On “Little Satchel,” the most traditional number on Sarah Jarosz’s brilliant new album, World on the Ground (see link to review below), Jarosz sings and plays clawhammer banjo while her producer, John Leventhal, lends spare but effective guitar parts. Leventhal’s instrument—a late 1930s Gibson J-35 that he has owned for years—has a particularly robust and direct sound. “It’s a great recording guitar with a really beautiful and usable low end,” he says.
Apparently not much pre-planning went into the recording of “Little Satchel”; a lot of improvisation is apparent in the details of the guitar part, a representative sample of which is captured in the notation here. “Sarah and I just sat next to each other, no headphones, and played the song a couple of times,” Leventhal says. “The second time felt right. I intuitively knew to give her plenty of space, and just add a few little things where I felt them.”
Leventhal’s less-is-more approach basically involves holding long tones when Jarosz’s melody is active and adding subtle fills during breaks between vocal phrases, with an emphasis on the guitar’s lower register. Rather than strumming full chords—which would clutter up the sonic spectrum, especially given the banjo part—he plays single notes and chord fragments, pretty much all of them just two notes. But the guitar parts do not sound calculated. “I’ve been producing and playing on records for over 35 years, so at this point I try not to think too much when I first approach anything and hope/trust that the appropriate music spirits guide me,” Leventhal says. “They generally seem to—thankfully.”