INTERVIEW: Paul Richards of The California Guitar Trio on musical challenges, traveling the world, & Arby’s!

Graduates of the Guitar Craft, a learning environment pioneered by King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, the California Guitar Trio are masters of their craft. As advertised, the trio are primarily guitar oriented solely, although frequently collaborate with other players including prog-legends like Tony Levin and Rick Wakeman. You can hear their newest album Komorebi below, and catch them live this Wednesday night at Zanzabar. We caught up with Paul Richards to ask about musical challenges, touring, and Kenny G!

Never Nervous: What was the genesis of your interest in guitar? Was it something played in your life growing up? Was it always guitar, or was that something that you gravitated towards?

Paul Richards: I have two older brothers that play guitar, and they helped me to learn what an awesome instrument the guitar is at a very young age. My first exposure to live music was my brothers playing guitar at home and hearing them playing in bands when they were teenagers.

NN: As a musician who seems to clearly take guitar very seriously, how would you chart your personal evolution as a player? Were you in bands or groups prior to the Trio?

“I thought that playing in a band and getting paid to play guitar was the most awesome job ever.”

PR: I joined my first band at age 15. The band was called Black Diamond. We played for high school dances and during the summer we played at the local amusement park. At that point I thought that playing in a band and getting paid to play guitar was the most awesome job ever. After Black Diamond I played in several rock bands: Matrix, The Hollywoods, Dean and the Romancers and more. I had a Les Paul electric guitar and a Marshall guitar amp and I enjoyed playing really loud. Since then, I’ve mellowed a bit and realized the difficulties of being a professional musician, but feel very grateful for the many adventures I’ve had, the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met and the many wonderful musical experiences I’ve had as a result of my decision to be a guitarist.

NN: How did the Trio come together? Where did you meet?

PR: The three of us met while we were studying guitar with Robert Fripp in 1987. I met Hideyo on a Guitar Craft Level 3 course at the Red Lion House in Cranborne Dorset England, and I first met Bert around the same time at a Level 1 course held at a farmhouse near Zurich Switzerland. From 1987-1991 we were on many Guitar Craft courses and toured with Robert as part of the League of Crafty Guitarists.

NN: What drew you to the Guitar Craft courses? Were you a Robert Fripp fan prior to that? What about his acumen as a player caused you to gravitate towards him as a mentor?

PR: My guitar instructor Don Ayers attended one of the first Guitar Craft courses and after he completed the course, he recommended that I should attend. I applied and was accepted in 1986.

Yes, I was a big fan of the 80’s King Crimson. In my studies with Don Ayers, he had made several transcriptions of Robert Fripp and King Crimson tunes that I was learning to play.

Robert is one of the most innovative and creative guitarists of our time. He put a lot of work into the techniques and principles that he presented on the Guitar Craft courses. He takes his guitar playing and instructing very seriously. It was obvious to me from the moment that I arrived on my first Guitar Craft course that Robert was the right instructor for me. In addition to the technical aspects of guitar playing, much of the work we did on the Guitar Craft courses was focused on our work together as a group, learning to listen to each other and becoming aware of how what we do as individuals effects the whole group. This was all very appealing to me and still is!

“Much of the work we did on the Guitar Craft courses was focused on our work together as a group, learning to listen to each other and becoming aware of how what we do as individuals effects the whole group.”

NN: How is it to play with Fripp? Is it as intimidating as it might seem?

PR: Over the years of studying with Robert and the music projects we did together, I’ve been fortunate to play with Robert many times, perhaps several hundred times. Robert is uncompromising in his approach to live performances, striving to achieve the best playing and the best performance possible in service of the music. This might seem intimidating to some, but I enjoyed the challenge and opportunity to learn from him. When we toured with the League of Crafty Guitarists (Robert and the Guitar Craft students) there were times when he was tough on us, but it was done in effort to help us improve as guitarists and improve our relationship with music. I’ve always found Robert to be very kind, generous and he has an outrageously excellent sense of humor.

NN: Does the Trio always focus on acoustic instrumentation, or guitar in all of it’s forms (electric, acoustic)? Do you ever use effects pedals?

PR: With a couple of exceptions, CGT has always focused on acoustic steel string guitar. We spent many hours, days and years practicing on our acoustic guitars on the Guitar Craft courses, so it was a natural progression for us to continue our work on the acoustic guitar when we formed the CGT in 1991. As teenagers all 3 of us played electric guitar, so we’ve always enjoyed occasionally using effects pedals and making our acoustic guitars sound more electric. On our album Andromeda, you can hear this combination of acoustic guitars and modified effected acoustic guitars. Much of that album sounds like electric guitars, although not one electric guitar was used. In contrast, our latest album Komorebi features only the pure tone of our custom built acoustic guitars with no effects at all.

