Interview With Chris Duarte On Playing And Practicing Blues Guitar

by Antony Reynaert

Antony:      So, my name is Antony Reynaert from, and today I will be talking to legend Chris Duarte on the topic of playing the blues.

Chris:    I’m honored.

Antony:   You probably gathered a lot of knowledge about blues and playing the blues and I’m sure you have a lot of information that you have to share on the topic of playing from intermediate to maybe even advanced blues guitarist. Maybe we can talk about starting out on the instrument, like what to do as a beginner, but first, I wanted to ask you about your background in music and I was wondering why did you really turn to the guitar in the first place? Why did you pick up the instrument?

Chris:    The reason I turned to the guitar is my older brother got a guitar first and was constantly picking that thing up. Then my mom got me a guitar my older brother got a classical guitar and then I got a steel string. This was probably I think back in the late seventies, probably ‘76, ‘77. They were Tonka mini guitars back then. He has the classical Tonka mini, then I got the acoustic steel string Tonka mini. I just noticed I that could pick things up real fast. We had a lot of Beatles books. That’s where I kind of learned from. The chords were right over where the words were so it was real easy for me to see the concept of reading music like that. I would say I was about 14, 15 when that happened.

Antony:  Cool. Yea, I started playing too at 14 years old. From that age, did you ever start taking guitar lessons or you were self-taught?

Chris:    I was self-taught up until I was about 17. I left high school - which I don't condone that activity or that decision. To the kids, stay in school, get an education. My family was a little dysfunctional. We weren’t bad, dysfunctional. We kind of fell apart. I was always independent and I just figured I’m going to move to Austin, Texas because we lived in San Antonio which was just about, I don’t know, 75 miles south which is probably about 130 kilometers for y’all. And I moved there because we started hearing about Austin being this hot music town. Even in high school we were hearing about all these great bands in Austin. So I moved up there when I was still 16 years old. I lived in an apartment with a friend of mine who was a bass player and for my bass player who had just a basic, rudimentary knowledge because his dad was a minister in a church and so he was in the choir. So he knew how to read music and write it. So he taught me the basics of reading and writing but still, I was pretty much still an ear player. Back then progressive rock was still big. I was a big Yes fan, really big. So I was learning a bunch of Yes tunes and of course I heard Al Di Meola and McLaughlin when I was young and I was like, oh I want to be like that, not thinking anything of blues. I thought blues was this simple little art form that could be done any time. I’m going for the hard stuff and when I got in a blues band, a real blues band, I quickly realized that I was a terrible blues player and so I had to really sort of study up on the blues and listen to a lot of the legends, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Freddie King, BB King, Albert King, listen to all those people. My first boss, Bobby Mack made me play solos note for note so I could start getting some concepts going. For a couple of years we toured around Texas. There I was, I was 17 and we’re touring around the state of Texas, which is still a pretty big state and playing a lot of gigs. That's really how I got the firm foundation for the blues.

Antony:   Cool, cool. So are there any skills you had trouble developing? You talked about being a bad blues player when you started out.

Chris:    Yea, let me turn this radio off. Okay, back in. Blues skills, yea, I mean - what it was. I don't know if you can hear this. Can you hear that?

Antony:  Yea.

Chris:    Can you hear that down there? So back then I was trying to do, you know, [scales] I was trying to do that but playing something like but that was so beyond me to make it sound that sincere because there’s a difference between somebody who was kind of like- what we referred to as white boy blues. It’s kind of lacking a little bit of soul; it’s lacking a bit of finesse. That’s how musicians referred to it. It’s kind of rockfish instead of being more soulful and sounding more like a voice and that’s what I quickly realized when I started playing blues, playing some of the Muddy Waters tunes, playing some Freddie King’s tunes. I didn’t - I wasn’t sounding like those records I was learning the solos off of. So what I’d say is start trying to copy some of those Freddie’s stuff and some of the Albert King. It’s not easy to do that, to try to get it to come out like that, to sing out like that. I’d say listen to the masters. You can’t go wrong starting off with the three Kings. BB King, Albert King and Freddy King.

Antony:  That’s right. That's like blues 101 education right there.

Chris:    Definitely.

