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Laurence Juber

February 1, 2011
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‘‘Ithink my major criteria for the process is, ‘Am I bored yet? Is this compelling?’” That’s how fingerstyle and DADGAD master Laurence Juber describes how he arrives at an arrangement. If his latest record, LJ Plays the Beatles Vol. 2, is any indication, his process works. Over the course of 15 time-honored tracks, Juber displays a command of the instrument and an ability to play multiple parts that is dazzling, musical, and yes, very compelling.

In addition to his formidable chops, Juber brings a deep love and respect for the tunes, which stems from not only his being a fan of the Beatles as a “child of the ’60s,” but also from the fact that he actually played alongside Beatle Paul as a member of Wings. And even though he’s been recognized for years as one of the world’s elite fingerstylists, Juber has not been content to coast. Instead he continues to woodshed, refine his craft, and dig deeper into the music. “There was a period where I was striving to establish myself as a fingerstyle guitar player,” he says. “Somewhere along the line I kind of stopped doing that and just focused on the music, but I’m constantly finding these new guitaristic challenges. I just keep learning new stuff.”

You describe tackling arrangements like the ones on your latest record in “vertical slices.” Can you explain what you mean by that ?

It’s about learning it by what happens on each musical beat. When you’re dealing with counterpoint—when you’ve got multiple parts going on—it doesn’t do you any good to learn a line and then superimpose another line on top of it. If I learn a bass line with one fingering and then try to put a melody on top of it, the fingering for the bass line won’t work all of a sudden. If you go in vertical slices, what happens on each beat lines up and it builds your muscle memory. You get a much more guitaristic understanding on the basis of what you see from beat to beat. Then, when you bring it up to speed and you put it into performance mode, you hear the individual lines as they should be. But you haven’t tried to grapple each line independently and add them together.

Take “Penny Lane” and explain one of those vertical slices.

In the opening there’s a descending bass line where it’s walking down the scale along with the melody. After the pickup notes, you’ve got eighth-notes on top—an F# to an E—and the bass note is a quarter-note D. The next melody note is a D but the bass note is a C# . So you find often the stuff that you take for granted actually is a lot more dissonant harmonically than you might expect, with parallel major 7ths or something like that going on. But the ear always resolves the performance in separate parts so we don’t necessarily hear those as dissonance. The brain is quite capable of listening to two or three melodies at the same time.

Towards the end of “Eleanor Rigby” you get two vocal lines, chords, and bass all going at once, which results in some really thick voicings. How did that come together?

It’s happening, again, on a per-beat level. Typically with something like that, I’ll put it down on paper so that I can actually look at it, because sometimes it can be hard to maintain the different parts in your head. It’s a little bit of a fake because in the bass I’m pretty much just using the root to drive the harmony. Then you’ve got the two different vocal lines: “Ah, look at all the lonely people,” and “All the lonely people.” How can I do this and make it work guitaristically? And it just kind of works. I’m not sure there’s any real magic to it. It’s just paying attention to detail. One of the great things about DADGAD—actually I’m in C, G, D, G, A, D, but the top four strings are the same as DADGAD—is you can get these kind of thickened lines. But stuff like that takes a while to figure out exactly what’s going to work nicely.

You talk about how everything needs to come back to a guitaristic standpoint, and yet the tunings and the voicings that you use sound very pianistic or like a string section. You’ve got those major seconds and minor seconds rubbing against one another, and that’s more difficult to do on a standard-tuned guitar.

Right. In C, G, D, G, A, D, I have the extended bass and the ability to do the close voice, cluster kinds of things—the add2s and the sus4s—that do sound more pianistic. But what makes it so exciting is it’s a guitar that’s doing it. It’s a guitar that’s speaking in this kind of musical way. For me, that’s a major part of the motivation, because to do this stuff on the piano would not necessarily be as inherently interesting.

You get a huge range of timbres on this record as well as a big dynamic range. Some tunes, like “Drive My Car,” you play really hard, whereas “Here, There, and Everywhere,” is amazingly delicate, both in touch and in tone.

Interestingly enough, “Here, There, and Everywhere” was one of the two tunes I played on my Brazilian rosewood signature Martin. That particular Brazilian rosewood guitar definitely lends itself to a light touch, but I think what drives it is finding the emotional space of the performance. That’s not a tune that would necessarily want to be pushed in terms of right-hand articulation. It should be pretty light. I made some choices in the fingerings that helped avoid moves that would cause squeaks because it’s such an exposed tune. Sometimes an open string can ring while the next fingering is being prepared. That particular arrangement needed to sing because it’s such a pretty song, and I guess the guitar logistics work out nicely.

You’ve talked a little bit about choosing the tunings and the keys for these songs. Are you conscious of not having too many songs that are in the same key or back-to-back songs in the same key?

Very much. It’s funny you bring that up because I think virtually every track on Rubber Soul is in the same key. It segues from one tune to the other and it’s like, “Wait a minute—there’s no key difference.” I am conscious of it and I try as much as possible in the sequencing of the album not to put two tracks in a row in the same key. The same thing live. I know if I go see a guitar player who plays multiple tunes in the same key, I get bored.

Is it as simple as just capo-ing?

I think I’ve only ever recorded one tune with a capo. I wrote a thing in DADGAD, I didn’t want it to be in D. I kind of liked the sound capo-ing at the 3rd fret, so it ended up being in F minor. Then as luck would have it, in the sequence of the album it went next to something that was in F major. But at least it was a major to minor. I am conscious of that because there’s a certain kind of psychology of listening to music that you want to keep your audience interested and entertained.

In the grand scheme of popular music history, how important do you think these tunes are?

I think they’re crucial. They are extremely central. Much like Robert Johnson did in the blues world, what the Beatles did—and what Lennon and McCartney in particular did— was to take everything that was going on in pop music and make it their own. It really is music for the ages. It doesn’t go away. It keeps going from one generation to the next, like Shakespeare. We’re talking about nearly 50 years and it still sounds fresh. It was incredibly well recorded, the bulk of it was extremely well written, and extremely well played. As an arranger, it’s tremendously appealing.

What’s next for you?

I’ve got a couple of things that I just started working on. I’ve done an arrangement of “Alfie,” which I have to record for a Burt Bacharach compilation. Bacharach is a masterful composer of classical sensibility and there’s some really deep, impressionistic harmonies that come out of his stuff and odd little changes in meter. I’m also doing “Poison Ivy” for a Leiber and Stoller compilation. In both cases, I can tackle an arrangement and learn something really cool and interesting out of it. It’s just fascinating to me that I can be playing 47 years and still get excited about stuff.

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