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FEATURE -- Lee Ritenour Interview

Renowned guitarist Lee Ritenour coming to Chicago

Lee Ritenour

By Eric Schelkopf


To call Lee Ritenour a jazz guitarist is a misnomer.


The Grammy-award winner is constantly reinventing himself through incorporating funk, blues, rock, pop and other genres in his music.


Ritenour also wants to provide a voice to amateur musicians. His third annual Six String Theory Global Music Competition is now accepting entries in guitar, piano, bass or drums.


Winning musicians will record a track on his upcoming album, tentatively titled "Rhythm Sessions," an album which will feature an all-star lineup of musicians, including Dave Grusin, Nathan East, Will Kennedy, Dave Weckl, George Duke, John Beasley, Sonny Emory, Larry Goldings, John Beasley and Stanley Clarke. Applicants need to submit two YouTube vehicles at by May 1.

Ritenour will perform April 4 at Mayne Stage,, 1328 W. Morse Ave., Chicago. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets range from $28 to $43, available at


I had the chance to talk to "Captain Fingers" about a variety of topics.

Q - This is the third year of your Six String Theory Global Music Competition, and of course the three winning rhythm players from the competition will get to record a track on your new album. What made you want to start the competition? Has the competition lived up to your goals?


Ever since I conceptualized the 6 Six String Theory album, I wanted it to have three distinct parts: one was the legendary, well known guitarists such as George Benson, B.B. King, Slash, Vince Gill, Jon Scofield, Steve Lukather  and  legendary status players. The second part was to have some up and coming professional guitarists who were already making their mark but were primarily established through today’s generation and through YouTube. That was Joe Robinson, Guthrie Govan and Andy McKee who all got their starts by having a lot of exposure on YouTube. The third part of conceptualizing the album was to have a completely brand new amateur talent on the record. That way I really felt like SST would come together from the legendary guitarists all the way to the brand new guitarists. In order to do this we had to have an international guitar competition, and Yamaha, Berklee College of Music, Monster Cable and  a number of other companies help set this up. Because of the phenomena of YouTube, it was easy for guitarists to enter their videos through the SST site and enter in a six different categories of music, which was also being covered on the album: jazz, rock, blues, acoustic, classical/flamenco and country.


The winner of the first year, Shon Boublil from Montreal, Canada, won a 4 year scholarship to Berklee College of Music. The second year, David Browne Murray, a young man from Ireland, won it. Now we’re in the 3rd year and we have raised the stakes and widened the competition to include not only guitar but piano, bass and drums as well. As you know the winner of the keyboard, bass and drums part will get to play a track on my 2012 Concord Records release. Berklee College of Music is offering 4 scholarships for the 4 instruments as well as Yamaha instruments, Monster, D’Addario and other prizes. For the guitar portion, we have incredible scholarships being given away from Crown of the Continent Guitar Workshop & Festival and National Guitar Workshops.  So some pretty amazing prize packages totaling over $600,000 from our sponsors. All these things combine to make the 6 String Theory competition even bigger and better in its 3rd year than I ever dreamed possible. I didn’t realize in the first year it would be something that I could continue but it has blossomed into something beautiful. It also gives me a chance to give back to the music world with all this great new talent and try to get some exposure for a lot of talented people. Through encouragement, through the competition, through mentoring, through participating on my record and getting these scholarships to these camps and Berklee College, it has just turned out to be a dream for me to do something like this. 

Lee Ritenour live

photo by: Scott Mitchell Photography

Q - What advice would you give to a young musician who is hoping to forge a music career? 


Well….it’s not easy. That’s my first comment. But everybody knows that so what’s the best way to try and help or assure a certain level of success?  Determination and a willingness not to let it go or give up, and give it 100% of your time and attention. Music education is the only insurance policy we have. All music education is good, even if you’re a jazz or rock player or blues player and they ask you to study classical guitar in school, that’s good, that can help you on every level of your musicianship.


Taking music business classes because being in the music business means you’re not only a musician but you’re a businessman and you have to learn to take care of business in the music business. Nobody is going to take care of everything. There’s no such thing as the dream manager where you can just do your music and somebody else will take care of everything else. Those days don’t really exist, if they ever did. There are great managers out there but you still have to understand the music business in order to find one of those great managers. So I think understanding the business helps make you a better musician too because it can also direct you musically what you should be doing to get ahead.


