Who provides unwavering rock-steady groove and conviction night after night for one of the baddest bands and rhythm sections to ever come out of Oakland California? That would be Jerry Cortez with Tower of Power!
On the band's last stop through the Pacific Northwest, Jerry was gracious enough to tell Warmoth his story. It begins with how he went from a young boy falling asleep at a Grateful Dead concert to touring the world with Warmoth products in hand.
Warmoth: Hi Jerry. What got you going musically, and what made you play guitar?
Jerry Cortez: The Beatles. I saw them on Ed Sullivan. I remember George in particular really stood out for me because he's the one who stepped up and played the guitar, and played solos. They were all great. But there was something special about George. I was like, "I want to do what that guy does!" To this day he’s still probably one of my all-time favorite guitar players.
I come from a musical family too. My dad plays sax. My brother plays drums. In fact, his favorite drummer is (Tower of Power drummer) David Garibaldi. My family is actually really large fans of the band. My Dad actually turned my brother and I on to Tower of Power. He came home with their first album when I was 13 and said, "Put this on. You guys'll dig this."
Warmoth: Where did you make the transition from being inspired by the Beatles to getting to where you are today?
Jerry Cortez: Musically I was very lucky to grow up in the era that I grew up in, with all the Classic Rock and all that kind of stuff. Then finding out later on that all my heroes as guitar players listened to Muddy Waters, Freddie King and B.B. King, I went, "Oh. That's where they got it from." Then my father's influence in being a Jazz guy. And my brother was all over the map as well. I was really lucky. I was getting music from all over the place.
Warmoth: You had mentioned earlier that you had played with some of the members of Tower before you were in the band, and how that had helped get you your audition. What kind of different projects did you work with them on? And can you tell us of other notable musicians you've played with in the Bay Area scene?
Jerry Cortez: I've done corporate events with David Garibaldi. I remember one time David and (former Tower Trumpet/Trombone player) Mic Gillitte were both on the gig. That kind of stuff happened all the time. Before that, I was running in circles with guys from the Grateful Dead. I was in a band called Go Ahead with half the Grateful Dead and a couple guys in Santana. I was kinda the unknown guy. I came to appreciate that kind of music. It wasn't something I listened to. In fact, I saw the Grateful Dead play in 1967.
I was 11 years old. We were late to go see Hendrix, and the line was around the block about three times. So we looked in the local paper and found the Grateful Dead show. I remember really enjoying the show for a little while. The next thing I know my brother is tapping me on the shoulder telling me it's time to go. I had fallen asleep. I was 11 years old and it was past my bed time man! (laughs)
Warmoth: What made you email Warmoth initially?
Jerry Cortez: Because I have a history of playing a lot of other Warmoth guitars that friends owned. I used to teach at a music store down in the Bay Area. There was one teacher there who was an incredible guitarist. He was extremely picky about everything but could really back it up. He probably had about five Warmoths, and they were all really, really great. The guitar tech there and a couple other guys had Warmoths too. Every time I picked one of those up I was like, "Why don't I own one of these?"
So I always remembered Warmoth guitars and how good quality they were. Everything I picked up I thought, "This is way better than anything I've ever seen!" So when I finally got my own, it was exactly how I remembered them. I'm really happy with it.
It really does feel really good. And actually, when I went to pick up my Warmoth, the tech that put it together showed me that he had several Warmoth guitars that he had put together. They're really nice. A couple Teles and a Strat. He tricked them out with electronics and different things he did to them. He even did this thing to the side of them where LEDs light up the dots. It's nice on a dark stage.
Warmoth: Right now you're playing a Strat style guitar built with Warmoth parts. But in the past you've also been known to play a lot of different guitars with humbuckers. Do you have a preference for single coils or humbuckers?
Jerry Cortez: I grew up playing my Dad's old guitar with a P90 in it. I used it for everything until I was in my early 20s. Then I started hearing people like Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour. I wanted to try playing that type of guitar. So I really kinda came up more of a humbucking guy. Then I met a really talented guitarist named Mike Miller who played fusion. He played a Strat. His playing was Hendrix meets Joe Pass meets Zappa, and the sounds he was getting and the way he used the whammy bar made me say, "I gotta get a Strat!"
But when I first got one I was like, hmm? I guess it came down to scale length and the nut width. The whole thing felt weird. It took me a while to really get into the groove of it. But once I did, I saw how magical that guitar can be. I came to the realization after playing gigs for all those years that if I could only have one electric guitar it probably would be a Strat. And for Tower's music, I think it's really a better choice. There's so much bottom going on in this band that having a darker sounding guitar really just doesn't work.
Warmoth: Tell me about the rest of your live rig.
Jerry Cortez: I'm a Twin player. I actually came into this gig wanting to play a Deluxe, because it's one of my favorite amps. But we (Tower of Power) went to L.A., to a big rehearsal warehouse. I came in with my Deluxe. When no-one else was even playing I played one chord and thought "Wrong. This is so wrong." The sound guy recommended I play through a Twin, and for this gig it's perfect. I keep my overdrive and compressor pedals at relatively the same settings. Those two pedals are marked. I don't use the phaser and the delay much so I don't worry about their settings as much.
Warmoth: What kind of stuff do you have going on outside of Tower of Power?
Jerry Cortez: Most of the stuff I've been writing lately has been acoustic instrumental kind of stuff. I have some other tunes that I've written that are more ensemble based as well. I'm actually working on a CD that's kinda all over the map. It's a mixture of Blues, R&B, acoustic and Americana. I don't have a record label so no-one is saying, "You're in a funk band you so you need to be playing funk." I like to listen to, and like to play a lot of different kinds of music. We've done most of the tracking in Nashville.
Warmoth: Do you have other albums out?
Jerry Cortez: Ya. I play with a guy who used to produce for Muzak (www.muzak.com). He helped get me that gig and we'd do about 70-75 Muzak arrangements a year. He asked me to submit some original songs, and he'd get them placed in the Muzak channel. I had a really good run with it. I ended up doing about 50 songs. He took those tunes and submitted them to iTunes. So there's a lot of that kind of stuff under my name out there. Then there's a record we did called "American Invasion." It's my take on British Invasion songs. (You can also find Jerry's acoustic finger-style album, "The Best of Guitar Favorites" at www.cdbaby.com/cd/jerrycortez)
Warmoth: Do you still do a lot of session work?
Jerry Cortez: Since I moved to Salt Lake City, not so much. I don't know much about the scene here because I don't live right in Salt Lake. But when I was in the Bay Area I had a pretty good run. It would be up and down.
When we moved to Utah my Wife said, "What are you going to do about gigs?" I said, "Nothing." I just wanted to teach because I had been running around chasing my tail for years doing every gig. I'd even do the $50 gigs.
My wife would ask why I took it, and I'd say because those are the gigs I'm going to have fun on! In fact I did some $50 club gigs with David Garibaldi way before I was in the band (Tower). They'd be in some hole in the wall. The ones that pay $400 to $500 sometimes aren't that fun.
So in Utah I got a gig teaching Guitar Ensemble at a High School and had a blast doing that. That was a fun thing. And then half way through the second year is when I started working with Tower. From January to May I was still teaching, but I was in Tower. I had to sub out a lot of days at school and stuff, but when I was home I would still go and teach.
Thank you to Jerry Cortez and the entire Tower of Power crew for spending the time with Warmoth and answering questions for the entire family of Warmoth users and fans.
You can find more about Jerry Cortez, where he and Tower of Power will be playing and where you can get his music here: