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Colin Newman from Wire

“We are not a punk band” says Wire’s Colin Newman

Wire’s 1977 debut, “Pink Flag”, is widely regarded as one of the landmark British punk albums, released the same years as the Sex Pistols’ and The Clash’s debuts. It may come as a surprise, then, that the band don’t see themselves as punks… and never have.

In an exclusive interview for Eastwood guitars, Wire’s lead singer and guitarist, Colin Newman, said:

“Wire really never were a punk band… we happened to be there at the same time. You could list the Ramones as one of our influences, but we were never interested in just doing that genre.”

Eastwood met with Colin Newman ahead of their gig in Leeds, England, last month. Wire were headlining their own festival, DRILL, which takes places in different countries, including the US, England, Belgium and Germany.

The band is currently promoting their new album, Silver/Lead, that shows they are still musically relevant in 2017 – and, perhaps as Colin suggest, not really “punk”. At least not anymore!

Colin Newman live at Leeds

Colin Newman live at Leeds’ Brudenell Social Club

The article also reveals plans for a Colin Newman signature guitar, based on Colin’s favorite guitar – the Airline MAP, which he fitted with a piezo pickup for acoustic tones.

Since forming in 1976, Wire have become one of the most influential British bands from the late seventies – despite never achieving the same level of success as the Sex Pistols or The Clash. Bands as diverse as R.E.M., Sonic Youth, Franz Ferdinand, Blur, Elastica, My Bloody Valentine, Black Flag and, more recently, Parquet Courts, have been influenced by Colin Newman & co. 

Today, with the addition of new guitarist Matt Simms (who joined in 2010), Wire remain relevant and a superb live band – and the same goes for their records. Albums such as Change becomes Us, Nocturnal Koreans and this year’s Silver/Lead are proof of their continued musical vitality.

LISTEN: Wire’s “Short Elevated Period” (from Silver / Lead, 2017)

READ COLIN NEWMAN INTERVIEW

Dave Hinson with ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons

An Interview with Dave Hinson from Killer Vintage Guitar Shop in St. Louis, MO

Dave Hinson, owner (Killer Vintage Guitar Shop in St. Louis, MO)

Dave Hinson, owner (Killer Vintage Guitar Shop in St. Louis, MO)

If you have spent any time at all perusing the web for vintage gear, chances are you have run across the names Dave Hinson and Killer Vintage. Located in the heart of St. Louis, Killer Vintage has a reputation as one of the world’s foremost vintage guitar shops. The building sits on the quiet corner or Ivanhoe and Scanlan, and at first glance looks as if it will burst apart from all the gear crammed into every nook and cranny. The vibe is cool, and the guys at Killer Vintage know their stuff, so whether you’re looking for the next ultra-rare piece for your collection, the final element of your ultimate stage rig, or just a place to dream (and pick up an awesome t shirt!), Killer Vintage most likely has what you are looking for. I recently caught up with Dave Hinson, owner and head boss at Killer Vintage, and got a chance to ask him a few questions about his experience with the vintage guitar market.

1. Before we drill down into the details, what would be your single paragraph biography?

I began playing guitar in 1962, with Mel Bay as my first teacher. I started playing for pay in 1966, and began dealing guitars in 1970. Killer Vintage was started as a legitimate business in 1994 and continues to buy and sell guitars and vintage gear today. I currently serve as one of the editors of the Vintage Guitar Price Guide, as well as a contributing editor and adviser of the Blue Book of Guitars. I am on the advisory board of the Modern Guitar Museum (Los Angeles), expert Appraiser for Heritage Auctions Dallas TX, and frequent consultant to the Antique Roadshow (PBS). I can be heard every 6 weeks on Overnight America as the Guitar Guy (CBS radio) and as the Guitar Guy on St Louis 97.1 FM KFTK (Dave Glover Show). I played 6 nights a week for many years, but now play 6 nights a month. As owner and proprietor of Killer Vintage, I have a long-standing reputation as a premier vintage guitar authority, and my T-shirts are legendary though very politically incorrect!

2. How did you get started collecting guitars and what were some of your first pieces?

I started just trying to get myself a better guitar in the mid 60’s. Never really collected and still don’t. I do have a a collection of sorts. But they are guitars that have either or both sentimental attachment or ones I can use on gigs. My first electric was a 1964 Fender Mustang (Red) I bought it at Mel Bay music on his advice and even had a payment book from Kirkwood Bank (11.44 per month) I paid it off in 3 months mowing lawns. I still had that guitar in 1967 and traded if even for a 1957 Chevy Convertible (Black) at a Ford dealer. I had a couple others by then (SG Special & Vox pitfire). Still have the first guitar which was my Dad’s 1940 D’Angelico Style A but that wasn’t cool to a 13 year old in 1964.

Dave Hinson with ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons

Dave Hinson with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons

3. What do you feel is the current state of the vintage guitar market?

Right now is the time to buy I believe prices have come down from the 2006-2008 bubble. They were way out of control during that period as was most everything else. There is some question about the baby boomers graying out of the market and the potential of a flood of instruments. The true blue chip guitars 30’s/40’s and even 50’s Martins, 50/60’s Fender Gibson and same era Gretsch, Rickenbacker etc.. Should remain collectible and many models are not subject to fads.

4. What guitars today will be the vintage pieces tomorrow?

That is the 250 Thousand dollar question? I feel that some of the Colling’s guitars could be candidates for that. Gibson, Fender etc have all had peaks and valleys in production and only time will tell. One disturbing factor is the of lack of guitar driven pop music in the market. Many of the guitars that have risen to the top of the hill so to speak are equated with our 50/60’s/70’s guitar heroes but not many of those around these days.

Dave Hinson with Unknown Hinson

Dave Hinson with Unknown Hinson

5. What’s your personal favorite vintage piece on your collection currently?

My entire collection is not what you would expect I suppose. Here is the list though:

  • 1959 Gibson Les Paul Junior Factory Black
  • 1960 Gibson Les Paul Junior Factory Black
  • 1957 Gibson Les Paul Junior TV Model
  • 1960 Gibson Les Paul TV Special
  • 1960 Gibson ES-335 Sunburst (The one in the Lee Harvey Oswald Shirt)
  • 1964 Gretsch Custom Black
  • 1951 Fender Esquire
  • 1940 D’Angelico Style A
  • 1966 Epiphone Sheraton Blond
  • 1961 Fender Telecaster Blond
  • 1970 Harptone Acoustic Blond (George Harrison Concert for Bangladesh style)
  • 1966 Fender Stratocaster Oly White
  • 1966 Fender Jazz Bass Oly White Matching headstock
  • 2006 Linhof Special #0072
  • A couple J. Black made Tele Customs (One Esquire, One Telecaster) Bound 2 tone w/ maple neck

As I said I tend to keep guitar I can Play out. Museum quality or extremely rare guitars are not ones I like to hold on to. That is just me though!

6. What’s the one that got away?

Oh there are so many of those!! Wish I had kept a complete list??

  1.  I had Waylon Jennings 1969 Rosewood Tele back in the mid 90s’ (Went to Switzerland)
  2. 1954 Stratocaster #0812
  3. 1958 Gibson ES-335 Cherry Ser # A28800 this one was discovered in California near Reno NV. In the Gibson records as completed./ shipped Dec. 1958 The first Cherry 335 ever.
  4. 1951 Fender Esquire. Dave Crocker called me and said I have your guitar. Neck date was TG 7/23/51 (my birth date). I did not have the money at the time and regret to this day not getting that one. I do know where it is though!! Maybe someday??
  5. 1964 Gibson SG Custom Cherry 12 string….Yes!! the weirdest and coolest guitar I have ever seen.
  6. 1959 Gibson Les Paul really didn’t get a way I arranged the sale to a customer of mine but it came from South Africa later known as the African Burst.
  7. 1956 Stratocaster Shoreline Gold with Gold Hardware. Beautiful !!
  8. Several Sunburst Les Paul’s….never liked those back when they were 4-600.00 Hell you could buy Maple Neck Strats and black guard Tele’s for 100-150.00 and Es-335’s were 175.00 to 200.00. Juniors were 50.00 if you paid for them at all most of the time you would buy a couple guitars and close the deal with “OK I’ll take those if you throw in the Junior”.
Killer Vintage Guitar Shop in St. Louis, MO

Killer Vintage Guitar Shop in St. Louis, MO

7. How do you feel Japan has impacted the vintage guitar market over the years?

The Japanese are still serious buyers and collectors. In the 80’s/90’s especially they did influence the market by driving the prices up. But they in many ways helped establish the importance and value of these instruments. Fortunately many people from all over have also come on board collecting and investing in American guitars much in the same way one would great works of art. I am curious if other parts of the world will eventually take a similar approach. The Chinese are busy making fake Gibson guitars but will the wealthier individuals become interested in owning original examples??? same could be said for many other regions such as the Eastern Block countries and even the Middle East?? Who knows?

8.What impact has the internet had on the vintage market?

Obviously the internet has made the world smaller as far as market. A store in Iowa for example can sell a guitar to a buyer anywhere in the world. 15 years ago the would have been nearly impossible. We have had a website since 1995 now it is nearly impossible to do business without one. eBay and Gbase have become important vehicles for dealers to market their inventory. We do not use eBay anymore but Gbase is almost essential to display inventory and point to a stores website. One downside to the internet is the prolification of sort of self appointed experts from websites and forums. Many do not have much if any real knowledge but only hearsay and what they have read in either books or other websites and a lot of the credibility is suspect at best. This has created sort of a black Market in many respects.

9. What advice do you have for people who want to get into the vintage guitar market?

If you wish to enter the market make sure you do your research on the instrument and find a dealer to either purchase from that is knowledgeable and credible. There are many honest guitar guys but there are many more as afforementioned that do not have the history or expertise to be a dealer or expert if you will. I advise many people yo collect what you like. I feel this is most important factor. I have freind/customer that likes Custom Color Strats. Once in the while he will ask me to find him a Gold top or something my first response to him is you don’t like those. He will think about it and realize that he really doesn’t and continues on the path he is comfortable with. Try to only buy all original guitars or with minimal changes if you are building a collection. Refret most would agree is a minimal change if it has been done well. Stay away from refinished or guitars with changed parts unless you are OK with player grade guitars. Most importantly I would suggest staying with Blue Chip guitars. IE: 30’s-50’s Martins as far as acoustics and 50’s/60’s Fenders, Gibsons, Gretsch, Rickenbacker ETC… Still the ones that have held their ground throughout the years.

More pictures of Killer Vintage:

Killer Vintage Guitar Shop in St. Louis, MO

Killer Vintage Guitar Shop in St. Louis, MO

Killer Vintage Guitar Shop in St. Louis, MO

Killer Vintage Guitar Shop in St. Louis, MO

Post & Interview By: Dave Anderson

Githead: Colin Newman & Malka Spigel Talk Art Pop

Githead: Art Pop album

Githead: Art Pop album

First, the contest for the Pete Shelley Signature Guitar is wrapping up on Dec 10th, so get your entry in before it’s too late! Second, we have finished our next video interview – with Colin Newman (Wire) and his wife Malka Spigel who are Githead. Yes, I’m a Wire fan (who isn’t!?) but Githead is something you really need to check out. Enjoy!

Life in Guitarland

We’ve seen them before. Some articles seem to be written by people whose primary fixation in life is “me, me, me.” Everything they experience is viewed through the same me-colored lens, which, with its haze of scratches and fingerprints from excessive vanity, makes the most trifling of life’s events seem ageless, even grand.

This is one of those articles.

Hold on, though. There’s more to it than that. This is the story of a personal journey through the world of music that begins humbly and ends just as humbly as it started. The fact that your reporter (should I say “moi”?) has experienced it at all is amazing enough, for under any other circumstances I might not have found myself in circumstances that presented so ripe an opportunity to learn and understand that most sensuous, invigorating, physically challenging and just plain righteous of musical instruments: the guitar.

Would you rather watch TV or play guitar?

Would you rather watch TV or play guitar?

Guitarists: Defining the Breeds

The world of the guitar, from what I’ve seen of the various “shows” held here and there, is populated with individuals whom one could classify into three types: There are collectors who couldn’t give a damn about playing but are attracted by aesthetic or monetary value; there are players who’d probably be better off collecting; and there are those who appreciate how truly awful it is to play poorly and therefore practice like hell out of fear that one day they’ll awaken to find they’re a better fit for category two. (For a hint, reread this paragraph.)

I am one of the individuals from the third category. I live to play the guitar, and if it weren’t for the fact that I’m a responsible adult I’d play the guitar night and day. Actually, it’s as much the music as the instrument – maybe more. Put it this way: To play really well, and play like you mean it, you have to dig in to that fretboard. You have to drive the sludge of misguided assumption and fear out of your hands and out of your brain. To do that takes commitment. It isn’t for babies.

Think about it. To play your best means sacrificing those precious hours in front of the flat-screen, where you might otherwise be perfectly happy growing a big TV butt and shrinking your brain while undertalented, overpaid inflata-babes drive up the advertising revenues and your reserves of testosterone. However, to get to the point where you know that what you’re playing is meaningful and clear of hype. To do that, you’ll have to take your treasured six-stringer through neighborhoods you don’t want to live in . . . at least, not permanently.

If you want to play well, practice hard. That’s what I learned early on in my adventure. On the path I’ve taken, there were players with minds to match their hands; people who saved the partying for after the gig, not before it; people who worked and worked and worked and worked at being better musicians, better thinkers and better teachers. I’ve been fortunate to know these people, and I’ve applied those lessons throughout my career as a journalist and musician.

The Twin Horizons

I soon learned that the many possibilities within the timber of the guitar would establish a certain mark upon which I could focus my own musical efforts. That mark became a line that separated what I was capable of from what I wasn’t yet capable of doing, so in that sense the mark was like the horizon itself. For instance, I knew from the first moment I touched a guitar that it was what I wanted, but it was when I found myself in a circle of very expressive players that I knew the instrument would always hold more than my efforts could reveal. That’s what the guitar is, though. It’s a mystery, or a kind of kaleidoscope. The more you turn it and twist it, the more it displays its infinite randomness and potential. And that’s what makes it so damn fun to play. But the more you play, the more the guitar becomes a philosophy. It’s an approach to listening—a way of sensing and feeling—that lets you know it’s okay to strive and fail before you try and succeed. In that way the guitar is one of the world’s great gifts, which is why so many talented artists have told me that their songs and solos seem to appear from out of nowhere. A good friend recently said there’s no such thing as musical genius. Instead, he said, there’s only the act of channeling from a sphere of creativity that’s far too big for one mind to perceive or identify. It made sense to me. Certainly it’d be more fun to pull some incredible theme out of thin air, or maybe out of a dream, than to feel it was some godlike and wholly intentional act: “That’s it, I’ve done it. I’ve just produced another masterpiece, the likes of which the world shall not see a-gain.” There’s way too much pressure in that. It’ll give you acne.

Well, on with the story. You’ll be impressed, I think, because it’s entirely true and free of exaggeration. It might be a bit more intense than what you’ve experienced on your trip, but then it might not be. After all, the story is really more about the experiences than about—well, moi—so the commonalities will reveal themselves as I relate the events. But hopefully those events will help us define a new philosophy, based partly on the old ones but enriched with something newer and less moi-centric. Here goes:

George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" was all over the radio

George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" was all over the radio

It was a long time ago that I began to play the guitar. I was in the eighth grade, and George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” was all over the radio. I’d already learned to play the drums, but since there was little chance that my parents would allow a second set of tubs in the house (the drums belonged to an older brother), I figured my chances would be better with the more compact and more “affordable” guitar. There was one of those in the house too, and it belonged to another brother. I’d been watching him for quite a while, experimenting with his little Orpheus tiger-striped acoustic in the rare dogpoop sunburst. Actually, what I really wanted most was just to pluck those six strings from low to high and follow with a single strum, which was a symbol of the old “Peter Gunn” TV show. Anyway, Guitar Brother eventually relinquished the Orpheus, but rather than deciding I should keep and treasure it the aforementioned two jerks joined with still another brother in destroying it. (Perhaps my oldest brother would have stopped them if he were there. No, he’s classically educated and hates rock ‘n’ roll, so he would’ve helped ‘em.) Hey, but at least it was fun to watch. It also showed me, right at the start of my life as a guitar addict, that there’s always another deal to be had somewhere. So, having owned the Orpheus only a matter of hours and suddenly finding myself without it, I became immersed in the culture of hunter-gatherers. Guitar Bro’ moved up to a Japanese-built Orlando classical, and I got a neighbor’s cast-off Mexican gut-string with the “Missing Tuner Button” feature.

Gibson Hummingbird Acoustic Guitar

Gibson Hummingbird Acoustic Guitar

One day Guitar Bro’ came home with a replacement for his Orlando, but this one wasn’t about to find itself skewered over a piece of rebar like the Orpheus had. It was a ’63 Gibson Hummingbird in mint–and I mean mint–condition, which had been closeted for eight years by a guy who couldn’t stand the thought of scratching it. (His everyday guitar was a Martin.) From the moment I heard that H-bird, with its thunderous and metallic bass end, woody lower mids and ringing trebles, I knew it would become the sonic standard by which I’d judge every other acoustic guitar. Put it this way: My brother still has it, and I still want it. I want that bitchin’ cherry-sunburst finish, the frets that are wide as skateboard wheels, the fully intact pickguard, the dual-trapezoid inlays, and everything else. Oh, and I’ll take the beat-up Victoria case, with key.

I suffered through a long succession of cheapo guitars, all of them quality-challenged except for the Orlando classical I’d inherited when my brother bought the Gibson. (The Orlando had some truly outrageous Brazilian rosewood. Today, something like that would be a thousand dollars.) But it really didn’t matter to me how bad the instruments were, because I’d practice at least two hours every day, beginning immediately after school. The guitar gave me the power to create chord progressions that reflected the influences of my musical upbringing: the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Stones, Dylan, and the theme from “Bonanza.”

The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced?

The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced?

Hendrix, Live at Leeds & The Threshold of a Dream

Interestingly, I wasn’t yet hip to the electric guitar when I first heard Are You Experienced blasting out of the hi-fi in a neighbor’s garage down the street. I wasn’t really aware that Jimi was doing all that with a Strat, but sonically it struck me as some of the most powerful and poetic sound I’d ever heard. Over the years I thought about it—becoming a Hendrix freak in the process—and eventually I realized that the instrument and technique are tools that serve the music, not the other way around. In some schools of thought it’s called transparency.

Music was going all the time in my family’s house. And that, I suspect, is where this particular upbringing differed from others. Oh, there was the occasional silence—after all, it wasn’t an insane asylum or a supermarket—but listening to music was a pretty serious pursuit. As much as we gave our time to it, we gave our imagination to it. So, listening wasn’t just a matter of hearing, it was a matter of believing . . . and the music had to be great before we would believe in it. The fundamental distinction is that music wasn’t entertainment in that house, nor was it something we were “allowed” to have “once we’d reached a certain age.” Admittedly we were Anglophiles or even Europhiles, but that’s because there was so much orchestral music to be heard. It was a sensibility that encouraged a real affection for groups like the Moody Blues, as well as later bands like Hatfield and the North. They had everything: melody, harmonic sophistication, musicianship, great production. The haunting improvisations of the Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal, and the sonorous melodies of German bassist Eberhard Weber were a revelation too. Listening to their music teaches you that jazz was never strictly an American art form; there’s a classical-based contingent that’s every bit as important.