Antony:  So how important do you consider learning music theory, especially for blues guitarists?

Chris:     For blues guitarists, I mean if you just want to stay in the field and sort of pop around as they say the blues scale, the bebop scale or whatever marker you want to put on that scale, it’s cool. You can do that by ear and come up with some different stuff. You’ll probably get as advanced as Alvin Lee because Alvin Lee, I think, was a cat that really sort of bopped around and did a lot. He probably listened to some jazz cats and stuff, but if you want to start painting with different colors, I would suggest you start to learn some scales just to get your dexterity up for moving round the next and then start to learn how chords are built. What chords are in the major scale, you know, the minor two, the minor three, the four, and the five, the minor six. The seven is your minor seven flat five, or diminished, you know, and the triads. Start learning that and that gives you more colors to paint with.

Antony:  All right, what about learning to develop your own personal style? Did it go like right away when you started out playing guitar did you have the Chris Duarte sound or did it take a long time before you got there?

Chris:    I’m still searching for my own voice. I think I’ve found it. I’ve got some little sort of quirks to my playing and isms as we would say, Chris Duarte-isms, the way I phrase things, the way I approach things, and the form of a song. I wasn’t a natural. Naturals can just have that natural voice. Me, it took me a lot of work. There’s going to be a point where any player, it’s natural evolution for somebody to mimic somebody. That's just natural and it takes a while for you after mimicking them for a while, to start finding your own voice in there and start branching out and connecting other ideas and personalities that kind of influence you. I mean me- I mean there was a time I went through a real bad Stevie phase, Stevie and Albert King and listening to those guys a lot but eventually, I started bringing in some of the Charlie Patton, bringing in some of the John Coltrane, Allan Holdsworth, you know, just little bits. I’m not saying go full blown with those people. You sort of bring in little ones but that’s going to be a lot of trial and error as you're finding out.

Antony:  Yea, so about these jazz influences. Sometimes when you are playing, you are playing the Stevie Ray Vaughn kind of the thing but then what I find really intriguing about your playing style, like your lead guitar soloing, at the end of the solo you might do something really else like jazz or a fast - I call it progressive rock type lick. How did you develop this kind of playing? Was it by listening to the jazz greats and trying out their licks on your own blues playing or did you study other things like rock or metal progressive style of playing?

Chris:    Well definitely I do listen to some rock guys. Mainly in the beginning, it was the jazz guys and I remember I went and got a Charlie Parker, there’s a book by Charlie Parker called “The Omnibook” and I got that and I would listen to all these Charlie Parker solos and I’d learn some of the solos and sometime is would just wonder- I’d hear a lick and I’d say what’s he doing and I’d go see it and see what chords he’s putting it over and analyze it in my own rudimentary way. I mean there’s a lot more people who have a lot more education in music than I do who can analyze that a lot faster than me but that’s what I was doing and then I would start trying to put that in over those chords, when those chords come up or just transpose it. If it’s in the key of C, if it’s in the key of D, you know, I’ll know. With guitar players we’re very lucky because the pattern is very interchangeable on the neck. It’s not like a piano or a saxophone where the whole fingering scheme is very different. So we’re very lucky as guitar players that if I play my fingers in a C, I know I can play that exact same pattern on F. I get the same results. I’m going to have an F scale or a C scale. And if I play a lick, you know, that’s going to be open in the key of A. I can do that same thing, know where the seven is on it so if it’s going to be in the key of D, I can do that. We’re so lucky to be guitar players. But that’s how I started, getting solos from some of my idols and seeing what they did over those chords or I would learn the whole solo and sort of work from there.
There was a time I was playing that a whole lot. I was playing a moment’s notice, some of Charlie Parker tune, “Solidarity”, and that’s how you learn some licks. Another thing I wanted to say too is a lot of what I’m doing in my practicing, I’m practicing intervals like the thirds, fours, fifths, and sort of change it up, go up and down. You know and then and do that with all them, you know? You sort of work that with it. What that does is it trains your ear to listen to intervals and if you're playing stuff you can hear it. You’ll hear stuff on the radio, you’ll know what lick he’s playing because you’ve heard those intervals so much but it takes a lot for me, I’m not a genius. I’m not a natural phenomenon. I have to do hours upon hours of hours of that practicing. To this day, I try to put in a couple of hours every day when I’m at home. On the road, sometimes it’s a lot harder but I try to practice at least one hour every day.

