I first heard about Mark Lettieri when my friends at Jim Dunlop sent over the performance video they shot with Snarky Puppy at Berkeley’s famed Fantasy Studios. Although the studio that was once home to iconic Bay Area acts like Santana, Joe Satriani, and Sammy Hagar, it closed its doors on September 15th. Dunlop’s Snarky Puppy video does a great job of capturing that moment in time. One million-plus views later, that YouTube video and Mark’s influence on Instagram continue to inspire players around the world.
As I was preparing to interview Mark for the Fall Issue of our sister publication Gear Tech + Recording, aka [GTR], per the about page on his site, I discovered that Mark is a fellow believer who does not try to hide his faith. And like Lari Basilio who we featured last month, Mark is also a guest soloist on YouTube phenom Peter Thorne’s most recent solo album. And speaking of credits, you can also catch Mark on the latest Tori Kelly album.
Not constrained by the limits of style, Mark is also a passionate music educator, eager to share his insights about music via clinics and a range of online offerings which can be found at MarkLettieri.com. Given the common threads, I had a feeling that Mark would be the perfect follow up to last month’s amazing interview with Lari. Whether you’re a fan of Mark’s Grammy-winning work with Snarky Puppy, are a fan of amazing guitar playing, or are looking for insights on how to have a mainstream music career without compromising your faith, Mark’s interview is full of faith-fueled insights and wisdom!
[WM] Mark, on behalf of everyone at Worship Musician, thanks for joining us!
[Mark Lettieri] Awesome, thank you, great to be here!
[WM] In addition to your work as a member of Snarky Puppy and as a solo artist, you’re also part of the band on Daystar’s Marcus and Joni show. Worship is obviously your wheelhouse, but is not what you’re primarily known for. What are some of the nuances to having a career as a believer that spans the worship and mainstream music worlds?
[Mark] I think I just live it, you know what I mean? It’s not really something that I advertise, for lack of a better word, but it’s not something I hide either. Of course, I’m not ashamed of my faith and never have been. I understand that in my ‘scene’ the artists I work with and music I do spans the secular genre and spans the Christian genre and I sort of just live in between there. I think maybe from a strictly musical standpoint my tastes are a little bit broader than the worship guitar scene, and I think that’s what’s sort of led me to the kind of music that I make. I think my faith has always been something that’s kind of personal to me and my family, and I tend to kind of separate it from the music business aspect of things if I can. I’ve definitely been in many musical situations where I’m the only guy who’s a Christian in a band of non-Christians, and that’s okay it doesn’t bother me. In fact, I tend to appreciate that over being in a situation where everyone is like-minded, it can test my faith a little bit more, which can be good.
I’m never going to denounce my faith or water it down in front of people who are not Christians just to fit in or something, that’s never what I would do. In some groups I play in, some of my closest friends are the atheist guys. I’ve never been in a situation where anyone has been overtly negative towards my faith, I think more often than not, people respect it. It’s good when you’re around adults who can kind of do that (laughs). Snarky Puppy is pretty diverse as far as people’s faiths. There are Christians, non-Christians, Agnostics, Atheists. It’s a big band, and you know what… it’s probably reflective of most of the world, so you might as well get used to living in it. It’s comfortable for me. I wouldn’t do it if I felt like my faith was ever jeopardized. And that goes for any of the groups that I play in.
[WM] I would imagine you didn’t wake up one day and decide to start playing on Daystar, so did you play on worship teams growing up, and what role did that play in terms of developing your stylistic diversity?
[Mark] Yeah, I did play on some worship teams. I was definitely pretty involved in my church as a high school kid. My worship team was kind of interesting. On Sundays we would do contemporary Christian worship music, but then on Wednesdays, which was youth night and more open to the community at large, the same band would play secular music, which was pretty cool.
The band guys were all killer players, up and coming professional players in L.A. or wherever. But you know, we would play Santana, or Bob Marley, I think even at one point the youth pastor made us sing “Enter Sandman” (laughs). So that was cool to experience all that with guys who were Christian and ultimately serving a higher purpose than just shredding.
