San Diego

Peter Sprague: An Extraordinaire From the Land of Extraordinary Guitarists

Peter Sprague's fingers, long and lithe, sprint across the fretboard like a Daddy Longlegs dancing on a web. They unerringly find sweet-spots, fingertips pressing plucked strings for maximum tone and clarity. He likes to play guitar sitting down, folding his body around the instrument, molding to its curves, merging with its meaning.

In Southern California, land of extraordinary guitarists, Sprague is a guitarist extraordinaire. He's played on some 200 albums, produced another 100 or so in his home studio called SpragueLand -- a tribute to Jimi Hendrix's Electric LadyLand studio. He's played with just about every jazz great you can think of: Chick Corea, Diane Reeves, Art Pepper, Hubert Laws, Sergio Mendes, Al Jarreau, Joe Pass, Lee Ritenour, David Benoit, Pat Metheny, and more. He's a perennial winner of San Diego music awards including Best Jazz Artist in 2004 and 2007.

Sprague lives in Encinitas, a north San Diego County beach town, with his wife Stefanie, and their daughter, Kylie, in a tree-shaded home perched on a hillside a few blocks from Beacon's, the beach where he regularly surfs.

It's his morning habit, weather permitting, to hit Beacon's, surfboard under his arm, for a morning session of yoga then surfing. He's been practicing Ashtanga yoga since he was about 20. Although he's never taught it, he took a teacher certification program years ago, just to get more into it. He has worked out a modified series of poses, holding each posture for 10 slow breaths, working his whole body. Going through the series takes him about an hour. Then he jumps in the water with his board to surf for another hour or so. It's his favorite way to start the day.

He's been surfing since he was about 12. He grew up in Del Mar, where he and his buddies stood on inflated rubber mats to get a feel for surfing. A year or so later, he graduated to a longboard, and has been surfing ever since. There's a quiver of short and longboards in an outdoor rack beside his studio. He often takes surf trips -- Mexico, Hawaii, South America -- to surf tropical waves and play music.

Sprague lives in the liminal; the moment where night transitions to day, where the pendulum hits mid-point, where sound launches from silence. He strives for balance, the communion of energy and calm, motion and stillness, exertion and quiet. The mind and body aspire to unity in yoga, helping him to achieve his balance point.

He does what he loves and believes in peak performance. To have the energy to be at his best and to accomplish all that he wants to get done in life, he has taken a different path, a road less travelled by most musicians. Sprague doesn't drink or smoke or do drugs, or even eat meat. His insistence on clean living might have started as a young man when he saw the movie "Lady Sings the Blues," and witnessed the struggles Billie Holiday had with drugs. He decided he didn't want any part of that.

"I read autobiographies of musicians like Charlie Parker, and all the trouble they got into. Maybe it might have been fun to be high at the time, but I never saw it do anybody any good," Sprague says. "When you play music, you're looking for transcendental moments. You get them by having your craft together, your mind clear and being invisible. Maybe you can get the apparent feeling of looseness, of being in the zone, when on drugs, but you probably don't have the exactness you need. Plus it's an ongoing cycle, that needs to be repeated and that leads to trouble," he says.

Sprague thinks about it this way. Every night isn't a great night for the musician. Sometimes the music is off. Drinking and drugs might be an easy way to cover that up, but with the right frame of mind, having a bad outing can trigger improvements. "You go home, analyze what you've done, practice so you can smooth out the rough spots, then come back at it in a better way. But you have to have a clear mind to do it." Drinking and drugs, he contends, are counterproductive to the process.

Music for Sprague is process. It's not a stationary thing. It's riding the wave, digging the flow, partaking in the joy. He's been playing music most of his life. It was his luck was to be born to a musical family. His parents, both musicians, got him a Tijuana guitar when he was 12, and that was his start. The dang thing was hard to play. The neck was wide, the strings way up off the fretboard making for a high action. But he stuck with it, strengthening his fingers, surprising himself with an inner desire to play.

Peter Sprague | Photo: Gordon Johnson.

To play better, he borrowed his sister, Terry's, guitar, an Alvarez, and he played that for a time. His breakthrough came when his parents gave him a Fender Jaguar, his entry into the garage band era of his life. On it, he learned the rock songs of the sixties, and the twangy Jaguar was perfect for surf songs he liked: "Pipeline," "Walk Don't Run," "Wipeout," and others.

His whole family was musical. His brother Tripp played terrific sax, still does. His father Hall is a world-class drummer, his mother, Carol Harrington, played a mean version of Frankie and Johnny on the piano, his sister played guitar as well, but really preferred dance.

He applied himself to music in high school. He studied in school and out on his own, getting deep into music theory, harmony, and different styles of guitar. In high school as he improved his guitar skills he also surfed, and considered making surfing his life. He shaped surfboards in his basement, and sold enough of them to tempt him to become a professional shaper.

But music proved the stronger call. It was his father's influence that led him to abandon rock for the complexities of jazz. He found high school limiting, so his parents gave him permission to go to Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, where he could focus full time on music and had access to teachers who could help him solve musical puzzles. He learned theory and structure and developed his ear so he could transcribe complicated songs and solos. He practiced long and hard, learning scales, arpeggios, inventing riffs.

Peter Sprague | Photo: Gordon Johnson.

He didn't want to go to college, so his father sat both he and his brother down and explained to them, he would support them with no restrictions for two years, but after that they would have go to college or earn their own way. He and his brother left home and moved into the "the Band House," a house not too far away, a musical compound of sorts where other local musicians lived and honed their craft. Others might have just smoked pot and hung out with friends, but the Spragues worked hard to take advantage of his father's offer. The brothers applied themselves to the mechanics of music.

Oh, there was fun too. There were social gatherings, gigs, giving lessons, surfing, and more gigs. He recalls the band house days with much fondness. It played a big part in his transition from skilled dilettante to professional musician. His career took off, just kept bigger and better, playing the music he loved with the musicians he admired.
Unfortunately, there was a downside to all the playing. About 15 years ago, he noticed pain in his hands. Arthritis. Now he approaches playing more cautiously. He plays important sessions, but begs off much solo playing. He continues though, with regular stints at Roxy's, a small, health-conscious restaurant in Encinitas. It's not far from his house, and he uses the performances as testing grounds for new stuff. "It's a whole lot of fun and the food is good," he says.

He takes an arthritis medication that helps and he cuts back on the number of gigs he plays. With priorities in place, the arthritis is manageable. It also gives him more time for writing and producing. He's always been a songwriter, but now he can be more consistent about it. And his studio is a parade of talented musicians and groups who seek the best possible sound. Sprague is there to help.

From a crows-nest room above the studio he can see the Pacific blue. His pale blue eyes survey his home, his community, his life. He likes what he sees. He likes where he's arrived -- the music, the surf, his family. It's a joyful place.


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Top Image: Peter Sprague | Photo: Courtesy of Peter Sprague.

About the Author

I’m Cahuilla/Cupeno Indian and live on the Pala Indian Reservation. Good or bad, I’ve had a desultory approach to education. I studied philosophy, literature and film at UC Santa Cruz, journalism at UC Berkeley, communications at ...
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