Chuck Hammer on Conjuring Miles Davis and the Magic of the Single Note

For someone who has played with icons David Bowie and Lou Reed, Chuck Hammer has maintained a surprisingly low profile.
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For someone who has played with icons David Bowie and Lou Reed, Chuck Hammer has maintained a surprisingly low profile.
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For someone who has played with icons David Bowie and Lou Reed, Chuck Hammer has maintained a surprisingly low profile. Perhaps it was two decades dwelling in the anonymity of soundtrack composition, or that his brilliant catalog of electronic and ambient guitar works was so ahead of its time. But between the press surrounding Bowie’s passing and his new record, which recontextualizes rock guitar, Hammer is about to return into the spotlight.

Blind on Blind [Ava Interact Inc] finds the guitarist abandoning the synth guitar and track layering of his “guitarchitecture” period. Instead, he opts for single-note guitar lines that feature classic rock grit and draw sustain the old fashioned way—from hand technique and feedback.

Having layered the record with rhythm tracks from drummer Billy Martin (Medeski, Martin, and Wood), bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma (Ornette Coleman), and keyboardist Jamie Saft (John Zorn)—all playing “free” without the guitarist in the mix at all—Hammer spent years crafting the best tones he could create, and then added only the notes the music absolutely needed. The result is a record that makes you await each entrance of the guitar with anticipation, rather than being assaulted by flurries of pointless riffing. Here, Hammer expounds on his journey to this point and the power of process.

What led you to explore new avenues of guitar playing?

Once I experienced Hendrix live, it didn’t make sense to go down that road. It was already done. John McLaughlin was also a big influence. You learn from your influences, but you realize you can’t copy them. People excel because they’re leaning towards something that comes naturally to them. I had an epiphany that chasing these guys was a dead end.

So I was looking for new directions, and, sometimes, there’s this intersection between gear, new technologies, and the art form itself. I had seen a very early Roland GR-500 in Santa Barbara. It was beyond my reach to buy one, but I played it a couple times at the store and I was very interested. At the same time, there was Lou Reed’s Berlin record. The lyrics were so efficient, in terms of creating a sense of depth and atmosphere. I wanted to bring that into guitar playing. I wrote Lou Reed a letter. He responded and we set up an audition. When I walked into his apartment, sitting in the corner of his living room was a vintage GR-500. He was going over to Europe to make a record. When he came back, he asked me if I wanted to play the GR-500 in the band. I learned how to use it, and that’s how I pointed myself in that direction.

Was that a MIDI guitar?

No. It was pre-MIDI. I was intrigued by the range of its sounds, as well as the idea of almost unlimited sustain. The GR-500’s built-in sustain unit actually used current running down the strings. The instrument’s limitations led me to a minimalistic style—it didn’t matter how fast you played, only a certain number of notes would come out—and I also became interested in a more vocal approach to the guitar. Together, those things led towards the idea of orchestration with guitar—building up tracks. I was thinking of a string section and guitar orchestra. I just touched the edge of it on my record Guitarchitecture.

How did the acoustic recordings, such as 2007’s Avignon Crosses and 1986’s Cathedral Guitars fit with the Guitarchitecture concept?

I was off the whole guitar synthesizer thing by then. I had explored it, and I found the technology limiting. I did both of those records with a 1968 Guild D-40. I was into tuning the guitar just to itself, trying to get the instrument to sound rich and resonant. I improvised those records live, with no edits. There might be one overdub. The engineer I was working with was into long reverb tails and wanted to do things with the ambience.

How did Blind On Blind come to be?

I wanted to cover terrain I felt was missing. What appealed to me was clarity of voice. I don’t mean a clean tone, because I’m certainly not going for that, but a sense of expression that suited me.

Why did you decide to play largely without effects on the album?

For 22 years, I dug deeply into soundtrack work. Around 2001 to 2002, I hit a point where I burned out. I looked at the music I’d done already, and I realized that in 100 years I would be gone, and I wanted to leave a record of my straight-ahead guitar playing. Everywhere I looked there were endless pedals. I had done all of that technology stuff in the late ’70s and early ’80s. I wanted to hear something more human. When you listen to Miles Davis, you don’t hope every song is going to have a different sound. You go to Miles because he sounds like Miles every time. I started to think about the idea of doing something without any pedals or effects, in an attempt to try to carve a clear identity.

What guitars and amps did you use?

I used my ’57 Les Paul Jr., a ’61 Strat, and a Gibson Gary Rossington Signature Les Paul. I also had a couple of [Fender master builder] John Cruz Strats that gave me a vintage feel, but had very accurate intonation. I used Booya Amps, a vintage ’62 brown Fender Deluxe, and a Tech 21 TM-60. I also used a Paul Rivera-designed Princeton Reverb II from the ’80s. All of the amps ran through 1x12 cabinets with either an Electro-Voice EVM12L or a Celestion Gold. On the softer stuff I used the Gold, and the more sustain-y stuff was through the EVM12L. I tried one guitar after another. It was indulgent and expensive in terms of time, but it was an experiment to reclaim my core tone. I spent almost a year buying tubes on the internet—vintage Amperex Bugle Boy and RCA tubes, an array of 12AX7s, and an array of KT-66s. I sat with the amps tilted over, swapping tubes until I got the sounds I wanted. I experimented extensively with speakers, and I tried different cabinets and microphones.

Did you use the ’68 Guild D-40 for the acoustic parts on the record?

I used that for some of it. I also used an early cedar-top Taylor and a Ramirez classical. Some of the depth is coming from an old Lexicon PCM70.

Did Billy Martin lay down drum grooves without anybody else playing?

Yes. I gave him a click track and he chose the different tempos. That was it. I said, “We’re making a Miles Davis record, except it’s going to be guitar instead of trumpet.” I listened to his tracks for a few months, and I started to look for where it would work with my guitar. I cut those tracks down and gave them to Jamal. I said, “Play anything you want, but you have to make sure you’re perfectly in tune because you’re the bottom layer.” We weren’t going to be able to tune Jamie’s piano afterwards. I wanted to have Jamal’s signature early on so I could react to it. I found intersection points where I liked what he was doing with Billy, and I knew I could add something. I took that to Saft’s home studio. He did two piano passes per track, playing the second without hearing the first. I thought of Miles using both Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, so I used both of his tracks in various ways.

I spent the next two years trying to play to these things. Saft’s genius is his ability to modulate without you noticing the modulations. There were times when chords were moving by so fast I couldn’t find one note that worked. I finally just let it go, and I began to just hold the notes that I loved—like Miles on Bitches Brew, where he’s holding notes while all of this stuff is shifting around him. I started to sustain notes by playing on my knees right in front of the speaker. I started to blow free. I would track for 40 minutes and keep three seconds. If those three seconds made me feel something, they stayed.

You have said you made this music because it didn’t exist.

Exactly. To reach something original, you have to come up with a process, and I don’t mean effects. It is more like Jackson Pollock pouring his paint, or Leonardo da Vinci using very thin layers over and over. When it comes to making art, you have to find a process that is unique to you—or it has to find you. The idea was letting these tracks happen. I used Pro Tools not to create perfection, but to play free. I could play wild, because I was going to edit out every thing I didn’t like, and if there was nothing I liked, I left space. That was the accidental process I found: Choose these improvisers, let them play free, find the intersections of those freedoms—including my own—and let the record come from that.