Some purists feel that loud electric guitars killed jazz. Following that logic, Frank Gambale is an ax murderer. “The Thunder from Down Under” earned his nickname playing jazz loud and fast, and he came of age in the ’80s, when he dared to play his jazz sporting a spiked mullet and tight pants! Gambale became the world-renowned face of fusion during his distinguished tenure in Chick Corea’s Elektric Band, where he showcased virtuosic mechanics and deep overall musicality. Gambale continues to burn the fusion flame in myriad projects including Steve Smith’s Vital Information, Billy Cobham’s Spectrum Band, the GHS trio (with Smith and Stu Hamm), and as a solo artist. Throughout his long career, Gambale has also held a strong affection for the acoustic instrument— he simply hasn’t done much recording with it until recently.
Gambale goes all-out acoustic on his latest release, Natural High [Wombat]. The music is much more along traditional jazz lines than the fusion he’s famous for. However, Gambale’s penchant for furiously tackling dense harmonic passages remains. He engages his Yamaha acoustic/electric with all his usual flare and trademark arpeggio sweep picking. Natural High offers a pure taste of Gambale’s technique, compositional style, and mad improvisational skills without the clutter of distortion, effects, or even drums for that matter, the lack of which is hardly noticeable due to the savage swing capabilities of Gambale, pianist Otmaro Ruiz (John McLaughlin, Robben Ford), and bassist Alain Caron (Mike Stern, Didier Lockwood).
A positive vibration flows throughout Natural High, and it’s a reflection of Gambale’s emotional state. The guitarist now maintains complete artistic control of his work by releasing it on his own Wombat label. The Elektric Band is reunited, Vital Information remains vital, and when he’s not hiking canyon trails around his home in Palm Springs, California, Gambale can be found at the Los Angeles Academy of Music teaching the next generation of guitarists how to build solid foundations for their own careers. Gambale’s voice resonated with the enviable tone of a man living life on his own terms when Frets caught up with him.
Can you explain how the acoustic guitar factors into your life’s musical equation?
I’ve been a guitar nut since age six, and I didn’t even own an electric guitar until I was 13. I played my two older brothers’ acoustic guitars during my formative years. We were into country music such as the Dillards and Jerry Reed. I dug the Grateful Dead because they had a lot of acoustic stuff, and I liked Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass forays with Old and In the Way. I also dug Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. I still listen to After the Gold Rush and because I love songwriting. I’m pigeonholed as a fusion guitar player, and it’s what I’ve recorded most of my life, but that’s a sliver of my taste in music.
What inspired your recent acoustic renaissance?
I’ve been doing an acoustic duet project since the late ’90s with a famous Italian classical guitar player named Maurizio Colonna, whom I met through Ibanez guitars. We’re about to do our third record together, but that first one, Gambale/Colonna, was my first-ever acoustic release. Our first concert together was also the first time I’d ever really done any solo acoustic playing. At rehearsal he said, “We’ll do a half hour together, you’ll do 20 minutes solo, I’ll do 20 minutes solo, and then we’ll do five more tunes together.” I replied, “I was with you up to the solo part [laughs].” As a fusion guitar player, that was a bit of a blow from left field.
What did you do?
I dug a little deeper. I usually give the chordal parts to the keyboardist, but most of my songs were written on guitar, so I developed a chord-melody approach. Some of them came out beautifully, but I had to have at least one impressive solo piece to even come close to Maurizio’s level, so I wrote “Another Challenger,” which appears adapted for trio as the last tune on Natural High.
What did you learn from Colonna?
I realized to get that good you need a whole life dedicated to a particular field. I could never get my right hand to be that obscenely good. So I’ll dabble in other things, but I don’t want to be a jack-of-all-trades. I’d rather be really good at something, so I’m content to continue using my pick and fingers, and do what I’m good at—which is sweeping—on acoustic guitar. Working with Maurizio forced me to develop more of a chord-melody approach, which in turn encouraged me to go back to the trio format. The trio format requires the guitar player to cover a lot of the harmonic content.
Why did you choose to work sans drummer on Natural High?
I’ve been working with a lot of heavy drummers lately, so I decided to give that a rest and let the pure acoustic instruments come through. There is some percussion on a few tracks, but there was a lot more before. I started taking it out because I love the sound of the acoustic instruments, and they swing like mad. The Hot Club of France didn’t need drums to swing.
When did you put this trio together?
I have known Otmaro and Alain for a long time. Alain has called Otmaro and me, along with Dennis Chambers, to play the Montreal Jazz Festival on a number of occasions, but we’d never actually played as a trio until this recording.
Guitar-and-piano fireworks fly all over Natural High. How much of it is improvised?
Other than the obvious heads, everything was improvised spontaneously in the studio—even the runs where we lock up. That’s just playing with guys who have big ears, and can respond to something directly. To me, that’s the joy of jazz.
What was the songwriting process?
The original idea was to do a whole album of rewritten jazz standards, by which I mean taking the jazz standard chord progressions and creating new melodies. It’s an idea that’s been around since Charlie Parker, but I was inspired by a video of saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, who used to play together with pianist Lennie Tristano. On the video they play these amazing heads that are almost like solos written out and played together. I took four standards—“All the Things You Are,” “I’ll Remember April,” “Four,” and “Have You Met Miss Jones?”—and I rewrote them as “You Are All the Things,” “We’ll Remember December,” “Fortune,” and “Have You Met Tom Jones?” But then I wrote a Latin ballad and put “Another Challenger” on as the closer.
What was the recording situation?
