- - Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Jazz great Lee Ritenour is the definition of a jazz great. But in his early days he was known as an ace sessions player behind everyone from The Mamas and the Papas to Pink Floyd before striking out on his own. His 1976 album, “First Course,” helped define the genre of jazz funk he has come to be known for around the world.

At 65 Mr. Ritenour continues to thrill worldwide audiences with his pure, precise playing. At the Yamaha Guitars booth at NAMM, Mr. Ritenour chatted about his favorite guitars and his upcoming new album.

Question: Why are you hear at the NAMM show?

Answer: Supporting my company that I have been with for many, many years, Yamaha. They are also a big sponsor of my guitar foundation, Six String Theory.

Q: What is Six String Theory?

A: It’s a worldwide competition at Sixstringtheory.com. We’re in our fifth year. It started six years ago when I did the “Six String Theory” record in 2010. I wanted one brand-new player from around the world to join all the legends that were on that record. So I started the competition.

It’s evolved to six divisions of guitar: rock, jazz, blues, acoustic, classical and rhythm. Then we added piano, bass and drums the last couple of years. We had players from 170 different countries visit the site and had musicians from 45 countries sign up.

Q: Then do you bring everyone together?

A: Yes. Berklee College of Music gives away four grand-prize scholarships. The winners all went with me to play at the Tokyo Blue Note. We also did a recording session at a beautiful studio in Malibu. There is a lot of mentoring by me.

Q: What do you say to a young person who wants to play guitar?

A: Obviously, you have to be committed 100 percent. You can’t have a day job or into something else if you want to be a professional guitarist.

If you just want to pick it up for a hobby, that’s the most beautiful thing. I always recommend study with a teacher at a university whenever possible to supplement all the stuff you can learn online these days.

Q: Why do you play Yamaha guitars?

A: They came to me on one of my early tours in Japan in 1974. They brought me a beautiful handmade classical guitar. That guitar was with me for about 40 years. These days it’s been replaced by another amazing Yamaha classical guitar.

I play their guitars because I love what they do. We’ve never had a contract. The silent guitars are special.

Q: When did you start playing guitar? And why guitar?

A: I was 8 years old. It was the mid-‘60s. The guitar was huge in America. It was taking off. All over TV. Rock was coming. Soon there would be [Jimi] Hendrix and [Eric] Clapton.

In every field there was an amazing guitarist. The blues had B.B. King and John Lee Hooker at their prime. In rock you had Clapton and Hendrix [and] Jeff Beck. Country was Chet Atkins. Classical was Segovia. Acoustic guitar had the folk movement.

Guitar was everywhere.

Q: Rock inspired you, but why did you choose jazz as your style?

A: My dad and mom were very supportive from the beginning. They loved music. My dad was an amateur piano player. Probably could have been a pro. There was jazz in the house all the time.

When I was 12 years old he took me up to the music store and we bought three records. One was Wes Montgomery, one was Joe Pass and one was Howard Roberts. All big heroes of mine. I studied with Howard [and] Joe. And in the ‘90s I did a record called “Wesbound” dedicated to Wes Montgomery.

The depth of jazz has remained with me my whole life. I played a lot of different types of music. Most people probably call me a jazz player, but even when I was a studio player, I was a chameleon. I play anything. I love the power and intensity of the rock mixed in with the sophistication of the jazz.

Q: What is the state of jazz today?

A: It has never been a big market. It’s a very small market compared to the other popular music out there. But globally, jazz is America’s biggest export. 

I travel around the world constantly. I did 200 shows this last year, and 150 of them were out of the country.

Q: I know you play in Japan a lot. Why do the Japanese love jazz so much?

A: This is going to be a weird answer, but a lot of jazz being popular around the world had to do with Armed Forces Radio. When the troops occupied Japan in 1945 after the war, they were bringing the big bands. They were playing radio all over the place. And the Japanese really got an education.

By the time the ‘70s came along and people like me were coming to play there, they just fell in love with it. What’s great about the Japanese audiences is that if you stay true to them and keep making good music, then they stay true to you. My fans that were 20 years old when I was 20 are still with me today.

Q: Are you working on new music?

A: I’m actually getting ready to probably fire up. I’m overdue. I’ve got 45 albums out, but I’ve never done a solo album.

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