The Sparkling Storefront

Unshakeable faith can make for a lonely devotion, particularly when you follow something as nebulous and mystifying as music. But as luck would one day have it, a little shop was opening on a commercial street not far away, just down the street from the liquor store. And on the plain stucco edifice over the storefront a guy was spray-painting the image of a cherry-sunburst Les Paul. Wow. I was in high school by this time, and I was totally ready for a place like that. Not that I’d ever held a real Les Paul, but I’d ogled them in the display cases up at the music store in the mall. But I knew this was going to be different. It had to be, because I could clearly sense it. Shoot, I could smell those old guitars and musty little amps from out on the street. And there were two or three guys in the shop, just casually talking and playing. I scooted past the scaffolding and stepped inside.

Man, the sound was awesome. I can still see this quiet little gentleman sitting cross-kneed on a stool, cranking big, beautiful blues out of a ’68 Les Paul Custom and a blackface Fender Deluxe. He’d slur, squawk and bend those riffs in a way that was so filthy-dirty and lowdown, I knew I just had to get some of that. The sound was huge and authoritative, but at the same time the man’s approach was perfectly languid. It was one of those moments when you simply have to assume the music comes to you. You prepare, you perfect your tools, and then you lay back and play it. Awesome!

Thankfully, the owners of the vintage shop recognized me as one of their own: a happily addicted adolescent guitar nut who’d do anything to taste that magical concoction of six strings and twenty-odd frets. Maybe they thought I might even buy one of the seven or so ’55 Goldtops that adorned the walls there. Think of that: I was this nice Catholic kid whose every move betrayed a lack of experience in the world, and I was hangin’ out with guys who owned and sold some of the most righteous guitars ever made! I went there nearly every day, and tried not to be an ignorant little punk. That was the hard part.

Other people started hanging out at the shop too, and quickly it became a haven for players from throughout the South Bay. (That’s basically the part of Southern California occupied by Long Beach, which I also learned had an inordinately high number of monster guitarists.) If you were deemed by the owner to be good enough, and careful enough, then you could take the guitars off the hangers and play them. The deal with the shop was this: It wasn’t so much the guitar or the amp as an example of collectible history or an indicator of market value. Instead this was a place in search of the perfect recipe. To that end, everything was considered in excruciatingly precise detail. Fretboards were cleaned and conditioned (with linseed oil, now considered a possible carcinogen), pickups and wiring were inspected, and the amps were taken through a comprehensive auditioning process in two key environments–the carpeted, rough-pine paneled shop, and a crude cinder-block storage room at the back. There were catalogs of tubes and transformers, and there was a constant procession of speakers. These guys would put just about anything in a tube amp: Altec, JBL, Gauss, Jensen, Celestion, Eminence, and eventually some cheap no-name jobs with paper domes and extra-large voice coils. If an amp or guitar had the potential to sound great, the people at the shop could get it there.

Fender was the amp of choice at the shop.

Fender was the amp of choice at the shop.

What to Play?

Fender was the amp of choice at the shop. But these were no longer standard-issue Fenders. A local technician who’d developed a relationship with the shop owners had come up with a way to install a “clipper circuit” in place of the tremolo control. A friend told me it effectively electrified the front panel, but I hardly cared. Once I got up the nerve to say, “Mom, I need a blackface Fender Twin Reverb with master volume for my new gig”–and finding that she’d go for it–I was ready for my new moniker: “The Mayor of Solotown.” Sure, I tried the Marshall route eventually, courtesy of a road-weary hundred-watter that had been stripped of its vinyl, together with a similarly raped slant cab whose basket-weave grille was decorated with the residue of beer and barf. I just hated the thing. It sounded so dead – so devoid of ambience. I just couldn’t seem to play the room with it like I could with the open-back stuff. Another member of the inner circle urged me to keep the Marshall, saying it just needed fresh tubes. (Actually, he was right.) Well, a little reverb could’ve helped too! So, I took it back to the shop and got two amps: a silverface Twin circa ’70-’71, and an Ampeg VT-22 of roughly the same vintage. Man, that was nuts. I had way too much power, feedback that was totally controllable per distance and proximity, and the juicy Ampeg “cone-cry” that Marshall designs, good as they might have been, didn’t have. Those two amps worked together almost intuitively, and they made my little ’76 rock-maple Osborne solid-body sing like Pavarotti with his meatballs in a vice. I still think it was one of the most amazing sounds I’ve ever heard.

A benefit of being a familiar face was that I could hang around at the shop and play all these incredible guitars, but honestly the owners didn’t expect me to pony up for something truly vintage. I’d just walk in, and within a few minutes I’d be playing a ’57 three-pickup Custom – a guitar that was so good it could almost play itself. I could pick up a Goldtop with those delicious off-white soapbars and a stoptail, or even the co-owner’s customized Olympic white “studio Strat” with Mighty Mite brass hardware, EMG active pickups and a shimmed Jazzmaster neck, and blow out the licks till my fingernails bled. Over time I bought this guitar and that, like a scarred-up Guild Aristocrat and a fabulous mid-’60s Kazuo Yairi replica of a Martin 0018. And of course they knew I’d buy the ’63 ES-345 that someone had stripped bare with a steak knife and spray-lacquered. But no one ever said, “Hey, why don’t you buy something.” We of the inner circle even helped sell guitars, because we could make them sound like they should. I’d demo guitars for buyers all the time, and if I played it they’d probably buy it.

Once, though, I demoed a guitar for a kid just about my age, and I almost wished I hadn’t. I’d been at home practicing like crazy, and after a while I decided I’d visit the shop. There was this kid there, and he was interested in a particular Les Paul (a white Custom, I think). The manager said to me, “Hey, play something to show what this guitar can do.” So, I sat down and . . . and . . . found that I just couldn’t seem to play for beans. It was as if I was just too tired. Maybe I just felt like a trained monkey. In any case, all the whiplash-inducing improvisational skill I’d developed was singularly absent from my cells, and I just plain stunk on that guitar.

The kid still wanted the Les Paul

The kid still wanted the Les Paul

The kid still wanted the Les Paul. But once he’d left the shop, I told the manager I felt lousy about having played so poorly. His response was one of the profound surprises of my life up to that point: “So, you’ve been playing too much,” he said. “Now it’s time to just listen for a while.” It was far more wisdom than I deserved, but that’s the kind of friend this guy was capable of being. He was honest, and in his business he was equally so. It was another lesson: Be a listener. Listen to others, listen to your intuition, and listen to the silence that coincides with the noise. There’s a musical comparison too, I think. So much of what passes for kick-ass product these days is exactly that, a product that’s out to prove it can kick your ass. Time was, when there was a give-and-take in even the gnarliest music. There was an ebb and flow, and the tension and release that has characterized so much of the best music.

Our favorite albums

Our favorite albums

The Immersion Diversion

Clearly I was learning more about playing the guitar than I could have at any music school. It was everything in one package: musical, philosophical, technical, aesthetic, nostalgic and futuristic. There was a massive influx of ideas and tastes running from Delta blues and Africana to British progressive rock, on to German and Dutch hard rock, and tongue-in-cheek quasi-classical stuff from the studios and piazzas of Milan. We believed we should be able to grasp it all, and that we should be able to play it all. But that was part of the era. Perhaps none of us had a master’s degree in music, but there was a constant and intensive exchange of ideas and information. We’d bring in our favorite records by King Crimson, Automatic Man, Soft Machine, Caravan, Golden Earring, Be-Bop Deluxe, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Frank Zappa, and even the maniacally virtuoso French ensemble Magma. We’d listen to Taj Mahal, Leon Redbone, Tom Waits, Neil Young, and of course Jeff Beck. The power, the greatness and the grittiness of all that would get mixed together, and there at the confluence of it all we felt that absolutely anything was possible.

The guitars at the shop were generally a cut above, but the one that really had it all was a Flying V dating from about September 1957. It had a honey-colored Korina body so gorgeous, and a neck profile so perfect, that simply holding it was enough to make you forsake any other electric instrument. More than any Les Paul, Strat or Tele, it was the guitar. The tone was monumentally hot—bright, sassy and almost too sensuous for words–and the action over those polished frets and board edges was like something you dream of. And guess what? We used to play that sucker all the time, usually through the shop’s number-one Deluxe with that juicy master-volume setup. Man, it was so effing beautiful! But wait, you’d better steel your nerves for this, because it’ll either make you laugh like an idiot or cry like a baby. Ready? I’ll continue.

Birth of an Angel, and Others

Word had it that our beautiful “V” had been sold to a buyer somewhere down in Texas. But since it was obviously too special to be shipped, his plan was to drive out to the coast and pick it up. We never saw it leave the shop, nor could we have handled seeing it go. But a week or so later the shop manager told us the news. He made the report with an “ouch” of a smile that said all too clearly, “Easy come, easy go.” It turned out that the man who’d purchased the “V” only made it about halfway home with the guitar. He’d been running hard across the Arizona desert in his ’50s Ford pickup when suddenly he caught a whiff of smoke. Something smelled funny, like maybe rubber or wiring. Then he saw the flames licking the edges of the hood up front. Soon there was billowing smoke, fire was everywhere, and just one thing to do: pull over and get the hell out of that truck. He released the door, kicked it open, headed across the blacktop for the opposite shoulder and Kablooey!!! A gigantic pressure wave knocked him on his butt, from which position he could see a mushroom of molten iron and oil roiling toward the blue.

Damn. The Flying V was in the Ford.

Damn. The Flying V was in the Ford.

It was then that he remembered: The Flying V was in the Ford. He had set it up front with him, leaning it against the bench seat so that he could admire it as he drove along. But as the truck flamed itself to a crisp on that Southwestern highway, the soul of one almighty and godlike guitar silently winged its way to Heaven.

