WITH A BOLD MUSICAL IMAGINATION, AND MORE than ample technique to support it, Charlie
Hunter has never been a conventional guitarist. That
was already evident 20 years ago when he released
Charlie Hunter Trio [Prawn Song], his first CD. Back
then, he played a custom 7-string
tuned like a regular guitar with the
addition of a low-A bass string. On that
instrument, Hunter was able to make
music that sounded like a bassist and
guitarist jamming together—a really
creative, agile bassist and guitarist.
Hunter released his next record
just two years later—Bing, Bing, Bing!
[Blue Note]—and was playing an 8-string by then.
That axe’s three lowest strings were tuned like the
bottom three on a bass (E, A, D), while the remaining
five strings were like the top five on a standard
guitar (A, D, G, B, E). With this expanded range at
his fingertips, Hunter’s split-personality technique
got even deeper and he often seemed to be thinking
of his instrument more like a Hammond organ than
a guitar. As the ’90s rolled on into the new millennium,
Hunter recorded several more discs, each with
a fresh musical concept unlike the one before it. One
record featured guest vocalists (Songs from the Analog
Playground) while another reimagined the classic Bob
Marley album Natty Dread. Band members continually
changed and the material varied, ranging from jazz to
funk to avant-rock.
Then, one night—about six years ago—a funny
thing happened: Hunter broke his high-E string in the
middle of a gig. Rather than stopping to restring, he
decided to keep on playing—and discovered he dug
this impromptu 7-string a whole lot. “Suddenly,” he
says, “I could get to so much more music, because I
wasn’t responsible for muting that high string when
I didn’t need it. It’s way more fun.”
This 7-string orientation has led Hunter away
from his dualistic approach toward a more unified
sound on the instrument. This is utterly apparent on
his latest independent release, Not Getting Behind Is
the New Getting Ahead [Charlie Hunter Music]. From
the haunting “Assessing the Assessors, An Assessor’s
Assessment” to the swaggering “Those Desks Aren’t
Going to Clean Themselves,” the tunes all sound
native to the instrument Hunter now plays. Hunter’s
using open strings in his chord voicings, and chiming harmonics—guitaristic stuff, in short—more
than ever before.
To record Not Getting Behind, Hunter
teamed up once again with drummer Scott
Amendola, a longtime friend and collaborator.
Recorded live to 2-track, with no overdubs
or mixing afterward, this intimate duo
setting showcases Hunter’s more streamlined
approach. Sure, he’s still managing
the herculean feat of playing bass lines and
guitar parts simultaneously, but more than
ever before, it sounds like one man on one
instrument, and that instrument sounds
more familiar than foreign.
Why did you decide to record Not Getting
Behind live to 2-track?
If you’re making music that’s conceived as
a live interaction—regardless of the style—
then there’s no better way to do it. It actually
puts you in a position where you don’t
have to go for things you shouldn’t be going
for anyway. You just go in and play.
How did you set up in the studio with Scott
I was right next to the drums, the amps
were right behind me, and we didn’t use
Why no headphones?
Our whole thing is based on communication
and dynamics. Without headphones,
it all comes to life. I don’t record that much,
you know. Ninety percent of what I do is live.
So to get to do that when you’re recording
Did you bring your usual live rig
into the studio, or use amps that
they had there?
The studio had an old Ampeg
tube bass amp. I used that for the
bass side, and used my Carr Rambler
guitar amp. We also used an
old Fender with a 15" speaker as a
second amp to get some low-end
thump on the guitar side. It’s as
simple as it gets. No effects, just
straight into the amps.
So, when it sounds grittier—
like on “Rust Belt”—that’s just you
pushing the amp harder?
That’s it. I don’t even think I
touched the volume knob on the
guitar. It’s all with the fingers.
Just playing softer or harder?
Exactly. Finger dynamics is
something I’ve worked on over
the years. I ditched the volume pedal four or
five years ago and never looked back. Now
that I have everything in my hands, it seems
to flow a lot better.
