Laurence Juber - The Fab Fingerstyle of Laurence Juber


I first caught Laurence Juber live at a NAMM show performance a couple years ago in Los Angeles. Though I'm more of an electric enthusiast myself, I walked away amazed at this acoustic masters fingerstyle facility and right/left hand coordination. The guy just tore it up, and I couldn't get his version of the Beatles "I Saw Her Standing There" out of my head for months. Apparently I wasn't the only one affected that way. Juber made the tune the lead-off track on his recent disc, LJ Plays the Beatles.

These days the former Brit makes lush instrumental acoustic albums and tours occasionally between sessions in top-flight Los Angeles recording studios. His playing has graced the theme songs and soundtracks of TV hits including Home Improvement, Seventh Heaven, Boy Meets World, and Roseanne, and movies such as Dirty Dancing, Splash, Pocahontas, and Good Will Hunting. Before becoming one of the studio guild's and the acoustic world's favorite sons, he spent a few years as Paul McCartney's right-hand man, particularly in the late-70s when the former Wing-er, excuse me former Beatle, still did a few rock shows.

Juber recently spoke with about his playing, his session work, and his fondness for a well-written tune. Oh, and while you read this in-depth interview, just try to keep the bass line alternating. How did you decide to cover Beatles tunes for one of your most recent solo excursions?

Laurence Juber: Well, in a sense I didn't. What happened was I had done an arrangement of Rain on a previous album of mine called Mosaic, plus over the years in concert I played "Martha", "My Dear", "Oh! Darling", and "In My Life". I just have some arrangements that I kind of worked out, and I have had a lot of requests after I had done arrangements of "Rain" to do a whole album of Beatles' songs. And I kind of steadfastly refused to do it, mostly because it just seemed like it was going to be a lot of work. My primary motivation is to just be a composer on the guitar. I wasn't really that motivated to spend the time to do something that wasn't my own compositional area. But finally, what really tipped it was when my wife, Hope, said, "You don't have to do it for anybody else, but would you mind doing it for me?" And I said, "Well I'll do it, if you produce it." So, we worked together as a team and that was the result. Has Paul McCartney heard the album?

Juber: I hope so. I sent it to him. I haven't heard from him but generally I don't. I'll find that out when I see him. I think for me what's more important than getting Paul's seal of approval is the fact that all the Beatles' fans seem to like it. And I think that the mission was accomplished there cause I figured that the last thing [anyone needed] was another Beatles album to play, which is why I'm kind of happy to see the people taking to it. But the mission was to just come up with a different voice. So, other than the songs that were already a part of your repertoire, how did you narrow down the rest?

Juber: Well, we had certain criteria. We wanted to have a mixture of early-, middle-, and late-period stuff. We wanted a reasonable balance of Paul, John, and George tunes. And I also wanted to avoid doing anything that was already a fingerstyle guitar piece, so no "Blackbird", no "Julia", and just basically staying away from that. The only exception was "Here Comes the Sun", and that was kind of a romantic thing cause Hope walked down the aisle to that one when we got married. And there was a challenge there anyway because even though it's a fingerpicking part on the original record, the melody wasn't really that worked in or completed. And I put it to DADGAD tuning so it kind of has a different approach.

So, it was a challenge doing some of this stuff. Some of the tunes were kind of there. I thought "Strawberry Fields Forever" would be a cool thing to do, like a sort of study being able to get the melody and the bass line going. That was kind of an interesting challenge. I realized that was one of the real key John Lennon tunes and it took me a while to figure out the right way to do it cause the original record is kind of in the cracks between A and B-flat. I fought with it in standard tuning in A; I didnt really get very far and then I tried it in DADGAD in A. But it wasn't until I moved it up to B-flat in DADGAD that it all made sense. What do you mean by that? How did you do that?

Juber: You know the hook line, the "Strawberry Fields Forever" line? On that line, the E-flat major seventh chord in DADGAD is a very resonant and very simple finger chord. Now, basically what you get is the first fret on the sixth string, the first fret on 4, 3 is open, first fret on the second string, and 1 is open. And that gives you just a nicely voiced E-flat major seventh chord, which is the line. Cause the line goes D, B-flat G, D, G, and to a B-flat chord, but the melody note is a C, B-flat and you can keep both of those ringing. And once I discovered that would work then all the other bits kind of fell into place. So, you tuned it DADGAD, you didn't use a capo or anything?

Juber: No. I never use a capo. The only time I use a capo is in the studio, if it's a synergy as far as if you need to have that high kind of tympani thing cause thats a whole different thing. For my own arranging and for my own compositions, I don't use a capo. It's a silly reason. I don't like to have to rely on something that could get lost. I don't want to not be able to play a piece just because I can't find my capo. For those who haven't messed with open tunings a whole lot, is it correct to assume that when people play in DADGAD, they tend to stick to the keys of D or G?

