It’s all in 4/4, but it’s syncopated. My approach to a lot of music has to do with rhythmic syncopation. I’m just not squaring off a lot of the parts the way they were written or originally recorded. It’s always been my approach and something I’ve been honing and working on for many years. I thought that by doing it carefully, I could bring something new to the music, rather than doing a copy of the music, which I did not want to do. So it’s kind of like a little bit classical, a little bit of syncopation, and a little bit of Latin influences mixed, but hopefully in a tasteful way. I didn’t want to go too far one way or the other.
From a harmony standpoint, I wanted to keep it recognizable. I did not want to completely alter the harmonic structure and bring in all these strange jazz chords that would have ruined the beauty of what was originally there. I think you know what I’m talking about. A lot of people, especially in the jazz realm, get so far from the tune it’s like you don’t even recognize it. I didn’t want to do that.
How much can you modify a classic line like the intro to “In My Life” before it gets unrecognizable?
It’s not easy and it requires a careful blending. I had to get this far into my own life as a player and develop whatever it is that is my style to be able to do this. In fact some of this material, like “Penny Lane” and “Michelle,” was some of the hardest music I’ve ever played in my life. It’s crazy but it’s true. There’s some really big string skipping stuff happening while syncopating and keeping the melody up in the top range. Sometimes the melody is displaced, but at least you know it’s the tune. To do that effectively was a real challenge.
Your solo section on “In My Life” has three distinct movements to it. On the first, you stay pretty faithful to the notes in the George Martin piano solo, although you’re cadencing the rhythms differently. Then you provide some answer lines and counterpoint, and then you just burn over the progression. Talk about your mindset with those.
The George Martin classical-sounding harpsichord part is so cool. It’s always been cool. My approach was once again to take the squareness out of it and syncopate it, almost swing it a little bit and displace the rhythm a little bit. It’s just the way I feel it, and that’s what happened there. Then there are the countermelody parts, which were planned out. Finally it goes to the little segue that I wrote that takes you into the improvisation over the harmonic structure. The song has really nice changes that you can do this kind of improvisation on. “Because” is another one—damn good changes and some hip changes. It’s not something you relate to the Beatles because they never really got into these extended solo things, but when you break down the harmony of some of these songs, you can do some nice improv work with it.
When you add a second guitar to “And I Love Her,” it’s a steel-string, even though that tune is probably the most famous nylon-string tune in their whole catalog. How did you choose which guitars appeared on which tunes?
I don’t know. It was instinctual at the moment, really. There wasn’t a lot of time to sit around and experiment. I was really fired up and totally inspired to be there, and things happened fast because they had to. But I will say this: There’s nothing better than a nylon and a steel. It’s better than two nylons for sure, when you have that blending and separation.
“And I Love Her,” like many of the tunes, has more than one guitar track. Were you recording them to a click?
On a lot of these tunes, I played percussion on the face of the guitar or I chucked some kind of rhythm on the strings. A couple of songs had claps, but there’s no real percussion. I just basically used the guitars as a substitute for that. We then either looped it or recorded it all the way through, depending on the piece, so I had something to track to other than an awful sounding click.
So it wasn’t difficult to sync up the guitar tracks?
No. To get the point where it was comfortable playing some of the syncopated hard parts of songs like “Penny Lane,” that was a bit of work. “I Am the Walrus” was another one that was brutal. When you listen to it, you don’t think of that. I mean, hopefully people don’t think of that. But I can tell you that it was, because the way that I played the melody, it was always part of a chord. The melody is super easy [sings “I am he as you are he…”], but the chords keep changing. It was kind of an ambitious thing to try to get down smoothly. I think what made my version of “I Am the Walrus” kind of original and what took it away from the big production that they had was I didn’t use drums in the traditional sense. I took the rhythm guitar and arpeggiated it as kind of a substitute for the percussion or the drums. One side is the melody and the other channel is the rhythm guitar doing a rhythm that’s very different from the original piece. I’m really percussion-minded when I’m playing or even when I’m writing. So that tune is unique, probably due to that fact.
Is your intro to “Michelle” all one track, with the one ascending and one descending line before you quote the George part?
Yeah, “Michelle” is primarily a solo piece. That intro part is something I worked up. There are just a couple places where I doubled something in. About four minutes in there’s a little improv against the chords.
Did you write charts out for these songs?
Whenever you hear something that wasn’t part of the Beatles version, like the intro to “Eleanor Rigby,” and my original parts in “With a Little Help from My Friends,” I would chart those out. I wrote out all the lines that I actually composed, so I wouldn’t forget them. As for the parts that we all know and love, those I didn’t have to write down because I have them in my head.
You’ve talked a lot about the rhythms and syncopation on these songs. What can you say about how your sense of the groove has evolved over time? How do you feel it’s different now compared to the way you felt time back in your Elegant Gypsy days?
In those days I was playing primarily electric, so it was obviously more of a sustain-y, lyrical vibe and I didn’t have as much opportunity to play in a rhythmic vein like I do on acoustic. That all started to change with Paco [de Lucia] on “Mediterranean Sundance” from Elegant Gypsy. Then I kind of cultivated that and got more into it when we did the trio stuff from ’80 to ’83. Over the years I’ve been developing my sense of being inspired by percussion and rhythm and translating it back to the guitar. I tell people, if you can master your sense of time and play syncopated rhythms against the time without the time moving, there’s great opportunity. The door really opens for what you can do with music. But it’s amazing how many musicians think they have great time but really they rely on the drummer or the other players to keep them in time. As soon as that drops out, though, what do you do? If you can find that you have a center that doesn’t move—no matter what you do on top of it— then you can play pretty interesting rhythms.