It seems that in the past few years you’ve
gotten away from the guitar-as-organ approach
that you were into earlier in your career.
You’re right. Back then, I felt like I had
to play all my sh*t all the time. Like, “I’ve
got to show these guys that I can play.” I’m
glad I went through that car wash. You go
through these things and you immerse yourself.
What sticks with you sticks with you,
and what doesn’t falls to the wayside.
I got back to the music that I grew up
on, which is all this old blues-guitar stuff
that my mom had playing in the house: Son
House, Brownie McGhee, Lightnin’ Hopkins,
Robert Johnson, Blind Blake. All that stuff,
that’s where I’m coming from—the guitar
vernacular. Whatever jazz sensibility comes
through has to come through that prism.
Your solo on “The Wizard Pounds the Pavement”
is so patient and intense. You start off
in this low-down groove and stay there for the
We threw down the gauntlet for that one.
We decided—this is 60 beats per minute,
and that’s what it is. That is the environment
in which everything is going to happen.
It’s going to be lonely and it’s going to be
dark. There’s going be a lot of things living
in the corners—you don’t know what they
are. But don’t try to play faster. Don’t try to
play your way out of it. You’ve got
to sit there and let the thing do
what it’s going to do.
Why did you switch back to 7-
string, after years on the 8-string?
I didn’t really “switch back.”
This is an entirely different
beast. When I was first doing
the 7-string thing, years ago, it
was like a regular guitar with a
low A. The kind of 7-string I’m
doing now really came out of my
8-string thing. As the style got a
little more personal for me, I got
away from trying to be an organ
player, or from trying to be both
a bass player and a guitar player
at the same time. It got to be
its own kind of rhythmic-counterpoint/
like a gigantic version of Joseph
Spence, hopefully. When it got to be that, that’s when I really started investigating
ways to make it make more sense
for me, musically.
What’s your tuning?
I’ve changed it a few times. I’d spent so
much time on the 8-string trying to have the
whole bass and guitar range, wanting to keep
it in E. It was hard. That low E was always so
floppy, because the scale length wasn’t long
enough. I tuned the 7-string up to F for a
while. I made a record called Baboon Strength
in that tuning, and it worked pretty well.
But now I just don’t care anymore whether
people think I’m a bass player. I want to make
everything really personal and let this instrument
do what it’s supposed to do. I tuned it
up a minor third—with the low string up to
G—and suddenly realized this is where this
thing should sit. So, from low to high—G,
C, F, C, F, Bb, D. It’s essentially the lower
three strings of a bass and the middle four of
a guitar, all tuned up a minor third. There’s
more continuity now between the guitar
and the bass.
Ultimately, the goal was always for it to
sound like its own thing. I think it’s finally
there, after all these years. If you’d asked
ten years ago, I’d have said, “I’m okay at
this. I’m not really good at it.” Now I think
I’m really good at it, but I’m not great yet.
Maybe in another ten years I’ll be great at
it if I figure it out.
What is the guitar you’re playing?
It’s a Jeff Traugott, with fanned frets—the
same one I’ve had for the past five or six years.
What’s the scale length?
29" on the bottom string, 25.5" on the top.
Do you have to use custom strings?
I use D’Addario short-scale bass strings
for the lower three, and regular guitar strings
for the other four.
You’ve made so many great records in the
past 20 years. Do you have a favorite?
You always like the one you just made the
most. It’s in your consciousness, I guess, so
that’s the one that you’re most into. You go
into battle with the army you have and the
concept you have, and you make it. Then
you’re in the fog of war, so to speak. You
don’t know whether it’s a good or bad record
until ten or 15 years later.
After you make your third or fourth record,
you think, “This is the best. And my earlier
stuff is rough.” But then you get older and
you listen to your first record, and you’re
like, “Man—that’s actually pretty good!”