Larry Carlton made his mark as a tasteful session musician in the 1970’s and 80’s, becoming one of the most recorded guitarists during this time. Larry appeared on tracks from Steely Dan through to Michael Jackson. As a solo artist, he has released over 30 albums which boast his instantly recognizable guitar tone. Although Larry is commonly associated with jazz, he actually started out as a pop guitarist. “I continued to play pop gigs all through my teens, but at home I was looking for jazz licks and studying chords.”
Larry describes his transition into the session scene as rather painless. “It really unfolded naturally. I did my first solo album in 1968 when I was in college. And it was quite successful in the whole western part of the United States on radio. And I was building quite a following. Then I got a call to join a group that worked on Ford commercials. And they were called The Going Thing. And they would do on-camera commercials for Ford and corporate gigs during the summer. So I had to make a choice was I going to commit to that or was I going to do another solo record. And I chose to do the Ford group for two years and I played on the commercials and that’s how I met some session musicians and they responded to me as a young player and I started getting calls.”
Larry developed a strong interest in improvisation. Just listening to his later work with Fourplay makes this obvious, as improvisation is the order of the day. “I’ve never worked out a solo in my life. For a record or a live performance it’s always improvised and that’s the part of making music that I probably enjoy the most, the improvisational part.” Larry uses this aspect to keep each gig new and exciting, as no two gigs end up being the same.
Larry gives us some insight into how he achieves a compositional aspect to his improvisations. “I think it’s my basic approach. Normally I start with some kind of a motif and it’s usually simple. So then I have the opportunity to develop that motif and not just play a bunch of notes. I’m aware of the first statement, I usually emulate that first statement again and that leads me down the path of making a composition out of something rather than just playing a bunch of notes on the guitar. That’s a compositional technique that the classical composers used years ago. They always started with a motif then a reiteration of the motif, and they would play the motif backwards sometimes after they’d developed it a little further and it became a composition rather than just some piano notes.”
Perhaps it’s the fact of memorizing endless notes that deters Larry from the written solo approach. This translates to how he approaches his career, as he doesn’t believe in doing tons of work. “My passion, because I’m blessed with a solo career, is playing the guitar. And I’m not a workaholic. I enjoy making my albums, going out and playing live, then having a number of months off during the year. It’s not like I have to fill all those months with more projects.”
When it comes to practice, Larry likes to use live shows as an opportunity to develop his playing. “I’m always listening and thinking about things that I know are not as strong in my playing as I would like them to be, and I try to work on those when playing live. I do notice improvement every year in my playing, but it’s without a practice routine. Please do not follow in my footsteps regarding that.”
What’s obvious about Larry’s career is his strong abilities in performing music on stage. “Radio has very little to do with most artists careers today. It’s mostly live gigs that promote an artist and their music. Today I advise younger artists to promote their CD’s by going out and doing as many live gigs as possible to build their following and promote their music.”