A few hours before Los Angeles guitar ace Lee Ritenour arrives for one of the select recording sessions he’s accepted, a truck belonging to a local cartage company pulls up to the studio door. Trained roadies unload amplifiers; a large wooden board outfitted with about ten different pedals and other electronic modifiers; a sturdy rack housing multieffects, delay consoles and other electronic gear; a guitar synthesizer; and a trunk full of guitars. By the time Ritenour strolls in carrying his favorite guitar of the moment, probably either his red Gibson ES-335 or his new Japanese Ibanez, everything is set up neatly in a corner of the studio. While the drummer and producer are finding a rhythmic groove for the tune they’re recording, Ritenour flips switches, twiddles knobs and experiments with new sounds. Maybe he’ll use them, maybe he won’t; often he plays straight into his amps in order to get the distinctive, unmodified Lee Ritenour sound of which many successful producers and recording artists are enamored. “But,” he explains ingenuously, “the stuff is there if I need it.”
Late Morning. Ritenour — who’s twenty-eight, small and skinny, with curly blond hair — is sitting on the carpeted floor of a practice room on the second floor of one of his two houses. Located on a hilltop in suburban Burbank, it’s just a short drive from the heart of Hollywood. The valley below is shrouded in smog and lingering mist. Ritenour, who’s sipping a cup of coffee in order to wake up after a draining session with the Bee Gees the night before, is preoccupied with what he calls his “toys.” The equipment isn’t usually set up at home, he explains, but he’s working on a new solo album for Elektra and has been trying out various modifiers, looking for just the right coloring, the exact effect.
“I should explain how all this came about,” he says, sweeping his arm in an arc to indicate guitars, amps, pedal board, rack and two guitar synthesizers. “When I first started getting busy doing studio work, around 1973 and 74, there were three basic guitar sounds. You had a straight kind of rhythm sound: Stratocasters, Telecasters, Gibson 335s or Les Pauls. There was the real balls-to-the-wall rock & roll sound: stacked Marshall amps, power city all the way. And there was the pretty jazz guitar sound. But the L.A. studio guitar players had access to more equipment than musicians in other cities. The New York players, as good as they are, have always been behind Los Angeles in terms of equipment, just because of the logistics of New York City; you can’t haul a lot of stuff around. Out here, we have cartage companies to take the stuff around. So, already, guys were showing up at sessions here with trunks containing a dozen guitars.”
Unlike most of the older Los Angeles studio guitarists, who come from jazz backgrounds, Ritenour cut his teeth on rock & roll. “So naturally;” he says, “when I got into studio work, I wasn’t happy with the little amplifiers most of the guys were using. I always played with the pickups on my 335 full out, and I’d distort one of those little Princeton amps real easy. So I started going to larger amps and finally ended up with something twice the size of a Princeton, the Fender Vibrolux. I use the Music Man quite a bit too. I use the Vibrolux for a low funk, dirty sound or for any kind of screaming sound, and the Music Man covers just about anything else.”
Ritenour says that being able to play just about any style — from the hardest rock to the most delicate jazz — “isn’t anything real magical. Basically it took a lot of sweat.” He started early; by the time he was eight he knew he was serious about guitar. His parents encouraged him and he took lessons, changing teachers frequently. “At the same time,” he’s quick to add, “I was training my ear. I listened to a lot of records, and copied solos by rock and jazz guitarists. I’d study hit records and listen to the licks the studio guitarists were playing, and of course they sounded easy. ‘I can play that,’ I’d say. What I didn’t realize — and what I think a lot of young guitarists don’t realize — is that the hard part is inventing the licks. It’s not about being able to play this or that part, it’s about being able to create your own parts.”