Originally printed in Guitar World, April 2008The ever-evolving Lenny Kravitz delivers a radical lesson in writing, playing and recording rhythm guitar, and talks about his latest funk-driven rock album, It Is Time for a Love Revolution.
"I’m a person who is always trying to experience new things and constantly change my perspective. I really try to keep things ‘alive’ and expose myself to different people and different influences.”
Lenny Kravitz, making himself comfortable in Guitar World’s video studio, is in New York City for a dual purpose: in addition to giving GW readers this in-depth video lesson on his approach to writing, playing and recording effective rhythm guitar parts, he’s here to shoot an independent film in which he appears as an actor.
Kravitz’s latest recording, It Is Time for a Love Revolution (Virgin), is his eighth studio album and first new release in three years. Various tracks were recorded at different times over the past year, in New York, Miami, Paris, the Bahamas and Brazil, and the album features a blend of all of Kravitz’s favorite sounds and styles, from deep-in-the-pocket funk and soul to hard-hitting, power-driven rock. He plays all or most of the instruments on every track, as he has done on every recording since his 1992 mega-smash debut, Let Love Rule.
In this Guitar World exclusive, Kravitz offers insight into his creative process while he details useful ways for guitar players to learn how to lock into the groove.
GUITAR WORLD Starting with your very first release, Let Love Rule, you’ve often played all of the instruments on your albums. Is that the case with the new record?
LENNY KRAVITZ I'm playing all the instruments on some songs, and on others I’m playing mostly everything. On several tracks, guitarist Craig Ross plays the solos. The only other guests on the record are Anoushka Shankar, who plays sitar on “Bring It On,” and Lenny Pickett, who plays saxophone on “Dancin’ Till Dawn.”
GW How did you develop the ability to play guitar, bass, keyboards and drums with equal proficiency?
KRAVITZ There was a piano in the house when I was a kid, and I started banging on it when I was about five or six. My dad had an acoustic guitar that my mom had bought him; I think she was hoping he would learn to play it and serenade her, but it just ended up sitting in the corner, getting dusty. So I used to bang on that too. When I was around 10, I got my first guitar from Manny’s music store here in New York City. It was a Yamaha acoustic that you could plug in. I wasn’t as happy as I could have been
because what I really wanted was an electric guitar.
Later, my family moved to L.A., and I started playing the drums when I was in junior high school. Back in New York, we lived in a little apartment, so I couldn’t have a drum set, but I had always wanted to play the drums. When I got to high school, I bought a bass and began to play that. I never dreamed I would end up making music this way—playing all of the instruments— I just liked switching around from instrument to instrument.
GW What led to you playing all the instruments on your debut, Let Love Rule?
KRAVITZ When I was getting my songs together to make that record, the plan was to have a band. I kept bringing different people down to the studio to play with me, but something wasn’t working; you can have great players, but the personality and the character of the recording is what’s most important, and it just wasn’t happening. So, my recording engineer at the time, Henry Hirsh, who is still my engineer to this day, said, ‘I’ve heard you play all of these instruments, and I see you teaching these guys what you want them to play. Why don’t you just play all of the instruments yourself?” But I had a whole “band” thing in my head, and I said, “But I want to play with other people, man!” He said that he thought it would have more character if I played everything myself. So I took his advice.
I think that’s what makes it unique with certain players, like when you listen to Stevie Wonder playing the drums: there’s so much character there, and he’s actually one of my favorite drummers. Oftentimes when a certain player plays something, it has more feeling than when someone else plays it. You could have a so-called “better” drummer, someone with all of the chops, but his “two” and “four,” or the way he plays his fills, just doesn’t feel right.
GW Playing rhythm guitar is a craft that many guitar players seem to neglect, but it’s a big part of your approach to the instrument.
KRAVITZ When I was coming up in junior high and high school, there were these guys that could play all of the licks, and everyone was trying to play as fast as they could. I was always the guy that couldn’t play as fast or as much as the other guys, but I had feel. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but it turned into something.
Most of it is just simple stuff, really. For me, it’s all about the groove. I grew up listening to soul music and funk, artists like James Brown and Earth, Wind and Fire, where it’s all about locking into a groove and staying there. Plus, there’s always an element of funk in my rock and roll. So if it’s a simple lick, which a lot of my songs are built around, it’s about where you “lay” it that’ll make it sound thick.
