Charlie Hunter has recorded for labels like Blue Note, Ropeadope and GrounUP, but he dislikes being called a jazz artist. He prefers simply to be known as a guitarist. His interest in guitars began in his childhood—his mother repaired them for a living. His interest was heightened when he took lessons as a teenager from rock guitar legend Joe Satriani, who was yet to forge his own career as a musician. His latest album, Everybody Has A Plan Until They Get Punched In The Mouth (GroundUP), won critical praise in the September 2016 issue of DownBeat. We caught up with Hunter during his recent British concert tour to talk about his career, his influences and life on the road.
Was Joe Satriani a big influence for you?
Well not his way of playing, but he was a great teacher. He taught me how to play the instrument physically, but not stylistically. He was just really good at teaching people how to play the electric guitar. My mom had an extensive blues records collection and we listened to that a lot at home. I was gigging quite early, I was around fifteen when I started playing gigs. I would see people like Robert Cray, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Taj Mahal, the list goes on and on.
Why did you choose to go for something different with your seven-string guitar, and not a standard instrument?
OK, let’s explore the idea of the “traditional guitar,” which is anything from a one-stringed African guitar up to harp guitars and zithers. What we call “traditional guitar” is the Spanish model tuned to play flamenco, so do we mean the last 40 years, or last thousand years? I see my guitar as a continuum from the electric guitar which started really in the last few decades and has grown from there.
Is it correct to say that you are not keen to label your music, to put it in a box labelled jazz or blues? It seems like you want to be outside those definitions and just call it guitar music.
People can call my work whatever they want, I am not interested in … belonging to a certain style. Years ago it used to matter to me what people called my style of music, but as time has gone on, I have found that it’s really not important at all for me. I just see it in broader terms. I think when you are starting out as a young musician, you can feel that it is important to have a certain identity, but for me, as I have got older, it has mattered less and less.
I think the British media certainly have always been keen on boxes and labels and categories.
I think you may be right. When I hear the term “jazz,” I immediately think of Louis Armstrong, and the “Jazz Era” and bebop and swing, the music that Art Blakey recorded or the music that Ornette Coleman made. And they were all singular inventors, and I don’t know how you can lump all those incredible and disparate musical voices into one … bag. I think it takes away something of their humanity.
Has a template emerged over the years, a method of writing that has settled in, or do you just go with whatever comes along?
I am constantly trying to switch it up, I am always aware that it is really easy to slip into clichés and follow stuff that you have written before, or very close to it, and you have to be aware of that and avoid it. I think writing with other people certainly helps get some more input into things. But if I am writing myself, then I don’t have a set way of working.
What are the good and bad aspects to touring?
Well, I love to play music, and touring is the only way I can make a living as a musician, so this is both the good and the bad part about it. The thing is, when you’ve been travelling constantly for over 30 years like I have, any novelty or enjoyment in the travelling has gotten rather old. As they say, the two hours of playing, I’ll do that for free, I get paid to put up with all the stuff around that.
You’re a strong advocate of using a metronome, and you have trained yourself to play on the beat, but also behind and in front of it. Is that something you have to train the people you play with to do, or can they simply follow you and adapt to your tempo changes?
No, that is just for me, so that I can bring a necessary skill set to the music we are playing. If you are playing with a drummer, you don’t try and boss the drummer around, I have tried that a few times, and trust me, it is not a good idea. They are driving the bus. Even if you think the drummer is wrong, go with him or her, they may not be wrong.
When you play live, do you go off the beaten path, so to speak, or do you stick to the format of the recorded version?
I improvise, I do like to improvise, but honestly, I am really easy to follow and I always get to play with great musicians who can follow what I do with no problem at all.
What is your quality control for music?
It’s very simple: If it feels good, then it’s good, even if there are mistakes in it. If it feels good to me, then it’s fine. I’m not looking for perfection in performances. I’ll take a great vibe with a few glitches in it over a faultless performance with a low-level vibe any day.
Do you have a preference for a combination of musicians?
It does depend on where I am working, and what I am doing at the time. Sometimes a duo with me and a drummer is good, sometimes working with a great singer is good. One thing I do always have to have [is] a good drummer or percussionist. That is essential.
Do you still practice?
Absolutely. I like to get in two hours of practice a day on guitar, and an hour on drums. It’s essential for me; I can’t do one without the other. Playing drums has always been a vital ingredient of playing the guitar as far as I am concerned.
Do you still have any unfulfilled ambitions as a musician?
Yeah, to make some money! To know where next month’s mortgage payment is coming from, that would be really nice. If you are in the top five percent of musicians who make their living from making music, then you are doing fine. But if you are in the other ninety-five per cent, like I am, then you are just scuffling along like everyone else. But if you are like me, you are having some real fun doing it! DB