THERE’S AN OLD JOKE: HOW MANY GUITAR PLAYERS DOES IT TAKE TO
change a light bulb? The answer is 11—one to do it, and ten to say how they
could have done it better. It’s funny because it’s true enough. At one time or
another, we’ve all come across competitive, trash-talking players like those
ten in the joke. But multifaceted jazzer and studio veteran Lee Ritenour stands
the stereotype on its head with his eclectic new album, 6 String Theory
[Concord]. Taking an esprit de corps tack, Ritenour invited some of the
heaviest guitarists in jazz, blues, rock, and country to his light bulb-changing
party. Among the A-listers were Joe Bonamassa, Pat Martino, Vince Gill,
B.B. King, Robert Cray, Neal Schon, Slash, Mike Stern, John Scofield, Keb’ Mo’,
and Steve Lukather.
Ritenour gives the players ample strutting room,
and even acts as a silent partner on a few tunes,
such as George Benson’s solo spin on “My One and
6 String Theory isn’t only a showcase for established
heavies, though. A few up-and-comers make
the scene, including YouTube heroes Guthrie Govan
and Andy McKee. Both Govan and McKee have
clocked millions of views on the Web and have
released their own CDs, but neither has been recorded at this level of production before.
McKee’s virally successful solo acoustic
“Drifting” is fleshed out by Ritenour’s fullband
arrangement, while Govan borrows Jeff
Beck’s rhythm section—Vinnie Colaiuta and
Tal Wilkenfeld—to upgrade his YouTube hit
“Fives.” 16-year-old Canadian classical guitarist
Shon Boublil shines brightly on two
caprices by 19th Century Italian guitarist/
composer Luigi Legnani. (Boublil recently
won the Yamaha-sponsored Six String Theory
Guitar Competition. First prize was a
four-year scholarship to Berklee College of
Music and this spot on Ritenour’s record).
Tomoyasu Hotei is the real X-factor. Relatively
obscure Stateside, he’s a genuine star
in his native Japan. Hotei’s blistering solo on
“Freeway Jam”—with whammy-bar pyrotechnics
and pick-edge harmonics—is an effective
counterbalance to jazzified turns from Ritenour
and Mike Stern.
With so many guitar players featured, and
Ritenour occasionally going unheard, listeners
may wonder exactly whose record 6 String
Theory is. Rit is well aware of the dichotomy,
and he blurs the line in his own Zen-like way
in the CD’s liner notes. “Is this a Lee Ritenour
record?” the guitarist asks rhetorically.
“No,” he answers. Then he poses the same
question again, answering, “Yes.” Talking with
him about 6 String Theory, it quickly becomes
apparent that both answers are true.
How did the concept for 6 String Theory come
This is a record that I was probably destined
to do forever. Ever since I first started
playing the guitar at eight years old—50
freakin’ years ago—I just devoured any kind
of guitar playing: A country player like Jimmy
Bryant, or a jazz player like Wes Montgomery,
or Travis-picking, or classical guitar, or Jeff
Beck and Jimi Hendrix once the rock scene
started. Whatever it was, I listened and took
what I could from it.
This record is a deconstruction of the
guitar—snapshots of its evolution up to this
point. It was important for me to show a variety
of styles. I handpicked the players and
crafted, with each one, what they were going
to do on the record. Now, is this a Lee Ritenour
record per se, with just me playing guitar
on every track? No, of course not. But does
it feel like a Lee Ritenour record to me? Yes.
You’re playing with giants in their respective
fields, were you at all intimidated?
Not really. Maybe this is where the 50
years of playing pays off. The bigger the gig,
the better I usually do. I was a little nervous
around Pat Martino at first, however, because
he has godly bebop chops and I was entering
his world more than he was entering
The first session for this record was with
John Scofield, and that session set the tone
for the whole project. John is such an amazing
musician, but so non-competitive. He
has chops when he wants to use them, but
he’s all about being his own voice. He doesn’t
even know how to sound like anybody
else. Maybe that’s another reason why I didn’t
get intimidated—everyone involved has
his or her own voice. Competition went out
Your interplay with Scofield on “Lay It Down”
is so dynamic and lively. Did you track together
Yes. We were sitting close to each other.
Standing, actually. It seems like such a simple
thing, but I had never done it before.
Usually I sit down at recording sessions,
from my history of being a studio musician
in the ’70s. I noticed that most of the guitarists
on the 6 String Theory sessions would
stand. I tried it, and it was much better.
What was different?
I immediately went into using more of
my body and feeling more like it was live.
