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Zen is the teacher, guitar is the preacher

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Bill Murphy – contributor to Time Out NY

If you’ve ever stumbled into a crowded Bleecker Street nightclub, then you already know the deal: New York City’s music scene is an ultra-competitive hotbed of gifted prodigies, unsung heroes and secret weapons. Ric Molina embodies elements of all three, but as a true musician’s musician, he’s never been about ego-tripping or showboating—why cop an attitude when it’s so much easier, if you’ve paid your dues and put in the work, to just lay back and let your music do the talking? (Or as Frank Zappa more famously said it: just shut up ‘n play yer guitar.)

Molina has made a lifelong quest out of being open-minded and versatile when it comes to music, morphing his way through multiple styles to create his own unique signature as a guitarist, composer and topflight producer. At 17, he hit the road with a Top 40 cover band, banging out learned-by-ear riffs and solos—as only a true fan of the instrument could do it—from the hits of the day by Steely Dan, David Bowie, Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin. He honed his chops under the wings of such jazz heavies as Lee Konitz, Joe Pass, Pat Martino and John Abercrombie, and he studied with Dr. Asher Zlotnik at the Peabody Conservatory in Washington, D.C. He’s shredded the lead guitar role in The Who’s Tommy, with Pete Townshend himself watching from the wings and Jane’s Addiction’s Dave Navarro in the audience. He’s toured the world and played packed stadiums as the guitarist and musical director for the pop/R&B boy band juggernaut 98 Degrees, and he’s worked with everyone from Mariah Carey to Roger Miller.

And those are just the broad strokes. Since 2004, Molina has held the first guitar chair for Stephen Schwartz’s hit musical Wicked—not only one of the most technically demanding shows on Broadway, but along with The Lion King, Saturday Night Live and Late Show with David Letterman, it’s also one of the most coveted and exclusive musician’s gigs on the east coast. But no matter how high-profile the work might get (and there’s much more—read on), Molina goes out of his way to stress the importance of staying focused on improving his craft. Basically, you can’t move forward as an artist if you’re not willing to throw yourself into a constant cycle of learning.

“I never wanted to commit to a style or an era or a genre,” he explains. “In a way it’s like being a chameleon, to have enough mystery to where I can be painted in any color—to be pliable, to be like water, to be available at any level anywhere, behind the scenes or with a guitar in my hand. It doesn’t matter. It’s more about fluidity, and my concerns are to connect with the deepest part of one’s humanity—the part of music that heals, and the thing that needs healing.”

Sure, it sounds a lot like zen philosophy, and it’s likely Molina will cop to an intuitive connection, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s often a certain synaesthesia—a rewiring of the senses—that comes with creativity, where sounds can be seen and colors can be heard. For Molina, that heightened sensitivity manifested itself at an early age. “My dad took me to see Guernica when it was in New York,” he recalls. “It was on the third floor at the Museum of Modern Art. We walked up through this back entrance, and when he opened the door, the first thing I saw was this enormous painting. And I actually heard music—the sirens, the bell, the horse—all the sounds. The room was filled with this very modern, clashing kind of music. That’s when I remember thinking that I wanted to put music to pictures.”

Molina isn’t the first to claim Picasso as an influence, but over the years, he has managed to fold his childhood epiphany into his music in ways that paint an inspiring picture all its own. It started, of course, with jazz. While in college in Miami, he studied with local legend Del Staton and gigged with numerous ensembles, which opened him up to the wonders of improvisation. In search of edgier surroundings, he began a gradual migration north—first to Washington, D.C., where he lived with jazz guitarist Paul Bollenback and continued his music studies at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University. He played without a net in front of hard-to-please audiences in the city’s Anacostia neighborhood, and won acceptance into a tight circle of talented artists that included Marshall Keys, James King, Charlie Young, Cheney Thomas and Curtis Lundy.

“One day, I went to Shirley Horn’s house with Paul and a bunch of these guys,” Molina recalls. “It was her birthday, and it turned into a gathering of these great jazz players. I was just a greenhorn, so I was hanging out in the kitchen, and she came in and took me aside and said to me, ‘You know, those guys in there, they talk a lot, but you’ve got something. I can see something in you.’ In a way, she was giving me this benediction.”

Molina took Horn’s encouraging words to heart. Before the year was out, he was back in New York and co-founded Current Events, a progressive fusion group, with keyboardist Darrell Grant, bassist Fima Ephron and drummer Kevin Clark. Their self-titled debut, produced by Onaje Allan Gumbs and released by Verve Forecast, won them the notoriety and excitement usually reserved for hungry young rebels on the jazz scene, but executive shake-ups at Verve quickly dimmed the possibility of a second album.

Undeterred, Molina threw himself into expanding his repertoire and transcribing professionally to pay the bills. He churned out a series of songbooks covering the music of Tom Petty, ZZ Top, Albert Lee, Alan Holdsworth and more, eventually reaching a point where he could fill a blank staff with sounds and rhythms of cars passing in the street. By the time he auditioned for the lead guitar role in the first national touring company of The Who’s Tommy, which opened on Broadway in 1993, Molina was practically a shoe-in based on his natural command of the book alone. 

