Lee Ritenour has forged a path as a preeminent session player in the kaleidoscopic Los Angeles studio scene, and a respected solo player. He has been active for decades, and was born and raised in the L.A. area.
Vintage Guitar: When did you start playing guitar?
Lee Ritenour: I think it goes back to when I was putting nails on the ends of broomstick handles and stretching rubber bands across them when I was about four or five (chuckles). When I was around seven I got my first guitar; it was a folk guitar that was nothing special. I started playing folk music by groups like the Kingston Trio, and when I got serious about playing, my parents were very encouraging and supportive. They found the best teachers, and by the time I was twelve I wanted to make it my life.
What was your first electric guitar?
A Sears & Roebuck; the kind that the amplifier built into the case. I wish I still had it. My first jazz guitar was a blond Belwin that was used; my dad bought it in a music store when I was about eleven or twelve. By the time I was thirteen, I’d gotten two guitars that I still have; one was a solidbody Ampeg by Burns of London. It had a five-way switch on it with one sound that was called “Wild Dog”. It didn’t turn out to be much of a guitar that would last over time, but it got me through my teen years.
But the other one was and is a “main” guitar, a 1950 L-5 that I bought from a Las Vegas musician. It had a Johnny Smith pickup on it; it was about fifteen years old when I got it. It’s been on all of my records; the new Fourplay album, the album I did with Larry Carlton, and it’s all over albums like Wes Bound and Stolen Moments.
So is it fair to say that by then you were already going in a jazz direction? Why did you go that way instead of towards rock and roll?
Well, I really had a “split personality” during that time. When I picked up that L-5, I wanted to play and sound like Howard Roberts, Joe Pass, and especially Wes Montgomery; Renny Burrell and Jim Mall, too. At the same time, when I would pick up the solidbody guitar, I was being influenced by the rock and roll of those days, especially the British Invasion, which included Clapton, Beck, and Peter Green.
And growing up in L.A. in the late Sixties meant checking out the Hollywood scene; I would go to concerts by Canned Heat and I’d see the Byrds hanging out at the local music store called Wallicks Music City.
I was a young teenager, and these guys were in their twenties, and I’d hear one good player after another. That had an influence on me as well, but not as great as jazz did, because jazz was more sophisticated, and my head was already into listening to jazz radio more than pop radio. I love the sound and the power of the rock & roll guitar, but I love the sophistication of the jazz guitar. Early in my career I started combining the two elements, which was around the beginning of the fusion movement. When people like Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin came along, they were very influential.
By the time your first album came out, hadn’t you settled into using a Gibson 335?
Yes; in my late teens I acquired my first 335, then I got a red 335 that I’ve played throughout my career; it’s a dot-neck. I think it’s a 1960 model; I can’t see the serial number on the label because the f-holes have been stuffed with foam. I play it and the L-5 more than any other guitars, even today.
Didn’t your association with Dave Grusin start fairly early in your career?
I met Dave when I was twenty; he was already very influential as a composer, arranger, and keyboardist in the Los Angeles scene. He played on my first album, First Course, and he and his partner, Larry Rosen, co-produced my third album. Larry was an engineer, and he and Dave later formed Grusin-Rosen Productions; the three letters became GRP, which is the record label a lot of contemporary jazz artists recorded for; I’m still on the GRP label.
How old were you when you did your first session?
I did a bunch of demos, but the first “big one” was when I was in a band that was being produced by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas; we recorded at his home studio in Bel-Air. I was about fifteen; some of the tracks were used by the Mamas and the Papas, but I don’t think they ever got released; I remember being disappointed that I couldn’t go get the record. Nevertheless, those tunes had real session musicians on it, and I was so young. By the time I was twenty I started to play on some Sergio Mendes records, and things started to branch out very quickly; by the time I was twenty-one or twenty-two I was doing a lot of session work.
When First Course was recorded, was there any “feel” you were going for?
Well, I was very nervous about doing the first album, as any artist is; I was especially nervous because I felt like I was coming into my own as the number one session guitarist in Los Angeles; the previous number one guitarist had been Larry Carlton. But those years, ’76, ’77 and ’78, were prime years for me as a studio musician, and I was doing as many as fifteen sessions a week. So when I did the first album, I really wasn’t prepared as an “artist”; I was still thinking as a “studio musician”, and I was very worried about having my own identity on the guitar, because up until that time my job as a studio musician had been to be a “chameleon”.
Doing what people told you to do?
Either that, or bringing what I wanted to a record that would compliment their record; playing a Clapton-type style or a Chet Atkins style or jazz or classical.