Juber: Well, traditionally people thought of DADGAD as a D tuning. I don't think of it that way. I just think of it as an alternate standard tuning. I don't think of it as an open tuning. I don't think, Well this is a D flat tune even though its only a half-step away from open D cause if you tuned the third string down to an F-sharp you're in open D. I think that for me, what it is, is it gives me a whole new vocabulary of working around the fingerboard and the fact that youve got three D strings and youve got two A strings, so theres a lot of available octaves for one thing. Another thing is that youve got a G and an A string next to each other, which means that over three or four strings you can play adjacent melody notes in one position. In standard tuning, it would sound completely different so I get these nice ringing, cascading patterns that can come out in DADGAD. Plus, there's also a lot of voicings that you just can't get in standard tuning.

For example, when you play a C9 in standard tuning the basic C9 chord at the third fret you don't get the fifth in the middle of the chord, but in DADGAD you can voice it like that. And what I'm fingering is actually just a cowboy C shape but I get the G, B-flat, and D on top. So you get a whole different kind of synergy in the voicing lots of soft voicings, so it's kind of a different vocabulary. And I tend to, in answer to your original question, even though I do a lot of stuff in D, I also work in A minor. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is in A minor. But in DADGAD tuning?

Juber: Yes, and then F is cool. I do "Yesterday" in the original key of F, in DADGAD. And it lays out in a way that you just couldn't do in standard tuning. In the flat keys, it gets you away from that kind of jazzier, more stock synergies that you get in standard. So, there's a lot of similarities with standard tuning. If you think about it, the top two and the bottom strings are really the same relationship as standard tuning but just tuned down a whole step. And then the strings 5, 4, and 3 are exactly the same as standard tuning. So, there's a lot of similarity. And I've been working with it now for about six or seven years. It's become my altered tuning of choice, but it's not the only one I use. That's what I was gonna ask. So, you do a lot of work in standard?

Juber: I still do a lot of work in standard but increasingly I'll compose primarily in DADGAD or in CGDGAD, which is what I used on the album. I used that for "This Boy" and for "You Wont See Me" because that tuning works well in C or G. You get the low C, when you're in open C. And then in open G, when you go to the IV chord, you get the low C. So, that's kind of an interesting tuning. You can get some really pianistic kind of voicings. What are the songs on this album that you played in standard tuning?

Juber: "Martha, My Dear", "In My Life," "Can't Buy Me Love," Im trying to think if there's anything else but it says so on the label. "Martha, My Dear" even there I'm in E-flat cause that's the original piano piece. And it just happened in the arranging process that there are a couple of chords in the bridge section where it goes from an A to a D that in E-flat, you get the open bass notes. Even though the rest of it is up kind of real high, like the top strings are up to the seventeenth fret, it still has open bass notes. So E-flat kind of worked out interestingly because even though there's some pretty big stretches in it, it allowed me to be pretty much true to the original piano part. That's mostly kind of a direct transcription. Whereas "In My Life," the original is in A but we do it in D because it just suits the mood. The key of A tends to sound a bit darker, blues-ier, and I don't really want to go in that direction. Whereas "Can't Buy Me Love" kind of came out as kind of a jam in E. Can you give us a rundown of your thoughts on the mood of certain tunings, or is it not delineated that way?

Juber: It's really not delineated that way. I'll find places where the synergy is right and that could be in standard tuning or it could be in whatever key happens to be appropriate. I'll tend to start with the original key. But for example, "I Saw Her Standing There" in E, in standard tuning, didn't let me do all the things I wanted to do. So I dropped it down to D in DADGAD and it all kind of flowed. Sometimes with a solo acoustic guitar you have to find the place where it just fits right. And when it fits right, then it makes it easier to kind of focus on some images. But I couldn't say that there are specific keys.

There are things, like for example, open G minor tuning, that I didn't use on this album but I've used on previous records. It's kind of a dark-age kind of tuning. It's a lot darker, you know open G is like a half step difference. Its' just D, G, D, G, B-flat, D thats the open G minor. And then if you move that B-flat up to a B, you get your more familiar open G tuning, like a Keith Richards tuning. And G minor has kind of a dark moodiness to it that is completely different from the G major, which is generally a lot brighter.

But what I find with DADGAD is that you can take it a lot of different ways. And A minor in DADGAD has this kind of cool blues-rock thing that worked so nicely for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." And D can be pretty. But it varies from tune to tune, it's hard to specify. I think for me the choice of altered tuning has more to do with synergy and resonance and whether it just feels right. You know a lot of it is a question of feel its hard to intellectualize. Can you remember the first time you used an altered tuning any particular tuning? How long does it generally take for you to begin to feel comfortable with a new tuning?