We were playing with each other and against
each other—trading, riffing off each other,
and communicating. Even the visual contact
was better, because we could see each other
that much easier.
Was the whole album recorded like that—with
players interacting in real time?
I wanted to capture most of the album
live, and I got lucky. I was able to do about
90 percent of it live, though Tomoyasu Hotei’s
track on “Freeway Jam” was one we had to
do differently. I realized I had a nice little slot
for him on that tune, with Mike Stern and
myself. He’s sort of thought of as the Jeff
Beck of Japan, so I figured he might know
“Freeway Jam.” I emailed him and he wrote
back, “I love that tune, send it over.” He did
exactly what was called for, then sent the
tracks right back to us. That was one of those
wonders when the Internet worked perfectly.
Your electric tones also have a “live” feel. Did
you record with your amps nearby you, or isolated?
We were working at Henson Recording
in Los Angeles—the old A&M studio. They
have four or five isolation booths. We set up
the drums in the main room, put the guitar
amps and bass amps in the isolation booths,
and then played together in the center of the
main room with the drums.
Were you using one amp setup throughout, or
changing for each song?
I was all over the map—usually through
a 4x12 cabinet with Celestions. I borrowed
Guthrie Govan’s Cornford MK50 MkII head
for “In Your Dreams.” That amp is in the
Marshall family, but with its own personality.
It juxtaposed nicely on that track with
Lukather’s sound—Music Man guitar through
a Marshall—and Neal Schon’s setup, which
was just a Boss multi-effects unit straight
into the board. For “Freeway Jam,” I used my
Mesa/Boogie Road King. Mike Stern is on
that track, and I knew he would be using his
stereo setup with chorus effect. I sometimes
do a similar thing, but I thought I should go
for a mono, straight-up rock sound. I used the third channel on the Road King.
I did use my stereo setup on “Lay It Down.”
It’s a left/right/center setup, actually—two
Fender Twins with a TC Electronic GSystem
unit for stereo delay, and the Road
King in the center, clean and dry. I used a
custom Rodenberg pedal for the overdrive
on that song. It’s a beautiful unit with lots
of presence but without that typical 5kHzboost.
During mixing, we sometimes had to
put me off to one side because of having
multiple guitar players. For example, on the
Scofield track, I’m slightly to one side,
Scofield on the other. We still used all three
of my tracks, but panned more to the lefthand
side. I used a Bugera 333XL for a
bluesier sound on some things, and tried a
Divided by 13 amp towards the end of the
project. The Les Paul sounded great with all
those different amps.
Wait—a Les Paul? Aren’t you famously an ES-
I’ve always been a 335 player. I’m known
for it and I’ve got my own Limited Edition
Gibson model. Funny thing is, other than a
few rhythm parts, I didn’t use the 335 much
on this album. I used my Gibson L-5 on a
couple of jazz things, like “L.P.” On most of
the tunes where I’m playing a rockier style,
though, it’s the Paul—a ’59 reissue put
together for me by Mike McGuire in Gibson’s
Custom Shop. The back-story is, I
owned a ’57 Les Paul years ago. I sold it in
the ’80s and hadn’t played one since.
I talked with Mike about making me a
guitar sometime early in 2009. I knew I had
this project coming up and I felt that a Les
Paul might be the right sound for some of
the music. UPS showed up with the guitar
several months later, and it happened to be
the day Les Paul died. That guitar is very
special for me, from that significance.
For you, what’s the difference between a 335
and a Paul?
I had thought that it couldn’t sound that
different. You know—it’s a Gibson, and it has
humbuckers. How different can it be? But it
is quite a bit different. The Paul’s sustain is
more consistent and it is a little more even
sounding overall. It’s an incredible guitar for
rock and blues, and certain kinds of rhythm
parts. I fell in love with it for this project. The
335 still has a little more versatility, if you
were going to pick one guitar to do many
different kinds of things.
You’re obviously very tuned in to the subtleties
of your own sound. As the album’s producer, how
involved were you with the other players’ tones?
I felt very comfortable getting personal
sounds for everyone involved—helping get
a great classical sound for Shon, and making
sure I nailed Joe Robinson’s steel-string
sound. George Benson trusted me to revive
the classic sound from his earlier records.
Some guys were very specific about what
they wanted, because they’re as much pros
at this stuff as I am. Neal Schon knew exactly
what his sound should be. Scofield said to
me when we were recording that the Vox
AC30 we were using for him sounded a little
thin. I was cognizant of that and tried to
fatten his sound up a bit in mixing. So, guitar-
tone wise, I had a blast. I could touch
just about every kind of color that the guitar
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