Charlie Hunter: The 7–String Contrapuntal Soul Man Returns to His Blues Roots

Okay sure, in a post-James Brown universe, calling someone “the hardest working anything in show business” is a bit of a cliché.
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Okay sure, in a post-James Brown universe, calling someone “the hardest working anything in show business” is a bit of a cliché. But avant soul-jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter might just be a viable candidate for the title. Debuting in 1992 with ground-breaking hip-hop act Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Hunter then went on to forge a distinguished solo career releasing and/or appearing on dozens of CDs as a solo artist, bandleader, collaborator with ensembles T.J. Kirk, Garage a Trois, and Coalition of the Willing, and sideman notching guest shots on records by John Mayer, D’Angelo, and Snarky Puppy among others.

As if Hunter’s prolific artistry and lengthy discography weren’t enough, through his career the San Francisco native (who currently resides in Montclair, New Jersey) has played some variant of a 7-or 8-string hybrid instrument allowing him to simultaneously lay down bass lines, comp, and play single-note solos and melodies. Perhaps then, anointing Hunter as “the hardest working set of hands in jazz” might be more apropos.

Given Hunter’s proclivity for auto-contrapuntalism, it’s no surprise to find him completely at home in solo and duo settings as numerous albums accompanied only by drummer Bobby Previte ably attest to. On Hunter’s latest effort, Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth [GroundUP], however, the “trio” of Hunter and Previte are joined by trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and cornetist Kirk Knuffke. The album is a vibey live-in-the-studio romp heavily informed by Hunter’s love of old blues records and flair for small combo arranging.

You’ve played different configurations of 7-and 8-string guitars over the years. What’s your current instrument and how did you arrive there?

When I first started out, I was essentially playing a 6-string guitar but with an added low A string similar to George Van Eps. Then I began playing an 8-string Ralph Novak guitar, for which there was no established pedagogical reference point. I just tuned the three lowest strings like the lowest three strings of a bass and the highest five strings like the highest five strings of a guitar (E, A, D, A, D, G, B, E low to high). One limitation of this, though, was that the short scale made the low-E sound too much like a rubber band, so I began tuning everything up a half-step, which was a slightly better compromise. As I progressed on the instrument though, I realized the most important aspect for me was not so much playing solos and accompaniment simultaneously but to really focus on the counterpoint between the bass part and the guitar part. In order to make this work, I needed the bass to be much more articulate and defined, especially when playing with a drummer. Eventually, the compromise I came up with is the configuration for my current guitar, a 7-string instrument made by Jeff Traugott that merges the lowest three strings of a bass and the middle four of a guitar, but is tuned up a minor third (G, C, F, C, F, Bb, D). The added tension on the upper strings compromises the classic guitar tone a bit, but the added tension on the bass strings in the short-scale setting where the G is at 29" really returns lot of punch and clarity to the sound, as well as making the intonation much better. The only notes I’m really missing from the combined range of a guitar and bass are the low E, F, and F# and ultimately, I’ll take quality over quantity.

When you finally settled on that tuning, how did you become proficient playing in it? Did you play Bach Two-Part Inventions? Shed Real Book tunes? Practice scales?

People who are experimenting with the contrapuntal approach to guitar are always asking me for practice tips, and I never quite know what to tell them specifically. Starting out, I never really had a practice regimen, but I did spend a lot of time listening to Hammond organ players and old country blues guitarists like Blind Blake and Mississippi John Hurt, trying to assimilate their language. I would shed eight hours a day trying to come up with my own fingerings, with varying degrees of success. Everything I did was ultimately needs based, though. It was essentially me saying, “I have a bunch of gigs coming up. How the hell do I get better?”

Playing with a drummer was really the crucial education, because I learned what works and what doesn’t work as far as the bass grooves are concerned. When you have those lower notes and strings in there, it’s a totally different ballgame. The difference between playing contrapuntally on a 6-string as opposed to a 7-or 8-string is a bit like the difference between driving a car and driving a truck. It takes more effort to keep things moving.

You use a split signal and send the bass strings and the guitar strings to different amps, correct?

Yes. For this record I ran the guitar strings through a Carr Rambler that was especially made into a class AB amp, because I like having the nice percussive “thunk” that the class AB adds to the tone. For the bass strings, I used my Mesa/Boogie Walkabout and our engineer also ran the signal through an old Magnatone for a little more presence.

Did you use any effects at all?

My sound is really just the guitar straight into the amps. Sometimes I’ll add a little tremolo but that’s built in to the guitar amp already.

You still get a remarkable range of sounds and articulation just from your picking technique. I’m thinking of the intro to “Who Put You Behind the Wheel?” specifically.

That part is all about palm-muting. I don’t use any type of fingerpicks, so I’ve gotten fairly proficient at drawing different sounds out of the instrument organically. There, I’m essentially using my thumb to play the bass and my first finger to sound the melody, although they cross in certain spots. Overall though, articulation is actually a combination of both hands for me, because I conceive the roles of my hands differently than most guitarists. Historically the fretting hand is thought of as the “conception” hand and the picking hand as the “execution” hand. I see both my hands as conception and execution hands, however. If you’re playing counterpoint, for example, every time you take your fretting hand off of the string you’re executing a rest. Usually if something I’m playing doesn’t sound right, it’s because I’m not thinking rhythmically with my left hand. But even if you’re playing traditionally on a 6-string it’s still a good idea to keep this in mind. Nile Rodgers’ rhythm playing is a great example; so much of his articulation and execution comes from his fretting hand.

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What other advice would you have for guitarists who want to apply your approach to standard 6-string?

In all honesty, I’d tell them to not check me out that much! There’s such a wealth of great 6-string stuff out there to deal with first, including Mississippi John Hurt, the Joe Pass solo recordings, Tuck Andress, and a guy who has really broken things wide open recently, Ben Lacy.

“(Looks Like) Somebody Got Ahead of Schedule on Their Medication” sounds like a 12-bar blues, but with some interesting melodic/harmonic choices.

I believe it climbs up a minor third to the III chord before the IV and the V in the turnaround. Essentially that song is an amalgamation of a bunch of Little Walter phrases that I took from his harmonica solos and put together for the horns.

Speaking of horn arrangements, did you deliberately want someone who played cornet as opposed to trumpet for this record?

Kirk Knuffke was recommended to me by Ron Miles, who I’d worked with in the past. While I do generally prefer the sound of the cornet, it was really about Kirk as a musician and how well his sound blended with Curtis’.

For what can be considered a small combo jazz record, your new album is remarkably funky. Was any of it recorded to a click track?

No, but I appreciate the fact that you think it might’ve been [laughs]! That’s all about Bobby Previte though. Here’s a guy who is well known as an incredible composer and improviser in the jazz world, yet can come into a date with the same set of ’65 Rogers drums he bought as a teenager and lay down smooth, song-serving tracks just like Hal Blaine! I’ve worked with him before and he’s a great guy to have in the studio because he’s always got your back in terms of coming up with the best ideas for arrangements. Even if I’m resistant to something, he’ll convince me to try it. Of course in the end, it’ll turn out to be the right idea.

Everybody… being released on Snarky Puppy leader Michael League’s GroundUP Music label. How did that come about?

Michael came to one of my shows and liked what I was doing apparently, so he invited me to play on their Family Dinner, Vol. 2 album. I have to admit that when I first went in, I had no idea how massive their whole scene was and I was completely blown away. I really enjoyed working with them though, and they were really supportive of what I have going on. I went out on the road with them and their audience was super receptive as well. I’d been releasing records on my own for a while and sort of flying under the radar, so I’m hoping this will expose my music to new sets of ears.