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An interview with Earl Klugh

by Tom Redmond

Earl Klugh
(bio courtesy of wikipedia)

Earl Klugh is an American smooth jazz guitarist and composer.

At the age of 13, Klugh was captivated by the guitar playing of Chet Atkins when Atkins made an appearance on the Perry Como Show. Klugh was a performing guest on several of Atkins' albums. Atkins, reciprocating as well, joined Earl on his Magic In Your Eyes album. Klugh was also influenced by Bob James, Ray Parker Jr, Wes Montgomery and Laurindo Almeida. His sound is a blend of these jazz, pop and rhythm and blues influences, forming a potpourri of sweet contemporary music original to only him.

Klugh first took up piano but at 10 switched to guitar, facsinated by the sound of the guitars on western shows he saw on television. Once exposed to the music of Chet Atkins, Earl learned very quickly and had cut his first record deal at age 22. His career rapidly progressed to working with the likes of George Benson, George Shearing, Chick Corea, and many others.

For their album One on One, Klugh and Bob James received a Grammy award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance of 1981. He has since received 12 Grammy nods, millions of record and CD sales, and continues touring worldwide to this day.

Klugh has recorded over 30 albums including 23 Top Ten charting records – five of them No. 1 - on Billboard’s Jazz Album chart. With 2008’s The Spice of Life, Klugh earned his 12th career Grammy nomination. For more information on Earl, visit www.earlklugh.com

TR: Can you tell me a little bit about your musical childhood?

EK: I started playing guitar I guess when I was 10 but before that I was taking piano lessons like many kids did. I started when I was about six. It was my mom’s idea for me to play the piano and it really wasn’t my favorite instrument. But, I’m really happy that I started on the piano because I was able to get a good musical background. I’ve kept up piano well enough that I write quite a bit of my music on piano these days as well as guitar.

TR: The piano lessons probably helped you get to know and understand the fretboard on the guitar too?

EK: Yes, absolutely.

TR: How about guitar music? Did you start hearing some particular guitar music and think “Wow! This is what I really would like to play”?

EK: I was always fascinated by the sound of the classical guitar and I remember whenever they had westerns on television, it was always liked that Spanish flavor and I really gravitated towards it. Growing up in Detroit that “Spanish sound” was so exotic, it sounded like something so far away.

Video: "Goodtime Charlie’s got the Blues"

TR: Did you have certain artists that you particularly liked?

EK: Not really as a kid, I just knew the sound of that instrument and knew I wanted to get my hands on one.

TR: So eventually you get your first guitar. Can you tell me about your first guitar?

EK: It was a nylon string classical. When I was 10, I convinced my parents that I really wanted to play the guitar. That was in 1964.

TR: Now, when you were 10 years old and playing a classical guitar, did you have a standard 2 inch neck to get your fingers around?

EK: Yes, absolutely.

TR: How did you manage that?

EK: It was somewhat frustrating for such small hands but I adapted to it as best I could. I wanted to play so much.

TR: That probably helped you later in life in making some of the more difficult stretches.

EK: Yes, I think so.

Earl Klugh
TR: Do you remember when you were first exposed to Chet Atkins and jazz music?

EK: I can tell you precisely because up to that point in time I had really only been exposed to a little bit of guitar – mostly classical and flamenco. In those days I thought of the guitar as something that people would play to accompany singing. This was January of 1967. My mom liked to watch all kinds of musical shows and I usually watched them with her. One night there was a Perry Como special and there was this gentleman named Chet Atkins on the show. He had that beautiful Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar and he was playing the theme from “Dr. Zhivago”. When he came on and started playing, it was like the way a person plays a piano. Nobody was singing and he was playing all parts on the guitar. Right from that moment I immediately knew that this was what I wanted to do. I was 13 at the time. It changed the course of my life.

After that my mom would take me out shopping on the weekend and Chet had a large array of albums out so I would go out with my mother a couple of times a month and buy one of the records and play it for a week on the record player and learn as much as I could.

He was my teacher that way for years. Probably for a solid 2 years it was the only way I learned, there was just so much there.

From that I got into jazz and classical some, listening to Laurindo Almeida, Howard Roberts, Charlie Byrd and others but it was Chet’s music that really got me going.

TR: Somebody cynically might say that the 2 years you didn’t have an instructor might have been a waste of time. Do you think the time you spent with the record player could have been as instructive in some ways as opposed to formal lessons?

EK: I think so. But of course before hearing Chet’s albums there was a time I took lessons for about 8 months, and I had an instructor who had great right hand technique. Good right hand technique had been drilled into me up until I began hearing Chet and that helped me advance faster. From playing the piano I had developed a pretty decent ear for harmony as well. So after I heard Chet, I began to develop really quickly. I went to school, and I was an okay student. But I knew at that point I was not going anywhere else. Music was going to be my life. I didn’t have to pretend I was going to school to become a physicist.

TR: A lot of people have trouble categorizing Chet Atkins. He influenced you in classical and jazz, but some would think of him as a country artist. How would you categorize him?

EK: He is someone who played a very wide variety of music extremely well, and had a real affinity for many styles. He was really a one of a kind artist, especially at the time. Nowadays you go on the internet and find that everything is readily available to help you get exposed to different styles. But he was able to adapt to so many different styles on his own. When you think of the limited things available to put those styles together, his accomplishments were really incredible.

Earl Klugh playing the Smooth Jazz Cruise with Peter White
TR: Do you remember the first time you met him?

EK: It was in the late 70s. I think it was 1978. By then I had made a few records and they had started selling well. I called my manager who also handled Kris Kristofferson and told him that I would like to meet Chet Atkins because I had always admired him. So when I happened to be in Nashville to do some recording my manager set it up so I could call Chet, he came by and picked me up. We went back to his house and played a little bit. He was such a wonderful person. I tried not to wear him out or go on and on about stuff, but I was a huge admirer. We developed a pretty good friendship and did quite a few things over the years. We did a telethon up in Toronto together and some TV specials. I even did Hee-Haw with him twice and we were in the corn field together!

TR: I did not know that.

EK: It was a lot of fun. Pickin’ and grinnin’!

TR: And of course you played “Goodtime Charlie’s got the Blues” together. For many Chet fans, that was the first time they were exposed to you, when you and Chet played together in 1994 on the TV special called “Read my Licks”. How do you think the two styles match?

EK: I think we sounded great together. For me, I could do my own thing, and I think I knew so much about Chet’s playing that I never got in his way when we played, so I think we sounded really good.

TR: I saw a video clip of Chet saying that he really loved your song “If it’s in your Heart”. Do you know if there were particular songs of yours that he really liked?

EK: That one I knew that he really liked because whenever we got together or we played somewhere in a show he wanted to play that together.

TR: Would you say you learned other things from Chet besides things related to playing guitar?

Earl and Chet during "Read my Licks"
EK: The biggest thing was when I was young and started making money. Chet was trying to get me to move to Nashville. “Chet, I can’t come. I can’t do Nashville, my mom is getting older and I should stay in Detroit.” I figured I would buy myself a big house. So we bought a house and it was like : “Well, now that’s over”. Meaning, don’t spend all your money on anything like houses.

TR: You mentioned some early success. Was that a part of your life where most of your financial success was coming from recordings? Did you play a lot of shows?



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