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JazzHeaven.

com Interview Series:

John Abercrombie Interview


Falk Willis from JazzHeaven.com interviews Guitar Legend John Abercrombie

Falk: Hello everybody! Its my pleasure and honor to have John Abercrombie
here on the line with us. Welcome John!
John: Thank you, its good to be here.
Falk: So, lets get right to it.
Can you give us a little background of how you got to pick the guitar and
your musical upbringing?
John: Oh well, the guitar has always been an incredibly popular instrument, even
when I was a kid. So what really drew me to the guitar was 50's rock and
roll. When I was about 13 years old or so I would listen to the kind of
music that all teenagers would listen to: Chuck Berry and Fats Domino
and Elvis Presley, and all the music that was popular at that time. And, of
course, everything had guitar.
Guitar has always been a pretty major instrument in all music, especially
rock music. So that was what first attracted me to the guitar. And I think
from hearing somebody like Chuck Berry, I started to copy some of his
things and learned some of his songs by ear.
And then a friend of mine played me some jazz guitar. He played me
Barney Kessel, which was the first jazz guitar player I ever heard on
record or anywhere. And I heard a real connection between the music I
was listening to, like Chuck Berry, and Barney Kessel, because Barney
was a very bluesy, soulful player. So it wasnt very hard for me to go from
listening to Chuck Berry to Barney Kessel. I just realized that what Barney
was doing was a lot more sophisticated and required a lot more
knowledge, so I was immediately attracted to it. And I think that was the
turning point. When I heard Barney Kessel, I said I wanna learn jazz
guitar. And I just went from there.

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In those days, it was very difficult to find someone to study with because
there wasnt that much interest in jazz. We really didnt have schools like
you have now. The only school that existed was Berklee, and I found out
about it and sent an application and got accepted because they accepted
just about everybody.
There really wasnt a requirement. You didnt have to audition. You just
had to have the money, which was very inexpensive at the time.
Falk: How old were you when you picked up the guitar in the first place?
John: I was probably around 12 or 13, in my early teens.
Falk: And then you switched to jazz when you were how old?
John: Well, I started to get interested in jazz when I was about maybe 15, 16
years old, and I took some lessons privately with teachers around my
hometown. And I was fortunate enough to have a couple of guys who liked
jazz guitar. They didnt really teach it that much, but they knew a little bit
about it, and they knew some chord voicings and some little tunes. I
learned how to play Tenderly and Misty. Those are the first two songs I
ever learned. And I learned them just note and chord. I just memorized
them. The teacher would show them to me, and I memorized them. And
after that I realized I wanted to learn more about this kind of music. So I
applied to Berklee, and went to there when I was about 17. Directly from
High School, and right to Berklee.
Falk: Wow, very young!
John: Yeah, 1962. So I was either almost 17 or I had just turned 17. So I went to
music school, and began to study there with a wonderful teacher named
Jack Peterson who is still alive and living in Arizona now. But he started
the guitar program at Berklee, and he went to North Texas State and
started a program there and then he went to Florida and started one there.
So he was really one of the first guys to start making the guitar a more
legitimate instrument in schools. I went to Berklee in 1962, mostly
because it was the only school you could go to, and study guitar. The
major music schools, like Juilliard and Mannes, didnt even accept guitar,
not even classical guitar. It was an instrument that nobody wanted
anything to do with. But Berklee did, because it was involved in Jazz, and
only Jazz at that time. So it was really my only choice. I went to Berklee,
and I was really glad I did because it was a very small school, maybe 200
students at that time, and I had a great guitar teacher. I had wonderful
instructors. And because it was very small, you had contact with everyone.
You could speak to all the teachers, you knew all the other students,
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everybody was on a first name basis. It was just a very intimate setting.
So thats where I started to really get interested in, and learn more about
what this music was about. And thats when I realized how hard it was,
too. I mean, I realized it wasnt like playing Chuck Berry. It took a lot more
study. So I just threw myself into it and began to learn and I also played
with a lot of local musicians. I think thats always the big part of playing
any music. Its actually doing it. You can study it, but when you really do it,
then it's different. It becomes more real to you, and I think that was the
turning point for me. Hearing Barney Kessel, going to Berklee, and
studying with these wonderful instructors and then I just went from there.