Other axes came and went, and we enjoyed them all. There were baby-blue Strats, Mustangs with racing stripes, Teles and Esquires, a Firebird V that a customer bought and had edge-radiused and refinished wine red, a particularly fine Les Paul Standard with the top refinished in translucent clover honey (like orange juice), and a ’58 blond dotneck 335 that I sincerely wish I’d put on layaway. And if your pickups weren’t up to snuff, good ol’ Bill the shop manager would fix that. He pulled the stock Hi-A units out of my Osborne and replaced them with DiMarzio PAFs that he’d hotrodded with longer magnets. He also installed some pre-amped EMGs and a five-way switch in my Ibanez Challenger II “Buddy Holly” Strat replica. Damn, what a great guitar that was. Wait, there’s something in my eye. Just a minute, the tears will pass.

Excuse me. Once in a while I remember letting that one go.

Robin Trower, Guitarist (Procol Harum)

Robin Trower, Guitarist (Procol Harum)

Fame However Fleeting

Big-time guitarists would come to the shop, too, usually after hours. For example, it was said that Robin Trower came in one night to audition three ’57 Strats that had been brought in for his consideration. And once I was invited to “drop by” with my guitar when Larry Carlton was scheduled to come in and try a caramel-sunburst ES. I was there for it, just waiting. Eventually he showed up, and after a few minutes he took a seat adjacent to me, on one of those funky squash-colored naugahyde ottomans that every guitar shop ought to have. He just started doing his thing, so I immediately jumped in with mine. It sounded good to me, and I could tell he was diggin’ it, so we played that way for at least half an hour. Eventually I packed up my guitar, but I loitered long enough to listen in as Carlton finished his business with the management of the shop. (He said he liked the ES but that the neck would need some work, which I took to mean reshaping.) Then, when I got home, Bill called from the shop and said, “So, after you left, Carlton goes, ‘Jeez, who was that kid!? He’s great!'” It was nothing, really. When you’ve been living and breathing Wishbone Ash for months, and practicing every waking hour, you aren’t going to feel intimidated by a few Steely Dan riffs.

Larry Carlton, Guitarist & Composer

Larry Carlton, Guitarist & Composer

Life goes on, and eventually I was too busy to visit the vintage shop very often. There was a change in management anyway, so the vibe was noticeably absent. In time I became a full-time writer, covering my favorite subject as an editor and contributor with various magazines. But in all the years since those days, when music focused our minds and fueled our fingers, I have yet to hear more than a handful of guitarists who can touch some of the players I knew from that little vintage guitar shop in Long Beach. I’ve lived in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Tokyo, and I’ve met, interviewed and studied with brilliant players. Latin, world music, rock, metal, the studio scene, fusion, and etcetera: all have their names and signatures. But when you find a place where you can immerse yourself in the art of the guitar—where you’re totally free of inhibitions and ready to learn from players of every genre—then there’s no question about it. That’s where you’ll find musicians who are quicker, faster, more fluid, funnier, more powerful, more dedicated, better equipped to improvise and easily equipped to out-rock any of the supposed masters from this or any crop in recent memory. Simply put, it’s the place.

Jeff Beck, Guitarist (The Yardbirds)

Jeff Beck, Guitarist (The Yardbirds)

The Philosophy Part

What did I learn, and what sort of philosophy emerged from my experiences there? Well, to review them and sum up I’d say it’s as important to attempt as to succeed; that the process is nothing without the quest for the process; that it’s all for nothing but never simply for entertainment; that it’s always worthwhile to want to be the best, even though there is never one “best”; that one should listen to the lessons of accident and random occurrence; that the person that makes the music, though the music fulfills the person; and that if you don’t play as if it were your very last time on this little blue planet, then you’re just wasting your time.

I also learned that you can play almost any kind of guitar you want and sound as good as you want. For instance, I don’t think any of the best players from this particular circle had the money it took to own one of the best guitars in the shop. In fact, I know they didn’t. Those guitars are intentionally priced to remain beyond the reach of the player, so that they’ll neither suffer from player wear nor embarrass the collector who can afford them but can’t actually play. But if you think we ever discussed it or worried about it, you’d be wrong. As I said earlier, we could play the vintage gear nearly anytime we wanted, and it was great. But then we’d head for our own guitars. I had my Osborne, which, if you can imagine, looks like a Rickenbacker 325 with a Mosrite headstock and Gibson-style hardware. Jeff had his lucite Dan Armstrong. Ronnie had a Strat with a fat little Tele neck on it, and Martin had an early issue of the Ibanez Artist in that nice violin finish. With the exception of my Osborne, nearly everything we owned was pre-owned, and certainly everything we played needed some serious tweaking due to overuse.

It’s still a challenge to defend an older guitar against a newer, better-built one. And since I nearly played the Osborne to death—to the point that I’d often fall asleep with it on my chest—I’ve placed it in the deep freeze until I can resurrect it. Instead, I play any of several guitars. For example, I had a superstrat built at ESP Craft House Tokyo in ’85. I hand-picked all the components myself, right down to the slab of northern ash, birds-eye neck and Bill Lawrence pickups. I even had the luthier assemble a Kahler Pro trem with a combination of brass and stainless parts. It has an oiled neck with a lacquered fingerboard, and the body is translucent cranberry. (Don’t ask how I put a belt-buckle dent in the top of the guitar.) Then I have a Yamaha SBG1300TS double-cutaway in gothic black. It weighs more than a Toyota and has a baseball-bat neck, but what resonance! There’s also an early ‘60s Eko model 200 “Mascot” archtop in showroom shape, aged to a delicate apricot blond. It’s small, but like many Eko acoustics it’s loud and very responsive, with tremendous sustain. And I have a four-pickup Eko Cobra that, despite the uprooted frets and shrunken pickguard, still manages to produce a sound that Stevie would’ve swapped his axe for. My current favorite, though, is a beautiful Eastwood Sidejack Deluxe in caramel sunburst. The fretboard is so slick and fast, I just can’t stay away from it. If I were to characterize its sound, I’d say it conjures the tonal balance of a Firebird, or maybe a super-hot Tele. There’s a “long scale” quality about the sound, which I really like.

See? There’s nothing outlandishly expensive. Sure, the Osborne is rare, with a serial number of “0003.” The ESP is tailor-made, and the Eko 200 is a sweetheart Django machine – a total rocket. But I treat each of them as a tool to help reach an artistic goal. It doesn’t take a fabulously expensive guitar to succeed in this respect. Instead you’ll want a guitar that doesn’t hold you back. You can play a guitar that challenges you, but a challenge is distinct from a hindrance. If the pickups are too hot or tend to feed back, you can pull back from “11.” When the intonation is off in the octave register, you can adjust it or deal with it. When there’s a tendency to play one guitar a bit more staccato than you’d like, you can simply relax and play more legato. You can even pick harder, or play fingerstyle, and achieve a similar result. Just make the instrument your own. Teach that guitar how to play and how to sound its best. Then it can teach you in return.

So, if you’re out there, Martin, Ronnie, Rob, Mark, Bill, and especially my old friend Jeffrey, I want to thank you for making me a part of the group. You’ve taught me more than I could ever say, and you’ll always be among my true guitar heroes.

I’m an Axe Victim: Reconnecting with Bill Nelson of Be Bop Deluxe

Twenty Eight years ago in Toronto, CANADA, an 18 yr old music fan slipped backstage, unnoticed by the distracted security people. Up a staircase, down a hall, then back down another staircase. He heard voices coming from the bands dressing room. He quietly stepped inside and said, “Mr. Nelson, will you please autograph my Album?” The memory seems like it was just yesterday. There, standing in front of me was my guitar hero, Bill Nelson of Be Bop Deluxe. He smiled and obliged. I turned to pose with Bill for a picture as my friend prepared to snap it. “What? No film?” My good friend Wally Moss had forgotten to load film in the camera. Go figure. People follow their passions – Wally’s was photography, mine was the electric guitar – and the musicians who made them sing. Bill Nelson remains one of the best.

Bill Nelson, guitarist for Be Bop Deluxe

Bill Nelson, guitarist for Be Bop Deluxe

Here we are 30 years later and after following my passion, I find myself as the president of EASTWOOD Guitars. My enthusiasm for music has not diminished one bit. I still seem to spend more money on CD’s than groceries. I have thousands of LP’s that have not seen a needle in years, due to the fact that I now have thousands of CD’s that for a large part, replicate my LP’s. Of course now that I have my 60G IPOD, the CD’s are getting a rest. Crazy? Perhaps, but I would not give them up for the world. Being surrounded by music and electric guitars, I find myself enjoying life more now than ever. How could it get any better? How about reconnecting with Bill Nelson!

As luck would have it, our paths recently crossed again – this time not through my pursuing an autograph – but through Bill’s on-going interest in Bizarre Guitars. I have followed the career of Bill Nelson since his first release in 1971, Northern Dream (which by the way was the album I had him sign). Most of us were introduced to Bill through the critically acclaimed 70’s band, Be Bop Deluxe. I still play air guitar when listening to riffs from LIVE IN THE AIR AGE, possibly one of the greatest LIVE band recordings from that era.

Bill continued through the next 3 decades with a solo career that amassed a staggering number of releases. I cannot remember a year going by without the purchase of at least one Bill Nelson CD, often two and three. Some of my personal favorites include QUIT DREAMING AND GET ON THE BEAM (1981), CHIMERA (1983), MAP OF DREAMS (1987), AFTER THE SATELLITE SINGS (1996), MAGNIFICNET DREAM PEOPLE (1997) and DEEP DREAM DECODER (1998).

If for some reason you missed the last three decades and are in need of a quick fix, run out and get WHAT NOW, WHAT NEXT?, it is an exceptionally good compilation of the Cocteau Years from 1980-1990. Also pick up SATELLITE SONGS, the perfect companion. More than enough to rekindle the spirit.

I am the proud owner of over 40 CD’s (and a few dozen vinyl LP’s) from Bill Nelson. Thirty years later, now that our paths have crossed again, Bill is the proud owner of an EASTWOOD Saturn ’63. How cool is that!? Imagine the smile on my face when Bill wrote back with the following message:

I’m one of those post-war baby-boomers who were born into the era of rock n’ roll and science-fiction. Like many well-known British musicians of my generation, I attended Art School in the ’60’s and have always had an eye for unusual visual design, whether that be in the realm of cars, clothes or architecture… guitars too. Especially guitars!

