Dear Guitar Hero: Lenny Kravitz Talks Vintage Gear, 'Let Love Rule' and New Album, 'Strut'

by Richard Bienstock
Posted Dec 12, 2014 at 4:17pm

He’s a vintage-gear-loving gunslinger whose mom starred in The Jeffersons. But what Guitar World readers want to know is…

You’ve said that your new album, Strut, is a very “raw” album. What do you mean by that? — Judah Kershner

I mean it’s raw in its execution as well as in the way it was recorded. All of my records are done very organically, on real instruments and with beautiful vintage gear. But this one also came together very quickly. I actually didn’t even realize I was making a record.

I was shooting a movie by day [The Hunger Games: Catching Fire], and the music was all coming to me at night. I wrote it very quickly, recorded it very quickly and refrained from putting too many overdubs on there. It’s really just a guitar-bass-and-drums record. So it was a very raw experience, and a very spontaneous one, too.

Your new single, “The Chamber,” has an almost early Eighties disco sound to it. What was the inspiration for that song? — Chris Kaysen

What I like about that track is it’s got a very groovy feeling, but it’s still based in guitars. As for what inspired it, my inspirations are always based on my life, my experiences, my feelings, things I’ve observed.

But I can’t really say what it was, exactly. It just came. I had nothing to do with any of it. That’s how I work. I wait for it to come. But it is a little bit of a different sound. You couldn’t really base the sound of the rest of the album off of that song. It would throw you. The record is all over the place, even though there’s a thread throughout it.

For years you’ve been talking about a “very funky” album that you already have recorded called Negrophilia. Strut sounds like it has a lot of funk elements on it. Is this it? — J. Goodman

This album is not that. Negrophilia is a very psychedelic, cool funk album. Very, very loose, and very free. Very free. It’s something I’ve been holding onto for a long time, and it’s almost time to have it see the light of day. In fact, I’m most probably going to release it right after this one.

What gear did you use on Strut? — Josh Lind

It was very simple. I only used two guitars. One was a ’59 Les Paul “Goldtop” that’s really muted and faded and has the most brilliant-sounding PAFs I’ve ever heard. Then there was a three-pickup black Les Paul Custom from the late Fifties. For amps, I used a modded Fender Super that has the most amazing sound. That’s the only one on the entire album, except for on the song “Strut,” where I played one guitar through a Fender Bassman.

You usually play all the instruments yourself on your albums. Why record that way rather than with a band? — Rick McDough

That way, when I’m writing and recording, I don’t have to explain anything to anyone. I don’t even have to talk about it. I just do it. So I’ll usually lay down drums first, then guitar, and then bass last. But really, more than anything, I think I do it because I just love to play.

I love the guitar tone on your early albums, like Let Love Rule and Are You Gonna Go My Way. What was your setup in the studio on those records? — Grayson Malloy

On Let Love Rule, it was primarily a tweed Fender Deluxe cranked to 10. When you turn that amp all the way up, it compresses itself and makes this beautiful tone. That’s pretty much the dirty sound on the album. I think I also had a Fender Twin Reverb for the cleaner stuff.

The guitar, for the most part, was actually an Epiphone Sorrento. I used a Telecaster for some of the clean stuff, and that was it. Are You Gonna Go My Way was a little different. There were so many amps on the album that it’s hard to remember all of them. But on that song [“Are You Gonna Go My Way”] in particular I used a Gibson Skylark, a little tiny amp that has the most brilliant sound. And the guitar was a Les Paul—not the Flying V that’s in the video. Oddly enough, I’ve never used a V in the studio, even though I’m so associated with that guitar.

When you came out with Let Love Rule, it sounded so different from what was going on at the time. Did you feel like you were going against the grain of what was popular? — Elias Kaplan

I knew I was going in the complete opposite direction that everybody else was going. It was 1989 when it came out, so I was making it in 1988. And everybody back then was doing this really sort of Eighties sound, very effected, very bombastic, big drums. So I went the other way, to a very organic space. A very intimate space. And I used all this amazing vintage gear. So yeah, I was quite aware of it. But since I made the record on my own before I had a record label, I didn’t have anybody trying to tell me anything different, thank god.