GW Can you give us an example?
KRAVITZ Sure. If it’s a simple funk rhythm part like this [FIGURE 1], where the chords are not played, then where the scratch is and all of the in-between stuff is what’s really important. You could have a guy that can play up and down the neck all day long, but playing a rhythm part consistently for four minutes without stopping is another story. It’s always amazing to me when I see players that can play a lot of stuff, but they obviously haven’t concentrated on how to groove. It could be one chord; that’s the beauty of James Brown. You’ve got Bootsy Collins on bass and all of these great musicians in the band, and the lines are incredibly simple.
Bootsy might be playing something like this [FIGURE 2], which could be the entire line, and the rhythm guitar part [FIGURE 1] locks in with the bass. The bass and guitar would hold down that groove for the duration of the song, with the exception of the bridge. For a rhythm section to play that repetitively and in-the-pocket and not budge— there’s a lot of power in that.
GW How do you play that “scratch” sound on that part?
KRAVITZ I approach every instrument as a percussion instrument, so the guitar is just like another drum to me—something to bang on. To get the “chicken scratch” sound, I mute the strings with my fretting hand by lightening the finger pressure against them so that the strings are no longer touching the frets, and strum the strings, moving the pick from the lower to the higher strings depending on the timbre of the sound I want to hear. I don’t think about it at all; I just feel rhythm. The chord doesn’t even matter; the feel and rhythm of the strumming is much more important. It’s all in the right [pick] hand.
GW What would you advise guitarists to do to get a handle on this aspect of rhythm playing?
KRAVITZ To get your rhythm together, start with the James Brown records and listen to those guitar players. Listen to Sly and the Family Stone and Earth, Wind and Fire. The guitarists on those records all have amazing rhythm chops and understand that the purpose of the guitar is to fit right into the music, and that’s what makes the band sound superfunky.
GW Can you talk a little about the importance of being a good rhythm player?
KRAVITZ Playing music is all about feel, and when you idolize people like Jimi Hendrix, you realize that he really is a soul player and a funk player. I don’t think he gets the credit for his “soul-ness.” People are always pointing to the rock element, psychedelic this-and-that, but when you listen to a tune like “Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland),” that’s a gospel-like, Curtis Mayfield–inspired kind of thing, done with so much passion and so much soul. The bulk of Jimi’s rhythm playing is that concept. He goes off on top of it and plays the most amazing solos you ever heard, but he’s a funky player.
GW Rhythm guitar is a hard thing to study because it requires a great amount of patience. Most guitarists would rather solo all day long.
KRAVITZ You can teach someone a lot of technique and all of the chords, but good rhythm playing is a very hard thing to teach
to someone. Either you have rhythm or you don’t. There are degrees to which one can improve, but it’s a very instinctive thing.
GW Was Curtis Mayfield an influence for your rhythm guitar playing and your writing style?
KRAVITZ Definitely. Curtis played really strangely, but it was incredible, and no one sounded like him. He also tuned his guitar
in a weird way; I don’t remember what it was. I used to go see him perform and sit in the front of the stage and watch him play.
I remember thinking, What the hell is he doing? He’s playing shapes I’ve never seen!
Curtis strummed with his thumb a lot, and there’s nothing like the thumb to soften the sound and give it a more intimate feel. I never learned how to fingerpick, so I just do it but feel. I don’t know if I’m doing it properly or not, but it gets the job done.
GW There’s a song on your new album, “This Moment Is All There Is,” that has a bit of the Curtis vibe.
KRAVITZ It’s a very Curtis-y kind of thing that starts with an Am to Emaj7 change, followed by Fs to Fsm, and then back to Am-
Emaj7, kind of like this [FIGURE 3]. It’s slow and soulful, and I embellish the chords by using the pinkie to sound higher notes and
melodic figures, such as the high B note on the Am chord, which is the chord’s ninth. While holding the Emaj7 chord, I like to do
tremolo-like volume swells with the volume control [quickly turn the volume control up and down repeatedly].
GW It’s also interesting how you built the arrangement with overdubbed guitar parts.
KRAVITZ Once I had the main part down, I added a sliding octave figure similar to this [FIGURE 4]. It’s mixed in pretty quietly and creates a little more color. There’s also a harpsichord overdub that plays the same notes as the octaves, which gives that part a
GW The album’s opening track, “A Love Revolution,” has a heavy four-on-the-floor [accentuated quarter notes] feel.
