“I’VE ALWAYS THOUGHT OF MYSELF MORE AS A musician than just a guitar player,” says Frank Gambale. “A lot of guitarists are quite satisfied to just play their three blues licks and that’s it—but not me. I don’t fit ‘the norm,’ I guess. I like to find cutting-edge, musical solutions to the guitar.” Gambale’s biggest solution was to elevate the technique of sweep picking to a high art, with books and instructional videos that made his name synonymous with the technique. He also came up with a new tuning dubbed the Gambale Tuning (A, D, G, C, E, A, low to high), to facilitate piano-like “cluster” chord voicings that he says are nearly impossible on a standard tuned guitar. His 2004 album Raison D’Etre showcased this to the Nth degree. Pretty impressive, especially considering that he has also released more than 20 solo albums and been a member of various highpowered ensembles including Chick Corea’s Elektric Band and Vital Information. Gambale’s latest solo endeavor, Natural Selection [Wombat], finds the guitarist in a somewhat mellower vein, as he has foregone drums and sticks to a clean, sultry jazz tone.
It took a few listens to Natural Selection before I realized there were no drums on the record.
Well, I love drums and I’ve worked with some of the best drummers in the business. But music these days, especially pop and jazz, are sonically very drum heavy. For example, turn a modern rock or jazz CD almost all the way down—all you’ll hear are the drums! They take up a huge amount of the audio spectrum. With Natural Selection, I wanted the guitar, bass, and piano to have more space in the music.
Your tone is also clean throughout the record.
I love distorted guitar, and I’ll be going back to it soon, but on this record I wanted a clean, uneffected sound. I used a Yamaha AES1500 jazz box strung up with a .010 set of D’Addario Chrome flatwound strings through a German-made AER amplifier. For jazz, flatwounds sound the best. To my ears roundwound strings sound completely wrong on a jazz guitar. They don’t have the right amount of attack.
Did you use your Gambale Tuning on Natural Selection?
No. That tuning is particularly suited for chord melody playing, not single-note improvisations, which are what I do on the new record. Live, however, I play a doubleneck so I can have both tunings available. The tuning has been a revelation. I gave up on harmonically dense cluster voicings for the guitar because they were a physical impossibility. But I was messing with a Nashville tuning patch on a Roland VG-88 a few years ago and I got the idea to develop this tuning, wherein the whole guitar is tuned up a fourth, but the top two strings are down an octave.
What string gauges do you use for your tuning?
I use a .010 gauge set for the bottom four strings, starting with the A string, and for the top two strings I use the D and G strings from a set of .009s. So gauge-wise, low-tohigh, it is .036, .026, .017, .013, .024, .016. It takes a moment to get used to, but within a few minutes, everyone I show it to loves it. The beauty of the tuning is you can play the same shapes that you’re used to, whereas if you use an alternate tuning like open D or DADGAD, all of your shapes go away and you have to relearn everything. In my tuning if you play, say, a D chord shape, it’s still a major triad.
Do you feel that your association with sweep picking sometimes overshadows your music?
Yeah, I get frustrated when people think of me as just a technician and disregard the musical content. I never set out to be a technician. I never just practiced technique. Sweep picking was an evolution born out of a desire to play licks from other instruments like piano or saxophone. Music is the number one goal—it’s sacred—it’s not just about the technical aspects of it. That being said, I devoted most of my life to refining what you can do with sweep picking and exploring all of its possibilities, so I understand why people would come to me if they’re having problems with their technique. For me personally, sweep picking has broken through the physical barrier of the guitar. I no longer have a limit on how fast I can play. In fact, it’s easier to play fast than slow. The analogy I use is, when you’re playing fast with straight alternate picking, it’s like a car with only four gears barreling down the highway at 70 MPH, revving really high and shaking. Conversely, sweeping is like having a fifth or sixth gear, going fast without any drama.
What do you find is the biggest problem with other guitarists’ technique?
Most of the time the biggest problems with acquiring speed are not holding the pick at the right angle, and using a pick that is too heavy. If the pick is too heavy, it’s like running a car without shock absorbers—the plastic should flex a bit and absorb some of the attack. It’s also important to keep the pick at a 45- degree angle. That way there’s less resistance between the string and the pick. See, there’s nothing natural about holding a guitar. When you do hold it, however, your picking arm comes over the guitar at a 45-degree angle, so that is its most natural position, and when you put a pick in your hand, it’s important to maintain that angle to the strings.
Did you experiment with picks?
Yes, and I found bigger picks to be more ergonomic. They tuck up easier into the upper part of your index finger for more stability— almost like they’re form fitted. For almost 35 years I’ve been using 1mm heavy D’Addario/Planet Waves picks, but they stopped making them. They have a softer curve to them, like the round side of a standard tear drop pick, but it’s the same on all three sides so you get three picks in one
How can a player make use of their practice routine onstage?
When you’re at home practicing you’re in the left-brain, getting your s**t together with theory and fretboard knowledge—but when you hit the stage you need to forget all of that. You can’t be thinking onstage. One trick I’d use is, since the guitar is such a visual instrument and we’re all used to shapes, I’d have students turn the lights off and play in the dark with a drummer and bass player. That way you have to use your ear and respond to what you’re hearing. Or you can just close your eyes—you’ll have a way better chance of tapping into your creative right brain that way.