CHANGE HAS COME TO CHARLIE HUNTER. He’s got new gear, revamped
mechanics, and a
brave, fresh new sound. His recent material is funky, freaky, and
features his most muscular,
economical playing to date. Hunter says that he’s not only got a brand
new bag for the time
being—he’s done with the whole “organ on guitar” soul-jazz trip for
good. “I can’t stand that
sound any more,” he proclaims. “It started making me cringe a few years
ago, and I decided it
was time to move on.”
This is a giant step for a man who built his badass reputation by conquering hairy bass lines
and heady post-bop melodies simultaneously on custom 8-string instruments that he dreamed
up precisely to be able to capture the contrapuntal magic of great Hammond B3 players such
as Larry Young and Jimmy Smith. Hunter is still a musical beast—he’s just changed his nature
to reflect a more groove-forward mentality.
His past two records—Mistico [Concord] and Baboon Strength [Spire Artists Media]—are both
trio affairs, but they bear little resemblance to the harmonically dense, swinging from the ceiling
Charlie Hunter trios of yore. The horns are gone, replaced by Erik Deutsch’s gloriously
cheesy keyboard sounds—think “96 Tears”—and Baboon Strength is built on ferocious pocket
thumping by drummer Tony Mason (Jim Campilongo). Hunter plays a new 7-string guitar/
bass hybrid through a simplified signal chain to render gritty guitar tones laced with tremolo
and reverb. The adventurous musical vibe ranges from mysterious to ethereal to downright
silly. It sounds as if the longtime friend of GP—and former contributor as Jazz Guru—has fully
checked any hipster attitude at the curb, and is simply enjoying himself.
What’s behind your recent renaissance?
Playing jazz is the best way to learn
harmony, rhythm, and improvisation—
but it’s just one vernacular to
me. I spent so much time learning
how to play in a linear style, and it all
eventually started to sound like music
school to me. I don’t like much jazz
past 1960, and I realized that we were
never going to be as good at playing
it as the musicians were back then,
or as connected to our time. I let go
of all that information about playing
over changes as a vehicle for lengthy
solos. That doesn’t truly excite me
anyway. I feel like I did it just to prove
I could hit the standard benchmarks
on a fancy guitar. Now I’m doing
something more natural to the instrument
itself, and that has facilitated a
more musical flow.
The instrument that you created in
order to play a particular way is now inspiring
you to play differently?
You got it.
How does your current instrument compare
to past instruments?
The Novax 8-string instruments I played
for most of my career had three bass strings
tuned E, A, D, and five guitar strings tuned
A, D, G, B, E (low to high). But when playing
contrapuntally, you spend an inordinate
amount of time controlling the strings you
are not playing, meaning fewer strings can
be better. A couple of years ago—before
recording Mistico—I realized that the high E
string was unnecessary, so I removed it.
Jeff Traugott made the 7-string instrument
I use currently, and like my previous
instruments, it has the Novax Fanned-Fret
system. The scale length is 25w" on the first
string, and 29" on the seventh string, and
the tuning is a minor third higher than
before: G, C, F, C, F, Bb, D. The lowest note
on the seventh string is equivalent to the
third fret on the bottom of a 4-string bass,
and there’s no high-E string, so the range is
compacted to get just the bread and butter
notes out of both the bass and the guitar.
Jason Lollar made a pair of four-pole humbuckers
that capture the four guitar strings,
and a pair of three-pole humbuckers for the
three bass strings. There are two outputs—
one for the guitar pickups, and the other for
How has the new instrument influenced your
Although this instrument comes from
combining guitar and bass, it has a unique
power to create melodic and harmonic beats.
Building vertically from the groove up is
more fun, and people like the music better.
Have you also changed amps recently?
Yes. I have a Headstrong Lil’ King, which
is basically a 12-watt Fender Princeton clone
with 6V6 tubes and a 12" speaker. And just
today I got my Lil’ King-S, which has 25
watts of beefy 6L6 power. I’ll bring that to
bigger rooms. I don’t need much more than
20 watts because my lowest guitar string is
a C. I have to give credit to Jim Campilongo,
who is my kind of guitar hero. I had always
pooh-poohed Princetons as practice amps
until I went to one of his gigs and heard the
huge sound. I’m not going for that blocky
jazz tone anymore, so the Lil’ King is working
out well. For bass, I play through
whatever backline amp is provided at the
gig. I’d love to use an Ampeg SVT all the
time, but it’s just too big to transport.
What pedals do you bring?
Nothing. I decided to be a man and go
straight into the amp. I’ve realized that what
I do is all about the beats, and the interplay
between parts. Anything that gets in the way
of that dance is a buzzkill. I even lost the
volume pedal, which I thought was such an
important part of my setup in the past. I’m
disgusted with volume swells! I will make an
exception and bring out my self-assembled
BYOC Tremolo pedal because it interacts so
well with the amp, especially when it’s overdriven.
