An interview with Laurence Juber, October 16, 2006

by Patrick Ragains

Laurence Juber is one of the most popular acoustic fingerstyle guitarists performing today. He has released 12 solo CDs since the early 1990s, and shared in a Grammy award for Solid Air Records' Pink Guitar anthology. Yet many people have heard Juber playing without realizing it. He was lead guitarist in Paul McCartney's Wings from 1978 until 1981, during which time McCartney brought increasingly diverse elements into the band's approach in tunes such as "Good Night Tonight" and "Coming Up." After moving to Los Angeles in the 1980s, Juber supplied music for the entire run of Tim Allen's television comedy, "Home Improvement". Juber's solo recordings have been an outlet for his own strong compositions as well as Christmas music, two collections devoted to the Beatles and Wings catalogs, and rock/pop standards such as "My Girl" and "Little Wing." He has maintained a busy performing schedule, playing medium-sized theaters, coffeehouses and guitar festivals, often pairing these dates with guitar workshops.

In his workshops, teaching materials (available from Homespun Tapes, Warner Bros. and Solid Air Records) and in this interview, Laurence Juber stresses the importance for guitarists of being able to understand music theory and analyze musically what one is playing. Yet he is keenly aware that music must be entertaining in order to gain an audience. He has had an exceptionally broad range of musical experience, playing in dance bands while in his early teens, incorporating influences from players ranging from Eric Clapton to John Renbourn to Howard Roberts, studying music at London University, moving on to studio work and his associations with Wings and Al Stewart. Consequently, Juber's recorded work has a unique breadth and wide appeal. His latest CD, I've Got the World on Six Strings: LJ Plays Harold Arlen, reveals a musician in complete mastery of a significant part of the Great American Songbook, picking tunes like "If I Only Had A Brain," "Over the Rainbow," "Stormy Weather," and "Come Rain or Come Shine," making them his own and bringing them to a new audience. Below, LJ talks about his life in music and the joys of playing songs from Harold Arlen's catalog.

PR: Today I'm talking with Laurence Juber about his music and his new CD "I've Got the World on Six Strings: LJ Plays Harold Arlen." Laurence, listening to the CD, it seems like you're having a great time playing the music.

LJ: Oh, yeah.

PR: How did you go about arranging the tunes?

LJ: The same way I go about arranging any of the stuff that I do, just really to start digging around and try to find the right voice on the guitar for that particular composition. Of course, I'll always start with the melody and basically figure whether it's going to work in standard tuning or DADGAD or CGDDAD, which are the three tunings that I commonly use. Then I'll make sure I've got at least an approximation of the composer's intent, with the melody, and then start figuring out the harmonies and the bass lines and, in doing so, just finding those kinds of cool guitaristic places to put stuff like that. Then it just kind of evolves. Once I get a sense of it as a complete song, then I know that I'm on the right track.

PR: Did you use any particular performances or recordings of other artists as a reference?

