On a bright Saturday morning last June, I sat in Laurence Juber’s studio in Studio City, California, having a good look around while Juber prepared a Pro Tools session in the control room. A raft of Martins, from an ancient 1-21 to the most recent LJ signature model; another Martin LJ whose body had been fashioned into the base of a table lamp; boxes and boxes of strings in their packaging; and even a guitar-styled toilet seat in the adjacent bathroom suggested that this was the domain of musician who is all about the six-string. And so it was a little surprising when Juber emerged, sat down with one of his signature guitars, and said, “What’s fundamental in understanding my approach to the guitar is to recognize that I consider myself a musician first—and a guitarist second.”
Juber is one of the world’s most celebrated fingerstyle guitarists, a two-time Grammy winner, who, over the course of more than two-dozen solo albums, has developed a distinct personal voice on the steel-string acoustic. His approach to the instrument reveals a deep understanding of how the dots between different eras and styles of Western music are connected, and, perhaps most important, a consistently impeccable sense of timing.
I was visiting with Juber to gain a better understanding of how he plays—and how he thinks. We were in the space, a converted pool house next to his residence, that has for decades been his musical laboratory. The guitarist, well-preserved at 65, was wearing the fashionable combination of a deconstructed blazer over a dark T-shirt, and a peace-sign necklace. He came across as refined and erudite, with an unfaded enthusiasm for music and a spirit of generosity in sharing it. Apropos of a book he was writing—with the working title The Evolution of the Fingerstyle Guitar, to be published by Hal Leonard—Juber gave me an informal lecture on the history of the guitar, from its 16th-century origins to its impact on harmonic sequences in contemporary popular music.
“That’s interesting about J. S. Bach’s ‘Bourrée’ [in E minor] is that Bach didn’t play the lute, and it didn’t make any sense to play it on the Baroque lute, which was in D minor tuning,” Juber said. “But it works great on guitar. Chet Atkins recorded it on his Gretsch on an album that came out in 1957, Hi-Fi in Focus. If you’ve ever seen Paul McCartney in concert, he talks about how he and George tried to learn the bourrée, but couldn’t get it quite right. But you can see where [the Beatles song] ‘Blackbird’—with the whole idea of moving tenths—comes from.”
Juber played me a selection of the works he had recorded in his studio as a companion album (titled Touchstones) for the book, the earliest of them “La Bernardina,” originally a vocal piece by the Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez. Juber’s interpretation was based on a lute arrangement that appeared in what was essentially the first book of tablature, Intabolatura de lauto libro primo (1507), by the Italian lutenist and composer Francesco Spinacino. The recording sounded fresh—with Juber’s buoyant sense of rhythm—but also ancient.
It took me a moment to realize that Juber had recorded it not on the expected nylon-string, but on one of his Martins. He explained that one of the motivations behind the project wasn’t to teach technique, but to draw steel-string players into a rich repertoire that they might not have otherwise discovered. “I’ve got a lovely nylon-string that my friend [classical luthier] Greg Brandt, who lives just down the road, made for me,” he said, “but I myself have always felt much more at home on the steel-string.”
Juber’s own musical history is long and storied—equal parts right-place, right-time luck and “dogged determination” as he puts it, claiming not to have been naturally prodigious on the instrument. In a nutshell: Juber grew up in London and took up the guitar at age 10, in 1963, the same week the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was released. He began playing professionally just several years later; studied musicology, guitar, and lute at London’s Goldsmiths College; and then established himself as a top-shelf session player in the 1970s—that’s Juber on the theme for The Spy Who Loved Me, the 1977 James Bond film.
Through his work as a studio musician, in 1978 Juber had the good fortune of being offered the lead guitar slot in Paul and Linda McCartney’s Wings, a gig that afforded him international exposure, as well as an extension to his college education. “I got my master’s degree in music from the University of McCartney,” Juber likes to say, referring to what he learned in terms of songwriting, arranging, and the entertainment business from his stint with Wings.
After Wings’ dissolution in 1981, Juber moved first to New York and then to Los Angeles, where he started a family while reconnecting with the studio world. He recorded guitar instrumentals for television shows like Home Improvement and Roseanne, and wrote scores for A Very Brady Christmas and Children of the Harvest, among others. At the same time, he began his adventures as a solo guitarist in earnest with the release of his 1990 album, titled, appropriately enough, Solo Flight. He has since developed his oeuvre of solo guitar music with the help of the writer, songwriter, and playwright Hope Juber, his wife of 36 years and his producer.
“When making an album, I have to be careful not to overthink things. That’s one of the reasons I like working with Hope, especially on the Beatles stuff,” Juber said, referring to his recordings of Fab Four arrangements. “It was her idea to do the series in the first place. I was really reluctant; I had always thought of myself as a composer and not as an arranger… In any case, I’ll do a take and it’s like, ‘Well, I’m sorry—that wasn’t very good.’ And she’ll say, ‘Oh, no—that was the best yet.’”
As Juber spends a considerable amount of time in DADGAD tuning on his solo albums—including his recent recording of the Beatles’ “Day Tripper”—we decided it was only natural for him to give a lesson in this tuning. The notation presented here highlights some of his most exciting discoveries through working in DADGAD for the last three decades.
One of the things that Juber likes best about DADGAD tuning is the way in which he can express melodies in a harp-like way, with a combination of open strings and fretted notes. “Basically, it’s this cascading effect,” he explained. “I’m not playing in a linear fashion, but fingering across the strings. Certain patterns emerge, and they sometimes lead to compositional concepts, like ‘Pass the Buck,’ an early tune of mine.”
Juber demonstrates the effect in Example 1, with groups of consecutive notes falling strictly in the D major scale. To play this figure, stop the fourth-fret notes with your first finger and the seventh-fret E with your fourth finger, holding down each note for as long as possible. Pick the notes with whatever fingering patterns feel most comfortable, making sure that the open and fretted notes are at equal volume. Practice the pattern as written, and try changing up the note order as well.
As seen in Example 2, Juber adds a bunch of fretting-hand shifts, from seventh to tenth to ninth in bar 1 alone, to demonstrate the same concept across a wider swath of fretboard territory. Notice how Juber, using his thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers, is able to play four-note scalar groupings in a rapid-fire way. Learn these moves slowly, gradually increasing the tempo until you can cleanly play along with Juber on the accompanying video.
THE PICKLESS PICK
Though in his solo acoustic work Juber mostly plays fingerstyle, using the flesh of his fingertips rather than his nails, he sometimes uses what he calls the “pickless pick”—placing his thumb and index finger together, as if holding a pick, to create driving rhythmic effects. This is informed by strumming styles of all eras. “In the Baroque style, you had a lot of strummage going on that got absorbed into the rasgueados of flamenco as we know it, in Spain, in the mid-19th century,” Juber said. “And if you really want to study great right-hand technique, just watch Pete Townshend, with all of those 16th-note triplets that he does.”
Juber demonstrates his own approach to strumming in Example 3, with a I–bVII–IV progression that makes good use of the droning open strings in DADGAD. Using alternating strokes, he attacks the downward strums with the nail of his index finger and catches the upward strums with the nail of his thumb. To do the same, try pendulum strumming—keep your hand moving in a continuous down-up movement, even when you’re not coming into contact with the strings. Also, it might be helpful to subdivide: Feel the music in eighth notes, rather than quarters, in the interest of rhythmic precision, which is crucial for playing with that pickless pick.
IT DON’T MEAN A THING IF IT AIN’T GOT THAT GROOVE
Juber has ultimately found so many new wrinkles in DADGAD by constantly experimenting in the tuning, through composing pieces based on his findings, and by creating self-sufficient arrangements of popular rock, blues, and jazz fare that guitarists more commonly play in standard tuning. “When I arrange a new piece, the first thing I do is I look for the melody and how I can best articulate it,” he said. “I then get the bass part to work seamlessly with the melody, followed by the inner parts, and then I figure out how to make it all groove.”
The sum of these parts often results in colorful harmonies, many of them difficult or even impossible to play in standard tuning. Juber played me an arrangement he was working on of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” the jazz standard by the late jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus. Juber’s chord choices, a handful of which are shown in Example 4, lend a pianistic effect to the arrangement. On paper, some of the voicings might look tricky with their note clusters, but all are easy on the fretting hand, a bunch requiring only two fingers.
“It’s important to recognize that the music is the ultimate goal, not the technique,” Juber noted. “You can YouTube amazing guitar players—just incredible technicians—and yet you can also find a kid who doesn’t necessarily have the technique but has groove for days. For me, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that groove, to misquote [jazz composer Duke] Ellington.”
Juber demonstrates his unimpeachable groove on the old standard “Limehouse Blues,” depicted in Example 5. It’s fascinating to unpack the guitarist’s arrangement. In bars 1–4, he works out the melody in an efficient way, using his first and fourth fingers on the second and third frets, respectively. He also uses the open second string as a melodic note, thus adding timbral variety while freeing up his other fretting fingers to play the bass notes.
