Chuck Berry once sang that Johnny B. Goode played guitar like “ringing a bell.” George Harrison said his guitar “gently weeps.” Bryan Adams said his “first real six string” was “bought at the five and dime,” while John Mellencamp simply encouraged his listeners to “play guitar.”
Indeed, if there’s one instrument that’s almost a necessity in modern music, it’s the guitar. Yet while it’s essential to rock ‘n’ roll, it’s also intrinsic to other forms of music as well — jazz, blues, classical and practically every other genre that requires some form of craft and creativity.
The California Guitar Trio has epitomized that diversity in the music it’s made since 1991. That’s when the group spun off from the aptly named League of Crafty Guitarists, a 12-piece ensemble founded by Robert Fripp, the innovative mastermind behind the English progressive band King Crimson. That project in turn, was spawned in 1987 from a series of guitar camps, seminars and retreats Fripp organized while teaching his technique.
In the years since, the trio — comprised of Bert Lams, Hideyo Moriya and Paul Richards — has established a unique niche within the realms of modern music, one that blends a variety of styles, from rock and world music to jazz, classical and even surf and spaghetti Western music as part of their unique and sprawling synthesis of sounds. They’ve touched on just about every influence imaginable, from the Beatles and the Beach Boys to Bach, Beethoven and any number of other innovative outfits.
The result is a composite of styles that know no boundaries, and yet, at the same time, provides a close connection to the audiences they’ve performed for worldwide. With 16 albums to their credit, their music has served as the soundtrack for coverage of the Olympics, as well as for programming on CNN, CBS, NBC and ESPN. At one point, NASA utilized the trio’s as a wake-up call for the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour.
A decade ago, the Trio began collaborating with the like-minded outfit, the Montreal Guitar Trio, after the members met at a music conference.
“We had heard about them before, and they were familiar with us as well,” Richards said, speaking from the back of the band’s van en route from Chicago to Detroit. “They heard us play and we heard them play, and then later, coincidentally, we found ourselves on the same flight. That’s when we suggested that it might be interesting to do some shows together. When we started rehearsing together we could tell there was something very special about the two groups working together. It’s now been 10 years, and we spend part of each year performing with one another.”
Yet despite a decade of working in tandem, they only released their first collaborative studio album, “In A Landscape,” late last year. When the two trios perform together at the Clayton Center for the Arts on Saturday, they’ll focus on music from that album as well as doing separate sets in the first half of the program.
“We’ve been associated with progressive rock bands, but I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re a progressive rock group,” Richards said, “We’re mostly acoustic, and we do lots of different styles of music. In any of our albums, you’ll hear anything from classical compositions to the music of Dick Dale. We also create our own music, which is more in a textural, ambient style. We also like to do well-known covers. We’re getting most of our spins on Pandora right now from our version of ‘Sleep Walk,’ which is an old instrumental standard by Santo and Johnny.”
He credits the musicians’ individual influences as an essential part of their musical mix. Lams was classically trained at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Brussels. Moriya favors surf music and went on to become a champion of that sound in his native Japan, as well as a student at the Berklee School of Music. Richards, a graduate of the University of Utah’s music program, was inspired by the sounds of jazz and blues.
“When we first met the Montreal Guitar Trio, we found they were doing something completely different than the three of us were doing,” Richards said. “That was one of the things that attracted us. We’re very eclectic as a trio, but adding what they do makes it even more varied and diverse in terms of the repertoire. They play classical-style guitars, and we play acoustic style guitar, so the combination makes for a very interesting texture and tonality.”
Richards said that the four years they spent working with the expansive ensemble that was the League of Crafty Guitarists gave them the experience they needed to combine their creativity.
“It helped us establish a good way of working with other musicians,” Richards said. “It taught us to trust one another and that allowed us to merge together well. You have to be able to listen to the other musicians and then weave it all together. It can be a barrage of guitars and it takes a lot of effort to ensure all the pieces fit.”
Not only that, but Richards added that it’s also important that both trios bring their best efforts forward.
“They’re high caliber players,” he said. “We really have to be on top of our game.”