Earl Klugh is a jazz guitarist -- one of the greatest, no doubt, with a sweet, signature style on the nylon-stringed acoustic guitar -- but don't think less of him just because his initial inspiration to the craft was a TV Western.
"The first exposure I had to the guitar really was on 'Bonanza,'" Klugh told the Sun-Times. "They always had a guitar by the fire, you know, and it was a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar. I would look at it, and it wasn't like any of the guitars you'd see on, I don't know, 'American Bandstand' or something, or like Chuck Berry. That stuff was all great, but once I started playing a nylon-stringed guitar, there was no going back for me."
Well, he had some second thoughts.
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"We had a stage band [in high school], and back then there wasn't any great pickup system. What I had was this little microphone you'd put on your guitar with a rubber band over it. You could turn the volume up, but the cavity of the guitar would feed back," he said. "It was primitive and, boy, I got teased a lot for that. ... But I look back now and, well, I showed 'em!"
More than 30 acclaimed albums (23 of them in the top 10 of Billboard's jazz chart, five at No. 1) and 12 Grammy nominations (the most recent for 2008's "The Spice of Life") -- yes, he showed 'em.
Klugh took a break during a vacation stop on the South Carolina coast to talk to us about Crossroads, collaborations and, uh, "Hee Haw":
Q: The last time you were in Chicago was for Eric Clapton's 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival, right?
Earl Klugh: Oh yeah. There was a show.
Q: I love that performance, because here's a blues and rock festival, you're surrounded by Eric and Buddy [Guy] and all these plugged in guys, and you come out with your acoustic guitar and play "Angelina" just as delicately as you please. Was that bill daunting in any way?
EK: I've had pretty good success with kind of integrating the acoustic stuff into places like that. I was certainly different than the other players there. I do what I do. It went over well. But when you're a guy like me backing up to ZZ Top, yes, it's kind of intimidating.
Q: You came up in the '60s. Why did the classical guitar speak to you instead of all those shiny new electrics?
EK: When I first started playing guitar was right at the folk music craze -- Peter, Paul & Mary, that type of thing. So acoustics were common, though not as much in jazz. The nylon-string just stuck all the way for me. It just felt like my instrument. When I tried to play a steel-stringed or electric guitar, I was already so far into the other it never occurred to me to switch.
Q: Is it true you were on [country-themed variety TV show] "Hee Haw," and why isn't this on YouTube?
EK: [Laughs] Me and Chet Atkins together, yeah. We were in the cornfield and everything. ... Chet was my idol. I love Chet Atkins. That was our first television appearance together, actually. I love Chet from the perspective of playing finger-style, the way he was able to play the bass and the chords. Once I saw him, it changed my life completely. I knew I wanted to play guitar like Chet Atkins. Then I was fortunate to play with him many times.
Q: What was it about Chet Atkins that appealed to so many players beyond his basic country classification?
EK: He was really a pioneer with the instrument. He was very much a tinkerer. He had a workshop, had all types of electric stuff. He'd do stuff like, one time he had his regular Gretsch guitar and he put a low D string, lower than the [bottom] E, added to it so that when he'd play it sounded like he was carrying the bass tones the whole time. He did several records with that.
Q: Sounds like something Les Paul would toy with.
EK: Very much like Les Paul. He loved to create different sounds and was always trying to come up with something new and fresh that would tickle his ear.
Q: You first connected with another guitar great, George Benson. How'd you meet, and what cemented the bond between you?
EK: Growing up in Detroit, we had a jazz club, Baker's Keyboard Lounge. In its heyday, everybody who played jazz, literally everybody, played at that club. I really got the chance to meet a lot of the great musicians. George was just going into his career in a big way, and he played Baker's five, six, seven times before he really broke big. We got to talking, and he was fascinated by my acoustic guitar. He said, "You're trying to play jazz on that nylon-string guitar!" He said, "Boy, you gotta keep doing that. That's gonna set you apart from everybody else."
Q: I've always thought you two had a lot in common stylistically, as if sometimes the only difference between you is who's usually plugged in and who's not.
EK: I learned a lot from him, it's true. What I mostly learned from him is, you know, he's a workaholic. When I first went on the road with him, we did a two-month tour. We went to breakfast one night after the show, and we're headed back to the room and I was saying, "I gotta go get some rest." The next day, the bass player, Roland Wilson, is coming out of his room, and he says, "Man, Earl, you and me are gonna have to get on it." I said, "What do you mean?" He says, "You know what George did after going back to his room last night? He started practicing. He practiced from 2:30 in the morning till 5." And this is after playing a show, you know. Roland said, "We gotta do that, too!" That's a work ethic there.
Q: Which I'm guessing you still draw upon in your manic schedule as writer, performer, arranger, recording artist, bandleader, collaborator and event organizer [the semi-annual Weekend of Jazz concert festivals]?
EK: I work real hard and it's a lot, but it's really great fun. I enjoy doing solo shows, but I enjoy playing with the band, as well. I feel very lucky.
Q: You're 59, correct?
EK: Yes, and ooh that came too soon! [Laughs]
Q: If I may: Fingers and joints don't exactly get looser with age. How do you keep those hands nimble?
EK: By taking care of the rest of my body. I go to the gym, I stay physically active. If I don't I'll really end up in a knot. My hands are still flexible. My thumb cracks, though. I can hear it now on my records. Like, there'll be a solo part in a song, and my thumb will crack.
Q: It's just extra percussion.
EK: [Laughs] Yeah, but that's a new phenomenon I really hope goes away.
Q: "The Spice of Life" is four years on now. Any new recordings coming?
EK: I'm working on a new CD now. It's going to be kind of interesting -- a lot fo solo playing, but a few duets with some of my favorite players. I'm trying to track George down. Vince Gill seems to be interested. After that, I'll have another band and orchestra record before the end of the coming year.