Posted November 4, 2012 by Jeff in Tunes

Guitar Hero: Jazz man Charlie Hunter offers his take on today’s tough times

Charlie Hunter
Charlie Hunter

A jazz guitarist who has won over rock and jam band fans with his innovative style of playing (he simultaneously plays lead and rhythm guitar and bass on his 7-string instrument), Charlie Hunter has been touring and recording with regularity for the past two decades. His latest effort, Not Getting Behind is the New Getting Ahead, is a terrific album of instrumentals that show off the wide scope of the music he’s capable of playing. We recently phoned him at his New Jersey home (we spoke shortly before Hurricane Sandy hit).

This album’s title is very significant. Talk about how you came up with it and how it informs the songs on the album.
It just is one of those things where you’re always talking with your friends and you think it’s ridiculous that you’re working harder and making less money than you did 20 years ago. You talk to everyone in every discipline and it’s the same thing. My friend is a lawyer and he says that if he was defending the people who ruined the economy he would be doing great. He wants to do something positive, but feels he’ll be punished for that. The whole goal with any musician or artist is to be a reflection of the times you live in and send that message non-verbally to everyone that listens to the music to tell them that this is a barometer . . . That’s what musicians have done since tribes in Africa rubbed bones together and found a way to put together a primitive guitar and deliver that message to the people . That’s where all that comes from.

I know the opening track “Assessing the Assessors, An Assessor’s Assessment” is meant as a critique of the number of pundits in the world. Talk about the music functions to get that point across.
I don’t know if it really does. I told [drummer] Scott [Amendola] when we made this record that each one of the songs is a theme. Whatever you can do to capture the vibe of that, you should do. Obviously, it’s a theme and you try to do musically what you think is right for it. It’s very oblique.  When we made this record, I was telling Scott, “This is our music; this is American music. This is what we are qualified to do. We’ve studied this our whole lives. They have something they call Americana. I don’t want that kind of Americana. I don’t want the Americana of the mountaintop liberal or a tenured professor. I want the Americana of those two dudes beating each other up in front of the liquor store waiting for the Greyhound bus.” It’s our reflection ultimately, from driving around this country in a van year after year after year.

Talk about the way nightclubs are disappearing in the country. Is that something happening only in select places or everywhere throughout the country?
I think it’s everywhere. You gotta think about it that it’s especially in places that are the bigger cities where it’s so cost prohibitive to have a nightclub with live music. I see the same thing happening in New York as what happened in the Bay Area. You have a changing of the guard and you get people who grew up in the suburbs and have no connection to live music. Club owners say, “Why should I play a band when these people just want a bar with some loud DJ?” In New York City, you have that sheet music place, Colony, that was a fixture in Times Square and it just went out of business because rent got raised. They’re going out of business because the overhead is too high. The flip side is that places the “interior” it’s easier to open those clubs. It’s not so insanely cost prohibitive, which is kind of cool. Who knows where the future of live music is going. It might not have anything to do with the coasts and the big cities.

Why do you and Scott Amendola work so well together?
Because he does everything I say and works for one bowl of Cocoa Crispies a day. No, we have known each other for 20 years and have a shared vernacular in addition to the unshared vernacular. Conceptually, we know what we got going on.

“Economy with Dignity” is such a great title for a thrift store. I can see why you wanted to steal it for one of your songs.
Isn’t it? I love that. Dave McNair the guy who engineered the record, that was his thing. We thought about naming the album that but I didn’t want it to be a political album. I wanted it to be more of a reflection.

The technical stuff is not hard at all. It’s trying to play more and more honestly from your own experiences and using whatever musical language you happen to get together along the way.

Talk about how your distinctive manner of playing has evolved?
Oh man, you get neurotic enough and it will continue evolving. It’s just from playing everyday and trying to figure out a more honest way for me to play. The technical stuff is not hard at all. It’s trying to play more and more honestly from your own experiences and using whatever musical language you happen to get together along the way. That’s the beautiful thing. You’re not going to make a lot of money, but you will hopefully be able to pay your bills and feed your kids and be a happy person because it never ends. There’s constant evolution and improvement to be made. That’s the great part of it. Change is the only constant.

You switched from eight-string to seven-string . Has it had a major impact?
It kind of has in some ways. That was a while ago that I did that . . . six or seven years ago. I had broken the high string – I never break strings – and I was playing on it and it was easier than what I had been doing. In fact, I could get to more music and more chord voicings. I don’t have that high string I need to manipulate. When I look back on whatever it is that I tried to accomplish, it’s coming from bass and guitar and the more personal it gets, the better it gets and the more it turns into its own thing. That’s another step in the development and changing the tuning. You have to open to it. You have to let go of what your preconceived notion of what a guitar or bass is supposed to be. At the end of the day, nobody told nobody told Jimi Hendrix how to play when he came out with a paradigm-shifting style.

What’s your relationship to jazz? Do you think of yourself as a jazz musician?
It’s something I don’t struggle with, but other people do. The jazz thing is so important to me because I don’t think there’s any better way to learn rhythm, melody and harmony in the same place. I grew up with my mom’s music on the old record player, which is all the old blues stuff: Robert Johnson and Lead Belly. It was very guitaristic stuff. I  spent so much time in the world of guitar and going to see Clarence Gatemouth Brown and Robert Cray and Albert King and John Lee Hooker and guys like that. That’s the guitar vernacular. Lonnie Mack and the Beatles. And Stax Volt. It’s all of equal importance to me as Dexter Gordon or Louis Armstrong. It’s just about doing as much research as you can and not trying to make yourself into something you’re not.

Tour Dates

11/4   Stoughton, WI

11/5   Minneapolis, MN

11/8   Cleveland, OH

11/9   Pittsburgh, PA

11/10 Vienna, VA

11/19 New York, NY

12/7   Portland, OR

12/11 Arcata, CA

12/12 Sacramento, CA

12/19 San Francisco, CA

Stoughton Opera House

Dakota Jazz Club


Club Café Live

Jammin’ Java

The Living Room

Mississippi Studios

Van Duzer Theater


The Independent


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected]