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This article was originally published in issue #21
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It's a travesty that some of the most heard and influential players in the history of modern music today find themselves as not much more than a name printed on dusty old liner notes from an era when people bought physical music. Players like Tommy Tedesco, Brent Mason and Alan Murphy have created libraries of beautiful music but never really managed to break out into the public eye. But Larry Carlton is a man who broke through that wall like a juggernaut and went from being one of the most prolific session players of the day to one of the most loved and respected guitarists in the history of the instrument.
Carlton's latest recorded output is a duo live acoustic album played with his long time friend Robben Ford and while it's a great record, Larry is at the level where he doesn't need to have anything to promote to be able to pack out a venue. There was proof of that at his recent gig at at London's prestigious Leicester Square Theatre, where GI caught up with him. Without a new album to promote and little publicity, people flocked from miles around to queue in the smoky Soho streets to see an icon of Jazz and Blues.
Picking up the guitar at the extremely young age of six, Larry Carlton took guitar lessons and as any respectful boy would, he did all the things a guitar teacher in the 1950s would have expected him to do. At the time he was heavily into the Jazz greats like Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery but when his grandmother gave him a BB King record it all started to come together and over the next 10 or so years Larry learnt the ways of the traditional players but with an ear for the more contemporary Blues and Rock of the day.
Back in the 1960s there was a lot of money to be made playing music on recording and TV sessions and Larry Carlton became one of the first guys to call because he had this soulful modern sound with great phrasing and bending - but at the same time he could read. So by the tender age of 16 he had already got his first few days of studio work in LA. It was only the beginning. Over the decades that followed, he has appeared on recordings with Etta James, The Crusaders, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Al Jerreau, The Bee Gees, Michael Jackson, Dolly Parton and hundreds more. His catalogue of work includes well over 100 gold selling albums with estimated sales running well into the 100s of millions.
Groups like The Crusaders and Steely Dan relied heavily on the sound Carlton brought to the table and some of his work with these groups in particular, like the famous solo on “Kid Charlemagne” or the huge list credits he has with The Crusaders. helped to cement his own unique style of soloing, arranging and writing for guitar, which in turn led to yet more acclaim and sessions.
At the same time the urge to go out and play more was growing and the result was signing with Warner where he produced his major label début the eponymous, Larry Carlton, in 1978. This album showcased incredible tasty playing on tunes he still plays to this day. Room 335 and Nite Crawler showcase a smooth funky Jazz fusion sound that became the sound of LA smooth Jazz, with many people citing this as an influence, 35 years on.
Over that 35 year period Larry has experienced phenomenal success with his solo career, releasing over 20 critically acclaimed albums and netting four Grammy awards (along with an impressive 19 nominations). Every album is well worth a listen, though if you're looking for some key records to check out, Sapphire Blue is a good one, along with Sleepwalk, or if you want to catch him in his element, the live Last Nite is as good as it gets. There's also a slightly different take on the greatest his format with Greatest Hits Re-Recorded Volume One where (as the name suggests) Larry went back into the studio and reworked some of his most loved songs, but with his 2008 tone.
There are, of course, countless live videos out there to see Larry on and they're really what he's all about. It's well worth checking out any one of his numerous collaborations with other world class players too, such as Lee Ritenour, Steve Lukather and the equally iconic Robben Ford. Ford in particular always seems to bring out the absolute best in Carlton's playing so go check them out to see how modern Blues can be played.
When it comes to gear, Larry is known as Mr 335 for good reason, and Gibson currently sells a signature model 335 sporting his name. He has used various other guitars over the years, including a long period with Valley Arts (The pre-Samick era - big favourites of our own Michael Casswell) with everything from active single coil pickups to vintage humbuckers. It's fair to say Larry's tone is very definitely in his fingers.
If we turn our attention to amps, Larry is famous for having the “Dumble tone” which comes from his Dumble Overdrive specials. Back in 1990 a new one would set you back $5,150 new and now if you can find one expect to pay in the ball park of $50,000, these things and the subject of a lot of mystique and it's hard to say for sure who's still using them but they were the amp of choice for John Mayer, Joe Bonamassa, Robben Ford and many other tone hounds. This is way out of the price range of almost everyone (pros included) but over the years plenty of Dumble inspired/clones have hit the market, including Two Rock, Ceriatone and (Larry's choice) the Bludotone. If buying a new amp is out of the question though, there are plenty of great Dumble style pedals out there worth checking out like the Hermida Zendrive and the Wampler Euphoria.
When it comes to playing style, Larry Carlton's voice is unique, coming from that school of '50s players. Larry himself told us “My teacher didn't teach me modes, or scales or anything like that”, and what you actually find is a lot of triads. In a lesson, Steve Lukather once said “Carlton is a genius man, he thinks of everything as harmony”. So over a simple C7 chord, whereas many guitar players will play the mixolydian scale, Larry is more likely to play Bb, C and F triads which gives him a more unique edge to his playing, he actually highlights this in the interview where he demonstrates that to him a G13b9 chord is really just an E/G7, and that E triad is a great source of melody.
Looking to the future, it's safe to say that Larry Carlton will continue to wow fans around the world playing great music with the sound he's created. Some people, like fine whiskey, just get better with age.