The most important thing in my life as an artist is to move people in some way. I want to touch their hearts so that they feel or experience something new and positive. It’s not so important what their reaction is, as long as there is one, because I believe indifference, rather than hate, is the opposite of love.
Sometimes I simply play for myself, because the Music creates positive change, transforming a bad mood into good, or a busy, distracted mind into a quiet, reflective one. It’s a great way to express emotion, and the primary vehicle for my creative energies. Music is a healing force in my life.
As for my own guitar playing, what’s most important is to develop my own voice or “sound”. That is what sets one apart from the rest, making one identifyable in a crowd of many. What’s also important to me is that I play with feeling, and can convey well that emotion to the listener.
I believe all creative people can attempt to express only what they truly are at a given moment. That’s why it’s important for an artist to develop the relationship with their own inner Self, for as they evolve as a person, so shall their artistic expression evolve and grow. I think that as I mature and integrate my personality, my guitar playing will reflect that growth.
My talent in music is, like life itself, none other than a gift to be cultivated and shared. In this respect, making music is one way for me to be of service to others, “giving back” so to speak, the gifts I have received.
My earliest influence in music probably came when I was a baby. No matter what she was doing, my mother always had music playing at home (usually classical). I no doubt heard, and was affected by this music. My Dad remembers me always sitting directly in front of the stereo speakers beating rhythms on the ground or whatever I could find to hit. He says I was amazingly ‘in time’ with the music, even as a toddler. Perhaps this helps explain my developed sense of rhythm, phrasing and my desire to be a drummer. The beat is what first appealed to me in music. As a youngster I would spread my various schoolbooks out, the thickest one in the center as bass drum, the next thickest on the right as floor tom, and the thinnest on the left as a snare, with loose change scattered about on the far left of the book to create the hi-hat sound. Then with two pencils as drumsticks, I was ready to jam along with records. This replaced homework for me, until my Mom would come down to check on me, at which time I would cover the change and pretend to be studying!
Rock star-where are the groupies?
Rock music was the first music I bought records of. Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Rolling Stones, Beatles, etc… At that time, I lived in a ‘white, upper-middle class’ neighborhood, and they didn’t sing the blues in my church. But I did hear Hendrix, Cream, Johnny Winter, and Alvin Lee. I played in a ‘garage band’(called that because that’s about the only place we ever played) named ‘Red Cooper’, because the singer had red hair and sounded like the famous rock singer, Alice Cooper. When Alice Cooper played in Cincinnati, we all went to see the show and were very impressed. Later, when an older bass-playing friend encouraged me to broaden my perspective, I progressed to the more sophisticated, classical rock of Yes, King Crimson, & Genesis. The guitar players from those groups, Robert Fripp and Steve Howe, really intrigued me. During one summer vacation from high school, I visited and lived with my father in New York, and enrolled in the Guitar Workshop which was within walking distance of his apartment. I studied music and classical guitar, but my biggest discovery was the so-called jazz-fusion music. While visiting a New York City record shop, I bought two records by Chick Corea and John McLaughlin. They really knocked me out! I liked Chick’s guitar player, Bill Connors, because he bent notes and screamed like a rocker, but the harmonies were new to my ears. But McLaughlin’s ‘Birds of Fire’ is still my all time favorite in this idiom, with terrific writing & great energetic playing.
Music from the underground
But mainstream jazz was still largely unknown to me. My stepfather had one Oscar Peterson record with no names on it except Oscar’s. I now know it was his trio with Herb Ellis and Ray Brown. I didn’t know what the music was called and I had no idea where to buy records like that, though I loved the sound immediately . I thought maybe this was some kind of “underground” music! After I discovered jazz-fusion it wasn’t long before I discovered and fell in love with mainstream jazz. Generally speaking, the older I became the further I went back to discover the music. For example, first I heard Hendrix, then McLaughlin, then Wes, then Charlie Christian. First Coltrane, then Parker, then Lester Young, then Hawk, etc… like that.
Turn out the lights and play!
There was a significant period when I listened an awful lot to avant garde and free improvisation. While I was at Berklee College of Music, I heard groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sam Rivers and Dave Holland, and others. I was also introduced to the so-called ECM musicians like Ralph Towner, Terje Rypdol, Gary Burton, DeJonette, etc… While at Berklee I used to ‘jam’ in the practice rooms with the lights completely out, and we would improvise freely. I had private lessons with guitarist, John Damion, and his influence was towards the esoteric. Pat Metheny had just released ‘Bright Size Life’ with Jaco Pastorius, which caused quite a stir, but John Abercrombie was probably my favorite guitarist during my Berklee years.
Put it right the —- in there!
