Charlie Hunter is on a secret mission to save the guitar. Raised on blues, jazz, and punk, Hunter played in the hip-hop band Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy with Michael Franti, and now makes intriguing, minimalist music. In the process, he has given up any guitar hero pretensions he might have once had and grown weary of today's skin-deep approach to the six-string ax.
"It's just a cultural thing. And it's all about the overt chops, and it gets away from the covert chops which are things that are not as obvious but are of maximal importance to tell your story," Hunter says. "For what I do, you need to have a lot of that subtextual ability. That's not going to impress people, but it's sure going to make the music much better."
The idiosyncratic Hunter has developed his own style of playing around his equally idiosyncratic instrument — a custom seven-string bass/guitar. He picks bass notes with his right thumb and frets them with his left index finger while fingerpicking chords and single notes with his right hand's other four digits, fretting with his left hand's remaining three fingers.
He no longer feels the need to play like his heroes. "I kind of pride myself on being able to do that if I have to," Hunter says. "There are a thousand guys who can do that. They need the work, and I have enough work to get by, so why do I need to tread on their reality? And also, what I do I feel is a better contribution to whatever the ether wants than me just playing guitar."
This is a manifestation of the 45-year-old Hunter's maturity. He knows what he wants and how to get it done. Any commercial desires and illusions have long since faded.
"Obviously, you want everyone to hear your music, but for me I've been doing this for long enough to know that's a silly rabbit to chase," Hunter says. "When you stop chasing that rabbit, then you really free up a lot of time to actually do things in your life and your music which attracts the audience that is supposed to be coming to see you. And that's your community. My community is small, but it's really quality, and I'm able to make a living like a teacher would make or maybe a professor in some years that are good."
This has also meant paring down to a duo after many years performing in trios. For the last several years he's been performing primarily with longtime collaborator drummer Scott Amendola. "I came to the point where I was like, if I'm going to have a trio, I don't want that overtly jazz sound, so that eliminates horns. Then I don't really want another guitar player because two guitar players is just too fatiguing on the ear. So what, a singer? I've done that before," he says.
"The thing about this duo is that when the audience is with us, we can take them on a very interesting ride. Stylistically, we can go so many different places on the drop of a dime," Hunter continues. "When you have the drums and what I do, you have so many sounds at your disposal and so many different vernaculars that you can really go a million different places."
Hunter and Amendola are supporting last year's Not Getting Behind is the New Getting Ahead, a sedate collection with a strong blues undercurrent. There's more groove on Not Getting Behind than most jam band releases, and it's a lot less mind-numbingly predictable, but there's also an extraordinary amount of space. Hunter has a fine sense of restraint, and he has pared back the guitar effects for a back-to-basics sound that's anything but limiting.
"I felt so much of what I was doing was more about my hands, and I just started to feel like [the pedals] were getting in the way. I just didn't feel I needed them any more," Hunter says. "I think of it like Hemingway more than anything else. Declarative sentences and you just tell your story. There's a lot of space in his writing, a lot."
While he may not like a lot of today's superficial sounds, Hunter keeps listening. "Some people say they know what they like, but most of them just like what they know," he says. "You really need to take a lot of time and check out as much as you can, and then you can decide what you like and what you really want to apply yourself to. You can't just do that out of dogma, as enlightened as that seems. You really have to investigate as much as you can."