Jeffrey Kunde has the unique gift of being able to craft parts that define a song while simultaneously supporting the vocals and arrangement. Not surprisingly, this is the result of years of hard study, practice, and good old-fashioned hard work! We caught up with Jeffrey on the tour bus during the last leg of the 2017 Outcry Tour…
[WM] What was your first guitar and do you still own it?
[Jeffrey Kunde] My first guitar was a Gibson SG, but I was looking for a Les Paul because my guitar hero at the time, a worship leader who is still at our church, plays a Gibson Les Paul. I think that Les Pauls and Strats were the only kinds of guitars that I even knew existed at the time. I didn’t even know how to play guitar, I just knew that I wanted to learn. I had a local guitar dealer hunt down a Les Paul for me. It took him a few months because he was looking for an older one for me that was in my price range. I had about $1000 saved up, and he finally found an SG for me. I didn’t even know what an SG was. He told me, “It’s basically like a Les Paul, but lighter. You’re going to like it better anyway.” And I said, “Okay, cool!” That was my first guitar, and my first love. It’s the first thing I would grab if my house was burning down!
[WM] How old were you when you started playing, and was the guitar your first instrument?
[Jeffrey] I started on piano when I was six, and I graduated with a degree in piano from Sacramento State University in 2008. I started playing guitar when I was twelve and I’m thirty now. I also played the clarinet, but I don’t like bragging about it (laughs). It’s funny though, when I hear melodies in my head I still find my fingers moving like they are on the finger holes of the clarinet. It’s still my first reaction mentally, probably because I played it for so many years.
[WM] Do you think that the intervallic nature of an instrument so unlike guitar has had an effect on how you approach playing the guitar?
[Jeffrey] Yes. My whole school of thought and way of teaching is about being aware of your inner ear. Being able to hear the intervals and the music in your head, and basically knowing how to play it before you pick up the instrument. My gut reaction is usually on piano or clarinet; that’s just where my brain naturally goes. But I can do it on guitar now too because I’ve been playing guitar for so long. I like to harp on ear training as the basis for all of my playing.
[WM] What kind of stuff are you currently working in your practice time?
[Jeffrey] My practice sessions usually look like me trying to learn stuff that I can’t play. So, it might be a John Mayer solo or a Pat Metheny etude. I don’t necessarily have a system of practicing other than just finding things that I can’t play yet and challenging myself to learn to play them. That opens my fingers and my mind up to new possibilities. By incorporating a John Mayer solo into my bag of tricks, now I can pull that out and use it somewhere else if I ever need to.
[WM] What advice or suggestions do you have for younger players – feel free to plug your books!
[Jeffrey] The main thing I suggest is to sit down with a recording and force yourself to learn it by ear. Without knowing music theory or anything about the guitar, start plucking out the notes of a simple melody. Figure it out in one position, and then find three or four other positions you can do the exact same melody. You could learn to play the guitar that way without even knowing anything about theory. After that, I teach basic music theory – how to build a chord, why they exist, how to use them, and their place in a key signature. It’s really not that in-depth. My books are only thirty to sixty pages. I call it “Music Theory for the Music Industry” because there’s not that much music theory you need to know to be in the music industry. There are just some ground rules and basics that you’ll absolutely need to know eventually if you’re going to get anywhere. If you’re going to be picked as a band member, or you’re going to be the go-to guy for a Sunday morning, or a studio guy; you’re going to end up needing to know some theory. So, I wrote three, really short books about that.
[WM] Who from the secular arena has influenced you, and how?
[Jeffrey] My first guitar love was John Mayer’s Room for Squares album. I grew up in the Indie Rock and Emo era, so those have been huge influences on me. I could name a list of hundreds of bands that no one has ever heard of, but some of the bigger ones would be Death Cab for Cutie, or Pedro the Lion. Cold Play has always been a first love of mine. They write great guitar parts, and every instrument has its place in the band. They don’t overcrowd a song with too many melodies or parts. Everything in their music seems really focused and clear, and I love that about them.
[WM] How do you come up with your guitar parts? Do you just hear it in the moment and play it as it comes to you, or do you work out all of your parts in advance; or a blend of the two?
[Jeffrey] I think that a lot of my best stuff has happened in the spur of the moment. Probably fifty percent of the time, the first thing that came to me will be what ends up on the record. It just happens naturally and spontaneously in the moment. I think every musician has that, whether they develop it or learn to tap into it or not. The other fifty percent of my parts are developed over time, and sometimes it can be a real grind. The guitar part for “In the River” took three weeks, and probably eight different versions of the song before we really had something. I had to do a lot of interfacing with Ian, the keyboard player, who was holding down the other parts of the melody. We bounce ideas back and forth a lot and tweak the ideas together to find the best melody for the space and deciding which instrument it would sound best on.
