An Interview with Russ Hewitt
By Casey Pukl
Nueva Flamenco guitarist, Russ Hewitt, has taken an interesting road to get to where he landed. Starting off as a rock guitarist, Hewitt spent more than 20 years of his career in the genre. However, once he discovered the nueva flamenco style of guitar, Hewitt found his true calling. Read on to find out how he got his start in the genre, what approach he takes to set himself apart from other guitarists, and just why recording his first record took almost 3 years!
CP: I’d love to just start off for people who are a little less familiar with your music, can you tell us kind of a little bit about how you got your start and developed your style?
RH: Well, I’d say that probably 90 percent of all the guitarists that play this nueva flamenco style actually started off doing rock guitar. I was no different (laughs). I spent my youth learning the latest Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Ozzy songs, I spent about 20 years doing the rock thing of cutting out a CD and so forth. While all of that was going on, I discovered, and actually I discovered it studying classical guitar in North Texas— I discovered this nueva flamenco style, and I just enjoyed it. It was Ottmar’s first CD, and I thought, “This is very enjoyable,” and I started to gravitate towards it. Even after I graduated with a degree in classical and continued doing the rock stuff, I found that when I wasn’t out on the road and I was doing Duke’s locally, that restaurant, you know, they wanted a little more something that was upbeat, and the classical just wasn’t, but they all loved this nueva flamenco thing I was doing. So, I just started doing it at various restaurants in the early 90′s. It was good money, it was fun to do, and it was doing during a time when rock and the guitar solos were out of fashion. But ironically enough, doing this nueva flamenco style was all I did all night. So I was able to not only keep up my chops, but it was a different outlet of release from the rock things I was doing. So I had been doing that for a while, and then the producer of my last rock band album actually, I flew him out to Dallas to do some overdubs, and he went to a nightclub and heard me do my flamenco thing with my old band. He said, “Yeah, at some point, I would love to record the band.” At that time, my focus was the rock band, and trying to get it off the ground and going. Finally, when the rock band disbanded, my producer just felt that we should move forward with this nueva flamenco style. So, not only was he the producer of the rock band stuff, and both of my nueva flamenco CDs, but he played bass on them and is now currently my live band player.
CP: That’s awesome.
RH: And the irony of it all is that between the 25 years of rock and the seven years now I’ve been doing this nueva flamenco stuff, I’ve gotten more radio play, more radio press, more CD sales in flamenco than all of the years of the rock stuff combined. So, it took a long while, but I’m finally where I’m supposed to be.
CP: Totally. I think it’s so funny too because so many people say, “I did this for so long, and the second I changed gears, all of a sudden, everything started to click.”
RH: Yeah, and I think, “Man, what if I had started 10 years earlier doing this and so forth, and so much of it is timing too. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have met my producer, so I would have maybe self-released this stuff, but I wouldn’t have had the players I had on it, I wouldn’t have been at the same place I’m playing at now. So I wish I would have started with this, but I think I would have ended up much different than where I would be now had I started so early in this style.
CP: Sure. And do you feel that your background studying classical guitar really gave you an edge technique-wise to transition you into this nueva flamenco style?
RH: Absolutely not.
RH: (Laughs) But it did help with everything I did in rock, you know, it’s funny. And I love having these conversations where I’m in Dallas, I’m in University of North Texas, I’m hiring these players and so forth, and I’m actually now good friends with the teacher that taught me at North Texas all these years ago. But there is absolutely nothing I do now that has anything to do not only with classical guitar but with school, period. I’m doing flamenco stuff, and that isn’t taught— you know, I’m writing songs, anything using exotic scales, that isn’t taught. I am improv-ing over changes, they don’t teach that in classical. I’m reading chord charts and all you read is music in classical and really, the thing that I contribute to my classical guitar studies is it taught me the process of learning. But, playing with a pick came from playing the rock guitar stuff, the majority of my chops are 80s shred stuff like Yngwie and Paul Gilbert that all apply to the style, which is what everybody else does. Like Rodrigo y Gabriela, that guy is a 80s metal guy that now does stuff like Strunz and Farah. All of those crazy licks and so forth, those are rock guitar licks applied to the nylon string. And one of the things that I have been getting in to, once I started doing this full time, is the gypsy jazz guitar stuff. So, a lot of my licks are bastardized versions of gypsy jazz guitar stuff too. So that’s the combo that I have.
