Face it. If you’re a guitarist and listened to any music in the past 30 years, you’ve been influenced by Larry Carlton. One of the most recorded players in history, his thousands of sessions include work with Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, Al Jarreau, Michael Franks, and on and on. His production credits include excellent albums by the likes of Hoyt Axton and Joan Baez. And, of course, he spent the early ’70s with Joe Sample, Wilton Felder, Wayne Henderson, and “Stix” Hooper in the Crusaders.
Throw in about 20 solo albums since the late ’70s and his recent work with Fourplay, and you have a career built on being everybody’s favorite player. This spring, Carlton released Fingerprints, and it immediately began dominating the smooth jazz charts. VG sat with him to discuss the album, as well as where he’s been and wants to go. And he talked about the return of a friend that supplied him with his nickname years ago – Mr. 335.
Vintage Guitar: The big news to everyone on the new album is the return of the 335. Did you use it a lot?
Larry Carlton: It’s the only electric I used on this album. I also used a vintage Vibrolux I used on the Fourplay album two years ago. That’s when I found that amp. Actually, I had rented it and I liked it so much that I just bought it. I don’t think I used the Dumble at all on this album. The acoustic on the album is a Valley Arts that Mike McGuire and I designed and developed. It’s the only one left. I don’t know what I’ll do when the bracing and stuff finally goes. We only made five, and I got to pick the best two. So that’s the same one I’ve played on many, many albums.
Were you using the 335 on the Fourplay album?
No, that was the Tele. I was using a ’51 Tele.
With so much going on, are you planning to tour this year, either solo or with Fourplay?
I’m going out myself; the album’s doing so well there are gigs through September already.
What will you be using onstage?
My normal rig – the 335, a Dumble with a single twelve, and a little bit of reverb.
Are you still using the Tele or any of the Valley Arts guitars?
No, I really haven’t been the last couple of years. I used the Tele on the Fourplay album and then went on tour with Fourplay and somehow it just wasn’t right for the whole show. I pulled out the 335 and seemed more comfortable playing it live. I have in the past five, six, seven years, taken the Tele on tour. I use it for blues tunes, and I actually like it for playing bebop tunes, because the maple fingerboard is so quick.
The last time I saw you live, you were playing a Strat pretty much the whole night. Did you go through a Strat period for awhile.?
I did. There was a two-year period where I was playing a ’63 Strat.
Like a lot of your work, the album has a very nice, consistent sound. Is that a conscious thing on your part, or does it just happen?
No, I think because I’m the composer of the songs and I do demos, when I go into the studio, the tunes are pretty well represented as far as the emotional sections and how they’re going to feel. I think because it all comes from my brain and I produce most of my work, it ends up sounding like Larry. I don’t just turn the work over to someone else and just play my guitar over the top of it. I think there’s a continuity.
As always, your melodies are very strong. That can’t be said for all instrumental music nowadays. How do you write the melodies? Is there a process?
No. I think me, you, and the readers would agree I’m a pretty melodic player, so my solos often sound like songs. So I think like a composer and an arranger, even when I’m improvising. Most of the time. So it’s not difficult for me to sit down and write a song, because I’m very melodic.
You have played thousands of sessions, and you’ve gained a reputation for coming in and playing breathtaking solos, as opposed to the melodic concept. Is that a conscious thing when you work for someone? I’m thinking obviously of stuff like “Kid Charlemagne” by Steely Dan
Well, still, those solos make so much musical sense, melodically, that I see the thread there. I mean, that’s a solo you can sing.
So, you obviously see that skill as being related to your melodic sense.
Yeah, I really do. I think in a live situation, because I’m afforded the opportunity to play five, six or seven choruses, you start melodic, you build, you get a little more excitement, and maybe by the end (laughing) it’s not quite as melodic. But, you’re going for it.
I was surprised, reading your bio, to see this was your 20th solo album. Any changes you’ve noticed in yourself from when you started as a solo artist to what you want to do now and what you are doing now?”
Yeah, I think when you go back to the ’78 album with “Room 335,” “Rio Samba” and those tunes on it, and compare that 22 years later to the Fingerprints album, I think you can hear a maturity in approach. It’s still aggressive, but I don’t think it’s a show-off kind of aggressiveness. I think in our youth, some place in the back of our minds, we’re wanting to impress people. And I can honestly say, with all humility now, that I’m not out to impress anybody now. I’m out to make music. It’s all about trying to get chill bumps when I’m playing.
And giving other people chill bumps.
Yeah, that’s the second part.
Any projects at this point in your career that you’d still like to do?
Yeah, I’d like to do a very focused blues album, with a singer and some horns, and really get to be the fun, consummate sideman guitar player in that project, with lots of room to stretch.
Sounds like fun.
