THE CALIFORNIA GUITAR TRIO’S RELENTLESS passion for following the muse has served it well.
The acoustic group’s fearless multi-genre explorations
have driven 14 albums and nearly 1,500
gigs across its 21-year career. It has also proven
that a zero-compromise musical approach can
yield an ever-expanding audience. Comprising
Bert Lams, Hideyo Moriya, and Paul Richards,
the group crisscrosses the universes of rock, jazz,
world music, surf music, and classical music in
its performances and recordings.
|The California Guitar Trio (left to right)—Hideyo Moriya, Paul Richards, and Bert Lams.
CGT’s most recent album, Masterworks [CGT],
focuses exclusively on the classical side of the
house, featuring works by composers such as
Bach, Beethoven, Arvo Pärt, Shubert, and Vivaldi.
Accompanying the trio on the project are
Tony Levin on upright bass and cello, and Fareed
Haque on classical guitar.
The trio met while participating in Robert
Fripp’s Guitar Craft courses in 1987. They first
toured together as part of Fripp’s League of Crafty
Guitarists, an orchestra of acoustic players that
served as exponents of the King Crimson founder’s
teachings, compositions, and performance approach. In 1991, they founded the California
Guitar Trio, which initially gained notoriety
opening for the likes of King Crimson,
John McLaughlin, and David Sylvian. They
have fans in high places too: the crew of the
Space Shuttle Endeavour used their pieces
as wake-up music.
Recent years have found the group working
with the Montreal Guitar Trio. The acts perform
both independently and in a dazzling
six-guitar format during gigs. They play
arrangements of each other’s material, as
well as innovative takes on rock standards.
The collaboration has also yielded the concert
recording +Live [CGT].
In addition, Lams has been busy on the
solo front with Unnamed Lands [Independent],
a duo project with Chapman Stick player Tom
Griesgraber. It’s an expansive, instrumental
“progressive Americana” effort that reflects
the trials and tribulations of a wagon train
journey circa 1840.
GP spoke with Richards and Lams.
Describe the impetus to create an all-classical
RICHARDS: We wanted to do one for a long
time. We recorded a version of Vivaldi’s
“Four Seasons” with Fareed Haque, which
inspired us to push the project into motion.
The album is a collection of pieces recorded
over the years that includes some longtime
favorites like Bach’s “Tocatta and Fugue in
D Minor.” We wanted the album to be representative
of the classical repertoire we’ve
been performing across our history. Bert is the
musician with the real classical background.
He graduated from the Royal Conservatory
of Music in Brussels and has received awards
for solo classical guitar, so we looked to him
for direction. Hideyo and I rose to the occasion
to approach the complexity and technical
difficulty of the pieces. The two of us
bring more of a rock background and energy
to things. Overall, we’re playing the pieces
in an untraditional way and bringing some
new life to them.
What made you want to tackle something
as complex as “Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor?”
LAMS: It goes back to 1994 when our friend,
the composer Stan Funicelli, approached us
with the idea of doing the piece. We weren’t
sure at first if this organ piece would work
on guitar. Initially, we just learned the tocatta
and it sounded so different on our steel-string
guitars. It almost had a flamenco sound. We
performed it for some audiences and got some
good feedback, so we went ahead and tackled
the whole thing. It’s a three-part fugue,
so it was fairly straightforward to take those
three lines and arrange the voicings and registers
to work on guitar. The organ has a lot
more range, so we had to move things into
a higher range for it to work.
When we first went on tour as the opening
act for King Crimson in 1995, we were
really excited to play such really big, nice
theaters. But their fans had been waiting a
long time to see the group, and when we’d
walk onstage with acoustic guitars a lot of
people would be disappointed because nobody
knew who we were then. I remember a guy in Buffalo yelling “Play one song and get
off!” Once we got to “Tocatta and Fugue in
D Minor,” everything changed. We received
a standing ovation and knew we had made
a significant impact and that everything was
going to be okay. People really responded to
hearing that piece played on guitar in a way
they had never heard before.
