Wayne Krantz Reveals the Origins of his Unique Style

Technically astounding pickers abound, but rare is the artist that possesses his own instrumental voice, one you would recognize on a recording within a few bars.

Technically astounding pickers abound, but rare is the artist that possesses his own instrumental voice, one you would recognize on a recording within a few bars. Listening to Wayne Krantz play, with his right-hand attack of doom and his left hand grabbing syncopated, complex chords on his Strat-style instrument, he is as identifiable as Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, or Thom Yorke (more on Yorke later).

The Berklee graduate and teacher has recorded and/or toured with Steely Dan, Michael Brecker, and Billy Cobham, but it was his decade of legendary Thursday night trio gigs at New York City’s 55 Bar that helped him build a following and solidify his sound. The live 2 Drink Minimum was recorded there, followed by more bar recordings sold through the guitarist’s website. Signed by Abstract Logix at the end of the Millennium’s first decade, Krantz recorded his telepathic trio with drummer Keith Carlock and bassist Tim Lefebvre, as well as a vocal record, Howie 61.

His latest, Good Piranha-Bad Piranha, features some incidental vocals, but is largely made up of abstract instrumental reworkings of Thom Yorke’s “Black Swan,” Ice Cube’s “My Skin Is My Skin,” MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” and Pendulum’s “Comprachicos.” If you find the tune choices eccentric, consider this: The record comprises each tune recorded twice, with two different rhythm sections, while Nate Wood plays bass in one section and drums in the other.

Krantz has never been afraid to take the road less traveled and here he offers some insight as to why.

What made you gravitate towards chordal harmony and rhythm over single-note lines?

Good question. I was trying to do what wasn’t already being done by the great players out there. I found the style through my writing—constant sixteenth-note single lines didn’t sound good over that. Also, playing in a trio, I was trying to get the thickest sound I could. I started adding the harmony as a way to fatten up the sound, and it turned into being part of the rhythm too.

Do you have to shift to a more linear style in situations that are not your trio?

If there’s a keyboard or two keyboards or another guitar, that changes the dynamic. It offers an enjoyable opportunity to play more conventionally, in the sense of being a single-line player.

Did you once say, “Whenever I hear an exceptional guitarist, I think, ‘Great, he’s got that covered. That’s one more thing I don’t have to do’?”

Exactly. That was one way of dealing with so many great players out there. You are inspired on one hand and discouraged on the other. After trying to cover it all for a while, I realized there’s not enough time to get good at everything.

Do you have any tips for developing the kind of solid syncopation you have mastered?

Being able to play in time can be improved by playing with the metronome the right way. Students think just having the metronome on means they are practicing their time, but unless you’re recording and listening back to check your placement, you’re really not improving. It’s critical to care how the notes fall in relation to the metronome, otherwise you’re stuck with your own innate time feel—there’s no objectivity. When you listen to yourself playing, it’s slightly more objective than not listening to it. I found it valuable to see where I was pushing, where I was lagging, and how it fell on the grid. What I was doing rhythmically was already pretty obscure for most people. I felt if I didn’t place my notes right it would make it that much harder to understand it.

What led you to play Strat-style guitars?

They seemed like a blank slate. I really wanted to kind of create my own thing. Obviously, there are essential Strat players, but it’s a big enough instrument to absorb them and still be open to interpretation. Plus, I like the way they look.

For years, I just played the bridge and middle pickup combination. It’s still my main position but I also like the sound of the individual middle and bridge pickups. The front pickup seems too woofy to me, though I have been flirting with it. I’ve never used the neck and middle combo. It’s too round for me. It doesn’t have enough attack.

On the new record, why cover the same tunes twice with different rhythm sections?

Nobody has ever done it before, and it highlights the improvisational nature of what we do to not have the two versions be replicas. Every time we play those songs they sound different. Also, I’d spent my whole life digging deep inside myself to come up with original music and I got bored with it. We found it really didn’t matter what we played—my songs, those songs, “Happy Birthday,” or “God Save the Queen”—it was going to sound like us.

Which elements did you feel needed to be included from each tune?

I would spend no more than ten minutes listening to the song and picking out parts that seemed appropriate to play. I felt no responsibility to be faithful to the song, but everything came from the song. I just grabbed bits of melody or bass lines, and threw those into a form we could improvise with.

What was it like playing with two different rhythm sections?

Each band has different dynamics in the sense of volume, but also human dynamics. My playing is dependent on other people. I don’t have this agenda that is always the same. It is very responsive and I’m vulnerable. That’s one thing I don’t like about it. At the same time, it adds something to the improvising, so I’m willing to be that way.

Where did your love of tempo changes within a song come from?

Early on, I sculpted a record in the editing room, throwing things next to each other that had nothing to do with each other tempo-wise or any otherwise. I liked the way it sounded so much I developed a way of doing it live, where we’re playing in one mood and tempo and, through cues we devise, we just shift gears. As long as we can see each other, it’s not a problem.

What amp did you use in the studio for this record?

I used a Marshall Silver Jubilee 2553 and with a Suhr 2x12 extension cabinet.

Which guitar were you using?

I was using the James Tyler Strat-style on most of it, but used a Suhr Strat-style on a couple of overdubs at home.

I hear an Electro-Harmonix Freeze on the record. Do you find it helps fill out the trio sound?

I don’t like to think about it in those terms, because it feels like cheating. I feel a little guilty if I use it too much for sustaining a chord and playing over it, although I do that sometimes. That’s an obvious way to use it, but there’s other stuff you can do. I’m constantly stomping on it for a second and then getting off, so it just adds this little halo of sustain around particular notes. It can make it sound almost like a slap delay in a chamber. It’s an alternative to just a straight clean sound. I would like to see it redesigned so it’s more hi-fi and sounds more like the guitar.

Are you still using the Moog ring modulator?

Right now, I’m using the Electro-Harmonix Frequency Analyzer ring modulator. I was using the big Moogerfooger ring modulator pedal for years and loved it, but it’s too big to carry around. I don’t like the smaller one as much. Nate Wood had a Frequency Analyzer and it sounded cool on his bass, so I’ve been trying it on guitar. It’s a bit gnarlier, which is rough because you’re already asking people to listen to a ring modulator. But it has a wider range than the Moog, so I’m going to stick with it for a while.

Are you using a pedal or the amp for distortion?

I was using the 2553, but I also have some pedals that I use sometimes. [Krantz uses a Cry Baby Wah, Vertex Boost, Maxon Sonic Distortion, Vemuram Jan Ray overdrive, Wren and Cuff Tall Font Russian Fuzz, Boss OC-2 Octave, Boss DD-3 Delay, and a Neunaber Wet reverb.]

What’s next for you?

I’m not sure. This record just came out, and I like it a lot, but I’m pretty bored with instrumental music right now. I was really happy to have Gabriela [Anders] do some vocal stuff on Good Piranha/Bad Piranha—it’s a color I really enjoy. No one has done vocals in a playing context the way I imagine it. It’s a question of whether I can come up with something that solves the problem of how to mix those things in a way that seems right to me. I’m just happy if anybody wants something to come next.