Oh yeah, it would be, man. And then go play that in clubs…wooo!
You did the duo thing with Lee Rittenour. Anything else like that you could see doing?
Well, that was definitely just a GRP one-off marketing idea. It wasn’t really something I’d really ever looked forward to doing. Lee and I were acquaintances, but everybody assumed we were close friends. But honestly, we probably hadn’t talked a half-dozen times. We didn’t really have that camaraderie going; it was just a project.
It would be fun, this decade, if Joe Sample and I could do a special project. I think his accompaniment would draw things out of me, and my lines would inspire him. I think that would be a good marriage.
Some great stuff happened when you guys played together on the Michael Franks albums in the ’70s.
Oh, yeah. And we had made so much music together during the three years before that that Joe and I were so comfortable to sit in the same room and just play. We were a team, for sure.
Well, your time with the Crusaders had to be just incredible.
It was a great, great learning experience, too, because the guys are all eight to 10 years older than I am. Back then I was 26, and they had another decade of experience on me. I had the chance to live that. It was wonderful.
I said I wouldn’t delve much into your history, since it’s pretty well-documented, but since we started… the Joni Mtchell stuff, like Court and Spark, certainly started a “Larry Carlton sound,” whatever that is. How did that whole thing come about?
I was playing at the Baked Potato with Tom Scott, Joe Sample, John Guerin, and Max Bennett, which for a quick minute later on became the L.A. Express. Well, Joni came into the club and loved the band. She approached Tom and asked if we could go into the studio and cut some stuff. So we did. Everybody came up with their own parts…it was a total five-man contribution to the arrangements and sections, and it was one of the most enjoyable projects I was involved in during the ’70s. It was so musical, and Joni’s vibe was so good, and the tunes were so great.
I’ve told people in the past that I was very proud to be on the first major, major Joni Mitchell hit, because prior to that she was pretty much a solo act, and pretty underground. Somehow, with that sound, it became so accessible that people became aware of her.
How about Steely Dan? Obviously, a lot of people associate you with your work for them. There are horror stories about working with Walter and Donald. How did you find them to be?
Through my eyes, it was a pleasure. They’re diligent, but it wasn’t a horror story at all. I’ve read that from other people, because they are so meticulous. But for me they were just gigs that people were just trying to accomplish what they wanted to accomplish musically, and I didn’t mind cutting the same tune every other week with a different drummer until they got what they wanted. I had no problem at all.
How about Fourplay? Still going on?
Yeah, there’s an album coming out late summer or early fall.
In the past, you’ve done some producing. Do you still do any, or for that matter, do you want to?
No, I don’t choose to. My passion, because I’m blessed with a solo career, is playing the guitar. And I’m not a workaholic. I enjoy making my albums, going out and playing live, then having a number of months off during the year. It’s not like I have to fill all those months with more projects.
You’ve been in Nashville for about four years now, right?
Obviously, you like it. Different feel, different vibe than L.A.?
Oh, definitely. I always wanted to live a more rural lifestyle than Los Angeles. So, here I can live out in the country, but there’s still a major music scene going on. I’ve done at least 15 benefits since I’ve lived here. I try to help the city – do things for the Chamber of Commerce where we’ll put on special events.
I read once where you were a fisherman.
I love to fish! I did a lot of fishing in California, but I had to drive four hours to go trout fishing. But, yeah, I love going to the streams here, and they have ponds stocked with big catfish. That, to me, is very enjoyable.
A lot of guys are moving down there. Steve Winwood… isn’t Mike McDon ald here?
Yeah, he’s been here seven years. Peter Frampton’s here.
Obviously, there’s lots of country folks, too. Vince Gill’s on the album. Have you known him long?
Yeah, I think Vince and I met in ’91 or ’92. I was asked to come here and host two shows on the Nashville Network. I met him there shortly before he had his first big hit.
I saw you in Minneapolis 10 or 11 years ago in a small club, and in the middle of the show you asked how many guitar players were in the audience. About 90 percent raised their hands. You made a joke, saying it’s fun to be judged by your peers. What goes through your head when you’re playing.
Well, at this point I’m just flattered that the guys want to come out and check out what I do. I don’t get nervous about it. I’m very focused, and like you said, the years of experience help me be very comfortable. I can only play as good as I play. Me thinking about anything else is only going to distract me. So I guess I’m really up there in kind of a selfish mode. I’m trying to get off. If I get off, the listener’s going to know I got off. So, I’m comfortable.
As Carlton starts the new century at the top of the smooth jazz charts, it’s good to look back on his accomplishments. There are few guitarists with a track record like his, and there are few who can burn with his intensity and play lines packed with the soul he brings to his playing. It’s no wonder he spent years in Los Angeles as the guitarist of choice.
This Interview originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’00 issue.