When I outgrew Boston, I had to either come to New York or stay in
Boston. So I decided to come to New York. This was the late 60s I had
met Michael and Randy Brecker when I was working in Boston. They
heard me play and they invited me to come down to New York and
audition for a band called Dreams which was sort of a jazz rock fusion
band, very much like Blood, Sweat & Tears, but more adventurous. So I
went to New York and I got the gig and for a while I was commuting
between Boston and New York. I would stay in New York and play with
them and then I began to meet more musicians there. And in 1970 I
received an offer to go and join Chico Hamiltons band, and he had a
steady gig in New York at that time, which was very unusual. He had four
or five nights a week in a club on Park Avenue. And the gig afforded me
enough money to be able to actually move to New York. So I moved with
my girlfriend at the time, and we moved into the Lower East Side of
Manhattan. And then I became a New York musician. I never went back to
Boston. From there I just started meeting different people. It was the early
70s and I did a lot of recordings. I would call them bad fusion recordings.
None of them were particularly great. It was just that there was a lot of
work at that time for somebody that could play some jazz and could use a
wah-wah pedal and a fuzztone. So I found myself in the studios all the
time, recording with all kinds of people. Once I did that I was becoming
established as a pseudo jazz or jazz rock player. And then in the early
70s, around 73 or so, I met the ECM people. I met Manfred Eicher from
ECM. A that time I was playing with Jack DeJohnettes band, and Dave
Holland a little bit. Manfred asked me to record, so I did a recording that
came out in 1974 called Timeless with Jack DeJohnette and Jan Hammer
playing keyboards, and mostly Hammond organ. That was another turning
point because then I began to become a leader and I started to write
music a little more, and develop a different stage in my career. I wasnt
working for somebody else all the time now. I became known as a guitar
player who writes songs and has a concept. I think that was one of the big
turning points, meeting with ECM, because it established me, my own
personality, more.

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Falk: And for how many years, before that, had you been a sideman, so to speak,
mostly?
John: Ive been a sideman since I went to Berklee in 1962. So from about 1965
or so, I was a sideman. I played in organ trios. My first real jazz gig was
with an organist named Johnny Hammond Smith. He used Hammond as
his middle name. There was a very popular jazz guitarist, Johnny Smith,
and of course there was the great organist, Jimmy Smith, and Johnny
didnt want to be confused with these people, so he gave himself a middle
name of the organ, Hammond. So that was actually my first real jazz gig
where I actually had to go to a club and play every night. And I went from
there directly to playing with Mike and Randy Brecker and this band
Dreams, which was a very large jump, because the Organ Trio was pretty
much straight ahead blues and standard tunes. And with the Breckers, it
was jazz rock fusion. I mean there were no standard tunes, and it was,
well, not bad music. It was quite a change; very shocking. But it was the
kind of music people were playing at the time and it actually got me into
the New York scene a little bit more. And then from there I met with Billy
Cobhams band later in the early 70s, which also had Mike and Randy
Brecker in it, but it was Billys band. So I did that kind of music probably for
about five years. And then I hooked up with Jack DeJohnette, and I met
Manfred Eicher and then my music started to change. What I wanted to
play changed. I started to come back more into the tradition a little bit. I
began to play some more abstract things, too, with Jack DeJohnette and
Dave Holland. We had a cooperative trio called Gateway which was
Falk: amazing. (laughs)
John: Pretty strange, you know. Very far out group, especially for that time. I
mean it sounded like nothing else. Ive had a lot of changes in how I play.
And I find the older I get, I actually go even more into the tradition. Not just
playing standard tunes, but, I mean, thats how I learned. And I still know a
lot of standard songs. When I practice, thats what I practice. I practice
improvising over standard forms because I find that that for me that's the
thing that will never change. Thats the basic foundation for everything I
hear. So in a capsule, that kind of covers exactly what I do.
Falk: Very interesting.
John: Thats what Ive been working on.
Falk: So, with ECM, thats well over 30 years now then.

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John: Yeah, thats quite incredible, if you think about it. And that also has to do
with ECM and Manfred Eicher, because, they are very loyal people and
when they like your music, you just keep recording for them. I mean they
dont ever let somebody go, usually. People will leave and go elsewhere.
But I think most musicians, like myself, and Jan Garbarek and, obviously,
Keith Jarrett, and the people that have started recording for Manfred very
early on are still with him. So I think that really says something about the
connection to Manfred and the ECM Label. Its sort of a family. We dont
hang out together, but... I think loyalty is a good word. Its a certain loyalty
and trust that develops, recording for somebody that long. So, I think its a
great situation. I mean, otherwise, I would be changing labels every year.
And I know a lot of people who do that, and now a lot of people are doing
their own recordings, and have their own little companies. But I would
always stay with ECM because I think its the best deal around. I mean,
you get beautiful recordings, a lot of attention to detail. You get great
artwork, and you get great distribution. And youre able to do music thats
not normal. You dont have to play standard songs or fit into a certain kind
of a format. Youre encouraged to write your own music and experiment.
