Charlie Hunter can pick up just about any guitar and make it sing. But what if a seasoned guitar player picks up Hunter's ax?
"It's a problem," says Hunter. "The technique is so different from guitar, it's like trying to drive a gigantic semi in the Indy 500."
Hunter's guitar is a custom-made, seven-string hybrid. "The lower three strings are essentially bass strings and the higher four strings are essentially guitar strings," says Hunter. "I've got most of the range of a bass and most of the range of a guitar."
It gets more complicated; the strings are not tuned in the usual order. The three bass strings are tuned to G, C, and F while the four guitar strings are tuned to C, F, Bb, and D. They go from low to high.
With his Frankenstein-ian creation Hunter is capable of unleashing the funkiest of bass lines and the raunchiest of guitar licks simultaneously. Of course, his superhuman dexterity would merely be a curiosity without his knack for rhythmic solos as tasty as they are astounding.
Hunter, who plays at Lovin' Cup Halloween night, grew up in Berkeley, California, in the 1970's in a home where the music was always on. His mom had an ample supply of old blues records that she listened to non-stop. Guitar was in the air and Hunter absorbed it. When he started playing, it just felt right.
"When I was a kid taking guitar lessons and I was practicing, it was like, whoa, man, this is fun. I get so much more back than I put in." He learned how to play licks from songs on the radio by The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and others. By high school he was into blues and rockabilly, and playing gigs with adults.
Hunter began studying the guitar chronologically, starting with the early players. "The styles of Eddie Lang and Charlie Christian made a lot more sense to me than John Scofield and Pat Metheny, the guys that were famous at the time," says Hunter. "I went in that kind of direction — Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, those kinds of players." He took some music-theory courses at Laney College in Oakland, but mostly learned through experience.
He never set out to play jazz. "I had an affinity for certain players and later on it was like, Oh, this is jazz," says Hunter. "Or Charlie Parker; oh, that's bebop. It was just more stuff to learn."
Hunter's trademark technique of combining the two instruments evolved out of playing a lot of bass and drums, and exploring guitar styles that emphasized the high and low notes. But with his seven-string, he goes further.
"If you can imagine what a piano player does with two hands, it's like that, but it's much more complicated because the duties are not so easily spread between the two hemispheres of the brain," says Hunter.
"You have to concentrate on your right hand, which is not only executing rhythmically but it's also conceiving rhythmically. And your left hand is not only conceiving harmonically, but it's also executing rhythmically. The fingers are working in teams and it's infinitely more complex than just the technique of guitar or just the technique of bass," he says.
When Hunter began playing the hybrid he worked out one part at a time. "Now I just play the song and improvise," says Hunter. "You just have to learn thousands of combinations between all the strings and your fingers and rhythmic combinations and fingering combinations. And then you improvise."
An important part of Hunter's current sound is drummer Scott Amendola. After almost 20 years of playing together in various settings they work intuitively. Because Hunter essentially covers the guitar and bass roles that would be in a traditional trio, a drummer is all that's needed for a full sound. A duo, Hunter says, "is easier logistically and economically, but I wouldn't do it if it was a compromise musically. It's not — it's a challenge."
Hunter's latest CD, "Not Getting Behind Is The New Getting Ahead," is a concept album, painting a somewhat bleak portrait of the heartland of America. In the title track and other tunes like "Rust Belt," "Ghost Mall," and "Economy with Dignity" he attempts to "evoke some of the things you might see in your travels through the USA these days" through his bluesy music.
"There Used To Be a Nightclub There" is about the sad economic fate of places to hear live music. Hunter started gigging in clubs at the age of 15 in his hometown of Berkeley. Three decades later all of the clubs are gone.
Hunter himself is not immune to economic struggle. While being a famous jazz guitarist might appear to be an enviable position, the reality is not quite as alluring. "There's no money in it," says Hunter. "You're driving all the time, you're always away from your family [in his case his wife and two children] and you're always trying to figure out how to make ends meet. If it wasn't for having a deep calling and connection to this, I don't know why anybody would do it."
Some of the album's songs are more celebratory. The slow-grooving "Blind Arthur" is a tribute to bluesman Blind Blake, one of Hunter's favorite guitar players.
The album's wonderfully fresh sound is no accident; it was recorded in a manner 180 degrees from the standard contemporary session. Hunter and Amendola simply played together in the same room wearing no headphones. They achieved a natural acoustic sound by recording on an old-fashioned, two-track, analog tape machine.
It's the next best thing to the excitement he feels at a live gig in a club.
"You're always hoping that that magic comes," says Hunter. "The audience has so much to do with it — how their energy is, how you can interact. If the magic wasn't there I would definitely do something else, because this is a slog other than that."