Juber: Well, what happened was after I'd done my second album, Naked Guitar which was all standard tuning I kind of got to a point where I was looking for an inspiration. And a number of people had suggested to me that I might want to consider doing some stuff in altered tunings. And the only one that I really felt any affinity with in the past, as a kid, I kind of messed around with DADGAD a little bit. I never really got far. So, I said well, let me try DADGAD and see where it takes me.

But I distinctly remember because I was sitting in a hotel room, in Portland, Oregon, and I tuned to DADGAD and just started fooling around and all of a sudden it just kind of hit me, it made sense. And then by applying my musicianship to it rather than getting confused with the geometry, I just thought, Well here I am: Im in the key of D. Wheres my fifth? Where are my important notes? And then I just really started to look at it from that point of view. And I wrote a piece very quickly, a tune I call Bobs Your Uncle, which is kind of a joke because it's an old English expression that refers to when something happens instantly, and it was kind of like this epiphany where it all kind of made sense to me. And what made it make sense was applying just basic musicality to it.

So, rather than worrying about boxes, and shapes, and all that kind of geometrical stuff, I said, Well, you know where I is. Where's IV? Where's V? And, oh yeah, there's all these octaves I can play with. And I started kind of discovering licks. So, for me the process of composing in an altered tuning really is a process of discovery. It's kind of finding cool things to do there. So, there's this constant kind of exploration going on but the actual, initial learning happened very quickly. And from there I just thought, Well, let me see what happens if I try some of these other tunings. And I did on my LJ album, which was my first kind of altered tuning record. I did a couple of things in G minor tunings. One of my concert pieces, Rules of the Road, is a G minor kind of a jazz piece. I was really quite nervous in getting involved in altered tunings because I thought it was just more option anxiety, but in fact it just opened up a lot of new avenues for me. And with your fingerstyle work, is that something you've been doing since you were young?

Juber: On and off. I started quite early on, probably about 13. I was a fan of Bert Jansch, and John Renbourn, Davy Graham, and subsequently kind of got into Stefan Grossman from the ragtime. While I was doing that, I was also studying classical because in order to continue with music theory in school, in England, I needed to maintain a level of classical technique. I always liked playing with the fingers but my career kind of took me mostly as a studio player and then subsequently playing in Wings it really took me in the direction of being a rock n roll lead guitar player. But in the back of my mind there was always this dream to one day have the time to really develop my solo fingerstyle. And after Wings, during the '80s, I just started composing. We had young kids so I wasn't doing very much traveling. And then I was offered a record deal, at the end of the '80s. I pretty much locked myself away for three months with a DAT recorder and some decent mikes. And I then cut off my fingernails and started to develop a sound that I actually felt comfortable with. And it was just steel strings and fingers. It kind of developed from there; people seemed to like what I was doing so I kept doing it. The deal that you were offered was to do a solo, acoustic thing?

Juber: A solo, acoustic one. I did a record called Solo Flight, it was originally released in 1990, on Chameleon Records. And I got some airplay with it and people started booking me for concerts and I started doing clinics, too. I got involved, at that point, with Taylor guitars when they were just starting to make an entrance. I did clinics for them. And it just kind of kept going, I kept making records. And then about '94 was when I discovered DADGAD. So, your finger style work has gone back a long ways. I don't suppose you particularly have to practice any of those moves at this point?

Juber: I practice all the time. You cant take any of this stuff for granted. My practice is also a compositional process or an arranging process. When I'm practicing I have a routine that I go through. I'll just have a series of new pieces that I'm developing new arrangements and I'll spend 20-30 minutes on each one. I could be doing four or five hours a day. If I'm in the studio doing any studio work for other people or on the road, it tends to kind of reduce the amount of time that I'll spend practicing. But I also find it kind of inspiring to get away from it, on occasion, and then come back to it. Ill find that a lot of ideas will kind of coalesce mentally. I do a lot of mental practice, too. But its only recently that I really felt that my technique has developed to the point where I can kind of control it. A lot of what I've done over the years has really been to kind of just develop tone and to continue to develop techniques, and there's always new things that Im working on. So, I don't see it as, OK, I've done that kind of thing, now all I have to do is once in a while remind myself. It's an ongoing process. So, you do work on technique, as well then? It's not just compositional type things that keep you busy?

Juber: No. The technique, and the composing, and all this stuff its all part of the same process. Sometimes I have an idea for a piece but I might need to develop some technique in order to be able to get it started. So, I'll do exercises by myself. Last year, I did an album called Altered Reality that Narada Records put out. They actually asked me to do it very quickly, I only had about six weeks to make the record. I had a lot of material that I had been working on that was kind of just a series of projects of myself playing in DADGAD and different keys. And those actually quickly coalesced into compositions. But during the process of that I was kind of developing techniques, as I was going. There's still so much to do with it. Especially, without using fingernails. I've always worked on getting the right angle of attack to get as much volume and as much dynamic control as I can. And that plays into my choice of instruments, as far as, using the right tool for the job.

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