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This Guitar’s for Hire

Leading studio musician Lee Ritenour talks about the tricks of his trade

Lee Ritenour, Berkeley Jazz Festival, Greek Theatre

Lee Ritenour performs during the Berkeley Jazz Festival at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California on May 23rd, 1980.

Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty

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.”

When Lee was twelve, his father decided to find him “the best guitar teacher in Los Angeles.” He took the bull by the horns and called up Barney Kessel, the brilliant jazz guitarist and veteran studio man. Kessel recommended Duke Miller, who was teaching in a small music store at the time and who has since become head of the guitar department at the University of Southern California. “The thing about teachers,” says Ritenour, “is that they tend to teach what they know. Duke Miller had a jazz background, he had played country music, and he was open to the innovations rock guitarists were making, so he was real broad-minded.”

Around the time he began studying with Miller. Lee joined the first in a long series of teenage garage bands. “That was real important too,” he says. “Playing with bands, taking lessons, jamming with the radio — it all adds up.” When Ritenour was fifteen. John Phillips, founder of the Mamas and Papas, hired him for a studio session. A few more recording gigs came his way, but Ritenour stayed in school. He completed two and a half years of classical studies at USC before leaving to go on the road with Brazilian pop-jazz pianist Sergio Mendes.

Once Mendes, Dave Grusin and a few others introduced Ritenour on the studio circuit, he began getting frequent calls (at his busiest, he played fifteen to twenty sessions a week). Consequently, he had to learn to adjust to the demands of a variety of producers, artists and musical styles. (During the past few years he’s played straight jazz dates and has backed pop artists as diverse as George Benson, Olivia Newton-John and Steely Dan.) But as his work became better known, people began hiring him for his originality rather than his technical abilities. (“Lee’s got that wide-open head and soul that doesn’t get hung up in bags,” says Quincy Jones, who’s used Ritenour frequently.) “That,” he says, “is when I started searching. I began using guitar synthesizers. Once I started experimenting with them. I realized I needed something in between: the synthesizer was one extreme, and going straight into the amp was the other. That’s when I started buying all these toys. But then I found that if I took the trouble to hook them all up, I almost felt obligated to use them. So I got together with a design engineer, Chris Foreman at Altec, and we built a rack. I had a pedal board built for concerts, but I began using that in the studio too. And I found that once everything was at my touch, I felt less obligated to use it. When I did choose to alter the normal guitar sound, it was usually for orchestration.”

Ritenour’s pedal board holds the Boss Chorus Ensemble (“It alters the pitch of the notes you’re playing just slightly, so you get a shimmering effect”), a Mu-tron octave divider, a regular Goodrich volume pedal, an early-model Vox Cry Baby wah-wah pedal (the kind Hendrix used) and an MXR Phase 90 (which gives the guitar sound an in-and-out-of-phase effect). It also contains an MXR Envelope Filter (which can alter the sound of a guitarist’s attack, making it more or less percussive), a Roland Bee Baa (a fuzz-tone device he uses “when I need a pure fuzz tone and can’t just turn my amplifier up to ten”), a battered Echoplex unit (“Some of the stuff that’s gone digital and analog can’t achieve what this old Echoplex can”) and an MXR Graphic Equalizer.

The standing rack includes several delay devices. “One of them, the Lexicon Prime Time, can slow down your repeat notes until they’re repeating every two seconds. A lot of people are recording now with click-track or rhythm machines, and with the Prime Time I can get notes ping-ponging back and forth in stereo in time with the click. I have analog and digital delay lines — the analog tends to be a prettier-sounding delay — and I have an Ibanez multieffects unit, which you can patch in several different ways: chorus before distortion, distortion before phaser, whatever. That definitely creates some interesting sounds. Then there’s the new Eventide Harmonizer, which I use a lot. That enables me to change the pitch just slightly above or below the note I’m playing, or I can get parallel intervals going — thirds, fourths, fifths — which enables me to come up with some nice harmonies.”

For more complex effects, Ritenour plugs into one of his guitar synthesizers. But his interest in guitar synthesizers is tempered by an acute awareness of their limitations. “Keyboard players have been working with synthesizers for ten or fifteen years,” he says, “and right now guitar synthesizers still sound like keyboard synthesizers. All the little nuances of guitar playing — strumming chords, infinite degrees of bends, the different things we do dynamically with a pick — guitar synthesizers don’t follow very closely. The day a guitar synthesizer can bring out all the good things guitars do that keyboards can’t isn’t too far down the road, I think, but I wish it were here now. I have been real pleased with the new Roland guitar synthesizer, the GR-300. It doesn’t make as many different sounds as the 360, but it follows the guitar much more accurately. It’s the best thing I’ve tried so far.”

Despite his extensive collection of gadgets, much of Ritenour’s recorded work, and especially his solos, sounds relatively unmodified. “I only use this stuff if it works right for a song,” he maintains. “Straight through the amp is still the sound I enjoy the most. And no matter how much of this stuff you have, you need to have the right guitar and you need to be able to play.”

On album covers and in magazines, Ritenour has most often been photographed with his red Gibson ES-335; another favorite guitar is his vintage 1960 Fender Stratocaster. But his new Japanese-made Ibanez is “the main boy now,” as he puts it. “Ibanez came to me a couple of years ago because they knew I’d helped out Yamaha with their guitar evaluations and were interested in building a Lee Ritenour guitar. I hadn’t been satisfied with the Yamahas that finally went into production, so I told Ibanez, ‘If you can beat my red 335, then we can talk.’ So they kept sending these guitars from Japan. For the most part they were dogs, so I kept giving them feedback. Finally this one showed up. And unlike any other Japanese guitar I’ve ever played, it’s just real soulful.”

Ritenour plays a lazy run. sliding his fingers rapidly up and down the strings as he picks each note. The hollow-body Ibanez isn’t plugged in but, incredibly, it gets long, rich sustains anyway. “It resonates just like any good guitar,” he says. “People believe that the sounds electric guitars get don’t have anything to do with their bodies and acoustic properties, but they have an incredible amount to do with the sustain. In fact, that’s the best way to check out a guitar, even a solid-body electric. If you can find someplace in a music store that’s quiet, then don’t plug it in, just sit down with it and play it, and compare three or four that way. You can tell how fat the sound will be, because some will sound thinner than others acoustically. This is the best one I’ve heard. I kept trying to go back to the red 335, but it didn’t sound like it had any soul compared to this Ibanez. So now I’m talking with the company about signing on with them, but all I know for sure is, I’m not letting ’em have this guitar back!” He laughs and plays a couple of fast jazz licks. “They wanted to take it back to Japan and duplicate it, and I told ’em they could measure it, take pictures, do whatever they wanted to do with it here, but they couldn’t have it back.”

Ritenour says he has to have a certain balance in his career — select studio dates, his own albums, occasional tours with his band Friendship (a cooperative composed of some of Los Angeles’ most in-demand session musicians that also records for Elektra). “As far as this kind of stuff,” he says, indicating the electronic modifiers and synthesizers, “there’s nothing like working in the studio to find out what it’ll do, get your chops together on it. To maintain your finger chops — just playing the guitar — you’ve got to play live; studio work will dry that right up. So I do both, and both are challenging. But as far as my recording work, if I can make a record with a producer like Quincy Jones that he can be proud of, or a record of my own that I can get off on … in other words, if the record has a certain amount of depth and still says something to the average Joe on the street. …” He stops, laughing, out of breath. “That’s the biggest challenge of all.”

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