Listening to Charlie Hunter’s work without knowing how it was recorded, you might think you’re hearing a funky, emotive, minimalist guitar player and his impossibly locked–in bass player — the latter somehow always anticipating and affirming the moves of the former with psychic and spiritual precision.
This alone would be something special, if you were actually listening to two individual, deeply tuned–in players. But when you see how the sausage is made, everything changes.
What before seemed like an intimate duet reveals itself as an awe–inspiring solo performance. There’s Charlie, joyfully playing his custom multiscale instrument that’s strung with bass and guitar strings, each routed to separate amps.
Done wrong, it could come across as a bit gimmicky. But see him live just once, and you’ll realize it isn’t. Charlie’s approach is one of reinvention, of carving out a canon and style for this instrument that goes beyond just “combing parts.” As he’s said before, it’s a lot more like playing the drums than either guitar or bass. It’s a hub for the song, not a vehicle for showmanship.
The repertoire of songs he plays — both solo and with his various duet, trio, and quartet outfits — tips its hat to many different influences without being too straight ahead in its take. Everything is imbued with deep groove, a sense of playfulness, and improvisation.
You’ll find his records filed under jazz when filing is required. But in reality, Charlie’s music is to mainstream jazz what hair–raising slam poetry is to a stuffy collection of 19th century verse.
Now, at 50 (yes, the dude does not age), Charlie took a chance to reflect with us on his musical upbringing, the generational differences in the scene today, and how he makes sense of what he does.
You can learn much more about him and the lives of other established musicians and artists through his magnificent podcast, Compared To What. And you can find his latest album, Everybody Has A Plan Until They Get Punched In The Mouth, here.
With the chops it takes to play bass, rhythm, and lead well on an instrument like yours, guitarists who come to your shows tend to stare at your hands. But I’m actually drawn more to your songwriting than I am to the technical things going on.
When you sit down and write, is it with your instrument in hand, or is it more of an on–paper, chart–writing type of process?
It really depends on the project, you know? And it depends on who I’m writing for. A lot of times, I’ll just sit with my instrument. In the past, I’ve done stuff on a computer with a keyboard, and I see what happens. Mostly, I just do it on my instrument, because it’s so weird.
The way I see it, it’s not a jazz thing. If I’m doing it right, it’s maybe a more harmonically involved extension of what the old blues guys were doing. And I mean going back to the 1920s and ‘30s, in terms of people like Mississippi John Hurt and Robert Johnson. Or a guy like Joseph Spence.
I just see it in those terms and as a connection to the drums. I try to write music from that standpoint. I try not to write anything down.
Recently, I made a record with brass, and I had to write charts for that. I’d rather not do that. There’s so much incredibly involved, very difficult music that requires charts. It requires a certain kind of chops and aesthetic and everything.
I want to write music that is not coming from there. I want to write music that is much simpler, coming from a more rhythm–oriented place and try to make it as harmonically simple as possible while still maintaining some type of interesting movement.
And really, for me, the chops thing — if somebody called me up to play a bebop gig, I could do it. But I would be the last guy. I would ask them, “Well, did you call everyone else on the planet first?”
I love hearing Charlie Parker and Bud Powell play that stuff, but I don’t want to hear me play it. I sound bad to me. But I know those songs, if I had to do it. If I really had to play super hard time signature music, I could probably do that, too. But there are a million people that really love playing that and do it so much better than I can.
You gotta play to your strengths.
It’s not so much about playing to your strengths. A lot of times, I just practice what I suck at to try to make it better — to a fault, often. It’s more like playing to your affinity. If you’re lucky enough to get into a place where you’re playing the kind of stuff that you want to play, and your audience likes it, then you’re in an okay position.
A lot of people might look at your instrument, with its many strings and fanned frets, and think that it’s incredibly complicated. But doing what you do — maintaining multiple parts within a song — actually sets up some hard constraints. Do you feel that it prevents overplaying in a way and nudges you toward simplicity?
Yeah, it kind of does. In the era that I came up in — the ‘80s, early ‘90s, early 2000s — the premium was put on playing very complex music. I tried my hand at that, valiantly failing every time. It made me realize that this instrument is not about that.
