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Gary Lucas: "The guitar is like an extension of my nervous system - I try to play what I feel and transmit it"

Gary Lucas
(Image credit: Future/Olly Curtis)

Over the past four decades, Gary Lucas has seemingly dabbled in just about every style of music out there. That long list includes psychedelic rock, world music (including '30s Chinese pop, Hungarian folk and blues raga), film music, classical, electronica, jazz, blues and avant-garde. 

The common thread to it all is his guitar playing. Thanks to his fearless attitude and agility, Lucas shapeshifts like a chameleon in tune with whatever soundscape he’s in. 

“A guitar is kind of like a mini orchestra at your fingertips,” Lucas says. “You can really get a full, complex orchestral effect without these pedals - just through open tunings and fingerpicking, for instance. I use a lot of open tunings and a very active finger-picking right hand to get… sometimes, several voices at once.

“It's like an extension of my nervous system, the guitar. I try to play what I feel at the moment and transmit it, just through my touch. And there's something about the bending of strings that definitely emulates the human voice and a wailing kind of ecstatic or painful blues experience. That, to me, is like a foundational element of music, and the guitar is a perfect instrument to do that.”

By using open tunings, Lucas can “re-voice chords,” which frees him from the “prison of the standard tuning and six strings.”

"It allows for new chord voices to emerge, and it's a good tool for writing new work because a lot of the harmonies that emerge just in improvising in an open tuning may not occur to you in standard tuning,” he says. 

“Maybe it's because there's a certain kind of drone. I'm big on drones. The drone is integral to early country blues. You also hear it in Indian raga and Celtic music. A lot of different kinds of world music have those kinds of droning tonal centers and sound.”

Lucas has enjoyed playing guitar since he was 9. His favorite model is the Strat, since that’s the first electric guitar he owned [It was a bar mitzvah gift]. He enjoys the “contour of the body, the overall futuristic look of it, and the pickups.” 

He says Telecasters are a close second as they’re a “great work-horse guitar.” As far as acoustics, Gibson is his favorite, especially when it comes to the blues. He’s taken his 1942 J-45 Gibson around the world many times. 

I’m not really a guitar collector - there’s something obscene about warehousing instruments just for the sake of it. Guitars are meant to be played frequently

“I’ve tried other acoustics, but nothing satisfies like an old Gibson,” he says. “I’m not really a guitar collector, per se. I don’t really have the space and there’s something obscene about warehousing instruments just for the sake of it. Guitars are meant to be played frequently.”

Lucas’ legacy as guitarist, songwriter and recording artist is celebrated on The Essential Gary Lucas, a two-disc collection that features 36 released and previously unreleased favorites from the past 40 years. It includes songs from his days in Captain Beefheart, his jazz-rock band Gods & Monsters and an assortment of collaborations and solo efforts. 

Featured collaborations include Jeff Buckley, Alan Vega, David Johansen, Jerry Harrison, Billy Ficca, Feifei Yang, Elli Medeiros and producer Adrian Sherwood.

Gary Lucas

(Image credit: Future)

I like all kinds of music and I think there's a purity in collaboration,” he says. “When you're in a good collaboration, it's a give-and-take that can elevate the ideas that are transmitted back and forth into a work that's greater than the sum of the parts.”

“Grace is a good example. I had the music and I attempted - before I ever even met Jeff [Buckley] - to put a lyric and a melody on it. And I don't think it was very good. It kind of sucked, in my opinion. And then when I met Jeff, I gave him that music, and what he did elevated the whole thing and just transformed it. The sparks that fly in a good collaboration!”

The new collection features an early demo of Grace. Lucas worked with Buckley in Gods & Monsters and as a duo. Lucas appears on Buckley’s 1994 album, Grace.

“He was a great collaborator. Maybe the greatest young musician I ever worked with,” Lucas says. “He could play anything if he set his mind to it.”

Music is the great leveler - it goes beyond borders and it's an unstoppable force. It's a very powerful medium - when it's done right, anyway

Working with as many different people as possible has helped keep things fresh for Lucas, who enjoys seeing others’ perspectives.  

“Music is the great leveler,” he says. “It goes beyond borders and it's an unstoppable force. You can't really stop it at any border. It just is transmitted and travels all over in the world. It's a very powerful medium - when it's done right, anyway.

“I like to investigate and play all sorts of different music. And the guitar would get boring to just do one thing only. I have a restless curiosity about investigating other areas of music and seeing the world through these collaborations. I've traveled and played in 40 different countries, at least, over my career. It's very broadening.”

The collection features a solo performance of Janacek’s On an Overgrown Path No. 15 Allegro at the U.N. He’s grateful for any chance to make an impact with his music.

“There’s something addictive about performing and sharing music with people in any size venue,” Lucas says. “I feel I am giving of myself everything I possess of real value, and it gratifies me to hear people say, ‘I was in a shitty mood tonight and then I saw that you were playing, so I came out to see you and now I feel great, thank you!’ It kind of makes the whole thing worthwhile.” 

The Beefheart Influence

For many, the final two Captain Beefheart albums [1980’s Doc at the Radar Station and 1982’s Ice Cream for Crow] were the first time they heard the guitar playing of Gary Lucas. He credits the band, which was fronted by Don Van Vliet, for providing inspiration to be an unconventional artist. It's why he included a few revisited renditions of Beefheart songs on the new collection.

“It reinforced me as an avant guitarist who was doing magical kind of guitar playing right through mastering his music,” Lucas says. “I don't think a conventional guitarist would ever attempt to play such pieces or co-play such pieces. You had to really know how to do it in order to do it. 

"You couldn't just go pick up a guitar to achieve those kinds of things. They were rigorously worked out every month and rehearsed by me. Arranged and rehearsed for guitar - and it would take at least a month.

“[Don] was kind of always looking to extend the guitarist technique in the band to be able to voice stuff that would be impossible for most people to even conceive of as a player of guitar,” he adds. “I knew that all the guitarists who played with Beefheart, going back to Ry Cooder when he was a teenager, were marked as outstanding players, and I wanted to be in that exclusive club.”

Since Beefheart material was written on piano and Van Vliet used all 10 fingers, Lucas had the challenge of approximating the composition on guitar. Evening Bell exemplifies this. Lucas included a version of him playing with the Metropole Orchestra as part of a Beefheart tribute concert on the collection.

“I was able to do that through really mastering a fingerpicking technique, that I kind of devised myself,” he says. “I just basically cut my nails as short as possible and toughened the flesh on the pads of my right-hand finger. 

I knew that all the guitarists who played with Beefheart were marked as outstanding players, and I wanted to be in that exclusive club

"And so that's a lot of my characteristic sound and I've carried that into my own music. Although I wouldn't say I ever once tried to emulate Beefheart's sound in my music.”

Another example, Flavor Bud Living, is deceptively simple sounding yet very complex. It was a challenge to relearn it for the live performance included in the collection. It's a bitch to play,” Lucas says. 

“It actually took me a very long time. I had to kind of relearn my technique and I got shooting pains in my arm, muscular pain, rehearsing it and trying to get the sound right in the run up to recording it and then playing it live. But it’s a beautiful piece.”