Pete Huttlinger

Fingerpicking to fruition
Fingerpicking to fruition

It’s a dream that eludes an untold number of musicians who try to “make it” in Nashville. There’s no telling how many players journey to the Tennessee capital in search of stardom, or at the very least, a reliable employment situation where their musical abilities can generate a steady income.

Fingerpicking phenom Pete Huttlinger has succeeded in a big way, and has garnered accolades from not only his peers, he also managed to win a national fingerpicking contest held annually in Winfield, Kansas, and has toured and recorded with many notable musicians, particularly John Denver – Huttlinger was the singer’s touring guitarist from 1994 until Denver’s death in 1997 (he also recorded with Denver). Moreover, Pete has recorded two solo albums, Catch & Release (1995) and Naked Pop (2000), both on Instar Records, as well as two John Denver tribute albums, Colors in Time (Vols. 1 and 2), and Welcome to Brazil as a member of the Brazilian jazz group Ritmos Picantes. He stays quite busy, but Huttlinger recently took time to detail his experiences.

Pete Huttlinger was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up in the Bay Area of California. His fingerpicking style of guitar playing evolved out of his experience with the first instrument he learned to play – the banjo.

“I got into bluegrass because of my sisters,” Huttlinger told VG. “Their husbands’ families were from Virginia, and they all played ‘old-time’ music, which I thought was cool. My older brother was at college, and called to tell me he was gonna be home in two weeks, and I’d better get a guitar teacher, or he was gonna beat me up. So I took him at his word! I’d started to play guitar by then, and the fingerpicking I’d done on the banjo made it easier to do on guitar.”

In those times, Bay Area musician David Grisman (VG, April ’97) was already a noted player, and Huttlinger was a fan. “I had a bunch of his records,” he recalled. “Muleskinner, with Clarence White and Richard Green, was in my collection for a long time.”

The guitarist’s earliest guitars were nylon-stringed instruments (“My brother made me get a classical guitar,” he noted). And he’s been through more than one Martin D-18, as well as instruments made by Ovation, Guild, and Taylor. His first electric was a “put-together” Strat, and other electrics he’s utilized in his sojourn include a Les Paul and an ES-175.

Huttlinger’s father passed away when he was a child, and his mother opted for a change of pace and moved the family to North Carolina. The guitarist found he couldn’t advance his musical education in that area, so he enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

“At the time, Berklee was the only place you could where you did not have to major in classical guitar!” he said. “And I knew enough at 18 to realize you couldn’t make a living playing classical guitar.”

Huttlinger’s varied studies at Berklee resulted in a magna cum laude designation when he graduated with a degree in professional music.

Not surprisingly, his next move was to the Nashville area, and he enthusiatically recalled how he received some advice from a legendary source on the very day he arrived in Music City.

“The coolest thing in the world happened,” he recounted. “I drove into town when it was snowing, and I didn’t have any heat in my car. I was listening to an interview with Chet Atkins on the radio, and when I got to the house where I was going to stay, I grabbed the phone and managed to get through; it turned out I was the last caller of the day. So I’d been in town three minutes, and I was talking on the phone with Chet Atkins! I said, ‘I just moved here three minutes ago; what do you recommend?’ What better way to start? He told me to get out and play; hit the clubs and studios.”

Huttlinger’s first professional musical experiences in Nashville were performance-oriented. He played at the Opryland theme park, backing singers at presentations like “Country Music U.S.A.” and “Music, Music, Music” with Brenda Lee. Opryland also marketed its own recordings, so the guitarist’s first studio efforts were affiliated with the park.

These days, his studio work load is approximately 75 percent media recordings and 25 percent artist sessions. He’s written music for HBO and ESPN, composing and performing the theme for the latter cable channels “Flyfishing America” program. He also earned an Emmy nomination for his compositions and performance in the PBS show “Tennessee Traveling Treasures.” His artist bookings have included sessions for John McEuen, Gary Morris, Paul Brandt, Jim Horn, and of course, John Denver.

Huttlinger’s studio arsenal usually consists of five guitars, but, “If the studio requests something specific, I’ll take an extra item. I generally take my ’52 Gibson J-45; it looks like it’s been run over several times, and somebody carved their name in it at one point! But it’s the best-playing guitar I’ve ever had, and a friend of mine says ’52 is the best year for that model. I also take a Strat and a Tele, a Collings OM-1, and an early-’70s Brazilian rosewood classical.”