Then in college I was involved in the Gospel choir at TCU (Texas Christian University), just as a musician because I’m a terrible singer. That led me into doing a lot of the Gospel work that I ended up doing, and that I still do now. Then I had a few positions with some churches here in town, but lately I’ve just been trying to go to church because my schedule doesn’t really allow me to have a regular weekend worship position because I’m gone all the time. So Daystar has kind of become that and become the worship team that I do with some regularity. It’s during the week, which makes it easier for me to maintain a spot there.
Second part of your question, why I’m good at a lot of styles of music. I think I just listen to a lot of styles of music and if there was something cool guitar related in that style then I would gravitate towards it and try to get it down. I think it was because I wanted to be diverse, but also because you can find inspiration anywhere. And if you are diverse, from a practical business standpoint, you can get more work. So it served a two-fold purpose: one, it was inspiring to me, and two; if I was a more diverse guitar player I could get more diverse gigs.
[Mark] The clinics are usually pretty open ended because I’ve noticed that the folks who come to my clinic are not always all guitar players, which is actually pretty cool. I get a lot of other instruments, I get a lot of songwriters, singers come to my clinic and I’m not sure why, but I think that it’s cool because then we can talk about music in general rather than just guitar specific stuff. People like to know about my rhythm guitar playing, they like to know about how I look at soloing, they like to know about how I write songs and how I operate within the business and handle social media and all of that stuff. Then again, each clinic is different because I kind of leave it up to the audience. It’s a lot of question and answer. If you come to a Mark Lettieri clinic I’m not just going to start talking to you about things, because I don’t really know what you want to know unless you ask me. So the clinics are pretty fluid and diverse, based on what the audience wants to hear about.
In a more tangible way I do have some online lesson stuff in the form of tablature and some scores that I did through Soundslice.com. And some of that is based off of my solo material and some of it is based off of actually my Instagram page, which every now and then I’ll do some miniature rhythm guitar lessons on Instagram and people can download those. I’ve written a couple columns on Premier Guitar magazine on a few different subjects. I haven’t written a book or anything like that, I don’t know if I ever will. So mostly it’s the Soundslice stuff, the Premier columns, and I’ve done a lesson series through a company called Musician’s Toolkit that was a beginning Funk guitar course. Lessons are something I’m definitely trying to get more into, it’s just a matter of finding the time to do it. I’ve talked to the guys at Jam Track Central about doing something one day so hopefully that’s going to happen. So, there’s a lot going on. You can head on over to my website. I think I have a link to mostly everything.
[WM] Noting that you just got back from a clinic stint in Indonesia yesterday, between tours, clinics, and gear demos, it seems like you are always on the go. That said, your playing always sounds so focused and in the groove. What advice do you have on striking a healthy life, work, family, and faith balance?
[Mark] I think for me a lot of it is just trying to find a focus, and also learning how to say no. I don’t mean that with any negativity. I’m at a point in my career now where there are a lot of opportunities, which I’m very thankful for, I just have to be smart about which ones I go for because there are only so many hours in a day and days in a week. I have to make sure that what I’m doing is serving the right purpose as well as ultimately providing for my family and leaving time to be with them. I could very easily just be gone all the time if I wanted to. I could also just be home all the time if I wanted to, but that would mean not being able to do all the things that I feel are potentially important to my career. So it’s just about balance.
I think if you’re a younger player wanting to do something similar to what I do or any other player like me, you’ll just have to take those opportunities that you think are really going to be what you want to have for yourself. It’s tough, I get asked this question a lot and I really don’t know how to answer it. My career is not like anyone else’s, just like another guitar player’s career is nothing like mine. Even if there are certain similarities in style or social media presence or whatever, I can guarantee everything else is completely different. So I can’t tell anyone else how to make a choice for themselves, just how no one ever told me how to do that, I just kind of did it. And some of those choices were right and some of those choices were wrong.