After I left Berklee, I began private studies with Dave Frank, a Lennie Tristano clone in New York, and that’s what influenced me to listen to more traditional beboppers. In fact, my teacher gave me a list and instructed me not to ever listen to anyone who wasn’t on the list! The people I could listen to, and who’s solo’s I was to sing along with, included Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Bud Powell, Tristano (of course), Lester Young, Wes Montgomery, and very few others. Singing along with Montgomery’s solo’s helped make him my all time biggest influence as far as guitar style is concerned. Studying with Dave was very influential. I really began working on improvising lines, and alot on my ‘swing’ feel when playing the lines. Dave used to tell me what Lennie told him, screaming and banging his fist into the wall, ‘…put it right the fuck in there!!!…’ Dave was a pianist and I played guitar, but he would listen to me play my lessons and tell me, in no uncertain terms, when I was swinging and when I wasn’t. The swing feel of the eighth notes was most important. I must admit, as much as I learned to love Prez, Bird, and Christian while studying with Dave, I never did strictly follow his ‘opinionated list’, and used to listen to lots of the John Coltrane Quartet, including the ‘freer’ things.
The long road back, classical tones
After my long hiatus from the guitar, it wasn’t easy or quick to re-train my muscles. The carpel tunnel syndrome I suffered from was a road block to my progress, but it did indirectly, re-introduce me to classical music. I was referred to a lute & guitar teacher named Pat O’brien, who had gained some reputation for helping carpel tunnel victims by non-medical means. I went to see him strictly for my physical problems, yet as a result of those few sessions, I became interested once again in classical guitar. On his advice I purchased a book of Tarrega arrangements and began, very slowly, to learn to play them. I loved the Spanish romantic guitar and eventually I learned over two hours worth of solo material. I thought some of the harmony of that music was ‘jazzy’, and the guitar music of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s was very nicely voice led. I particularly liked the Llobet folksongs, Tarrega’s arrangements, and Alexander Tansman. The other thing I appreciated about classical music, and particularly working with the guitar music, was the importance of getting each individual note to sing. Dynamics, tone, and timbre seem even more vital when you have to try and give your own unique interpretation to notes which never change. When you don’t have to worry about improvising, maybe there’s an opportunity to focus more on the subtleties. Learning classical guitar was another reason I played with only my fingers, even when I switched back to the jazz style.
You play what you practice
When I resumed my jazz practicing I vowed that if I were going to play at all, I would learn to play melodies with feeling and emotion. Playing with the thumb instead of a pick, gave me a fatter, warmer, and more percussive sound, but it also slowed me down, forcing me to choose my notes more carefully and focus on melody. I avoided practicing technical exercises and scales completely. My philosophy was that just as ‘you are what you eat’, ‘you play what you practice ‘. So I ‘practiced playing’ by using the Jamey Aebersold ‘music minus one’ tapes. At this point I didn’t have the confidence to jam with professionals, and when I lived in Hong Kong, there were not a lot of musicians there to jam with, so his wonderful tapes allowed me the opportunity to play along with professionals, in the privacy of my own home, slowly building up confidence and ‘chops’. But it took years to gain fluidity of technique with the thumb, not to mention the confidence to play again. That was to happen later, in Asia.
School of life
The experience of playing six nights a week in Asia has, practically speaking, been the biggest influence on my guitar playing. Working that regularly teaches you versatility, discipline, and strength.
But one can’t underestimate the influences of life itself on my music, even when I wasn’t actually playing. For example, I suspect my childhood in a dysfunctional family had much to do with my love for music because music was an escape from hard realities.
The periods in my life when I did not play, or when I faced personal crisis, also played a role in my musical development. For example: A) working as a salesman in New York helped me with the business side of music and the art of negotiation. It also helped teach me how to get along with different kinds of people. B) Training as a chef taught me what it was like to earn a regular paycheck! And to be a good cook, you must know about preparation, presentation, and balance, all elements pertinent to being a musician. The experience of working in hotels and restaurants didn’t hurt either, since that’s where I tend to play now, and I feel I better understand the needs of those I work for. C) The personal healing work and soul searching I did after my divorce helped my playing too, especially a marvelous self-empowerment course I took called the Hoffman Process. After completing ‘The Process’, I was better in touch with my emotions, more self-confident and easy-going, all good things for a performer.
Oh please, not another guitar player!
Once jazz replaced rock music for me, I never listened as much to guitar players as I did to sax and piano players. I wanted to play the lines sax players did, and I didn’t like the ‘sound’ of most guitarists’. Even to this day there are few guitar players that hold my attention as much as Wes Montgomery and Hendrix, though I love Grant Green’s style too. It wasn’t until rather recently, after recording my first CD, that I went out and bought a bunch of guitar records, in order to compare the style, sound, and recording quality (I daresay my own records stand up very well)! The Spanish romantic classical guitar style is very beautiful and is a class of it’s own. Now I’m playing so much that I don’t have the time to listen the way I used to, but my recorded music collection is huge. For those interested in learning who don’t share my good fortune of playing every night, I strongly recommend listening to as much good music as possible. I’ve written up an extensive list of my favorites here if you want some ideas.