Guitarist Laurence Juber
Looks back on nearly three decades with Ryan Guitars
Laurence Juber is perhaps best-known for his studio and stage collaborations with music legend Paul McCartney as a lead guitarist for Wings. But he’s also kept up a prolific solo career as a genre-evolving fingerstyle guitar player for the last 36 years and counting. Laurence met luthier Kevin Ryan in the early 1990’s and their discussions about an “ideal” fingerstyle instrument resulted in Kevin’s development of an extended fingerstyle scale length, which he eventually made standard across the Ryan model lineup.
For the 30th anniversary of the Ryan shop, we visited Laurence’s home studio in Los Angeles to chat about his career, working with his heroes, and why he collaborates with guitar makers.
RG: Do you remember your first experience with the guitar?
LJ: I vividly remember my first experience with the guitar. It was my 11th birthday. I had been nagging my parents for an instrument and wasn't having much luck. My dad wanted me to play the saxophone. My 11th birthday coincided with the real crest of Beatlemania as we had it in England. We didn't have the Ed Sullivan moment like America did. It was kind of a year-long progression. But I woke up on my birthday to discover a guitar and I just picked it up and never put it down. That was really a transcendent moment for me. I quickly discovered that I had, if not a technical aptitude, I was dedicated to it.
My 15th year, which is the year the psychologists say music truly imprints itself, was 1967. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper; Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?; Cream’s Disraeli Gears; Pink Floyd’s Piper At the Gates of Dawn; Hendrix’s second album, Axis: Bold as Love – that was all happening at a very formative time for me. I wanted to be a blues rock lead guitar player. But it all conspired, in my ambition to be a studio musician, to just be versatile and understand different styles whether it was a [rock riff] or some kind of jazz thing. It didn't matter to me. It was music. It was guitar. So I got excited about it.
“I woke up on my [11th] birthday to discover a guitar and I just picked it up and never put it down. That was really a transcendent moment for me. I quickly discovered that I had, if not a technical aptitude, I was dedicated to it.”
RG: What is it about the guitar that draws you to the instrument?
LJ: For me it's not specifically the guitar—it's music. Music is an incredible area. It encompasses art, science, emotion. One can affect people substantially with just one note, one chord: “D-minor, the saddest of all keys,” to quote Spinal Tap.
The guitar is capable of complete musical statement. You can play melody, you can play bass, you can play rhythm, all at the same time – at least you can if you’re a fingerstyle guitar player. [I’m attracted to the] way in which the guitar not only has that quality but is also portable.
The guitar has been around in its core form really since the medieval era. It has such a long history. The Renaissance guitar was basically like a large ukulele. Baroque guitar added an extra string, so you went from four strings to five strings. And then, finally, a six-string instrument and beyond, in some cases. The guitar has always been a presence in musical history. [By now,] it's just so entrenched in Western civilization; and in America, of course, it's become the national instrument. It's iconic—to use a hackneyed word. And it's cool.
RG: Do you have an earliest musical memory?
LJ: It's really a succession of memories more than one. My parents had a gramophone, a little portable one. And I think we only had one record. It was a 78 record of “The Happy Wanderer” – some kind of old European folksong. So, I borrowed records. I distinctly remember putting on a Django Reinhardt album for the first time and just being captured by that sound.
I think one of my strongest memories was the John Mayall [and the] Blues Breakers album with Eric Clapton—the one they called the Beano Album. Eric Clapton's tone on that album is just—I mean, it created a market for Les Paul guitars, for one thing.
I remember when Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends came out, learning tunes off of that. Every Saturday I’d go out and buy the new Stones or The Who or The Kinks or whatever and learn those songs and play them with my friends. Of course, the Beatles were probably the most significant early influence, not necessarily because I would learn every Beatle song, but they just loomed so large.
RG: What was your experience of eventually meeting, working and collaborating with some of your musical heroes?
LJ: Working with musical heroes is a pretty cool thing. To find myself in a studio and on stage with Paul McCartney when, as a youngster, I had kind of daydreamed about playing with the Beatles. I eventually played with three out of four—and Paul and Ringo at the same time, too. Very cool from a fan point of view. Very illuminating, from a guitar student point of view, to be in a recording studio with Pete Townsend and watch his right hand. That’s a great way to learn when you can really be that close.
I also worked with John Bonham—Led Zeppelin's drummer, for example. Just the sheer power of somebody like that compared to Ringo who has this subtle, nuanced way of playing the song. Having an up-close relationship with heroes, whether guitar heroes or rock heroes, is certainly a very potent source of inspiration.
[It was]…pretty cool…to find myself in a studio and on stage with Paul McCartney when, as a youngster, I had…daydreamed about playing with the Beatles. I eventually played with three out of four—and Paul and Ringo at the same time.
