Two thousand fifteen marks 40 years since the release of Grammy-winning guitarist Lee Ritenour’s debut solo album, First Course.
To help commemorate the occasion, Ritenour has gone back into his vast archive of musical material—one that spans 40 albums—to release A Twist of Rit.
For A Twist of Rit, Ritenour combines new material and several of his classic compositions. It’s another inspired collection of the funky fusion and sophisticated jazz that’s made Ritenour one of the world’s most renowned guitarists.
Another album highlight is the debut of Hungarian guitarist Tony Pusztai, who was the grand prize winner of Ritenour’s 2014 Six String Theory Competition.
I recently spoke with Ritenour about his new album, gear, session work and more.
GUITAR WORLD: When you look back at your 40-year career as a solo artist, what comes to mind?
It’s pretty phenomenal that I’ve been making albums for 40 years. It’s something you certainly don’t expect when you start out that young. This new album is especially close to me, because not only did I write new material but we also decided to twist and flip tunes from past decades, including a few from my very first album. I’m really happy with the freshness the album has.
Was the idea for this new album always to celebrate this milestone?
Not really. I have a 20-year-old son who is a pro drummer who plays with me and some other people, so I’m always listening to all of the young bands that are out there. What I started to notice was that a lot of these groups were borrowing elements that we were doing back in the Seventies and Eighties. That’s when I thought, what if we went in and took my tunes from those early records and twisted them up and gave them a fresh look? We had a 12-piece band playing everything live in the studio and gave it a youthful, contemporary sound and feel.
What was it like revisiting your older material?
One thing I never do as a habit is listen to my old material. When I’m making an album I’m immersed in the process and listen to it a lot, but then there comes a period after it’s released where I’m done listening to it. This project allowed me to go through my entire catalog and put together a different playlist. It was fun going back to the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties and remembering something about every track. I didn’t want to go for necessarily my most famous tracks. I wanted to pick tunes that I felt were still relevant today.
Let’s talk about a few of those tracks, starting with “Wild Rice."
That was a tune that was written around 1975 for my first album. It was really a precursor to the next album, which was Captain Finger. At the time, I was entering a fusion period and it had a funk feel but also had some fusion lines in it. I thought it would be a nice track to revisit melodically. I had my old seasoned folks play on it as well as a great horn section. At the end, it turns into a big jam where we get a Tower of Power-type groove going!
That song is really close to my heart. It was from the mid-Nineties. John Beasley [keyboardist] and I decided to try and recreate the laidback feel where the drums are way behind the beat and put a different hump on it. I came up with a really silky sound on my jazz guitar. It has a nice vibe and is one of my favorite tracks.
How did guitarist Tony Pusztai become involved in the project?
Tony won the grand prize for last year’s Six-String Theory competition. He’s a phenomenal classical guitarist who also has some nice jazz chops and one of the prizes was for him to play on this record. Originally, we thought we’d add one of his compositions but I realized that in this case it might be cool if we did one of my tunes and played it together. It turned out really nice.
Do you have a particular guitar/amp combo you like to use?
On the road, we backline two Fender Twin 65 re-issue amps and a Mesa Boogie Road King with a 2x12 speaker in the middle. The Twins are getting the stereo effects, but I leave the middle one dry. For the record, I was turned on to this new company called Ladner. They’re a company out of Mississippi that makes phenomenal amps with a Seventies feel. They’re built like a Rolls Royce and have so much personality and dynamics. Guitar-wise it was also a strictly a Gibson project, with my Gibson Les Paul and my model L5.
What are some of the most memorable moments of your career?
There are so many. In the early days when I first got started as a studio musician, I remember being so happy to have finally made it as a professional musician. Just getting in the door was one of the biggest challenges. The moment you realize that all the hard work you’ve put in is starting to pay off is really special.
I also remember being 16 and getting to record with the Mamas and the Papas, kind of by accident. Then there was getting to play with Tony Bennett and Lena Horn and working with guys like Quincy Jones and B.B. King. I’ve also had big career excitement in the Six String Theory record. That was a big project and getting to work with all of these great guitar players was pretty special.
Do you have a funny story about your days as a session player?
I remember when we were working on George Benson’s Give Me the Night. George and I have been friends for a long time and I did a lot of rhythm playing with him on that record to create a sound. After the album was finished, George flew back to Hawaii. It was right before they had to turn the album in and I got a call in the middle of the night from Quincy Jones. He said, “Rittenour! You’ve got to get down here right away!!” I said, “What happened?” He said, “Well, we had an accident and erased a few bars on one of George’s solos!”
George was in Hawaii but all of the equipment was down in the studio. They wanted me to come down and punch it in. So I went down to the studio, listened to a few minutes of this little cassette they had of an older version, copped it as much as I could and we nailed it! Then Quincy says, “OK, now just make sure you don’t tell George what happened!” But a few years later we did tell George about it and we all had a good laugh!” [laughs].
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.