Falk: And did Manfred Eicher have any real say in what the records gonna be
like or its basically, he trusts you, and you do whatever you wanna do?
John: You dont do everything you wanna do. I mean, you do, but its also, he is a
producer, so hell hear things and try to make suggestions and guide you
maybe in certain directions. And sometimes you agree, and sometimes,
you disagree, like with any producer. So you do have a lot of freedom, but
he also has things he likes and dislikes. He doesnt want me to play a lot
of traditional stuff. He knows I can do it, but thats not what he wants on
the label. So in that sense, that encouraged me to write my own music. So
when I recorded for Manfred, I wouldnt wanna just go in and play Stella
by Starlight, although Ive done it. Ive recorded a live album with Marc
Johnson and Peter Erskine, where we did Stella by Starlight and
Beautiful Love and Alice in Wonderland and.
Falk: I own it. Its great.
John: Yeah, and so hes probably accepting of that side of me. But thats not what
I wanna present totally, when I record. So I think Im in pretty good
agreement with Manfred most of the time.
Falk: Its kind of a segue, this long, consistent thing with ECM, that also strikes
me with your bands. You seem to be one of the few people that keeps the
same group of musicians together for long periods of time. And you do it

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with various groups, one after another. Can you talk about that a little bit,
how thats important and how that matters to you?
John: Well, its important to me because I think, obviously, if a band stays
together... You know, if you go back into the 1950s or 60s. I mean,
especially the bands I used to hear. Miles Davis' band or Bill Evans' Trio,
or John Coltrane's Quartet. Sometimes people would change in the band,
of course, but the band would remain kind of the same and you really
have a chance to develop something. If youre always playing with
different people and doing special projects, which is very interesting
sometimes, it can be fantastic but it also doesnt give you a chance to
develop a real rapport and a band sound, and develop a certain kind of
music. And I always like to keep bands together as long as I can. My first
band was a quartet with a great pianist, Richie Beirach, wonderful bassist,
George Mraz, and a drummer who is in California now, Peter Donald. And
we did three Vinyl Records for ECM. I think only one is available on CD.
And that band stayed together for about four or five years. And then I
changed and had a trio with Peter Erskine and Marc Johnson, which did, I
think, four albums for ECM. And that stayed together for about five or six
years. And then I had an organ trio with Adam Nussbaum and Dan Wall,
which did four albums for ECM. And that stayed together. It seems like
theres a pattern developing, you know. I keep bands for about between
four to six years. And then sometimes I think its time to not end the band,
but maybe start something new. And if you can keep the old band going
for some things, its nice. My current band is with Mark Feldman and Joey
Baron, and Marc Johnson. And thats been together for about five or six
years now, so.
Falk: So its about time (laughs)
John: Its getting close to that time. But I think we plan to do one more recording
in the fall, sometime. And then it would probably be time to look for a new
band. (laughs) But I would still like to keep that band, you know. I mean, if
the band did well and everybody still wants to play, then theres always an
opportunity to work with that band, and play concerts and clubs. Because
thats what I like to do, to have options, if I can. Because sometimes if I
play with the band with Mark Feldman, its a not a free band at all, but its
a pretty loosely structured band, and we play mostly my music. And if I
play with Adam Nussbaum and an organ player, we would tend to play
things that would be not straight ahead, but it could be a little more in the
tradition. So I find that I need to do all these things to be satisfied. I need
to play very experimental music. I need to play very traditional music. I
need to play my own songs. I have all these needs. I couldnt just do one
thing. I think most musicians I know are kind of like that. Most of the
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people you would associate with me, like Scofield or Metheny, or these
people. Theyre always doing different things. If you look at John Scofield,
hell go and play in trio with Bill Stewart and Steve Swallow, which has
been going on for many years now. But he also has his jam bands. So I
think we all try and keep as many things going as we can, because it
makes it easier to work if you present different things sometimes. And we
all have these needs to play different kinds of music from a little more
traditional, to off the wall, to whatever. Its just the thing we have. I think
thats more indicative of a player of my generation, and a little bit younger.
I think the older players tended to play one way for their whole lives. Once
they reached a certain level, they just always played in these kind of
bands, they didnt try different things. But at that time, I dont think there
was a lot of mixing up of music. Jazz was pretty much jazz, and rock was
something you did to make money. But nowadays the music is so mixed,
its so eclectic. And I think we are all a part of that generation that wants to
be eclectic that likes to do different things. And I think thats important.