CP: Oh man, I love having these conversations, I hope you know how entertained I am- because I had a completely different experience. I went to a contemporary music school, so, I had the complete opposite side, where I barely studied classical music at all in college, and I feel like technique-wise, now I kind of wish I had a little bit at least, because I’m really good at reading down charts, and I’m God-awful at reading sheet music if I ever wanted to. So it’s total opposite, it’s so funny to hear you be like, “No, that didn’t help me at all, that’s not at all what I’m doing,” whereas I’m like completely the opposite, where I’m like, “It helped me do all these things and it’s what everyone else is doing, but it’s not helping me do some of the crap I want to get done now.”
RH: Well, you remember, now, being a product of the late 80s, and I was doing the shred guitar. I spent, probably to my fault, way too much time doing technique and scales, as opposed to writing songs or so forth. So by the time that I finally got to North Texas and started studying classical; my chops were already probably peaking at that point. It was there long before the classical stuff, and so had I not done that, there would have been some official stuff to it, but even looking back at the schooling days, there is, in hindsight, even designing the classical guitar program, there wasn’t a whole lot of emphasis on technique. Now let’s say if you were doing some legato stuff and your left hand was a little weak, they’d say, “Okay, here are some techniques to work on them.”
Really and truly, the only thing- once you get past reading the notes, performing the piece- the only thing that distinguishes one player from another is their technique. Their ability for control of the strings, if they can pull off a fast run, if it’s clean. So there should have been a tremendous amount of focus on technique, and in school, it really wasn’t. It was, “Okay, learn this piece, perform it, I noticed a little deficiency here, so work on this exercise.”
You know, it should have been more of a boot camp type of thing, and it just wasn’t. And ironically enough, the guy I’m playing with tonight is a friend of mine, graduated with a jazz guitar degree from North Texas. What he has been doing since he’s been graduated for the last 15, 20 years, is a 80s hair metal cover band. And that’s all he does. He does a Guns n’ Roses tribute band, he does an 80s tribute thing, and I was doing an Aerosmith thing. Some art kid was like, “Oh, what would North Texas say?”
And he’s like, “You know, they’d probably be proud, because I’m the only one that’s gigging.” I’m like, “Yep.”
RH: So many people that I know that graduated just don’t even do the music thing anymore. So the fact that I get to do it for a living already is a success, in my eyes.
CP: Absolutely. And kind of going into your writing a little bit, I know you said you didn’t really study that as much. Did that come naturally for you, or did you kind of have to start studying it or just kind of practice doing it? How did you get into it?
RH: Oh, that’s a good question. You know, with the writing style, like when I was doing the rock band stuff, I took a long time to write stuff. I took a long time because I wanted to make sure it was right, I wanted to make sure that it didn’t sound like the other rock stuff that was happening at the time. When I sat down to start writing my first CD, I had to, as an artist, go, “What am I going to do that is going to be different, and that I’m going to bring to the table, and that’s going to distinguish me from the other guys trying this stuff?” As a listener- and I’m sure you’re well aware of this- as I’m listening to a CD, if by the fourth song, I’ve heard it all, and it’s 12 songs of the exact same thing, that’s horrible.
