This Time It’s Personal, How One Broken String Drove Charlie Hunter Back to His Guitaristic Roots

With a bold musical imagination, and more than ample technique to support it, Charlie Hunter has never been a conventional guitarist.
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WITH A BOLD MUSICAL IMAGINATION, AND MORE than ample technique to support it, Charlie Hunter has never been a conventional guitarist. That was already evident 20 years ago when he released Charlie Hunter Trio [Prawn Song], his first CD. Back then, he played a custom 7-string tuned like a regular guitar with the addition of a low-A bass string. On that instrument, Hunter was able to make music that sounded like a bassist and guitarist jamming together—a really creative, agile bassist and guitarist.

Hunter released his next record just two years later—Bing, Bing, Bing! [Blue Note]—and was playing an 8-string by then. That axe’s three lowest strings were tuned like the bottom three on a bass (E, A, D), while the remaining five strings were like the top five on a standard guitar (A, D, G, B, E). With this expanded range at his fingertips, Hunter’s split-personality technique got even deeper and he often seemed to be thinking of his instrument more like a Hammond organ than a guitar. As the ’90s rolled on into the new millennium, Hunter recorded several more discs, each with a fresh musical concept unlike the one before it. One record featured guest vocalists (Songs from the Analog Playground) while another reimagined the classic Bob Marley album Natty Dread. Band members continually changed and the material varied, ranging from jazz to funk to avant-rock.

Then, one night—about six years ago—a funny thing happened: Hunter broke his high-E string in the middle of a gig. Rather than stopping to restring, he decided to keep on playing—and discovered he dug this impromptu 7-string a whole lot. “Suddenly,” he says, “I could get to so much more music, because I wasn’t responsible for muting that high string when I didn’t need it. It’s way more fun.”

This 7-string orientation has led Hunter away from his dualistic approach toward a more unified sound on the instrument. This is utterly apparent on his latest independent release, Not Getting Behind Is the New Getting Ahead [Charlie Hunter Music]. From the haunting “Assessing the Assessors, An Assessor’s Assessment” to the swaggering “Those Desks Aren’t Going to Clean Themselves,” the tunes all sound native to the instrument Hunter now plays. Hunter’s using open strings in his chord voicings, and chiming harmonics—guitaristic stuff, in short—more than ever before.

To record Not Getting Behind, Hunter teamed up once again with drummer Scott Amendola, a longtime friend and collaborator. Recorded live to 2-track, with no overdubs or mixing afterward, this intimate duo setting showcases Hunter’s more streamlined approach. Sure, he’s still managing the herculean feat of playing bass lines and guitar parts simultaneously, but more than ever before, it sounds like one man on one instrument, and that instrument sounds more familiar than foreign.

Why did you decide to record Not Getting Behind live to 2-track?

If you’re making music that’s conceived as a live interaction—regardless of the style— then there’s no better way to do it. It actually puts you in a position where you don’t have to go for things you shouldn’t be going for anyway. You just go in and play.

How did you set up in the studio with Scott Amendola?

I was right next to the drums, the amps were right behind me, and we didn’t use headphones.

Why no headphones?

Our whole thing is based on communication and dynamics. Without headphones, it all comes to life. I don’t record that much, you know. Ninety percent of what I do is live. So to get to do that when you’re recording is fantastic.

Did you bring your usual live rig into the studio, or use amps that they had there?

The studio had an old Ampeg tube bass amp. I used that for the bass side, and used my Carr Rambler guitar amp. We also used an old Fender with a 15" speaker as a second amp to get some low-end thump on the guitar side. It’s as simple as it gets. No effects, just straight into the amps.

So, when it sounds grittier— like on “Rust Belt”—that’s just you pushing the amp harder?

That’s it. I don’t even think I touched the volume knob on the guitar. It’s all with the fingers.

Just playing softer or harder?

Exactly. Finger dynamics is something I’ve worked on over the years. I ditched the volume pedal four or five years ago and never looked back. Now that I have everything in my hands, it seems to flow a lot better.

It seems that in the past few years you’ve gotten away from the guitar-as-organ approach that you were into earlier in your career.

You’re right. Back then, I felt like I had to play all my sh*t all the time. Like, “I’ve got to show these guys that I can play.” I’m glad I went through that car wash. You go through these things and you immerse yourself. What sticks with you sticks with you, and what doesn’t falls to the wayside.

I got back to the music that I grew up on, which is all this old blues-guitar stuff that my mom had playing in the house: Son House, Brownie McGhee, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Robert Johnson, Blind Blake. All that stuff, that’s where I’m coming from—the guitar vernacular. Whatever jazz sensibility comes through has to come through that prism.

Your solo on “The Wizard Pounds the Pavement” is so patient and intense. You start off in this low-down groove and stay there for the whole tune.

We threw down the gauntlet for that one. We decided—this is 60 beats per minute, and that’s what it is. That is the environment in which everything is going to happen. It’s going to be lonely and it’s going to be dark. There’s going be a lot of things living in the corners—you don’t know what they are. But don’t try to play faster. Don’t try to play your way out of it. You’ve got to sit there and let the thing do what it’s going to do.

Why did you switch back to 7- string, after years on the 8-string?

I didn’t really “switch back.” This is an entirely different beast. When I was first doing the 7-string thing, years ago, it was like a regular guitar with a low A. The kind of 7-string I’m doing now really came out of my 8-string thing. As the style got a little more personal for me, I got away from trying to be an organ player, or from trying to be both a bass player and a guitar player at the same time. It got to be its own kind of rhythmic-counterpoint/ harmony machine— like a gigantic version of Joseph Spence, hopefully. When it got to be that, that’s when I really started investigating ways to make it make more sense for me, musically.

What’s your tuning?

I’ve changed it a few times. I’d spent so much time on the 8-string trying to have the whole bass and guitar range, wanting to keep it in E. It was hard. That low E was always so floppy, because the scale length wasn’t long enough. I tuned the 7-string up to F for a while. I made a record called Baboon Strength in that tuning, and it worked pretty well.

But now I just don’t care anymore whether people think I’m a bass player. I want to make everything really personal and let this instrument do what it’s supposed to do. I tuned it up a minor third—with the low string up to G—and suddenly realized this is where this thing should sit. So, from low to high—G, C, F, C, F, Bb, D. It’s essentially the lower three strings of a bass and the middle four of a guitar, all tuned up a minor third. There’s more continuity now between the guitar and the bass.

Ultimately, the goal was always for it to sound like its own thing. I think it’s finally there, after all these years. If you’d asked ten years ago, I’d have said, “I’m okay at this. I’m not really good at it.” Now I think I’m really good at it, but I’m not great yet. Maybe in another ten years I’ll be great at it if I figure it out.

What is the guitar you’re playing?

It’s a Jeff Traugott, with fanned frets—the same one I’ve had for the past five or six years.

What’s the scale length?

29" on the bottom string, 25.5" on the top.

Do you have to use custom strings?

I use D’Addario short-scale bass strings for the lower three, and regular guitar strings for the other four.

You’ve made so many great records in the past 20 years. Do you have a favorite?

You always like the one you just made the most. It’s in your consciousness, I guess, so that’s the one that you’re most into. You go into battle with the army you have and the concept you have, and you make it. Then you’re in the fog of war, so to speak. You don’t know whether it’s a good or bad record until ten or 15 years later.

After you make your third or fourth record, you think, “This is the best. And my earlier stuff is rough.” But then you get older and you listen to your first record, and you’re like, “Man—that’s actually pretty good!”