Black Pumas' Adrian Quesada on How He Merges African Rhythms with Texas-Size Tone

The eclectic guitarist also tells GP about how he approaches playing live and in the studio, and the hot-modded vintage gear that inspires him.
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Quesada with his Gibson ES-446 onstage at the 2018 Grandoozy Festival in Denver, September 16, 2018.

Quesada with his Gibson ES-446 onstage at the 2018 Grandoozy Festival in Denver, September 16, 2018.

Adrian Quesada was curious the first time Prince’s amplifier showed up onstage next to his rig at the Rio in Las Vegas. A few weeks later, when the Purple One came out to perform with Quesada’s band, Grupo Fantasma, it marked the beginning of a whirlwind that sent them continent-hopping with the late guitarist.

Through Prince originally hired Grupo Fantasma to be the Thursday “Latin Night” talent during his 2007 residency at the Rio, he eventually brought them to gigs like his 21-night stint at London’s O2 Arena, where they performed as his opening act and after-party talent.

“Me and [Grupo co-guitarist] Beto Martinez would do these three-guitar rhythm jams with Prince,” Quesada says. “On cue, he would stop the band, start playing something on rhythm and point at us. It’s a pretty daunting task to have to play guitar next to him. I feel like that gave us confidence that we wouldn’t have gotten even after years and years of playing.”

Quesada eventually won a Grammy award for his work with Grupo Fantasma. Today, he’s the co-visionary and guitarist of Black Pumas, a collaboration with vocalist Eric Burton that draws on the wealth of musical influences Quesada absorbed growing up in Laredo, Texas, and living in Austin. 

There, as a student at the University of Texas, Quesada studied world music styles such as Afropop, Afro-Caribbean and Colombian cumbia, a folkloric genre of music and dance that blends influences from African, European and Indigenous American music. In doing so, he melded his Latin roots with hip-hop and rock.

“What I loved the most was that, in African music, it’s more of a conversation between the instruments,” he says. “It’s not uncommon for the guitarist to play rhythmically, like a drummer, and do the exact same thing for 10 minutes.”

That eclectic mix informs Quesada’s songwriting and guitar playing on Black Pumas (ATO), the band’s debut album, where the guitarist’s lockstep rhythms and fuzzed-out leads color their soul-inspired sound. Quesada spoke with Guitar Player about how he approaches playing live and in the studio, and the hot-modded vintage gear that inspires him.

Groupo Fantasma dove heavily into Latin influences. Where else do you draw inspiration from?

Austin has an incredible musical pedigree - everything from Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators to Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan. There’s a million people that play guitar in Austin. You could throw a rock and hit a really good guitar player, so it breeds people that want to take their craft seriously. 

I think that’s something you see in every style of music in Austin, from players of psychedelic rock to people that are keeping various forms of the blues alive.

What scenes did you get into when you moved there?

The first thing was jazz, but I didn’t have any jazz training. I got into everything from free jazz to guitarists like Marc Ribot and Sonny Sharrock, and even more-out-there players. Around that time, some friends and I were getting together and rediscovering our roots in Latin music. 

It was something that was around me when I was growing up, and I actually studied a little bit of flamenco when I was young, as well as classical. But like most teenagers, I was rebelling against that stuff. I wanted to play rock and roll and punk, and I was into hip-hop. But in Austin, the level of musicianship is just so high, and you meet so many people and discover so many things. Eventually, it all rubs off on you.

Onstage with the Black Pumas in Austin, August 23, 2018.

Onstage with the Black Pumas in Austin, August 23, 2018.

What was the vision for Black Pumas?

Originally, Eric and I connected through some instrumentals that I was writing. We didn’t really have an idea for a band; we were collaborating for fun for a few months. I love a lot of the throwback soul stuff and wanted to nod to that but make something timeless - something that could have been made in 2019 or 1967. I’ve always wanted to connect all the dots from hip-hop to soul music.

When you play live, do you stretch out more with your playing?

Yeah, absolutely. There’s a lot more lead guitar playing in our performances than on the album. When we did the record, we weren’t technically a band, so the live show hadn’t really influenced how we played. The live show has now developed into something that features more of the instruments. I definitely let loose more on the guitar. And I think that, in turn, will influence what we record next.

You’re a studio guy and a producer. What’s your favorite guitar tone on the record?

I really like the guitar solo on “OCT 33.” The idea came to me, and I reached for the first guitar and plugged into the first amp. I was just laying down the idea, and I was going to come back and re-record it. 

It was overdriving the mic so hard that at first it just sounded crappy to me. Then when I sat there and actually tried to get it technically more perfect, I felt like that particular overdriven tone was part of the sound. That’s something you couldn’t get from a pedal. It’s the sound of a mic actually being blown out.

I’m a big fan of gnarly, direct, in-your-face fuzz sounds. I got that on the solo on “Touch the Sky,” which is also probably a first or second take. I’m a big fan of tremolo, and there’s some cool tremolo stuff on “Colors” and also on “Black Moon Rising.” On “Fire,” I was going for a real big spaghetti-western lead kind of thing, messing around with different Telecasters and whatnot.

What amps did you use to get those tones?

One was an early ’70s Fender Deluxe Reverb. I always use those live because I think they’re the sweet spot of low wattage, but they’re still loud enough. I have one that was modded to the ’60s pre-CBS blackface that I really dig. I can get a natural sort of overdrive out of that. I have a custom Princeton Reverb that this guy made me that’s based on a ’65 Princeton Reverb. Those are my go-tos most of the time in the studio.

Your taste in guitars is interesting. You play a Gibson ES-446. How did you come upon that model?

I actually kind of stumbled onto it. They stopped making them. I don’t think they were very popular, so there’s not a lot of them, and they have developed something of a cult following. I picked that one off the wall at the Gibson showroom in Austin. I just thought it looked cool, took it and fell in love. And then it just became my guitar.

Did you cut the album with that guitar?

I mixed it up. There was a lot of the 446 and a lot of this custom Telecaster with one humbucker from Berly Guitars in Austin. It’s probably between those two and this old hollowbody Harmony. It doesn’t always work live, so I generally do either the 446 or my Telecaster.

Those are two very different types of tone families. Do you gravitate to one or the other for specific songs?

Yeah, I do. Generally, I’ll use the 446 for stuff that has rhythm and then use the Tele for things that have lines that need to cut through a little bit. Live, I generally bring them both. I’ve been sticking with the Tele lately, but I still like having a semi-hollow around. You get more girth out of the feedback in the chamber than you get out of a Tele. 

If I had my way, I would probably always use my 446, but it’s not the best for certain live situations, and it’s fragile. I didn’t even bring it on this tour that we’re on right now. If anything ever happened to it, I just don’t know how I could ever replace it.