Teenage Guitar Star Ray Goren Discusses His Debut Album, 'Me'

Ray Goren might only be 17 years old, but he’s already lived the sort of life a musician three or four times his age could only dream of.

A child prodigy who was playing Thelonious Monk and J.J. Johnson tunes on keyboard by the age of five, he picked up the guitar at eight and has since shared stages with everyone from B.B. King to Buddy Guy to the Doors’ Robby Krieger, as well as written and recorded songs in the studio with Leon Russell. He’s released several EPs of original material, and has now issued his full-length debut effort.

Titled simply Me, the 11-song collection highlights Goren’s deep, soulful vocals as much as his spectacular six-string work. Additionally, it displays his diversity as a songwriter, updating classic rock and blues sounds for the 21st century by mixing them with elements of modern pop, r&b, hip-hop and electronic music (what’s more, Goren also played every instrument on the record himself). The result is a captivating and wholly engaging debut that will satisfy fans of solid songwriting and singalong hooks as much as those who love shit-hot guitar pyrotechnics.

Here, Goren talks to Guitar World about his path to creating Me.

You named the album Me, which would seem to be pretty indicative of the subject matter.

This is really the first album where I’m writing songs from the first-person experience. Because, you know, I’ve gotten older and life’s been happening! [laughs] So it’s one of those things where it’s a very real record. And yeah, that’s why I called it Me, because it’s what I’ve been going through the past year and a half in song. Some of the songs are perfectly summarized bodies of work of what’s been going on. Sometimes you get this thing that just takes over you and you find a way to say something you really shouldn’t be able to say in three-and-a-half to five minutes. Somehow it comes out.

Often, “child prodigy”-type guitarists score points with an older crowd by playing in a very traditional way, be it blues-based or classic-rock-based. You certainly have a blues-rock background, but you mash that style into modern pop and r&b songs.

Absolutely. And I appreciate that you recognize that and you embrace that. Because some people don’t embrace that. Some people say, “Oh, he’s getting away from…” whatever it is that they box me into. But I feel that the only way you keep this music alive is by doing it in a modern way. And you know, I listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan and all those guys, and of course they influence me and I wouldn’t be who I am without them.

But at the same time, I listen to Drake. I listen to Kendrick Lamar. I listen to Ed Sheeran. I listen to John Mayer. It’s all in the pot. Because it’s what I grew up on. My whole thing is I put my songwriting at the forefront and I try to write the best songs I can. And the if the guitar can fit, it will fit. But I never try to force it in.

What led you to pick up the guitar?

I became a guitar player at about eight-and-a-half. I was looking for a trombone player named J.J. Johnson on YouTube, and by mistake I typed B.B. instead of J.J. And what happened was it was the greatest mistake I ever made in my life. For whatever reason I clicked it and what came up was B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Albert Collins and Buddy Guy all on the same stage playing a song. And at that point I was like, “I need to get a guitar…”

You actually played with B.B. and Buddy at a young age.

Yeah. I mean, it’s kind of surreal. I was just talking to a friend and I was like, “Man, I have a picture of me and B.B. on a stage together…” He’s the reason I picked up a guitar in the first place and here I am onstage with the guy. It’s really an honor and I realize I’m in a blessed and rare situation. I’m just like, “Okay, accept this for what it is and don’t take anything for granted.”

Did B.B. have anything to say to you before or after that gig?

He told me just keep doing what you’re doing and everything will sort itself us. Because you got the real stuff. And I didn’t actually get to play with him. I opened for him. And afterward we hung out. But with Buddy I played.

What did you play with Buddy Guy?

“Sweet Little Angel.” I was 12 at the time. And again, it was just an honor.

Who are your biggest guitar influences?

Man, the list could go on for days. I started in the blues, and B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan were kind of my four blues guys. I just listened to them nonstop. Freddie and B.B. especially. There’s a guy named Luther Allison who I really love. Little Jimmy King. Eric Gales. And then I went into jazz so it was Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, George Benson. Guys like that. Pat Martino. And then I got really into, like, Guns N’ Roses.

Slash really influenced me. But right now, my favorite guitarists at the moment, I love Jimi Hendrix, I love Prince, I love Peter Frampton. They’re my favorites right now. Just because of how creative they are. Every solo tells a story. It’s not just, “Okay, I’m gonna play a minor pentatonic over this…” It’s all feel, and it tells a story. That’s what I try to do.

