Premier studio session guitarist Eric Gale, who has been on literally hundreds of top jazz and pop LPs--his discography includes performances with Stanley Turrentine, Quincy Jones, Frank Sinatra, Bob James, Diana Ross, Teddy Pendergrass and Paul Simon--says he plays the wrong instrument.
“I’m not a guitar player, I’m really a frustrated saxophone player in disguise,” he said. “It’s a matter of phrasing. I breathe when I play guitar, like a horn player. If I don’t breathe, I cough. I want to build a line like a horn.”
Gale, who tried playing tenor saxophone in high school “but sounded like a steamboat,” names horn men Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins as main inspirations. “I like the bigger horns, the tenors and baritones,” he said. “Alto is often a little piercing, though I didn’t find Parker piercing.”
But on guitar, Gale’s ringing, singing tone and relaxed, flowing lines have established him as a immediately recognizable stylist. “I don’t play like anyone else,” he said. “I can play like anyone else. I can play octaves, like Wes (Montgomery), or fast, like Joe Pass. But a whole lot of notes just shows that I practiced. I want to say something.”
Although Gale--whose group, featuring keyboardist Yutaka Yokokura, plays tonight at Le Cafe--is renowned as a blues/funk/R&B; player of the highest order, his first musical love was be-bop. “At first, I played nothing but be-bop,” the 48-year-old guitarist said. “But when people said I sounded like Kenny Burrell--and why wouldn’t I, since we both came from Charlie Parker?--I started adding a little blues to my sound to be different.”
This mixture of jazz and blues attracted producers like Creed Taylor, for whom Gale made numerous LPs, including “Mister Magic” with Grover Washington Jr., “Don’t Mess With Mr. T” with Turrentine and his own debut date, “Forecast” (Kudu). But Taylor pigeonholed Gale.
“Because of Creed, people think all I can play is funk,” he said. “ ‘Eric, please play blues,’ Creed would say, and I wanted to play be-bop. I got away with that (be-bop) on one solo, Grover’s ‘Where Is the Love?’ You won’t recognize the guitar player, because I’m playing be-bop. I got away with it because I turned my back on Creed in the booth. If I had looked at him, he would have waved me off. But I can never say a bad word about Creed. He treated me wonderfully, as far as work was concerned.”
Gale, who occasionally plays be-bop and chooses it as his listening preference, said the secret of his success in the studios is simply that he’s “a worker.”
“I’m a musician with a capital ‘M,’ ” he said. “I’m not an artsy-craftsy version of a musician; I’m a taxi driver of a musician. ‘You call, I come.’ I’ll play any kind of music, it doesn’t matter. I’ve even played country and Western.”
He’s also a trouble-shooter. “I’m basically into fix and repair,” he said, “a groove-maker, if you will. If the groove isn’t there, I create it.”
Gale moved to Los Angeles three weeks ago from New York to record--both in the studios and on his solo projects--"for a living” and to appear in nightclubs “for practice.” “You certainly can’t make any serious money working in clubs,” he said, “but they do give you a chance to exercise and work things out.”
Already, he’s been active. “Thanks to Morgan Ames, whose tune ‘She Is My Lady,’ I recorded on my ‘Ginseng Woman’ (CBS) LP, and to Tom Scott and Quincy Jones,” Gale said, “I’m getting some calls, including some overdubs with ‘Q’ (Jones) on Michael Jackson’s new project.”
The son of parents from Barbados, Gale was born in Venezuela and immigrated to the United States when he was 6. His first instrument was an upright bass, but he switched to guitar when his bass was damaged in a rush-hour subway crush. He entered the studio world after working as a chemist for a year (Gale graduated with a degree in chemistry from Niagara University, N.Y.). “I found I could make more money in one night as a musician, than I could in a week as a chemist,” he said.
Ultimately, Gale sees music as a profession, not an art form. “Working is the highlight of my life,” he said. “That’s the bottom line. I enjoy the hell out of cashing somebody’s check. I enjoy music. Don’t get me wrong, but if I weren’t making money from it, I’d be pouring chemicals.”