THERE’S AN OLD JOKE: HOW MANY GUITAR PLAYERS DOES IT TAKE TO change a light bulb? The answer is 11—one to do it, and ten to say how they could have done it better. It’s funny because it’s true enough. At one time or another, we’ve all come across competitive, trash-talking players like those ten in the joke. But multifaceted jazzer and studio veteran Lee Ritenour stands the stereotype on its head with his eclectic new album, 6 String Theory [Concord]. Taking an esprit de corps tack, Ritenour invited some of the heaviest guitarists in jazz, blues, rock, and country to his light bulb-changing party. Among the A-listers were Joe Bonamassa, Pat Martino, Vince Gill, B.B. King, Robert Cray, Neal Schon, Slash, Mike Stern, John Scofield, Keb’ Mo’, and Steve Lukather.
Ritenour gives the players ample strutting room, and even acts as a silent partner on a few tunes, such as George Benson’s solo spin on “My One and Only Love.”
6 String Theory isn’t only a showcase for established heavies, though. A few up-and-comers make the scene, including YouTube heroes Guthrie Govan and Andy McKee. Both Govan and McKee have clocked millions of views on the Web and have released their own CDs, but neither has been recorded at this level of production before. McKee’s virally successful solo acoustic “Drifting” is fleshed out by Ritenour’s fullband arrangement, while Govan borrows Jeff Beck’s rhythm section—Vinnie Colaiuta and Tal Wilkenfeld—to upgrade his YouTube hit “Fives.” 16-year-old Canadian classical guitarist Shon Boublil shines brightly on two caprices by 19th Century Italian guitarist/ composer Luigi Legnani. (Boublil recently won the Yamaha-sponsored Six String Theory Guitar Competition. First prize was a four-year scholarship to Berklee College of Music and this spot on Ritenour’s record). Tomoyasu Hotei is the real X-factor. Relatively obscure Stateside, he’s a genuine star in his native Japan. Hotei’s blistering solo on “Freeway Jam”—with whammy-bar pyrotechnics and pick-edge harmonics—is an effective counterbalance to jazzified turns from Ritenour and Mike Stern.
With so many guitar players featured, and Ritenour occasionally going unheard, listeners may wonder exactly whose record 6 String Theory is. Rit is well aware of the dichotomy, and he blurs the line in his own Zen-like way in the CD’s liner notes. “Is this a Lee Ritenour record?” the guitarist asks rhetorically. “No,” he answers. Then he poses the same question again, answering, “Yes.” Talking with him about 6 String Theory, it quickly becomes apparent that both answers are true.
How did the concept for 6 String Theory come about?
This is a record that I was probably destined to do forever. Ever since I first started playing the guitar at eight years old—50 freakin’ years ago—I just devoured any kind of guitar playing: A country player like Jimmy Bryant, or a jazz player like Wes Montgomery, or Travis-picking, or classical guitar, or Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix once the rock scene started. Whatever it was, I listened and took what I could from it.
This record is a deconstruction of the guitar—snapshots of its evolution up to this point. It was important for me to show a variety of styles. I handpicked the players and crafted, with each one, what they were going to do on the record. Now, is this a Lee Ritenour record per se, with just me playing guitar on every track? No, of course not. But does it feel like a Lee Ritenour record to me? Yes.
You’re playing with giants in their respective fields, were you at all intimidated?
Not really. Maybe this is where the 50 years of playing pays off. The bigger the gig, the better I usually do. I was a little nervous around Pat Martino at first, however, because he has godly bebop chops and I was entering his world more than he was entering mine.
The first session for this record was with John Scofield, and that session set the tone for the whole project. John is such an amazing musician, but so non-competitive. He has chops when he wants to use them, but he’s all about being his own voice. He doesn’t even know how to sound like anybody else. Maybe that’s another reason why I didn’t get intimidated—everyone involved has his or her own voice. Competition went out the door.
Your interplay with Scofield on “Lay It Down” is so dynamic and lively. Did you track together simultaneously?
Yes. We were sitting close to each other. Standing, actually. It seems like such a simple thing, but I had never done it before. Usually I sit down at recording sessions, from my history of being a studio musician in the ’70s. I noticed that most of the guitarists on the 6 String Theory sessions would stand. I tried it, and it was much better.
What was different?
