“I LIKE TO THROW MYSELF INTO DO OR DIE
situations,” exclaims Pete Huttlinger. His fearless
attitude and fleet fingers have helped him
conquer multiple fretted instruments, earn a
degree from the Berklee College of Music, win
the 2000 National Fingerstyle Championship,
and land gigs with John Denver and LeAnn
Rimes. His fifth solo CD, Fingerpicking Wonder:
The Music of Stevie Wonder [Instar], comprises
ten solo performances essentially captured live
in Huttlinger’s home studio. What at first may
appear to be a choice of safe material—and at
least potentially an exercise in easy listening—
turns out to be a daring adventure in
Huttlinger’s hands. Sure, his readings of “My
Cherie Amour,” and “You Are the Sunshine
of My Life” reflect an inherent schmaltz factor,
but Huttlinger dazzles on funk
juggernauts such as “Superstition” and “Living
for the City,” tackling multiple parts
simultaneously. The album’s coup de grâce
is “I Wish,” on which Huttlinger distills
nearly the entire original arrangement into
an electrifying solo acoustic guitar presentation.
Did you start out as a banjo player?
I did. That’s where the thumbpick comes
from, and that’s why I started fingerpicking.
It naturally carried over to the guitar. Also,
my older brother made me take classical guitar
lessons by threatening to kick my ass if
I didn’t, and I took him at his word.
You play everything from country to Brazilian
jazz in settings ranging from solo to orchestral.
How do you vary your picking approach to suit the
It depends on the instrument, and the
style of the song. I use a thumbpick for my
solo stuff because I like the balance between
it and my fingernails. National’s medium
thumbpicks sound great, but they loosen up
as soon as they get warm, so I Krazy Glue
fine sandpaper to the inside for a better grip.
I’ll go to a flatpick for bluegrass, Celtic, country,
or when I’m accompanying a singer. On
duo gigs with LeAnn Rimes, I go back and
forth. The flatpick delivers a broader dynamic
range, and it’s great for strumming.
Describe John Denver’s guitar playing, and
what it was like to play with him.
He was great at accompanying his own
voice. He didn’t do anything too technically
involved, but he worked just the right harmony
and counterpoint lines into his
arrangements. And his solid rhythm playing
allowed the band a lot of leeway to flesh
out the songs however we saw fit. I came in
playing mostly electric guitar, and branched
out to play acoustic, mandolin, and other
things. He was okay with whatever I wanted
to do, and that kind of freedom for sidemen
is unheard of at that level.
How did you choose which Wonder tunes to
record for your new CD, and what did you hope to
bring to such a well-known batch of songs?
I wanted to try a different approach to
the tunes I grew up with and still love. The
only one I wasn’t already familiar with was
“Lately,” which I’d learned for LeAnn Rimes.
I wound up digging it so much that I decided
to cut my own version. For all the acrobatics
on the other tracks, “Lately” is my favorite
because of the gorgeous, powerful melody
and the surprising minor chord progression
in the chorus. The songwriting is just outstanding.
How did you decide which tuning to go with on
“Living for the City?”
“Living for the City” wasn’t sitting well
in the original key of F#. It was either too
low or too high, and I was trying to find
somewhere in the middle. I don’t usually
use a lot of open tunings, but I tried several
in this case before landing in open D [D, A,
D, F#, A, D, low to high]. The introduction
came alive immediately, and I figured the
rest of the tune out from there.
You cover lots of parts—from bass to horns—
on “Superstition” and “I Wish.” Can you detail how
you tackle such involved arrangements?
The melody has to be there, obviously,
and if there is a great bass line I want to figure
out a way to play it simultaneously, so
I’ll write out both, and put the chord names
above. I start slowly, and work on a meas-
ure or two at a time. I try to picture the guitar
neck, and understand what needs to
happen where. When one section is comfortable,
and that picture is engrained, I move
on. It’s a slow process, but once I’ve got it—
I’ve got it. From there, I decide which other
parts are most important, and how I can
make them fit. For example, during the “I
Wish” intro, I wanted to nail the funky electric
guitar part that is often missing from
cover versions. Those few bars are the most
difficult part of the tune for me physically.
According to the liner notes, you played four
different Collings guitars on the recordings. How
did you choose between them?
I used a D1A on “I Wish,” “Living for the
City,” and “Superstition,” because I wanted
the big, bold sound of a dreadnought. I also
used heavier strings than normal. I usually
use a light Elixir phosphor bronze set on my
OMs, and for the dreadnoughts I replace the
top two strings with a .013 and a .017. That
gives me a little more power, but no added
string buzz. For these tunes I used a complete
medium set because I tuned the entire
guitar down a half-step to match the original
recordings, and I hate the sound of floppy
strings. On the other tunes, I just lined up
three Collings OMs. I’d try a tune on one,
and if it didn’t hit me just right, I’d try
another. My main live guitar is an OM1 cutaway
with a Fishman Ellipse Blend pickup
system that I run through an AER Compact
What’s your recording setup?
I use Digidesign’s Pro Tools LE via a Digi
002 Rack that I’ve actually had modified
since I cut the CD. Black Lion Audio in
Chicago put in better converters and
upgraded the word clock synchronization.
Now the high end is more open, and there’s
that transparency you get with higher-grade
equipment. They also put in better mic preamps,
but I use Vintech outboard mic
preamps anyway. I capture the full range of
the guitar by using either a pair of Neumann
KM 54s or KM 84s. I place one slightly outside
my left knee, pointing up towards where
the neck and body meet. I place the other
one high over my right hand, pointing above
the soundhole between it and the bridge.
Both mics are around six to eight inches from
Other than a couple of obvious overdubs, these
sound like live solo performances. How did you
capture the best ones?
I used a click on everything except
“Lately,” which I wanted to feel a little freer.
I actually looped the drum intro from the
original “Superstition” recording as a click
track for that cut, figuring you can’t do any
better than Stevie’s playing. I’d punch in to
fix little mistakes here and there, but I’m
not the kind of player who likes to edit takes
together because you lose the feel, and it’s
just not honest. I’m really only good for four
or five takes, and if I can’t pull a song off
within that time—I go practice.