At the same time, I was playing in two jazz clubs called Dante’s and the Baked Potato; Dave Grusin, Harvey Mason and Ernie Watts were playing in that band. Later Patrice Rushen, another great keyboardist, played in it. We were forging a sound that would become popular, but it wasn’t until several years later that I felt more comfortable with who I was stylistically. Yet when you go back to First Course, the Lee Ritenour style is there.
The opening cut on the second album, Captain Fingers, is the title track, and it has an almost “progressive rock/Yes-type” sound; very aggressive and complex.
It’s very fusion-oriented; I wrote that tune after I had the title, whereas most other tunes get written, then you come up with a title. It was a nickname that the cartage guys came up with when they had to carry around this big case that had fifteen guitars in it. I wrote “Captain Fingers” because I wanted to come up with a “pyrotechnic” tune (chuckles). I remember taking some heat on the first album; that it was too “soft” and lightweight. So I made sure I got more aggressive on the second album, but it was also part of the times. The Mahavishnu Orchestra was out there; Al DiMeola had come out with his first album around the same time I did; Larry Coryell had turned to more of a distorted, fusion sound. The sound of the guitar was “rock”, but what we were playing was “jazz”, so in essence it was called “fusion” at the time.
I was very proud of the album; I felt like it put me into the “artist mode”. After that album came out, the production company I was with went out of business, so I became a “free agent” and signed with Elektra Records, where I remained for seven years. The Captain’s Journey was the first for Elektra; that was in 1978, and was really when I decided to “turn off the faucet” on studio work and concentrate on being an artist.
Some of your albums may have been considered “concept” albums. Festival was a Brazilian music-influenced album, for example.
Throughout my career, Brazilian music has played a strong motif. The first album I did with a Brazilian flavor was one called Rio in 1979. That was my first acoustic album, and it’s stood the test of time. Almost ten years later I revisited that area on Festival, and I worked with some Brazilian artists on that album; a very famous singer/songwriter named Caetano Veloso, and Joao Bosco, a talented acoustic guitar player. They’re very big stars in Brazil. The Brazilian culture has become a major part of my life; I married a Brazilian citizen. Musically, I’ll probably revisit that territory again.
Obviously, Wes Bound is a tribute album, and one would assume that you just used the L-5 on it.
Almost exclusively, except for one song.
Didn’t you have a single that made it onto the pop charts once?
Yeah; I did an album called Rit; it was the first time I crossed over and did a vocal tune with a singer named Eric Tagg from Texas. The song that Eric, Bill Champlain and I wrote called “Is It You” became a Top Fifteen single and I think it was a number one R & B single. That was a big album for me, and it was interesting because at the time, the only other person who had used vocals to cross over from contemporary jazz was Grover Washington, who did it with Bill Withers. Of course, Benson had done it in ’76, but he was singing and playing, whereas Grover and I were using other singers, and this was in 1980 for me; Grover had done it in ’79. It was an unusual turn of events.
So technically, I guess you qualify as a One-Hit-Wonder.
(laughs) Right, although I think the next year a tune from the Rit II album called “Cross My Heart” was on the pop charts but didn’t get very high. The Fourplay material has been on the pop and R & B charts quite a bit, but that happened years later.
When did you go from Elektra to GRP Records?
In 1985; Dave Grusin and I did our first and only collaboration album called Harlequin. It was also a Brazilian-oriented affair; we worked with another singer/songwriter from Brazil named Ivan Linns.
There was also the GRP Live album with you, Grusin, and Diane Schuur, among others. You played a version of “Dolphin Dreams” from the Captain Fingers album; you used a guitar synthesizer.
That was a Synthaxe. There was a live video done as well; it was recently on something like the Discovery Channel. It was recorded at the Record Plant in Los Angeles.
My perception is that you were an early user and/or proponent of guitar synthesizers; you were holding one on the cover of the Earth Run album.
That was a Synthaxe as well; Earth Run was the first time I’d really used it extensively on an album. I go all the way back to the 360 Systems in 1976 or ’77; you can see one on the back of the Captain Fingers album. I’ve had a sampling of all of them; I’ve had quite a few Rolands, the Yamaha GR-10, the Synthaxe. I currently use the Gibson MIDI-Max, which is also not being manufactured anymore, but as far as I know it’s still the best of the analog versions. I also have the current Roland model, the GR-1, in my rack.
Unfortunately, the guitar synthesizer business kind of fell apart, except for Roland; people couldn’t afford to keep it going and do the research that was needed. It definitely turned out to be a more complex situation that anyone imagined.