And I’ll bring a wah to a duo gig once
in a while to add a different texture.
How have your mechanics evolved?
I’m playing more economically. For years,
I strictly played bass lines with my thumb,
and used my fingers on the guitar strings. I
originally tried to play guitar lines using three
fingers, which was silly because it always
sounded like some guy limping. Then I
started using two fingers. Now, I essentially
use my middle finger to pluck guitar parts,
and multitask with the index finger depending
on where it’s most needed rhythmically.
All of these decisions have to happen in a
nanosecond, and require a lot of practice.
Everything has to conform to the beat, even
during ballads such as “A Song For Karen
Carpenter” and “Fine Corinthian Leather.”
How about your fretting hand?
I’ve always had to do a finger ballet based
on the path of least resistance, but I would
cheat a lot [laughs]. I’d stay in one spot longer
than I needed to in order to play what I
thought was a cool line, but in reality was
just some constipated jazz bulls***. Now I
keep the flow going. You don’t have to play
involved bass lines to get the point across.
You can draw an outline using basic harmony,
and the listener’s ears will fill in the
gaps. I’m trying to find the freedom in that
It seems as though you have.
Baboon Strength was a personal triumph
for me because it’s about covert chops rather
than overt chops. There’s some tricky stuff
going on, but there is no “look at me” guitar
playing. That’s fine in your 20s, but you
should be embarrassed to play that way when
you are in your 40s. I know I am.
How did you approach the songs on Baboon
I wrote them specifically for this band,
with the utmost respect for Tony’s drum
pockets, and space for Eric’s keyboard
melodies. Keyboard melodies are very different
from horn melodies stylistically, and
in how they mix with the guitar. As a rule
of thumb, harmonic density subtracts from
danceablilty, and by that I mean the way the
parts kind of dance together. Adding heavy
harmonies is like adding weight to drag
behind the groove. I tried to keep the harmony
light so that the music could pop along.
Is there a particular way that you compose?
I compose on the guitar, but sometimes
I have to get away from the instrument and
play a keyboard. I’m just barely capable
enough to figure out melodies, however,
which is good because the lack of skill keeps
me from wasting time noodling around. And
I almost always write at home, because
there’s not much time for creativity on the
road. That said, “Welcome to Frankfurt” coalesced
onstage one night when we played it
with a disco beat and the audience flipped.
They really seemed to get it with all four
beats specifically marked out. We thought
it was the funniest thing ever at first, and
then we started enjoying playing it that way.
Maybe the joke was on us.
The title track’s wild main vamp sounds like
the “The Munsters’ Theme.” Have you been watching
Nick at Night?
Well, I like old music with cheesy organs
and doubled bass and guitar lines, so it comes
How did the Baboon Strength sessions go
We played together in the same room at
Trout Studio in Brooklyn. Tony used the
house drums. I used my Lil’ King and the
Ampeg B-15 bass amp that was on hand.
Eric used the Yamaha combo organ that I
had found for him at a junk store near my
home in New Jersey. We isolated our amps
as best we could, spent 20 minutes getting
sounds, and pretty much recorded everything
live to a two-inch 16-track tape
machine in one day. We reviewed a few
things the next day, played a few second
takes, and dumped the tracks to Pro Tools
for mixing. You should be able to do a record
in a day or two if you’ve been on the road.
I’ve been doing this trio with Erik in one
shape or form for about two and a half years,
but our last show together is coming up soon.
Why is the group disbanding?
I work with whatever band I have until
it reaches its height, and then I kill it. What’s
the point in continuing if it’s not going to
get any better?
Are you still involved with Garaj a Trois, or the
Groundtruther project with Bobby Previte?
Garaj a Trois is still active, but I stopped
playing with them a couple of years ago. We
put Groundtruther to bed at about the same
time. I’m always moving around musically
in order to stay excited about what I’m doing,
and to keep the audience interested.
Have you planned the next step?
I plan to make a solo dance guitar
record—one that actually makes you want
to dance around. That’s the gauntlet I’ve
thrown down for myself, so I’ve been trying
to play as metronomically as possible. I try
to hit the drum kit every day, playing the
same beat at various tempos for about an
hour in order to feel the metronomic foundation.
I practice guitar the same way.
Will you be performing solo as well?
It’s very difficult to keep a solo guitar
show interesting for more than a half hour.
I’m going to be doing a lot of duo shows
with drummers, and augmenting what we
do with horns. I’m interested in vertical
improvisation based on a strong rhythmic
foundation. The concept is to treat tunes
more like events, and less like jazz blow-athons.
I’m through chasing that rabbit.