In this conversation Al and Rick cover a lot of ground. From Al’s early days of playing with Chick Corea, to his solo records, playing with John McLaughlin, Paco de Lucía, articulation, the upbeat and much more. The interview also features a lot of live guitar playing!
Getting the Chick Corea gig (0:30)
At the time Al was at Berklee, playing a Les Paul. He loved the music of Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Al’s friend shared a demo tape with Chick who was impressed by what he heard. Invited him to play with Return to Forever. Al left Berklee and after a couple days of rehearsals played a gig at Carnegie Hall.
“I didn’t know the tunes, but I could read. If I couldn’t read I would have never made it…”
Playing with the wrist (11:15)
With your picking hand, if you lock your wrist and pick from your elbow, it will sound very stiff.
Get used to playing more with your wrist, anchor the hand down if needed.
Influence in Return to Forever (12:20)
“He (Chick Corea) went electric because he heard Mahavishnu, he loved the energy of that whole new lead guitar out front singing the melody. He wrote that music for the electric guitar…”
Middle of the set would include an acoustic guitar bit. As part of his solo Al would play the main riff from Allman Brothers Band “Midnight Rider”. Audience would go crazy. Sometimes in a solo spot you don’t need the flashiest technique, but play something that really resonates with the audience.
In his time in Return to Forever Al was able to broaden beyond electric guitar, developing his acoustic guitar style as well as compositional abilities.
“I didn’t know if I could compose, it was something I had to discover…”
Land of the Midnight Sun (16:00)
Had signed two record deals with Columbia, one for Return to Forever and one for solo material. This was his first solo album, released 1976.
Included three legendary bass players: Stanley Clarke, Anthony Jackson, Jaco Pastorius.
Guys came in, read charts, would have at most a day to record. These are busy session players, so they don’t “rehearse” – come in, record their part and are out. Would be lucky if he had a day to rehearse with the musicians.
On drummer Steve Gadd – “Al, I don’t need a drum chart, I’ll take the bass chart, he always wanted the bass chart…”
Studio sessions (20:00)
Amps would be set behind giant Gobos (acoustic isolation panels).
“I tried to avoid headphones as much as possible. I try to position myself so that I can hear everybody from their zone…”
“Many times the magic was in the first take, we would think we could get it better but there was something about the first or second take energy…”
Elegant Gypsy (28:00)
Second album, released 1977.
Had his first hit, “Mediterranean Sundance”. The track featured legendary flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía. This was Paco’s first appearance on a North American album.
In rock music, the emphasis is the downbeat. However latin music, flamenco music, the emphasis is on the upbeat.
“If you have that feeling in the way that you syncopate, so many things can happen musically if you are on the same wavelength on that kind of thinking…”
Friday Night In San Francisco (32:30)
1981 live album with Al, Paco de Lucía and John McLaughlin. Originally didn’t plan on making a live record from this tour. Last two shows were two nights in San Francisco.
“We knew when we played those last shows, those were mindblowing shows. Friday night went on to sell 7 million records, which is insane for a live record…”
Knowing when you’re record is ready (34:00)
“My rule of thumb in making a record is I want to get it so that I want to hear it over and over. If you record it, and you just didn’t get it right, and you feel like you’d rather not hear it, that’s a sign that you don’t have it…”
You want the record to be in a state where you want to hear it over and over, you’re proud of it.
Playing with McLaughlin and Paco (35:30)
Al was the youngest in the group.
“I was the kid, I got beat up a little bit, I had to work hard. It was a healthy competition, we were playing to impress one another on the stage…”
“It was a great era, we had no cellphones to distract us, no computers. We only had our room to practice, to prepare for that night, to wonderfully beat the shit out of one another, but in a good creative way…”
Mixing inspired by The Beatles (36:40)
On the Friday Night record Al played steel string guitar, while the others played Nylon. In the mix Al was on the left, Paco on the right, John in the center. Mixing approach was inspired by The Beatles.
“I love the split channels. I love when they put Ringo all the way on one side, I thought that was totally cool. In my world it’s even cooler because I have percussion, so if you have a drummer and a percussion player playing alternate rhythms, you can’t put it together. It gets messy. But you get a lot of separation if you put them far left and far right.
Developed technique of muting notes on acoustic guitar from his electric guitar playing.
Got used to the palm on the bridge from his early days of practicing electric guitar. Also liked the way the notes popped when playing that way.
“I gravitated towards players that were articulate. My favorite players were articulate. I just loved that thing as the other kind of thing”.
The first thing for Al is the upbeat, the second thing is to articulate.
Playing a Les Paul through an amp can create a lot of unwanted noise, would try to clean that up by palm muting technique.
“I don’t sweep…”
Ensemble playing (40:50)
Playing alone, you’ll be susceptible to overplaying, you’ll miss on the call and response dynamic that can occur when playing with others.
“With the guitar trio, we had a lot of dialogue, playing off of one another, somebody would say something and I’d finish the sentence…”
Latin influence (42:00)
Would head to the city’s (New York City) salsa clubs. Loved the sound of latin music, the rhythms, the percussion. Would absorb it.
“I grew up in latin clubs. I don’t know what drove me to it…”
“I play a lot of things against the time, without the time moving. Once the time moves, when you’re playing the syncopations, you lose the hypnosis, the hypnosis is what you get when the pulse stays steady and you’re doing all the counter rhythms…”
Tapping your foot (43:00)
“Tapping your foot is the most important thing you have to get used to…the upper body is separate from the bottom, it’s why guitar players can’t dance…”
Focus on the quarter note, maintain the independence between upper and lower body.
Developing rhythms (49:00)
“It’s more happening if it bounces…”
Hone in on the upbeat, feel the upbeat.
Your foot maintains the quarter note. Have to keep it steady in order to maintain the hypnosis.
You can start by writing a rhythm that is straight and aligned to the quarter note, but then add in the upbeats, the syncopation.
“All those accents in between, they only work if the quarter note is solid…”
Developing harmonic voice (1:02:00)
Influenced by Ralph Towner and Egberto Gismonti for harmony.
Early teacher was an old-school jazz guy, had Al learn the jazz standards. But didn’t want to continue on the path of doing his own versions of Jazz standards.
“I really set out to do something different to be known…”
“In prog rock, there isn’t as much, from what I hear, dynamics going on. And I get fatigued quick. In RTF I really like that we had dynamics, tempo changes, all kinds of varieties of things that were important elements to make up the soup…”
If the music grabs you in first minute, it needs to have a release, change. If it doesn’t happen, you get fatigued. So when you hit a climax of a section it will be much more effective.
Developing Latin Feel (1:10:00)
“This is something you’re born with, it’s not something you can develop. You can develop harmony, learn melody, learn to shape a tune. But you can’t really learn latin, you either have it or you don’t. Or you can try to find out if you have it…that will start by trying to play against the time without the time moving…”
Al developed it by hanging out in latin clubs, love for percussion, and honed the feel.
Play off the time. Can open up a whole rhythmic world. Try simple phrases, simple scales, arpeggiate chords.
Thing to practice (1:14:00)
Foot remains steady, quarter notes, play with the rhythm. Leave space. But always be aware of the quarter note.
“Leaving those spaces creates suspense, the spaces can be effective as long as time continues…”