Groovin' with Peter White: Guitarist Talks New Album, Gear and Al Stewart's ‘Year of the Cat’

(Image credit: Lori Stoll)

Peter White released Groovin', his third album of cover songs, today, October 28. This time around, the guitarist puts his unique spin on timeless tunes from the late Fifties through the early Eighties.

Taking up where White’s previous cover albums—Reflections (1994) and Playin’ Favorites (2006)—leave off, Groovin’ is a nostalgic and adventurous slice of instrumental groove and playful guitar melody.

The disc, which takes its title from the Rascals’ tropical-hued 1967 hit, is chock full of White’s instantly recognizable guitar sound. He applies it the Beatles' “Here, There and Everywhere,” Stevie Wonder's “Do I Do,” Marvin Gaye's “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Sleep Walk,” a Number 1 instrumental hit by Santo & Johnny from 1959.

I recently spoke with White about Groovin’, his gear and his time working with Al Stewart on Year of the Cat, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year.

There’s a 23-year period of music you cover on Groovin’. Was there a particular theme or concept you had in mind when choosing songs?
There was never any great concept or theme, except for me to remind people that music was really good back then. For this album, I wanted to put together a collection of songs that I really like. They’re all songs with great melodies that work well on the guitar, but I wanted to approach them in a different way. I think if you can take a song everyone knows and give it a spin and make it your own, it really defines you as an artist.

Why did you choose to cover the Beatles' “Here, There and Everywhere”?
I grew up learning to play guitar by listening to the Beatles on the radio. There are so many Beatles songs I love, but that particular one works so well on guitar. It’s very whimsical with a beautiful melody.

You also have an interesting take on Santo & Johnny’s “Sleep Walk."
I first heard that song when the Shadows recorded it in the early Sixties. My dad was a huge fan of their music and had some of their records. It’s what really got me interested in guitar.

This year marked the 40th anniversary of Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat. What are some of your best memories about that period?
I’m incredibly fortunate that I met Al and joined his band just as he was about to make his breakout record at Abbey Road. At the time, Al didn’t even know I played guitar. He already had someone to play guitar and hired me to play piano, which was another love of mine. It wasn’t until later that he discovered I could play guitar as well.

What’s your setup like these days?
The guitars I’ve used for the last 15 years are made by McGill Guitars in Nashville. Paul McGill has built a guitar that's like a nylon string but with a cutaway and a pickup that resists feedback. I was always having a problem playing with a live band because there was always an issue with feedback at very high levels. With his guitar I don’t get that. I also don’t really use an amp. I have a DigiTech RP355 foot pedal with XLR outs that go straight into the PA. Generally, the sound I use is a little reverb and a little delay and that’s it.

Is there another secret to getting your guitar sound?
I’ve recorded so many different ways, but there’s no one secret or a magic button. I do use finger style and proper classical technique, which is putting the guitar on the left knee and using a footstool. In recent years, I’ve started using acrylic on my right hand on fingers two, three and four.

Of all of the highlights of your career, are there any moments that stand out to you as most memorable?
Last year, Al and I went to the Royal Albert Hall in London and put together a band based on the guys who played with us back then and did an entire performance showcasing Year of the Cat in its entirety. To go back and recreate that album from start to finish with Tim Renwick on guitar and Stuart Elliot on drums—and then to play at the Royal Albert Hall was one of the high points of my life.

I still play shows with Al occasionally. It’s always fun to go back and play the old songs. I was with him for 20 years and enjoyed every minute of the music and artistry. I can’t say enough about how lucky I was to join up with him when he broke big, and to be a part of that whole thing.

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James Wood

James is a guitarist and freelance writer who's interviewed some of the biggest names in music. He is the author of four books and his writing credits include work for Guitar World, AXS and Yahoo! as well as for his hometown newspaper where he writes on a variety of topics with both passion and humor. As a guitarist, he's performed everywhere from local bars and nightclubs to some of the biggest stages in front of thousands of music fans.