[WM] You have a pretty broad range of guitars in your “go-to” collection. For those who don’t have quite as deep a selection, can you explain why you turn to a certain instrument when you do?
[Jeffrey] Sure. I’m always trying to pair with the sound of either the other guitars on stage or the song itself. A basic go-to instrument would be a Tele or a Strat. The great thing about a single-coil guitar like a Telecaster, is that it’s always going to be clear, bright, and clean. You can have pedals beef it up and make the sound wider and thicker, or muddier if you need to, but you can always scale back to a very clean, clear signal. So, a Tele and a Strat are great, very versatile guitars.
I play a lot of Gretsch guitars because with the Filter’trons they have a big, wide, beefy sound, but with a lot of top-end clarity. Nothing sounds like a Gretsch – they’re very unique, so it’s easy to pick up a Gretsch and pair well with whatever the other guitarists are bringing. If they bring something with humbuckers, then the Gretsch is going to be clearer and brighter than that. Or, if they bring a Tele, then the Gretsch will be wider and thicker.
A Tele, a Strat, and a Gretsch are my main, go-to guitars. If I don’t know what kind of situation I’m walking into, or if I’m going into a studio and can only bring a few guitars, those are what I’ll bring. The SG and the Veritas have their own unique sound, which is very cool, but maybe not quite as versatile as the Gretsch or the Fender.
[WM] I saw on your web site that you are using a Bad Cat Luca. What are you digging about this amp?
[Jeffrey] I I’ve been using the Bad Cat Luca for a few years now. I use it at almost every event we do, usually paired in stereo with a similar style amp. The Luca reacts to my guitar in a very classic AC30 fashion, with a great dynamic range, enough clean headroom, and a great natural tube break up.
[Jeffrey] I texted my friend Nigel, from Hillsong, and asked him who did his board! I met Nigel when we were on tour in Sydney, seven or eight years ago and he kind of took me on as a little brother. He has helped me along the way, been really accessible, and allowed me to ask questions and lean on him.
I asked him who did his board, because I thought it looked so great and clean. He sent me over to Goodwood and we’ve become friends.
[WM] Speaking of taking someone under your wing, we interviewed Michael Pope in our last issue and he mentioned that you effectively raised him up at Bethel – that’s a pretty awesome legacy! What tips do you have for worship guitar players in terms of being missional about raising up the next generation?
[Jeffrey] It’s important to remember where you came from – we all have a “hero” story. The only reason that I am here is because of those people in my life. Everybody needs a hero and I never want to forget or be too big for that, I want to remain accessible. That’s a core value for me, and I want to be someone who people aren’t afraid to come talk to or ask questions of. I want to be an approachable and likable human being. I want to be a teacher and a father. I want to help people when I can.
[WM] In one of your books you talk practicing Mick Jagger moves in front of the mirror, which seems so contradictory to the ever-so serious face I see in your photos and videos. We all do stuff like that, but it was great to hear you admit to doing it!
[Jeffrey] I have a really deceiving stage face. I get really serious and expressionless when I’m thinking hard about music. It’s probably my downfall as a musician. But anybody who knows me knows that I’m really not that way in person. I mean, who doesn’t love practicing in front of the mirror? I could sit in front of the mirror and just look at myself playing guitar all day! (laughs). My SG has a really big dent in it from when I was fifteen. I was standing on top of my amp in my practice room with a CD going and totally jamming out. I tried to do a guitar spin and throw it around my back, but I didn’t know that people who do that use strap locks. I found out the hard way and my guitar went flying across the room. Luckily, it stayed in one piece but it has a huge dent in it now.
[WM] Kim Walker-Smith is such a powerful and dynamic worship leader. Are there ever times where you are so blown away by what’s going on during a worship experience that you almost get lost in it and find it hard to play?
[Jeffrey] Yes, absolutely! On stage, I try to remember that these are all of my best friends, and I try not to let myself be quite as taken aback by it all as I used to. But on this tour that we’re on right now, there’s a moment where Kim and Chris and couple of the other leaders do this acoustic intro to the evening. I watched it the first night of the tour, and I was just so blown away by how amazing Kim and Chris are. So, I just had a new “freak out” moment about Kim last week! I’ve never gotten used to it, because both of them are rare talents.
[WM] Thank you for taking the time to share with us today!