Chords, Comping, and the Music of Cape Town

Lee Ritenour is an extremely busy man, as the 30 albums, 17 Grammy nominations, and 3,000 sessions under his belt prove quite conclusively. But if there’s one thing Rit enjoys as much as playing guitar, composing, and recording, it’s spending time sharing music with others. That’s why his posh Los Angeles studio is as equipped for rehearsing as it is for entertaining friends. In fact, looking at one crowded group photo on the wall, you begin to realize just how many friends Ritenour has made over the years—a point his 2004 live DVD, Overtime, drives home with every frame, as it features the jazz legend performing in a comfortable semi-circle with a plethora of musicians he’s worked with in various configurations since the 1970s.

Today, however, Ritenour’s friends, associates, and collaborators will have to wait. He’s recently released Smoke ’n’ Mirrors [Peak]—an energized album featuring everyone from his longtime musical partner, pianist/arranger Dave Grusin, to percussionist Alex Acuña, Brazilian vocalist and composer Daniel Jobim (Antonio Carlos Jobim’s grandson), South African vocalist Zamajobe, and bass phenoms John Patitucci and Richard Bona—and he’s enthused to spend the afternoon detailing the grooves that inspired the album’s songs. That’s right—the man whose stunning lead guitar work earned him the nickname “Captain Fingers” wants to, for perhaps the first time, share with you some of his most inspired and inspiring rhythm guitar approaches. But, before you get rolling, let’s be sure you’re all...

Warmed Up

One corner of Ritenour’s studio—the zone next to his prized record collection—looks like Central Command, with various guitars, amps, and effects ready to be fired-up at a moment’s notice. As the interview gets underway, Rit picks up his signature-model Gibson archtop and immediately the room comes alive with great guitar music—not surprising for a guy who practices every chance he gets, especially when he’s on the road.

“As you play more, your chops get better but your body gets more beat up as the road goes on,” says Rit. “So, physically, you get more stiff.” Ritenour generally limbers up with Ex.1—a pattern that crosses the neck from the sixth string to the first, shifts up one fret and travels back down to the sixth, ascends another fret, and starts the process all over again. According to Ritenour, if you play this pattern up and down the neck non-stop for about ten minutes you’ll begin to notice dramatic benefits. “It really gets the synchronization between the two hands dialed in,” he says. “The whole purpose is to get the two hands talking to each other so they’re both on the same stage, so to speak.” To work out the little finger you can play Ex.2, and to improve your stretches, try Ex. 3.

Another of Ritenour’s go-to warm-ups is what he calls a “sort of messed up pentatonic pattern.” It involves working the 1st and 3rd fingers across the neck [Ex.4], then shifting them up a fret and descending [Ex.5]. As with any practice routine, do not “practice through the pain.” If it hurts, stop.

The African Pocket

Strapping on his trusty Yamaha Silent Guitar nylon string, Ritenour explains that Brazilian music—with its accessible rhythms, jazz harmonies, stirring melodies, and beautiful Portuguese lyrics—has, for some reason, always come naturally to him. (In fact, Rit has worked with quite a few Brazilian legends, including the country’s national treasure, composer Antonio Carlos Jobim.) Over the years, however, Rit also became drawn to African music, yet could never quite get the elusive “groove element” he had heard on so many recordings under his fingers. (“It’s those nuances—all that little in-between stuff—that’s tricky.”) In 2005, however, that would change. Already planning an African-influenced CD, Ritenour was in South Africa when a backstage jam session with Hugh Masekela’s band gave him the confidence to put his own stamp on that music—a lively interpretation you can hear on several tracks from Smoke ’n’ Mirrors.

Captain Tunings

Recent years have found Ritenour experimenting with several new tunings, including some Nashville voicings. However, for the percussive, South African-flavored composition “Capetown,” he tunes his Yamaha steel-string to a modified C tuning that’s more extreme than typical open guitar tunings. If you want to try it, be forewarned—you’ll be lowering the sixth and fifth strings down a major third (to C and F, respectively), the second and first strings down a major third (to G and C, respectively), and raising the fourth and third strings a whopping minor sixth to Bb and Eb. (Don’t risk string breakage—follow Rit’s example and replace the fourth and third strings with gauges similar to those of the highest two strings.) Ex.6 shows you how to play the figure in standard tuning, but you’ll quickly discover why it’s easier the other way if you at least play through the tablature in Ex. 7, which features the phrase transcribed exactly as performed, custom tuning and all. (The notes will, of course, be off if you don’t retune and restring, but at least you’ll get a feel for the moves.)

