Since his debut in 1989 with Let Love Rule, Lenny Kravitz has established an authentic retro sound by employing the classic tones of fine vintage instruments from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, like Les Pauls, Flying Vs, and Strats played through older Marshall, Fender, and Vox amps to energize his music.
Lenny, the artist’s highly-anticipated sixth album, was written, produced, arranged, and performed by Kravitz, and tracked at his own Roxie Studios in Miami. The album’s first single, “Dig In,” was quickly propelled to a radio megahit, reaffirming Kravitz’s status as a gifted songwriter and modern pop icon.
We spoke with Kravitz about his upbringing as a musician and some of the instruments that have been most important to him throughout his career, both in the studio and onstage.
Vintage Guitar: Tell us about your background as a player and what it was that inspired you to start playing guitar.
Lenny Kravitz: My dad had an acoustic gut-string guitar laying around the house. I picked it up and started banging on it, then that was it – I begged for a guitar. I wanted an electric, but we lived in a small apartment in New York City. So my dad bought me this Yamaha acoustic that had a pickup built in it and two knobs on the front. I got the guitar, and everything began for me.
How old were you?
I was 10.
Who were your original influences?
Back then I didn’t have guitar influences, but I had musical influences. I was really into Stevie Wonder, and I was into Motown – the Jackson 5, the Temptations, Diana Ross, all that stuff. I didn’t really know about Jimi Hendrix then. My parents had the Band Of Gypsys record and I’d listened to it, but I didn’t get into guitar players until I moved Los Angeles when I was 11, then I moved to Santa Monica. It was my first time in that kind of environment, with surfers and skateboarders and potheads. That’s when I got turned onto Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and that kind of stuff. So that’s when the guitar player stuff started for me.
Once you began listening to players, which ones influenced you most in terms of style and tone?
It’s hard to say because I wasn’t trying to copy anyone, and I listened to so many different players. I loved Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Page, and Kenny Burrell. It was just all over the place.
Were these the same artists who influenced you as a songwriter?
If you listen to my records, you can find rock, soul, country, blues, reggae, and classical, so it’s so hard to say who and what style of music really influenced me. It’s just more like music inspires me, period. But there are definitely some influences of Motown, funk, rock and roll, soul.
I just take in music, but I’m not one to say that this was the guy or this was the group that did it for me.
Which players influenced your choices in gear?
That really came from learning about what things sounded like. It was the mid ’80s, and all of that new high-tech gear was coming out, but I didn’t like the way it sounded. I got fed up with it, and chucked it all.
Then I went to this vintage guitar shop in Los Angeles and I plugged an Epiphone Sorrento into a tweed Deluxe amp – and the thing sounded like gold! I ended up using it all over Let Love Rule. I just got into all these pure tones, and I knew that the records that I liked didn’t sound like the records that were out in the ’80s, which didn’t sound intimate or organic; they didn’t have a purity. Well, I’m generalizing, obviously. But at the time, it was all about having big, gated reverb sounds and all that new stuff. It was the beginning of digital technology, and it really wasn’t together.
So I just got into that stuff because I knew it sounded right, and I knew it was the gear that the people I was listening to had used in that era when they made their records.
As a player who uses both vintage and reissue instruments, what would you point out as the advantages and disadvantages each offers in terms of tone, playability, and roadworthiness?
The reissue stuff is good when you can find a nice piece that plays well and sounds good. There’s something nice about a new guitar every now and again.
All of my stuff was vintage up until a few years ago. There are a lot of pieces that you’d want to take on the road, but they cost so damn much and they’re hard to replace. I’ve had things smashed before. But I’ll basically take the stuff out, because it’s made to be played. Now, I don’t buy vintage pieces anymore because I’ve got over 120 vintage pieces that are amazing, and there’s just nothing else I could want.
As far as the reissue stuff goes, I think Gibson is making great stuff and it’s nice to get a shiny new guitar and pay a regular sort of price for it.
What are some of the prize pieces in your collection?
There are so many; I’ve got flametop Les Pauls from ’59 and ’60, and some goldtop Les Pauls. I have one particular goldtop… it’s the best-sounding guitar that I’ve got. I’ve played it on all the records, but I can’t remember the year it was made.
I’ve got a whole collection of custom-color Strats that are great. I love seeing them all lined up with all the different colors like the powder blue, root beer, champagne, Olympic White and Fiesta Red. I don’t know all the proper color names, but they’re just beautiful.
I’ve also got some vintage Flying Vs – one with a tremolo, like my new signature model V I designed for Gibson – I think it’s a ’60s model. It’s the one in the “Are You Gonna Go My Way” video. Those are the ones I like best. I do have an original Korina one, too.
Tell us about your songwriting process.
I sit with an acoustic guitar and it just comes out. I hear stuff in my head and I play it. Some things will start as a riff, like “Are You Gonna Go My Way” and “Fly Away.”
How do you document your ideas when you’re writing?
I’ll just keep it in my head, or if I’m lucky, I’ll have a little tape recorder.
Do you make demos of your songs once you get the parts and arrangement together?
