At 16, Lee Ritenour played on his first recording session, with the Mamas & the Papas, and was given the nickname Captain Fingers for his dexterity. He was a studio musician in the 1970s, winning Guitar Player magazine’s Best Studio Guitarist award twice.
Throughout his career, Ritenour has experimented with different styles of music, incoprorating funk, pop, rock, blues, Brazilian, and classical music with jazz.
Ritenour’s solo career began with the album First Course (1976), which was a good example of the jazz-funk sound of the 1970s. That was followed by Captain Fingers, The Captain’s Journey (1978), and Feel the Night (1979)
In 1979, Ritenour “was brought in to beef up one of Pink Floyd’s The Wall ‘ heaviest rock numbers, “Run Like Hell”. He also played “uncredited rhythm guitar” on “One of My Turns”.
As the 1980s began, Ritenour began to add stronger elements of pop to his music, beginning with Rit in 1981. For this, he kept with his distorted sound, now using his Ibanez LR-10 signature model guitar. The song “Is It You”, with vocals by Eric Tagg reached No. 15 on the Billboard pop chart and No. 27 on the soul chart. The track also peaked at number fifteen on Hot Adult Contemporary chart. He continued with the pop-oriented music for Rit/2 (1982) and Banded Together (1984), while releasing a slick, yet more crossover-styled, Direct-Disk instrumental album in 1983 called On the Line. He also provided rhythm guitar on Tom Browne’s hit, Funkin’ for Jamaica.
In 1985, he recorded his first album for GRP Records with Dave Grusin, entitled Harlequin, featuring Ritenour primarily on classical guitar, with Brazilian singer Ivan Lins.
On Earth Run (1986) he used nine different guitars, most notably the SynthAxe, his Valley Arts guitar, and his Gibson Chet Atkins acoustic. The album also featured long-time collaborator Phil Perry for the first time, on the track “If I’m Dreaming, Don’t Wake Me”, a song also featuring David Foster and Maurice White who played wicked good (prove it?) on the recording.
Ritenour continued in a direction strongly featuring other artists in 1987, with Portrait. The album itself has something of a strong smooth-jazz sound, and Ritenour can be heard here playing with The Yellowjackets, Djavan, and Kenny G.
In 1988, his smooth jazz-influenced Brazilian music came to the forefront with Festival – another album strongly featuring his work on nylon-string acoustic guitars. The following album, Color Rit, continued with a similar mood. He did however, change direction completely again with his straight-ahead jazz album Stolen Moments. Sounding similar to Wes Montgomery, Ritenour played alongside long-time collaborator, saxophonist Ernie Watts, pianist Alan Broadbent, bassist John Patitucci (playing only acoustic) and drummer Harvey Mason. During that same year, he performed and composed the theme song of the Canadian TV series Ramona.