RG: As a player, what brings you to consider and invest in higher-end instruments?
LJ: For me guitars are always tools. They're always working tools, so my motivation is not necessarily to invest in a high-end instrument as an investment as much as to find an instrument that will be expressive and will be an addition to my tool box – my arsenal of axes, as it were.
Of course, there is the aspect of guitar art. The high-end guitar is not simply a utility instrument, it's also an artistic statement by the maker. So there is that as a factor.
When I was first really establishing myself as a soloist, I was looking for instruments that would enhance my technique and allow me to do things that I couldn't do with the instruments that I already had. Very early in that period was when I was introduced to Kevin Ryan. I was really on the ground floor with Kevin and I recall that we chatted about what I was looking for in a guitar and what was appropriate to the way that I was playing and the direction that I was going in.
But up until that point I really had no concept of “a boutique guitar.” The boutique, small-shop concept evolved in the nineties as the acoustic guitar became more and more popular on the back of the MTV Unplugged concert with Eric Clapton—which kicked the acoustic guitar market into high year.
“When I was first really establishing myself as a soloist, I was looking for instruments that would enhance my technique and allow me to do things that I couldn't do with the instruments that I already had.”
RG: Can you give us a short overview of the breakout popularity of the acoustic guitar?
LJ: Historically, the acoustic guitar has always ebbed and flowed in popularity. In the early 19th century the guitar was incredibly popular in Europe. Then the piano took over as it became more industrialized and louder and more powerful.
In the 1920s, the archtop guitar gained popularity for the jazz guitar players, and then, subsequently, the dreadnaught for the cowboy guitar player of the thirties. So, you start to see this big uptick in acoustic guitar because you've got the archtops, you've got the louder end of the steel-string flat top in the early thirties.
The electric guitar takes over by the fifties because of rock ‘n’ roll. Although, parallel with that, you do have the folk boom. The Kingston Trio were responsible for Martin Guitars being four years backordered on D-28s. They had to build a new factory.
In the eighties, midi and synthesizers come along and sweep away a lot of the acoustic stuff. On the electric guitar front it all becomes much more shreddy—Eddie Van Halen's influence and hair metal and all that stuff.
So by the early nineties the acoustic guitar was in kind of a lull. Then Eric Clapton does this MTV Unplugged show with a big hit album and everybody is buying acoustic guitars.
Well, in the eighties you did have the New-Age, Wyndham-Hill-Records thing with Will Ackerman, Alex de Grassi, and Michael Hedges. That was kind of a subculture. So, it never went away but the acoustic guitar didn't do what it did commercially until the nineties, where it really had a big revival which carried through into the early 21st century.
Against all of this background the substance of the boutique guitar industry doesn’t go away. It’s amazing to me how many people I encounter who have multiple guitars and are not in any way professional – they just like to collect guitars.
RG: Are you saying a handmade instrument can be something more than a musical tool?
LJ: Well I think the specialness of the boutique instruments is the fact that they are art: the inlays, the woods. In my case, with this guitar, I spent some time with Kevin and went through a big stack of Brazilian Rosewood. We picked out this particular set because it tells a story. It has some life to it. Now if I was going strictly for a performance instrument, I wouldn't have done anything like that. I would have tried to find the straightest-grained, plain-looking Brazilian Rosewood because you don't need anything fancy from a performance point of view.
I think the appeal with the boutique guitars is simply that you can own a piece of art that also sounds cool and is playable. I always look at this as a tuxedo guitar. If I'm playing it in a public setting, I'd probably be wearing a tuxedo, because it's a high-art instrument.
A boutique instrument lives in its own artistic context whereas, say, Martin Guitars have a history and a legacy of their own.
Luthier Kevin Ryan and Guitarist Laurence Juber in the early days of Ryan Guitars.
RG: What were you looking for in an instrument when you initially met Kevin and started the conversation about this instrument?
LJ: A big part of it for me was the need to have an instrument that would respond well to being put into an altered tuning. So, a crucial part of it was the discussion about scale length and the suggestion that a slightly longer scale length would allow a little bit more string tension in a dropped tuning. If you go down to a tuning like DADGAD, the string tension is lower because your pitch is lower. But if you lengthen the string it then gives you a little bit more tension.
RG: What do you remember observing of his skill level and his creative vision that attracted you to him as a maker?
LJ: Kevin was building a guitar that had the dynamics and the musicality that would be very appropriate for a solo fingerstyle instrument. He did very clean work. And was clearly very exacting in how he was doing it. You know, it's hard to build a guitar, at least to build a good guitar and to do it cleanly and to be working on that level. This was clearly somebody that knew his way around wood and woodworking and all the intricacy of it. That was impressive.
Transcript lightly edited for length and clarity.