RR: In those days, all I wanted to do was gig. There was no recording unless it was to record what your gigging band did. I had no deal. What was I going to do? It was hip to have jazz then, and I had a good gig playing somewhat challenging music. So of course the good players who happened to be in town were going to play with me at some point. Quite a few good players were coming through Boston!
AAJ: Back to the fretless guitar.
RR: That was mostly the winter of '78. My friend Steve Holland, who originally studied with me, was a very good guitarist and became a very good friend- was going to MIT at the time and was a brilliant guy and brilliant at building things. He could work with any material and make anything out of it. He could look art any machine and immediately understand how it worked and how to make it better. He had this idea for a sustaining device that was the opposite of a pickup. It would put out instead of pick up. It would therefore set up a feedback loop through the string and make a note last forever.
So I had been studying Indian music. While I was at Berklee I studied with a tabla player learning the rudiments of Indian Classical music and I was fascinated. I like the Sarod, which had a stainless fingerboard. I talked to Steve about that and he said the problem with the stainless steel fingerboard is that if you use your soft finger on it, the note will die out because it doesn't have any fret to anchor itself against. But he said, 'My idea of a sustain device would be perfect for that, wouldn't it!' So that was just what Steve needed. I needed something to excite me to pursue the stainless steel fingerboard idea. Steve needed something to kick him into pursuing the sustain device. He of course was the guy who could build the whole thing. So we hacked up an old SG and put a slab of stainless on it and I started playing that without a sustain device. I thought, 'This could work, but I need a doubleneck to play chords on.' So I bought an Ibanez doubleneck. I took the original neck out in case we ruined it and I found a replacement neck that would bolt on- an Epiphone neck that could fit. We had a good piece of stainless steel made. It was flat but Steve was so good at machining he machined a nice curve on it, just a little bit, with beveled edges and a really nice mirror finish on it. He finished a sustain device and we hooked the whole thing up on that guitar and it worked ! The sustainer worked great. It was a perfect combination with the fretless, because you could control the damping with your left hand. If you pressed really hard the note would get louder after you hit it because the sustain would go nuts. If you wanted the note to die down, all you had to do was let off a little bit of pressure, so you had dynamic control over a note with the left hand; you could let it get softer, louder, and softer and louder again-go nuts and more. So that was Steve. He started a company to market the thing and the company didn't really work. He went out to California and then died in a motorcycle accident in 1983. We had sort of lost touch right before that in '81 or so, and I really wish I hadn't.
AAJ: Amazing that no other company took that and ran with it.
RR: Well, they did. There was a thing called the Sustainiac . Steve patented his invention but I don't know what those patents were. I know the thing in the Sustainiac and the thing that's in the Fernandes guitar - both of those had to infringe upon those patents. Those companies had to deal with Steve's patents.
AAJ: You would do that beautiful stuff with the chords and the sustained single notes, doing solos with yourself.
RR: Yeah, I could have the Guitorgan hold down a sustained thing and arpeggiate stuff on top of it. Or I could have the synth hold down a pedal and do stuff over it.
Still, I wish I really scored a sideman gig then. There was a ton of stuff I never learned. Sometimes I think I should still pursue it now.
AAJ: But you did that sideman stuff with George Jinda.
RR: That was more of collaboration with George and me.
AAJ: How'd that happen?
RR: Well, before that, I had an agent call me and ask if I wanted to make a fusion record. Hence Photogenic Memory. As it turns out, I never needed a manager to do it, because the deal in Japan was made through a contact of mine, so I could have gotten the deal without him, plus I definitely could have gotten all the musicians. It never got distributed in the US, because I would have had to sign a deal tying me to this guy for a couple of years or so. The guy developed a substance abuse problem right around that time, so it would have been a bad idea. This is in 1990. It was recorded in New York. Peter Erskine, who played drums on it, was playing with Metheny at the Bottom Line, so we didn't have to pay any of his expenses. He was always the first guy at the studio and took a lot of direction. So often, when you work with someone at that level it's hard to for someone at my level to tell him what to do
AAJ: I agree. It must have been hard to work with someone below your level! (Laughs)
RR: Yeah, right. Nobody knew me from a hill of beans and I'm telling Peter Erskine what to do. He just wasn't getting the flow, so I just told him exactly what to do and the shape and every little aspect, and his reaction was, 'Oh! That's so cool. Now I get it!' His response was not only so open to direction but so positive that from that point on, for me, it went from intimidating to fun. Victor was great, too, but always late to the sessions!
AAJ: Shifting gears, I have to ask, looking around me; did you have a lot of this equipment in place before you started doing the TV work?