But studying music and studying the music business are the best insurance policies I can recommend. If you think you are going to only do it part time, or study something else as a back up, then you probably won’t go all the way as you have to give it your whole heart and your undivided attention. Versatility is also key- you have to many things in the music world today. Being a one man band, being a producer, arranger, composer, player – they all help to make you a better musician. Learn about engineering, music software and technical skills beyond the rudiments of playing your instrument. Hope this is some sound advice.

Lee Ritenour outside
photo by: Rob Shanahan/Yamaha

Q - You team up with a number of all-star musicians on this new album, similar to when you played with a number of guitar greats on "6 String Theory." How do you go about choosing your collaborations?


My new upcoming album “Rhythm Sessions” features a ‘who’s who’ of rhythm players. In one aspect, I did a similar concept with my “6 String Theory” album where I team up with different collaborations. This album is centered around my guitar but I’m guesting with many different rhythm sections. How do I choose those players and different collaborations? Sometimes it’s based on friendship, most of the time it’s chosen on admiration and other players I respect; sometimes I choose situations or players that can push me to beyond my limits or unfamiliar areas out of my comfort zone. A lot of times I pick players because I think musically they’ll work great with me -- or an interesting collaboration musically -- the music always comes first but if I can have a name player that also contributes something very interesting musically, then it’s a win/win situation.


Q - You started out at age 16 playing with the Mamas and the Papas. What did that experience teach you?  


Guesting with the Mamas & the Papas at that young age was incredibly exciting for me and it was the beginning of my studio career in Los Angeles. I’m not sure what that exact session taught me other than the fact that John Phillips had the coolest recording studio in his Bel Air home and I never forgot that. In 1984, I built my own home studio that I still have to this day, so ha ha I guess that was a direct inspiration from the Mamas and the Papas.  But studio work in general was one of the things that most likely brought me my versatility and my love of all different types of music-- something that has helped me span a long career by being so diverse musically and intertwining different elements of all different kinds of music into my personal style. Being a studio musician in the early days also taught me about production. I got to work with all the great producers back in those days, folks like Phil Ramone, Quincy Jones, Dave Grusin, Bob Ezrin. These producers taught me a lot about how to make records so that has helped me be a better artist and producer with my own projects.

Lee Ritenour with doggy
photo by: Rob Shanahan/Yamaha

Q - "Guitar Player" magazine gave you a Lifetime Achievement award for the year 2010. Do you see yourself as a pioneer? Are there any musicians who you regard as pioneers?  


That was a terrific award from Guitar Player Magazine and I really appreciated that they recognized my long-time career. Do I think of myself of a pioneer…. No, not really but hopefully I’ve made a dent and influenced and inspired some other young musicians out there. It’s hard to look at the living guys today as pioneers but I do think Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King were pioneers. For me, a pioneer is someone whose really shifted the way that music is thought of or played. Certainly Segovia on the guitar- he might be the biggest guitar pioneer of all.

Q - Your music cannot be easily defined in one word. Has that been both a positive and negative for your career? Do you always find the need to challenge yourself musically? 


Ha ha, yes it is hard to pin me down musically and I’m sure that has had an effect on fans following me sometimes. But after all these years, I do think my fans are somewhat used to me making left and right turns. It is the way that I challenge myself musically- when I do a classical album with Dave Grusin with orchestra or I turn to playing on a blues track with Joe Bonamassa or a rock track with Slash or Steve Lukather or a bebop track with Pat Martino -- those are the ways I challenge myself. I think it’s fun, interesting and why not?  We’re only here on this planet once…or are we? Haha

Q - Do you have any dream projects or collaborations?  

Dream projects? I have so many of them. I never get bored or uninterested in making records. I love making records, I love playing concerts, I love making music, so the collaborations will keep coming. I mean the best thing in the world is to play with other great musicians- whether rock, classical, jazz, blues - whatever, it’s cool. Somebody once asked me “Lee you keep so busy, isn’t it too much? When are you going to retire?”  My answer was “I’m already retired. I’m doing what I love.” 


Eric Schelkopf has covered the arts and entertainment scene in Chicago for the past 25 years. Visit his informative blog at:






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