I immediately went into using more of my body and feeling more like it was live. We were playing with each other and against each other—trading, riffing off each other, and communicating. Even the visual contact was better, because we could see each other that much easier.
Was the whole album recorded like that—with players interacting in real time?
I wanted to capture most of the album live, and I got lucky. I was able to do about 90 percent of it live, though Tomoyasu Hotei’s track on “Freeway Jam” was one we had to do differently. I realized I had a nice little slot for him on that tune, with Mike Stern and myself. He’s sort of thought of as the Jeff Beck of Japan, so I figured he might know “Freeway Jam.” I emailed him and he wrote back, “I love that tune, send it over.” He did exactly what was called for, then sent the tracks right back to us. That was one of those wonders when the Internet worked perfectly.
Your electric tones also have a “live” feel. Did you record with your amps nearby you, or isolated?
We were working at Henson Recording in Los Angeles—the old A&M studio. They have four or five isolation booths. We set up the drums in the main room, put the guitar amps and bass amps in the isolation booths, and then played together in the center of the main room with the drums.
Were you using one amp setup throughout, or changing for each song?
I was all over the map—usually through a 4x12 cabinet with Celestions. I borrowed Guthrie Govan���s Cornford MK50 MkII head for “In Your Dreams.” That amp is in the Marshall family, but with its own personality. It juxtaposed nicely on that track with Lukather’s sound—Music Man guitar through a Marshall—and Neal Schon’s setup, which was just a Boss multi-effects unit straight into the board. For “Freeway Jam,” I used my Mesa/Boogie Road King. Mike Stern is on that track, and I knew he would be using his stereo setup with chorus effect. I sometimes do a similar thing, but I thought I should go for a mono, straight-up rock sound. I used the third channel on the Road King.
I did use my stereo setup on “Lay It Down.” It’s a left/right/center setup, actually—two Fender Twins with a TC Electronic GSystem unit for stereo delay, and the Road King in the center, clean and dry. I used a custom Rodenberg pedal for the overdrive on that song. It’s a beautiful unit with lots of presence but without that typical 5kHzboost. During mixing, we sometimes had to put me off to one side because of having multiple guitar players. For example, on the Scofield track, I’m slightly to one side, Scofield on the other. We still used all three of my tracks, but panned more to the lefthand side. I used a Bugera 333XL for a bluesier sound on some things, and tried a Divided by 13 amp towards the end of the project. The Les Paul sounded great with all those different amps.
Wait—a Les Paul? Aren’t you famously an ES- 335 player?
I’ve always been a 335 player. I’m known for it and I’ve got my own Limited Edition Gibson model. Funny thing is, other than a few rhythm parts, I didn’t use the 335 much on this album. I used my Gibson L-5 on a couple of jazz things, like “L.P.” On most of the tunes where I’m playing a rockier style, though, it’s the Paul—a ’59 reissue put together for me by Mike McGuire in Gibson’s Custom Shop. The back-story is, I owned a ’57 Les Paul years ago. I sold it in the ’80s and hadn’t played one since.
I talked with Mike about making me a guitar sometime early in 2009. I knew I had this project coming up and I felt that a Les Paul might be the right sound for some of the music. UPS showed up with the guitar several months later, and it happened to be the day Les Paul died. That guitar is very special for me, from that significance.
For you, what’s the difference between a 335 and a Paul?
I had thought that it couldn’t sound that different. You know—it’s a Gibson, and it has humbuckers. How different can it be? But it is quite a bit different. The Paul’s sustain is more consistent and it is a little more even sounding overall. It’s an incredible guitar for rock and blues, and certain kinds of rhythm parts. I fell in love with it for this project. The 335 still has a little more versatility, if you were going to pick one guitar to do many different kinds of things.
You’re obviously very tuned in to the subtleties of your own sound. As the album’s producer, how involved were you with the other players’ tones?
I felt very comfortable getting personal sounds for everyone involved—helping get a great classical sound for Shon, and making sure I nailed Joe Robinson’s steel-string sound. George Benson trusted me to revive the classic sound from his earlier records. Some guys were very specific about what they wanted, because they’re as much pros at this stuff as I am. Neal Schon knew exactly what his sound should be. Scofield said to me when we were recording that the Vox AC30 we were using for him sounded a little thin. I was cognizant of that and tried to fatten his sound up a bit in mixing. So, guitar- tone wise, I had a blast. I could touch just about every kind of color that the guitar has.