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Exclusive Interview with Bert Lams, 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. We recently had the opportunity to visit with Bert Lams, of the California Guitar Trio, for an exclusive interview. Lams, and the rest of the trio (members Hideyo Moriya and Paul Richards) are the 2018 January Featured Breedlove Artist, just received the very first Breedlove Concerto guitar with a cutaway. And, was the first artist to put one of these new instruments through the paces out on tour. Lams describes this, and more in this exclusive interview:

BREEDLOVE:    Thank you for taking the time to chat with us for this exclusive Breedlove interview. I know you guys have been playing together for a very long time. When and where did you start playing together?

LAMS:    The California Guitar Trio started out in Los Angeles in 1999, but we did meet a couple of years before that: all three of us were students of English guitar player Robert Fripp. He is well known for his work with David Bowie, and a famous group called King Crimson.

In the late eighties, we studied intensively with Robert for several years. That's really how the three of us met. We got along well, and we decided to continue as a trio when those seminars ended. We were part of a group of select students with Robert Fripp, called League of Crafty Guitarists. We even did a six-week tour in Europe, US and Israel in 1989. That was all the beginning of the California Guitar Trio.

In '91 CGTrio met up in Los Angeles, and we started playing anywhere we could: coffee shops, retirement homes, open mic nights, etc. (not sure if an "L" should be in there for title it was missing)

Our roots are in Los Angeles, and we keep coming back here, after all these years.

BREEDLOVE:    I understand you guys are right in the midst of a tour. Where has your tour taken you recently, and where are you headed?

LAMS:    This is a short tour, but it's the beginning of a longer period of touring all the way up 'til next June. This little tour started out in Arizona, in Phoenix. We played a couple shows around Phoenix and in the surrounding area, two, three-hour perimeter in Phoenix. The other day we drove down to Los Angeles. We're here just to rehearse for a couple of days, and then we head up to San Francisco. We have a few weeks break, and then, in February, we start up again. It's pretty much nonstop the whole of February, March, April. We have about thirty or forty shows over that whole period, all across America; East Coast, West Coast, Mid-West, South.

BREEDLOVE:    That's going to be a great tour!

LAMS:    Yeah. We're playing some neat places, too. We're going to go back to Phoenix, where we're playing the Instrument Museum. We do play a variety of interesting venues: often nice theaters, clubs or churches, or performing arts centers. Every night is different, and that's fun.

BREEDLOVE: Do you have a favorite place that stands out that you've played? I'm sure that you've played so many, and they're all very different, but is there one that stands out as being especially remarkable?

LAMS: Well, there are a couple of cities we like to play. Of course, we love playing at The Tower Theatre in Bend. It's an intimate theater. We love playing Austin, Texas --; that's one of our favorites. People are great there, and they love guitar music. It's steeped in the culture; always great shows there. Another one of our favorite venues is Ann Arbor, Michigan;, there's a place there called The Ark, and we've been going there for many, many years.  It's a really lovely venue. Very intimate, too. It's not too big and not too small. A great vibe there.

BREEDLOVE:    I'm curious. When it comes to the songwriting, what is the creative process like? Do all three of you collaborate and get together and compose?

LAMS: It works both ways. In many cases, we get together, all three of us, and we're sitting in the same room, and we work on ideas. Usually, one of us comes up with something, and then we elaborate on it, and we might come up with something. If we do, it's exciting!

BREEDLOVE:    It must be fascinating to play with folks that you've played with for so many years because, at this point, you understand each other’s styles and nuances?

LAMS:    Yeah, I think the main thing over the years, we've learned how to give each other some space. One good trick is now we're getting separate hotel rooms. [Laughs] We're at that stage where we don't have to room together anymore. A lot of bands have to do that when they start out, just to save money and cut corners. We did that for many years.

We really got to know each other. We spend all day together driving, having lunch together, having dinner together --, usually at the venue --, and sound checking, and rehearsing, and performing. After 26 years on the road, we learned to give each other a little space, and still learn to be sensitive.

Because of this, we've still managed to stay really good friends, and we enjoy being on the road together, and the adventure of it is still there. It's a lot of fun, and we still like to hang out together.

BREEDLOVE:    Well, I'm excited to hear what you think of the guitar that we just sent you. That's the first Concerto with a cutaway, I believe. I didn't even have a lot of time to hear it or play it. So, I'm pretty excited to hear your feedback!?