Do you feel like you get pigeonholed as “retro”? — Jenny Gray

Not anymore. It was kind of the catchphrase at the time, but I make music, that’s it. Whatever color is required, I use. I don’t relate to any labels.

What was your first guitar, and can you remember the first song you learned to play on it? — Mike Hannon

It was a Yamaha acoustic with a pickup in it and two knobs on the front. My parents got it for me from Manny’s [in New York City] for my ninth birthday. The first thing I learned to play? What’s that song? “Country roads, take me home…mountain mama…West Virginia…” The John Denver song [“Take Me Home, Country Roads”]. That was it!

You and Slash attended Fairfax High School in L.A. at the same time. Were you friends? — Clark Daniels

Not really. We knew each other from the hallway, like, “Yo, what’s up, dude? What’s happenin’?” But that was the extent of it. We met later on when he was in Guns N’ Roses and I had come out with Let Love Rule. We started talking and I went, “Wait a minute. I know you, man. You look so familiar. Oh my god! We went to high school together! You were that guy!” So that’s how it happened. Because he pretty much looked the same.

A few years back there was a rumor that Velvet Revolver wanted you to fill the singer slot after Scott Weiland. Was there any truth to that? — Cooper Abraham

They reached out to me, but it wasn’t something that I could do at the time, because I was in the middle of my stuff. So we never actually jammed. But I was flattered. I love those guys.

Is it true you have some of the recording gear the Beatles used at Abbey Road in your studio in the Bahamas? And if so, how did you get it? — Gord Engber

Yup, I have the mixing board [the REDD.37] that they used. [The group used the REDD.37 console throughout 1963 and again in 1969 during the recording of tracks for Let It Be.] Right after I made Let Love Rule, that stuff came up for sale, and at that time nobody really gave a s--- about that kind of gear. Then, all of a sudden, a couple years later, vintage gear was “it.” Everybody was using it, everybody was buying it, everybody was trying to find it.

Fairchild compressors started going for $25,000. All these things were desired. So I was lucky enough to get it early. I have the board in my place in the Bahamas, but it moves around. Sometimes it’s in Paris. In general, though, I don’t buy gear anymore. I’ve got so much stuff that I don’t even see. I have a great collection of about 200 guitars that are all amazing. I have great drums and keyboards and synths, orchestral instruments and basses, and then recording equipment. So I’ve got enough for a lifetime. I’m good!

Are there any new artists you’re currently digging on? — Dave Fasciano

There’s a lot of stuff out there. I was talking about these kids today that I’ve been enjoying called the Strypes. They're from Ireland. A great band.

I read that you were named after your uncle Leonard, who was killed during the Korean War, and that earlier this year he received a posthumous medal of honor. What did he receive it for? — Pete DeLucie

That’s correct. He saved an entire platoon in Korea and sacrificed himself. In fact, the bill that got all the gentlemen their awards—because there were 24 given out that day, to people who should have gotten it already but didn’t—they were calling it loosely the Leonard Kravitz bill, because it was his example that kind of started the whole thing. [The medals were primarily given to Jewish and Latino servicemen who had been overlooked, due to discrimination.]

A friend of his petitioned and worked hard to help make this thing happen. So it was a real honor to go to the White House and receive this award, knowing that he deserved it back when he passed. Because out of the original 24, there were only three who were still alive. But there was a whole ceremony, and President Obama gave out the medals. It was beautiful.

Do you have words of advice for musicians just starting out? — Jack Felton

Be yourself. We all have our gifts that we were given, and there’s nothing like being authentic to what you were created to be. So don’t follow the crowd. Follow what’s inside of you.

Looking back over your career, is there anything you would change? — Aaron Mitchell

No. You can always think of things you could have done differently and probably would have, if given another chance. But what I’ve done makes me who I am, and I take in all the lessons I was taught as a result. So I take the ups and the downs. I take all of it, and I accept it and I do my best to grow from the things you might call mistakes. But I’ve been quite happy with my journey, and I continue to be happy with it. I thank God for it.

Photo: Greg Kadel


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