What this instrument is about is rhythmic counterpoint and the groove. For me, I choose to use that rhythmic counterpoint and groove to play what I think is kind of blues–based improvisational music. Maybe you can even go as far as to say rhythm and blues, or American roots music improvisation.
You can do anything with it, as long as you realize that the most important aspect of it is the groove and rhythmic counterpoint. Once you realize that, then you realize the complexity is in how these two parts go together to create one interdependent part.
The power of the instrument is that, when you’re playing with a drummer or a horn player (like I most often am), you can really make the music go anywhere you want to, because you’re the hub.
Like you said, you’re not going to be able to play all the bass stuff and all the guitar stuff. In a lot of ways, that can end up being a really good thing, because the more stuff you try to play, generally, the worse it sounds. It’s kind of like a built–in limiting factor.
You’ve ventured into quite a few styles. How do you go about choosing your projects?
Most things just kind of fall in your lap. Or you think of something you’d like to hear. That last record I put out [Everybody Has A Plan Until They Get Punched In The Mouth] is on Snarky Puppy’s record label. That was just something I was hearing. I heard Bobby Previte on drums and Curtis [Fowlkes] and Kirk [Knuffke]. I decided I was going to write music for that. Then you just kind of make it happen.
I just recorded a thing with this young woman I met in Guadalajara. I was down there doing this jazz festival/education thing, and she was in my ensemble. She’s this 19–year–old gal from Xalapa in Veracruz [Mexico], and she’s just super cool. They wanted her to sing these jazz songs, and I was just like, “Man, fuck that. What do you got? What do you write?”
She did some of her songs, and I thought, “Okay, that’s the ticket.” She ended up coming here and staying with my family for a month. She and I and my friend, Carter McClean [the drummer currently playing for The Lion King on Broadway], recorded. She plays the Venezuelan cuatro and sings her songs. I do my thing, and Carter and I, we’re kind of like a rhythm section behind her.
That’s the next record I’m going to be putting out. That’ll come out in January or February or something like that. There you have it. You never know.
How has your rig changed over the years? It looks like you’ve simplified a bit.
I’ve been using the same thing for quite some time. I just have a Carr Rambler that I use. I only have two guitar amps: the Rambler and a Carr Impala in a Rambler cabinet.
That’s all I have. I swear, these things, you can drop them. I wouldn’t drop them from that great a height. But I’ve just toured all over with these things. I ship them coast to coast. If I’m going to start a tour, I put it in a box and ship it to California.
Steve [Carr] is a super good dude. I’ve been down to his workshop in Pittsboro, North Carolina. Those guys are so cool and so meticulous. He really treats his employees great. It’s a great environment. They make everything there. They make the cabinets, and even the handles from the amps come from a bridlery shop that’s down the lane from them.
They’re a little expensive, and even as an “artist,” I don’t really get a deal. You get a tiny bit of money off. Just a tiny bit. But when you go down there, and you see the work and craftsmanship these people are putting into the amplifiers…
These big corporations have to figure out a way to cut 50 cents off of the production of each piece. They’re making hundreds of thousands of pieces. Unfortunately, they’re great when they’re in people’s bedrooms, but when you actually have to put them through the rigors of the road, they just can’t handle it. They fall apart.
The bass amp I’ve been playing forever is this Mesa Boogie Walkabout head and cabinet, which is just a single 15” speaker. That’s it. I don’t have anything else.
You’re not using any pedals?
No. I kind of just stopped using them. Slowly over the years, I just used them less and less. I got to the point where I was like, “I don’t need these things. I’m good.” Now that they have those tuners you can put on the headstock of your guitar, it’s just like, boom — liberated from that universe.
The guitar I’ve been playing is by a guy named Wes Lambe in North Carolina.
It’s a semi–hollow with your 7–string setup, right?
Yeah. It’s pretty much like a 335 [with three bass strings and four guitar strings]. Looking back on it, I’m not sure how I played that Novax 8–string [built by Ralph Novak] for so long. Maybe it was just youthful vigor. The low E on that thing is barely even an audible note when played open.