NN: Relative to that, what is your favorite piece of gear, be that instrument or amp? Why?

PR: Somogyi Modified Dreadnaught guitar. That’s the one I have on in the photo. Bert, Hideyo and I met Somogyi in 1995 when we were on tour with King Crimson. We visited Somogyi at his workshop and immediately loved him and his guitars. He built a guitar for each of us featuring a Novak fanned fretboard and a custom wedge body. Very cool guitars. I played mine for nearly 20 years and recently let go of it and sold it to a guitar collector on the East coast.

NN: How does the Trio compose?

PR: Every CGT original piece has a different story on how it was composed and how it came together. Many of the pieces are collaborative. Often it happens that one of us will come up with and idea, it might be just a chord progression or melody. The three of us improvise on the idea to develop it into a piece. Sometimes this process can go very fast, and sometimes it can also take weeks or months to complete a piece. Many ideas never develop into pieces and are scrapped. We focus on the ideas that are exciting to us. Some of the tunes are composed by a single member of a group such as Komorebi, the title track from our new album that was entirely composed by Hideyo Moriya.

NN: How do you select the cover pieces you work on and what goes into that selection process?

PR: Every CGT cover tune has a different story. Some are suggestions from friends or audience members and some come from music that inspired us in the past. Hideyo is responsible for most of the Surf Guitar covers as that music was the first music he learned when he was just starting out. Most of the classical music comes from Bert with his background in classical guitar. Many of the classic rock songs come from me as I was a huge fan of Queen, Pink Floyd etc. Bert is a great arranger so he often works out the parts on his own and then presents them to Hideyo and myself. Bert did the arrangement for Good Vibrations like that on our new album.

NN: As someone who has toured far and wide, what places have resonated with you the most and why?

PR: Austin Texas; Quebec City Canada; Italy; Japan. There are many more, but those are favorites because of the people that come to our shows, and the consistently good experiences that we have in those places. In addition to the people we meet and the concerts we play, food, lodging and the beauty of the places are also significant to our experience.

On that note, is your music received different depending on location/venue? Does the sociology of a place influence your relationship to the audience?

Yes, every night is different! That is one of the exciting and challenging parts of being a performer. As you might guess, the people in Japan are much more reserved than those in Italy, but I love them both.

NN: What do you look for in a collaborator? Is there anyone that you haven’t collaborated with that you’d like to?

PR: Compatibility and musicality are the two main things I look for. One of our greatest collaborations so far was in Quebec City when we got to play Yes’ Heart of the Sunrise with Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman. On our latest album, we have some amazing collaborators including Tony Levin, Nora Germain, Davide Rossi, and Petra Haden. Petra lives near me here in West Hollywood. She is the daughter of the famous bass player Charlie Haden. Her singing on our new album is amazing and I look forward to working with her more in the near future.

“I have no idea what that Horsey sauce is!”

NN: How would you describe your relationship to Arby’s? What is Horsey Sauce really?

PR: Ha! Arby’s is one of the places we avoid, and I have no idea what that Horsey sauce is!

NN: What do you think Kenny G is doing right now?

PR: Ha! Maybe he is wondering why so many people like to talk badly about him! Personally I don’t believe in bashing other musicians or in making claims that one kind of music is better than other kinds of music. I prefer to be open to all music, even if I don’t like it. When I’m in a situation where I am hearing music that I don’t like, instead of just thinking “oh this sucks”, I prefer to try and hear what others hear in the music and understand why they like it. Many people get stuck in their “likes” and “dislikes” and that closes them off to new experiences. There are so many great bands out there touring and making new music. I enjoy Andrew Bird, St. Vincent, Grizzly Bear, Bonobo, Tycho, Bon Iver, Bent Knee, Jose Gonzales, as much as I enjoy King Crimson, Yes, Pink Floyd, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Radiohead, Led Zeppelin and Rush.

NN: What non-musical things get you excited lately and why?

PR: I live in West Hollywood, so there are always exciting things going on here. I get excited about going to the beach, taking the dog for hikes in the local canyons and parks. I’ve watched, Grand Budapest Hotel, read The Four Agreements, eaten Talésai Night+Market, Thai restaurant in my neighborhood (“Los Angeles is home to the best Thai food in America, and Night + Market is easily one of the best Thai restaurants in LA”), and drank Hoptronix Imperial IPA by New Holland Brewing.

NN: What are your top three desert island albums and why?

PR: This is a hard question for me as my favorites are always changing.

  • Radiohead – In Rainbows. I’ve listened to this album 100’s of times and never get tired of it.
  • Rush – A Farewell to Kings. At 14 years old, one of the ways I learned to play guitar was by playing along with this album.
  • Robert Fripp – Exposure. I loved the electric variety of music and intensity on this album. It was one of my favorites just before I began studying guitar with Robert in 1986.