That’s the other thing, you know, there’s a lot of stuff that I think that I approach that other artists in this style don’t think about, stuff like: I won’t have any more than two songs in the same key on the album. In this style, everyone loves E minor or D minor. Well, you hear four songs in E minor, and you’re bored. So, I limit the keys to no more than two songs per CD in the key. Tempos, meters, you know, on the first CD, obviously there’s 6/8, there’s 7/8, this next can be 3/4. There can be any variation of that. On the new CD, I’ve got a tango, I’ve got a milonga, I’ve got a samba, some cha-chas, I’ve got a song in 11/8. So I’m very conscious, you know, I don’t want every song four-on-the-floor, straight rhumba. Sonically, it’s very boring too. So, with writing this first CD, my approach was to use exotic scales as extensively as I can. Like, “Baja el Sol,” the first song I wrote, I used the Hungarian Gypsy minor scale. I wanted to use exotic scales. I noticed some players in this genre will do certain things a lot, but not others. Like Jesse Cook uses a lot of 3-noter string stuff but doesn’t get any arpeggios. So I’m going to add an arpeggio, so I don’t sound like Jesse Cook.
RH: Now Strunz and Farah, they do arpeggios and 3-noter strings, but they don’t do any blues-based pentatonic riffs, so I’ll add that. I’m aware of what others are doing, and I’ll either avoid it, or add something to it, where it doesn’t just sound like this guy is just ripping off Al Di Meola. That’s in my thought process when I write this stuff. You know, I literally wrote it, with an old, old Roland 880. This thing is ten years behind the technology curve, but it’s all I needed. I mean, literally, I recorded one click track, recorded one rhythm, and then wrote the songs that way.
CP: (Laughs) Glad to know someone’s still getting use out of that!
RH: It’s a very interesting process on this first CD because I used my local guys and the producer flew in to record us. We recorded the CD, finished it, mixed it, and then listened back to it. There were all kinds of sonic problems, like the drummer recorded with old drum heads, so the lower bass notes made the bass sound out of tune, but the bass wasn’t out of tune. So I was like, “Oh, no!” And then the question is whether we’re going to re-record it. The drummer played too busy, so then when we brought in the percussionist, he was like, “There’s no space for me to play. Do you want me to play on top?” I’m like, “I guess.” You know?
CP: Totally. It’s a common problem though when you’re tracking things separately. Sometimes it’s just hard to leave space.
RH: Even in my guitar sound, I play live with a Godin guitar, but we mic the Godin because once you plug in a nylon string guitar, there’s a plastic sound quality that there is no getting rid of. If I play it, you’ll hear the plastic. So we mic the Godin, and the problem with mic-ing the Godin was, because of the thin body of the guitar, there is absolutely no bass and there is a ton of mid-range. So after we finished listening and fixed what we could, the producer was like, “What do you think?” and I was like, “I think we can do better.”
So we completely trashed the whole CD.
CP: Wow. That’s a bold move.
RH: Yeah. We re-recorded and everything. The whole process took three years from beginning to end to re-do. Now, in the digital world, this stuff lasts forever. So our thought is, mix a song, be as sonically perfect as possible, and the playing has to be spot-on. Because if it is done right, 20 years from now, if you listen to the CD, it sounds new. You know? Or if it is done cheaply, then you’re going to hear it. In the many years of the rock stuff that I did, I’ve had to do the pre-excuse before playing someone a CD. “We’ve got much better songs now, but check this out,” or, “We got a different singer, and it sounds better,” or, the pre-excuse before handing a product out. I spent a lot of time doing that. I just wanted something where I could hand over a product and be proud of it, and that’s why it took so long.
CP: What are you looking most forward to about coming out here to Anthology?
RH: California seems to really embrace new music and new artists in general. There’s a little niche that I found here, and it’s very nice. But it’s time with the second CD being out, and having some chart success on both discs, you know, now is the time to try to expand not only our audience, but just to get out there and do the big concert thing more with the band. It’s always been, and I feel confident, if you hear us, if you see us, we’ll eventually bring you over.
Special thanks to Russ for his time! Be sure to check out his incredible show tomorrow night— you won’t want to miss out!