California Guitar Trio combines unusual tunings with disparate influences for some bold collaboration
who: California Guitar Trio
where: The Altamont Theatre, 18 Church St.
when: Saturday, Feb. 9 (8 p.m. $15/$18. myaltamont.com)
Despite the name, not one of the three players in the California Guitar Trio is originally from the Golden State. Bert Lams was born in Belgium and only moved to Los Angeles when he married a woman from there. Hideyo Moriya hails from faraway Japan. Paul Richards is from Salt Lake City, making him the only U.S. native in the group.
Given their backgrounds, it might seem unlikely that these three musicians would share a common language, let alone influences that line up well enough to foster a coherent ensemble. And yet, in their 22 years together, these guitarists have become some of the most locked-in collaborators you’ll hear.
“Diversity is one of the things that makes us unique,” Richards says, taking a break to chat during rehearsals for the band’s current tour. “Each of us was listening to very different music. Hideyo has the most unusual tastes in music. Even though I’ve known him for 25 years now, I still find new things about the music he listens to. ... Occasionally, when we’re in the van driving, I’ll look over and see what he’s listening to in his headphones, and I’ll have no idea what it is. It can be everything from Japanese pop music to some Americana music I had no idea he’s interested in. All of these things find their way into the music of the California Guitar Trio.”
The three musicians first came together while playing with King Crimson founder Robert Fripp in the late ‘80s. After attending a series of his Guitar Craft seminars, they were invited to a few retreats at Fripp’s house in England, spending months refining and expanding their skills. During these days, the bonds between the trio began to grow. Richards remembers relaxing during downtime and listening to Lams’ work on arrangements of Bach cello suites. He speaks fondly of his first collaborative compositions with Moriya.
The retreats paved the way for Fripp’s League of Crafty Guitarists, which Richards and his cohorts took part in, touring the world for a few years after that. But as Fripp began to transition back into playing with King Crimson, he asked Lams to recruit a few members of the League to pursue a project. He invited Richards and Moriya to join him in L.A., and after a few months of writing and rehearsing, the California Guitar Trio was born.
Many of Fripp’s philosophies linger in the group’s playing, but the most important is the use of his New Standard Tuning. Based on fifths in the way of a cello or a viola, it provides a more natural progression up the register of the guitar along with an expanded range of highs and lows.
“My low strings are tuned much lower than on standard guitar, and the high strings are tuned higher,” Richards explains. “We can play things that wouldn’t normally be possible in standard tuning. One of the tunes that we’re quite well known for that’s actually our most popular YouTube video right now is Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. It’s written for organ originally. Obviously, our guitars can’t go as low as the lowest notes on the pipe organ. But at least we can kind of approach it in a way that works.”
In the years since their Guitar Craft courses, the Trio has increased its ambition considerably, continually pushing the possibilities of their instruments. On 2010’s Andromeda, the group’s first all-original effort, they pursued a fusion of electronics and effects with pristine acoustic tones. Songs like the dynamic and absorbing title track layer chugging loops of unadorned picking with melodies distorted into cascades of Technicolor sound.
Masterworks, the band’s most recent album, pushes in the opposite direction, opting for strictly acoustic arrangements of immensely famous classical compositions. But the outfit’s approach is far from monochromatic. For instance, their “William Tell Overture” gallops to life with a cavalcade of concussive strums that gives the iconic tune fresh impact. Both albums are a testament to the Trio’s flourishing creativity.
“It’s always been about including the music that we’re the most excited about and and combining things in an unusual way and playing things on guitar that have never been played on guitar before,” Richards says. “From the very beginning, that was one of the things that we were drawn together for.”
Jordan Lawrence is editor at Charlotte-based Shuffle Magazine and a contributing writer at The Independent.