Rocker, funkateer, soul man, balladeer… Lenny Kravitz may be one of music’s chameleons but underpinning it all is a notable talent. Kravitz plays guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, sings, produces, writes and even makes time to be a clothes designer. But what of Kravitz the guitarist and musician?
Kravitz turned 48 recently and shows no sign of slowing down. His Let Love Rule debut album was released way back in 1989, and was an immediate hit. Its Sly Stone/Jimi Hendrix/retro vibe was unique for the day, but Kravitz claims he was always destined to be a musician. He began banging pots and pans aged 3 and claims he knew he wanted to be a professional musician aged 5.
Hits have kept coming, and via a melange of influences he now sounds only like Lenny Kravitz. Here are a few insights into his style.
Writing a song…
“For me, it’s all about the groove,” he told Guitar World. “I grew up listening to soul music and funk, artists like James Brown and Earth Wind and Fire, where it’s all about locking into a groove and staying there. Plus, there’s always an element of funk in my rock and roll. So if it’s a simple lick, which a lot of my songs are built around, it’s about where you ‘lay’ it that’ll make it sound thick.”
Kravitz walks it likes he talks it. Some of his biggest hits are based around a simple repetitive riff where the groove is king. Think “Are You Gonna Go My Way” (guitar riff), “Fly Away” (chunky chordal guitar riff) or "It Ain't Over 'til It's Over" (orchestral strings riff).
Kravitz takes much inspiration from classic funk and soul. Don’t let your bassist and drummer get too busy, he advises. “For a rhythm section to play repetitively and in-the-pocket and not budge— there’s a lot of power in that.”
Getting your rhythm right
Ask a many a hard rockin’ guitarist to name rhythm inspirations, and they might got for the obvious: the tough-nut precision of James Hetfield, or the woozy slashing-chord swagger of Keith Richards. Kravitz hails the funk.
“To get your rhythm together, start with the James Brown records and listen to those guitar players. Listen to Sly and the Family Stone and Earth, Wind and Fire. The guitarists on those records all have amazing rhythm chops and understand that the purpose of the guitar is to fit right into the music, and that’s what makes the band sound superfunky.”
Kravitz has a point. Rhythm guitar, like drumming, is about feel. Like many he reckons Jimi Hendrix is underappreciated – not as a soloist, of course, but as a rhythm guitarist.
“I don’t think he gets the credit for his ‘soul-ness,’ Kravitz says. “People are always pointing to the rock element, psychedelic this-and-that, but when you listen to a tune like “Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland),” that’s a gospel-like, Curtis Mayfield–inspired kind of thing, done with so much passion and so much soul. The bulk of Jimi’s rhythm playing is that concept. He goes off on top of it and plays the most amazing solos you ever heard, but he’s a funky player.”
For all his self-sufficiency – he still tends to record the majority of his albums on his own - Kravitz is no stranger to working with others. Guitarist Craig Ross has been a regular collaborator since Mama Said (1991) and has played on every album by Kravitz since. Ross co-wrote the songs "Spinning Around Over You," "Are You Gonna Go My Way," "Is There Any Love in Your Heart," "Where Are We Runnin'?" "Stillness of Heart," and "Lady" with Kravitz, as well as numerous songs on Kravitz's 2008 release It Is Time for a Love Revolution.
Kravitz has also produced and co-written for Madonna (“Justify My Love”), guest-guitar’d for Steven Tyler (“Line Up”), Mick Jagger (“Use Me”, “God Gave Me Everything”), David Bowie ("Buddha of Suburbia"), Jay-Z (“Guns and Roses”) and many others. Indeed, Kravitz seems to keep A-list company always. Slash, a friend, famously guested on Kravitz’s “Always on the Run”.
Lenny Kravitz’s Gear
Kravitz is known for his love of old-school gear. He started recording everything analog, and while he now uses Pro Tools (compadre Craig Ross helps him out) that change only happened in the 2000s. For his own guitars, Kravitz goes classic. “I use an assortment of Les Pauls in the studio. A Goldtop, a couple of vintage Flame tops -'58, '59 and '60s models.”
Kravitz also plays a variety of Gibson ES-335s to 355s and ES-5s. But he is most closely associated with the Gibson Flying V, and got his own Gibson Flying V signature in 2002 (albeit a very limited edition of only 125). The Kravitz is essentially a 1967 historic reissue with a black and gold flake finish, and the pickguard and truss rod cover were gold mirror. Bling!
Kravtiz previously owned four 1967 Flying Vs, so he takes his V-love seriously. He said of his ’67-styled signature, “The neck size is the dimension that I like. The paint, the hardware, the finish, the sound, the pickup, the weight - that's basically it. I used all Gibson and Epiphone on the Lenny album. I've been using the same model since Let Love Rule.” The neck on Kravitz’s V was actually more akin to a ‘50s V neck, and it came with a ABR-1/Short maestro tailpiece – though Kravitz rarely uses vibrato arms, he just likes one there.
Due to the low production numbers, Kravitz signature Vs are now very rare – search eBay and you may find one for circa $4500-plus.
Kravitz’s studio gear is a whole other story in itself. His own Gregory Town Sound studio on the Eleuthera island in the Bahamas is stacked with new gear and vintage – including a mixing desk that once belonged to London’s fabled Abbey Road studios and was used to record The Beatles.
Kravitz has never been a critic’s favorite, but with 23 years of hits he likely doesn’t care. He’s a gearhead, but says he can still find his own unique sound.
“We’re so into processing these days, and I feel it takes away from the player’s character,” he told MixOnline in 2010. “That’s the most important thing for me, so that’s why I use the gear I use. People may refer to what I do as a “throwback” to the ‘60s and ‘70s, but there’s nothing retro about it. I use the gear because it brings out the wholeness of the sound and therefore gives me the opportunity to have character in my sound.”
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