Guitarist Larry Carlton is both a well respected session guitarist and leader; but also a icon that has played on well over 4,000 recordings ranging from jazz, soul, and film scores. In a career that spans some 45 years, Carlton’s distictive guitar style has added flavor to musicians like Donald Fagan, Joni Mitchell, The Crusaders, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Mike Post and other bands and musicians that are way to long to mention. The 19-time-Grammy Award Nominee and 4-time winner was again nominated for an award during this year’s 2013 ceremonies and is a recipient of many other jazz and guitar awards.
Larry named his recording studio as well as his record label 335 Records after his nickname, which was named after a Gibson model guitar that he made famous during his time as a session musician during the 1970′s. His latest release “Larry Carlton and Robben Ford: Unplugged”, is a live set with famed blues guitarist Robben Ford.
Q: You have a very nuanced style; you seem to use every available technique to give your solos their expressive quality. How much of that is down to your jazz background?
“I think a lot of that comes from the jazz guys I listened to in my younger years. I think most of us, whether guitar players or other musicians, we try to emulate what has touched us emotionally as we’ve listened to other players. And the things that you’re hearing, that you’ve described as nuances in my playing, obviously I heard those some place and responded emotionally to them. So you try to emulate that and pretty soon, as your technique gets better and you gain more experience, you’re able to show your own emotion because you’ve heard those kinds of nuances [in other musicians’ playing]“.
Q: How old were you when you started studying jazz?
“I was around 14 when I became interested in jazz. I never took jazz guitar lessons. I learned the jazz stuff by listening to records and copying – and analysing. That’s the bit I like to focus on when I’m talking to students at clinics. I didn’t just learn a passage by Joe Pass. I learned it, but then I analysed it: ‘Why did he play those notes right there against that chord?’ That’s where the knowledge comes in. You can cop a lick or cop a solo, but to understand how or why it could work against those changes… that opens it up for you to play over changes yourself because you have a knowledge of it.”
Q: You have said that you think like a composer and arranger even when you are improvising. Can you describe how you came up with the solos on our tracks?
“I think it’s my basic approach. Normally I start with some kind of a motif and it’s usually simple. So then I have the opportunity to develop that motif and not just play a bunch of notes. I’m aware of the first [musical] statement, I usually emulate that first statement again and that leads me down the path of making a composition out of something rather than just playing a bunch of notes on the guitar. That’s a compositional technique that the classical composers used years ago. They always started with a motif then a reiteration of the motif, and they would play the motif backwards sometimes after they’d developed it a little further and it became a composition rather than just some piano notes.”
Q: Did you use your original ’69 Gibson ES-335 or your signature LC model on our tracks, ‘Striped Shirt’ and ‘Mind The Gaps’?
“I used my original. That’s the one I had in the studio on the days I was working on those. I take it with me on the road still. I was given a gift by a fan, maybe five years ago now. A fan contacted me at my office and said that he had a 1968 ES-335 that had been sitting in a closet at his grandmother’s or his aunt’s house. 17 years untouched. In his note he said, ‘You’re my favourite guitarist and I would like to give you this guitar as your backup if you like it.’ It was basically a virgin 1968 and it sounded and played wonderfully – so I accepted his gift! Sometimes over the last three years I’ve taken that out on the road just for a change of feel.”
Q: Can you confirm, is your original 335 a ’68 or a ’69? There seems to be some disagreement online.
“I believe it’s a ’69. Although I always thought it was a ’68, but I think I’ve learned from my [guitar] tech over the years… I don’t pay much attention to that stuff! [Laughs]”
Q: Which amp did you use to record?
“I used my Bludotone. I stopped using Dumble about three years or so ago. My Dumbles were getting very tired and Mr Dumble has some health issues. It was getting harder and harder to communicate with him as far as getting my amps to him and having him keep them up to date. So I met [Bludotone’s] Brandon Montgomery, a small, custom amp maker who knows exactly how to copy a Dumble. I gave him my Dumbles and he matched the tone, all the components… I’m very happy with my Bludotone, so that’s what I used on those tracks.”