Antony:  Yea, cool. Me too. That's great advice. Is there advice you would give to beginner or intermediate blues players that want to - do you think that memorizing licks would be a good thing or would you recommend a more organic approach where they’re listening more to music and they start to apply the things they're playing and the things they hear?

Chris:    Learning licks is cool. It’s a way to start having fun right away. I think that's important too because nobody beginning the guitar wants to hear what I normally tell people when beginning on the guitar, “get a metronome and learn how your chords are built.” That’s dry. The metronome I grew up with, basically, not the one you see sitting on the piano and things like that. It was a Boss DB6, Doctor B. It’s pretty much just straight up beats but then I found one that’s a lot more fun. I’ve got the DB60 right there. That’ll play different rhythms and stuff. If I want to play at different rhythms and stuff - where is the shuffle? They got shuffles in here, they got a zillion beats, they got country and that way it makes it fun to practice stuff. So we’ll have something like that and even a boring old C major scale, you know, that’s all the C scale and that makes a little bit more musical, makes it a little more fun. Find a metronome that has different beats. You don’t have to be old school like I was, just bang it out, straight drone of like- what a metronome helps you do is it help you develop time. You don’t always have to play on the beat. You could play a little bit in front of it, you could play a little bit in back of it. That’s how you start really learning how to work with the metronome and the reason I say how chords are built, so if you're playing it in C and if it goes to F and then it goes to G and then back to C and that’s just real dry stuff I’m playing here. So like, you’ll learn the licks back to C, G, F, back to C and those are just little licks that I learned and I’m sort of stretching them out and connecting them up with other ideas. It’s going to sound pretty dry for a while but the more you practice you more you get around, the more you know your instrument, the more melodic you can start to make it happen for you. You can start connecting up these melodic ideas that you hear in your head.

Antony:  Yea well I found through the years, if you can play melodically over the chords and background, without the chords being there the moment you play the lead, then you're really off to a great start but that doesn’t happen the first years of playing for most guitarists because that takes a lot of time and practice and building up to that point.

Chris:    Right. I mean, it’s supposed to be hard. It’d be boring if it was easy because then everybody would be great and it’d be a bland world. It’s supposed to be hard. You’re supposed to find new things and to find your own voice. I think that’s the biggest compliment any artist- or his biggest ambition is to find his own voice amongst all the other voices out there, to set him apart.

Antony:  So you would recommend playing a lot with a metronome in your lead playing but what about rhythm playing? Is there like a way that people who are playing for one or two years can get to the professional sounding rhythm playing? Like guys like Stevie Ray Vaughn can hit the guitar really hard. They can bang on it and it gives a really powerful feeling. Within the first months to the first years, you’re not going to develop the strength in your fingers. The muting part, the left hand part, it takes a long time for people to develop this left hand muting to the point where there’s no extra, unwanted string noise. Do you have any exercises that you think are important?

Chris:    Well, let’s think about it. Stevie was a side man in a band for a long time, and when you're a side man in a band - meaning you’re just a guitar player, or even rhythm guitar player. So you're playing a lot of rhythm. Same with Jimmie Hendrix, Jimmie Hendrix was a side man for quite a while and the reason those guys had such fantastic rhythm is because they were a side man. I’d say one of the ways, just practice it. Get it to where it sounds nice. Eventually it works- what I’m doing is hitting all the strings, getting a percussive sort of thing to it and I’m laying my fingers over the strings to mute them out. That comes with time because I know when I first started doing it, it didn’t sound so good but over time, if you just practiced it and listened to the records. If you're copying somebody, listen to the records. Work on it until you get it ‘til it sounds like that record and then from that point on you go ahead and stretch it on to yourself. Even playing a straight rhythm that’s not easy to get that steady beat and do it for a whole song staying focused on playing just that takes hours and hours. I don't mean to make it sound like this huge mountain you have to get over to get to the rewards but if you put in the work, you will be rewarded and that’s just what it takes and I’d say just put in the work. Practice that rhythm over and over again until you get it sounding good. I remember it took me forever to get even the “Kiss My Baby” and then I had to sing on top of that and that was - that was incredibly hard. That’s my high water mark. If I learned how to sing and play that at the same time, I can do anything. It just takes a lot of work to get it until it sounds good and if that means slowing down, well by all means, slow down so you can hear it. Then bring in the metronome and bring it. Let’s see. No that’s not a good one. See, there’s the shuffle right there. We got a beat twice as fast to that. Bring that in to help you with your rhythm and stuff. There’s ways you can accent the one and stuff to help you out there. I don't know if that came off as a good example. There’s a lot of cats I know, even drummers that can’t play to a metronome, that can’t play to a click track. I’m not saying it’s necessary but it’s not going to hurt to know how to do that.

