Laurence Juber Interview - part 1
By Bob Felten and Tami Michelle

Appeared in the AFG Sound Hole - Issue 15 (Fall 2002 - editor: Bob Felten)

Tami and I met Laurence Juber in his studio in (appropriately) Studio City. The walls were covered with gold records from his Wings days, a poster of the Wings “Concerts for the People of Kampuchea,” and original artwork donated from his fans. There was a comfortable couch and a drum set in the studio, while LJ himself sat where he normally records his guitar. Behind his chair was a large rug with the Beatles “Sgnt. Pepper” album cover, which I recognized as being sold at the Beatlefest – a traveling Beatles festival at which LJ has performed quite a few times over the years. Before we started the interview, however, Laurence and Tami showed each other their vintage Gibson L-5 guitars. LJ played some nice licks on both. I wish you were hearing the interview rather than reading it, because throughout the questioning, LJ demonstrated his answers by playing examples and licks on his acoustic guitars. His off-the-cuff performances were picked up perfectly by my minidisk recorder.

The interview started out with a discussion of LJ’s custom Martin Laurence Juber signature model, which led into a long talk about guitar construction, various kinds of woods, wood treatment, and how it affects the tonal quality of the guitar sound. I’m saving that portion of the interview for part two, and starting directly at the part of the interview where we talk about Fingerstyle guitar, LJ’s history, and his latest CD.

Laurence Juber in his studio

Laurence Juber / Tami Michelle / Bob Felten in Juber's studio

Bob: When did you first get into fingerstyle guitar?

LJ: 1964 or 1965. Pretty much Bert Jansch and John Renbourne at that point. Everybody was learning "Angie." It was one of those rite of passage pieces. You could play a moving bass line and play the melody at the same time. Paul Simon had covered that, and Paul Simon was very popular in England around `65, before Simon and Garfunkel really became big. So you had Paul Simon, Bert Jansch, you had David Graham, John Renborne – players like that. A little later I got turned on to Stefan Grossman and started really getting into ragtime. But at the same time I was also studying Hendrix and Clapton, and doing all the electric guitar stuff too. I never really settled down and started taking fingerstyle guitar seriously until the late 80's, `till about '88. I'd been writing pieces. When I was with Wings I started writing, and there's a piece of mine, "Maise" that's on Naked Guitar that was the first fingerstyle guitar piece that I wrote. Basically, everything on Solo Flight and Naked Guitar (which is now Naked Solos - it's a double CD), most of the stuff that's on those two albums were songs that I wrote during the 80's and early 90's, before I started getting into altered tunings. I can really date my serious commitment to 1990 when I was offered a record deal, and started knuckling down and making a career choice out of it.

Bob: Did you take lessons, or did you learn songs off the records?

LJ: I pretty much learned stuff off the records, although I had some lessons. I studied classical guitar and I read music, so I was able to work by a combination of what I could find in sheet music, and learning off the records – and doing my own transcriptions. But it didn't really become a serious proposition until quite a lot later. It was 1990 when I did Solo Flight. That's when I got serious. I cut my fingernails off and really started developing technique.

Tami: You hadn't cut them before then?

LJ: No, then I was still using enough nail that I could play on nylon strings.

Bob: Do you ever teach?

LJ: Yeah. I just taught the National Guitar Workshop last week in Oakland. I don't do a lot of teaching. I don't do very much private teaching. I enjoy teaching. I learn a lot from doing it. So there's always a week or two out of the year during the summer where I'll teach some kind of workshop. I like doing the Association of Fingerstyle Guitarists Seminars. I wish I could do more of it, but usually timing-wise it doesn't work out. [Note – LJ played at two recent AFG seminars – November 17, 2001, and Sep 14, 2002].

Bob: How long did you take classical guitar lessons?

LJ: I studied classical guitar pretty much all through college. So until I was twenty-one.

Bob: What did you major in?

LJ: I majored in musicology. So I have a bachelor of music degree from London University.

Bob: Who do you listen to today?

LJ: Not a lot of guitar players. Mostly what I listen to is stuff that my kids are listening to – Dave Matthews, Jack Johnson, Ben Harper. And I listen to a lot of blues. I listen to stuff that I used to listen to. I've just been pulling some of my old vinyl like Steely Dan records. A lot of my harmonic vocabulary comes from that kind of cool jazz, Steely Dan, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. But mixed up with Debussy and Ravel. (Here Laurence plays some jazz chords, ending in a ninth chord). That's a very impressionist voicing of a ninth chord. A lot of time there's added fourths and seconds. Also I liked controlled dissonance.