No. I don’t do demos because then you always have to live inside of that demo and try to beat it, but you never can. You may beat the sound, but you may never beat that initial intent and feeling. So I don’t demo my music. My albums are demos.
In the last few years, where do you see the most change in yourself as a player and songwriter?
I don’t know how I look at myself. I just continue to grow and go down different paths. It’s like I’m taking this journey. It’s hard for me to say what’s changed. I know I’ve become a better producer, but I’m still proud of all the [earlier] stuff.
Is it difficult for you to be objective as both the player and the producer in the studio?
No, not at all. That’s all I’ve ever done since Let Love Rule. I play it, produce it, and write it. I see it all as one process. I just go in the studio and make it happen.
What was your setup in the studio for recording the guitar tracks on Lenny?
I have a lineup of about 12 guitars – the goldtop and some other Les Pauls, Strats, Teles, the Sorrento, Flying Vs, and a couple of basses, like a Jazz Bass, P-Bass, and Gibson EB bass. I had a few heads in the control room – a Marshall, a Park, and another Marshall. I also have a bunch of older Fender amps I use, like blackface Twin Reverbs and Pros, a tweed Deluxe. Those are the basic things I start with when I’m recording.
Did you have any basic setups used for rhythm and lead tracks throughout the process?
It’s all done as a song-by-song situation, honestly. I go song by song and nothing really seems to repeat itself because the album goes in so many different directions. It helps to add more depth and variety.
You mentioned keeping your heads in the control room when you’re working. Is that where you prefer to be when you’re tracking?
Yes. I like to play in front of the big speakers – the monitors. I like to really blast them.
How do you and Craig Ross differ as players, in terms of style and tone?
We just have different sounds. We’re just two different players – Craig has his fingers and I have mine. There are a lot of things that we can do that are similar, but then we both also have a definite “thing” about our playing. I play funk differently than he does, which is great because when I do use him on a track, it’s got two different vibes, which is good. We lock well together as players. I’ll play a part and he knows exactly what the counterpart is. We just know each other and work really well together.
I don’t really know how to describe our styles, but I think I’m more quirky and he’s less quirky. I fumble around, but he’s like “bam” when it comes to putting down leads. I play some weird stuff. It’s hard to describe things that are abstract like that. Craig is a great funky player. His fingers are connected to his soul and he’s got an extensive vocabulary. I think he’s one of the best guitar players in the world, period.
How did your studio gear differ from the gear you use onstage?
It was completely different. We just go for a more of a basic thing onstage. I’m using a stack of newer Vox AC30s right now and that’s really it. I haven’t decided which guitars I’m going to take out, but I know I’m going to take out less guitars this time than I have in the past. I usually take out 15 to 20 guitars, but I’ll probably take out five or six guitars this time, and that’s it. I’ll have a couple of Vs, a couple of Les Pauls and a couple of Strats, and that’s it. It’s going to be pretty basic.
How do you like your guitars set up?
I use .010s and I like the action set low, but not where it’s tapping – just nice and kind of smooth.
What kind of picks do you use?
I use heavy picks on electric and for acoustics, a medium or a light pick depending on what kind of sound I want.
What kind of effects do you use onstage?
You’d have to ask Alex, my tech. I just tell him what sounds I want and he throws all the stuff together. I never even look at it. But it’s all in a rack and it’s mostly stompboxes – older and newer stuff. I’ll just push buttons on a master controller and tell him what I like. When I used to do my own thing and all the pedals were in front me, I knew exactly what I had. Now I trust Alex to work it out.
Tell us about working with Mick Jagger on his solo album, Goddess In The Doorway, and developing the track, “God Gave Me Everything.” What was that experience like?
It was great. He just called me and said, “Let’s do a track.” So I said, “Cool!” And that was really it. When he came to Miami, I had it ready for him and left it open so he could write the lyric. He did it and then sang it in one take and it was done – I’d worked with a guy who is unbelievable. He sings his ass off and writes great lyrics. I had a great musical experience! I just basically did my own thing – I put together the track and then added him to it. I love the track and the guitars sound amazing.
So you wrote all the music for “God Gave Me Everything” and did the production and recording for that song yourself?
What tips would you offer to other musicians on becoming better songwriters?
What is good? What I think is good, you might hate. I’d just say to do your thing. Stick to what you feel in your soul because that’s always going to lead you in the right direction.
What kind of music do you listen to for enjoyment? What might we find in your CD player right now?
Everything! I listen to all kinds of music – Miles Davis, Ohio Players, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Cream, Who, Sade, Santana, Prince, Sly & The Family Stone, Earth, Wind & Fire, Bob Marley, George Benson, Wes Montgomery, Art Tatum, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby Short, Funkadelic, The Clash, Patsy Cline, Al Green, and the list just goes on and on. I’m all over the place – I just love music.
What’s on the horizon for 2002? When will you be touring?
The tour starts in the spring. I’m going to go out on the road and play for awhile, then start another record.
Kravitz in the mid ’90s, getting the most from a Gibson Les Paul. Photo: Ken Settle.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s April ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.