LJ: I went through a fairly large collection of the classic recordings of Arlen's songs. And whether it was, for example, on "Over the Rainbow," like in the Judy Garland version from The Wizard of Oz, but also some other iconic versions, like Eva Cassidy's version was an interesting reference, even though, when I listened to her version, I realized she never actually sings the melody. Even though she gave an incredible, emotional performance of it, it's kind of a meditation. Another example would be "I've Got the World on a String." An obvious source for that would be Frank Sinatra's version with Nelson Riddle. But I also compared that with Bing Crosby's version from the early Thirties, and I actually like the Crosby version better. I'm something of a fan of early Bing Crosby - there's that late Twenties-early Thirties kind of pop, ragtime and jazz style that fingerstyle guitar players actually draw on quite a bit, sometimes without realizing it. And I found the Crosby version closer to the spirit of the song. However, the feel on mine is different. I wanted to go a little more ragtime than Crosby did. But I kind of used these arrangements for inspiration. But there's nothing on here that would be an exact re-creation of anything, unlike what I did for "Pink Panther." The exercise was really to re-create the Mancini arrangement on the guitar. There's no re-creation like that on here (I've Got the World on Six Strings). It had more to do with being inspired by the songs themselves, by the lyrics, by the possibilities of working within those types of stylistic criteria, working with show tunes and movie tunes from the Thirties, Forties and Fifties. But there was another inspiration, too, with "The Man That Got Away." Just by coincidence, when I started work on the arrangement I was doing a show up in Monterey, California, and my hotel was directly across the street from their local movie house. When I was there they had a showing of "A Star is Born" on a restored print - of the original Judy Garland one, not the remake. And that song, "The Man That Got Away," is kind of a motif that goes all the way through the movie, and the movie includes a real stellar performance by Judy Garland of that. And that was a source of inspiration, but in the process of doing the arrangement for that, I had been toying with really trying to re-create the Judy Garland version of it. And then, Hope, my wife - who co-produced the record with me, and she likes to give me kind of cross-fertilization exercises sometimes - she said, "What would happen if you did it like 'Smoke on the Water?'", which I thought was kind of a curious song, 'til I started, I realized the opening rhythm of that , see, (sings) da-daa, daa-da-da, is actually like "Smoke on the Water," sort of that kind of rhythm. But then, when I started fooling with it, it just flowed out as bossa nova. And because the changes of that are all kind of 13ths and 9ths with augmented 5ths, it actually, harmonically, fit very nicely into that. But then one that I had kind of a little grander vision for, was "Paper Moon," because I could see that as a tip of the hat, almost to kind of a Les Paul approach. So, it starts off with kind of a moving bass line and fairly straight feel and then moves into an uptempo section where I'm not fingerpicking, I'm doing just pretty much all thumb strokes, in a rhythm style, and then with kind of a little bit of Chet-consciousness, which is unusual for me, because my benchmarks in fingerstyle guitar, when I was really getting started, tended to be more of the English folk-baroque and the English folk picking, the Donovan, Beatles' White Album, early Dylan, early Paul Simon kind of stuff. You know, I come from the "Angie" school of fingerpicking, rather than the Chet school. But, over the years I gained a deep appreciation for that kind of thumbpicking style, so there's elements of that that'll creep into what I do. And I was really looking to have at least one kind of big showpiece, something where I could allow myself to be maybe a little flashier than what I normally go for. But my goal is always to be in the service of the song, so I can try to dig deep into the guitaristic dimensions, finding ways of fingering things, to give the guitar its maximum resonance and allow me to kind of get some depth out of the fingering. Just a quick example would be the opening of "I've Got the World on a String," which is the opening of the album, it's an A, a D and an F# (sings the notes). So the way I finger it in DADGAD is the open second string, the open first string and then the F# is at the 11th fret on the third string. So I've got the melody spread out over three strings, rather than just playing it sequentially, because that way I can let everything ring, in order to set up the momentum of the arrangement, where it actually goes the other way, where it tends to become more staccato once the bass line comes in. So I'm always looking for those kinds of dynamics in the arranging process.

PR: And that's one of the advantages of the altered tunings, correct?

LJ: It is an advantage of altered tunings, but you know, it's not exclusive to DADGAD. You can do stuff like that in standard tuning. You know, the Nashville guitar whiz crowd do that stuff very well in standard tuning. But what I appreciate about it on acoustic guitar is the fact that you get so much more resonance out of the instrument. It doesn't work quite the same way on an electric guitar.

PR: On some of the tunes, like "Paper Moon," you take a lot of liberties with the tempos and even some reharmonizing. Did you feel more free to do that with the Harold Arlen tunes than perhaps with the Beatles and McCartney tunes you've arranged for solo guitar?