Tami: The overtones on that are awesome. They just float around like little crystals in the air. It's amazing. The sustain is long.

LJ: Well that's the red spruce, it really helps in that.

Bob: Before you started using the altered tunings, you just played standard tunings for years and years?

LJ: Yeah, and still do. I still play a lot of standard tuning.

Bob: How would a beginner start learning how to play in altered tunings?

LJ: Well, what I did was I just started playing using my musical know-how. I started analyzing what was going on with DADGAD tuning for example, and found where my intervals were. Starting obviously with octaves, then tenths, and sixths, thirds. And then I started just exploring it in terms of fingerboard knowledge and recognizing that instead of playing a linear scale fingering, I could use a lot more open strings and get sustaining patterns. I started develop fingerings that were counter-intuitive, where sometimes the highest note in a pattern might be the lowest string that you play. (Plays a chord) Here's a C# on the fourth string, the A and the G strings are open.

Tami: It kind of spreads things out.

LJ: Yeah. Sonically you get more resonance out of the guitar.

Tami: Because of the voicings?

LJ: Because of the voicings, because of the fingerings. Fingerings are crucial. Because fingerings are so important, my explorations with altered tunings (and DADGAD in particular) really developed out of just finding cool, different, and exciting fingerings. Things that just made the guitar come alive. And it's a continual exploration. It doesn't end.

Tami: Joni Mitchell did that quite a lot too, didn't she?

LJ: Oh yeah, the queen of altered tunings.

Bob: I think with altered tunings, some people are just finding accidental dissonance.

LJ: Well, that happens with DADGAD. All the Celtic stuff just kind of leaps out with DADGAD. And when you start playing in different keys, like F, or Bb. An E-flat major seventh chord in DADGAD is just way cool. (LJ plays the chord with two different voicings - one low, the other higher but using open strings)

Tami: So you use a lot of the open strings to get a harp-like sound?

LJ: Exactly. Also the fact that you have an A and a G string next to each other, you can get these running, rolling kinds of patterns. The dissonance doesn't always resolve, it just sits there and becomes the texture of the music. So basically my feelings about altered tunings are: if they can enhance texture, if they can enhance the resonance of the guitar and the harmonic vocabulary, that's all very cool stuff and gives me a lot to explore. It just has this quality to it that you can't get in standard tuning.

Tami: And with your right hand classical technique, that brings the best out in the left hand.

LJ: (At this point Laurence plays a ragtime tune with a walking bass part). Yeah, because I'm not just playing alternating bass stuff, even though I'll use it. I'm using an alternating bass, but I'm not doing the kind of chugging, Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed kind of accents, it's coming at it almost more from a piano player's point of view. Not that I'm a very good piano player, but it's a lot of early listening to Scott Joplin. And also getting those kind of those walking, inter-connecting phrases. But then I'll break out of it and find cool licks, too. Plus with what I do there's a lot of left-hand stuff, a lot of hammers and pulls. I'm keeping my arm fairly low down on the upper bout, so that I'm not dampening the area of the top above the bridge. And what I do also is take advantage of the resonance of the top. A lot of the bluegrass players leave that open, they get a lot more volume that way. (Laurence demonstrates what he calls the "virtual whammy bar" by moving his arm back and forth over the guitar body, giving a tremolo effect.) And it's very light. It's just very, very light damping.

Tami: It really works! That's amazing. That's the responsiveness of the Adirondack Spruce?

LJ: Actually you can do it with any guitar. You just have to have a short sleeve. It's gotta be bare skin to do it.

Bob: What would you recommend for a beginner? Should they take classical guitar lessons?

LJ: No. I don't recommend classical guitar lessons because what tends to happen is you spend six months learning scales before they ever let you play any music. I think for beginners the best thing to do is to get some lessons just so you understand what the guitar's about. I always recommend people to learn about music - because if you understand music, then the guitar makes more sense. Then you can really empower yourself. You don't get locked into thinking in terms of the existing boxes, if you're really interested in pushing the envelope.

Tami: Isn't it true, though, that most of the good studio players and really hot players have studied classical technique?

