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José Feliciano on the Enduring Ecstasies of Guitar Playing

(Image credit: Alek Villa)

In a career that has spanned 55 years and yielded an equal number of albums, José Feliciano feels that the experience of recording is just as exciting as the day he started. 

“I love making records, and I see no reason why I would ever stop,” he says. “Being in the studio is just as magical as performing onstage. It’s different in that you have no audience, but the idea that I’m creating something that will be on somebody’s radio is incredibly thrilling. I feel lucky and blessed that I get to communicate to people through my music.”

Feliciano’s latest album, Behind This Guitar, is an energetic and soulful eight-song set that ranges from elegant love ballads (“Smoky Places”) to bracing rock (“Love One Another”). While splashes of electric guitar appear throughout the record, its foundation is Feliciano’s distinctive nylon-string flamenco playing.

“No matter what kind of guitar I’m playing or what kind of style I’m exploring, it’s always a complete emotional experience for me,” he says. “Playing the guitar is such a personal thing. I have a relationship with the instrument. It talks to me every day. It asks me, ‘José, how are you feeling today? Are you sad or happy?’ And I get to answer it when I play.”

Playing the guitar is such a personal thing. I have a relationship with the instrument. It talks to me every day

For the new album, Feliciano recorded in Nashville for the first time, working with his longtime producer, Rick Jarrard, whom he calls “the George Martin in my life. He lets me run like a race horse, but he also knows how to push me when I need it.” 

It was Jarrard who brought the guitarist the poignant title track, written by Phil O’Donnell, Casey Beathard and Don Sampson and recorded by Mo Pitney on his 2016 debut album. Jarrard insisted the song was tailor-made for him. 

“I didn’t have to be talked into doing it,” Feliciano recalls. “When I heard the lyrics, it was like the writers were telling my story. The passion and dedication of learning to play the guitar - it was right there in the words, and I connected with it.”

It was Jarrard who convinced Feliciano to record what would become a Grammy-winning, Latin-style smash hit cover of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” in 1968. The song gave him his breakthrough to the mainstream. But Feliciano required some coaxing when Jarrard suggested he tackle Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” on Behind This Guitar.

“That one took me a little longer to come around to,” Feliciano says. “I had to figure out how to put my flamenco playing into it. Once I got that, and once I figured out how to take the vocal harmonies and work them for my voice, I was home free.”

Now in his 74th year, Feliciano still sounds vibrant and youthful on Behind This Guitar. His singing is clear and supple, and despite treatment for a potentially debilitating hand tissue condition called Dupuytren’s contracture, his playing is fluid and spirited. 

In the ’50s, there was only one great rock guitarist, and that was Chuck Berry

“My hands and fingers are in good shape,” he says. “The situation started a while back, and I had these collagen injections that break up the tissue that forms on my hands. I didn’t want to have surgery because I didn’t want scars on my hands.

“So I’m doing much better now. People think it’s from guitar playing, but I think it’s something I inherited from my parents. You know, everybody goes through things, but you just have to keep on going. I’ve had hurdles to clear, but you just can’t get down. No matter who you are, there’s a test you have to face.”

You play electric and acoustic, but is there a particular guitar sound that you would describe as “perfect”?

Boy, that’s almost impossible to answer. Any guitar sounds great in its own way, but perfect? That can change any day, and it can depend on how you feel or what kind of room you’re in. It can depend on microphones and amplifiers. I’m always trying to perfect my sound, no matter what I’m playing. 

My acoustic guitars are handmade, but as far as electrics, I love Gibsons, which are probably the best around today. If I were to play a Fender, it would be a bass, although these days I play a Yamaha six-string bass. I love Paul Reed Smith electrics, too.

When you picked up the guitar as a kid, were you a natural, or did you struggle?

It was a struggle, because I had to teach myself. Anytime I found certain chords, I practiced them like crazy, but I was doing them my own way; I didn’t really know the correct fingerings. The chords were correct, but the fingerings were all wrong. I didn’t know that I was making things harder for myself. 

When I finally got a teacher, he straightened out my hands and helped me to unlearn some of the things I had been doing. After that, it became easier. I don’t know if I was a natural, but I was dedicated.

Did you start playing electric at the same time you began playing acoustic? 

No, it was acoustic at first. I wish I could have played an electric, but I was too poor to afford one. 

If you go online, there’s a video of me from the early ’60s when I played on Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour; I was with a group called the Modern Sound Trio. I did that show with an electric guitar that I borrowed from the Lighthouse [Lighthouse International, now Lighthouse Guild, a charitable group for the blind]. It made me sad when I had to return it. 

They said to me, “Listen, José, you’re not the only student here learning guitar.” I had a little bit of a Mozart attitude at the time. I told them, “I might not be the only one, but I am the best.” [laughs]

Thinking back to those days, who were the first rock guitarists that made an impression on you?

In the ’50s, there was only one great rock guitarist, and that was Chuck Berry.

You were a big fan?

I was, even though he was an a**hole. Sorry, but it’s true. One time he and I were on the same flight. I approached him and tried to tell him what a hero he was to me, and he wasn’t very nice. 

I thought to myself, Okay, at least you met him, you talked to him. I could play lots of his licks on acoustic guitar - “School Days,” “Johnny B. Goode.” I was always a big fan, but he wasn’t very nice to me.

But Jimi Hendrix was complimentary about your playing.

He was, but I never knew that until much later, after he died. I loved Jimi Hendrix, loved him as a guitarist and as a person. With Jimi, what you saw was what you got. He’s the reason we have distortion on guitars. He pioneered so much. He just took guitar sounds somewhere else.