Huttlinger has backed America, Louise Mandrell, Engelbert Humperdinck, and even Florence Henderson and George Burns (at his 97th birthday celebration in Las Vegas). A fairly recent tour was supporting Alan Jackson. He also has a stereotypical touring arsenal, and the first items he cited were accompanied by a chuckle.

“If I can get away with it, I want stompboxes,” Huttlinger said. “I don’t want rack effects, and I like to use things like an old Boss delay and a DC chorus. As for amps, I like using a Fender Twin or a couple of Deluxes. Touring guitars include my Strat and my Tele, and if I need an acoustic, I’ll take the Collings. The J-45 stays at home.”

The biggest-selling album on which Huttlinger has performed was a live effort, John Denver’s Wildlife Concert album, which went gold, although Pete thinks it may have gone platinum by now. That album had Huttlinger performing in both acoustic and electric modes, and he also played mandolin and banjo on that album.

Obviously, Huttlinger’s tenure with John Denver offered him an opportunity to travel and record with a legendary artist, and Pete will always be grateful for it, including the times at the very beginning of his tenure when he got to play with another legend, James Burton, who Pete would supplant in Denver’s touring band.

“He (Burton) left in the beginning of ’94,” Huttlinger said. “But we still got a chance to do a couple of things together, like the Wildlife Concert. For me, those were three of the greatest days of my life. James took me out to lunch one day; he’s one of the most gracious guys around.”

And Huttlinger’s current publicity photo shows him brandishing a Fender Telecaster set up with a middle pickup, a la James Burton.

“It’s a fairly new Tele Deluxe,” he clarified. “Fender gave that to me for performing at a NAMM show. It has a stacked Seymour Duncan pickup in the middle. I’ve got it wired like Brent Mason’s – I’ve got all of the combinations of pickups available, by using the five-way and a mini-toggle. Instead of a tone control, that pot is wired to where if you go backward, it cuts back a bit on the bite of the bridge pickup while blending in the middle pickup.”

Another feather in Huttlinger’s musical cap was his triumph at the Walnut Valley Festival’s fingerpicking contest. Held annually in Winfield, Kansas, the festival has an array of acoustic instrument contests, and Huttlinger’s championship win occurred on his third attempt – he didn’t place in ’98, and came in second in ’99. The festival has been the event where notable talents like Alison Kraus and Mark O’Connor first came into public notice.

“There were more great players there than ever”, he said, describing the 2000 event. “It was a two-round competition, and there were about 40 guys in the first round, and I played ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and ‘Brown Bomber’ (an original composition). The second round, I played (Steely Dan’s) “Josie” and (the Beatles’) ‘Eleanor Rigby.'”

Huttlinger’s two solo albums and the two John Denver tribute albums are all acoustic. As for the latter two, he noted that he and his associates were “…trying to capture the feel of John, but at the same time, putting our stamp on the arrangements, as he was an acoustic-based player.” He also played on the soundtrack of a television special on Denver two and a half years after the singer’s death, and described those sessions as being among the most tedious he’s ever done.

There are intriguing differences in Huttlinger’s two solo albums. All but three of the tracks on Catch & Release are original, while Naked Pop is all covers, including two Beatles songs and two Stevie Wonder songs.

But why cover tunes only?

“There’s been a lot of interest; people have been after me to record this kind of stuff. I’ve played solo guitar tunes for years, and I enjoyed working out fun arrangements for those kinds of tunes. Whenever I play ‘Josie’ it always turns heads in the room, and when I play ‘I Want You Back’ by the Jackson 5, people seem to stop and listen.”

One interesting offering on Naked Pop is a traditional hymn, “Tis So Sweet To Trust In Jesus.”
“A friend of mine asked me to play it at a wedding, and I wasn’t familiar with it, but I fell in love with it. Since then, I’ve started learning to play some other hymns.”

Huttlinger also has plans for an electric instrumental album, but doesn’t envision it as showcasing his fingerpicking on electric instruments, a la Albert Lee or Ray Flacke. Pete flat-picks as well, and says he’d be more influenced by players such as Larry Carlton or Lee Ritenour when he recorded an electric effort. Some of his associates are already asking the guitarist about when he might be starting on this different project, and there are plans to showcase some material live that might end up on an electric album.

But anytime a guitarist can command a listener’s attention on an acoustic solo album, it’s an obvious indication that player is a major talent, and in that respect, Naked Pop succeeds in spades. Huttlinger’s musical odyssey is still developing, but he’s got the education and experience to be able to sustain his upward mobility.

Pete Huttlinger with his ’52 Gibson J-45. Photo: Kim Sherman.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s July ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.