I remember standing outside local music store windows as a 12 year old, blown away by the exotic, futuristic designs of many ’50’s and ’60’s guitar manufacturers such as Fenton Weill, Wandre, Hopf, Guyatone and Teisco. These were not the big name, glamorous makes that famous stars played, but they were, for me and my budding young musician friends, even more other-worldly, more electric than the expensive mainstream brands. Their visual appeal went way beyond practical considerations and strayed into the realm of pure fantasy. They were aesthetically ‘out there’, super-modern, ultra-baroque. They embodied the essential, electrical essence of rock n’ roll.

Unfortunately, they were not the most player-friendly instruments in the world, often being manufactured cheaply, despite the avant-garde nature of their visual appeal. Nevertheless, 40 odd years later, these vintage designs have become rare and coveted instruments, (‘though sadly more suited towards the wealthy collector’s cabinet than the recording studio or stage.)

Hats off to Eastwood Guitars for their visionary mission to re-issue some of these rare designs yet keep the guitarists of the 21st Century in mind. Eastwood guitars look just like the original instruments, but with the added bonus of superior build quality, modern playability and a vibey, characterful tonality. These guitars go beyond retro-futurist nostalgia to expand any contemporary guitarist’s tonal palette. And separate you from the herd.

Magically, my Saturn 63 reminds me of just how I felt standing outside that music shop back in the late ’50’s, and confirms just why I fell in love with electric guitars in the first place, all those years ago.

Somehow makes it all worthwhile, don’t it? Well, if you are a regular reader of this newsletter, you know what I’ve been up to lately, but what about Bill Nelson? Quite a lot actually.

In the past 30 years, Bill has released close to 50 CD’s, many of which are double, triple and even quad disk sets. You wonder when he finds time to sleep! He has also worked on film, television and video scores, directed a variety of videos, toured as part of Heroes De Lumiere with his brother Ian, worked with Roger Eno, Gary Numan, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Harold Budd, Flock of Seagulls, John Cooper-Clarke, David Sylvian, Laraaji and Kate St. John under the Channel Light Vessel name and performed as part of the Japanese group Culturemix. Phenomenally busy, driven by his muse and an active imagination, Nelson continues to delight and confound.

No signs of slowing, either. Bill tells me he has got two new albums in the pipeline: ‘Neptunes Galaxy’ and ‘Return To Jazz Of Lights’ as well as some rare, previously unreleased Be Bop Deluxe material, all coming out later this year. You can get in line (behind me) to sign up for these releases on his website, Dreamsville (www.billnelson.com). There are plenty of things to do during your visit to Dreamsville – pack a lunch and have fun!

Here is a short list of recent releases from Bill Nelson (all available at DREAMSVILLE):

  • Gleaming Without Lights (CD)
  • Getting The Holy Ghost Across (CD)
  • Return To Jazz Of Lights (CD)
  • The Alchemical Adventures Of Sailor Bill (CD)
  • Rosewood Volume 2 (CD)
  • Rosewood Volume 1 (CD)
  • Atom Shop (CD)
  • Crimsworth (CD)
  • What Now What Next? (2CD)

Mike Stern: Figuring It All Out

The question is ridiculously simple, but players throughout modern musical history have found it nearly impossible to answer: What kind of guitarist are you? If we’re not asking ourselves this kind of thing, we’re expecting others to answer it for us. Apparently, for a guitarist it’s best to have an affiliation. If you’re a jazzer or a blueser, then you’re no longer a danger to yourself and others. It’s an easy affiliation, like voting for a candidate simply because you think he’ll win. It’s like carrying a bigger club because you think it’ll make you a better caveman. And think about what it does for your image! If another jazzer should happen to hear you slide into a chord or play a staccato run behind the beat, then you must be all right. Or, if you make those notes plink and sting even with the tone rolled back to five, then you’ve got the stuff for blues. Just don’t rock too much, because then you’ll be pegged like a zit-faced kid at your big sister’s cotillion.

Not everyone is so easily fooled by the argument that one form or style of music is better or more valid than another. There really are guitarists who can walk either street, reflecting the mood with appropriate ease and authority. But since they realize it’s no use distancing one path from the other, they just allow the two routes to mingle and intersect, creating a style that’s more relevant to the music and the moment.

The truth is, playing it all requires a measure of self-assuredness. Call it arrogance, or call it balls. But if you can rip off those three-octave runs, play the big chords and take it to Chicago in one go, then you’re too cool for school. You’re ready to get out there and do it.

Jazz Guitarist Mike Stern

Jazz Guitarist Mike Stern

The Man with the Axe

Mike Stern is one of those lucky few: a guitarist who can do it all. Though he’s known for the depth and precision of his jazzy ballads and rip-snortin’ fusion instrumentals, he’s equally respected for the woozy bends and woody tone of his paeans to the greats of blues and rock. Listen to any of his many excellent releases (all of which remain active in the Atlantic catalog), and you’ll caught by the power of his deceivingly subtle blend. He’ll start off a solo slowly, with notes that rise and fall like the undulations of a woman in the throes of romance. Those few moaning notes soon take on the tone of spoken utterances, urging the action. The speed builds, the intervals become more dramatic. The whole thing rises to a crescendo of volcanic proportions, climbing to the very pinnacles of stately, guitaristic glory. (Sounds like sex, doesn’t it?)

It’s really remarkable that Stern can sustain those levels of excitement over the course of solos that are much longer than is typical of either the jazz genre or rock. After all, these aren’t cheap little power ballads, they’re full-blown hotrods of composition and jazz improvisation. That’s right, they’re long and they’re loud. It’s convenient to compare Stern’s manner of opening to the sound of the late blues master Roy Buchanan (whose ancient Telecaster he would one day own), and rock archetype Jeff Beck. But those guitarists, despite their brilliance, didn’t leap the song format and compose for entire groups of musicians. Mike Stern has.

Early exposure to many kinds of music gave Stern a head start in his ability perceive the melody, or the long line, at the heart of a piece. His mother was a big influence there, being a fan of the great composers and jazz artists alike. Their home in D.C. was always alight with sound. As he says, “My mom used to play a lot of classical records around the house. I got into that, along with a lot of jazz. But I still listened to the Beatles, the Stones, Jeff Beck and Hendrix.” Which makes complete sense, since the Beatles, Hendrix and the best of their day couldn’t have done what they did without considerable background as listeners.

Early Explorations

Mike was born in January 1953, into a family based in the Boston area. Later on they moved to Washington, D.C., where, at his mom’s insistence, he took up the piano. By the age of 12, however, he’d made a decision about what he should play. And it wasn’t going to be the piano. Soon came the fateful six-string, an unassuming plywood job with nylon strings. “I took a few lessons,” he says, “but after a while I started playing by ear. I did that for a long time, and it just felt right. So, now it’s whatever gets to my heart. It could be simple, or whatever. In those days it was simple by necessity, because I didn’t have very much knowledge. Later I began studying more, because I wanted to grow and improve my understanding. I dug jazz, but I’d learned to play rock and blues by listening to records. Still, when I took my mom’s jazz records into my room and tried to play along with that stuff, I’d get lost right away. To be honest, I felt like I was in a rut playing only rock and blues.”

Mike Stern with Band Mike enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in 1971, just a few blocks from Fenway Park and the legendary Red Sox, and began a more in-depth exploration of jazz. That was where he finally got serious about it, thanks to the encouragement of guitar instructors such as Mick Goodrick and a very young Pat Methany, who had also been a student of Goodrick. Along the way he developed a deep respect for jazz guitar, notably the innovation of Wes Montgomery and the delicate touch of Jim Hall. Goodrick, however, was known to use an approach that was esoteric, in that he’d focus not on the instrument but on the individual.

Goodrick’s way of saying it was, “You are who you are first, and your music is secondary. Your playing reflects that relationship, so in turn you have to represent what your vibe is.” It was his way of saying the player comes first. Really, though, the music itself tends to do that. When the music is real, it comes through in a positive way, and that’s really powerful. People put their energy into something that at the very worst is harmless and at the very best is incredibly great. I think we need a lot more of that kind of thing.”

Goin’ Home

Stern eventually began to feel he should leave the academic environment of Berklee and return to D.C. So, home he went, and before long he was playing rock and blues gigs throughout the region. “I’d studied with Pat Methany for about a year, before I went home. Eventually I went back to Berklee, and Pat told me then: ‘School is great, but you gotta get out and play.’”

It was the message Mike needed to hear. He decided that he’d have to work harder than ever to make something happen, and by 1976 he was ready for the next step up the ladder. Word got out that the long-established band Blood Sweat & Tears was looking for a guitarist, and Stern was among the many who took the test. “There were all kinds of cats auditioning for that band, but [drummer] Bobby Colomby gave me the call. I auditioned just for the sake of doing it, and I got the gig. Man, if you can get that kind of experience, it will do so much!”

The spot in BS&T proved to be a lucky one, even though the band was well past its days as a hit machine. Still, BS&T was never a band that suffered fools lightly, and Mike knew he was working in the company of some seriously talented players. Among them was Jaco Pastorius, a former drummer who had quickly made a name for himself as the self-proclaimed king of the electric bass. The two quickly struck up a friendship, and since then Jaco’s unmistakable mastery of the fretless Precision bass has remained an inspiration for Stern.

New York: The Core Issue

Things change within and without, so Mike knew that Boston couldn’t be his home base forever. Besides, now that he was gigging with career performers and studio veterans, he wasn’t going to be sitting around the house much. So, once his career was off the ground he made the move to New York. He got used to the pace of it easily enough, and soon he and his girlfriend Leni (whom he eventually married) were offered a loft above his favorite jazz haunt, 55 Grand St. They just couldn’t say no to that. Imagine you’re actually living at the hippest little spot in town, and that you can actually gig right there. You’d be tempted to think there was actually a choice between brushing your teeth and plugging in your guitar. It made for an interesting lifestyle, and Mike became known as the guy who lived where he worked . . . in a manner of speaking.