So I’ve tried to experiment and find the sweet spot of what’s usable to me, and this [the 7–string with non–standard tuning] is where I’ve ended up.
You mentioned that in the place and time where you grew up, there was a premium on complexity. In some episodes of your podcast, Compared To What, you talk about growing up in the Bay Area and how that scene was so formative for you.
How do people come into musicianship today, when it feels like those live communities are kind of dissolving and everyone is just absorbing music that was curated for them on their phones?
That’s a great question. I think going from your last comment about the curation concept — my contention is that it’s always been the same. It’s just that our access to the information changes.
There’s a story about how The Beatles [supposedly] took a bus as teenagers from Liverpool to another place a couple hours away because it was rumored that a guy there knew how to play a B7 chord. You didn’t have people making songbooks with guitar chord shapes in them yet. All of this stuff was just passed from person to person.
Fast forward to now, when information is everywhere. It’s in the ether. Anything you could want is there at any time. With that comes an amazing wealth but also a complete disconnect between the worth of it and how you go about getting it.
Your relationship to the music changes. So what I noticed is that instead of having these communities like I grew up in, it’s so much about time and place.
My high school [Berkeley High School in Berkeley, CA] just had crazy people in it. I was the third–string guitar player in the jazz band. I didn’t even make it into the jazz band. They had Joshua Redman, Dave Ellis, Peter Apfelbaum, Steven Bernstein… the list just goes on and on.
Yeah. That’s insane.
Those were just the jazzers. You’re not even dealing with people like the gospel guys, the blues guys, and the hip–hop guys and gals, which were just numerous. Then, my friend Alex Skolnick (who is this massive heavy metal guitar hero) was the guy I walked to high school with when I was a kid.
Same with the guys in Digital Underground. I knew a few of those guys, and it was just like we had that whole thing. So we would learn this music, learn to digest it, and make our own kind of thing. I think because we were limited in a lot of ways by our access to all of this stuff, we had to really refine certain aspects of what we did.
Your generation has immediate access to everything. So there’s this pressure on your generation to be really good at everything. Like, there’s no excuse to not be kind of a master of every kind of playing, in a lot of ways.
I could see that pressure being real if you’re trying to really make a go of it as a session or jazz musician.
Your generation has immediate access to everything. So there’s this pressure on your generation to be really good at everything. Like, there’s no excuse to not be kind of a master of every kind of playing.”
You can especially see it in the jazz scene. These kids all generally come from backgrounds where their parents can afford the schooling, and they all can just play circles around me. But here’s where the rubber hits the road: can you play a show, get people to come to the show, and connect with the audience — have that special thing happen — by just playing the blues?
I’m not saying I’m better, because I’m not. I just do what I do.
The last part of answering that question would be purely one of economy. Where I grew up, you had a lot of single moms, and there wasn’t a lot of money. Hardly any money at all. But people could afford to live in a town like Berkeley and be artsy people. They could be left wing people. They could join the political groups. They could spend all their time playing music if they wanted to.
Even in my day, New York City was a place really ambitious people would go to realize their dreams. Anybody. If you had the courage and the energy, you could go make it happen for yourself. Now, those places are so economically exclusive and prohibitive that they have turned into places where people with means go to manifest their vanity projects.
That’s one way to frame it.
It’s very hard for places to stay open. Basically, everything is going against your generation in terms of being able to create what you think of as a scene.
But you guys have a different universe, and you’ve got to deal with it. Just remember: all of these things that you think about somebody my age, I think similar things about somebody who is 70 years old and what their scene was. And they thought about people who are 95 years old.
What you have to realize is that you are living your reality as authentically as someone living their reality 500 years ago. It’s very difficult to look in the rearview mirror the entire time you’re trying to drive a car.
I also think that people like me, I’m always going to go, “You young people! Your stuff sucks!” It doesn’t suck. It’s just the lens through which I view it. I remember older people telling me that funk music was not a real kind of music. To play some swing.
[laughs] I believe it. Well, we’re glad you didn’t listen to them. Thanks for taking time to talk with us today, and best of luck with the rest of the tour and the upcoming album!
You got it. Thank you so much.