Mixing It Up

On “Memeza,” Zamajobe’s producer/guitarist Erik Pilani Paliani’s driving electric guitar parts line up in a “three against two” feel [Ex.8], creating an exciting backdrop for Zamajobe’s vocals and Ritenour’s acoustic work. One part [Gtr. 1] sounds like a high-pitched percussion instrument in triple meter, whereas the other [Gtr. 2] accentuates the low, “marching drum” feel in a duple feel. This polyrhythmic approach is a crucial part of what makes African and Latin music (whose rhythms originate in Africa) so hypnotic and exciting.

To spice things up even more on the Smoke ’n’ Mirrors title track, Ritenour adds a pinch of contrary motion and a dash of 7/4 time to the mix. Taken from the song’s B section, Ex.9 combines Ritenour’s ascending melody [Gtr. 1] with a descending bass part, arranged here for guitar [Gtr. 2]. To make the 7/4 phrases more accessible, you can think of each measure as a bar of 4/4 followed by a bar of 3/4.

Fretboard Awareness

When Ritenour was just 14 years old, his guitar teacher Duke Miller (then head of the University of Southern California classical guitar program) had him write his own chord book instead of studying someone else’s. Miller also taught the future Captain Fingers the mechanics of harmony and theory, and then charged him with listing the important chords (and their inversions) all over the fretboard. Ultimately, the sight-reading skills he would develop from years of studying classical guitar would help open doors for him in the early- to mid-70s studio scene in Los Angeles. Ritenour cites this early experience and other fretboard awareness exercises as crucial in developing his keen sense of voice leading and his knack for linking chords [Ex.10]—two things he notices that a lot of young guitarists struggle with. Of course, when accompanying others in ensemble situations, Ritenour uses very sparse voicings generated from outlining the upper extensions of chords and, whenever possible, leaving off muddy roots and 5s. As Ex. 11 illustrates, it’s not unusual for him to simply play a melodic line harmonized in thirds over the chord changes.

Pick-less Pockets

“Fingerstyle is a whole other ball game,” says Ritenour. “Though I studied classical guitar with Christopher Parkening at USC when I was 16, I never fully developed the technique because I was so ensconced in the pick by then.” To show how a classical guitarist might interpret the main 12/8 African shuffle-type groove to “Water’s Edge,” Ritenour purposely gives Ex.12 an overly brash sound by plucking each note with his fingernails. Then, to warm things up, he uses the folk technique of palm muting while plucking bass notes with the fleshy part of the thumb. (Presently, Ritenour is shedding on fingerstyle guitar in preparation for Two Worlds II, the follow-up to the classical crossover CD he and Grusin released in 2000.)

Wes Is More

Recording 1993’s Wes Bound offered Ritenour a big challenge—how to pay homage to one of his biggest influences without sounding like he was copying him. In fact Montgomery was such a huge part of Ritenour’s early listening that Ritenour spent all the years up to that point trying not to sound like him. Luckily, after some 20 recordings as a leader, Ritenour finally felt comfortable enough to blend his own style with Montgomery’s. On the tribute “A Little Bumpin’,” Rit cops a funky, Montgomery-esque vibe by thumbing octave-melodies peppered with chordal jabs [Ex.13]. Archtop in hand, Ritenour goes on to demonstrate a hipster harmonic technique that Montgomery used a lot—an approach whereby over a dominant-7th chord such as, say, G7, the jazz legend would alternate between Dm7 shapes and the diminished chords that work as rootless equivalents for G7b9—namely, Bdim7, Ddim7, Fdim7, and Abdim7 [Ex.14].

Un-Common Tones

Though they had met through producer Quincy Jones a few years prior, it was while tracking on George Benson’s 1980 hit album Give Me the Night that Ritenour and Brazilian vocalist and composer Ivan Lins really got to know each other. “We did a couple of Ivan’s tunes [“Love Dance” and “Dinorah, Dinorah”]—gorgeous tunes full of great jazz harmony—and Ivan and I immediately hit it off,” says Ritenour. The pair recorded together with pianist Dave Grusin a few years later and forged a musical friendship that continues to this day. “If you listen to any of Ivan’s records—especially when it’s just him and his keyboard—you’ll hear how he had this way of modulating through different harmonies that was so unique and very fresh. Again, it’s all about voice-leading.”

Ritenour goes on to demonstrate the Lins-approved practice of playing seemingly unrelated chords in succession—and getting away with it—by linking them with a common note placed atop each voicing [Ex.15]. “Ivan would modulate at the weirdest places, but there would be one common tone that got him there. Though he’s often considered a Brazilian pop artist more so than a ‘jazzer,’ if you really want to study contemporary jazz harmony, check out Ivan Lins.”

Download sheet music for Ritenour’s new album, Smoke ’n’Mirrors, by clicking to