Q: We’ve worked hard to make our exam pieces as credible as possible. Can you give us your impression of them in terms of composition and production?
“I immediately noticed how each composition encompasses many techniques as opposed to just a song with certain techniques. You have to be able to play 16th notes, you have to be able to slide, you have to be able to bend, you have to be able to change time signatures – ‘Mind The Gaps’ was straight eighth notes until the solo then it was a shuffle. All of those things will be great tools for students to work on and I think these compositions will really challenge them and open doors for them because they have to play those different kinds of styles.”
by: Bob Doerschuk, Nashville Arts Magazine
photography: Anthony Scarlati
Larry Carlton’s guitar Steely Dan track “Kid Charlemagne” is often cited as evidence of his musical mastery. It is, of course, a masterpiece, certified by Rolling Stone, no less, as among the greatest rock guitar solos of all time. Objective listening reveals it as a synthesis of passion and intelligence, beginning over a prickly funk beat and winding through unorthodox chord sequences like a stream unstopped by vexing terrain.
The note selections are perfect and perfectly timed, sketching a motif at the top with deliberate, unhurried phrasing, sweetened by a dash of sly vibrato, and then accelerating, the notes still silvery smooth yet coming faster, elaborating on those opening notes, and then suddenly clanging into what sounds at first like a clinker, a mistake, only to stand revealed as a perfect pivot for transition into a B section. And then Carlton ties it
together with a bluesy coda—a ribbon on the package.
Unarguably, this is the definitive Steely Dan guitar solo, released in 1976 on their The Royal Scam album. But it only hints at the reach of Carlton’s work over these past forty-plus years, which includes a prolific session career in Los Angeles, encompasses long runs as a member of two iconicinstrumental groups, the Crusaders and Fourplay, and embraces a catalog of albums recorded under his own name, beginning in 1968 and growing still.
Whether in the studio with Steely Dan (who Carlton recently joined on the road for eight live shows after a thirty-year separation), Joni Mitchell, Quincy Jones, Sammy Davis Jr., or any one of dozens of other idiosyncratic artists on more than one hundred Gold-certified albums, or fronting his own band, Carlton always opted for substance over razzle-dazzle, with a tone that teetered artfully between the bel canto phrase and a rough cutting edge.
The lessons of those days linger, but Carlton shook off the Hollywood glitz when he and his wife, Contemporary Christian singer and three-time Grammy nominee Michelle Pillar, moved from the West Coast to the Nashville area. Today, they live near Leiper’s Fork. Settled in a clearing that overlooks fields and forest, the structures and spaces they’ve built complement the maturity and taste that infuse Carlton’s work. Their house is symmetrically complex but harmonious in its parts, not unlike the best Steely Dan material, its core harvested from a two hundred-year old cabin and its high-ceilinged interior an airy celebration of natural light and Tennessee folk furnishings, rugged and rare.
“Larry wants a quarter horse, so we’re looking for a real quiet one,” Pillar says. He’s enjoyed riding since childhood in California. (“I cowboy around,” he admits with a smile.) But when he’s not on the road, he focuses mainly on his music, writing and recording in a studio positioned as the third corner of this triangle of buildings on their hilltop. It’s an intimate retreat, though soaring ceilings and high windows make it feel roomier, with rough log walls reprising his connection to Tennessee history. “I’d only been here once, in downtown Nashville, before Michelle and I moved here fifteen years ago,” Carlton recalls. “But both my parents are Okies that moved to California, so many of my vacations as a young kid growing up in Torrance were on a farm in Southeastern Oklahoma, where I’d ride horses, fish, and go squirrel hunting. I’ve always been attracted to the rural lifestyle, so there’s something about the vibe of older, simple things that connects with me. I knew someday I would move to the country.”