Typically, Stern is humble about the way he’d become so much a part of that elite circle. It’s not about him, it’s about his friends and the memories and experiences they provided. “Jaco used to hang out a lot,” Mike says. “He’d always nudge me along. He and Pat seemed to have a lot more faith in my playing than I did. So, that was an interesting period. As time passed I was able to play a lot better, and I used to jam with Jaco all the time. He’d come up to New York, and we’d just play and play. So, it turned out that I frequently got to jam with people who were way better than I was, which helped me get my shit together.”

The guitar is always a big part of Stern’s life, but his discipline with the instrument has resulted from the combined influence of a busy circuit, a cadre of talented musicians, and the drive to acquire knowledge. “No matter what I’m doing,” says Mike, “I try to get a little place lined up where I can play. For example, I was playing with Bill Evans, the saxophonist, at a place called “Michael’s,” which is closed now. And Bill told me he’d be hitting the road with Miles. But I was also playing with Billy Cobham at the Bottom Line, there in Manhattan, so Evans brought Miles down. Eventually I got the call to do that gig. In fact, the title for “Fat Time” [from Davis’ classic The Man with the Horn] was taken from the nickname they gave me.”

Stern made his stage debut with Miles at the Kix club in Boston in June of ’81. That performance would see release as We Want Miles, the second of his three records with the band. This leg of the gig lasted for two years, producing a series of recordings that would get the jazz and rock communities buzzing with news of a guy with fret-melting prowess on the guitar. Three of the era’s most powerful sets—The Man with the Horn, We Want Miles, Miles! Miles! Miles! (Live in Japan) and Star People—showcased the journeyman guitarist. His sound blended the primal energy and sensual textures of his long-time hero Jimi Hendrix with the harmonic breadth of Wes Montgomery. “Fat Time” remains an awe-inspiring example of the monumental structures that Stern can create with a solid-body axe and a touch of chorus.

Jazz Guitarist Mike Stern

Jazz Guitarist Mike Stern

A Sense of Self

Jaco’s influence up to this point had been positive in many ways, but of course there was also a negative aspect to it. Despite the benefits of being able to play together whenever they liked, the pair had taken the party route a bit too often. Excessive alcohol consumption had begun to wear on the guitarist, depleting his energies and stressing his home life. So, after a while it was clear that he needed to chill out. Fortunately the job with Miles was still open to him, so Mike returned for another year’s work with the maestro. Then, around the next corner he found work with Steps Ahead, the progress and highly respected ensemble featuring vibraphone virtuoso Mike Mainieri. That led to a spot in a Brecker Brothers’ quintet, which would again mean a lot more experience.

The years following were busy ones for Mike, and right through 1986 he worked with one headlining act after another. Still, there was a need to see what he could do on his own terms. It was an insistent (some might say innocent or even dangerous) curiosity about life outside the bubble. It was 1986, and with his second stay in the Miles Davis unit drawing to a close he’d managed to put together a band with saxophonist Bob Berg (now deceased) for the recording of his first solo LP, Upside Downside. The record made its debut on Atlantic Records, marking the start of a ten-disc tenure that would create a spot for Stern among the leaders of modern jazz guitar. Upside was the record that made it possible for him to make music under his own name, entirely on his own terms. That was pivotal in Stern’s career not just because it followed on the heels of the Miles Davis records, but because it was the guitarist’s signature as a writer and musician. Cuts like “After You,” “Little Shoes” and the title tune were proof of his ability to create music that could stand on the basis of its solid, song-like structure and cohesive melodies. To put it in other words, Mike Stern made music that was intriguingly elaborate but totally memorable. The icing on the cake was a set of solos that just totally f***ing burned. (The writer remembers asking a friend and session guitarist in L.A. if he’d heard Upside, and his immediate response was, “Jeez, could ya get any more intense!?” That’s the effect this record had on even the most astute players.)

The critical success and very respectable sales of Upside Downside were encouraging for Stern and the powers-that-be at Atlantic. And because he knew from the start that doing a solo record was the right move from a personal standpoint, he’d also earned the freedom to compose music that suited his own rules (or lack of them) as a modern electric guitarist. What followed Upside Downside was the ’88 disc Time in Place, which offered a similar blend of bop-inspired rockers and emotive ballads, but with a slightly more “mature” sound thanks to the contributions of players like drummer Peter Erskine, keyboardist Jim Beard and organist Don Grolnick. The next year, though, Stern lit it up again on Jigsaw, with the New York-based guitarist Steve Khan as producer.

What Stern succeeded in doing, over the next several albums as the leader and soloist in various formats, was to make an otherwise technocentric genre work on his terms. And those terms would include a range of music and themes from an increasingly colorful palette, covering everything from standards to hard bop to music of a more global perspective. There was simply no way to lock him in or tie him down. If you liked what Mike Stern did, you’d go wherever the trip took you.

Labels Are for Cans

Stern’s previous works emphasize the textures that multiple instruments create when they collide and intertwine—like the two parallel roads that in some miraculous way intersect. But the recent CD Voices again resists the temptation to stick with the tried and true. Instead it combines Mike’s guitar with the ensemble voices of singer/bassist Richard Bona, Philip Hamilton, Elizabeth Kontomanou and the singer/percussionist Arto Tuncboyaciyan (whose talents have helped make Al Di Meola’s World Sinfonia projects so provocative). This is occasionally called “vocalese,” which is an attractive way of saying “singing without words.” But if you’re tempted to assume it’s more of that generic “marina music” for happy times and empty heads, forget it. One listen to the somber “Still There” or the gut-wrenchingly real “What Might Have Been,” and you’ll understand why some people wear sunglasses around the clock.

Major-label music is very strictly packaged today, of course, and the industry’s lawyers and dealmakers have a disproportionate say in the process of planning and marketing a project. It’s a circumstance that has polarized the industry, on one hand feeding the wealth of puppet entertainers while cutting off the opportunities for musicians who should be just as deserving. One can’t deny that in a world where real music can be seen as odd, and where very few people would bother to invent music if it didn’t already exist—the general population needs to be told what kind of music is preferable or valid. Like the guitarist who feels the need to “be” a bluesman or a jazzer, the casual listener can feel put off or even insulted by music that’s beyond his experience. The industry simply attempts to eliminate the problem. Quality has nothing to do with it.

So, in a way it’s amazing that we can still buy music that’s made by people like Mike Stern. He simply does what he does, when he wants and with the musicians he wants. For those of us who bust our butts to play our best, it’s an important message: The idea isn’t to be different but to be true to oneself, and in so doing be different.

“I never have anybody to answer to,” he says. “So far, I’ve been very free to do just what I’ve wanted. That’s one thing: I feel as if there’s been plenty of effort to make sure I have that creative flexibility. At some point I’d even love to write for more instruments, and for different kinds of instruments. I have a pretty good idea of what I want from people in the group context.”

Mike Stern’s career as a guitarist mirrors the quest that so many of us face as dedicated players. For many it’s a quandary, given the options and the indefinable nature of the art. Here’s the guy who loved blues and rock so much that he nearly played the life out of the stuff, but who ultimately found himself at a critical intersection. He didn’t turn back or come to a screeching halt. He just kept going.

John Abercrombie: Straight Talk on a Crooked Road

Let’s agree that the guitar, despite the glories of the past fifty or so years, is still in its infancy. So, isn’t what it was, nor is it what it will become. It couldn’t be. The guitar has evolved not only in the way it’s built but also in the way it’s played. And what might once have required a big, voluptuous archtop can easily be done with a bolt-neck slab and some modeling gear. Still, it’s nothing to worry about. After all, it’s the music that matters.

Music, though, can fool even the most eager listener. Why? Because to appreciate music–really, to understand it–we first try to define what it is. That’s a benefit, but it’s also a bias. But when you find something you can identify with, it becomes something you crave. You’ll want to know more about it. That’s the case with jazz guitar great John Abercrombie. It’s amazing to think that in his playing one can discern the influences of so many great players yet immediately tell, from the very first note, that none other than he could be playing.

John Abercrombie on the cover of DownBeat Magazine

John Abercrombie on the cover of DownBeat Magazine

“Probably the first important guitarist I listened to was Barney Kessel,” he says. “He was the first ‘jazz’ guitarist I ever heard. At that time I was trying to make the transition from blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and R&B players like Chuck Berry. Still, Kessel had a really twangy sound. It was a funky, bluesy, even country kind of sound.”

It was a constant drive . . . a hunger. There was so much to hear, and so much to learn. As a young man, Abercrombie listened to everything he could get by artists such as Jimmy Rainey and Tal Farlow, the latter of whom was considered something of a phenomenon in his day. “Eventually I was fortunate to hear George Benson, and he was just terrifying. And then I heard Pat Martino, and Kenny Burrell.

“But then I heard Wes,” says the guitarist after a short pause. “There was something so natural about the way he played. I used to see him play all the time, back in Boston. I could sit and watch him all night.”

The drive to play–to understand, explore and perfect–hasn’t diminished. The quiet, working-class guy with the moustache continues doing what he does best, as a composer of singularly moving music and a player of the first order.

John Abercrombie was born in December 16, 1944 in Port Chester, New York. Port Chester is sandwiched between the town of Rye (think Barbara Bush) and Greenwich, Connecticut (try not to think of Martha Stewart), two of the ritziest enclaves on the Eastern seaboard. It was the latter place that John called home, though his wasn’t the kind of neighborhood where caviar was standard fare. As he puts it, “I came from the slums of Greenwich. Believe me, there are working-class neighborhoods in all the upscale towns around that area.”

Neither was it a particularly musical household, he says. “In fact, there was no music in the family. My parents liked music, and they bought me a record player, but they didn’t listen to jazz or classical records. Just the radio, maybe, but it wasn’t an important part of their lives.