Antony:  All right, sounds great. I think for a lot of people who are starting out or playing for a couple of years, it’s like they are looking to guitarists like you and they're thinking well, I’ll never get there, or it’s too much work and they feel overwhelmed. Do you have any advice to cope with the overwhelm?

Chris:    Yea. What I say is, you know, whatever your ambitions are. I mean, my ambitions are world domination. I mean I still have that ambition to conquer the world with my guitar but if you’re happy sitting in your living room or just going out and playing jams or playing in a band you get together with your friends, that’s totally fine. It’s how comfortable you feel and you don't have to put the weight of the world on you. Sometimes you have to step back and chill out sometimes. Lots of times I’ll think I’m not doing something right because I can always improve my practicing habits. Sometimes they're not the greatest. Sometimes I’m not in the best of moods to practice but if you do have those tall ambitions, then look at your practicing habits and make it so it’s a little but more fun. Sometimes when I feel I’ve kind of hit a wall, I’ll just learn a solo. I’ve got John Coltrane music. I’ll learn one of his solos and next thing you know, after I get to memorizing a couple choruses I’m constantly picking that guitar up, trying to memorize that thing and the byproduct of that is, I’m picking up the guitar more and I’ll work on that solo. Then I’ll end up spitting off and working on something else and the next thing I know, three, four hours have gone by. My fingers have gotten more dexterity in them, I’m getting better at licks, you know. So, there’s nothing like it when you’re practicing something and you start to hear the results. You start to hear the fruits of your labor. There’s nothing like it.

Antony:  Yea, I agree on that. I always think to myself, if I hit a wall, then I look for something fun to practice. And I think like a lot of people miss on that point that whenever they are practicing there should also be a fun element, no matter what your goals are. You should enjoy your progress. And of course, we listen to musicians who are playing mostly at the top level so we want to get at the same level, but in that process, it’s important to enjoy the little licks and the little hiccups that you make and then everything starts to flow from there, right?

Chris:    You’re totally right, Antony. That's the way to approach it. That's the right attitude to have if you want to slowly achieve what you want out of your instrument. Just keep working at it and don't give up. You know? And it’s music that’s in you, man. Nobody would ever take that away from you. That's another thing too.

Antony:  Developing our own style also comes from the fact that you don't allow yourself anymore to make the comparison between you and another player but just become your own true voice.  If you don’t want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughn or someone else, then you start playing what you really have in you. I think that’s the thing that most people spend like a lifetime realizing that it should be their own thing even if it’s just a simple scale they’re playing. If they mean it and they like to hear their own playing that’s the thing that drives you forward.

Chris:    Definitely, don’t be oblivious to the small things that are going on around you. You're right. There’s a lot of work to be done just with a simple scale.

Antony:  So you're going on tour now? You're leaving in a couple of days?

Chris:    We’re going to leave next weekend. We just have a small, little 10 day tour in the Midwest. We just came off a five week tour that we did and then later on, I think we got a tour down in Florida, a couple of weeks in Florida and then in December we have a tour that goes sort of towards the west coast. We’re just staying busy. If it were up to me I would play every single night of the year. I like playing. That's how I get better because when I go out and play, I’m trying to apply myself. I mean, if I was in a cover band, I would try to be the best sounding cover band but I’m not and I feel so grateful that I’m able to go out there and create music every night and try to do new things every night. I’m still telling the same kind of storylines in the solos but I’m trying to tell it differently and there’s other nights that I feel completely loose and I’m taking all kinds of ideas, all kinds of harmonic riffs and sometimes it’s amazing and sometimes you fail spectacularly but you’re never going to learn unless failure is a part of learning.

