Laurence Juber: The Journeyman

Even by “ guitarists you ’ re envious of ” standards, Laurence Juber has had a remarkable career.
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Even by “ guitarists you ’ re envious of ” standards, Laurence Juber has had a remarkable career. Fresh out of music school, he began ruling the London session scene of the mid-1970s, playing on anything from jingles to sessions with artists such as Cleo Laine and Alan Parsons to the score of The Spy Who Loved Me. Juber’s chops and reputation eventually got him an audition for Paul McCartney’s Wings, a gig he would hold from 1978 until the band was dissolved in 1981. Moving to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, Juber continued his A-list studio guitarist existence, leading to credits that not only include countless albums (a trip to will have your jaw drop at the list of artists he’s worked with), but also soundtracks to movies such as Dirty Dancing, Pocahontas, Men in Black 2, and many more, as well as TV shows like Home Improvement, Beverly Hills 90210, Seventh Heaven, and others. And while he continues to work on his studio tan, Juber has also managed to create one of the longest-lasting and most successful careers in solo-acoustic fingerstyle guitar.

Starting with 1990’s Naked Guitar, Juber has released more than 20 solo guitar albums, including his highly acclaimed collections of Beatles arrangements, LJ Plays the Beatles and LJ Plays the Beatles Vol. 2. His contribution to 2004’s Pink Guitar (an album of solo guitar arrangements of Henry Mancini tunes) won him a second Grammy (the first being for his work on Wings’ “Rockestra Theme” in 1979), and his relationship with C.F. Martin & Co. has yielded a long series of signature model guitars (all cutaway OMs with Adirondack spruce tops, but different backs and sides) spanning more than a decade. Last year, Juber published his photographic memoir Guitar With Wings [Dalton Watson], a beautiful book featuring photos he took during his years with the McCartneys (he learned a few camera chops from Linda McCartney), and he just released his latest album, Fingerboard Road [Solid Air]. Featuring Juber’s counterpoint-rich signature style that includes lot of sneaky string bends and DADGAD tuning (all but one of the album’s tunes are played in the Dsus4 tuning), Fingerboard Road is primarily a collection of arrangements of cover tunes, ranging from rockers such as Steely Dan’s “Peg” and the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” to a killer “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” and “Georgia on My Mind.”

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What was the biggest challenge in making Fingerboard Road?

I define myself as a musician who plays the guitar, so I’m always looking for different ways of expressing myself, which means pushing the boundaries of what I do. That’s one of the reasons I use DADGAD so much—it still pushes the envelope. The more familiar I get with DADGAD, the more comfortable I am improvising, and so part of the challenge with this was to give myself the freedom to be improvisational, which meant spending a lot of time not just on the arranging side of it, but also just finding those harmonic zones where the improvisation happens. Also, from a performance point of view, there is getting these pieces to a point where I’m not thinking about any of that stuff, where I’m actually playing from an emotional space, not from an intellectual space.

How did you choose the tunes?

Mostly they chose themselves. Sometime I’ll just sit down and start playing, and something will pop into my head. Like “I Only Want to Be with You.” I always loved that tune, and one day I just started playing it, and it evolved into an arrangement. I love it when they do that, because then they usually go pretty quickly; you don’t have to go through the process of having to figure it out. With something like “Peg,” you’ve got to figure out all those Steely Dan lounge lizard harmonies, and find those kinds of voicings. A lot of these tunes come, in one way or another, from my own experience. “Go Now” was essentially my audition piece for Wings, and I’ve recorded “I Won’t Last a Day Without You” a couple of times with Paul Williams, because I’ve done some sessions with him over the years, and I’ve always loved that particular melody.

Would you say that you have a method for arranging?

I try to be methodical in the sense that I want to make sure that I’m being at least relatively true to the composer’s intentions. Sometimes my arranging method is very specific, where I’m really trying to get as much of the record into the arrangement as I possibly can. On “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for example, I used the Who record as a template, but then it kind of evolved as a performance piece, because I started playing it live, and I wasn’t trying to capture every lick, I was just trying to get the spirit of it. Sometime it’s just, “Okay, here’s the tune, here are the chords. What can I do that’s interesting?” But I’m going to refer to the original, to make sure I’m not leaving out the bridge or something. “Peg” was one that I got pretty specific with, because I also wanted to get some of Chuck Rainey’s bass line on there. But what’s remarkable is how well a tune like that sits in DADGAD tuning, because those Steely Dan voicings with the 7#9aug5 chord are pretty accessible in DADGAD.

You move around keys a bit more than a lot of people who play in alternate tunings.

I think of it in terms of what’s the best musical key for it, because DADGAD is kind of the other standard tuning. As long as the notes are accessible, and there’s a rationale for doing it there, I’ve done things in all kinds of keys in DADGAD: Gm, F, etc. My arrangement of “Strawberry Fields Forever” is in Bb, and it’s just because it works. It’s that magical serendipity that happens where the song and the tuning and the key all occupy the same space.

How did you record the album?

