By: Courtney Grimes
Craig Ross has been rockin’ the stage with legendary Lenny Kravitz for the past 13 years. Craig grew up in Los Angeles and developed his chops on the L.A. club scene for about 10 years. His former band, Broken Homes, put out three records in the ’80s on MCA, and in 1991, he met Lenny. Craig immediately began to tour and write with Lenny, and throughout the following decade became known for his stellar guitar solos and unmatched onstage improvisations.
Between performances on the American Music Awards (Nov.14), and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (Nov. 15), Craig took some time to chat about that fateful night in an L.A. pool hall, the possibility of being a drummer, and how he’s rumored to leave the band.
CG: When did you begin to play guitar?
CR: Um, I was eight years old. I was inspired by something I saw on TV. It was the Bay City Rollers, who used to have a TV show. That was what I want to do. Our neighbor had an old guitar in the garage next door and my mom borrowed that. I actually had to beg for my lessons. When you’re a kid, my mom thought I was too young. I took lessons, folk guitar lessons, chords mostly.
CG: Who are your biggest musical influences?
CR: Back when I was younger, The Beatles, Chuck Berry were pretty huge for me and then later I got into The Who and Zeppelin and Hendrix. And then I got into a lot of the blues guys like Freddy King and Albert King and I ended up getting into the funky stuff, like Cornell Dupree, and so many others….
CG: Is it strange to know that other guitarists cite you as a major musical influence?
CR: It makes me feel good. It makes me feel that maybe I’m carrying, passing something on, carrying the tradition of the stuff that I was into. I wouldn’t have been hip to a lot of the guitar players that I was into, if it wasn’t like Eric Clapton and people like that mentioning the people that they liked… and by me mentioning people I like, maybe I’m passing that kind of stuff on.
CG: Is it true you began touring with Lenny one week after meeting him?
CR: Yeah. There was word around L.A. that he was looking for a guitar player and he was about to tour his second record, and two to three days before I met him I bought “Mama Said.” I was out playing pool, which I was doing a lot in those days because I wasn’t really working, and he happened to be in the pool hall that night, and we had a mutual friend who introduced me to him that night. Lenny came over and took a look at me, and I asked him, “Do you need a guitar player?” and he said “Yeah” and I said, “Well, I’m the guy to do it. He said, “Well, finish your game and meet me at the house when you’re done.”
He had a Les Paul there and a bass and a piano and he said, “Let me hear what you can do,” or whatever. I was playing by myself and I said, “Well, maybe we could play something together,” and I pretty much knew all the stuff so we pretty much hit it off and he called me the next morning and said, “Learn all my music and meet me in an hour.” And two weeks later we were in Europe
CG: Which has been your favorite tour so far?
CR: We opened for the Stones at one point and that was a highlight because I’m such a fan. And then Robert Plant was our opening act. He’s such a cool guy that I think he was just having fun, you know? He’s just such a mammoth dude. He’s so sweet at the same time. He took it pretty well I think. We got to play with him it was really just amazing.
CG: In August, Lenny cancelled the upcoming tour, and it was rumored that you left the band?
CR: I don’t have any idea where that came from. I was on vacation, and had no access to the internet and somebody called me and asked me if everything was okay. I said “Yeah, why?” They said, “There’s a rumor that you had left the band.” I said, “WHAT?!?” I have no idea where that came from. I thought it was pretty interesting. Honestly, I just ignored it, I didn’t go on the website or anything, it was just outrageous.
CG: Tell me about your Gibsons.
CR: My favorite at the moment is a ’59 Les Paul flame, which is from the Custom Shop and absolutely incredible, and pretty much used on all of Lenny’s Baptism record. But I’ve got a ’55 B.B. (Les Paul Custom “Black Beauty”) that I’ve loved and played for years and years, and last year I played Firebirds which are incredible. And then I just got the new Firebird Studio which has the new humbuckers on it and I’m highly enjoying that guitar too.
CG: Which guitar do you play the most?
CR: The Les Paul, but actually I’ve been playing a 355, from the Custom Shop. I’ve just been kinda feeling that kind of guitar….Chuck Berry and B.B. King. The thing about Gibsons is that they’re really versatile, you can use pretty much any one for anything.
CG: Do you have one you particularly love for the studio?
CR: I play the SG in the studio, and the Les Paul that I mentioned from the Custom Shop is pretty great. And then I have a ‘64 355 and it’s got a real tight sound.
CG: What about live?
CR: Firebirds, 355, flametop Les Pauls, one is Custom Shop, and an older Custom Shop, I think from the early ’90s and I play my ‘55 B.B.
CG: Now you produce, play and write? Which do you enjoy the most?
CR: Playing and writing, you know, I guess come the most natural, and you’re writing when you’re playing. I mean obviously, it all depends, I love to go on tour, but you know, touring is only great for so long and then you feel like you really need to get back into the studio. Because when you play live, you are only exercising one aspect of what you do, the live part, which is exciting and live and the traveling and all that is great. But after a while you want to get back in the studio to focus. When you’re on the road you’re playing stuff that has been written and when you’re in the studio it’s just coming out of the air. To be in the studio all the time is too much and to be on the road all the time is too much.
CG: Which do you see yourself doing the most of in the future?
CR: Honestly, I’d like to be able to do all of the above for as long as I can. I’m definitely not tired of being on the road. I love to perform. The studio is still as exciting to me as it was when I was a kid. I’d love to do more producing. It’s hard to say what I would produce, probably singer/songwriters.
CG: If you had never picked up a guitar in your lifetime, what would you be doing?
CR: I can’t imagine it. I don’t ever remember not wanting to be a guitar player. I mean for as long as I can remember this is what I’ve wanted to do. Maybe I’d try to be a drummer…