When Danny Kortchmar, a session musician and songwriter best known for his stellar guitar work with James Taylor, Carole King, Warren Zevon, and Jackson Browne, became one third of Kortchmar, Postell & Navarro last year, it—remarkably—marked the first time he’d played acoustic guitar in concert. The co-writer of such hits as Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” and “New York Minute,” and Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby,” Kortchmar had used an acoustic guitar plenty in the studio, but had always plugged in when he hit the road.
Kortchmar’s been on an enjoyable learning curve ever since he formed the trio with Steve Postell and Dan Navarro in 2016. During a break between the threesome’s many shows at the 2017 Folk Alliance International conference, Kortchmar sat down to talk about learning new tricks on acoustic guitar.
What has been the biggest adjustment switching from electric to acoustic guitar live?
I’m used to playing solos on electric guitar, but you’ve got to find a different way when you play acoustic guitar. What I’m trying to do is find more open strings, sympathetic strings, more drone effects, as opposed to just blues licks, although I tend to revert back to the blues licks. That’s what I know. I’m not like Vince [Gill] or these guys who are geniuses and play great acoustic guitar. I’m still learning how to play what I want to play on acoustic.
Did you write on an acoustic guitar previously?
When I’d write with Don [Henley], I’d write on synthesizer, keyboards, drum machines, electric guitar—everything. “New York Minute” I wrote on piano, but I can only play in two keys or something, so the whole thing had to be transposed and they had to get real musicians in.
How is it different for you writing on acoustic guitar now?
The main difference is a lot of my music is based on beat. I’m very interested in rhythm, big beat, and always have been. With acoustic guitar, I start thinking a little more melodically and harmonically. There’s no place to hide on acoustic guitar. You can’t do it with just big sound or big effects, you have to come up with something.
Do you have a new appreciation for acoustic masters you’ve played with like James Taylor?
James is one of the greatest acoustic guitar players ever, ever, ever. I learned a lot from listening to him. James covers everything. He covers the bass parts with his thumb; harmony is here; and it all sits right there. [Bassist] Lee Sklar used to say, “I’m just playing James’ thumb.” When James sits by himself, he works out all the parts. When I’m playing acoustic guitar, I’m trying to play with what everybody is doing. On electric guitar, I play fragments of what everyone’s doing—I don’t try to cover the whole thing.
What are the similarities between electric and acoustic for you?
There’s one thing that’s absolutely true about electric and acoustic guitar: The guitar tells you what it likes. It tells you what it wants you to do. Certain guitars like to be played a certain way and there are other guitars that don’t. That’s the thing—listen to the guitar, do what it wants.
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.