LJ: Not necessarily. You don't have to have studied classical technique at all. But all the good studio players have some sense of musicianship, a pretty advanced sense of musicianship. You have to really be able to think on the guitar, and not just play existing stuff, but actually be able to adapt to whatever is going on around you. So I'm in favor of learning music in general. I tend not to discriminate as much between classical, and jazz and pop and everything else: it's all music. There are certain schools of music. There's the classical school which tends to not cross over, but then you take somebody like Andy York, who's a great composer for classical guitar. He has an electric guitar background and writes classical guitar music that has reggae influences and all kinds of stuff. I mean he's a great musician. There's a lot of unsung heroes of the guitar.

Bob: On your new album, “Different Times,” I'm really amazed that you recorded the whole thing in two days.

LJ: It was basically one day. We got all the rhythm section stuff done in one day, and that evening I did some solo pieces. Then the next day I just went in and just did the title tune "Different Times," and I think that may have been it. It was basically a day's work. It was like the equivalent of three sessions.

Bob: Did you rehearse with the bass player and drummer before recording?

LJ: No, I just did some charts.

Tami: And John Pisano just showed up?

LJ: He showed up to do the one tune later in the day. He and I did a duet which we didn't put on the album. Peter Erskine is a fabulous drummer.

Tami: He's a name drummer.

LJ: Yeah, he's a big name drummer, and he's not cheap. (Laughs). So I couldn't really afford to have him rehearse, too. And I kind-of didn't want that. I wanted the spontaneity. Some of those tunes are all first takes, too.

Bob: They talk about how groups these days will spend a week in the studio to just to get a good sound on the kick-drum.

LJ: Well, we don't work under those circumstances.

Tami: Frank Sinatra used to record in one day with a full orchestra.

LJ: Yeah, in Studio-A at Capitol. And we did it in Studio-B at Capitol.

Bob: But even Sinatra took three days to record an album.

LJ: Yeah, but you're dealing with different kinds of parameters. I normally would not do an album quite that quickly, but it was part of the philosophy of this record. I wanted to get it done quickly, and I didn't want to labor it. I just wanted to get some really spontaneous stuff. If there were things that I liked about one take vs. another, I could just do some editing. If you have the material, you have an engineer who knows how to get the sound, and you're prepared, you can get the stuff down quickly.

Bob: Was it miked?

LJ: Oh yeah, I never use pickups in the studio. A pair of CMC-5 Schoeps mikes.

Tami: Those are the best for acoustic guitar?

LJ: They're what I use. They're not the only ones, but they're very, very good mikes.

Bob: When you rehearse, do you play exercises and scales?

LJ: When I'm practicing, usually what I'm doing is factored into the writing process. I'll be working on composing and arranging new pieces, and then if there's anything in my existing repertoire that I want to take another look at, I'll do that. Sometimes I'll sit down with some music and just play through it, say Bach, probably.

Tami: Sight reading?

LJ: Yeah, I like to keep my sight-reading chops.

Tami: But there's that classical factor again, in sight-reading as you're working out your right and left hands.

LJ: Being able to sight-read has allowed me to have a career as a studio musician. I'm doing a project right now where I'm arranging a bunch of tunes and everything's written out. So by the time it's recorded I'll have all the transcriptions done. But these are not my compositions, this is an arranging job. It won't be released in America, it's for China.

Bob: What are your future plans?

LJ: Well I've got new material. I've got an electric blues band that I'm playing with.

Tami: With the fellow we saw you with at Jennifers? (A North Hollywood coffee house / cafe Laurence played last year).

LJ: Yeah, we're doing some festivals. A lot of it's more of the same. There's a lot of people out there who have no idea what I do. We're just trying to reach more people all the time. We're working up a deal to be able to publish all my significant solo pieces. I also do a certain amount of composing outside of the guitar. There's a movie coming on the air in November 2002 that I scored – in fact that Hope (LJ's wife) wrote, which is the new Brady Bunch movie. I compose that kind of stuff, which is fun because I get to write for an orchestra and I bring that sensibility back to the guitar. I'm always trying to find good cello voices and string quartet voices, and woodwind voices on the guitar. For me it's trying to get those nuances so that the music has some dimension to it. It's one of the reasons that I choose not to use fingerpicks or false nails, or regular nails, is just because I find that I can get more nuance in the sound by using bare flesh.

Tami: So you keep your right hand nails short, and use your skin?

LJ: Yeah!

2002 - Association of Fingerstyle Guitarists