What advice do you have for players that want to improve their time for exactly the reasons you just cited?
Slow it down. Slow it way, way down and be very conscious of the foot, because the foot is more important than your hands. It’s a real hard thing to do. It’s not something you can learn, you just discover if you have it or not. If you have it, then your world opens up for what you can do rhythmically with the music. If you don’t have it, there’s not much you can do except just play with a metronome or a drummer or a percussionist— somebody who’s going to help you stay in time—but that’s probably not going to help you advance in the direction of syncopation and rhythm as much as if you had it internally, like Chick Corea or Gonzalo Rubalcaba or Steve Gadd. Those are some musicians that have an innate sense of solid time and they can play anything against that time, and that’s what makes it exciting.
Slowing everything down is also a good way to develop speed. You weren’t the first guy to play fast, but you were the guy that inspired the most guitarists to try and acquire huge technique. Back in the day, were you aware that all these young rockers were citing you as a big influence on their chops?
No, not so much. Sometimes I would read my name in their articles and I thought it was kind of cool. But whenever I read stuff from shred players, I always thought, “Really? Wow.” I never associated myself and my music with anything to do with shred [laughs]. It was complimentary, though.
A common complaint with highly technical playing is that even though the music has chops, it lacks soul. What is the secret to having chops but not losing the emotion?
It’s complex. I’ve always been against lack of content or lack of composition, where there’s just so much fast playing that not much is being said. I think I have enough of a history now where the composition is like the main thing. I should also say, there’s not a lack of great players out there with technique. There are tons. But there are not a lot of things that I can point my finger at and say the music is also happening. That’s just me—because I’ve been more and more focusing on composition, and technique is not the first thing on my mind like it might have been in the ’70s. The ’70s was all about flash. Everything was played at breakneck tempos. Over the years, though, it was the music that mattered and what was going to keep you grounded and solidified for the future, not just playing a million miles an hour.
A lot of the compositions on your early records have held up pretty well, and your fans still really dig that stuff. You’ve obviously moved through a bunch of different changes over the years, but do you have some personal favorites from those early records of yours?
Yeah. I recently revisited Casino and I love “Egyptian Danza.” I love the feel of some of those pieces. The rhythm section is Steve Gadd and Anthony Jackson. The energy of those records and the analog punch of those recordings, I really miss an element of it. I come from a great background where I was tremendously inspired by Chick’s writing. Even though we were one of the three more famous fusion bands, it was highly compositional music. So that was as much an influence as anything else. When I went off on my own, I was coming from a good place and with a pretty good background of influences even prior to that, the Beatles being one. I think some of my melodic sense and definitely my production ideas have come primarily from the Beatles and George Martin. You wouldn’t know it because the music is so different, but I can now see it more clearly after all of these years. When I’m mixing, I’m constantly thinking of how cool it is to put the drums on one side. Nobody does that but I love that. And maybe put a counter-rhythm percussion part on the right side that has nothing to do with what the drummer’s doing. You have every part playing a separate rhythm and all these counter rhythms or counterpoint going on at the same time, but with clarity because you have separation. That came from the Beatles.
A lot of your fans might find it surprising that you connect on such a deep level with “pop music.”
The Beatles’ music doesn’t have the complexity, and it’s not meant to have the complexity of, say, the music of Astor Piazzolla, which is some of the most inspiring music from one of my greatest influences that I love on a different level. But listen to songs like “I Am the Walrus” or “Strawberry Fields” or “Penny Lane,” and then factor in that these guys were in their early to mid-20s. How is this possible? Just like, how is it possible that Francis Ford Coppola at 26 or 27 years old made The Godfather? It’s unbelievable and it’s inspiring. So when I hear that music now—and I’m listening to it a lot because I’ve been so involved with this project—it’s just amazing how much beauty there is in those compositions, even though they’re not super long and complex.
There’s a sense that there’s something to this music that supersedes a lot of the stuff surrounding it and what came after. Where do you put the Beatles in the grand scheme of not just popular music, but music throughout history? How important are the Beatles?
The most important. It’s almost sacred, it’s so great. I have a tremendous love of Astor Piazzolla and I have a background with Chick and there are obviously so many great composers. But what I found was a lot of us from fusion or jazz, as time went on, more and more of us were making records that were more complex and more involved. It became harder and harder to listen to, except if you were a real serious musician, and even that was diminishing. So I thought, man, what the hell am I going to talk about in an interview if I do another record like my last one, or the one before that, or the one before that? So I revisited the Beatles and the enjoyment level was so high that I figured it was a good time to do something radically different than what people might expect. I wanted to not only play material that could bring me back to why I wanted to get involved with music in the first place, but to somehow blend into it my little thing that I have developed. I’m as proud of this record, even more so maybe, than anything that I’ve ever done, because somehow it connects me back to that feeling I had in the beginning where I was so knocked out and inspired. There’s a connection there that I feel really good about, especially experiencing Abbey Road and everything. I used to stare at those records in my room upstairs from my parents and just dream. We all did. But I got to live a little bit of it and it’s something that I’ll never forget.