Some people might opine that the technology got outmoded fairly quickly, as is often the case in electronics.
There was the tracking problem, and all of the particulars of a guitar that didn’t translate very well to MIDI. I use my guitar synthesizer almost exclusively in programming my computer. I do record with it, especially for background material. I don’t use it live very often anymore, but it is an integral part of my computer system, which is fairly complex.
Are you doing any session work at all anymore?
I’m pretty much doing my solo career; once in a while I’ll do a guest spot on somebody’s record, or if Dave Grusin has a movie that needs something special I’ll do that for him. But my own career takes up more than enough time (chuckles).
A lot of people aren’t aware that you were on Pink Floyd’s The Wall album.
I don’t remember the names of specific tunes; there were some background singers and maybe a keyboardist and myself, but none of us got credit, which is kind of unusual. A lot of people do ask me about that album, because it’s listed in my credits. I definitely spent some nice time working with David Gilmour and those guys, overdubbing various acoustic parts and an occasional electric part. It was like working with Steely Dan; the pieces are so intricately woven together, it’s a “mosaic” of many parts. Pink Floyd, like Steely Dan, would concentrate on one little rhythm guitar part that was eight bars long for two days; they would agonize over every inch of it, which is fine. I appreciated that way of thinking, but for the most part I’d rather do that on my own record than somebody else’s.
One of your other ventures is the Fourplay band; when did it get going? [Note: the other members of Fourplay are keyboardist Bob James, bassist Nathan East, and drummer Harvey Mason.]
I believe our first album was released in ’91; our third album was just released. We’re about to go out on tour to support it.
What about the album project with Larry Carlton? How did that come about?
We knew each other for many years, and we grew up near each other in the South Bay of Los Angeles, but we never got a chance to work with each other because our careers were so similar. We were two lead guitar players; calling two lead guitar players to a session would be like having two baseball pitchers on the same mound! We both had solo careers, and if there was any “competitiveness” it was from not working with each other.
But our friends were always asking us when we were going to record together; once we ended up on GRP it became a reality, and we finally did the album last year and toured quite a bit this year.
You each produced the songs that you wrote.
Pretty much, but we were very involved in each other’s tunes, because they were mostly cut live with the band, so we were constantly making suggestions to each other, but our rule of thumb was whoever’s composition we were working on had the final word and production control.
It certainly doesn’t sound like a “showdown” or “show-off” album.
It didn’t turn out to be a “showdown” because Larry and I don’t think about music that way. Those kind of albums bore us when we listen to two guitar players rattling off a million notes; we’re much more musical than that. Most of the time in the studio it was “You take the first section and I’ll take the second”…. “No, you take the first, and I’ll take the second”… We were being overly polite, to the point where the band would say “Somebody play the melody!” (laughs)
There are some harmony guitar parts on the album; did both of you work those out within the individual compositions?
Yeah; Larry wanted to have a chance to write for what he calls a “mini-guitar orchestra”. Here was an opportunity for him to write some harmonies and take advantage of those once we went on the road. So his tunes like “Closed Door Jam”, “Lots About Nothin’” and “Up and Adam” have a lot of that; my tune “L.A. Underground” has a lot of unison playing. We were both constantly thinking about the orchestration of the guitars.
Your current guitar arsenal is listed on the CD cover of Larry & Lee; do you have any others in your collection?
Well, I have an old Strat that didn’t appear on the album; I don’t play it too often these days. I don’t know what year it is, but I do know that the serial number on it is 0335 (laughs). That’s not the reason I bought it, but when I was trying it out, I flipped it over and saw the serial number, so I figured that helped me decide to buy it.
Your son’s name is Wes; it’s obvious where the name came from, and he’s shown with you on the album cover. Do you think he’ll grow up to be a guitar player?
Only if he wants to be. I can certainly help him in that area, and it’s for sure that music’s in his blood; he’s already dancing and strumming on guitars.
The musical symbiosis of Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton is not only evident on their collaboration album, but in their attitudes and conversational abilities as well (a definitive example being Ritenour corroborating Carlton’s “guitar orchestra” statement before Carlton was interviewed). The solo careers of Ritenour and Carlton are laudable, but the fact that two titanic guitar talents can create an album as listenable as Larry & Lee is icing on the cake as a tribute to their professionalism… but it probably wouldn’t be out of line to opine that the album was an enjoyable and fun experience for Messrs. Ritenour and Carlton as well…
Photo courtesy of Lee Ritenour.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s February ’96 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.