I think the best of all Latin guitar players is Carlos Santana. What sound, what touch! On electric, I pattern myself after that guy

And, of course, you were a big Beatles fan.

Oh, my, absolutely! I’ll always be a Beatles fan to the max. I listen to the Beatles Channel on Sirius XM all the time. That’s my era; it’s when I came up. Before the Beatles, I think Americans were getting tired of where rock and roll was going. It wasn’t going anywhere. The Beatles took rock and roll and made it grow up. Although I will say that the Isley Brothers’ version of “Twist and Shout” was the best.

Do you listen to much modern music?

To be honest, I don’t. I don’t like the music of today. It’s not music. How about Latin music? Any Latin pop or Latin guitarists that you like? I think the best of all Latin guitar players is Carlos Santana. What sound, what touch! On electric, I pattern myself after that guy. 

He put Mexico on the map, much like Julio Iglesias did. Even though I’m not a big fan of his singing, I have to say Julio Iglesias did so much for Spain musically. When a person does that, you have to take a back seat to them and respect them.

You have a way of taking well-known songs and making them your own. “Light My Fire,” “California Dreaming”… 

To me, a great song should be played. And there are many ways you can play it. You just have to find your own way. 

Your arrangement of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” is similar to the original, but your guitar solo is totally different from what Lindsey Buckingham did.

That’s the only way to do it. I like Lindsey Buckingham a lot. I like what he does with his songs, whether it’s singing or playing. But I always try to be a one-two punch combination - my singing and guitar playing. 

I think I’m a better guitarist than I am a singer. At least, that’s always been my contention. So when I did “The Chain,” I tried to put my guitar style into the flamenco music bag. I don’t want this to come off wrong, but I didn’t even think about what Lindsey Buckingham played. 

I didn’t want to copy him, and I wasn’t trying to show him up. I just wanted to do my own thing, and what I played is what came to me.

“I’m America” is a real statement of Puerto Rican pride, but it’s also an unabashed political song. 

It is. I really think songs like that, in this day and age, are a necessity. People just have to start loving one another, and it’s never politically incorrect to love. That’s my theory.

It’s hard to imagine why anybody would have a problem with the beautiful rendition of the American National Anthem you played at the World Series in 1968. [Feliciano performed a Latin-jazz rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at the Game 5 pre-game ceremonies at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium.]

Yet, people were outraged. You were blacklisted by radio, but ultimately your performance opened the door for everyone who has reinterpreted the anthem since then.

It was a sad surprise to me, because I was out there with a very contrite heart. I’m not bitter about the experience, but I couldn’t help but be disappointed that I was booed. I thought, Why? What the hell did I do wrong? 

If you listen to the beginning of my Alive Alive O! album, I play “God Save the Queen” on the guitar. The audience started laughing. I was like, What’s so funny? I’ve had a lot of surprises, and I’ve had a lot of stumbles, but I’ve been able to stand up every time and go on. I feel blessed.

People just have to start loving one another, and it’s never politically incorrect to love

Any artists who’s had a long career has highs and lows. How do you handle the “down” periods? 

You just do it. If you have a good companion, which I happen to have, you lean on her as much as you can. When you have children, you try and lean on them as much as you can. I have two boys, and they’re both musicians. One plays bass and the other is playing drums with my band. He’s a great drummer. He started out when he was a young kid.

You play an extended solo at the end of “Behind This Guitar.” Do you plan out your solos, or are they improvised?

I don’t plan anything. That’s the beauty of it - I just play. It’s like God is pushing me. I trust the man upstairs to guide me. Some people like to have a framework for solos, but I just go with the feeling. If you trust God and yourself, there are no wrong notes. You know, sometimes I ask myself, Why did I play like this or that? And then I tell myself, José, don’t try to figure it out. Just play.

There are guitar players I admire - like Eddie Van Halen. But there’s only one Eddie Van Halen. And there’s only one José Feliciano

In quite a few songs, you play guitar licks between each vocal phrase, much like jazz or blues guitarists do. In those spaces, how do you gauge when enough is enough and too much is too much? 

Again, a tough question, because it just happens with me. It isn’t something I plan. I don’t want to play too much. Yet at the same time, where there is room to play, I’ll play. 

I think it comes a lot from my Latin upbringing, because in Latin music there are certain spaces that are designated for you to play the requinto, which is a smaller instrument than the guitar. If you know where to come in on Latin songs on the requinto, everything else falls into line. That’s what I do.

How many guitars do you own?

I would say about 30 guitars. I play them all at the same time. I mean, not at the same time, not simultaneously. [laughs] But I do play them all.

Is there one nylon-string guitar that’s your favorite?

The one I always go to is my old Candelas. It’s got a great sound, and it brings me back to the days when I didn’t have a pot to piss in. This gentleman would lend me guitars to play. I would come to his shop, and his wife would make the best Mexican food I ever ate, and I would sit there for hours playing his guitars. 

He used to make guitars that were like the Maestro Candelas. I was the first guitar player to ask him to make a classical guitar with a dreadnought body.

Do you take your main Candelas on tour?

Oh, no, never! I leave it at home. The road is too harsh.

After all these years of playing, is there something you can’t do on the guitar that you wish you could?

Not really. I’m still doing basically the same things that I’ve always done. Maybe I don’t have as much agility as I once did, but I do okay. There are guitar players I admire - like Eddie Van Halen. But there’s only one Eddie Van Halen. And there’s only one José Feliciano. I’ll leave it like that.

  • José Feliciano's new album, Behind This Guitar, is out now .