I did it at home with a pair of Schoeps CMC-5 mics. I’ve used them on pretty much every album since LJ Plays the Beatles, in basically an ORTF configuration, so you get a nice stereo image. I’m not too close to them, about 18 inches. I mixed it myself, and had it mastered by Bill Wolf. I didn’t use any EQ on my end. All there is is just a little bit of reverb and a little bit of compression. I have a pair of Neve mic preamps, for that nice English sound.

I’m assuming you used some of your Martin signature model guitars?

Except for one track, the entire album is done on the Brazilian rosewood [OMC-28B LJ] prototype, which is now ten years old. “Without Annette” was actually recorded on a mahogany OMC-18 with a high alpine, luna-cut Swiss spruce top. The guitar is also built with hide glue. It was remarkable to me how good that one sounded next to the Brazilian.

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Tell me about your new Martin signature strings.

I’m kind of a retro guy, and when Martin came out with their Tony Rice Monel strings a couple of years ago, I gave them a try, but I couldn’t say that I liked them to begin with. But I was intrigued enough that I started working with Martin’s string department to get some of my gauges, and getting the core-to-wrap ratio right so the strings had the right amount of tension and the right voice. They got to the point where they just kind of took over. I felt that they became kind of a game changer, because I was starting to hear the music a little differently. They have a stronger fundamental than phosphor-bronze, and that suits the counterpoint in the way that I play, because I think it helps define the different lines, the different musical parts.

What’s your current live rig?

I was using the Brazilian Martin, but it just got refretted, and they always take a while to settle down after a refret. So I’ve gone back to the koa [OMC-44K LJ] for live stuff, which I like. I’m still using the D-TAR Wavelength pickup and an internal Audix mic, run through a stereo cable and into a Headway EDB-1 preamp. One thing that I am really pleased about is the Mogami cable I’ve been using, which seems to be both reliable and sonically quite superior.

Looking through your book, I found it fascinating to read about your studio work in London in the ’70s. How did those sessions differ from sessions that you do today in Los Angeles?

In terms of walking into a studio with a Les Paul, a Strat, a 6-string, a 12-string, a nylon-string, a small amplifier, and a suitcase full of pedals, not much, actually. I learned to read very early on, and that, plus being able to understand how to get sounds and to fit in with styles, was the thing that got me in the door. In those days, of course everything was done with a group of musicians. Now, more often than not, I walk into a studio and there is nobody else there. The ensemble aspect to things has changed a lot, but it still happens that I get into an album session and there’s a band. “Hey, I get to play with Gregg Bissonette!” But people have kind of spread out now, and players who used to do a lot of studio work are spending time on the road, because there is a lot less studio work these days. When I was in London, I’d do an 8:00 jingle, a 10:00 record, a 2:00 record, and maybe a BBC thing in the evening. Even when I got into doing session work here in LA, I was still doing four or five sessions a week for much of the ’80s and ’90s, and then it gradually started to taper off. It pretty much coincided with me going out on the road more. My kids were older, and I didn’t feel like I needed to stay at home quite as much.

If you’re called to an electric session, what’s the rig you’d grab first?

It depends on whether they’re springing for cartage or not! Just yesterday, I did a session with a composer named Chris Young, who does a lot of horror movies. The way his studio is set up, he doesn’t want to use an amp, so I used a Tech 21 Fly Rig as the engine, and then I have a pedalboard with a bunch of stuff on it. The Sans Amp technology works really well, but I’ve also done it with my laptop using Scuffham S-Gear software, and sometimes even a POD. But if I’m using an amp, I have a ’68 50-watt plexi Marshall, and I’ll take a Bogner 1x12 cabinet. That’s if I bring the gear myself. If there’s cartage, then there’s a Matchless DC-30, a ’64 Fender Bassman, the Marshall, and a THC. Guitar-wise, I have one of the cheap Les Paul Studios with P-90s that I really like, and I have a Mexican-made Fender Strat that just sounds great and the whammy works well. My string gauges on that are .012-.056, and they still feel light—there’s something about that guitar. Again, if it’s a big session, then the trunk will show up with the ’57 goldtop, 1960 ES-335, ’57 Strat, and a Telecaster. It’s amazing, though— sometimes the cheaper stuff actually does the job better, because it’s not as refined a sound—as long as they play in tune.

How would you say that your session work and playing with Wings has informed your solo career?

I had the ambition to be a studio player because there was a career imperative that I had to demonstrate, primarily to my parents, but also to my teachers in school, who didn’t believe that I was going to have a career in music. Through that, I developed the ability to deconstruct music. I’d listen to music, and I’d listen to all the different parts. All that informed the soloistic stuff, because I’m really just trying to be the orchestra. But as a studio musician, I never had the time to be writing or arranging or envisioning what I could do for my own expression. I was always busy supporting other people’s expression. Being in Wings unlocked the creative aspect, it allowed the artist in me to flourish. That was a very important thing for me: the recognition that I could work creatively as an artist. Playing with one of the world’s great bass guitar players really reinforced the value of the bass line for me, which directly informs the solo playing. The McCartney experience allowed me to be mentored by a great artist, with all that’s involved: the business side of it, the record production side of if, the songwriting aspects of it, the stage performance aspect of it. It kind of reconnected me with the thing that happened when I was a teenager, which was that not only did I fall in love with the guitar, I fell in love with music.