LJ: Well, you know, it's jazz, man. Not that this is a jazz album, even though there are enough adult chords on it to qualify - it does give me a greater license and, my license is current for reharmonization. But on the Beatles stuff, it doesn't lend itself to doing that, because there's an iconic quality to the Beatles' songs, so, unless you're going in a jazz direction - and I did it, for example, on "Can't Buy Me Love," on LJ Plays the Beatles. I took some liberties with that one and went jazzy. But that was kind of like a closer for the album. I wouldn't do that with a "Strawberry Fields Forever" or an "I Saw Her Standing There," because for me, the kinds of liberties I'm taking with those arrangements involve being fast and loose with what would be conventional on an acoustic guitar arrangement, by using DADGAD, for example, and by using less common keys. With "Come Rain or Come Shine," there's a certain looseness about that. I didn't adhere exactly to the original harmonies. Part of that was just due to the fact that, after I got 'round to rechecking everything and I revised the arrangement of that and rerecorded it, it never felt the same as the kind of spontaneity of the one that I'd recorded as a demo for myself. That went on the record as it was and that's in DADGAD in F, which is a very cool key, because it gives you some very nice textures. And that's a particularly fine tune that has some unusual changes in and of itself. It starts out in F but then goes to F minor. So I found myself playing a Bb minor chord in DADGAD, which is not what you would immediately think to do, but it all worked. Like when you play an F minor 6th chord on the top four strings, your open D on top is the minor 6th, which gives it a particular kind of quality. Plus, if you finger it, third fret, fourth string; first fret, third string; third fret, second string; and then the top string open, you get an F, an Ab, a C and a D, which is an F minor 6th chord with a fifth in it, too, which is a really nice sound, because you get the C and D next to each other. But that tune, as it evolves, actually goes into some fairly advanced cycle of fifths stuff, because it jumps from an F - all of a sudden, you're on a B7 chord, and then an E, then and A, then D, G, C, and then instead of going back to F, you go to D minor - one of those little harmonic tricks. And I love that, I love the fact that this album was kind of a great big study in cycle of fifths progressions. Because so many show tunes of this era are written - not all of them are from Broadway shows - but the cycle of fifths harmonic progressions are really fundamental, as opposed to the Beatles, who don't always use those kinds of progressions. There was kind of a sea change in harmonies in the Sixties that went from this kind of forward momentum, cycle of fifths approach to, sometimes even a cycle of fifths in reverse kind of thing. You know, you go from an A minor to an E minor in a John Lennon kind of fashion, it would give you a completely different harmonic experience - much more modal than going around on the cycle of fifths. So there was that whole dimension to it, of just the mechanics of it all. And the beauty of Harold Arlen, the thing that really motivates me in the first place, is the fact that within that, there's this incredible, bittersweet blues streak. And what you end up getting - and every tune on this album is in a major key - what you get is a very bluesy quality, because all the upper stuff is, like flattened ninths and augmented fifths, and it's almost like major on top of minor. And that, harmonically, was a really cool area to explore. Whereas, like with my previous album, One Wing, which was all Wings tunes, everything was also in a major key. there were sections in some of the tunes, like, in "Another Day," there's a section in E minor, but everything in a major key. But only on rare occasions would you get the upper partials really being fundamental to the harmony, like on "Arrow Through Me," which is about as close as Paul (McCartney) would get to a Duke Ellington tune, in terms of his harmonic approach. But even then, you're really not dealing with those kind of minor-sounding flat ninths, and like a flat nine/augmented fifth or a thirteen/flat nine. Again, it's another dimension. It's not only harmonic, but also emotional, because, there, you start to feel blue, even though the underlying progression has this forward cycle of fifths, fundamentally, if that makes sense. I live in that kind of zone a lot of the time, harmonically. I'm thinking in terms of those things. Which is why I guess my approach to DADGAD is not like the Celtic approach, where you're using it as kind of a modal D tuning. I like to apply all my harmonic knowledge to it.

PR: You've managed to arrange other composers' work for solo guitar - we've been talking about that. It's always in a way that allows you to be identifiable. Your own voice comes through as a musician.

LJ: Thank you.

PR: Can you give any advice to guitarists who want to do that?

