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Look Ma, Two Hands!

Bass or guitar? Charlie Hunter plays both at the same time.

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Charlie Hunter, man of many strings.
  • Charlie Hunter, man of many strings.

Charlie Hunter is one of today's best jazz guitarists -- or at least one of the best-known.

Now approaching 40, Hunter made his name for both the unique combination of guitar and bass he plays and his willingness to bridge the gap between jazz and pop. He has performed (and remodeled) songs by artists as diverse as Nirvana, the Steve Miller Band, and Bob Marley.

Hunter grew up in Berkeley and as a kid was swept up by the punk scene, going to underage shows to hear the Dead Kennedys. When he was old enough to hold a guitar, he started his own garage band, but before long tired of the formulaic sound.

"I was just pursuing my instrument, and it got to a point where I felt I couldn't get any more out of where I was," Hunter says, speaking from his New Jersey home. "And I just kind of broadened my listening horizons, so to speak. I started delving into the jazz records at my local library. I was listening to a lot of Charlie Christian, Lonnie Johnson, and really early stuff like that."

Hunter was also influenced by Joe Pass and Tuck Andress, jazz guitarists who mixed bass notes into their guitar melodies, creating the impression of two instruments playing at once. Hunter set out to do them one better, commissioning a custom-built eight-string instrument that combines bass and guitar.

"People were like, 'You're a fool, what are you thinking? Why are you doing that?' Even people in my own bands were like, 'We need to get a bass player,'" Hunter says. "They were probably right, because it wasn't sounding so good then. But you know, I stuck to my concept and followed it through, and I'm really glad I did."

Hunter's technique involves picking bass notes with his right thumb while fretting them with his left index finger. He finger-picks guitar chords and single notes with the remaining four digits of his right hand, while he frets with the other three fingers of his left hand. He once described it as "an extremely time-consuming thing that I think I've misguidedly dedicated myself to.

"That's just the nature of my character," Hunter says with a good-natured laugh. "I think I just like a challenge. And the instrument is definitely a challenge."

Hunter has recently cut back from playing eight to seven strings, but it hardly lessens the challenge of playing rhythm and melody at the same time.

"Once you've decided to operate both of those duties, it doesn't matter," he says. "It's actually easier with more strings, because you have more options. But for my hand size, it just made it really hard to get around, so I cut the highest guitar string out, and I haven't really missed it."

Hunter is touring in support of his latest album, Copperopolis, a relatively meaty affair that Hunter describes as "more rocking than anything I've done." He's also added a new backing band, bidding farewell to horn player John Ellis and drummer Derrek Phillips, who've played with him for the past four years, and welcoming pianist Erik Deutsch and drummer Simon Lott.

But don't ask what the new band sounds like; even Hunter doesn't know. The members haven't played together yet.

"I don't even like to have rehearsals," Hunter says. "I try not to have a map. I just have an idea of the sound that I want. And you know, a lot of the time I'll go with a tune, and we'll get something different. Sometimes it's really good, and sometimes I don't like it. But I just have to be open for either possibility and go with it."

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