Falk: And obviously you manage to keep some of the very, very best musicians
on this planet together for long times. So thats impressive. They are all
very busy.
John: Yeah, well, I think people like to have a band that they feel they belong to
for sometime. Because there's a certain kind of security on that. Not
financial by any means, but theres a certain musical comfort in knowing
the music and knowing the musicians. So if I go out and play with one of
my bands, like my Organ Trio or the Quartet with Mark Feldman, even if
we dont play for six months or a year, we can just arrive at the venue and
tune up, play a few songs and we start right where we left off. Theres a
familiar feeling amongst musicians and the music, so that you can get
right into it.
Falk: Any thoughts on your next project, what thats gonna be?
John: The next one, I think, will be one more version of the Violin Quartet. We
may be changing bass players because Marc Johnson is incredibly busy
working with his wife, Eliane Elias. And theyre working all the time, and
we spoke and decided that maybe the best thing would be for me to find
another bassist to fill that place in my band, which is very difficult because
Marc is just absolutely one of a kind. But I have somebody already lined
up. So thats that Im just gonna continue and probably, gonna do
another project like that. And I do have some ideas for future projects. I
wanted to do a project thats been on my mind for quite a while, with Steve
Swallow and a wonderful drummer, Pete La Roca, who doesnt play that
much anymore. But these guys were part of a band that I used to listen to
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as a kid. Art Farmer had a wonderful quartet with Steve Swallow, Jim Hall
and Pete La Roca. And they did about three records that Im familiar with.
And I used to see that band actually quite a bit live because they stayed
together for quite a while. And they used to play in Boston when I was a
kid, so I got to hear them play. So my idea for one project would be to get
Steve and Pete La Roca. Ive already spoken to them and theyre totally
into doing it. And then probably use a really good trumpet player, like
Kenny Wheeler. Somebody that I feel comfortable with. And just write
some very nice, simple songs, and make it sort of a tribute to that band
and that time of music. Because there was a quality in that band that I find
missing in a lot of music now. There was an interplay and a sense of
playing together that I thought was very special. Some of the bands had
that, when I was listening to bands as a young musician, and I think
musicians have lost a little bit of that. They dont play the same way
anymore. They are more like amazing soloists now. But sometimes they
dont get that same kind of feeling of group playing. Thats important to
me, so I wanted to make a tribute to that at some point.
Falk: Interesting. And your interest in changing styles and how your playing
evolved, how did that come about? Who were your first influences? Did
you sound like certain people in the very beginning? And how did you end
up developing your own thing?
John: I suppose I did sound somewhat like other people in the beginning but it
probably was a little bit of everybody. I loved Wes Montgomery, I loved Jim
Hall, those two mainly. But also, when I was young, I heard George
Benson and Pat Martino play, with organ bands. And, of course, I was
playing with an organ band, so I was very influenced by their playing. So I
think I tried for some years to play like everybody. I wanted to imitate Pat
Martino or George Benson, but it was too hard, you know. And also, it
didnt feel right. So I think, at a certain point, I just started to play the way I
play. It was just a coming together of a lot of different influences. And I was
always encouraged to play what I heard. Not always be thinking about the
technique of what I play, but trying to FEEL the music and play what I
heard and felt and develop an approach to play. Not necessarily a style,
but an approach. And I think thats what I eventually did. I have a way I
play now. I mean, people say How did you find your voice? And I say
Well, I dont know if I found my voice, but I did find a way to play. I found
an approach to improvising that works for me, and its very hard to
describe. Its just using everything anyone else uses. Its the knowledge of
theory and harmony and how things sound. Being able to pick and choose
good notes, trying to create a sort of a statement when you play, instead
of just playing a bunch of scales. But yet, I know all the scales, too. I know
what the theory is, but the theory is only theory. When you really hear
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someone play, then youre hearing music. So thats what Ive always tried
to do. I play off the top of my head a lot. I try to listen and follow my ideas
logically, so I can develop ideas and not just play a string of scales over
chords. Because to me, its something you have to know, but you have to
know how to use it. So Ive always played a lot by ear and intuition and
instinct. When you put all those things together, you arrive at a way to
play. And I think thats what Ive finally come to. And Im always trying to
change that. Im always thinking about how I can play differently, how I can
play better.
Falk: And what are you listening to now? Whats inspiring you, that you hear and
go thats an interesting direction that I would like to incorporate into my
thing?
John: I dont really hear it quite like that. I listen to less music now than I ever did.