LAMS:    I have it on the road with me to test drive it. It's been great so far. You guys shipped it to Florida. That's where I live. It's a humid climate. My first gig was in Phoenix, Arizona, so you can imagine the shock that guitar underwent. But the guitar is very stable. It's holding up really well. I'm enjoying the structural improvements to the new Concerto model. A couple of months ago, you guys sent me the first model of the Concerto guitar. That was the one without the cutaway. And, I loved that guitar and the way that it felt and played. I just missed the cutaway because I was using it with a lot of single line playing and music by Bach. It goes really up and down the fretboard, and it was hard to do certain things. So, the cutaway has helped me a lot. The sound didn't suffer from the cutaway.

Acoustically, I don't notice a tone difference between cutaway or non-cutaway. I think it's very similar. If you don't have the cutaway, you'll probably have a little bit more slightly fuller sound or something. But once you're on stage and you amplify the guitar, that becomes a whole other ballgame.

The tonal difference will vary from guitar to guitar. Each set of wood is going to have a different density and slightly different tone. This one is very balanced: from bass to top, it's very even across the whole spectrum, which is nice. Sometimes a guitar tends to get a little bit weak in the bass with the tuning that we use, with the Trio. We're using a different tuning on the guitars. We go lower in the bass and higher on the top. We tune our guitars in fifths.

The guitar will sound different in this tuning compared to standard tuning. It has a beautiful, deep tone. Sometimes guitars tend to sound a little thin on the high end, and not this one --, not this guitar. I also believe that doing away with the bridge truss improved the sound a lot. I mean, it was a very balanced sound WITH the bridge truss, and very good for recording and playing amplified, but I think that this is, to me, a huge improvement. I can FEEL the sound much more. The guitar, of course, it's a deeper guitar, but I can feel the sound while I play and I enjoy that.

The other thing that's improved is the neck, the feel of the neck. The neck is a little wider than before. This one is 1.75 wide. It feels much more like an expensive, custom built guitar.

Another great thing on stage, and this may seem like a minor detail, but you guys put the big dots on the side of the neck. It helps on stage because we play different stages every night. Sometimes there's backlightingback lighting. Sometimes there's no backlighting. When there's no backlightingback lighting, you cannot see the fretboard. This is really helpful.

BREEDLOVE:    With the different tuning, do you use a different set of strings?

LAMS: Yes, we use a heavier gauge on the bottom up to a 0.59 or a 0.60, and then a slightly lower gauge on the very top string. Because of the bottom string, the thick string goes down from E to C in our tuning. That's a major third down. That's a pretty big difference. The top string, we tune it up to a G --, from E to G. It's a minor third. So, I use an 0.11 on that one because it's thin. From 0.11 to 0.59. And, we use D'Addario strings, Phosphor Bronze strings. They work well. We've used them for many, many years.

One more thing. I know there are so many combinations of wood that you can select for these Concerto guitars, and it was really hard for me to decide on which tonewood to select. There are the audio samples, which is great, on the website. You can listen to all the different samples of the different wood combinations. The one that I liked was the myrtlewood, of course, for the sound. I just went for the sound of the myrtle top and the myrtle back and sides. Of course, the bonus was that it looks amazing and you don't know what the guitar's going to look like until you receive it. Each set of Myrtle can look way different, and often highly figured.  I chose myrtlewood for the tone of its own; it has a little bit of a maple character, like a slightly dry sound, but it projects well, like rosewood, and has great response and dynamics.

You almost can't go wrong with this myrtle-myrtle combination because it provides so much volume, too. I guess the smaller sound hole makes it a little bit more of a focused sound, as well.

I thought it was so unconventional, too, because it goes against all the rules of guitar making. Doesn't it? I never thought myrtlewood would work as a top tonewood. I guess you guys have figured something out with Sound Optimization. I don't know. I would love to hear more about it at some point.

BREEDLOVE:    Well, we would love to show you next time you visit the custom shop in Bend, OR. We just built a new facility --. The Sound Optimization studio.  Next time you guys are in Bend, we’ll give you a tour of the facility.

LAMS:    Yes, well I can't wait to see this whole process. With the Trio, we've had such a longstanding relationship with the Breedlove Guitar Company. I mean, it must be like 18 years. I'll never forget the first time we played in the area that the whole staff came to our concert. After the concert, they said, "Come on over." We went to the factory after the concert, late at night. It was a lot of fun.

We each ordered a Concert guitar. My first guitar was a myrtle Concert cutaway, a thinner body. We played Breedlove guitars ever since. We still know everybody or almost everybody.

BREEDLOVE:    We certainly appreciate you guys playing our guitars, and you guys are phenomenal musicians. So, thank you for taking them to their sonic potential!

LAMS:    Well, thanks so much.

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