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Behind the Curtain: Guitar Tips from Larry Carlton

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Larry Carlton walked out onstage at the Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, Texas on a hot and sticky afternoon on June 6, 2004. Dressed casually and nothing like a rock star in a black t-shirt, black pants and a pair of sunglasses to protect his eyes from the bright sun, he strolled up to the microphone with his trusted tobacco sunburst Gibson 335 draped confidently around his neck. It was the final day of the three-day concert that was part of Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, the second presentation of this multi-day event.

Clapton had initiated the benefit concerts starting back in 1999 when he brought together his favorite guitar players in a benefit concert to provide funds for his Crossroads Center, a drug rehab facility located in Antigua.

For this particular three-day gathering in 2004, Clapton had assembled a who’s who of six-string kings including Eric Johnson, Steve Vai, Billy Gibbons, John McLaughlin, Joe Bonamassa, B.B. King, Stevie Winwood, Buddy Guy, and of course Carlton. The assembled throng of guitar freaks and geeks had braved the tortuous Texas sun for two days and now sunburned, spent and sweaty, they really wanted to be burned down by some especially fiery fret fury on this final day. Carlton had his work cut out for him.

“Glad to be here with all of you,” the then 56-year old said to the crowd of devotees.  Carlton continued his brief introductory statement: “You might remember my guitar from a tune that goes just like this … ” as he broke into the extraordinary opening chordal sequence from “Josie,” the song he originally performed on Steely Dan’s Aja album 27 years earlier. “Josie” was a signature tune for this first chair studio rat who had played on literally thousands of sessions including the aforementioned Steely Dan as well as on records for Joni Mitchell, Michael Jackson, Jerry Garcia, and countless others. He was so identified with the Gibson ES-335 that he was dubbed “Mr. 335.”

I watched Larry run through this extraordinary instrumental version of the Dan song from a makeshift press pit located sort of above and off to the side of the stage. To be honest, it wasn’t a great vantage point. To be completely truthful, it sucked. Still, I could see Carlton perform and I was out of the sun and for that alone I was grateful. Hell, you could have locked me in a sealed vault underneath the stadium with only a three-inch monitor to watch if it meant staying out of that inferno.

Carlton played blissfully and beautifully, holding the Gibson high on his body in order to reach the complex chord patterns residing at the top of the guitar neck. Larry cared nothing about looking cool or achieving the maximum rock pose. It was about functionality, finesse and execution and you couldn’t achieve that if your instrument was hanging down around your knees.

I was there at the Crossroads Guitar Festival on at the behest of some English guitar mag. They wanted me to talk to the various artists about Clapton and his influence on them and that sort of thing. On paper the idea sounded good but in reality it sucked. None of the artists came back to the press tent following their sets. Either it was too hot or they couldn’t be bothered, but most of them retreated to their air-conditioned trailers and let the press be damned.  Still, I walked back to the press compound and sat dutifully with my cassette player in hopes that Carlton or any of the previous performers might grace us with their presence.

Imagine my shock when Mr. 335 sauntered through the tent flaps. Actually, I wasn’t all that surprised. I had first interviewed Larry back in February 1977 for Guitar Player and had subsequently spoken to him several times over the intervening years. What I remembered was a warm, polite and obliging cat utterly devoted to the guitar.

Before the questioning began, I wanted to say hello. My heart was beating as I approached the table where he was sitting. A lot of water had gone beneath the bridge since we last spoke and as I neared his chair, I thought, “Oh, shit. What if he doesn’t remember me at all? I’m going to embarrass the hell out of myself in front of all these other journalists.” I was only a few feet from him at that point and turning around and returning to my chair would have made me look even more foolish.

I walked up to him and softly muttered, “Larry? Hi. Steve Rosen.” He turned to the sound of my voice and instantly rose from his seat and reached out his hand. “How are you?” he said. “It’s good to see you again.” My nervousness immediately dissipated. Whether he honestly remembered who I was or any of the details of our previous conversations was hard to say. As I said, he was one gracious cat and the fact he might have said he recalled who I was when maybe he didn’t was testimony enough about the nature of his character. I mentioned the GP interview and his eyes truly lit up and at that point, I knew he had connected the dots. We spoke briefly — I asked how he’d been and how cool it was he had been invited to play at the festival and he questioned me about what I had been doing these past years — and then he sat back down in his seat.