I think if there’s any overarching advice here, it’s just that you have to be okay with taking risks and learning from potential mistakes. Even if you just are working on a worship team, or in the Christian music sector, the choices are all kind of the same. The thing I’ve kind of noticed, and I always go back to this – no matter what opportunity comes along, I know God’s not going to give me something that I can’t handle. Even if that’s something that I have to say no to. I think if you choose this career, and you’re a person of faith, then there is obviously going to be something living inside you that’s going to help you make decisions. I think that’s been my backbone through all of this. People say, “Trust your gut.” For people of faith, your gut is Christ. That’s the way I see it at least. I’m always bouncing everything off of that, and I thankfully don’t think I’ve been steered wrong yet. It may seem like it at the time, but that’s what faith is – let it go and then it works itself out the way it’s supposed to. So certain things where I’ve said no but I’m thinking I don’t know, maybe I should? Then later on I’m like, “Wow, I’m really glad I turned that down!” Things I was worried about saying yes to turn out to be great. Sometimes I do make the wrong decisions, but I’ve always been able to pick myself up and learn from something. So there’s my advice, go with your gut, which should be Christ if you’re a believer!
[Mark] Pete’s thing was pretty simple, we got to know each other through Tim Pierce, the session guitar legend. I’ve known Tim for quite a few years now and he invited me on the Tim and Pete Show, which is his internet guitar show. So that’s where Pete and I became friends. Pete just sent me an email saying, “Hey man, I’m making a record, would you be into playing a solo on it?” I love Pete’s playing and Pete’s music. He sent me the files via email and I just recorded it and sent it back to him, and that was that. I think he picked the tune he felt like I would shine on, it was kind of a funky weird space-rock tune so I wrote a weird funky Space Rock guitar solo for him (laughs). You know what, I think Lari’s on that record too, Lari Basilio. So there you go, she’s doing the same thing I am.
And then Tori Kelly’s record… actually the first session I did I didn’t even know it was for her until a few weeks later (laughs). I work for Kirk Franklin a lot, doing projects for him on things he produces. He’s based here in town in Arlington. So I go to his studio every now and then and just cut tracks for him, and this one just happened to be for Tori. It was cool, she came in one day and was there for the recording process on a couple tunes. The rest we did just me and Kirk and an engineer. A lot of the tracks were already produced and I did the guitars. So that was really cool, obviously she’s an incredible writer with an incredible voice. With her and Kirk it’s a really cool match up. I’m excited to hear it, I’ve only heard one or two tunes; she put out two singles and they sound amazing. A lot of times when you do these recording sessions for people you don’t hear the finished product until the records out. So I’m hoping I sound good (laughs).
[WM] While it’s not ‘super-cool’ in the worship world, I’ve been an Ibanez endorser playing primarily S Series guitars for a long time. So, when I came across the Instagram post about your first Strat getting stolen and your Dad buying you the green S470, I have to admit that the photo triggered a bit of an Ibanez bonding experience if your will. Can you tell us more about that guitar?
[Mark] At fifteen the thought of a thousand-dollar guitar was impossible. I think the thought that it was even five hundred bucks or whatever it was, was like, “Sorry Dad!” you know (laughs)! But at that point it was clear that this was something I was really serious about, so hopefully I’ve paid him back for it with other things by now. I’m very thankful for that.
I think I picked that style of guitar because I was really into Ibanez guitars at the time because I was a huge Joe Satriani fan. But I didn’t want to get the Joe Satriani guitar. I thought that was his guitar and that he should have that and I should have my own. So the S kind of looked like the JS a little bit, so I got it. That was my main guitar for four years until I was able to get another Stratocaster.
I think the Ibanez was the only guitar I had at the time with Humbuckers so I think I wanted to explore that a little bit, it definitely wasn’t a single-coil guitar. But I played everything on it, man. Everything I was into at the time I played on that guitar, which was everything from Satriani to Van Halen to Charlie Hunter, really. That was the first guitar I took to college actually. So when I started my first jam band or whatever it was, that was my main guitar. Then slowly the Strat kind of took over because I guess that was the sound I was hearing in my head. I was getting more into Jeff Beck and Wayne Krantz and Funk and stuff like that. Of course you could play any of those styles on any guitar, but I guess the Fender thing became more my sound.
But Ibanez did wonders for me, all of the music theory I learned as a teenager I learned on that guitar. I think I even used that guitar for my little audition for the Jazz band in high school. I’ll never sell it, I’ll never get rid of it. And now I have a nice expensive Ibanez. I have an AV guitar, which is super cool, the new one that they put out with the roasted maple neck. I have a one-of-a-kind prototype, actually, that’s the same electronics and everything but it’s a color that’s not in production, black and white. And actually, with a custom neck shape that they built for me. It’s a little rounder and less flat than the production neck.