KRAVITZ That song is really all about the bass line, and the guitar is just there to embellish the bass. The rhythm part is really simple. [FIGURE 5]
GW How do you envision and construct the arrangements for your songs?
KRAVITZ I first hear it in my head. Sometimes I write on the guitar, and sometimes I wake up with something in my head and go
to the instrument to find what it is I’m hearing. Every now and then it’ll come from just picking up a guitar, which is what happened
with “Fly Away." That song ended up becoming a major hit for me; the album was done and I happened to be in the studio trying out an amp, a Park head, that someone brought in for me to check out. I set it up, grabbed a guitar that was in the studio, and, as you know, some guitars are just juicy in certain places on the neck, depending on the instrument. You find that spot where the chord really jumps out. I started to play, and the guitar led me to those barre chords, and that was that. I was listening to the way different chords were ringing, just moving between A, C, G and D, and the next thing I knew I was telling the engineer to hook up the mics and record.
GW There are so many different influences in your music, from rock and pop to R&B and funk.
KRAVITZ I just love music, and, to me, it all goes together. I’ve never been the kind of artist that sticks to one sound. A lot of records have the exact same sounds, atmosphere and concepts throughout. I’ll go from A to Z from one track to the next. That’s because when I write a song, I’m not thinking about an overall style; I’m thinking about the song, and the style and sound have to complement the mood I’m trying to convey.
I’m basically a kid that grew up with a lot of records, and I fell in love with so many artists and styles. It’s all in me, and I just bring it all together and mush it up, man! [laughs] The key is to listen. A lot of artists from the Sixties and Seventies had so much personality, so much color, and used the guitar in a very creative way. They didn’t just bang on it, or see how loud they could get it or see how many tracks they could layer. Putting a track together is like sculpture, or like landscaping, like, “Where can I sprinkle the guitar?” “Where will this ringing chord bring out a feeling?” The great records of the Sixties are far more subtle—even if it was hard music—and expressive, than much of the stuff that’s out there today. The key for a guitar player is to listen, think and ask yourself, How can I complement this track, and not just take it over?
The bottom line is the vocal. The guitar might be amazing, but even with virtuosos like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, the vocal was always right there in the middle, and the guitars were all around it, making the track even more incredible.
GW What’s the most important aspect of making records and recording new music?
KRAVITZ When it comes to production, I think character is what really matters, and it’s something that I find is missing from so many records today. When listening to people like the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin or R&B/Motown records, you can hear the tone of the bass—you can hear the guy’s fingers—and this guy’s bass didn’t sound like that guy’s bass.
Today, on most records, because everything is so producer and technology driven, you can listen to 20 different rock records and you’ll hear the exact same snare drum sound, because they are all using the same trigger from some sound sample that’s the “hip” trigger to use right now. It all ends up sounding the same, and I don’t hear any personality. That’s what I feel is missing, and it’s the most important thing for me in terms of my own records. It’s my personality, my fingers, my gear.
People will come into my studio and hear a guitar part and say, “What’s that effect you’re using? That’s really dope!” I’ll say, “It’s a guitar plugged straight into a Fender Deluxe. That’s it.” We’re so into processing these days, and I feel it takes away from the player’s character. That’s the most important thing for me, so that’s why I use the gear I use. People may refer to what I do as a “throwback” to the Sixties and Seventies, but there’s nothing retro about it. I use the gear because it brings out the wholeness of the sound and therefore gives me the opportunity to have character in my sound.
If you listen closely to rock records by Zeppelin, Hendrix, AC/DC and especially the Who, the guitar sounds are a lot cleaner than you think they are. You’ll see guys turning the distortion all the way up on their amplifiers, to where there’s no tone anymore. But when you put on the Who and hear those big“stadium”-sized guitar chords, you realize that they are clean and small. By the time you put it though the [mixing] board and put the Fairchild compressor on it, and EQ it a little, it sounds like you’re in Madison Square Garden. But it’s clean, so the tone is rich.
Today, many people will overdub the rhythm part so many times in an effort to make it bigger sounding, and it actually gets smaller and smaller…as opposed to recording just one or two parts that are cleaner and whole-sounding, which makes that track become bigger in the stereo image.