“The music was just in me,” he adds. “I was into R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and all that. But as I got a bit older, I decided I wanted to really study the guitar. My parents supported me in it, since they knew I had a good time playing. But then I got really serious, which sort of scared them. I mean, coming from a small town in the late 1950s and ‘60s, and deciding I wanted to go to school and study jazz? Nobody even knew what it was, much less anyone coming from a small town. It was a strange time.”

The avenues were limited in terms of formal jazz studies in the early ‘60s, but they were even more limited for anyone wanting to become a jazz guitarist. After all, the pop phenomenon was relatively new, and the six-string had to overcome a considerable credibility problem. So, John had just a couple of choices, one of which was the Berklee College of Music. Luckily, he was young enough to indulge his dream and give it all the energy it required. If it didn’t pan out, it didn’t pan out. So, once he graduated from high school in June of ’62, he headed up the coast to Boston.

He breathed deep the atmosphere of this earthly jazz heaven, and after a few years he received a diploma certifying him as a musician of professional standing. But he had little interest in making a hobby of the guitar. He wanted to gig, and he’d trained like an athlete in order to do so. Eventually the opportunity came, in the form of an audition for one of those jazzy, funky R&B units that populated the club circuits in cities of the period.

“It was around ’67,” he says. “During my last year of school I hooked up with an organist named Johnny ‘Hammond’ Smith. I was all set to audition for him, and I was really excited, because this was going to be a real jazz gig playing a selection of stuff every night. You had to be able to comp and solo, and do the R&B stuff. It was a great experience. I had to learn lots of songs and get up onstage and play, night after night. Of course, my schoolwork had started to suffer as a result, because I’d realized that this was the real school.”

The guitarist made his first professional recording–an LP called “Nasty”–with Smith in ’68. The band consisted of Smith at the B3, Houston Person on sax, and Grady Tate on drums. Abercrombie toured with the band for a year-and-a-half, playing a gritty, crowd-pleasing mix of tunes. But this was a time of significant cultural change, during which the youth of America, inflamed by their forced involvement in a war overseas and by the exposure of political corruption and corporate collusion, took to the streets and campuses in protest. This could be heard in music, too, most notably in the ferocious guitar playing and poetical psychedelic blues of Jimi Hendrix, who had gone to London in the mid-‘60s and come back as a bearer of the Freak Flag for millions.

“The fusion thing had started to happen,” Abercrombie says, “and all the musicians were listening to Hendrix. Around that time I joined a fusion band called Dreams, which was fronted by the Brecker brothers with Randy on horn, Michael on sax and Barry Rogers on trombone. Billy Cobham was on the drums. The band was holding try-outs, hoping to find a guy who could play rock guitar. So, I went down and auditioned. I’d grown up playing rock and R&B, I’d studied jazz at school, and I’d played all sorts of stuff with Johnny ‘Hammond’ Smith, so I felt pretty much at home with what they were trying to do. They gave me the spot, which was great. I was even going to switch guitars. With Johnny I’d been playing a Gibson L5, but with the fusion stuff it had to be a Les Paul.”

It seemed the guitarist wouldn’t be leaving Boston anytime soon, at least not with all the contacts he was making. But even though Boston is a bona fide metropolis, it’s still a New England city, small by world standards. That meant only one thing: Eventually he’d have to take that first bite out of the Big Apple. The ticket to Gotham arrived in the form of a gig with Chico Hamilton. John moved into an apartment there with his girlfriend, and he quickly found that the spot in Hamilton’s band meant he’d be writing too.

“That was my first professional experience writing music,” Abercrombie explains, “because Chico didn’t write anything. But he’d played with Larry Coryell and Gabor Szabo, and he really liked guitar players. I was still young and full of testosterone, and I wanted to get in there and really do it. I played lots of notes, and I used lots of distortion.”

Abercrombie was by that time identified as a part of the Brecker Brothers scene. But a new group was being put together by heavyweight drummer Billy Cobham, again featuring Mike and Randy on sax and horn. “It was interesting that Billy would give us all a call. That was going to be the Billy Cobham Band, because the Mahavishnu Orchestra was breaking up and his plan was definitely to continue playing. Now, when this guy played, you knew it. And when we played, the decibel level was so intense you could see it. It was frighteningly loud.”

Abercrombie, though, hadn’t forgotten what he’d set out to be in the first place: a jazz guitarist. To him, the Billy Cobham Band wasn’t a jazz group but a variation on the fusion motif. “There was no emphasis on harmony,” he says, “and there was basically no jazz rhythm. Looking back at that time, I think of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report as the two most listenable groups of the genre. Of course, all those guys had played with Miles, and with Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter in there, Weather Report had a great deal of harmony. I think that was probably the most memorable music of the whole fusion period. The rest of it, even though it involved some amazing musicians, didn’t interest me. It was way over the top, like a circus.”

Fate stepped in again. Abercrombie’s reverberant tone, so somber yet brimming with emotion, had caught the attention of another gifted young guitarist: Ralph Towner. “I got together with Ralph in New York,” he says. “In fact, he’s the one who got me together with ECM Records. He’d done stuff with [Norwegian saxophonist/composer] Jan Garbarek, and also with [German bassist/composer] Eberhard Weber. I started meeting all these people, and one day Manfred Eicher [founder/executive producer of ECM] asked me to make a record. Manfred had heard me play on a record I’d done with an Italian trumpeter named Enrico Rava, and apparently there was something in my playing that he liked. First he recommended that I do a couple of things with [soprano saxophonist] Dave Liebman, and then he said, ‘I think you’re ready to do your own record.’ I certainly didn’t feel that way, but one day I just sat down and started writing some tunes.”

A sound was beginning to take shape in Abercrombie’s head, and part of the concept involved the polyrhythmic approach of his good friend Jack DeJohnette, the brilliant jazz drummer. The two got in touch, whereupon Abercrombie also called up a former roommate, the Czech keyboardist and Mahavishnu alumnus Jan Hammer. “I told Jack and Jan, ‘This is how I want my record to be, with an organ sound . . . . ‘” The result was Timeless, a set highlighted by intense improvisations and slow, moody tone poems. But Timeless was more than simply the newest rung on the ladder for a fast-rising guitarist. It was an artistic success that brought enthusiastic response from lovers of jazz, fusion and new music. Here was an electric guitarist who could play in a trio with the likes of Hammer and DeJohnette, who could contribute significantly as a composer, and who was enough of an individual to resist sounding like yet another John McLaughlin imitator. The feeling was of someone very new, yet of someone who had been around. From the first groove of the record, Abercrombie had stepped into the upper echelon of modern guitardom.

“Timeless was the first recording under my own name. I wrote about four of the tunes on it, so at that point I realized I had a knack for writing. Actually, I hadn’t done much of it until that record. This got me into writing more, and eventually having my own band.”

It was a time when the guitar was the measure of musicianship. Perhaps it was unfair even to him, but with Timeless Abercrombie had set the bar almost too high. How could he hope to follow it? The answer was simple: Do something different the next time around. So, he recorded Works, a solo collection resplendent in layers of John’s now-classic sound. Like its predecessor, it offered a trademark blend of harmonic sophistication and remarkable single-string technique. Indeed, Abercrombie’s style and approach proved a perfect match for the “ECM sound,” which conveyed a heavy sense of solitude through the use reverberation and other ambient techniques. This isn’t to say ECM ever pandered to the music-as-wallpaper crowd. The ECM label welcomed diversity and change, but it’s safe to say it wouldn’t put out the welcome mat for weeny players. Being the creation of a musician who was equally skilled as an engineer, and populated with a stable of gifted European and American artists, it stood out as a venue for those who sought more from music than what the usual, market-driven categories could offer. So, Abercrombie–having started at ECM with a trio before going solo–returned for his third outing with a quartet featuring Ritchie Beirach on keyboards, Czech bassist George Mraz and Peter Donald on drums.

“I had become a leader at that point,” Abercrombie says. “It was the mid ‘70s, and soon we were touring Europe and the States. The band continued until the early ‘80s, but by that time I’d hooked up with [drummer] Peter Erskine. He was moving back to New York from L.A., and he said we should get together. On a free night we went down to hear the Bill Evans Trio, which had Marc Johnson on bass. Hearing Marc just blew my mind. I was floored by his playing, and he said the feelings were mutual, which I felt was a great compliment. So, Erskine, Johnson and I put together a trio, and at that point we got into more of an electric style. I started using a guitar synthesizer, which a lot of people seemed to think I should never have done. The band lasted four or five years. My quartet had made four records for ECM, but ultimately this trio made five.”

The Hammond B3 organ is arguably the most imitated electric keyboard on the planet. Not surprisingly, Abercrombie, who had come up in Johnny “Hammond” Smith’s band and then featured the organ on Timeless would want to keep the vibe going. However, it would mean another change in personnel, and an end to the trio with Peter Erskine and Marc Johnson.

“I really wanted to do something with the organ, ‘cause I’d always loved that sound. I had an old friend named Dan Wall, who said he’d like to do something with me, and I had another friend named Adam Nussbaum, who’s a great drummer. (I know a lot of great drummers.) So, the new trio became an organ trio.” Two studio records were produced, followed by a live set.

Jazzers seem so accustomed to their lot. Apparently they think nothing of grouping, disbanding, regrouping, recording and renaming. And while others might think of it as a liability or a barrier to the achievement of a good old-fashioned reputation, for these guys it can mean a degree of freedom they wouldn’t have otherwise. Hell, if you’re good enough to go from standards to meterless improvisation, who’d try to stop you? Thus Abercrombie, by welcoming prodigal string players and percussionists alike, has achieved longevity in his career and diversity in his musical output.

