Adam Rogers Explores Hendrix-style Grooves and Textures

Adam Rogers’ parents were broadway performers who exposed him to a steady diet of show tunes, jazz standards, popular songs, and opera, so it is no surprise he became a musician.
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Adam Rogers’ parents were broadway performers who exposed him to a steady diet of show tunes, jazz standards, popular songs, and opera, so it is no surprise he became a musician. Tracing the roots of his early musical heroes Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters and Weather Report back to Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane made him a jazz musician, while it was playing on the streets of New York City’s rough-and-tumble, pre-Disney Times Square that gave his music an edge. That edge informed the two-guitar attack (with David Gilmore) of his breakout funk/rock/fusion group, Lost Tribe.

Rogers’ post-Tribe career touring and recording with the likes of Michael and Randy Brecker, Norah Jones, Joe Jackson, Walter Becker, Paul Simon, John Zorn, Marcus Miller, and Chris Potter slotted him into the role of journeyman. Wielding a Gibson ES-335, his series of records as leader on the Criss Cross Jazz label have centered on dark-toned straight-ahead jazz, but, for the past decade, this technically fluid guitarist has been simultaneously exploring the edgier possibilities of Hendrix’s favorite axe. Over that time, his Dice trio has developed a unique take on territory explored in similar trios led by Oz Noy and Wayne Krantz—modern harmony and single-note lines, combined with Strat tones and killer grooves. But only now has Rogers deemed the project ready to record.

“I wanted to give it time to marinate,” he explains.

Released on his own imprint, Dice [Adraj Records] is a fully formed funky fiesta, with the guitarist nailing Hendrix’s clean rhythm tones on many tracks, while atmospheric loops honor Jimi’s experimental side. When not working as a sideman or leader, Rogers teaches, making him more comfortable than most when explaining how he does what he does.

Would you say the Dice project is an exploration of the Stratocaster and funk rhythm?

It is. My initial inspiration was the Fender Stratocaster. I was motivated to get serious about guitar because of Hendrix. You have rhythm, melody, and harmony, but sound is both the most basic and challenging part of music. Playing my ES-335 with the sound I use for straight-ahead jazz versus playing a Stratocaster through a Marshall turned up changes the way I approach music. With this band, I wanted to explore mostly one sound. That limits things, but through limitations you can discover things.

Which Strat did you use for the record?

It’s a stock 1965 Fender Stratocaster. I had it refretted once, but other than that, it’s all original.

Were you using a Marshall?

I used a few different amps. I have a 1971 Marshall 50-watt bass head—the slightly darker-voiced one. I was also using a Divided By 13 amplifier. When recording, I typically have two amps set up and miked, and I use a Lehle Dual Amp Switcher to turn one on and turn the other off, so I can go back and forth within the same tune.

Were you using any pedals with that setup?

I have an Ibanez AD9 analog delay pedal, an Ernie Ball VP JR volume pedal, and the Lehle pedal. The distortion sounds all come from cranking the amps.

Do you find the Stratocaster harder to play than your Gibson ES-335?

It depends on the music. My 335 is set up with a high action, and I use heavier strings than on the Stratocaster. On the Gibson, it’s a little bit easier to pick accurately because of the heavy strings and high action.

What gauges do you use?

On the Gibsons, the four bottom strings, E, A, D, G, are from a set of D’Addario .011s: .049, .038, .028, .018. The B and the E are a .016 and a .013. On the Strat, I use a .052 low E, and then .038, .028, .018, .014 and .012. The Stratocaster is easier to play in the context of Dice, but playing straight-ahead jazz on the Strat feels all over the place. I figured out that the string is more stable on the 335, because the action is high, and there’s a lot of tension, so when you pick the string, it doesn’t move much. When there’s less tension and the string is lighter, the string flies around more. Every time you hit it, it’s in a different place. But if I put heavy strings on the Strat, or make the action higher, I can’t get that spanky sound out of it. With the Gibson, if I lower the action too much, the strings fret out, and I can’t get the solid pure sound I like.

Dice’s music leans on one-chord vamps. Do you have any tips for keeping one’s playing interesting over static harmony?

That’s a good question. I want to stay to some extent within the confines of what I think is appropriate to the music, so I don’t play any II, V, I patterns over one chord. I use chromaticism, polytonality, and a lot of superimposing other key centers over the key center I’m in. I use chromatic pivot notes within the key to suggest ways of leaving the key. For example, if I start playing a bV note, I’ll use that chromatic note as a pivot on which to base other arpeggios that may suggest polytonality. So if I’m in D minor and I play G#, it might be interesting to use the G# (or Ab) as a pivot note to play in Ab, or maybe use that as the tonic for an Ab arpeggio, Dbmaj7, or F minor. If I’m in D minor, I might use a scale that’s not D minor Dorian, but also has a natural seventh and a minor third. Perhaps an altered scale, a diminished scale, or I’ll play a major third and a minor third. You assimilate these things to the point where it’s second nature. Ultimately, you’re using your ears in the same way as when all you knew were three notes on the E string, but you now have file cabinets of information internalized so you can hear things you wouldn’t have heard before.

Why did you choose to cover Willie Nelson’s “Crazy?”

I’ve loved that tune since I was a kid. It’s great to go into the realm of standards that aren’t Broadway show tunes. That’s a lot of string bending and bending behind the nut. On “The Mystic,” “Crazy,” and “The Interlude,” I used my all-original 1956 Tele through a ’66 black panel Fender Vibrolux.

How did you create the ambient sounds in “C Minor,” and the textures on “Flava” and “Elephant”?

On “C Minor,” I did some post-production things after we played the basics live as a trio. I played bass clarinet, and there’s a Line 6 DL4 looper pedal. Also, before recording some of the tunes, I would create an ambient loop that I would turn on during some of the takes. On “C Minor,” the loop was a sample of a Fairlight synthesizer and samples of classical electronic music I got from an old LP. On “Flava” I created a loop in the solo section using clarinets, synthesizers, and a backwards loop.

The two metal-sounding tunes on the record—“Flava” and “Seven”—are played on my 2009 1960 Reissue Les Paul with the Marshall cranked to 10. When you’re standing anywhere near a Marshall on 10 with a Les Paul, if you take your hands off the strings it’s going to feedback and go crazy—which I used any chance I could.

Were you in the same room with the amps?

I always like to record in the same room as the amp so I don’t have to listen through headphones. If you want to get feedback, you need proximity. There are two mics on each amp, and room mics all over the place—which I used on every tune. When I was rough mixing the record, I would find mic combinations that reflected the tone I wanted. There’s no reverb, compression, or EQ on this record.

I notice in videos that you angle your pick up. What advantage do you derive from that?

If I come across the strings diagonally, it’s a warmer and fatter sound than playing with the pick exactly parallel to the strings. You find a sound with the pick on the strings that is the greatest sound you can come up with. and everything should flow from there.

What pick do you use?

Very small, extra-heavy teardrop D’Andrea jazz picks.

Do you use the pointy part or the round part?

I use the pointy part. When playing blues and funk, I also pull up the strings with my thumb or middle finger. I really love doing that with Strats and Teles, because you can get the amp to explode. If you have a great instrument, many different tones will reveal themselves, depending on how hard you’re striking the string, or if you pull up on it.

Do you plan to continue doing straight-ahead records as well?

Definitely, I have a whole book of music for acoustic quartet that I’d like to record. I create other music—like ambient music and solo stuff in my home studio. I wanted to create my own label because it would allow me to release things myself.