His family’s roots, the sense of possibility that comes from growing up in the Golden State, and the timing of Carlton’s birth in 1948 all contributed to the influences that guided him into making music at age six. He gravitated toward guitar simply because his grandmother had one in her house. As he got to know it in childhood through private lessons and performing in talent shows, Carlton studied appearances by Jimmy Bryant, Larry Collins, Joe Maphis, and Speedy West on television, where their sound echoed the Country and Western swing that his family had brought with them from Oklahoma and prepped him for the impact of Elvis Presley. From here he expanded his range in his early teens through listening to the great jazz guitarists.
None of these illuminations felt like struggling from one genre to the next. To the young Carlton, music wasn’t about barriers. “I started so young,” he explained. “When I would become interested in a certain style of music, I had the good sense to develop and listen to it, even when I was only nine years old. Then I’d listen to something else. With jazz, for instance, I learned the standard songs simply because I liked them. I liked the harmonies. When I would learn a riff or part of a solo from Joe Pass, something in me wanted to know not just that he played those notes and that I could play them too. I also wanted to know why those notes were right there in his solo. I came to my own conclusions about how or why he could do that, and that really helped me grow, to the point that the Larry Carlton sound was a combination of all those styles.”
The final piece of the puzzle came through playing sessions, which boils down to bringing the visions of other artists to life as fully and efficiently as possible. Many focus on that specialty throughout their lives as players; relatively few incorporate it as a stimulus to their own creativity. Carlton absorbed a lot in this world, but he also points to one conversation with a fellow guitarist that helped put it all into perspective.
“I’d been doing sessions for maybe two years,” he says. “I was very busy. But on a lot of the songs I was playing on, my guitar was just part of the background. And every time I turned on the radio, I’d hear Louie Shelton’s guitar mixed right up front; I could hear everything he was playing. So one day Louie and I were walking down Sunset Boulevard, and I asked him about this. This is the statement that changed my life: He said, ‘I try to think like an arranger.’ He wasn’t thinking like a guitar player. He homed in on finding the part that works perfectly against the vocal and the background. From then on, I became a better musician because I started thinking like an arranger.”
This process differs in significant ways from what drives many young guitarists today. “I was motivated by the music,” he says. “I played because I was looking for emotional fulfillment. Once a person has experienced a special moment, you want to experience it again if you can. Once you become consequent enough in the instrument to start feeling what chord you want to play on a certain song, then you strive for that because it feels so good. That was my process.
“I get a sense that over the last twenty years many of the young guitar players want to be stars. That’s different from wanting to be a guitar player or a musician for the passion of the music. And if the motivation isn’t pure, then the truth isn’t spoken through your music.”
Carlton’s most serious challenge in life wasn’t musical but personal, when he was shot in the throat outside of his L.A. studio in a random act of violence more than twenty years ago. As he recuperated, in place of anger or a thirst for revenge, he felt sadness if not compassion for those driven to commit such acts. And he emerged with a perspective that he insists gives him greater equilibrium and a sounder artistic foundation.
“My son, who was six years old at the time of the shooting, said to me, in his innocence, during my recovery, ‘Dad, why did they have to shoot you?’” Carlton says. “What came to me was, ‘Why not me? I’m just another daddy in this world.’ You can have an over-inflated ego about your talent, but none of us is special, in my opinion. The reality is that when I’m not playing the guitar I’m just the same as everyone else, trying to get it done correctly… just another daddy in this world.”
by: Bob Doerschuk, Nashville Arts Magazine
photography: Anthony Scarlati
How did The Sound of Philadelphia album and overall concept for it come about, and what are your ultimate goals with it?
It’s interesting how the Sound Of Philadelphia music came about. The producer, Billy Terrell, actually it’s his concept of doing these 11 songs with these great arrangements. He’s a huge fan of The Philadelphia Sound and he actually cut all of the tracks thinking there would be a vocalist presenting these songs. But somehow that didn’t work out for Billy and the tracks sat for quite a while, maybe over a year in fact, until he finally discovered who he wanted to be the artist on it, so he chose me and he sent me all of the tracks with the back ground vocals and the horns and everything and just allowed me to put my touch on all of these great melodies. So, I think it was a treat, a special treat for me and I think it was a special treat and is a special treat for the audience to hear me play 11 very familiar songs with great arrangements and I promise to have some new material for you next year but right now enjoy these greats songs from Philadelphia.
