Charlie Hunter: Seven-String Samurai
CH: I was young, 19, 20, 21 years old. I did it for about three years. So the technique came from that time in Europe and also from growing up around the guitar when I was a kid. I was doing gigs when I was in high school, a lot of gigs. Learning how to play guitar really well was not something that was hard for kids from Berkeley at that time. Everyone played well... There were all these blues guys who I'd played with, who were a lot older, some of whom I can't even remember the names of, who just schooled me. And then you'd have your guitar at school and you'd end up not really playing. I mean, they had the jazz band at Berkeley High when I was a kid and I didn't do the jazz band because I tried out and there were three kids ahead of me who were way better, you know? And I was good, I could play, maybe not so much the jazz stuff, but I could get around.
I had a bunch of friends and we would pass the guitar around all day, "hey did you learn this solo or that solo..." that's just what we did. So by the time, I was 20 I had a good hand at the technical thing on the six string guitar and I was like "how do I put the things together on an instrument to get more of that counterpoint," because I also liked playing the drums and the bass, you know, like all this rhythmic stuff. And I've been very lucky that all the journeys I've gone on musically, whether that be growing up in the Bay Area or being a street-musician or playing with people who you'd never believe how good they were. Just like, man, I've been lucky.
AAJ: So how do you feel like your sound has evolved over time? I know for awhile you were playing with the mimicry of that Hammond organ sound...
CH: Yeah, that was my go-to for a long time. I was really trying to figure out what I was supposed to sound like, how do I fit into this jazz world? I was really impressionable and I really wanted people to like me because I was jazzy. But that was fun, while it lasted. I can't stand that sound now. When I hear my old records with that sound, I want to punch that guy in the face. It sounds so cloying to me.
AAJ: I thought the Hammond Organ sound was an interesting choice since, with the guitar/bass technique, it's almost as if you're treating the guitar as a keyboard itself...
CH: I mean, that's definitely where it came out of. I already had that guitar stuff down, it wasn't that exciting to me. I guess I was rebelling against that. Also at that point, you really had to have "a sound" and I thought the Hammond organ sound was good to accompany horns. I was always playing with horns at the time. I was really the guy who wrote the music and I would take solos but the real soloists were the horn players. Yeah, so it was a way to differentiate myself... It was just about that time and place. I wouldn't do it now.
AAJ: So how do you think your sound has evolved now?
CH: Um, it's definitely simpler and more old-school sounding. I don't have any effects anymore, I just plug straight into the guitar and usually play a really low-wattage amp, like I use these Headstrong Lil' Kings, which is essentially a Princeton, and I usually turn it up to 7 or 8 and just go from there by using my fingers. Generally, I just try to play simply and make it really be about the interplay between bass and the guitar parts. That's really what makes or breaks it, in the same way that when Clyde Stubblefield plays a beat or even Elvin Jones, it's about the interdependence of all the parts. For me, the interdependence of those parts is where I tell the story from. Back in the early days, I tried to tell the story from playing these deep lines and I never was very good at that. But I know I finally understand that it sounds the best when the story comes from that counterpoint between those parts, and the beat and the rhythm and the pocket. It helps to have soul, too. [laughs]
CH: I never really thought about it in those terms. I just do what I do. Since so much of what I do revolves around the rhythm and the blues and soul music and stuff like that, I think there's automatically an accessible aspect to it. Also the fact that you have an instrument that, although it is very different from a guitar, it has that guitar sound that people are very used to. And that's a window through which they can get into the music. You can never plan for that. If you start planning for that, it's over. If you try writing music in terms of a specific audience, you're pretty much doomed.
AAJ: People also come for the magic of seeing you play. There's a certain awe to it, walking into that room and being like "Wait a minute, it sounds like there's another bassist or guitarist in the background there..."