Q & A: Lee Ritenour

By Don Heckman

Lee Ritenour’s latest album, 6 String Theory, is a landmark recording in his long, high profile career as a versatile, high visibility guitarist.  His career – reaching back to his first professional gigs as a teen-ager – has been remarkable.  Performing in thousands of sessions as a young guitarist with the likes of Peggy Lee, Lena Horne, Sonny Rollins, Pink Floyd, Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles, he was one of the founding members of Fourplay, and his own recordings have resulted in 17 Grammy nominations, one Grammy award and 35 charted songs.

Despite the multiplicity of concepts and productions in his 40 albums, however, Ritenour has never conceived a recording project quite like “6 String Theory,” which ultimately became a stunning, all-star guitarists’ jam session as well as The Yamaha 6 String Theory Guitar Competition — an international contest for young guitarists.  It all began, he told me in a recent conversation, with an anniversary.

* * * *

DH: Lee, if you’re saying this project was stimulated to some extent by your 50th anniversary as a guitar player, you must have started at a very young age.

LR: It was.  And I did start playing when I was young — in 1960, when I was eight.

DH: Definitely young.  Do you remember why you picked the guitar?

LR: Well, it was an interesting time.  1960 was the time of the guitar.  It was coming out of the woodwork.  Everybody from Roy Rogers and Gene Autry to Elvis.  The folk thing was starting with the Kingston Trio.  And the Blues guys were showing up, and then rock ‘n’ roll was coming with Chuck Berry.  In a couple more years it would be the Beatles.  And jazz guitar was already blooming with people like Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass.  And here in L.A., Howard Roberts and Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis and Tal Farlow.  Add to that, my parents were jazz fans.  My father was an amateur piano player and he had a lot of records around the house.  So I got the bug for music early on from all that combination of things.  But I think I may have been born to the guitar.  I remember when I was a kid putting two rubber bands on nails in a stick.  So the vibration of the strings was my thing, I guess.

DH: And not only did you start playing the instrument early, but you also made your first recording, professionally, when you were sixteen.  How did that come about?

LR: Actually it was my first session.  In fact there were a few sessions around that period.  Most of them were demos.  But the one in particular that stands out was with the Mommas and the Poppas.  John Phillips was supposedly producing a band that I was a part of.  That was around ’68. I think the leader of the band was selling him drugs; he was a really good connection.  Anyhow we went up to John Phillips’ big mansion in Bel Air, where he had a studio – very rare for those days.  We did some sessions with this band, that didn’t go anywhere.  But then he asked me to stay and record a session for the Mamas and the Poppas.  But it didn’t come out at that time. I looked for years to see if it was ever released.  And maybe it was, but much later.

DH: How soon after that did people start calling you “Captain Fingers?”

LR: Wow.  That goes back a long time, too, back to my twenties.  My second album was named Captain Fingers, And there was a song I wrote called “Captain Fingers.”  During that period – around ’76 or ’77 — people started calling me that.  It was sort of the time when fusion was meeting jazz and rock and stuff.  I had a fair degree of chops, and some of the fans started using the name – ‘How ya doin’ Captain,’ one guy would always say to me.  So then I wrote the tune, used it for the album title, and then it just stuck with me forever.  I even named my production company Captain Fingers.  And it still has that name.

DH: Yes, I see it’s on the cover of the 6 String Theory album.  A project that’s a kind of culmination of all of the above – the early musical beginning, the drive to succeed, the fast fingers?

LR: In a way.  There were actually a lot of reasons for the project. One of the main things was that in 2010 I really wanted to celebrate the guitar, and my own little personal celebration of playing it for fifty years.  But also, since I was a kid, I’ve always loved all the different styles of guitar playing.  My own playing is all over the map.  But I really did love jazz and blues and rock and classical and country and acoustic when I was growing up.  I’d check out John McLaughlin one day, and then Segovia the next day, and then Jimi Hendrix.  Anyone who could play the guitar well, I was checking him out.

DH: Were all those different styles and your fascination with them what led to the title 6 String Theory?

LR: I think this thing was bubbling around in my head for years – that someday I was going to figure out a way to put all those things together.  Then the phrase 6 String Theory came to mind.  And so I said, ‘Okay, so what if we sort of make this scientific exploration of the guitar, call it 6 String Theory, and break apart the boundaries.  And what if I were to put all these styles on one record…[Laughing] Like I do sometimes, anyway.

