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Exclusive Interview: Bert Lams of California Guitar Trio

Exclusive Interview: Bert Lams of California Guitar Trio

The universe of guitar knows no boundaries for The California Guitar Trio. Since 1991, the group has enthralled listeners with a singular sound that fearlessly crisscrosses genres. The trio’s questing spirit drives it to explore the intersections between rock, jazz, classical, and world music. It even throws in the occasional surf or spaghetti Western tune for good measure.

Comprised of Bert Lams, Hideyo Moriya and Paul Richards, the group has established a unique, personal connection with audiences. In addition to dazzling musicianship and interplay, The California Guitar Trio's (CGT) shows are full of captivating stories and humor that enable concertgoers to feel like they're part of the music, not just spectators. In fact, the group’s goal is to transcend their instruments, so people focus on the music first, and its considerable technical prowess a distant second.

We recently had the exteme pleasure to visit with Bert Lams and conduct this exclusive interview:

Breedlove:    Greetings from Breedlove headquarters in Bend, OR. Thank you for taking some time to speak with us! Where are you guys right now? On tour?

Bert:    Right now we're in Kansas City. We flew in yesterday and we're about four gigs into our two and a half week tour. It started out in Salt Lake City and then we went to Denver, and Boulder from there. We flew to Kansas yesterday and then we're heading out from here to St. Louis, and then up to the east coast. We’re ending the tour near Washington D.C. in two weeks.

Breedlove:    Being on the road, you probably don't have a tremendous amount of personal time so I appreciate you taking some time to chat.

Bert:    You know, we've been playing Breedlove's for a long, long time. I'm guessing 12 years or even more. Of course we play some other guitars as well, but we always keep coming back to the Breedlove guitars because the guitars are so consistent and we have developed a really good relation with everybody at Breedlove. It's unlike any other guitar company. I have to tell you that. Yes, it's always been very personal and great to develop the friendships with everybody there.

Breedlove:     Well thank you, that's great to hear. We feel like a small family here, and it's great to have you guys as part of the family.

Bert:    Over the years we've visited the factory a few times. It sure has grown quite a bit. Last time we were there, it was a 100 employees, so that's getting big.

Breedlove:     We're getting bigger. Yes, we're getting bigger and it's exciting. We’ve hit our stride, so to speak, and are building some of the finest instruments we’ve ever crafted. I got some really awesome news yesterday that you've received one of the new concerto guitars and have been touring with it?

Bert:    I can only speak from my own experience, but I have played Breedlove for a long time, and over the years I've also played a lot of custom built guitars from fairly reputable builders, and this new guitar, I have to tell you, it's huge ... It's a tonal monster.

Breedlove:     Tonal monster. I like taht. What model of the concerto did you pick out?

Bert:    I got the all Myrtlewood Oregon Series. Front and back Myrtle. I've listened to all of them.  You guys have audio samples on the website and it's really great to hear all the clips of each guitar. Each of the guitars has a sort of a different sound with all the different woods. I like to listen exclusively to the concerto models, because they have a really consistent sound clip for every model. Of course they all sound wonderful, but the Oregon model sounded really interesting and I thought, "Well that may work live." Because it has kind of a more focused sound, the Myrtlewood.

It works pretty well in the context of the California guitar trio. Right now, I ordered the guitar, the stock model without cut away. We've been using cut away guitars forever. But obviously this guitar doesn't come with a cut away yet.
But it's a very fun experiment right now, and the concerts have been really successful so far. We've played four gigs so far in theaters and churches and clubs. So three very different environments.

Breedlove:     I'm curious to get your feedback. When we develop new instruments, we have ideas about how they're going to function. Then we release them to the world – into musician’s hands where they really get tested.  When we developed the concerto body, we wanted to take what the Dreadnought had historically done and create this big, boomy and beautifully sounding instrument that can stand out in an ensemble with more nuanced, sophisticated sound and tone. Did we succeed?

Bert:    Absolutely, and more. Absolutely and more. I still have a Dreadnought guitar and I love the sound of Dreadnought guitars. That's kind of what I like in a steel string guitar, is that sound. And I’ve owned so many Breedlove guitars. I tried all the different models. Especially the concert, the smaller concert model. I’ve always loved that guitar aesthetically and also ergonomically, to hold that instrument; it is very comfortable to play. So now I'm getting ideas like, "Oh, what would the concert guitar sound like with a deeper body? The sound is just phenomenal. It's like a Dreadnought, but it has a slightly more focused sound. As soon as I strung it up and played it, I was like, "Whoa."

Breedlove:     We love hearing feedback like this.  

Bert:     Yes, and I can feel the vibration of the instrument. It's a very comfortable guitar to hold. Of course I'm speaking from my own experience. I'm a medium sized person, I'm more on the smaller side, so it needed some adjusting to get used to the deeper body. But it's well worth it in the tonal range.

Breedlove:     That's great to hear. It's great to get feedback from the field and people that are actually out there using the instruments. Besides this tour, what else do you guys have planned for this summer? Are you guys working on anything new?

Bert:    Well, we just released a new album called Komorebi. We released it just a few months ago, and now our tour is to promote the new album. And this summer, we're actually taking a bit of a break, because we've been incessantly touring since January, with little breaks, to promote the album. Then at the end of July, we're touring for three weeks with the Montreal guitar trio. We've been playing with those guys for about seven years. And, we're about to record and release an album with them as well. It’ll be a nice change of pace and something a little different. Those are bigger shows with them, larger theaters and festivals.

Breedlove:    Tell me a little more about the new album. It has to be close to your 15th album?

Bert:    Yes, I haven't kept track but it's around there. It's maybe our 14th or 13th album. Most of our albums in the past have used pickups for recoding, as well as microphones. But for this last one, we just used the acoustic sound of the instruments. Most of the music on that album is original pieces. And everything was kind of focused on the acoustic sound of the guitars. We just used microphones and there's no processing or anything whatsoever. It's a very pure acoustic sound and we're very pleased with it. We recorded it in San Diego area. My friend Tom Griesgraber’s studio, and he also did a great job on the mixing. It was a lot of work.

Breedlove:    Is it more work creating an album with this workflow?

Bert:    You know, when you do an acoustic mic recording, you get all the fret noises and all the things that you normally don't hear during live shows, and it's a little rougher on the edges. You hear all the little breathing ... one guy moving around  … we had a very funny outtake where ... our recording sessions were usually in the late mornings, 10:30 until noon or so. One of us was very hungry. So we didn't realize, but when we listened back to the track you could hear this grumbling sound in the background and we narrowed it down. It was one of us with a hungry stomach.

Breedlove:    That's so funny. When you guys are working on new albums, new material ... tell me a little bit about your writing process. Is it a collaborative writing process?

Bert:    It is, it is. But it does vary a lot. Most of the pieces are collaborative. And the way it usually works is one of us will come up with an idea, and then we'll sit down and work on it. If we love it, it just turns into something. And some pieces go really quick. We've had pieces develop in 15/20 minutes, where other pieces take months and months.

Breedlove:   For people curious to listen, should they visit your website?

Bert:     Our website and of course, there's lot's of YouTube videos out there. Some are better than others of course, that's the nature of YouTube. But our website is a great resource. CDs are on sale there as well.

Breedlove:    Thank you so much for taking some time to chat with us.

Bert:     Thank you.

View CGT's Website