My engineer, Robert Biles, recorded the album live to Pro Tools at his studio. I overdubbed some rhythm guitar on “The Long and the Short of It,” shortened a few tunes, and edited a few mistakes in the heads, but the solos are all as played.
How was the guitar recorded?
I played a Yamaha FPX300 and it has a little gooseneck microphone inside the soundhole that you can blend with the direct out, so we used that along with two mics. It’s a small-bodied instrument, and I think small-bodied acoustic guitars sound bigger than the big-bodied ones. I also prefer a wide fingerboard, and this one has an almost classical width. I had Yamaha cut a custom nut for me with more even string spacing. I use D’Addario EJ10 extra-light bronze strings, and I replace the wound G with a plain .018. That makes it so much fun to play. I don’t believe in struggling on an instrument. There’s nothing macho about using heavy strings, and I get fatigued on them pretty quickly.
What picks do you use to play acoustic?
I use heavy Planet Waves picks that are big and triangular, almost like a Fender bass pick. Smaller picks tend to slip and slide around on me, whereas these wedge up against the upper part of my index finger. They have a softer point, so it doesn’t matter which edge I use. It glides over the strings easily for sweeping because there’s less resistance. They’re the same style I’ve been using to play electric for the past 30 years.
What aspects of your playing were you concentrating on the most while working on the Natural High material?
The most challenging aspect was staying in the pocket and really swinging without drums. When you take away the drums, you really have to lock in with the walking bass quarter-notes. The trickiest part was keeping the time locked during the solos. The tour will be interesting. This trio hasn’t performed live, and in the studio we played to a click track that won’t be there onstage. We’re going to have to sort out the technical issues because we’ll be relying heavily on our ears.
How are you planning on dealing with the challenges of amplifying the acoustic?
I’m only going to bring my acoustic guitar, and I’ll go direct. I’ll probably bring a Countryman D.I. with me, but my engineer will have direct boxes too.
What made you decide to tackle the responsibility of running your own record label, and what joys and difficulties have your encountered doing it?
I have difficulty with authority. I like to make music without compromise, and I can do that on my own label. I’m also free to do what I want with the publishing. I have a lot of downloads available for sale on my website, including many live shows. The technology is amazing, but of course, it’s made the business tougher than ever, so I’ve taken it a step further lately. I’ve always made mixes of most of my records minus the guitar, and now those are online too. Unfortunately, most of my records sell better without me on them [laughs].
You’ve always been an educator, and you became head of the guitar department at L.A. Music Academy in 1996. What’s the premise of your program?
I wrote a lot of the curriculum myself, and my whole intention is music comprehension. I was never into the idea of showing licks because if the student doesn’t understand what’s behind the licks, then they will never quite get it. I don’t care about technique. My technique came from pursuing musical concepts, and you’ve got to build a strong foundation first.
What’s the musical equivalent of laying the foundation?
I start with intervals, and then move on to triad and chord construction, making the link between the notes of the scale, which I prefer to see as numbers, and the fretboard. Most of Western music only goes to 13, so that’s as hard as the math gets, and a chord symbol will always tell you what it wants. Next, I get into modal concepts, harmonic chord movement, harmonized scales, and how to find key center clues, which all adds up to how to look at chord progressions and decide what scales to play over them.
How does the acoustic instrument figure in all that?
Well, in terms of playing, I don’t think it should be any different from an electric guitar. It is more challenging in the sense that there’s no real sustain.
Does that make you play more notes?
Perhaps it does on its own, but it shouldn’t if you amplify your acoustic guitar properly and add some reverb. Acoustic can sound bigger than electric in some ways because you can get a more dynamic range out of an acoustic. I put that to good use, especially in the live arena.
How do you see your influence on the next generation of players?
I see it coming back to bite me all the time [laughs]. I see young players who are absolutely burning using every technique, and who can play through changes like a knife through butter. There’s this amazing 6-string bass player named Kevin Glasgow, a Scottish kid named Ben MacDonald, and a British chap named Alex Hutchings who cop a lot of my licks, but they’re taking it to another level by combining sweeping with tapping, which is something I love but don’t do. I’ll be happy to see the whole grunge-era attitude of playing as out of tune and as poorly as possible fade away forever. I’m reinvigorated by the generation after the grungers because they’re rejecting that mind-set. They inspire me and show me that a lot of kids out there still want to be phenomenal musicians. They’re going, “Screw the video games, I want to play guitar!”
Who originally inspired you to become a guitar player?
Hendrix inspired me to want to play. I just loved the way he blew the roof off—there was no more polite guitar [laughs].
What continues to inspire you about playing jazz?
The art of improvisation inspires me as a soloist. There’s very few of us left, however, and it’s been getting more difficult for me. But Chick Corea has always been my inspiration. I’ve seen him do extremely well, and my association with him continues to be good. The Elektric Band did a record recently after a ten-year hiatus, and we’ve got some great performances scheduled. I played acoustic on a track for his upcoming solo album. I’m satisfied that my phone rings. I’m lucky. Of course, I worked very hard to get where I am. I always tell people I’m having my childhood now, because I didn’t have it as a kid.
How did you spend your time all those years when you were growing up in Australia?
Well, I was practicing guitar. I spent countless hours learning my craft. No one made me do it; I just loved to play. Figuring out the notes and how they all work together was the ultimate game. I transcribed great soloists and tried to understand why they played what they played. By the age of 15, I had 40 students. So like I said, I missed my childhood, but I’m reaping the rewards of all that effort now, and it’s a beautiful thing.