Born January 11, 1952 (one source says November 1, 1952), in Los Angeles, CA. Education: Attended University of Southern California. Addresses: Record company-- Rhino Records, 2225 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404.

Lee Ritenour "is a chopmeister from way back," penned Bill Milkowski in Down Beat, describing the versatile studio musician, producer, arranger, composer, and guitarist. "They don't call him Captain Fingers for nothing." An ace studio player in Los Angeles, Ritenour has provided guitar back-up for such artists as Sergio Mendes, Herbie Hancock, Peggy Lee, Carly Simon, Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, and Cher. His original fusing of Latin music, jazz, soul, and rock has produced albums that have crossed over several music charts regularly since Ritenour began his solo career in 1976. An innovator who brought state-of-the-art technology to the fusion movement, Captain Fingers is one of electric jazz's finest guitarists.

Ritenour was born January 11, 1952, in Los Angeles. Musically precocious, he began playing the guitar when he was five years old. At eight, his interest in the instrument went beyond the ordinary. "I'd study hit records and listen to the licks the studio guitarists were playing," Ritenour recalled to Robert Palmer in Rolling Stone. "'I can play that,' I'd say. What I didn't realize then--and a lot of young guitarists don't realize--is that the hard part is inventing the licks." His parents supported Lee, often finding him new and better instructors; at the age of 12, Ritenour was under the tutelage of Duke Miller, future head of the guitar department at the University of Southern California and purported at the time to be the finest guitar teacher in Los Angeles.

As an adolescent, Ritenour played in his first group, the Esquires, a precursor of a series of teenage bands. He was only 15 years old when John Phillips, leader of the rock and roll group the Mamas and the Papas, heard one of his bands and then hired Ritenour to play in a studio session. Talented enough to be hired by studios at the age of 18, Ritenour instead made the choice to continue his education. He entered the University of Southern California, where he studied classical guitar with another musician first in his field, Christopher Parkening. Ritenour remained at the university for two and a half years, until he got the opportunity to play with Brazilian pop-jazz musician Sergio Mendes.

Touring with Mendes was Ritenour's introduction to Latin music and to prestigious musicians, including jazz pianist and producer Dave Grusin. Highly recommended on the studio circuit by Grusin and others, Ritenour was working 15 to 20 sessions a week in a lucrative business during the early seventies. "When I started working studio dates," Ritenour recounted to Palmer, "they asked me to sound like all the other guitar players. But I had some sort of spunk in me that made me want to go beyond that. There's a lot of session players who always sound just like everyone else; it's real hard for a studio musician to find an identity. But I started reaching for mine, and eventually I found it.

Three thousand sessions later, having backed such stars as George Benson, Steely Dan, Olivia Newton-John, and the Bee Gees, Ritenour earned the nickname Captain Fingers. His noteworthy output was profitable, but Ritenour grew fidgety. "I've always liked to keep moving," he admitted in Down Beat. "That's the most important thing for me. That's what keeps me fresh." In 1976 he made his solo debut with the album First Cause and experimented with group work. The make-up of his band Friendship--formed in the late 1970s--was transitory, but the guitarist continued working with highly successful studio session artists. "Ritenour is an especially distinctive musician," wrote Palmer in 1980, reviewing a Friendship performance. "He has one of the cleanest tones you'll ever hear from an electric guitar."

A commercial success, Ritenour has toured and recorded as a leader and a sideman beginning in the early 1970s. He moves easily back and forth between rock and jazz, incorporating his love for the Brazilian music he discovered while on tour with Sergio Mendes in 1974. Ritenour helped define the West Coast fusion sound with the 1977 release Captain Fingers, on which he introduced the guitar synthesizer. A pioneer in the use of synthaxes, computers, and controllers, he extolled music technology in Down Beat: "It's unbelievable what's happening in the music world with the innovations in equipment. It's revolutionary, and there's a lot of great music being made on these devices."

In 1981 Ritenour's album titled Rit put him in the pop music spotlight and crossed over seven different music charts, including rhythm and blues, disco, adult contemporary, and jazz. And Festival, his highly successful 1988 LP, took the Number One position on seven music charts. The album, which featured outstanding Brazilian artists Joao Bosco and Caetano Veloso as well as various New York studio musicians, prompted David Hiltbrand in People to cite Ritenour as "the first among equals, smoothing and fusing." Phyl Garland in Stereo Review stated that "Ritenour's ever-impeccable technique applied to this superior material" makes the album "one of his best recorded efforts."

"I think there's a certain maturity level among some musicians that, maybe they feel the limitations of the contemporary thing a little bit," Ritenour mused to James Jones IV in a 1990 Down Beat interview, after the release of his straightlaced jazz album, Stolen Moments. "Maybe we need a breath of fresh air, a little bit of a break." Critics were caught off guard by the record, which lacks the technology and Brazilian influence prevalent on his previous albums. "Mouths are dropping" wrote Jones, but Stereo Review affirmed Ritenour's purpose: "This is real jazz, performed in a high style that knows no time frame." Stolen Moments reflects Ritenour's departure from the cloning process he sees beginning in fusion--the tendency of record labels to consistently market a repetitive type of album. Jim Ferguson in Guitar Player commended the musician for his originality: "Much more than a derivative rehashing of old styles, the album sparkles with the freshness of a player eager to try out new ideas in a freer setting."

Further extending his talents in the music industry, Ritenour joined keyboardist Bob James, drummer Harvey Mason, and Bassist Nathan East to form the pop-jazz group Fourplay in 1991. Their self-titled, debut album contains songs that Entertainment Weekly contributor Josef Woodward called "perfectly hummable" and "perfectly polished." Ever willing to take on new projects, Ritenour reflected in Down Beat, "There's really so much to learn aside from learning your instrument.... You really never stop learning, not if you're gonna last and have a good career."

by Marjorie Burgess

Lee Ritenour's Career

Studio musician, electric guitarist, composer, arranger, and producer. Taught classical guitar at University of Southern California; toured with Sergio Mendes; provided back-up for major musicians, including Cher, Steely Dan, and Olivia Newton-John; made solo recording debut with album First Course, 1976. Played guitar with bands Friendship, late 1970s, and Fourplay, beginning in 1991.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

July 1, 2003: Ritenour's remastered album, Best of Lee Ritenour, is released. Source: Yahoo! Shopping,, July 2, 2003.

June 7, 2005: Ritenour's album, Overtime, was released. Source:,, June 7, 2005.

Further Reading


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