What aspect of the creative process, from concept to market, do you personally find to be the most rewarding?
You know a couple of things come to mind creating new songs. Creating the new material is very, very rewarding, and a challenge, of course, but for all of us that write most of our own material to try to come up with something unique is always a challenge then once you find that song, you’ve written that song, that brand new piece of music, it’s a great reward to know, “Okay, I’ve got this cool, cool song.” And then obviously having people listen to the song on the radio, or live, and knowing that they enjoy it. That’s the big reward right there… create it and then have the world agree.
What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of recording a new album?
Definitely coming up with the material! Since I compose almost 90% of the songs I record, when I know that it’s time to do a new record, a new album, I come into my studio and I have a keyboard set up, and a guitar and a bass available sitting next to me and my ProTools rig, and I pull up a session and label it as “Song #1.”…..…..That silence is what I am talking about right there. It’s just blank slate with nothing on it and I have to come up with something that inspires me a lick, a groove, a bass note, a bass…. Anything that starts me on the process of creating a new piece of music and that’s a huge challenge always in the beginning, to have that blank slate in front of me, knowing it’s time to write a song.
What would be the most important piece of advice you’d impart to a young musician just starting out in the jazz/smooth jazz arena?
I do a lot of clinics around the world, guitar clinics obviously, and I’m talking to younger musicians. One thing that I try to impart to them is, analyze your motive… of why you’re making music. I’m not saying there’s a wrong motive, I’m saying just know what you’re doing as far as why you’re doing it. My motive when I was a youngster, learning the guitar and getting to play the guitar was always to make music. I was excited to be a guitar player and make music, as opposed to some other young people, my, in my time back then and now also. Their motive is to be a star, or their motive is to make a lot of money, so they use their music to get to that point. That’s all fine but I think it is good to be truthful with ourselves and know why we are doing something. I think if you’re motive, as a young player, is to make music then you’ll have the joy of the whole process, weather you become a recording artist or not. You play your music and you hope that people respond but you enjoy the process of getting better and better.
What are you most proud of at this point in your life and career?
I think in my life I’m very, very proud of to be the son of my mom and dad. Very, very special people, instilled a lot of great things in me that I look back on and go, “Yup, you were right dad.” One of the things my father told me a long time ago, that I’m very proud of, and I try to live up to, is he said “Son, you’re only as good as your word.” Well, that’s a very heavy statement, he says, “You’re only as good as your word.” Meaning, you’ve got to stand up if you say something to somebody, that you got to back it up, you got to follow through, and I am really proud of my folks for instilling those kinds of values in me. And in my career, of course, I’m very, very proud of the fact that I’m blessed to be one of the few in the percentage of musicians in the world who get, to make a living and play their music, my music, my whole life. I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve been able to do this for over 35 years now.
What would your top “desert island” classic albums be, regardless of genre… the albums you turn to time after time for your own personal enjoyment and inspiration?
Well that’s easy for a couple of reasons… My first one of them would definitely be “Catch Me” by Joe Pass, “For Django” by Joe Pass, Miles Davis “All Blue,” and 90% of the John Coltrane collections including, one of my favorites, which is “Ballads” by John Coltrane.
Larry Carlton performed May 18th, 2011 in Metropool Hengelo (NL) with Andrew Ford on bass and Gene Coye on drums. Smooth Jazz Europe had the opportunity to have an interview with the world famous guitar player before his show. All kind of things between playing the guitar as a kid, recording the tunes for Hill St. Blues and Who Is The Boss, using a magic synth box, being at home at his farm, playing with Fourplay and The Crusaders, came along!
A longtime Nashville resident, Larry Carlton will perform a special hometown show at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center on Friday, September 30. Larry spoke to Examiner.com about the upcoming show, his long career, playing with Michael Jackson and Dolly Parton, his continuing passion for music and more in the following interview.
You’re playing at the Schermerhorn on Friday. Is this in conjunction with the Larry Carlton Plays the Sound of Philadelphia project?