The bass line is a standard alternating pattern common to much blues and folk guitar, but it sounds fresh in this jazz context. And this dominant texture is disrupted with a series of thumb-strummed chordal accents, in bars 11, 15–16, and elsewhere, mixing typical jazz voicings with more rock-like, one-finger suspended chords. The guitarist caps off his performance with a sly allusion to what’s known colloquially as the Oriental riff, a cliché meant to imitate an East Asian sound, which he transforms into something new by harmonizing it in sus2 voicings (see measures 31–32 of the full notation on AG’s website). This leads to some more of those excellent jazz chords, bringing things to a close with a bright and uncommon Cadd9 chord way up the neck.
A good strategy for learning to play Juber’s arrangement of “Limehouse Blues”—or any contrapuntal guitar piece, for that matter—is to think about the music not in terms of its separate horizontal components (melody, bass line, etc.), but as a series of vertical snapshots. Look at beat 1 of bar 1, for instance, and you’ll see just the third-fret F; on the “and” of that beat is the lone open second string. If you practice the whole piece like this—beat by beat, measure by measure, and phrase by phrase—things should click into place. And remember not to lose sight of the all-important groove as you put everything together.
It’s one thing to be able to make an arrangement in DADGAD, solidify it in your muscle memory, and practice it to perfection. But it’s quite another thing to have a large bank of melodic and harmonic ideas in the tuning, which you can draw from to improvise fluidly—and with rhythmic verve. “You have to get into the zone and just trust that there’s no agenda that goes along with it,” said Juber, who seemed to do just that when he soloed on a chorus of “Limehouse Blues” (Example 6).
A solo guitarist like Tuck Andress or Charlie Hunter might be inclined to simultaneously—and freakishly—play a melodic line, a bass line, and chords when soloing, but Juber takes a different course here. He toggles between single-note lines and block-chord textures, for kinetic effect. And while it’s common for a jazz soloist to improvise in steady streams of eighth notes, Juber keeps things interesting with a range of note values and rhythmic patterns.
When he isn’t stating chords directly, as in the first two measures and elsewhere, Juber plays in such a way that the tune’s harmonic backbone is easy to discern. He lands on key notes at key moments—for example, he hits the C chord’s root, C, squarely on beat 1 in bar 9, and anticipates the root of bar 17’s F9 chord on beat 4 of the preceding measure.
Keep in mind that soloing on a jazz tune in DADGAD is some next-level stuff, especially at a swift tempo. Though Juber appeared to sail through the solo with fleet-fingered assurance, when he was done, he paused and said, “It’s so much easier when there’s somebody else playing with me!”
As our informal lesson ended, Juber beamed as his wife—who was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of her comic protest band, The Nasty Housewives—entered quietly to say hello. I didn’t want to overstay my welcome, but the guitarist had more to share: a recording of a fun rock band in which he plays electric guitar; the cherry-red Gibson CS-356 he has put to excellent use in that context; the well-loved 1993 Collings OM1 he played on his albums Mosaic, Altered Reality, and LJ Plays the Beatles; and some Sibelius notation files he had created for the book he was working on. After a while, Juber walked me outside to my rental car, still talking enthusiastically about music. Driving away, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw him disappear in the direction of the studio that was beckoning him.
What He Plays
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Laurence Juber is a longtime C. F. Martin & Company endorser, and his main acoustic guitars presently include three cutaway OM-style signature models—the OMC-44LJ, with an Adirondack spruce top and koa back and sides; the OMC-18LJ, with High Alpine moon-spruce top and mahogany back and sides; and the OMC-21LJ, his current live guitar, with its moon spruce top and Guatemalan rosewood back and sides.
Juber also plays the new Martin 00-18 Authentic 1931, as well as an 1893 Martin 1-21, a recent acquisition from Schoenberg Guitars. He strings all of the guitars with Martin LJ’s Choice Retro medium-light strings (.013, .017, .024, .032, .042, .056), save for the 1-21, which was made before Martin braced its guitars for steel strings, on which he uses Retro Extra Light strings (.010, .013, .023, .029, .038, .047).
When playing live, Juber uses the D-Tar Wavelength preamp and undersaddle pickup and an Audix micro-sized omni-directional lavalier mic, mounted to the endpin jack, as opposed to inside the soundhole. He runs his guitar through a Grace Design FELiX preamp and a TC Electronic HOF (Hall of Fame) Mini Reverb pedal, using custom Mogami cables, and he stays in tune with TC Electronic’s PolyTune 2 Noir.
THANKS FOR READING! If you need help reading the musical examples in this post, click here to download our free Acoustic Guitar Notation Guide.
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.