Adam Levy is a guitarist in high demand. His playing has been featured on recordings by major-label artists such as Norah Jones (her first three albums), Tracy Chapman (New Beginning), and Amos Lee (Amos Lee). He has also played on records by acclaimed indie artists such as Ani DiFranco (¿Which Side Are You On?) and Anaïs Mitchell (Young Man in America). Levy has performed live onstage with all of these musicians—as well as with Rosanne Cash, Lisa Loeb, Dan Hicks, Darol Anger, Regina Carter, and many others.
I am intrigued by how Adam Levy approaches the guitar. Pop over to his website and you’ll find a multifaceted musician with a sweet track record. He’s also a renowned songwriter, educator, journalist and author. He’s a perfect example of someone who squeezeds every drop out of the guitar to make a life in music.
Did I mention he also has a handful of singer/songwriter releases. The latest, Portuguese Subtitles, released July 2013 is a beautifully textured and groove laden affair — uplifting without smearing the cheese. Stream it here:
Luke: You haven’t made a career in guitar by shredding up a storm. Instead you specialize in simple rhythm parts, as you talk about in your Guitar Tip: Don’t take simplicity for granted. Can you talk more about what kind of mindset you get yourself in before working out a rhythm part?
Adam: It comes down to listening. Listen to the track and ask yourself what it needs. If it needs a lot more rhythmic interest, I’ll look for some ways do to that. If it needs more harmonic interest, or melodic hooks, I can try those types of approaches as well. The guitar can do so much, and so little.
I like to listen to records where there’s a string orchestra added to a pop song, or a horn section, or a choir. Unlike the bassist or the drummer, these orchestral elements usually aren’t wall to wall throughout the track. They come in and out, making melodic statements or simply adding texture. As guitarists, we can do that too. In any musical arrangement, the rests are just as valuable as the notes themselves.
Luke: How often in your recording career have you worked on your parts before heading into the studio? I always want to ask studio players this question, do you prepare a lot before a session or figure out parts on the spot?
Adam: I like to prepare as best as I can, but I think that’s just my personality type. Showing up prepared is the pro way to go, but it’s also important to cultivate the ability to figure out stuff in the moment—because once you get locked into thinking of the song in a particular way, it can be hard to find other things that work. So the real prep work lies in what you practice at home, on your own time. Practice playing in time with a metronome. Practice creating simple parts over commonly used chord progressions. Practice at a variety of tempos, and in different keys. Play along with your favorite records, and maybe even some not-so-favorite records. I talk about how to create different kinds of parts in my video course Rhythm Makeover, which people can check out here: https://truefire.com/tftv/html5.html?channel=rhythm-makeover-adam-levy-sampler
Luke: What kind of guitars do you own? What have you been using the most lately around home?
Adam: I’m mostly an electric player. My main electric guitars are a 1964 Gibson ES-335 and a 1979 Gibson ES-335. I’ve had the ’64 for about 10 years. I’m the original owner of the ’79. It was a bar mitzvah present from my dad. I’ve recorded and gigged a lot on both of those Gibsons. At home, though, I prefer to play acoustically. My go-to guitar for practicing or songwriting at home is a late-’60s Guild Mark I folk guitar, with nylon strings. It’s so mellow. The sound doesn’t leap out, so the ears have to really tune in.
Luke: You had a six year stint touring as a member of Norah Jones’ Handsome Band. I don’t even know what to ask you about touring, but give us your take of life on the road.
Adam: Some people seem built for the road, some don’t. If I’m honest with myself, I’m not a natural-born road musician. I’m more a creature of habit. I like to sleep in my own bed, make my own coffee in the morning, eat certain kinds of foods. I like to go jogging most days. It’s nearly impossible to maintain your usual routines on the road, because everything must be in the service of keeping the tour rolling along smoothly. On the upside, you’re getting paid to play music every night, and you may get to see a lot of new places along the way. Danny Barnes wrote some great advice on playing in someone else’s touring band. Anyone considering such a career should read this: http://dannybarnes.com/blog/how-play-someone-elses-band.
Luke: Have you been doing much touring lately? Let us in on what you’re up to?
Adam: I’m trying to stay closer to home these days. That said, I do have some interesting musical travel coming up. I’m going to the Zihuatanejo International Guitar Festival at the beginning of March to play some concerts with Mad Flux—my guitar duo with João Erbetta. Right after that, I’ll be heading to Greece and Cyprus to play some concerts and present a few workshops. I’ll be playing some Northern and Southern California shows in April with Todd Sickafoose’s Tiny Resistors jazz ensemble.
Luke: For all the guitar students out there, Adam is a well respected educator, check out his 50 Low-Down Rhythms online course. Let’s get some perspective from your teacher brain here. What would you tell a guitar student who is struggling with their rhythm playing? What’s your go to exercise?
Adam: Any student working on rhythm should make playing in time with a metronome part of their daily practice routine. Once a student can play steady time along with a quarter-note click, I’ll have them work simple one-bar rhythms—grouping eight notes in a 3-3-2 pattern, or 3-2-3, or 2-3-3, so that they can start to feel accents in different parts of the bar. Those simple groupings can be applied to strumming patterns, melodic phrases, arpeggios, or anything else.
Luke: I really appreciate you taking the time to talk guitar with us today. If anyone has comments, or wants to ask a question I missed, please leave a reply here or use the hashtag #guitartalk on twitter.
Find Adam Levy on twitter @stringjuggler
Check out his website.