's idea. And we called Slash and he came down almost at midnight one night to the studio. In fact we had been there all day recording In Your Dreams with Vinnie [Colaiuta; drums] and Tal [Wilkenfeld; bass] and [organist] Larry Goldings and we had done two tracks. Neal had been down there and done all his parts and we were pretty trashed and finally Slash came in and just rocked out on the fade. I sent him an e-mail later thanking him and he wrote, Well, I gotta tell ya, I was fairly nervous playing in front of you and Luke but I hope you're happy with it. He's a very cool dude.
As you're sitting there watching Slash and Neal Schon lay down solos, are you taking any kind of mental notes? Not that you're going to run out and start a Guns N' Roses 2 [much laughter from Lee] but can you absorb what these different players are doing and subliminally bring it into your own playing?
Absolutely. The whole record sunk in and maybe not so subliminally either. I think I learned even more than I care to admit. I sat there in front of every one of these 19 other guitar players except in the case of Vince who did his part by himself and Tomoyasu Hotei who did his part in Japan and definitely I was checking out their tone; their phrasing; their gear. And I wasn't doing it like geeking at them, I was just being absorbed every second.
What are some of the little things you discovered about these other players?
"To put a project of this magnitude together was not the easiest thing."
I remember saying to myself, Check out how Neal holds the guitar and seeing how easy he gets up like on the 24th fret and how fluid he is up there. And then realizing when Slash was playing and doing his blues/rock thing on the end with his Les Paul and plugged into Luke's Marshall, I said, Yeah, I understand why a lot of people think this is one of the ultimate rock gods cause not only does he have the whole image and stuff but he's got that sound. He may not be the most versatile player in the world but Slash brings what he brings and he does it really well. So in every case Joe Bonamassa, Robert Cray, [George] Benson, [John] Scofield, [Pat] Martino, every one of em [including] the young ones Joe Robinson, Andy Mckee and Gutherie [Govan] I was sort of picking things off the floor from them.
The track you played with Pat Martino was the tribute song, L.P. (For Les Paul). Certainly you were deeply saddened when Les passed away just about a year ago. Did you have a chance to spend much time with him?
Not too much time. I had seen him here and about over the years and the last time I had run into him was at Capitol Records when he was in his young 90s. We were talking and all of a sudden I said, Les, you're not gonna remember when I met you but I wanna tell you. And he said, Oh, Lee, I remember. You were about 18, I was playing at a jazz club in LA on a Monday night called Dante's and you walked in and everyone said you were the young, hot kid. People talk about his memory that it was phenomenal and actually I think they studied him at the university. Literally. This guy had a memory that was ridiculous and so he blew me away.
You've played Gibson over the years but not a Les Paul.
The funny this is that I ordered a Les Paul guitar that I don't normally play; I'm more of a Gibson 335 and an L-5 guy. I ordered a Les Paul, a '59 reissue from Gibson, and it took about four months for them to build it. And it showed up at my studio from UPS and my assistant opened up the door and it was the Les Paul guitar and that was the day Les died [August 13, 2009.] So that guitar ended up being very special. I wrote L.P. on that guitar and I was actually working on something else when the tune came out. It just rushed out and I wrote it in about 15 minutes.
One of the covers on the album was Sting's Shape of My Heart that you performed with Luke and Andy McKee. Amidst all this other fast and furious guitar playing you pulled out a nylon string electric and laid down a truly sublime track.
That was a complete one take. I mean it wasn't the first take, it was about the third take, but there's not a single overdub and not a single fix on that tune.
Is that right?
Yeah; that was Andy McKee and Lukather and me and the band just live in the studio. We listened to the playback and we said, I guess that's it.
You touched on this before but these are live performances with multiple guitar players out in the studio room at the same time?
Yeah, about 85 per cent is live. The record had one of those blessed kind of situations. It was recorded primarily in two different weeks: one in December of 2009 and January of 2010 and I was able to center it around the NAMM Show in Los Angeles where a lot of guitar players including Slash, Gutherie, Andy McKee and Benson was in town to do something at NAMM. So I started to realize that as I was calling people and plus December and January are not primarily big touring months for these guitar players. If I had tried to do the record in the summer it would have been impossible. So all of a sudden I had this crew. There was one four-day period where we had Joe Bonamassa, Luke, Andy McKee, Neal Schon and Slash, and Benson and Pat Martino and Gutherie Govan; all those guys were in like a four-day period and it was phenomenal.
The rhythm sections on the album are pretty extraordinary as well.
I also got incredibly lucky with the rhythm sections; I had great drummers and bass players and keyboard players.
Having Simon Phillips play on Freeway Jam was great. He probably knew the song [Simon played with Jeff Beck for many years.]
Yeah, to say the least.
Did Beck's Blow By Blow album mean anything to you?
Oh, it was huge. It was also where Luke and I took the inspiration to write In Your Dreams because of those kind of classic rock ballads that Beck would specially do in those early days with the original band. And then Freeway Jam it also became obvious as much as I would have liked to have Jeff on the project that that wasn't going to work. He was coming out which he did with his own record [Emotion and Commotion] like one or two months right before mine. And his record company was going, Unh, I don't think so. So I said, Well, OK, what if we do Freeway Jam' and the other co-producer, John Burk, had suggested, Well what if we put Mike Stern in a little rockier kind of thing and see where it goes? And then we finally added Hotei who is a superstar guitarist in Japan and that was my other sort of point on the record. There was many points but one of those points was to have a guy like Hotei and somebody from England and somebody from Australia and just different parts.
In some sense did you feel like you were shining a light on this international community of guitar players? You've been playing for 50 years and here you were passing the baton as it were to this new generation of musicians.