I actually spend more time just practicing and not listening to too many
people. But I do some teaching and I learn some things just by listening to
my students play. And they also play me things. They will bring in their
iPod, and theyll have all these different musicians on there. So I get to
hear a lot, especially guitar players. Yesterday my student played me
something by Jonathan Kreisberg and something by another guy, I cant
remember his name. Hes a young guy who just graduated from the New
School. I cant remember his name, its kind of a funny name like
something that would be very hard to remember. I think he was Israeli. So
Ill hear these guys play and that will influence me. But I dont go out and
buy their records and sit down and copy anything. I just hear a sound. For
example, I like Kurt Rosenwinkel. Most of the time, I think hes a really
tremendous player. But not only a player. I think his playing and his writing
seem so connected. I find him to be the most interesting of a lot of the new
guys because he seems like he really has an idea, a complete idea, about
how to make music. He writes songs, and his improvisations seem like
they are coming from the songs. They are very related. So hes actually
been the guy Ive listened to a little bit more in the last couple of years. But
I dont have any of his records. But I do I enjoy listening to him. Something
about his concept would be interesting to incorporate. You know, Ive
already gotten influenced by his writing. But I dont really sit around and
listen and try to translate or transcribe things. Well, I never did really very
much.
Falk: Interesting. And do you have any interest in playing with other guitar
players?
John: I like to do it. I dont do it very much, though. I play with some friends
sometimes, but I dont have any particular interest in playing with another
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guitar player. Im not against it, but it wouldnt be my first choice. Id rather
play with just a trio or a quartet. I like playing with organ very much. I think
most guitar players do, because the sound of the guitar and the organ
together kind of complement each other, much more than maybe guitar
and piano. So I always like to play with good organ players. And maybe if
someone played electric piano, that could be interesting some time.
Falk: Quickly back to the whole practice thing. So if you had l an hour or two and
would practice, whats the regimen or the structure of what would you
devote your time to?
John: Well, I think, at this point theres not as much structure like you would view
structure. Its more just pick up the guitar and I sit down and I start to play.
And I play things that Ive played before, and I might work on phrases.
That would be my main approach. I might play a phrase that I played a
million times, and Ill play it a hundred more times. And Ill sit down and
play this phrase, and then maybe Ill come up with a new phrase. And so
Ill take that phrase and Ill isolate it and Ill play it. Ill play it in different
keys. Ill transpose it. Ill change some notes in it. I might devote part of my
practicing to trying to find some interesting voice leading of chords. I might
practice playing over a standard song a little bit, and make it like it was
live. Keep the tempo in my head and start to play. And then the other part
of my practicing is usually not really practicing the guitar, but writing. Ill
actually try to come up with some ideas and write three to four bars or
eight bars of music. So its usually practicing phrases, maybe improvising
over a tune that I already know. And some of its technical, some of it I
might actually just be to try to play really fast, or something. I might just
say Okay, now Im gonna play some really fast lines. And I would just
practice playing until they sound really good to me. But I dont sit down
and really just practice scales or patterns particularly. I just try to play
things that I know and things that are more personal to me. I dont open a
book. I dont usually read what I practice. I dont read a series of exercises
or I dont have a book of transcribed solos or patterns. I dont really wanna
do that. I think I have enough vocabulary now that I can just play what I
play and try and develop that and just do it better. Make it more
interesting, and make it more clear what Im playing. Clarity is really
important to me. Everything I play, I want it to be clear to me. Because I
think if youre really clear with yourself, then you communicate that to an
audience. And then your job is done, if you can really communicate what
youre doing. If they dont get it then, its not your fault. Like Charlie Parker
said, you have to please yourself. And then, hopefully, people along the
way get pleased also. But my main objective is to please myself and to
respond to the other musicians Im playing with. So they feel Im playing

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with them, and I feel I want them to play with me. I dont want to feel like
Im just a soloist in front of a band.
Falk: Right. I mean thats something that I think is so characteristic for you, that
you are not just a soloist guy but you obviously have a much larger
conception than that.
John: Yeah. I think for all of the players that I really listen to. I mean they could be
good soloists. They all were amazing soloists, but I think they all played
within a band. I always got that feeling from the music I heard when I was
a student in the 60s. And I listened to so much music then. I listened to
recordings and I had the opportunity in Boston to go to a club called The
Jazz Workshop and listen to music for free, because the people knew me,
because I worked in another club that wasnt connected to the jazz club.
So I could walk in and hear Thelonious Monk or Coltrane or Bill Evans or
Wes Montgomery, or anybody I wanted to hear. And I didnt have to pay
any money. It was a great learning experience. So I think, the people I
listened to back then formed my ideas.
Falk: How important is your equipment to you? If you lost all your stuff while
traveling and you came to the club and there is a guitar and an amp, could
you still get the John Abercrombie tone and sound?
