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The California Guitar Trio Tackles the Classics

January 30, 2014
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The California Guitar Trio (left to right)—Hideyo Moriya, Paul Richards, and Bert Lams.
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.

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 album.

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 programmable pedalboard.

What appeals to you about the L.R. Baggs Anthem pickup?

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.

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