Antony:  So Chris Duarte actually has off nights?

Chris:    Oh many off nights, many, many, many. In my eyes, my great nights are few and far between but that's what keeps me going because I want to go for one of those big nights, I believe they call that “chasing the dragon” in a drug sort of stuff but that’s why I’m doing. I’m always trying to achieve that state of nirvana in my playing and it just comes from really hard work and I know a lot of people tell me well my bad nights are still a lot better than people’s great nights. That’s fine, that’s humbling, it’s nice but I’m still my own worst critic and that's what keeps me going. I’m a perfectionist.  I want to keep playing good.

Antony:  I’m sure your audience would disagree with that. You sound like a surfer chasing the big waves, mavericks. I think it’s a natural thing. What I found, the guitar is also when you play great one day whether it’s in your practice environment or live, and you want to give the audience or yourself that same feeling the other day but your feeling is totally different and it never goes like you wanted it.

Chris:    Yea, some nights they are like that but I think - and then there are some nights where I’m having the worst night of my life and I’m really trying so hard to do something and I think what some people clue in to as they clue into the struggle, they can feel the emotional struggle I’m having and they're amazed by it, how I keep trying and trying and I’ve had some people tell me it was the most amazing thing they’d ever seen when I had like one of my worst nights and these are people that have seen me a lot of times and they’re like, “that was amazing, amazing!” and I’m like, “that was horrible.” You never can underestimate or overestimate your listening pubic.

Antony:  I would enjoy seeing your suffering on stage.

Chris:    Masochist. I’m doing a lot of screaming.

Antony:  All right, cool. I think it’s really important to give yourself some room for mistakes and if you have an off night, it’s going to be worse if you're really hard on yourself and I believe with stage fright, it’s the same thing. If you just have one thing to give your audience and it’s just how you feel in that moment with your guitar, then nothing can go wrong. Right?

Chris:    I feel that’s true because sometimes I have to remember that and I have to relax when I’m having an off night. If I feel myself struggling, I have to tell myself it’s okay. Play something that I have a lot of fun in. and that's what I’ll do sometimes. When I’m just having a bad night, I’ll play a song that I always have fun playing and it’s easy to go down and that sort of like loosens me up because when I’m having a bad night, especially if equipment starts messing up on me. That's so frustrating because that’s not even your technique of playing but if your pedals keep going down, your amp starts going down I start looking for other things. I kind of lash out is the drummer dragging? Did the bass player hit that note right? That’s just the bad byproducts of having a frustrating night. So you're right, it’s time to relax. Don't be so hard on yourself. But there have been many nights I’ve been very hard on myself after a gig. I don't want to talk to anybody I feel like I’ve let everybody down but those - fortunately those nights are getting fewer and further between.

Antony:  All right, so thank you very much, Chris. I do have one last question, maybe the hardest one but I’m really curious. How do you continue to stay creative and motivated throughout your career?

Chris:   I compare myself, I want to be like John Coltrane and as soon as I get as good as John Coltrane, I’ll take a break but I have a lot of work. People tell me oh, it’s amazing. I have some people say you're the greatest guitarist living but I know I have a long, long way to go and I feel if you limit yourself musically in your creativity then you're going to limit yourself, so don’t do that. Always think there’s a better way to get from point A to point B. It’s the journey we’re on. Enjoy the ride.

Antony:  That’s very nice advice. Thank you very much for this interview and I wish you the best of luck on your upcoming tour and you continue to do really well on your career. You are a big inspiration for both me and other people as well so thank you for great music. Thank you for your gift.

Chris:   I am honored to be here and for people that will be watching this and for you as well, Antony. Thank you for reaching out to me. I’m always willing to impart some wisdom because what people are giving to me, I’m just giving back to them. So any time you want to do something like this, you just give me a ring. You know how to get a hold of me.