I must admit it felt pretty great to be standing at the front of this press tent exchanging pleasantries with a legendary guitar player like Larry Carlton in front of a roomful of heavy music writers.  Call it ego or a sense of competitive professionalism — “I know this guy and you don’t” — but it felt cool. It made me feel like somebody.

A moderator opened the press conference. All the journalists took their seats after placing recording devices on the table in front of Carlton. I put my Sony Pro Walkman right in front of where Larry was sitting. As soon as the conference proper began, I knew I had to be the first one to ask a question. Amidst the cacophony of several other journalists all wanting to be the first in line with their questions, I outshouted them all. When Larry realized I was the deliverer of this first query, he smiled. That would have been answer enough but here’s what the guitarist had to say that day.

“How does it feel being invited to the Crossroads Guitar Festival?” I asked him. “Humbling,” he said. “You know, I’ve been doing this 40 years now and to be included this year was very humbling and I’m very thankful.” He was. You could tell how much being invited there meant to him and how much it would have meant to any guitarist. Making records and playing live was one thing but to be hand chosen by Eric Clapton to participate in a high-profile gathering of guitar players was something altogether different. You were anointed. It meant you had earned your bones.

Larry had just finished answering my first question when I jumped in with a second one. Fuck being rude. I was on a roll. “Do you think modern metal guitar players understand the subtleties of Clapton’s playing?” I asked. The guitarist took a moment, adjusted his sunglasses and responded. “In a lot of ways, I think it’s appropriate that they don’t get it. Especially if they don’t get the subtlety with which I put myself in the same category as Eric. We try to play with the simplest feel because that feels right to us. If they don’t get it, it’s OK, because they’re on their own journey going through their own processing. It could be at age 30 that they reflect back to someone like Clapton. I admire and respect their journey.”

Carlton’s own journey as a solo artist began in earnest in 1978 when he signed with Warner Bros. Records though he had previously released a pair of albums: With A Little Help From My Friends in 1969 and Playing/Singing four years later. He was still in the thick of studio work when that first pair of albums was released. Following a lengthy and storied career as an apex studio rat — having played on albums by everyone from Steely Dan and Michael Jackson to John Lennon and Jerry Garcia — Larry ultimately wanted the freedom to write and record his own music. So in ’78 with a sweet deal from Warners in his pocket, he stepped into the studio to record what would become Larry Carlton.

Guitar Player Magazine wanted a story on the guitarist’s transition from studio staple to soloist and I was summoned. Arrangements were made to meet at a restaurant down on Sunset Boulevard at the western end of the Strip, which was just a few minutes from where I lived in the Hollywood Hills. Gathering up the tools of my trade — cassette player, typed notes, pen — I thought about our impending meeting. The conversation would be mildly challenging inasmuch as there was no new album to talk about. That self-titled solo record wouldn’t be released until several months after our interview and I knew it was always difficult talking about music I hadn’t previously heard.

Which brings back two not altogether pleasant memories of precisely that situation. In 1975, I went on the road with Jethro Tull for a couple days to interview Ian Anderson for Circus Raves magazine. Pretty sure it was that mag. Minstrel in the Gallery hadn’t even been released yet or maybe it had just come out but either way nobody had heard any music. Sitting across from Ian, I began asking him about the new album. Before I could even finish the question, he interrupted me. “Have you heard the album?”

“No, I haven’t.”

He flashed me a look to wither flowers and said, “Then how do you even know what you’re talking about?”

That sucked. I mean I completely understood listening to an artist’s newest music before talking to him/her. It made complete sense. But sometimes an interview was scheduled when that was just not possible. Maybe Ian’s handlers should have made sure the journalist who was going to be on the road with the band for two days had the newest album.

I sat there in my chair squirming as the flute player glowered at me. He was obviously displeased with this turn of events and I figured he would just end the interview there. Indeed, he got up, and walked out of the room but returned a moment later with a cassette of the new album. He handed it to me and said, “Listen to this and then we’ll talk.” I retreated to my room, listened to the tape several times and spoke to Ian an hour later. He was not the sweetest man in the world but I did manage to wrangle a more than workable interview out of him.

The second time a modified version of this situation hit me in the face was in 1995. Lenny Kravitz’s record label Virgin flew a bunch of writers to New Orleans to interview the singer/guitar player. Circus, his then-current album, had not been released but prior to speaking with Kravitz, all the journalists would sit in a room to listen to an advanced pressing. We were all driven to Lenny’s house, an extraordinary compound hidden behind metal gates, put in a room and listened to the record.

