The Guitarists of Snarky Puppy: Making Sonic Territory

By Ross, Michael | Guitar Player, May 2016 | Go to article overview

The Guitarists of Snarky Puppy: Making Sonic Territory


Ross, Michael, Guitar Player


ASK ANYONE HOW TO HAVE A successful band in this second decade of the new Millennium and the answers would not likely include recording jazz/ funk/fusion with a rotating cast of 18 musicians and touring with as many as 13 at a time. Fortunately bassist Mike League didn't ask. He went ahead and created a band of just that description, called Snarky Puppy, through a series of jam sessions at the University of North Texas in 2004.

Snarky Puppy has since carved their niche in the music landscape through masterful musicianship, catchy compositions, and a dozen years of hard work, garnering two Grammys and a rabid following who voted them Best Jazz Group in Downbeat's 2015 Reader's Poll, as well as Best New Artist and Best Electric/Jazz-Rock/Contemporary Group/Artist in jazz Times' 2014 Reader's Poll.

In addition to bass, drums, keys, horns, and percussionists, the band currently employs a trio of world class guitarists: Bob Lanzetti, Mark Lettieri, and Chris McQueen, all three of whom appear on the band's current release, Family Dinner Volume II [Ground Up].

"Mike League and I came to the University of North Texas at the exact same time and played together a bunch right from the beginning," says McQueen. Lanzetti too attended North Texas. "I played with a lot of those guys in different configurations before we even started the band," he says.

When neither Lanzetti nor McQueen were available for a string of early Snarky Puppy gigs, League called Mark Lettieri. "We were doing session work together in Dallas and playing with some other artists," recalls Lettieri.

Playing with other artists is a big part of each guitarist's career: Lettieri works with Erykah Badu and Kirk Franklin; Lanzetti with Banda Magda and Afro-beat Underground System; and McQueen plays in an offshoot band with League called FORQ his own pop group Foe Destroyer, and was in the guitar chair for the David Bowie musical Lazarus.

As you might imagine, this can cause some of the aforementioned availability issues. "When we get the demo, everyone learns all the parts: the chords, the bass line, and the melody," says Lettieri. This allows the three guitarists to fill in the parts of whoever might be missing, or cover more than one part should they be the sole guitarist. But how does it work when all three are present?

"It's a matter of listening really well," says McQueen, "In the early days, if there were two or three guitar players onstage, it was a bit of a mess sometimes. Through the course of playing night after night we learned to shut up and listen to each other more. I took a lesson with keyboard player Bernard Wright, who taught me about separating a line into call and response. If there's only one guitar player, I might play the call and the response, and if there are two, I might just play the call or only the response. If there are more of us, I'll play just two notes per measure instead of eight because I'm letting other people fill in the space." "There might be a section where Mark takes the reins," says Lanzetti. "Another night it might be me or Chris. Everything is fluid all the time."

Though all three guitarists can handle any of the required parts, their styles vary. "My style is a funk-rock-soul thing," says Lettieri, "Bob likes building soundscapes with reverbs and delays. My comping style comes more from the funk thing. His comes from an Afrobeat language at times. Chris has a little stronger straight-ahead jazz background than us, but he's also really funky." McQueen too can get textural. "I'm the most influenced by Radiohead and electronic music and stuff that might not even sound like a guitar," he says.

For Snarky Puppy parts that do sound like guitar, the Strat-style reigns supreme. "I usually play my Don Grosh Strat," says Lettieri. "It's easier for me to express myself on the Strat because of the way the band works." McQueen agrees. "I go for my Tokai Strat with Lollar pickups, because that seems to be the sound of the band. …

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