Guitarist and bandleader Charlie Baty of Little Charlie & the Nightcats is one of those inspirational figures you stumble across like a $20 bill laying on the sidewalk -- an unexpected find that makes your day. Almost hidden in the semi-anonymous confines of a touring blues band, Baty is a masterful player whose talents easily reach beyond a traditional low-key, 12-bar existence.
While the group that bears his name is primarily blues-based, Baty himself effortlessly jumps musical barriers to incorporate swing, rockabilly, and even surf guitar licks into his playing. Whether teasing jazzy T-Bone Walker riffs out of his Gibson 295 or tearing into a reverb-dripping, Ventures-inspired wipeout on a Fender Strat, Baty is both smooth and fluent.
His band makes its home in Sacramento, California, but tours internationally on the strength of its eight releases. Since their 1987 debut, All the Way Crazy, the Nightcats have laid down a string of winners tempered by steady-rollin electric Chicago blues tunes enlivened by vocalist Rick Estrins sardonic, humorous lyrics. The group also backed John Hammond Jr. on his 1998 Virgin Records release Long as I Have You, a session that marked Hammonds first time in the studio trusting the guitar work to another player.
During a recent swing through Chicago, Baty took time to talk about his musical roots and his favorite guitar stylists. He also gave Guitar.com an incredible video guitar lesson on jazzy chord substitutions, Robert Jr. Lockwood-style chord voicings, stretching out on be-bop licks during blues solos, and all kinds of methods for embellishing simple blues songs.
Guitar.com: Charlie, you didn't start this band as the guitar player. Tell us a brief history of the band.
Charlie Baty: Back in December of 1975 I started a band called Little Charlie and the Nightcats as a harmonica player. I wanted to have basically a tribute band to Little Walter. I did that for a while. We worked about once a month or so. Then I got hooked up with [vocalist and harmonica player] Rick [Estrin]. I'd known Rick for a few years, but then he decided to relocate to Sacramento. And I switched to guitar. Basically this is the only band I've ever played guitar in, Little Charlie and the Nightcats. Rick has been with me the whole time since. Before that we used to just run into each other at concerts down in the Bay area. I've seen him at Muddy Waters or Willie Dixon concerts cause he knew all those guys and he played with them, and he would always get up and sit in. So I made the switch to guitar.
Guitar.com: When did you reach the point where you were self-sufficient?
Baty: We were a territorial band for awhile. Then eventually, in 1986, we got hooked up with Alligator [Records] and I had to quit my day job. And then we started traveling around the world. We've been pretty busy ever since. We've had eight records out; we've done some records with John Hammond and a variety of other people.
Guitar.com: What would you say you're trying to do?
Baty: Basically the band is about playing Chicago blues, and different versions of blues jump blues. Rick Estrin writes most of the songs that we do. We do a few covers, but because we've been around such a long time, I think we're well versed in rockabilly and jazz and swing. We can do blues styles like Howlin Wolf, Sonny Boy, and Little Walter. And we mix it up and we have so many songs to draw from, it keeps us interested in it. And by that I think it makes it more interesting for the fans.
Guitar.com: You started as a harmonica player? Had you been playing guitar at the same time?
Baty: No. Well, I had a guitar that was given to me around the time I was 14 or so, because the harmonica would make the dog bay. So they were trying to get me off the harmonica. But I never really bought that. I had a guitar but I never really played it in a band. I just sort of messed around on it. I liked harmonica playing and I was really into Little Walter. I used to think I was a singer and I would front these bands. Part of it is that its a lot cheaper to be a harmonica player. It's not expensive as buying a Stratocaster. With time I knew enough about guitar that I could make that switch, but I never really thought about doing it. I was more comfortable being a harmonica player. When I first started in this band we had two guitar players, so it wasn't as hard of a thing. But I really learned how to play guitar by being the only guy doing it, because then you've got to play the rhythm and try to make it sound full during your solos. You've got to be able to accompany the harmonica and the vocalist. And this is all within the framework of a four-piece. It's a hard thing to do. I didn't do a very good job of it for four or five years, but eventually I think I learned how to do it.
Guitar.com: Who were some of the artists that inspired you, especially on guitar?
Baty: Well it's hard to say. I think the main guy would be Charlie Christian. I think he's the main influence behind any guitar player. Buddy Guy was a big early influence. Certainly I was influenced by B.B. King, but seeing Buddy Guy in person he just has such a profound emotional effect on me. It just seemed like he really felt every note he was playing. That was one reason why I switched to guitar. But now I listen to a lot of horn players, piano players. One of the things that happens, when you're in the same band for 25 years, you just get a chance to do all this stuff. We play 200 gigs a year; we make a lot of records. It gives us a chance to try different material. I've gone through phases where I was into rockabilly, or lately I've been listening to Charlie Parker a lot. It's pretty tough to get into that and try to find a place for it in what we do. But I do my best.
Guitar.com: How do you fit something like Charlie Parker, or something you're listening to on your own time or even studying into the context of what Little Charlie and the Nightcats do?
Baty: Well theres certain vehicles that we have for solos. One thing that the band has always strived for is to not do the same solo night after night. To have it be like jazz in the sense that it's very improvisational. The arrangements are subject to change, the length of the solos change. For instance, we do a song called "Eyes Like a Cat" thats basically a jump blues tune. I can take ideas from Charlie Parker solos and incorporate them into that very easily.
Guitar.com: Was blues your thing right from the start?
Baty: Yeah. When I was about 13 years old I got a record called The Best of Little Walter and I just really fell in love with the music and wanted to learn how to play it. And I was able to go see the music live in San Francisco being that, in the '60s, they had the Fillmore going on and you didn't have to be 21 to get into bars. You could go to these big concert halls and see the Muddy Waters and the Charlie Musselwhites. So that was what I wanted to do and I was able to play it in high school bands. There was some interest in it. There weren't that many people playing it but I was able to pursue it. And you were able to buy the records still. Chess Records was still in business back in those days. You could go down and buy a record for $2.99 when it came out. But that's all I ever really wanted to do. Then I went to college and was expecting to become a math teacher. But after college I hooked up with Rick and we started this band and it was always something we did on weekends. And then one day I realized this is what I did best, so I started to put all my energy into it.
Guitar.com: So you then played as a working band for quite awhile? A four or five-night-a-week thing?
Baty: Not until we got on Alligator Records. We used to play occasionally three or four times a week, but mostly it was weekends. But we were doing more and more of it, and we'd see bands like Robert Cray and the Fabulous Thunderbirds come through. They were becoming big stars and we thought, "Maybe we can do that too." And so we just decided to give it a shot. But Rick had been a musician since he was 16 or 17. He had played in a lot of the bands with real famous guys: Johnny Young, Muddy Waters. He'd been doing the real deal, making 45s when he was in his early twenties, with J.J. Malone and people like that that I had in my record collection. So he was real motivated to do it; to me it was more of a hobby. But I'm really glad because I've learned way more playing in front of people than I ever would have just sitting the house. There's a whole different feeling of live performance and of settting goals for yourself to play different from night to night.