California Guitar Trio, mostly

Paul Richards talks about 30 years in an acoustic guitar triad and suspicions Robert Fripp might be channeling some later-life chill

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California Guitar Trio

It’s a bit of humor, really, and not necessarily of deep artistic import, but the graphic accompanying the social media announcement of dates for this summer’s King Crimson tour features a horned lady in vaguely Tudor garb, a bunny in her lap, attended by an owl and a deer, smiling Mona Lisa-ish in front of what looks like a golf course. “Music Is Our Friend” captions the unsettlingly placid scene, and for anyone who recalls the graphics of Crim’s early albums — Red or In The Court of the Crimson King or Starless and Bible Black — the whole thing seems to tease at irony, or perhaps more troubling, a late-stage symptom of… whimsey? 

Whimsey isn’t necessarily the first affectation that comes to mind about King Crimson, helmed for more than half a century by the deeply serious guitarist Robert Fripp and whose current incarnation represents something like post-rock electric chamber music. Maybe the graphic’s message is just a reminder that we’ve all missed live music, and live music has missed us too. 

Paul Richards, one-third of the California Guitar Trio (CGT), is understandably happy to be out on the road again, and tallies bonus points for restarting live work opening for Fripp and Co.

“Yeah, and what a great way to be re-introduced to concerts opening for King Crimson,” he says over a phone interview.

Richards, of course, has a long history with Fripp and Crimson, extending back more than 30 years when he was a student at one of Fripp’s Guitar Craft intensive study programs in the late 1980s, and his trio has opened for Crimson several times in the ensuing duration. He has worked with Fripp as recently as this past spring.

“Over the past year, one of the things I’ve been involved in has been working with Robert on some online guitar seminars, and I’ve been on the staff. So, I’ve been in touch with him a fair amount over the last year.”

The core of Fripp’s instruction, and the technical backbone of Richards’ and CGT’s guitar work, is new standard tuning (NST), which, at this point, is neither new (Fripp has been playing in this tuning since the early ’80s), nor would few workaday guitarists understand it as standard.

Guitarists of varying facility move commonly between tunings — by itself that’s not novel, but NST, which is mostly based around fifths (rather than fourths, in traditional tuning), does compel some unique fretboard architecture and sonorities, which gives CGT’s original compositions, and even some of the re-imagined covers they’ve long been known for, a distinctly spacious and expansive sound. Richards has been playing NST more or less exclusively since graduating from Fripp’s course. 

“Yeah, I think it’s one of the things that has kind of set us apart from other guitar groups and guitar ensembles,” Richards says. “I think that one of the things it does for us, even if we do a surf cover, playing it NST makes it a different thing. The chord voicings are different … Basically, it’s tuned to a C major pentatonic, containing all the notes in the scale, so in a way it’s tuned somewhat like a cello or other stringed instrument.”    

That Richards, along with fellow CGT’ers Hideyo Moriya and Bert Lams, have managed to sustain an acoustic, and instrumental, guitar trio (all original members) for 30 years is a quietly remarkable achievement, given the music industry’s generalized skepticism toward instrumental music and (at least in the States) club-going audiences’ reluctant embrace of non-jazz, singerless acts. Their association with Fripp and King Crimson have afforded them exposure lesser ensembles may not enjoy, but they have long stood as a substantial draw on their own. 

CGT’s success has been buoyed in part by peppering their live sets and albums with a deft selection of covers to keep audiences periodically grounded in familiarity, and their wide embrace of stylistic adventures, ranging anywhere from ’60s pop to surf to Bach etudes. We’re not certain, but they may well have been the first act to orchestrate and cover “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and their three-voice read of Freddie’s famously flamboyant indulgence remains a staple. 

Richards actually refers to his neighborhood in L.A. as a reference point for the band’s stylistic reach.

“I’ve been living in West Hollywood with my wife for seven years or so, and just recently I was walking through the neighborhood, and I was looking at the architecture,” he says. “You have one house that’s like an English Tudor house, then a French farmhouse, then you have a building like a tiki hut, then a super modern house — and they all fit together. And I thought this is like California Guitar Trio repertoire, the diversity of architecture and how it all works together is very close to what we’ve been doing with CGT for the past 30 years.” 

And it should be noted, they have accomplished this all without resorting to cheerless clinical displays of technical ferocity or the somnambulance of the kind of acoustic guitaring associated with the New Age wave of the ’80s and early ’90s, which was well established at the time of CGT’s inception. Equal parts composition, deeply informed arrangements, an unwavering allegiance to the collective mission and technically precise playing that manages to sidestep dry mechanics and slips elegantly between easy genre buckets. 

And a little nod to the unexpected. The band released their 16th long player, Elegy, in the late spring of last year, sadly orphaned of any tour support. Featuring an evocative three-part original suite commissioned by a Portuguese music festival and inspired by three rivers that flow through the festival area, about an hour east or Porto (“Guadela Trilogy”), the album also features covers of some of the band’s favorite composers, one Beatles tune, and a galloping read of “Diamond Head,” one of the Ventures’ big hits from the ’60s. Ever the democracy, where each player brings in tune suggestions to the collective, we made the reasonable guess that Richards — the only American in the trio — brought that one in.

“I’ve always been a big fan of surf guitar music, but Hideyo was the biggest fan,” he says. “The Ventures were like the Beatles in Japan, so when he was learning to play guitar as a teenager, that’s what he wanted to do. He played in a surf rock ‘n’ roll band as a teenager, so he really had the surf thing down.”

We asked Richards what he thought of the new breed of fingerstyle guitar players, the percussive, fretboard-tapping, flying harmonics school of solo acoustic guitar. One of its stars, of course, is Boulder’s own Trace Bundy. (After meeting Bundy at a festival in Bend, Oregon, CGT is working to put together some shows with him.) 

“It has been really interesting to see these guys, like Trace and Andy McKee, really blow up on YouTube,” Richards says. “Part of it is, it’s really amazing how much sound they can make as a solo guitarist, and then they add that percussive element. We’ve been doing some shows with the Montreal Guitar Trio, and one of those guys is really great at that percussive element, so when we’ve played with them, he brings a little of that into the mix. And another guy we’ve played with, Trevor Gordon Hall, we’ve done some shows with him as well.”

Unfortunately for this leg of Crimson opening dates, the California Guitar Trio will be appearing as California Guitar Duo-and-a-half. While most of the world is sitting back watching the Olympics on TV from Tokyo, Hideyo Moriya is more or less quarantine-restricted in his native Japan (COVID’s not over, kids) and can’t make the trip. Richards and Lams will be joined by erstwhile CGT collaborator and Chapman Stick player Tom Griesgraber, filling a role that’s been seated in the past by Crimson’s Tony Levin, the Chapman Stick maestro with whom CGT has almost as long as a relationship with as that with Fripp.

And as for Fripp, Richards credits him with being an influence over matters extending past the fretboard.

“He is a really… serious guy,” Richards says. “He also has a big sense of humor. … Studying with him, I was totally terrified … But I think now, he’s like 73, 74, I think he’s becoming a little more… maybe ‘easy-going’ isn’t the right term, but maybe a little less scary and serious.

“If you’ve seen any of the videos he’s done with his wife (wherein Fripp and his wife Toya Wilcox goof on the likes of Metallica, GnR and Mötley Crüe), it really shows a side of him that most people have never seen before.” 

ON THE BILL: King Crimson with Special Guest California Guitar Trio. 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 2, Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre, 6350 Greenwood Plaza Blvd., Greenwood Village. Tickets are $49.95-$160,
fiddlersgreenamp.com