Another legendary artist who played a big role in your musical life is Leon Russell. He co-wrote Me’s closing track, “Fallen Angel.”

Yeah. Leon wrote most of the words, so I can’t really give you an in-depth comment on the lyrics. But I came up with the chords and the melody and Leon wrote some words to that, and then I tweaked it. We recorded it in Nashville and it was really a great experience.

How did that relationship happen?

He played a lot at the Coach House [in San Juan Capistrano, California] which is right around where I live. The owner of the Coach House knows me, and so when Leon was in town he brought me down and I played a song. I was, like, 10 or 11 at the time. And it was funny—after I played, Leon didn’t even say anything to me . He kinda just left. And I remember I called my dad and I said, “He hated me!” And then my dad got a call the next day from the owner and he said, “Man, Leon cannot stop talking about your son!”

Leon actually sent me a guitar. And then I got his contact information and we just kind of spoke a lot and developed a relationship. We did a bunch of songs together that haven’t been released, but that whole process really taught me a lot. Not a lot—it taught me all I know. Leon taught me how to write music.

What was the primary thing he taught you about songwriting?

Lyrics. He’s one of the best lyricists of all time. I mean, look at his songs. “A Song for You.” “Hummingbird.” “Delta Lady.” He’s got classic songs. And he told me that when he writes, he tries to write classics. He said, “I was writing with the intent of my songs lasting 80 years.” And he did that. His songs are some of the most covered songs in the history of music.

As far as your songwriting, on the new album I love tracks like “Have a Nice Day” and “Outta Sight Outta Mind,” which are very lyrically-driven, and almost whimsical in approach.

Yeah. And all those songs are all true stories. You know, I feel like, again, this goes back to the album title, Me, that this album is bringing my personality out a little bit. And I joke a lot. I’m a funny guy. You know, in this interview I might sound like a depressed dude, but I’m a funny guy! [laughs] I have both sides. And sometimes the way I cope with pain is that I laugh. It’s almost like a defense mechanism. So when I get a song like “Outta Sight Outta Mind,” where I find out my girl’s cheating on me and she’s an escort, it’s like, “Okay, I can either shoot myself or I can laugh about the fact that this happened to me.”

What gear are you using at the moment?

For my electric, I have my Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster that I love. It’s my soulmate. It’s got a gold top but it’s relic’d. So it looks new and old at the same time. And they did a mod on it at the Custom Shop that I love so much that I did it to all my guitars. What they did is, for the treble pickup they put in a humbucker in place of the single coil. And the last tone knob isn’t really a tone knob—if I turn the knob to zero it turns that pickup into a single coil, and if I turn it to 10 it’s a humbucker. And anything in the middle is a blend. So I get a lot of tones out of that one pickup.

And my amp right now, for my clean sound I honestly just go DI through whatever PA is at the venue. Then I have an A/B splitter, and for my lead sound I got hip to the Kemper, which is unreal. The sound I use is like a 1960s Marshall. And as far as pedals go, I just use a wah. That’s really it. My amp just distorts naturally because I modeled it to distort…a lot. [laughs]

Currently, you’re playing solo shows, correct?

Yeah. My live show now is just me with a looper pedal, and I also have a piano. So for songs like “Yes No Maybe So” and “Outta Sight Outta Mind” I go to the piano. But then in general I loop bass and drums and then I have my guitar and I loop that, and then I have the vocals. It’s really fun. It’s perfect for me right now.

I mean, I love playing with a band, and sometimes I miss it. But the band really brings out the guitar player in me rather than the songwriter in me. And as much as I love playing guitar, I also love interacting with the crowd via the lyrics of the song. So it’s the best of both worlds now, where I still get to do the guitar stuff but at the same time I can also strip it down and really focus on the lyrics.

What’s coming up in the near future?

I’m looking to hit the road for two months, probably in the Midwest. And then I’m just going to continue to write. And write and write and write. ‘Till I die. [laughs]

Up to this point, you’ve received a lot of attention not just for your musical skills, but also because of your age. Is it annoying that people always have to point out how young you are?

Well, I look older than my age, which I think is starting to help. People think I’m at least in my 20s now! So slowly but surely I’m growing out of this whole, I call it a “circus-act phase.” Because it looks so unusual, you know? That thing where the guitar is bigger than the person who’s playing it, and he’s playing the shit out of it. It’s like, “Whoa.” It’s almost like a great freak show. But that’s changing. Now, it’s just a great show.

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.