That will be part of the show. The show I’m putting together is . . . I don’t know if you’d call it the landscape of my career, but I’m going to do some things that I haven’t done before, and the people are gonna be excited. They’re gonna go, “Wow, I didn’t know he played on that,” or “Really? He was involved in that?”
I want to do a special show that night. It won’t be just me and a sax player. (Laughs).
How did this come about? Did they approach you, or were you looking around for an appropriate venue for a particular type of show?
I was approached. I guess they finally got around to me. (Laughs). No, I was excited when I got the call. It’s hometown for me, and the venue, if you will. I’m really excited.
After the long career you’ve had and all the various things you’ve done, what is it that keeps you active and excited about music?
That’s a difficult question in that, at four years old I was fascinated with the guitar. At six years old I started taking lessons. I was passionate about it through the next fifty years, and that passion still exists.
Do you still keep an active practice regimen? Do you have the guitar in your hand every day?
No, normally I do about 125-150 a year touring around the world. So when I come home – and this is not new to me, I did this way back in the seventies – it’s not unusual for me to not touch the guitar for a month, and just live my life; go horseback riding, go fishing.
I find that’s good for my soul, good for my mind, and then when I come back to the guitar it’s time to go again. It’s a balance, I think.
You came up in an era where everything about the business was different. With all the changes in recording and distribution, do you think it’s easier or harder for an artist in your position than it used to be?
Well, I have a unique situation, so I’m going to say it’s easier. I have my own label now, and for the last four-and-a-half years. It was the first time in 17 years that I wasn’t on a major label, and it was by choice. With the Internet I can talk to, play for, make music for the whole world, not just the US. When I was on a major they were very focused on the US.
Of course my albums were distributed overseas, and I have a great career in Japan and Europe. But now, I get an idea for a project . . . maybe it’ll come from someone on Facebook saying, “Larry, have you ever thought of something with strings?” It could happen like that. So I’m enjoying the freedom of getting to make those choices.
What about the downside of the Internet, which is illegal downloading. Has that impacted you in the same way that it has rock and pop acts?
Well, of course. My numbers are down, like most artists, because everybody’s exchanging files back and forth. That affects not only your record royalties, but your publishing and writing royalties. But it’s just a new day, and I’m going with it. On my website I’m sharing how I learned the guitar, how I play it . . . I want to be part of this new scene, and not avoid it and resent it.
You’ve obviously done a ton of recording, but two names jumped out at me from all that you’ve done that I wanted to ask you about, one of which is Michael Jackson. What did you do with Michael Jackson?
Quincy [Jones] called and said, “Larry, I have a special song, and it’s got to be you.” Because I wasn’t doing a lot of dates, I’d already discontinued doing a lot of dates back then. So I went in and recorded what became a single, “She’s Out of My Life.”
In fact I’m looking at a three-foot plaque in my office right now that says, “Michael Jackson Off The Wall, over five million albums sold. We got all the marbles on this one, thanks for your help, Quincy.” And there’s four marbles in the bottom of it. It has a picture of Michael and the album cover. So yeah, I played on one cut on that album as a favor to Quincy.
When you’re doing that many different dates in so many different styles as you used to, is there any rational way to prepare for that, or do you just walk in and do it?
You walk in cold.
Versatility has served me well, and I think one of the reasons that I’m so versatile as a musician is because of the era and time that I was brought up. You figure, I was born in 1948, so by the time 1958 came around I’m ten, and I’m listening to doo-wop music on the radio. And that transitioned into the sixties, and rock and roll became very big.
So I’m part of that whole history, and I was playing the guitar the whole time. Every time something new came out in a style, I was aware of it. It was part of my hunger to learn how they did that. I wanted to learn the solo on an Elvis Presley record, and then The Beatles came along. So I lived through that transition, and the one thing that really made me a little bit different is that I fell in love with jazz when I was 14, but I didn’t neglect pop music.
You’re offering interactive lessons on your web site. What gave you the idea to do that?