DH: [Laughing]  Sometimes even in one solo…

LR: And what if I was able to put all these masters together – as many as I was able to get on one record, and then add some new talent.

DH: You’ve done concept albums before.  I remember the Twist of… series, especially the Twist of Jobim album.

LR: Yeah, someone actually said, ‘Oh, so you’re doing the Twist of Guitar now, huh?  And in a way, it’s true, but this was the biggest Twist of…. I don’t think I’ve ever done a bigger project than this one.

DH: Probably not.  Organizing sessions with a list of players that includes John Scofield, B.B. King, Pat Martino, Steve Lukather, George Benson, Vince Gill, Mike Stern and a lot more had to reach beyond a few phone calls.

LR: I was touring during the complete lead-up to the album, while it was all being put together.  And every time we’d run into another guitar player, I’d be hitting on them.  Robert Cray, Joe Bonamassa, Benson, Mike Stern, Scofield.  I was like this salesman guy.

DH: You also included some intriguing young professionals, as well.

LR: Oh, yeah.  There’s Andy McKee, a guitar player from Kansas who’s had 80 million hits on his YouTube video — a pyrotechnical player, but he’s very musical. And Joe Robinson, a wicked guitar player from Australia, won the Australia’s Got Talent TV show when he was 16.  And I had to have one shredder on the record, and that was this kid Gutherie Govan, from England.  He ended up playing a tune in 5/4.  It was a hard song, and it came out almost like a Coltrane thing in that it was a wall of notes.  But they’re all the right ones.

DH: Despite all the different players, their different locations and different schedules, you managed to get most of them including the stellar names, along with the equally stellar rhythm section players, into the studio together.

LR: There’s twenty guitar players on the record.  Only four were overdubbed, primarily for scheduling reasons.  I had to go to Vegas to record B.B. King; Vince Gill was recorded in Nashville; Tomoyasu Hotei in Tokyo; and Robert Cray in Santa Barbera.

DH: But it was the Yamaha 6 String Theory Guitar Competition aspect of the project that made it much more than a just a recording, didn’t it?

LR: For sure.  I thought, how about if we also had a contest and the winner of the contest would get certain prizes, and the grand prize would be that you get to play on the record.  Then I took it further and thought, let’s divide it up by strings – six strings meaning six different genres: jazz, rock, blues, classical, acoustic, country.

DH: How did you get the word out?

LR: We put up a website, sixstringtheory.com with Yamaha – it’s still up with all the results — and asked for contestants, and they started coming in from all over the world, the first from Denmark. Close to 500 people finally entered from 45 countries in those six categories.

DH: How did it work?  Did they send music clips, MP3s?

LR: The way the site was built, you could pick a category and then submit two five minute videos.  They had to be videos.  We didn’t want any CDs because they could be manipulated too much.  But they were very hard to judge.  On the last weekend we had two days left to decide on the finalists, and we had 32 guitar players who were all phenomenal.  And that’s where the technology failed; the videos just weren’t good enough to give us a real picture.  We had to see them in person.  So we got the number down to 17, and we invited them – from around the world – to make an appearance in L.A.  Thirteen of the them finally showed up.

DH:  And the winner..?

LR: Was 16 year old Shon Boublil, from Canada.  He plays the last track on the recording, and he was awarded a four year scholarship to Berklee. He won in the classical category which perfectly fit the record, because that was the only musical category that I hadn’t covered yet.  It’s programmed last, and it’s kind of fitting that we go through all the different categories and then we end up with a track that’s the foundation of the guitar.

DH: It’s an amazing project, Lee.  And a demanding one, too.

LR: Actually, the making of the record was pretty simple.  It was the year and a half before that was tough.  Conceiving the contest, setting it up, gathering the sponsors, judging all the submissions, then calling all the players, getting everyone on board, orchestrating schedules, picking material, arranging music.  But once we got it all together and hit the studio it was like magic.

DH: And worth every minute of effort?

LR: You bet.  It was real fun.  And I had the best seat in the house.

* * * *

Lee Ritenour performs selections from the 6 String Theory album tonight (Wed., July 21) at the Hollywood Bowl with Dave Grusin, Keb’ Mo’, Taj Mahal and John Scofield.  The album is now available in stores.  In October, Monster Music will release a a 5.1 surround sound version with additional bonuses that include a ten minute high definition, making-of-the-record film with  footage from the recording, as well as naked rhythm section tracks for playalong purposes.

Photo by Faith Frenz

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