LJ: I can only talk from my own path. When I was 13 I was playing dance band, wedding-type gigs, where I was on a bandstand, really learning how to stretch my ear around...whether it was "Days of Wine and Roses" or "Girl From Ipanema" or whatever, but stuff that required understanding of harmony. And it wasn't like I had this kind of innate gift of just being able to immediately recognize what a harmony was. That's all learned, it's an acquired skill. In college I had some pretty extensive ear-training and over the years I've always tried to keep my ears on a very analytical level, so that when I'm listening to things I can have an understanding of what's going on. I tend to recommend to people that, at the very least, they study music theory and really learn how to listen to music, so they can be analytical and figure it out. Some people, it comes very naturally to. I've encountered non-musicians who could sing a tune and, on each step of the melody, be able to sing the harmony to it, without ever having studied. For some people it's a natural thing, but, in the real world, these are things that you need to learn. But what tends to happen, I think, with fingerstyle guitar players of our generation, is that they have a lot of musical experience, but not necessarily the kind of depth of being there - informed and analytical about what's going on harmonically. It's very important to sit down with the melody and the chords and really start to pay attention to those elements. It's not rocket science, it's just the kind of thing you need to do. When I was first getting into all this stuff, there was a book called the Real Book, which was sort of the ultimate fake book. In those days it was illegal, you had to hide it, (laughs) you couldn't put it out, you couldn't show it around. But now you can actually buy it, because they got all the copyrights straight. And that's worth getting. To get the Real Book - it's full of standards, with melody and chords. You can sit down and say, "here's 'All the Things You Are,' and here's the melody," and you start picking it out. The way to do it, I think, is to start with the melody and play the bass line. If nothing else, just play the melody and play the root note of each chord and then see how that falls under the fingers and, with any luck, you can start to find things that are kind of guitaristically pleasing, where something lays out in a way under the fingers that "Oh, wait a minute, there's an open string on that - that's great." The fact is, I do this for a living and I've been doing it for a living for 43 years in a variety of circumstances that most acoustic guitar players will never have - that kind of opportunity. So, I guess I've become a little bit of a channel for that kind of experience. When I'm doing workshops and when I'm doing videos, I really try and communicate as much as I can of this. But ultimately, it's something that players kind of need to develop.

PR: Laurence, how much of your work as a musician is devoted to your solo playing, versus session work, scoring and producing instructional materials?

LJ: Over the last couple of years, about 90 percent. Because nationally, the studio work has diminished to the point that, where, many guitar players may have looked at it as a career path, they can no longer do so. Now, that gets counterbalanced by the fact that the technology has evolved so that you can make records at home, in a home studio. Sometimes my idea of a session is somebody emailing me an mp3 and me emailing back a guitar solo or a guitar part for an arrangement. And I still work on a TV show called Seventh Heaven, which, after getting cancelled after 10 years, got picked up again for an 11th season. I've found an increase in the amount of record studio work that I do, which is great fun, because I still really enjoy playing the electric guitar and playing a variety of instruments. I have this wonderful Martin Signature Model, but a few weeks ago I was in the studio working on a project with a singer where the most appropriate instrument was an archtop, so that's what I played there, for a period of time. And that has its value to me, because as a guitar orchestrator, as it were, I love being able to work with different sonorities. On an electric guitar, just changing the amplifier can make an enormous difference in how the sound works with other instruments. That's all part of what keeps the vitality going. It feeds into my solo work, because I can be doing something on electric guitar and then come back to acoustic and say, "Hey, wait a minute, I can get that sound by picking in a certain kind of way, or playing this certain thing, and it would be great for this arrangement that I'm working on." All that has its value. But these last few years I've been doing a lot of traveling, trying to get out and do as many concerts as I can. Once I get back from England in mid-November, I'm having a little bit of a breather, because I've got the urge to start doing some more writing. There are a few pieces that I'm working on. But, Beatle arrangements keep creeping up on me. Sometimes I'll pick up the guitar and start playing a Beatle tune and it's like, "Oh (laughs), where did that come from?" Because it's in my consciousness. But having done two albums of cover tunes, the composer in me wants to be a little more assertive. But I'm not sure that it's strictly solo acoustic guitar. I have plenty of records where I have ensemble stuff going on, too, whether it was the Guitar Noir DVD or my Mosaic and Different Times albums and LJ; those all have ensemble pieces. Some of the pieces translate as solo pieces and some don't. That's fine by me. My repertoire is so extensive now that I can go out and do my concerts and certainly not be in need of material, but there's always a quest for something new and thrilling.