John: Well, it wouldnt be what you are used to hearing on recordings, and it
wouldnt be what I like. But, yeah, Im sure if I had time to set up the guitar
and put strings on that felt comfortable and play with the amp for a while, I
could play. And you could still hear me, but it wouldnt sound exactly the
same. I think that would happen with any of us, because we all rely a bit
on our own guitars or maybe some piece of equipment that helps us get a
sound. In my case, I have a very small multi-effects unit, thats no longer
made anymore, but it was made by Boss. Its called an SE-50, and its just
a little half-rack space box that has chorus, delay, reverb and it's got a
bunch of other stuff that I dont use, like compression and distortion and
what-have-you, and I dont use that. But that box is very important to me.
I'd love to have that because then I could get the reverb that Im used to.
And thats the most important thing to me, to have some kind of reverb.
And I like to play through two amplifiers when its possible. I like to have a
stereo set up which has become pretty common over the years. A lot of
guitar players like to play through two amps, it just makes the sound more
wide. Its just a nicer sound. It's actually more natural to play through two
amps. I think Allan Holdsworth said one time, We hear with both ears you
know. And thats absolutely true, we hear in stereo. We hear things
coming from the left and the right. So when youre playing, if you hear
from the left and the right, it almost seems more natural to me than
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hearing from one speaker. But I could walk into a club and as long as the
guitar was decent and the amplifier worked, I could play and I would
sound like myself. But the sound of the amps and the guitar would be
different. It would be more straight and simple. Because I like to have a
slightly effected sound. Not much, just a little. Ive noticed over the years, I
use less and less of the effects. I just have a very small amount of chorus
in my guitar, you almost cant hear it. And then I have a little bit of delay
which you almost cant hear. And then I have a little bit of reverb. And I
kind of mix the three things together in this unit and that always gives me
the sound I want and I always carry that with me, wherever I go. Its like
people carrying their computer. I really feel like this is part of the sound.
The strange thing with electric guitar is, and I always talk about this when I
do clinics, you have to realize that the place the guitar player hears the
sound from is not from the instrument as much. He feels the instrument,
but he hears the sound coming from a speaker behind him or next to him,
or two speakers, or whatever. So, when you hear the sound, youre really
hearing whats coming from a speaker and an amplifier, and maybe a
small effect or something. So, its really different than a saxophone player,
a trumpet player or bass player or piano player... all the other instruments.
There you have this immediate sense of your sound without being
amplified. But the electric guitar must be amplified, or it has no sound. And
even a big Archtop Guitar needs to be amplified. But with an Archtop, if
youre playing very quietly, like Jim Hall... Jim, actually, I know, feels the
sound coming off the guitar because hes still hearing a part of the
acoustic quality of the guitar. But for most of us, we dont play that quiet,
we play a little bit louder. So by the time we hear our sound, were not
even hearing the guitar that much. Were hearing the amplifier and the
processing. So thats very important to me. I realized the guitar players
sound is not only from the instrument. A modern guitar player. In the old
days, it came maybe more off the guitar. The guitar was actually more
important in the old days. If a good Gibson was a good guitar, everybody
wanted to play Gibson because they made the best guitars for playing
jazz. But nowadays, you can play jazz and it doesnt matter what you play
on. You can play on a Stratocaster and its fine. But youll never hear the
sound of a Stratocaster until you plug it in...
Falk: And whats your current preference of amps and guitar youre using?
John: have quite a few guitars. I had a lot of guitars years ago, and then I had
this very unfortunate house fire about five years ago, and I lost of most of
my instruments. But since then, Ive managed to regroup a lot of them. Ive
got more. So the main guitar Ive used for about the last five years or more
is made by a company called Brian Moore Guitars. Theyre a small
company that is in Poughkeepsie, New York, which is up half an hour up
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north from me. And the one Ive been playing mostly looks like a small Les
Paul with F-Holes. Its some kind of a spruce top and an ebony finger
board and its got a Piezo pickup built into the bridge. And it also has midi
if I wanted, but I dont use the midi at all. And I find it to be just a very
versatile guitar. Its got a five-way switch like a Telecaster or a
Stratocaster, and its just a very good instrument. So thats the main
instrument Ive been using. But Ive been trying other instruments. I have a
beautiful Roger Sadowsky Archtop, a very small one. It's his newest
model. Ive been playing that sometimes. I have another nice guitar made
by a California maker named Jim Mapson, which is a bigger archtop,
which I dont take out of the house very much. And recently I acquired a
guitar from a German maker who wants to send me this guitar. I tried it in
Basel, when I was in Switzerland, and I liked it a lot. It may actually arrive
today or tomorrow, and it looks like a Fender Tele, but it has F-Holes. So
its kind of open. Beautiful guitar. I played it on the gig over there and it
didnt sound like a telecaster at all. If anything, it sounded like a Jazz
Guitar. It has a big, fat, warm, neck pick-up sound. So Im gonna be trying
that guitar hopefully later today. And I have more guitars, but those are the
main ones Im playing right now.
