Kevin Eubanks: “ I ‘practice’ a lot and I have a feeling I always will. I don’t even call it practicing anymore.”

By Kelcey Alonzo

Photos by Sandra Blume

Originally published in our LP Reboot issue in 2013

Birdland, NYC – Tuesday, April 9, 2013

3:32 pm – Soundcheck

We arrive at Birdland for the soundcheck of the first NYC show the Kevin Eubanks Quartet will perform later that evening. Immediately upon entering the venue, I see four musicians warming up. Kevin Eubanks is fiddling with his octave pedal, doing some runs up and down the neck (I swore there was a bass player behind him doubling his runs). Then suddenly there is silence for about 3 seconds. This is the band’s cue to get ready, and then Kevin says: “Ready?”– and they begin playing.

I immediately instruct my photographer to start shooting pics. I tell her, “just get anything you can”. She goes to work. After 10 minutes Kevin looks in our direction, and in a very soft, friendly voice says: “Hi guys, welcome and thanks for coming…you guys getting the stuff?” We nod our heads, assuring him we are, and he goes right back to work with his band for the rest of the afternoon as we continue our shoot.

8:31 PM – Showtime!
Birdland is packed, and you can feel the audience anticipation of the magical evening to come. After all, we’ve watched Kevin for the 15 years he provided the musical backdrop for NBC’s Tonight Show, and his lively banter with host Jay Leno. To us it’s like catching up with an old friend. The quartet takes center stage and greets the crowd. They are tight! Just like at soundcheck, only this time it’s for real as the audience begins soaking in music from Kevin’s latest record “The Messenger”, along with some of his earlier material.

Kevin is relaxed, having fun but always focused. His Abe Rivera Archtop is like a 5th member of the band, delivering tones that I can only describe in words you would hear in a coffee commercial; smooth, rich, full-bodied and, well… delicious! 

After the show, Eubanks was gracious enough to chat with us about the new album, “The Messenger”, his gear and what he’s got coming up.

When we were finished, I thanked Mr. Eubanks, and he simply shook my hand and said, “Thanks for coming by, I really appreciate it”.

Guitar Connoisseur: You come from a musical family, and played the violin, piano, and trumpet. What drew you to the guitar, and why did this become the instrument you settled on?

Kevin Eubanks: I saw a James Brown concert at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia, and I remember leaving the show, looking down at the curb and saying to myself, “I’m going to play the guitar.”  You’d figure I’d want to sing and dance because he was so badass…  The greatest! For some reason, what I got out of it was “play the guitar”. Must’ve been some Jedi mind s**t.  And that was before there were even Jedi’s. That’s how badass JB was.

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Gc: You mean it wasn’t the chicks?

KE:  Are you kidding? I’ve been afraid of girls my whole life!! (laughs)

Gc: How do you like playing in NYC?

KE: I love it!  Reminds me of when I was living there.  The only difference is that now I see I must have been out of my mind to move there with $800 and a guitar– me plus three roommates in a one bedroom, and one was a drummer who played loud as can be! We used his floor tom-tom as a table. Insane, but that was life at the time. Nothing like the adventure of following your dream.

Gc: Are you touring with the same rig you used on The Tonight Show?

KE: Not at all.  I use a GK MB200 and an MB500 now. I also have my little pedals like we all do.

Gc: While we are on the subject, I noticed only one guitar. Do you typically tour with just one instrument?

KE: Yes.  I think I’ve broken three strings my entire career on stage, and that’s from loving the sound of a flat sounding string. Nice and warm and ready to break. Rarely happens though. I also do not like changing the feel from one guitar to another.  Each guitar feels different, and it takes some getting used to so I’d rather not. I can get the different sounds I need out of the one guitar. It’s not all in the guitar anyway. It’s your hands that have most of the sound. It’s you, the player more than the instrument.

Gc: Tell us about that black Archtop. It sounded incredible, which is not surprising, as I’m familiar with Abe Rivera’s work. Is this your go-to guitar that does it all?

KE: For the band, I’m playing with now, yes.  Covers everything I need it to. When I play with Dave Holland I use a different guitar; also an Abe Rivera guitar. I also have a wonderful Martin that I love to play live. It sounds beautiful.

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Gc: For all the guitar connoisseurs reading, we know you own several Rivera instruments. How did you discover his work?

KE: The great Pat Martino turned me on to him.

Gc: When commissioning a custom instrument from Abe how is that process? Are there a million forms to fill out– or is it as simple as, “Hey Abe! I need something with a little more umph, can you hook that up for me?”

KE: It’s very simple. I describe it and he makes it. I give him room to be an artist though. We’ve worked together so long now that we understand what we mean when we say it. That’s very important. When I say, “Just a shade more off the neck,” he knows what I mean. Sweet!

Gc: I have to ask. These carvings on that guitar you used at Birdland; I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. I was wondering if these were his aesthetic choices or a collaborative effort?

KE: I leave that up to Abe. I just say, “Do your thing, but not too much please.” He frowns and doesn’t do too much. He could carve an entire scene if you want that. He’s great at that. I’m a bit more low key.

Gc: What were you playing before Abe Rivera guitars?

KE: George Benson Ibanez model. It was really nice too. I still have it. Probably a collector’s item by now. Damn, I should get George to sign it!  I also had a sunburst Les Paul which is hanging on the wall in Arsenio Hall’s house.

Gc: Let’s talk about your new record “The Messenger”. It’s a departure from your previous record “Zen Food.”   It’s a much funkier record.  Was this intentional?

KE: Somewhat yes. I just suggested more and directed less, and trusted everyone to find our collective groove.  It was much more fun to record and has a much more open feel.  It’s really a groove type CD.  Goes to different places, and we all go there by feel… not by directing it to go there.

Gc: On the funkier side, you’ve got tracks like Led Boots, JB and 420, but then you hit us with some wonderful compositions like the title track, Loved Ones, and your cover of Coltrane’s Resolution. This sounds like a very balanced record.  Why were these the right selection of songs for this record?

KE: They give the recording balance and depth. They add wisdom to the party.

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Gc: Is there anything on this album you wish you could change, or are you 100% satisfied with it?

KE: I wish Alvin Chea could have brought the rest of “Take 6” to be at the sessions. I love that group, and I was so happy that he is on the CD with me.

Gc: Our readers would love to know how much practicing are you doing these days if any…and if so, what are you practicing?

KE: I ‘practice’ a lot and I have a feeling I always will.  I don’t even call it practicing anymore.  You’re on the instrument playing, searching, learning, spending your day with it, creating… it’s part of my life. It’s not something that I add to my life. It’s not separate. I miss it when I don’t, and when I get back to it, I’m glad to see it and hold it and catch up. It’s alive!

Gc: What are some of the projects you have coming up?

KE: More touring with my band and tours with Dave Holland’s PRISM band. We have a new CD coming out later this year.  As a girl said to me recently, “Smokin hot!”  She was talking about some other guy but… oh well.  It’s a hot CD.

Gc: What advice would you give to musicians wanting a full-time career in music?

KE: Dedication.

Gc: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know that we didn’t cover?

KE: Yes, guitar players are insane. So if you date one, you need to be really grounded and just a wee bit crazy for it to have a chance.

Gc: Thanks for letting us attend the show and talking to us!

KE: My pleasure.  You guys did a great job of being unobtrusive.  Thanks!

To learn more about Kevin Eubanks and what he is up to please visit:

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