Lenny Kravitz

ROCK’S RENAISSANCE MAN TALKS GIBSON GUITARS AND HIS NEW ALBUM , STRUT

LENNY KRAVITZ IS A ROCK AND ROLL RENAISSANCE MAN. A SINGER, SONGWRITER, PRODUCER AND MULTI-INSTRUMENTALIST, HE HAS GARNERED FOUR GRAMMY AWARDS, SOLD OVER 38 MILLION RECORDS AND BECOME AN INTERNATIONAL CULTURAL ICON IN THE COURSE OF HIS TWO-DECADE CAREER. BETWEEN HIS 2011 RELEASE, BLACK AND WHITE AMERICA, AND HIS LATEST, STRUT, KRAVITZ ALSO MANAGED TO CARVE A NAME FOR HIMSELF ACTING IN FILMS, MOST NOTABLY IN THE BLOCKBUSTER HUNGER GAMES FRANCHISE.

Amid all the glamor and hype that orbits an artist of his caliber, it’s refreshing to note that his drive is rooted in an unabashed, unadulterated passion for music. “Playing and creating music makes me feel alive,” he says. “It’s my most fluid way of communicating. I know how to communicate through music probably better than I do through speaking. It’s so natural. You don’t have to think about it. It’s something that just comes from your spirit. It’s life for me. It’s life. Life and communication, man. It feeds me and enables me to get things out in a healthy way.”

His sound, a powerful and groove-heavy brand of vintage rock, is rooted in simplicity—in his ability to capture straightforward, invigorating riffs and rhythms and let them flower into soulful and massively accessible songs. It’s a sound that can be traced to the experience that first inspired his musical ambitions. “I think it was after my very first concert which was when I was 6 years old, 7 years old,” he says. “The Jackson 5 at Madison Square Garden—I saw that show. My father took me, and I had already been into them and had the singles and stuff, but when I saw that performance, it blew my head off and I knew that was it. I wanted to make music … It was electrifying.”

In addition to the Jacksons, he grew up with influences that ranged from Miles Davis to Cream to John Lee Hooker, and he quickly advanced from banging on pots and pans to playing guitar and piano. He remembers the guitars that got him started. “The first instrument that I fell in love with was a Fender Stratocaster. I had the Fender catalog … I remember sitting in Brooklyn at my grandmother’s house and I would just sit in the bed and just look at this thing for hours, and I wanted one so badly … It’s not the first guitar I got, though. The first guitar that I was given by my parents was … [an] acoustic guitar that had a pickup in it.” He adds, “I’m not sure how happy I was about that. I was appreciative to get the guitar, but I was like, ‘Man, come on now. This is not out of the Fender catalog.’”

He didn’t let minor disappointment set him back. “That’s where I learned to play chords and play folk songs and all that kind of stuff,” he says. “Then my very first electric guitar was actually bought at Guitar Center in Los Angeles on Vista, the original Guitar Center, the small one. That was a Fender Jazzmaster. So, I was getting closer.”

Though he always had his sights set on music, becoming a front man or solo artist wasn’t his plan. “I had no idea this was going to happen. I just knew I wanted to be a musician. Whatever that meant, I was willing to do. I think that I sort of envisioned myself playing in clubs or being a drummer or guitar player, bass player, keyboard player … playing behind somebody. I never thought of really being the lead cat. It sort of happened by accident,” he explains. “I was in a band and they needed me to sing. I was like, ‘I don’t know, really. Do I want to do that?’ But I ended up doing it … That’s kind of how it started. Then I ended up writing my own material, which turned into Let Love Rule which is where that whole thing started.”

From the blissful grooves of that first record through the driving rock of “Are You Gonna Go My Way” and “Always on the Run” to the stripped-down growl of Strut, Kravitz has built a remarkable career and developed a trademark sound built on a mix of hard work and trust in the serendipitous. “Music is absolutely transformative,” he says. “When you’re in a moment and you allow the creative spirit to move you, things happen that you didn’t anticipate, that you didn’t think about, that you weren’t necessarily trying to do … A lot of the best moments on my records are so-called mistakes. Things that just slipped out as in, ‘Wow, what’s that?’”

For Strut, he had to surrender to inspiration amid a hectic schedule. “I had no idea that I was going to be making a record,” he explains. “Everything I do is always spontaneous and it’s always very organic. I don’t force anything. I always wait until I receive whatever it is that I’m supposed to receive, but in this case I was shooting a movie. I was doing Catching Fire, the second of the Hunger Games movies. I’m waking up at 5, 6 in the morning … working all day into the evening. Then at night I started hearing this music. I needed to sleep. I was tired, but this music was just being downloaded. So you have two choices: either ignore it or you go for it. So I went for it. I ended up staying awake for two weeks with maybe an hour sleep a night … This record just poured out of me. It was just about being present and collecting what it is that you were hearing. Of course, the work is in producing it to be what it is that you’re hearing in your head.”

He’s particular about the tools he uses to coax that sound out, relying predominately on Gibson guitars, including the iconic Flying V. “That and the Les Paul pretty much are my main pieces,” he says. “I have a very small collection of studio guitars that don’t ever leave the studio … I think I might have used two guitars on the whole album. I stick with what works … There’s a Goldtop Les Paul that I bought a long time ago, maybe 20 years ago—a faded, beat-up Goldtop that just [has] the best sounding humbuckers I’ve ever heard. What year would that guitar be? I think it’s a ’68 … And then a black Les Paul Custom three-pickup. That’s a ’59.”

As with recording, intuition and feel take precedence when he chooses an instrument. “First of all, [I look for] how well it plays, the feel of the neck, the sound of the pickups. Just how it feels in my hand. Does it feel organic to me? Does it feel like it’s an extension of me? You can go through 20 basses or 20 guitars, the most beautiful vintage ones, they could all be specimens, but there’s one that just fits with you.”

His trusted Les Pauls, amplified by a Fender Deluxe Blackface customized by famous amp specialist Alexander Dumble, are the sole source of the guitar sound on much of Kravitz’s recordings. “I use very [few] effects. A lot of what people think are effects—I remember people asking me, ‘What’s that on that guitar? What’s that on this voice?’ Nothing,” he laughs. “That’s the effect. There’s nothing on there. I only use where I need it, like if I need some extra sustain for a solo or you want fades or flange or slap, but otherwise I’m pretty pure with the tones.”

Of course, a new record means a new tour, and Lenny Kravitz is known for performances as electrifying as that Jackson 5 show that first inspired him. “That feeling when you get on stage when you make that connection with the audience is why you do it,” he says. “It’s all about this energy that gets passed back and forth. You give. They receive. They give you more back. You get that. You get nourished off of that … It becomes this cycle and it snowballs. There’s no better high than having that feeling on stage and feeling that spirit, that electricity in the room. That’s the ultimate high for me and that’s why I go out and play live and continue to do that.”

The renaissance man pauses in the swirl of records, tours, movies and interviews to reflect on his career and the future. “I think all I ever wanted to do is just be myself, just be myself, have my own expression. I feel that I’m doing that. I’m still on the path. We’re not there yet … I started young and I’m 25 years in and I feel like I’m just warming up. Like, that first 25 was an amazing education and beginning for me. Now the next 25 are going to be something else.”

Written by Clay Steakley / Photography by Ryan Hunter

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