[WM] The guitar you’re probably best known for playing is the blue Grosh NOS Retro that you can really hear in the ‘solo’ video from the Peace House Sessions. So, how did you get hooked up with the folks at Ibanez?
[Mark] Actually it was through Tom Quayle, he’s a good friend. He was over at the factory a lot, and my name had come up I suppose, so he sent me a message asking if I’d be able to try one of his guitars. I said of course so they sent me this prototype, and it’s awesome. They asked if I liked the neck shape, and I said I would prefer something a little more vintage and they said okay. So I sent it back, and had already written a couple tunes on it and played it on gigs. I played it on Dave Chappelle. That was pretty neat. I don’t think Dave is an Ibanez fan (laughs) but it was there, he saw it. So yeah, it’s a cool axe, man.
[WM] I also noticed the photos of you and Jeff Beck, as well as you and Steve Lukather on your Instagram feed. How’d you come to meet those guys?
[Mark] Well meeting Jeff was very brief, I don’t know if I can even say that we met (laughs). I guess we did in the sense that I was like, “Hi, I’m Mark, that was a really incredible show, is it okay if we take a picture?” and he went, “Alright.” and then that was it. But yeah, Snarky Puppy was in Tokyo playing the Blue Note Jazz Festival back in 2015 I think, and Jeff Beck was also on the bill. One of the perks of playing a Jazz festival with these people is that you get a little backstage pass that lets you go watch the show from wherever you want. So I watched his entire show side-stage, right next to his guitar tech, which was very cool that they didn’t kick me out. I noticed at that point that Jeff is probably the loudest guitar player that I’ve probably ever heard in my life. He had four amps, but two of them were facing backwards, and so we got most of that. It was a really awesome show; it was Rhonda Smith on bass, Joseph Jonathan on drums. He had this really great rhythm guitar player Nicholas Meyer.
After the show Nicholas and I ended up talking because we had kind of known each other’s names. So we were chatting and he was like, “Wait, do you want to meet Jeff?” and I was like, “Ahhh, I don’t know man, he looks like he wants to go home, you know?” (laughs). So we walked over there and we were the last two guys before Jeff was about to leave and we were able to snap a pic. So I have it now, I have proof. I do not expect Jeff to remember me at all, of course, but that was pretty neat. And yes, I was totally scared. What do you say? I could have given him a hug or something (laughs), but I wasn’t going to do that!
Meeting Lukather was a little different. I tweeted him on Twitter, as you do, because he had said some really kind things about Snarky Puppy in an article, some interview. I noticed he was pretty active on Twitter so I was like, “Hey thanks for the mention, we’re all big fans of you and the band.” and he tweeted me back. Then we met for the first time through a mutual friend of mine, Prashant Aswani, who is an incredible guitar player and producer from L.A. who has known Steve for years. So the three of us all met up at the NAMM show this past year. It was funny, I think Steve was in the middle of signing autographs and Prashant was like let’s just go around the back. So we went around back and sort of stole Steve for a minute. He was very cool, gave me a hug, said some very kind things in front of a lot of people which I was a little nervous about. But he’s just one of the dudes, he’s hilarious. But we kind of keep up at every NAMM show, like, “Hey you coming to Dallas, you coming to L.A.?”, that kind of thing. They toured to Dallas a few weeks back, and a mutual friend of mine who was their keyboard tech was able to get us some tickets, and so me and my wife went to the show and hung out with Steve, his guitar tech John and the whole crew. It was really cool. Steve’s like a friend now, which is insane to say because I was such a fan of his playing and everything that he does. But yeah, the relationship there is a little more concrete than my friendship with Jeff Beck (laughs).
[Mark] I’m trying to put out two records next year. Well, one of them if I can get done I’ll put out before the year is over. I’m trying to do this baritone guitar-centric rhythm Funk groove record. Then I’m going to do another Lettieri project at the end of the year, which I’ll release sometime next year. But aside from that, I think if you’re a person of faith just live it and make the kind of music that you want to make, as a Christian. You don’t have to be in a Christian rock band; you can be a Christian in a band. And it’s totally okay.