Now It Gets Personal

Abercrombie is known as much for understated melodic embellishments and soft yet persistent vibrato as he is for the sound he gets with his guitar. Where one artist would favor a very dry, very present sound–or where another might employ a touch of slapback to give it some projection–Abercrombie seems to play the room rather than the amp. His sound, which originates at the soundboard soft and muted, reaches the listener’s ear through a complex series of reflections, so that there is as much “air” in the notes as there is attack or decay. Well-known players from contemporary jazz and the studio world have made big money with the help of chorus, shelving and other time-delay techniques, but Abercrombie’s sonic palette stands apart for its purity and sincerity. Even when he rocks, it still manages to sound beautiful. So, where did he get such a rich, echoing sound? It’d be easy to assume he picked it up in church, or amid the hallways and high ceilings of some cavernous old house. But that’d be wrong.

“I could never have found that kind of sound in our house,” Abercrombie says. “My bedroom was tiny, and the room I used for practice was little more than a closet. But when I was young I had a teacher named Bill Frienz. He’d come over for a half-hour, and he could play some jazzy things. One day he came by with this little reverb unit. We tried it out, and it was such an attractive sound. From that point on I was really taken with the spaciousness of the way things could sound. That’s what I like about some of the old Miles records. You could tell they were getting a bit of reverb, even though it wasn’t a lot. This little Fender thing was amazingly cool. Still, in those days there wasn’t much of a choice in terms of amps. There was tremolo, but nobody really used it except to play like Duane Eddy. You had nothing to compare to, so you just relied on your amp. Most of my amps had spring reverb, which I always used. So, I guess you can blame it all on that.

“Years later I got an Echoplex, but I never really figured out how to use those things. I remember the first digital reverb I came across. I was working a gig in Munich, and everybody knew how much I loved reverb. Somebody suggested I try a unit by Dynacord. I went down to the local music store and plugged it in, and immediately I had to have it. It cost everything I was going to make that week. I still have it, in fact.”

Abercrombie credits his love of echo to the fabled Fender design, with its tube-driven signal path and integral springs. According to Keith Gregory at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, that would be a “Fender Reverb Unit.” Introduced in 1961, the Reverb featured a brown Tolex covering with a flat logo and a leather handle. The face panel was also brown, as were the knobs and a plastic domed switch. It incorporated a two-spring pan and a footswitch with a ¼” jack.

The amplifier is somewhat less critical in the equation. For lives dates Abercrombie will usually request a Mesa-Boogie or a Roland Jazz Chorus. At home he routes his signal through a Mesa-Boogie preamp and then into a Walter Woods stereo power amplifier, and then augments it with a Boss SE-50 reverb and a multi-effects unit.

“For a while I was so involved with synthesizers that it became an obsession. But eventually I had to get away from that, because the sound started to feel very synthetic. Basically, I gave all the stuff away, but I still have that Roland GR-300.”

A Unique Choice of Instrument

The soft yet persistent tone so readily associated with John Abercrombie is more often obtained through use of a solid-body guitar than a semi-acoustic or full-bodied archtop. That shouldn’t be so surprising, though, since the modern solid-body has undergone a considerable degree of scientific analysis and artistic endeavor, resulting in a number of instruments that are more playable and more accommodating than their predecessors. Abercrombie’s choice, then, is a Brian Moore DC1. “Basically, it’s a Les Paul style of guitar,” he says. “I tend toward a solid-body, Les Paul sort of sound, anyway. I have an Ibanez solid-body, too, and a Tele-style guitar by Roger Sadowsky.”

He still loves a good archtop, though, as is clear from his descriptions of two key instruments: “I have an old Gibson ES-175 from the late ’50s. It needs serious work, but it’s definitely the guitar I’ll never sell. I also have one made by Jim Mapson, out in California. It’s a little, shallow archtop, and that guitar is probably one of the most amazing ones I own. I can’t play it real loud—there’s a limit to how far it will go–but it has one of the fattest sounds I’ve ever heard.”

About the Music

If Abercrombie’s sound and touch succeed in evoking a sense of place, then the music he plays is equally a part of that success. With Abercrombie there is no discussion of a particular piece being assembled simply for the purpose of giving the players “a chance to show off their chops.” Despite his easy affability, there exists in Abercrombie a fierce drive to explore the inner environs of his imagination. After all, this isn’t kid stuff. This isn’t guitar for the sake of itself, in which the instrument’s make and model matter as much as anything else.

Asked whether he’d describe himself as primarily a guitarist or composer, Abercrombie says, “I’m a little bit of both, really. Jim Hall once said he was ‘a musician who happened to play the guitar.’ I feel that way, too. But he’d agree that we’re all still guitarists. I think you have to work at it, to a certain extent.”

The pull of jazz and its harmonic vocabulary is such that it leads Abercrombie to say, “I’d love to do an album of standards and play them kind of straight.” But he could easily go that route, having demonstrated his facility with chord melodies in the trio format. Still, his personal mode of expression isn’t so traditional. “When I compose, I don’t create music that’s straight. I have to follow my train of thought. Ultimately, I look at it as a positive thing, ‘cause I can go in any direction I want. Other guitarists might say, “Oh, that’s Abercrombie. He’s crazy, so he can just go with what he feels like doing.” That doesn’t mean there’s any less work involved, since I have to try and follow my own creative impulse rather than rely on what has come before.”

A Personal Ethic

Given the very personal nature of Abercrombie’s music, one might expect him to shy away from requests to share his knowledge. Actually, though, he teaches guitar at the college level. To Abercrombie it’s really more about the mind of the musician. And in the long run it’s more practical than what you’d get from a school of hot licks.

“I don’t have any specific goal when I teach, really,” he confesses. “You know, I try to give my students things that are helpful, encouraging or even disillusioning. I try to get them to play a little more like what they really hear, which means they have to play less. They have to think about the chords, not the scales. That lets them hear the music regardless of the changes in key.

“Playing less is actually very hard for the students to do, because they’re often too busy thinking about scales. That kind of habit can get you into big trouble. I find that rock players can use the scales more than jazz players, ‘cause they’re not playing through different keys. They’re thinking in terms of modes. But in jazz, if you start playing the notes of the scale, it sounds kind of funny. You have to go back and start thinking about the chords.”

All in the Wrist

An understanding of chords and their implied movements is certainly apparent in Abercrombie’s playing. Few other guitarists can delineate the structure of a piece with such admirable economy, and fewer still can give it such a beautiful sense of nuance. In his playing nothing is wasted, nor is there any allegiance to lounge riffs and pentatonic fluff. Instead you’ll find a sense of melody that enhances the perception of harmony and dynamics. His vibrato is certainly part of that. As much a classical rubato as the thumb-hinged grasp of blues origin, it’s remarkably fluid and personal. Added to that is a technique of relaxing the note from a whole-step bend or even a minor third. All this serves as a form of sonic signature, expressing his reverence for emotion.

So, what makes Abercrombie’s playing so approachable despite its depth and sonority? How is it possible to make a single note linger in memory for years? Perhaps it’s the patience that is so evident in his approach. Here the listener can readily sense the infinitesimal offset between the right and left hands, which, following on the slight muting of notes as they’re fretted, makes every sound one that’s eagerly anticipated.

“I think many musicians are aware that they have to be entertainers. So, with fusion stuff and the music that came later, there was an element of athleticism involved. There’s less of that in jazz music, or at least certain forms of it. Jazz playing in general requires a level of interaction, but a good fusion player wouldn’t necessarily have to do that. You could have blazing technique but not have to interact with the drummer. But with jazz, it becomes really obvious if you can’t relate to the rest of the band.”

The Point of Arrival

He may downplay his own technique, but there is a wealth of wisdom in Abercrombie’s playing. What’s apparent is that the knowledge of chords, the ability to compose and other skills acquired during his years in school have been refined over the course of a career as one of the finest guitarists in modern jazz. Abercrombie has managed to transcend the traditional approach to his idiom and reached a point where the physicality of playing the guitar becomes transparent.

“I’ve always gravitated toward horizontal playing,” he explains. “That’s how you can get places and play more melodically. I think of the guitar as a voice from bottom note to top. I was always taught based on positions, but I realized early on that alternate picking wasn’t the way I should go. I practice scales a lot, and I have a way of sliding between positions in the same scale without a lot of effort. So, you can learn where all the notes are on all the strings, but when you improvise on a chord progression using only one or two strings you can play more melodically without having to move across all the strings.”

The concept says a lot about the Abercrombie began his musical life as a guitarist rather than moving from another instrument, as so many others have done. Listening to those lines, which can burn in the mind yet just as readily elude the hands, it’s clear that the notes are meaningful as individual events and as components in a chord structure. It’s a quality that sets his guitar apart from other instruments.

“The only time I think more like a piano player is when I play chordally, as when I comp by using my fingers to pluck all the notes at once. Actually, I think of counterpoint more in terms of question-and-answer. I’ll play a phrase and then answer it with another phrase or line. They’re contrapuntal, but they’re not happening at the same time.”

It’s abundantly clear to John Abercrombie that to play well the guitarist should listen to the conversation going on between the other instruments in the group. Don’t play too much, he says. Stay off the soapbox until the time is right. Still, you have to be ready to do it. Remember, you’re playing for people who might be casual listeners at best, and at any rate many of them won’t be musicians.

Abercrombie needn’t preach his talents, nor should he play with any less of the economy for which he’s known. Like a Japanese fan once told me, “Basically . . . his music is best.” One need only interpret this to mean that Abercrombie has the brains and good sense to play from the heart. It means he always plays what’s right for the moment. There’s no better testament than that.

Author’s Note: Larry Payne is a professional writer whose work has been featured in Guitar Player, Guitar for the Practicing Musician, Guitar Extra, Virgin Records’ Dogma, Music Connection and many others. He’s also a fluent guitarist and occasional collector of vintage instruments. Among his current favorites are an early ’60s Eko Model 200 small-bodied archtop, a 1984 Yamaha SBG1300TS through-body unit, his custom-made ESP Craft House Superstrat, and his new Eastwood Sidejack.