PR: What else do you want to do musically that you haven't already done?

LJ: I still haven't actually done a full-blown concert where I'm playing fingerstyle acoustic guitar with a decent-sized orchestra. I've done it with string quartet-, string sextet-type ensembles, but I would like to do something that's more orchestrated, whether that's a guitar concerto or just having more fully orchestrated versions of some of my compositions. So that's kind of a nice idea. I want to get deeper into the blues aspect of what I do, because that was always a parallel track for me, as well as being a fingerstyle guitar player, or at least motivated to be a fingerstyle guitar player. As a young teenager, I was also, at the same time, being heavily influenced by Clapton and Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck and really kind of a blues- rock-based lead guitar player, which is what led me to Wings. So there's that aspect of my musical self that still seeks a certain amount of fulfillment. Who knows how this stuff manifests itself? It's hard to predict, but, we'll see what comes out!

PR: Has performing the Harold Arlen and Beatles tunes, and tunes like "My Girl" and "Little Wing," broadened your audience?

LJ: It's an interesting thing. There's a lot of guitar players, but there's also just the general public at my shows, and, to be honest, I would say the majority of my audience is not guitar players. Whether that's coming from the Wings/Beatlefan element, or just people, the people that come to shows. My audience has just been growing steadily, I think, because I've been out there working on it and just building that audience. And what I do, I really don't do for guitar players, I really do it to just please music lovers. The fact that there's anything in there that is attractive to the guitar playing crowd is there because that gets me excited, because, you know, I'm a guitar geezer, too. So, I don't necessarily do things just to please specific people, other than Hope, my wife, who has to listen to this stuff day in and day out, which is why she ended up becoming my producer, because she knows what I'm going for even when I don't know what I'm going for. Her sensibility is a pop sensibility. She'll really push me into being imaginative and being emotional, and not doing guitaristic things just for the sake of it, and that makes, I think, a big difference, because it gives me an objective point of view about that stuff. It's very easy to just get sucked into the guitaristic aspect of it. What audiences respond to is the emotion and Hope's there to make sure that I really stay real with it and not just turn it into some kind of guitaristic exercise. So, I really appreciate what she brings to the big picture. Because she has a theatrical and a writing background, she really helps me when it comes to the imaginative side of it, in terms of when you're recording a performance, it doesn't necessarily mean just getting all the notes in the right place. Because, very often, what makes a note in the right place has nothing to do with any musical criteria, it has to do with what's being expressed. It's about expressing a feeling, and that feeling is what people are ultimately listening to. It's amazing when you go back and start listening to details on records, how things that you assume are one thing aren't necessarily that thing at all, but they feel a certain way, so you accept them. And if you changed them and made them perhaps more accurate, they wouldn't necessarily feel the same. That's an important factor, and when I'm out there, in front of an audience that is maybe 75 percent non-guitar players, I want to make sure that I'm leaving them with a good feeling and experience. Hopefully, that helps grow the audience in and of itself, because the guitar crowd is a limited crowd, although that has been growing, too. We're really in something of a golden age, as far as the acoustic guitar, with the instruments that are being made and the materials that are available. I wish, when I was a kid, that we'd had this kind of stuff.

PR: Right. The amount of instructional material has just exploded.

LJ: Yes, it has, and that's a great thing. I'm very happy about that, because I can be the beneficiary, because there's a market for what I do. And Solid Air Records has really been just wonderful, in helping to keep me in touch with them. James Jensen has really had kind of a mission for himself, and that has worked great.

PR: Laurence, that about wraps it up. Thank you!

© 2006 Patrick Ragains

Here's a partial discography for Laurence Juber:

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