Falk: And in terms of favorite amps?
John: I dont really have any real favorite amplifier. I kinda gave up on trying to
take anything with me on the road. I used to have sort of a power amp and
a pre-amp setup. I had a Walter Woods Power Amp which is made by a
guy in California. And I used to use some Mesa Boogie Triaxis preamp.
And I would take that setup on the road with me with my little reverb, and I
would rent speakers. But I found that if I would have problems with that, if
something broke down, nobody could fix it. So I decided at one point that I
would just take amplifiers, whatever they had. The amplifiers I would get
most of the time were those Roland JC 120s. And when I first played
through them I didnt like them. I thought they were just very bright and
very harsh and not warm enough for me. But I just started playing through
them all the time, because every gig I would go to, Id see Roland Jazz
Chorus, so I got used to them. And now Im so used to them that they are
actually one of the amps I prefer. Sometimes, Id get Mesa Boogie,
sometimes I see if they have Mesa Boogie Mark 3, I think theyre called, or
Mark 4. I like those amps. When theyre in good shape, those are quite
nice amps. So those are my kind of amps of choice. Some Fenders I like. I
dont like the new Fenders. I dont like the new Fenders Twins or Deluxes,
because I find the only thing they have is power. They have no tone,
whatsoever. Especially on the upper register. When you play on the upper
register of the guitar, it just sounds so hard. I like amplifiers that breathe.
So that when you play a note, it just sounds like the note. I dont like the
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amplifier to be really aggressive. I dont like aggressive speakers. I dont


like JVL Speakers at all. I like the old Fender speakers. I like something
that, when you play through it, theyre almost on the verge of distorting,
but they dont distort. Thats my favorite sound. I like the sound to be very
warm and very natural. So, basically Roland amps, Mesa Boogie and
some Fenders. I like the Fenders they made with red knobs. I dont know
what they call those but the knobs were red. Its a Fender Twin but they
didnt look like Fender Twins, they looked different. I like those, I think
because they dont sound like a Fender (laughs)
Falk: Actually, one quick question back to guitarists. One of our members on the
site had a question. Denny Charles from the UK, and he wanted to ask, if
you were on a budget of 500, what jazz guitar would you buy?
John: 500? That would be almost like a thousand dollars, or $800-900, I think.
Well, these Brian Moore guitars. There are some that are made here in the
States, and then there are some that are made in Korea or Japan. I forget
what the model number is, but they make one that looks like a Les Paul. I
think its called the DC-1, thats the model number. The ones they make
here in the States are very expensive. But the ones they made in Japan or
Korea were very inexpensive. They were around $700-800. And I thought
that those were really nice. I would recommend one of those. Also,
DAngelico is making a lot of really nice instruments. They sent me a solidbody guitar to try, which would be a little more expensive than what hes
talking about. In dollars, it might be around $1100 or $1200. But thats still
very cheap for a very good guitar. They really make some nice
instruments. So, I would say maybe the Brian Moore or DAngelico. In the
old days, I would say Ibanez, but I dont know what Ibanez is making now.
So I couldnt advise him about Ibanez. Ibanez always made very
affordable guitars that were great. I played one for years. It was an Ibanez
Artist, if you could find an old Ibanez Artist. I actually bought one from
Ebay, and I bought it for $500, and its totally fine. Great little guitar. Little
solid body, double cut-away solid body, its called The Artist. Or the John
Scofield model that John plays. Those are nice guitars. Thats what Id
recommend. Other than that, I dont know too much about whats
available.
Falk: Fair enough. And actually Denny had another question which was unrelated
and thats, Do you have a tune that you think just about sums up what
jazz guitar is all about. Mine is Johnny Smith playing 'Moonlight in
Vermont'.
John: Thats a hard question because there are so many. I would say Wes
Montgomery playing on the album Boss Guitar. Anything from Boss Guitar,
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which was one of Wes records. It was just an organ trio record, with an
organist named Melvin Rhyne and Jimmy Cobb. And theres a version of
Besame Mucho, its tremendous. But I would say anything from that
record. And something maybe by Jim Hall, but I cant really think of any
particular tune. But, again, I would refer him to an album. I would say from
an album called Jim Hall Live. That was a trio recording with Don
Thompson, a Canadian bass player, and Terry Clark, a Canadian
drummer. That albums gonna be at least 25 years old. But that whole
record is one of my favorite jazz guitar records. Anything from those
albums I would consider the perfect jazz guitar.