“I think I really got the gig because I was the only one who brought an 8-by-10,” he jokes. “But getting the chance to hang out with Pete Townshend and do things that I’d never done before—that was awesome.” Opening night at the Universal Amphitheatre in L.A. was especially memorable. “We’d just finished ‘Acid Queen,’ and Scott Totten, who went on to join the Beach Boys, was playing the acoustic intro for ‘Pinball Wizard,’ and I was getting ready to play “the note.” Out of the corner of my eye, through this open doorway, I see Pete bent over to listen, and he straightens up really quick and backs off. I guess he didn’t want to freak me out, but it’s indelibly etched in my memory, because at that moment, everything came together. I just felt a responsibility, and a rush of understanding about the significance of what I was doing. I really went gangbusters into writing music after that. It all just exploded.”

Jazz had been a guiding force, but now everything was up for grabs. Molina continued to hone his chops as a composer, recording and mixing his own songs whenever he had time away from the road. Of course, his growing visibility as an ace guitarist meant the road kept calling him back. During a short tour with R&B singer Kelly Price, her drummer Gerald Heyward recommended Molina for the lead guitar spot with 98 Degrees—at the time one of Motown’s frontline acts, with a debut album, 98 Degrees and Rising, that had quickly gone multi-platinum. Suddenly Molina was thrust onto an international stage, and for the next two years, he ate, slept and breathed the life of an arena-style axe-slinger.

“Here I was, 40 years old, and I was playing for 70,000 people at Dodger Stadium and seeing myself on jumbotrons, with girls throwing themselves at the band—it was this whole bizarre thing. I did have moments where I must have had a look on my face like, ‘God, that poor girl is suffering.’ I guess it was the father in me.”

It was a wild ride, but it pulled back the curtain on a seldom-seen side of the business of music, and gave Molina a new perspective on the amount of raw courage and commitment it takes to be a hired gun in the music profession. From there, it was back to Bleecker Street, where he gigged hard, fast and furious for a year with a number of different groups, sometimes five nights a week until the wee hours of the morning. He also did a six-week stand just north of the city with a revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, reinterpreting the book in marauding metal fashion at the encouragement of musical director Steven Oremus, who gave him free rein to go ballistic.

“Some people came up and said, ‘If Andrew Lloyd Webber heard what you guys are doing, he’d close the show,’” Molina laughs. “But it was a lot of fun, and it ended up creating a real opportunity for me.” Shortly after the production completed its run, Oremus teamed up with lyricist and composer Stephen Schwartz, who was preparing to debut Wicked on Broadway and needed a guitarist. Oremus suggested Molina on the spot.

Thanks in part to Wicked’s breakout success, Molina soon became one of the in-demand guitarists in New York, and it’s been that way ever since. When PBS revived the popular kids show “The Electric Company” in 2009, Molina came on board as house guitarist, and composed and recorded underscores for hundreds of cues and special segments; that has led to more score and session work with a growing list of clients. He’s also coming into his own as a producer, collaborating with up-and-coming singer-songwriter Bit Chambers (a future Berklee grad and already a seasoned voice in the range of Beth Gibbons or Norah Jones) on a richly textured album that channels folk, jazz, classical and rock influences with a natural ease.

With the hard work and success comes respect, and Molina has certainly won that not only from his peers, but from instrument makers and innovators too. Classical guitarist Michael Lorimer helped recruit world famous Brazilian luthier Sergio Abreau to design and build a classical guitar to Molina’s specifications; meanwhile, local guitar builder Rick Kelly at Carmine Street Guitars has crafted a “real New York guitar” for Molina, made from a combination of aged woods salvaged from the Chelsea Hotel and the Bowery loft of film director Jim Jarmusch. 

Most recently, Molina has signed on as a sponsor for the EverTune guitar bridge, placing him in the elite company of such guitar heroes as Wayne Kramer, Scott Ian, Lyle Workman and more. As a guy who grew up with his own pantheon of heroes—one that includes everyone from Django Reinhardt to Jimi Hendrix to Pat Martino—Molina is humbled by the recognition, but he’s quick to point out that discipline, guidance and a little luck are the most important forces at play in any musician’s career trajectory.

“To be honest, I’ve never really had much desire to do the self-hyping game,” he says, “so I just tend to go with the face value of what I can do. The best way to experience my music is to see the video or the performance, or listen to the record. I’ve actually been working and toiling professionally since I was 13, so I’ve been doing a pretty good forty years of hittin’ it. And I’ve worked really hard. Not only did I play a billion gigs that didn’t pay money and some that did, but I’ve also studied with Juilliard fellows in composition and some great mentors who led me along the path. The fact is I do what I do, I get calls to do it, and I’ve got one of the best gigs in New York City. As a musician, that’s all that matters to me.”