Like many Baby Boomers, guitarist, songwriter, and record producer John Leventhal reflects the musical influences he heard growing up. The Beatles, Doc Watson, Chet Atkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Curtis Mayfield, Clarence White, and many others color his playing and musical sensibilities. He’s a lifelong New Yorker, yet his guitar work has a rootsy sound and feel that seems to hark back to another place and time. Leventhal has played in the studio with countless artists, written songs, and produced albums for his wife—Rosanne Cash—as well as Shawn Colvin, Joan Osborne, Rodney Crowell, soul singer William Bell, and many more, netting five Grammy Awards in the process.
He bought his first guitar—a Gibson J-50—during his senior year in high school. (It was stolen a year later.) He has since collected many vintage acoustics from Gibson, Martin, and Guild, in addition to classic electrics—including his trademark Fender Telecaster.
Leventhal’s production style these days is characterized by transparent textures and an economic use of carefully-crafted instrumental parts. In addition to guitar, he frequently lays down bass, drums, keyboards, and percussion tracks. Cash’s 2014 album The River & the Thread, which won three Grammys, is a showcase for Leventhal’s pristine playing and production style. The album was the fruit of a journey Cash and Leventhal took down Highway 61 from Memphis to New Orleans. Its songs capture a bit of the musical and cultural essence of America’s southland.
I caught up with Leventhal at his Manhattan studio just after he finished working on Cash’s latest, She Remembers Everything, and before he and Cash embarked on a summer tour of Europe.
Is it true that you were in your late teens when you got your first guitar?
Yeah, I came to guitar a little late. I loved music and knew a few cowboy chords, but I didn’t get my first electric guitar until my senior year in college, when I was 20. I didn’t see a path to becoming a professional musician until I was older. I started moving toward it when I was in my early 20s. I was faced with the prospect of becoming a lawyer and working with my father, so I thought I’d at least try music. It was pure dumb luck that I was able to make it all work.
Through the years, I’ve approached songwriting and collaborating from every conceivable viewpoint.
Was becoming a record producer in your plan?
I made my first record with Shawn Colvin in 1988, and I wasn’t trying to become a record producer. I was just a musician who wanted to write songs and was lucky enough to have met Shawn and things clicked. When her record hit and won a Grammy, I thought that maybe I could produce records. But I just wanted to be a songwriter and have the opportunity to make records with the songs I wrote.
Do you start with a guitar riff, chord progression, or melody?
Through the years, I’ve approached songwriting and collaborating from every conceivable viewpoint. I’ve written with guitar, piano, drum set, and in my head. I’ve put music to lyrics and written music others have put lyrics to. I’ve sat in a room with a blank slate and through the miraculous process of collaborating, we’ve written something on the spot. There isn’t a way I haven’t approached it, and that’s a conscious decision. There’s no point in getting bogged down in a preconceived way of writing. You have to open your heart and mind and pray that the muse comes through.
How do you choose which guitar to use in the studio?
There’s no specific selection process. I have certain guitars that I know are good for a song that needs a sweet-sounding strum. If it’s a fingerpicking part that needs an elegant midrange thing, I have guitars for that. I love old acoustic guitars, they are my one material vice, but I see them as tools.
What’s your approach for getting such great acoustic guitar sounds live and on record?
Live and recording are utterly different worlds for me. The gear requirements are very different. In the studio you want the microphone to translate your ideas musically to a recording. That’s different from playing live in a theater and getting your sound and musical ideas out to a thousand people. I don’t bring my vintage guitars on the road; I have a Collings OM and a Bourgeois OM that I play live. I use a Fishman Rare Earth soundhole pickup that I run through an array of guitar pedals, including tremolo and delay. I put that through a Fender amp. I also have an undersaddle pickup that goes direct to the house and the two signals are blended 50-50. It’s not stereo, but the two sounds create a pretty musical voice for me live.
In the studio, a lot of times I’ll play my 1944 Martin 000-21; it’s a really great recording guitar. The mic that has been the sound of my acoustic guitars on record for over a decade has been a Microtech Gefell UMT 70 S, a large-diaphragm condenser mic. I use it with a Geoff Daking preamp and an Empirical Labs Distressor for a little compression to keep the dynamics contained. For the most part, I place the mic halfway between the soundhole and where the neck meets the body. Most of the time I record acoustic guitars in mono, although on Rosanne’s new album I experimented with recording the guitars in stereo. That’s complicated because you don’t hear guitars in stereo in the real world.
There’s no point in getting bogged down in a preconceived way of writing.
Among my other guitars are a 1946 Gibson Southern Jumbo and a 1956 J-45. I also have a late 1930s J-35 and a 1962 J-50. So basically, one Gibson dreadnought or jumbo from each decade between 1930 and 1960. They’re all excellent recording instruments, each with its own character
Can you share thoughts on the development of your guitar style?
I had an epiphany that the strongest suit I had to play was what made me different from other guitarists. I had a slightly eccentric approach to the guitar and felt I’d be better off maximizing that, rather than trying to fit into someone else’s idea of what a good guitar player is. It was powerful to have that epiphany and move toward it. I’m glad I did because it led me to a decent career.
[Asked what about his style is eccentric, Leventhal showed me how he tucks the pick into his right hand so he can mute strings with his thumb while fingerpicking with the other digits, and then instantly switch to the pick for more articulation of the bass notes or to strum chords. He uses a large triangular pick, a 1.5mm Dunlop Primetone Sculpted Plectra. With this pick, he says, “It feels like I’m pulling the tone out of the string. I go for a bit of a thump on the low end. I want to bring out the low mids.”]
Do you and Rosanne tour mainly as a duo?
We do about 50 dates per year, but we also have a band in which I play a Telecaster and acoustic guitar. When we go out as a duo, I just bring an acoustic guitar. The duo has developed into a wonderful thing. People like it, the overhead is low, and we make a decent living with it.
What can you say about Rosanne’s upcoming album?
I produced half of it and she did the other half with a great engineer named Tucker Martine from Portland, Oregon. Rosanne and I had worked closely on the last couple of records and she needed a break from her willful and opinionated husband. We wrote some songs together, which I produced, and she wrote others on her own and recorded them with Tucker. The record will come out in October.
What other projects are you working on currently?
Rosanne and I have been writing songs for a Broadway musical based on the movie from the ’70s titled Norma Rae. It’s about the unionizing of textile factory workers in a Southern town. We got the call after The River & the Thread came out and was getting a lot of press. I think they thought of us because the story takes place in the South.
Rosanne and I also started doing a live project with Ry Cooder in May. It’s a great band with guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards where Ry and Rosanne sing the songs. It has been a highlight of my career to work with Ry because he has been such a huge influence on me. I’ve also been writing songs with Shawn Colvin to see if we can come up with enough for an album. As well, I hope to finish my own solo record by the end of the year.
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.