Charlie Hunter has played with John Mayer, D’Angelo and Frank Ocean – just don’t call him a session guitarist

 Charlie Hunter onstage at the Newport Jazz Festival 2023 at Fort Adams State Park on August 05, 2023.
Charlie Hunter onstage at the Newport Jazz Festival 2023 at Fort Adams State Park on August 05, 2023.
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Charlie Hunter’s staggering resume includes work with Stanton Moore, D’Angelo, Frank Ocean, John Mayer and dozens more. He’s also dropped upwards of 30 records as a leader or co-leader.

Hunter takes it all in his stride.“It’s just about working hard enough and having been lucky enough to just get to do the work,” he says. “And because of that, I’m always trying to do something that works for where I’m at.”

But he rejects the title ‘session musician’ – “I’m just a musician,” he states. “I don’t think that world exists much anymore. It exists less and less as time goes by.” As a result, he suggests younger musicians should think about their careers from a more modern perspective.

“You’ve got to really involve yourself in the history of the instrument,” Hunter says. “Really try to understand what the guitar does, what it means culturally, and what other cultures do with the instrument. And get your timing and rhythm together to be an asset on the instrument.”

Though you don’t consider yourself a session guitarist, it’s fair to say you’ve been a part of many sessions. How did you enter that world?

“You just play a lot of music. You play with a lot of people, and you kind of have a network of people. If they like what you do, they’ll call you – it’s just that simple.”

Your approach is improvisational and certainly unique. What experiences have you had that lend themselves to that?

“You try to play with great musicians and learn from the elders who know how to do it. It’s just hours of playing gigs, learning that language, constantly developing your ear, time and feel; learning how you conceptualize other people’s playing, and how you contribute to whatever’s being done on stage.”

It’s been said that a lot of your techniques and origins are rooted in jazz guitar.

“That’s actually not true! With the technical stuff, and physically how I play the instrument, there is a lot of jazz harmony – a lot of Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery – all that language is in there. But a lot of the technical stuff comes from checking out a lot of 1920s blues players.

That’s ultimately the goal: always expanding, always learning and always applying yourself to the craft

“So it’s broader than just using the word ‘jazz’ – which I don’t even know if I understand. Everyone has a different idea of what that word means. I’m not a jazz musician. It’s just not something that resonates with me.”

So, what are some things that do resonate with you?

“It’s always going to be about the journey and learning. Always try to play with better people; and hopefully everyone in your band does things better than you do, and has something to offer you.

Charlie Hunter
Charlie Hunter

“So you’ll always be learning, right? That’s ultimately what the goal is: you’re always expanding, always learning and always applying yourself to the craft. I think that’s the most important thing.”

You’re known for using seven- and eight-string guitars. Do they require a different approach than six-string guitars do?

“Well, you can do a lot of the stuff I do on a six-string guitar. I do it myself when I’m in situations where people want to hear that. I don’t always play a seven- or eight-string; the instrument I’m playing now has six, but it’s configured very differently.

“It’s like a bass and a guitar, so I have all those options. And it’s physically a hell of a lot harder to play than a normal six-string guitar. Especially if you’re dealing with counterpoints and all that stuff; it has all that stuff going on.

“It’s by Hybrid Guitars – but full disclosure: I’m part owner of the company. We’re down here in Hillsborough, North Carolina, constantly doing research and development; trying to figure out, ‘How do I make better instruments?’

“I hooked up with Wes Lambe and Clay Conner six or seven years ago, and we set up Hybrid Guitars. Right now we’re making excellent instruments, and considering how great they function, it’s a pretty affordable price.

If you can play a good groove and you have some taste, people will want to have you around

“I play the bass model, the Hybrid 6 – it’s what I call the Big 6. It has a 30-inch scale on the low end because the fan frets to 27 inches on the higher end. It’s got one pickup, but it’s split into 3x3 humbuckers.”

And how about amps?

“I just kind of use whatever’s there. But my friend Eli Lester hooked me up with this lovely little Two-Rock; it’s a very small combo amp that kind of works for everything.”

Charlie Hunter
Charlie Hunter

Do you get into effects?

“Occasionally I do. My friend Mason Marangella, at Vertex Effects, hooked me up with one of his little boost pedals that I sometimes use. And sometimes I’ll use a Leslie kind of effect, tremolo, or whatever.”

Looking at some of the sessions you’ve been on, an early one that stands out is Stanton Moore’s All Kooked Out! from 1998. How did that go down?

“That was a fun record. That started a thing with Stanton, [saxophonist] Skerik and me, where we had a thing called Garage A Trois. Then I left the group and Marco Benevento joined. Occasionally, we did gigs with that group. But with All Kooked Out! we were just in New Orleans and playing music. I don’t remember too much other than that!”

Two years later you worked on D’Angelo’s Voodoo. You said it was one of your most challenging sessions.

“I don’t remember saying that – that’s interesting! Those guys were amazing; it was a great experience. D and Questlove are just brilliant musicians. They had a thing, and I was trying to do my best to fit in and contribute. It was it was a ball, man.

“I did learn a lot from those guys, but it was only a couple of days. And in between that I was doing other stuff and touring a lot, so everything kind of became a blur – you’re just trying to keep the ball rolling.”

Can you recall the experience of working with John Mayer on Continuum?

“Getting to play with [drummer] Steve Jordan is always fantastic, and John is a super-good guy. John’s always been really kind and gives me opportunities now and again. I appreciate it.”

If you were in the studio with John now – a very different player from you – how might you try to find space on a track with him?

“Back then we just played music, man! We were playing together. You listen, you play, and you get to have a vocabulary because, thankfully, you’ve been playing with great people your whole life. So you just get in where you fit in, you know?”

The people I listened to the most are the guitar players from the 1920s, who I think are some of the best ever

What’s the trick to being as versatile as you are?

“There’s no trick! You are who you are, and work hard on what you do. There’s a universality to a lot of stuff; if you can play a good groove, or you can play in good time, and you don't overplay and you have some taste, people will want to have you around.

“You have to be your own known quantity, and you have to bring that with you. And then everything else takes care of itself most of the time.

Charlie Hunter
Charlie Hunter

“Like I said, the people I listened to the most are the guitar players from the 1920s, who I think are some of the best that ever did it. I take my cues from that kind of mentality, where you’re just trying to stand on their shoulders and do your best.

“In terms of spirituality, it’s an honor just to pick up the instrument and try to play better. That’s how you honor the people who suffered sick to get you to a place where you can play every day. I feel like that’s the extent of it – which is a lot. That’s not a little; that’s a lot!”

Do you have any tips or tricks for young players out there?

“We’ve come to this point where there’s virtuosity on the guitar. Everybody can turn on YouTube and learn how to play overtly impressive things – but I don’t hear a lot of people who really understand deeper rhythm and groove.

“More importantly, if you’re going to play that kind of linear guitar, I don’t hear people who can phrase or think about phrasing.

“So I would say: try to get into those more ‘adult’ things and seek out people who do that. Everyone has their own journey on the instrument – but I think it’s important for people to find that stuff.”