Juan Carlos Quintero

Colombian-born Juan Carlos Quintero was two years old when his family relocated to the United States. “My home was filled with the music of my heritage while I was growing up,” says Quintero. “But I also listened to Led Zeppelin and all the other great music that was on the radio. And when you’re busy trying to learn how to play ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ you’re not really paying attention to your parents’ music.”

Later, Quintero revisited traditional Colombian music and other Latin styles, as well as studying jazz at Berklee College of Music and composition at the New England Conservatory of Music. It was at Berklee in 1982 where Quintero met a major influence and mentor, the legendary session guitarist Tommy Tedesco.

After graduating from college, Quintero moved to Los Angeles, where he found steady work as a session guitarist, thanks largely to help from Tedesco. When Quintero recorded his self-titled debut album in 1990, Tedesco not only played on the record, but wrote about the sessions in his monthly Guitar Player column.

Quintero continues to play studio dates, as well as perform regularly, and has released nine solo albums throughout the past 15 years. His latest, Las Cumbias Las Guitarras [Inner Knot], features ten songs in the traditional Colombian cumbia style.

What are the characteristics of a cumbia?
The form derives from Spanish and African influences dating from the time of slavery, but, in musical terms, the simplest analogy is a polka-type rhythm. There are many forms of cumbia, but the Columbian style is very folk-oriented, and it’s usually played by a small group of three or four musicians. The biggest distinction is the use of accordion and percussion, with the percussion being very active and interactive throughout the melodies. Also, there isn’t anything written out per se, so it’s almost an improvisational approach. In that way, the concept speaks to jazz musicians. Most cumbias are vocal driven, so my twist on the form is to interpret it from an instrumental perspective by playing the vocal part on guitar.

Is the form centered on percussion?
You would think it would be, as most musicians try to connect with the drummer in a typical rhythm section. But in a cumbia the groove is with the bass, and that’s really the core of the group—to the point where if everyone but the bass player drops out, the cumbia still survives.

You primarily play nylon-string guitar. Do you use a pick?
Yes. I alternate between using my fingers, and the rounded end of a heavy-gauge Dunlop pick. I hold the pick between two fingers while I’m playing with my fingers, and then slip it back in when I need it. I try to avoid using the pick on melodies, because the fingers give a deeper and more expressive sound.

What are your primary guitars?
I mostly play Godin Multiacs with either L.R. Baggs or RMC pickups—especially live. I just plug them into an L.R. Baggs Para Acoustic D.I., add a little reverb with a Boss RV-3 Reverb/Delay, and I’m ready to go. I used to have a huge rack with all the goodies, but I found that being a sound designer on stage distracted me from the actual playing. My instruments are strung with D’Addario Pro Arte EJ45 Normal Tension strings. I used higher-tension strings until two years ago, but I wanted to get more of a snap in the response, and the lighter gauges helped me do that. I also played a Taylor K14c in a few spots on Las Cumbias Las Guitarras—mostly as a softer-sounding bed underneath the nylon-string parts—and I have a Tele-style Tom Anderson electric that I use on freelance studio sessions.

What were the most important things that you learned from the late Tommy Tedesco?
I’m sure that Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, and all of the other players Tommy took under his wing would agree that the most important thing was his way of being generous and courteous with less-experienced players. Also, Tommy really played hard. Sometimes, when you’re in a studio environment, you play differently than you would in front of an audience, but Tommy would just ignore the microphone and play all out, with all the presence, adrenaline, and even mistakes that there would be in a live concert. And he would play just as enthusiastically on a date for a TV drama as he would for a John Williams score, or at a little club in Burbank. Same guy, every time. When you’re coming up, that makes quite an impression.