Mark Lettieri is a guitarist, songwriter and sometimes producer living in Fort Worth, TX. A member of jazz/fusion/funk ensemble Snarky Puppy, he also stays busy working in multiple genres of music, both on stage and in the studio. Check out www.marklettieri.com for a full resume, bio, and audio/visuals.
Photo courtesy of Alexander Ariff
According to your Facebook feed, you're a busy guy! What are some of the projects and gigs you've been working on lately?
Doing a little session work here in D/FW, both at studios and out of my house. I'm also about to do a live audio/video recording with a rock band I started with an amazing vocalist and writer, Keite Young, called the Black & Blue. Snarky Puppy will be hitting the studio soon, acting as a backing band for a bunch of different singer/songwriters (called the "Family Dinner" project), and then we'll start our Spring Europe/US tour in March.
For the aspiring guitarists out there, how did you get going with your career?
I think it's always good to have a goal in mind, or at least know what you want going forward. My goal has always been to have a steady career in music, something that was long term. For example, I knew early on that studio work and freelancing was something that interested me, not only from a creative standpoint, but also a business one. If you're able to work in mulitple styles in different musical situations, it can be a very stable way make a living. I networked with those in the scene who were doing that kind of work (freelancing and recording), and slowly started to establish myself one gig at a time.
What do you want to be remembered for years from now when your career is over?
That there was more to my music than just my nose.
How did/do you practice? What do you think is the quickest way to improve as a musician?
I had some great teachers growing up, so that steered me in the right direction. I think a lot of my breakthroughs on the instrument have come from playing along with my favorite records, as well as playing with other musicians who are way better than me. Going home after getting your butt kicked on a gig is a great motivator!
How do you take what you're practicing and implement it on a gig?
If there's something I've been working on, I'll try to execute it first during a rehearsal, so as not to embarass myself on stage if I blow it! However, it depends on the gig. If it's a more relaxed enviroment, or an improv-type setting where you're playing for mostly your friends (who are also musicians), then I'll try all sorts of stuff. But if I'm backing a singer, per se, I try not to experiment a whole lot and stick to what I'm really comfortable with at the time.
Who were some of your first musical influences and who are you listening to now? What is it about these players that excites you?
As far as guitarists go, I think Jimi Hendrix and Joe Satriani were the two players that really got me excited about the instrument at first, and what you could do with it. Prince was also a big deal for me, as both a player and a writer, as well as Jeff Beck. Lately, I've been inspired by players like Wayne Krantz, Michael Landau and Jonathan Dubose.
Your album "Knows" has been on constant rotation around my house for the last several months. Do you have plans for your next album?
Thanks, glad you're enjoying it! I've been writing quite a bit for the next one as we speak, and have been brainstorming ideas for the musicians I want to work with. It will be in a similar vein to "Knows" but maybe a little less 'fusion-y' and with a few more hooks. Maybe not. We'll see. I'd like to record in the next six months, perhaps this summer.
Describe your songwriting process. Do you have a system or is each piece created in a unique way?
I definitely don't have a system. Some songs come after a period of time noodling in front of the TV, others as soon as I pick up the guitar. Some are inspired by people and things I'll see while I'm out and about, and some ideas come randomly in to my brain and I have to run to the nearest tonal instrument and flesh it out before I forget it! Thank goodness I have the "Cat Piano" app on my iPhone.
What's your approach to improvisation? How do you visualize the neck?
I know my theory, etc. but I try really hard to use my ear first, before my brain. I see the neck as an open canvas, and the cool thing about the guitar is that if you play a wrong note, you just bend it until it's right! I come from the Eddie Van Halen school of improvising, to quote him: "falling down a flight of stairs and trying to land on your feet." Lately I've been inspired by altering things rhythmically with my improvising, not just melodically. It's fun to try and create solos that people can dance to.
One of my favorite groups that you've been a part of is Snarky Puppy. How did that gig come about?
Thank you. I had been involved in the Dallas gospel/soul scene for a while, and pretty soon I was seeing some of the Snarky guys on the same gigs as me, namely Michael League. My first performances with Snarky were a weekend's worth of gigs in Louisiana, where both of the other guitarists (Bob Lanzetti and Chris McQueen) were unavailable. Michael called me two days before they were to head out and asked if I could learn two albums worth of material. Terrified by the intensity of it all, I lied and said, "uh...sure, of course." Guess it worked out OK, 'cause they've kept me around.
How does your approach to playing change going from one band to the next? For instance, how does your playing change going from a larger group like Snarky Puppy to a smaller band like the Erykah Badu band?
It doesn't really. My job is to always serve the song first, no matter how many folks are onstage. With Erykah, my job is to lock in with the guys and establish a solid foundation, so she'll be comfortable and perform at her best. With Snarky, my job is similar: play my parts right and tight so the song is portrayed correctly, and properly support the soloists. There is more improvising with Snarky, obviously, but we still have our 'lanes' that we stay in so things don't get too out of control. I do play solos on both gigs, so during those moments I'll let my hair down, but otherwise I'm there to create in a way that serves the material.
Alright, let's talk about tone. What kind of rig are you playing through these days? Are there any pieces of gear that you would feel incomplete without?
I can usually be found with a Strat in my hands, but I've got a few Teles and a Les Paul I'm quite fond of. My main amp at the moment (when playing locally) is a Naylor Duel 60 head/cab. A truly incredible amp. Fender cleans with Marshall-esque drive. On the road, I usually go for some kind of Fender-based backline. Twins, Deluxes, Devilles. I like to start with a solid, fat clean sound and build my gain using pedals...which brings me to my beloved Rockett Pedals, namely the Flex Drive and Blue Note overdrives. I never leave home without them.
Lots of guitarists obsess over the smallest components of their gear...cables, picks, strings, power supplies, hair product, etc. and how it affects their tone. What's your take?
Well, my hair product is very important. I use Garnier Fructis. As far as gear is concerned, I do believe it's important, but only up to a point, because it's really about the player. I'm a firm believer in doing whatever you need to do to best achieve the sounds you hear in your head. How you get there is up to you (and your wallet). Just make sure you find equipment that turns on and works when you need it to.
Not necessarily music-related, but still vastly important...Anchorman or Holy Grail?
What is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?
Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. Do you have any final comments to leave our readers with?
I think King's X is criminally underrated, and should be one of the biggest bands in the world.
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