Scribbling as quickly as I could, I took notes as each song played. It wasn’t splitting the atom but sitting there and trying to extract the essence out of an album with one listening did require some concentration. The album ended and then each writer was assigned a time slot for his/her interview. I think I may have been the first or second interviewer scheduled. I was ushered into a separate room and told I had 20 minutes, which seemed like an utter waste since I’d just spent six excruciating hours on a plane getting there.

We began talking and I could tell instantly Kravitz was simply going through the motions. He was disinterested, edgy and didn’t want to be there. I made some mention of producing the album and he threw a shit fit. “I produce my albums, dude. Don’t you know that?”

I didn’t. I was never a fan — I found him to be an average guitar player and not a great songwriter — so I probably didn’t conduct due diligence in looking at his previous albums to see who produced them. We weren’t handed any liner copy or album information. I hated that interview.

Anyway, you could see the types of problems that might arise from being ignorant of a musician’s most recent music. I mused about those two incidents as I pulled up in front of the restaurant. For the life of me, I could not remember the name. It has changed names and owners multiple times in intervening years and every time I drove by that location I always identified it as Carlton’s Café.

I walked in and saw Larry sitting at a booth. I strolled over and introduced myself and he greeted me with all the warmth and cordiality he’d extend to me when we met up again at the Crossroads Show. I set up my tape recorder and began asking him about how he first started playing guitar, what was it like playing with Steely Dan and how did it feel recording the new album. “I’m excited about it,” he said. “When you surround yourself with different players, it brings different kinds of things out of you. I play one way with the Crusaders because of our material and we’re so tight as players. And then if I do an album on my own, maybe I’ll fly Steve Gadd out from New York to play drums [Jeff Porcaro ended up playing on Carlton’s debut] and he makes me play different. So, yeah, it’s gonna be exciting.”

The Larry Carlton album would mark a new chapter in the guitarist’s life. He would quit the session world at that point and concentrate on a solo career that continues to this day. We finished our conversation and meal — I think I had chicken — and walked outside. While waiting for our cars to arrive from the valet, I hesitantly asked Larry one last question. I had been taking lessons from a local guitar teacher and he had given me some sight reading assignments. This one particular piece had stumped me and I just couldn’t understand it. I had the little guitar tab book inside my King Crimson Starless and Bible Black leather tote bag — I used that to carry my cassette player to all my interviews — and I removed it. I can’t believe I had the audacity to ask him this — kind of like asking John Steinbeck to read your book report or inquiring of Da Vinci if he’d check out your paint-by-numbers masterpiece — but I did.  “Uh, Larry. I’m working on this piece and I can’t figure it out.”

I think he was shocked and surprised that I played. He looked at the page and didn’t laugh because of the simplicity of it or make me feel awkward by responding in any sort of sarcastic fashion. He told me that the rest lasted four bars and that answered my question. It was direct and straightforward. Teacher and student. Master and mentor.

I think Larry was both amused and pleased that I’d asked him the question. When he realized I played, I think it elevated my profile in his eyes. He might have thought, “This kid writes for a guitar magazine and also plays? That’s cool.” Or at least I wanted to think so. Our cars arrived and Larry drove off but our paths would meet several more times. I’d go up to his house, which was where his studio Room 335 was located and interview him on a couple occasions before finally running into him again at the Crossroads show.

Larry Carlton always treated me with respect and professional courtesy. He had never changed from that very first moment on Sunset Boulevard until we met for the last time nine years ago in Dallas. That final meeting almost never happened. In 1988, the instrumentalist was shot in the throat while working at Room 335. It was a random and horrific act of violence, which almost killed him. The bullet shattered his vocal cord and caused major nerve trauma. But he fought back and recovered and by the end of that year had even managed to complete another album, On Solid Ground. Certainly the title was a reflection of his ever-improving state of mind.

That could have been catastrophic, and the world might have been deprived of one of the truly great guitarists of all time. However, that was not meant to be. He survived and flourished, and 50 years after recording his first album Carlton continues to astound us all with his legendary playing.

I was amazed all over again when I watched him perform at the Clapton Crossroads Festival nearly 15 years to the day. But what blew me away even more was the way he greeted me and shook my hand and made me feel like I inhabited a small place in his very big world. He made me feel important in front of a roomful of heavy music writers and for that moment I would be eternally grateful.

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