I was doing a guitar seminar in New York, and a producer was there who produces teaching DVDs. He has the largest Internet site, called TrueFire. Anyway, he was impressed with my seminar and the way I communicate, so he approached me and said, “I’d like to produce a teaching video with you. It’s been twenty years since you’ve done one.” So that’s how it started, and it still continues. I’m flying out tomorrow to speak to him about another project. So having a great producer helps me expose what I want to give to the guys out there.
What do you think is the most important thing to know for a kid who wants to play guitar?
I think what you just said: if a kid wants to play. I think motive is really important. What’s your motive to play the guitar? Mine was always to make music. I can say this honestly: I never thought about being a star. It never entered my mind. I wanted to play the guitar. My dream as a teen was to be like my jazz heroes and play jazz in smoky clubs my whole life. I didn’t know I was gonna become a session guy or any of that stuff.
So it’s motive. Are you doing this because you want to be a star, or do you want to be a musician? If you’re doing it because you want to be a star, then you’ll go that direction, and that’s okay. Both avenues are fine, but I think you’ve got to be honest, because I think truthfulness comes out of you when you’re playing your music.
Your son Travis is a bass player. Is it something that gives you pause, to see him go into the business? Because you have a decades-long bird’s eye view of how difficult it can be.
All I can tell you is that he’s gifted with music, and then he worked very, very hard as soon as he got out of high school. He went to GIT, graduated top of the class, Best Performer . . . he’s a gifted, gifted musician who’s worked very hard, and now he’s reaping the rewards of that.
When he was a little boy sitting on my lap, and I’d be mixing a song in my studio, his body was always in time with the song. As a little kid. The stuff you can’t teach, Travis got. I’m very proud of him. He plays in my band, he plays in Robben Ford’s band, and he plays in Scott Henderson’s band. People like grooving to Travis. It’s a beautiful thing.
There will be a Larry Carlton special on L1 Radio, with an interview recorded in Verviers, Belgium, on Saturday August 13th. The special will last approximately 45 minutes, and will be broadcast between 5:00 pm and 6:00 pm local time (GMT+1). In US Eastern time this is between 9:00 am and 10:00 am. You can listen to the broadcast via internet.
You can use a browser and go to: (you may need the Windows Media Player plugin) CLICK HERE
You can also use one of the following URL’s in media player software with the ability to stream internet radio:
mms://webradio.l1.nl/l1radio – Windows Media Audio Stream via MMS
rtsp://webradio.l1.nl/l1radio – Windows Media Audio stream via RTSP
http://webradio.l1.nl/l1radio – Windows Media Audio stream via HTTP
http://webradio.l1.nl:8080/l1radio.m3u – MP3 stream via HTTP
…….Intro John Hendrix
1. 0.07 Stationcall LC
2. 4.40 Kid Charlemagne (Becker/Fagen) Steely Dan – cd The Royal Scam – MCA MCAD 31193 (1976)
3. 1.40 Int LC : I Started…..
4. 5.51 Stomp and buck dance (Henderson) – Crusaders – cd Southern Comfort – Blue Thumb MCAD 6016 (1976)
5. 1.20 Int LC : Huge influence….
6. 5.48 Smiles and smiles to go (Carlton) – Larry Carlton – cd Alone but never alone – MCA 5689 (1987)
7. 0.36 Int LC : As life is….
8. 5.28 Farm Jazz (Carlton) – Larry Carlton feat. Terry Mc Millan (1953-2007) – cd Renegade gentleman – GRP 97442 (1993)
9. 0.43 Int LC : 1982
10. 4.37 Sleepwalk (Farina/arr.Carlton) – Larry Carlton – cd Sleepwalk – GRP 01262 (1982)
11. 3.04 Interview Iain Lawson (telefoon Halifax GB)
12. 5.07 Honey samba (Carlton) – Larry Carlton – cd On solid ground – GRP 01062 (1989)
13. 027 Int LC : Own label….
14. 5.39 Room 335 (Carlton) – Larry Carlton – cd Larry Carlton – WEA K 56548