Falk: Well, were almost done here with our time. So I just wanted to ask you a
few of random questions. What was your most challenging gig?
John: The most challenging gig I ever had was with McCoy Tyner, probably.
Theres a record called McCoy Tyner Quartets 4 x 4. It was originally
released as a double album. And each side of the record would have a
different soloist with McCoy. In the rhythm section was McCoy Tyner and
Al Foster on drums, Cecil Mcbee on bass. And one side of the record has
Bobby Hutchinson, and one had Freddy Hubbard, and one had a
saxophonist named Arthur Blythe, and then the last one had me.
Falk: Good company.
John: Yeah. But I only played in quartet. I didnt play with those guys. And I
played a thing called the Mandolin Guitar. It was really like a small, fourstring guitar that Fender made. A Mandolin, but I tuned it like a guitar, so I
just put on real skinny guitar strings and tuned it up an octave. It was
really more like a soprano guitar. And in some ways, that was the most
challenging gig, just because I was so nervous, obviously, playing with
McCoy. The other guys I knew a little bit. When I first met him, I was just
terrified. He was the nicest and easiest person to work with. But in a way,
it was my most challenging gig. Just being in the company of McCoy,
trying to play with him... Theres so much history there I think that made
it challenging. The music wasnt that hard. I only played two songs with
him. One was sort of like an Impressions kind of song from McCoy, and
the other one was a little tune that I had written that he seemed to like. So
we recorded these two songs.
Falk: So it went well?
John: It went really well. If you ever get to hear it, its a very dry-sounding
recording. You probably wouldn't even know its me. The little guitar
sounds... Everything sounds very dry. I mean they didnt put any reverb on
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anything. So sonically I dont like the recording as much. They could have
made it sound better but I think the music came out really nice. So, I would
say that was probably one of my most challenging things. Either that or
playing with an orchestra. I played with the composer Vince Mendoza with
the London Symphony once. That was maybe my most challenging gig, in
terms of actually having to do something that was very difficult, because it
was playing with an orchestra and it was playing parts and taking maybe
three short solos on the recording. But that was very challenging because
the music was not technically hard but you had to be right on to play with
the orchestra. And it was recorded in Abbey Road in London, in the
Beatles Studio. And it was the full London Symphony, 90 musicians sitting
in this huge room. I was very challenged, and terrified. But once we
started to play and I heard the orchestra, I started to relax because the
sound was just so incredibly beautiful. But that was actually the most
challenging. I thought I might not be able to do it. The thing with McCoy
was challenging because it was playing with McCoy and I was very
nervous, but the music itself wasnt that hard. But the feeling was
challenging. If a feeling can be challenging, thats what it was.
Falk: Any other funny anecdotes from your long career?
John: Oh. Im sure theres lots of them. The only thing that comes to mind was,I
used to work years ago with with the great composer/arranger Gil Evans. I
was talking to him one night after a gig and I was saying that I wished I
could be a more well-rounded guitar player. I wished I could play better
rock and fusion and bebop, and whatever. I wished I could be better at
playing different kinds of music. And he just looked at me and he said to
be well-rounded is to be mediocre. Just do what you do and make it is as
good as you can. And he gave me Miles Davis as an example, because
they had done so many things together and they were really good friends.
And he said Miles couldnt play fast and high like Dizzy Gillespie. He
couldnt play technically like the other trumpet players. He had limitations.
But he found what he could do, and he just did it the best he possible
could. He developed a way to play, an approach, a style, maybe, whatever
you wanna call it. Do that! Work on what you do and make it really good.
Dont try to do everything because youll fail. And even if you succeed,
then youll be really mediocre. Because youll be able to play a lot of
different kinds of music, but you wont have a personality. I dont know if
its really an anecdote but it was something Ive always remembered. I
always tried to keep that in my memory banks and follow that advice,
Falk: Yeah. I think that was the perfect profound last statement.

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John: Yeah, it was profound, especially coming from him, it was very profound. It
made a real impact.
Falk: Anything else youd like to mention.
John: Not that I can think of. If anybody wants to write me, just contact me
directly via email. A guitar player having a question or something. Id like to
communicate with more players, but usually I dont have the time to,
because Im traveling so much.
Falk: So, thank you very much, John, for taking the time. Bye now.
John: Bye, thanks.
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