Absolutely. The other part of the project was so inspired by YouTube and the technology out there where you just see these young players and phenomenal players putting their videos up and they're getting younger and younger. As Luke said, Yeah, I heard a kid who was still in his womb play the other day. You hear the nine-year old blues player and the 12-year old bebop player and it's just ridiculous. But at the same time, guys like Andy McKee and Joe Robinson and Gutherie who are what I call my YouTube babies, those are really fine, incredible musicians. I loved Andy because of his compositional skills as much as his playing.
Gutherie Govan's track, Fives is some pretty impressive fusion playing. Back when we did the interview in 1990 you said, The thing about Satriani and Vai and all these guys is they're fairly well schooled but they're really not. It's very primary music with great guitar playing over it. What makes Gutherie's playing so special?
Well, Gutherie is the evolution of those guys; there's no doubt about it. But he's also this sort of freak who is again a very versatile guitarist. He plays great acoustic guitar; he can play Scofieldish kind of jazz/rock guitar; and I wouldn't call him a straight bebopper but he can even go there a little bit. He is, like myself, we're very different kind of people, but like myself we're students of just anyone who plays the guitar great. And he was just pheneomenal and I knew I wanted to cover a couple of tunes that were the sort of the YouTube hits and for Gutherie Fives was his YouTube hit and in the case of Andy [McKee] it was Drifting.
If you could see Fives on YouTube, how did you bring something different to what Gutherie did for the album?
I said, What if we put him with a ridiculous rhythm section like Vinnie and Tal and Larry Goldings and see how they push each other? So I think we got a pretty great version of it.
Obviously the rhythm sections on this album were critical. You needed players who understood and could play behind a wide style of guitar players.
Vinnie has worked on my records for years and he's been in my band. I had met Tal but had never played with her. And Luke said, Yeah, definitely we should call her for some of this stuff. And at the same time we had Nathan East and Harvey [Mason] and we had Melvin Davis and Simon Phillips and Will Kennedy for the bebop stuff. So I had the drummer's delight and same with the bass players from Jimmy Johnson, Melvin, Nathan, and then, Tal.
You mentioned earlier that guitar players are indeed getting younger. Shan Boblil is a 16-year old classical guitarist who did Luigi Legnani's Caprices, Op. 20, No. 2 and 7 piece.
"I'm still just so appreciate of the guitar and everything it's given me."
Well there were about 400 or 500 entries in the international guitar competition and had we had more time there would have been twice that many. You could enter the contest in six different categories like the six different categories I covered on the record which was jazz, rock, blues, acoustic, country and classical. Finally we had about 13 guitarists show up in LA for the finals and it got down to the top six. In the second round of his performance Shan just played an even more difficult piece than he did in the first round and he just kind of took over the competition at that point. He had ice in his veins and I think some advantage goes to young classical musicians in general because they're almost trained in today's world to do competition. So a rock player, a jazz player, a blues player, some of these guys it might have been the first time they joined a contest. Certain guys are used to doing it and like to do it and other guys find it horrible. I'm never a fan of contests in general but in this case this was the only way to really to bring some new talent to the table.
What sets Shan apart from other classical players?
He had a great tone. The shocking thing was that he'd only been playing the guitar for five years so talking about the learning skill curves that are just being multiplied so quickly now.
Were you that good after having played five years?
[Counts to himself] Eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve no. I started when I was eight so I was 13? I was pretty good though [laughs.] Different than a lot of these guys, I was starting to do gigs when I was 13. There were casuals out there and parties and I was actually making money and by the time I was 16, I was doing some of my first sessions.
Was your very first session recording with the Mamas & the Papas?
Well, it wasn't the very first session but it was the first notable one. I was in a band that was kind of a jazz/rock band and at the time it was being produced by John Phillips who was the leader of the Mamas & Papas. He invited us up to his house in Bel Air which was in Beverly Hills and it was very unusual to have a studio in your house in those days. So we cut some tracks and the band never went anywhere but John asked me to stay and record with the rhythm section which included Lee Sklar on bass and Ed Greene on drums. I looked for the track for years and to my knowledge it never came out. I heard that John used to record for the Mamas & Papas tons of stuff and there were just tapes and tapes. I don't know maybe it made it out and I didn't even know it.
Did you record with Simon & Garfunkel?
I worked with Paul separately and I worked with Art Garfunkel separately. I'm just a huge fan of Paul's. I think he's just one of the amazing songwriters of our generation and an incredible lyricist and he deserves everything that he's gotten. A US treasure.
And what about the Pink Floyd session for The Wall?
A very different session for me. I'm glad I was called and those guys were taking some serious time on their records to get every nook and cranny just right. We did some acoustic guitar work with Gilmour and they played me that solo they were working on at the time for Another Brick in the Wall and they wanted a couple of my ideas on how I might end the solo cause they were stuck. So I played a couple riffs which of course they didn't use but I think they got inspired by.
Did you have any thoughts about still playing guitar 50 years after you first began?
I remember the only thing that dawned on me as a dream when you're a kid is that you hoping you can make it as a professional in some sense. And you're wishing you're like a Wes Montgomery or Jimi Hendrix or whatever your dream is. But I remember because I was so trained to be a studio musician in the beginning and I had gotten very far in the studio career very young. I was workin' 30 dates a week sometimes when I was 21 and then I had also gotten my first recording contract by the time I was 24. I remember actually thinking one day, OK, well I'm 24, I've pretty much reached everything I had dreamed for. I wonder what's gonna happen next?
It must feel pretty amazing to have a career that has been so varied and continued to grow for so many years.
I think the nicest gift is just having this long of a career and enjoying it and loving music so much. Because I know a lot of older guys now who are kind of bitter about it for various reasons and I'm still just so appreciate of the guitar and everything it's given me.
Interview by Steven Rosen