The Guitar Style of Larry Carlton

This lesson post covers some of the unique playing ideas that legendary L.A. session guitarist “Larry Carlton,” has applied to create both his incredible playing style and his unique sound and tone... 

If you’re not too familiar with Larry Carlton, he’s one of the most recorded guitarists in history, with more than 3000 studio dates under his belt. 

He has performed with everyone from “Steely Dan,” to “Michael Jackson,” to “Joni Mitchell,” and even music legend, “Quincy Jones.”

In the course of his career Carlton became recognized world-wide as one of the top studio musicians working in Los Angeles, California (the heart of the entertainment industry).

Larry Carlton has written music for both TV shows and for countless major Hollywood Movies. His credits are so abundant that his participation in so many big name studio sessions has resulted in more than 100 gold albums.


Larry Carlton uses a number of interesting melodic and harmonic ideas to produce the chord progressions and melody lines used in his playing and composing style. 

In this session, we’re going to start with one of his trademark scale ideas that involves playing matched tonality pentatonic scales off of the fifth degree of the chord in use.

For example, if there was an “A Major7” chord in a song (that Carlton was soloing over), he’d more than likely grab for the, “E Major Pentatonic” scale to cover that chord.

Most of us would just play the sounds of, "A Major" style scales, (such as the, "A Major IONIAN" or the "A Major Pentatonic"), if we needed to cover the sound of an "A maj7" chord... But, not Carlton. 

Rather than just use the obvious choice, “A Major” scale (like many other guitarists would use), the Carlton approach offers a number of new melodic directions due to a new alignment of intervals.

Let’s test this principle out using an example of this concept being applied upon a static chord vamp on, "A Major 7th."

Example #1). “E” Maj. Pent. over “Amaj7”

Next, let’s check out a chord harmony idea that Carlton will often use when he’s writing his own material for one of his solo albums.

He really enjoys using a blended key center concept that’s referred to as, “Modal Interchange.”

If you're not too familiar with Modal Interchange, watch my free, "Modal Interchange" video lesson that's available on YouTube.

In this style of harmony we find that the chords used will actually exist in both the major and the minor key through the sharing of the same tonic note.

For example, we could have a progression that begins on an “A Maj7” chord, but then the next chord in the progression could show up as an “Em7.”

If you know and understand key signature theory, you’ll realize right away that “Em7” doesn’t exist in the key of “A Major.” It’s found from within the key of “A Minor.”

However, even though this chord doesn't "fit," when it is used within the same chord progression, things end up sounding pretty cool.

Let me play you an example of how something like this sounds…

Example #2). Modal Interchange Progression

click on the above image to enlarge full-screen

Larry Carlton is without a doubt a highly prominent figure to guitar players of the 70’s and 80’s. And, his solos on Steely Dan songs like, “Kid Charlemagne,” were still considered some of the standard must-learn pieces we were learning when I was studying guitar at GIT back in 1991.

What is so interesting about Larry Carlton is that, it wasn’t just his style, it was also his sound. It was silky smooth when it needed to be and it had just the right amount of crunch when he wanted some over-drive included.

His guitar tone is really something to be reckoned with. So, when it comes to his gear it’s actually quite surprising how basic he’s kept things over the years…

In respect to his guitars, Carlton is best known for his 1969 Gibson ES-335.

Other guitars that he owns and plays include a; 1954 Fender Telecaster along with a 1962 Fender Stratocaster...

He also owns a 1955 Gibson Les Paul Special...

When it comes to amps, he’s kept things pretty basic over the years in that department as well, with him either playing through a Fender Vibrolux...

or his standard setup which includes a custom Dumble amplifier.

Well, I'd like to end the discussion by saying, thanks for joining me... If you want to learn more about what I do as an online guitar teacher, then head over to my website at and sign up your FREE lifetime membership...

Later on you can always upgrade to either a Basic, or a Premium lesson package and start studying all of the professionally organized guitar courses that I've organized for the members of my website...

Also, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on all of this in the comment section... if you enjoyed this video, please give it a thumbs up and subscribe for more on YouTube, (remember to hit the bell).

Thanks again and we'll catch up next week, for another episode of the, "Guitar Blog Insider."



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