Take us through your signal chains.
RICHARDS: I’m using an Ervin Somogyi
custom dreadnought with a L.R. Baggs
Anthem pickup. The Somogyi has a much
deeper tone and smoother high end than any
guitar I’ve played, largely due to it using the
Novax fanned fretboard system, as well as
having an asymmetrical body. I also use a
Digitech iPB-10 programmable pedalboard
and Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler for effects.
Hideyo uses his Breedlove signature Hideyo
Moriya Custom CM guitar with an RMC
pickup, and a Roland VG-99 V-Guitar system.
LAMS: I have a custom Jayson Bowerman
guitar, which is a shallow, dreadnaught model,
with 12 frets to the body, a super-deep cutaway,
and added bevel. I also use a custom
Huss and Dalton CM 12, which is also a
shallow 12-fret-to-the-body guitar. Having
12 frets makes the instruments similar to a
classical guitar in that they’re very easy on
the left hand, meaning you don’t have to
stretch too far to the next fret. Like Paul,
I use L.R. Baggs Anthem pickups on both
instruments. I also use a Digitech iPB-10
What appeals to you about the L.R. Baggs
Richards: Amplifying an acoustic guitar
is always complex, because you’re never
really going to be able to recreate what it
sounds like in a room sitting in front of the
instrument. So, you always have to compromise.
I’ve given up on regular internal mics,
because they don’t reflect what you’re supposed
to hear from a guitar. You don’t stick
your head inside the guitar when you listen
to it. The sound you’re supposed to hear
is what’s out front. What’s cool about the
Anthem is that it’s a two-mic system that
goes directly underneath the bridge. It has
the most natural sound I’ve ever heard with
a lot of low end, and the high end isn’t brittle
like most other pickups.
The group has used Robert Fripp’s “new
standard tuning”—C, G, D, A, E, G, low to high—
exclusively since it formed in 1991. Does it still
reveal new possibilities to you?
RICHARDS: Definitely. I was a pretty decent
rock and jazz guitarist early on. I had developed
a certain playing style, but I felt kind of stuck. When I first used new standard
tuning, it gave me a completely new and different
way to play things. It allowed me to
let go of everything I had done previously. It
presents a challenge, because the lowest five
strings are all in fifths, with the G on top.
The main advantage of the tuning is being
able to have such wide interval leaps available
within a single position. I also really like
that the chord voicings are spread out, which
sounds very different than the tighter clusters
of standard tuning. After 20 years, I’m
still discovering new things with it.
LAMS: I think it has more to do with the
nature of us musicians than the tuning
itself. We love to explore new sounds and
possibilities. The tuning is the common
thing that brought the California Guitar
Trio together. The sound is really different.
I feel the tuning is much more orchestral
and works really well for arrangements
of pieces we otherwise wouldn’t be able to
do, like Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony.” We
couldn’t do it in standard tuning because
there are so many bass parts. With new
standard tuning, we can work more like
an orchestra, playing pieces that might be
played on piano. It’s also very transparent.
It might take weeks, months or years to
learn one Bach piece in standard tuning.
In new standard tuning, I’m able to transpose
and find alternatives for fingerings
much faster and easier.
What attracted you to working with the
Montreal Guitar Trio?
LAMS: The combination of their three
nylon-string guitars in standard tuning and
our three steel-string guitars in new standard
tuning creates a sound and texture I
haven’t heard to this extent before. It’s an
orchestral sound and we’re just starting to
see what can be done with it. After we met
for the first time, we sent each other pieces
and worked out the arrangements. We doubled
some parts and octaves, and composed
some new parts here and there. When we
got together next, it just worked. Anything
we needed to change happened very fast.
There were no drawn-out rehearsals or discussions.
We thought, “Wow, this is great.
Let’s go. Next.” Initially, I thought it wasn’t
going to work because the combination has
never been done before, but it worked out
great. It came together and mutated into
something very cool. There’s definitely a
little bit of magic happening there.