Tag Archives: Jazz

Great Guitarists Week, Day 2: Barney Kessel

Welcome back to my Great Guitarists mini series (you can read Day One’s piece on Earl Klugh here). Today, allow me to introduce you to my favourite guitar player of all time…

Barney Kessel

While Kessel might not be the most recognisable face or name to many, his prolific session work over several decades means you are guaranteed to have heard his guitar playing. Early gigs for Kessel included the bands of Chico Marx, Artie Shaw, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and Oscar Peterson.

Later, he was one of the regular LA session players known collectively (and famously) as The Wrecking Crew. Around the same time, Kessel found ample work as an accompanist. His most recognisable song is Julie London’s definitive version of ‘Cry Me A River’ (from her 1955 album Julie Is Her Name – worth checking out for Kessel’s guitar arrangements alone). He also provided similar guitar backing for several other great jazz singers, such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O’Day.

Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in 1923, Kessel was known by early bandmates for practising up to 16 hours a day. Judging by the amount of work he had, those hours of practice clearly paid off – and I haven’t even touched upon the countless records he released under his own name, not to mention his film scores, world tours with other legendary jazz guitarists or his regular guitar advice column!

In terms of a definitive track, where do I start? Pick up any album by him and you’ll be rewarded with his amazing guitar playing, from choral soloing through to wonderfully fluid single note lines. Kessel played hollowbody electrics almost exclusively, and although he moved around from various Gibsons to Kay models and back again, his thick tone with a piano-like clarity rings through. Perhaps we should begin with his beautiful version of the jazz standard Autumn Leaves, performed live in this video from 1979. Enjoy!

As always, do tell me what you think. The full list of guitar players featured in this week’s series aren’t set in stone yet, so if you have any suggestions (ideally with a jazz bent for this week’s run), please do get in touch. I love hearing what you guys think!

Until tomorrow…

Great Guitarists Week, Day 1: Earl Klugh

It’s Blue Monday today, statistically, the most depressing day of the year. The reasons include Christmas already feeling like a distant memory, while many of us are feeling the pinch financially, with payday still almost a fortnight away. So how better to combat this than a week-long celebration of some amazing guitar players?

This mini series will feature one guitar player a day from Monday to Sunday. I’ve selected artists who have been both an inspiration and influence on my own guitar playing or musical practice, and I’ll try to include a few details about them as well as a track for ‘essential listening’. I hope you get something out of it. Do feel free to comment on my picks for Great Guitarists! First up…

Earl Klugh

Earl Klugh was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1953, and first picked up the guitar at the age of ten. His early influences included legendary Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida, pioneering jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery and Country/crossover star Chet Atkins (with whom he would later record). Many jazz players (including the pianist Bill Evans) as well as an array of Latin and classical players continued to inform the way Klugh developed his guitar technique. Like many Latin-influenced guitarists, Klugh has stuck largely with nylon-strung guitars for his entire career, but his wide mix of influences give him a unique voice of his own.

Klugh made his professional debut on flautist Yusef Lateef’s 1970 album, Suite 16, aged just 15, after Lateef heard him playing in his local music store. Later, Klugh joined the band of the legendary guitarist George Benson (keep an eye out for Benson later on in this week’s series). As well as performing guitar live with Benson’s band, Klugh also played on two of his classic jazz albums (before Benson started to focus more on singing & becoming a more commercial star), White Rabbit (1972) & Body Talk (1973).

Releasing his eponymous debut solo album in 1976, Klugh has since released over thirty records, in a variety of formats, including solo, duo and ensembles of various sizes. Over his career, he has received twelve Grammy nominations, winning the award for ‘Best pop instrumental performance’ with 1981’s One On One, recorded with jazz pianist Bob James.

I first discovered Klugh in the late 90’s and often used his composition ‘Kiko’ (from his 1976 album Living Inside Your Love) as a solo guitar piece for auditions. It featured in my repertoire for performances long before I caught the bug for Latin music, and Klugh (along with Santana) were the gateway to discovering the wonderful genres of South America.

As a classically trained guitarist, the sound of Klugh’s instrument felt comfortably familiar, although his main way of plucking the strings (using his thumb in both directions, like Wes Montgomery) was a rather alien concept to start with. Try it though – it’s worth persevering with, as it opens up a whole new, and potentially faster, way of playing the lower strings.

The track featured in this video is ‘Dr Macumba’ from his 1977 album Finger Paintings. It’s a great example of Klugh’s style, opening with a funky latin-infused riff, through to his cloud yet melodic jazz phrasing. Although it appears to start as a fairly small ensemble piece, this tune turns out to be a bigger production than expected, including rather brief string arrangement providing a classic 70’s lift in the middle of the piece!

Dr Macumba’ by Earl Klugh

I thoroughly encourage you to take a look into Klugh’s extensive back catalogue of LPs and concert videos. Even if the Latin stylings aren’t your thing, there’s a lot to be learned about jazz soloing from his playing. As always, let me know what you think. I’ll present another Great Guitarist tomorrow, but until then, enjoy the video!

Welcome to the Twenties

Happy New Year, everybody & welcome to the Twenties!

The St Louis Cotton Club Band, in a truly epic photoshoot, crica 1925

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a blog. Life conspired to get in the way!

So here’s the main updates from me…

I’m fast approaching my third year as a music therapist, and for the better part of a year, I’ve been working five days a week, across Northumberland & Cumbria. For those of you from outside the UK, these two counties are not only the northernmost in England (bordering Scotland above), but also the most rural. This means as well as a full working week, I’ve got a longer commute than average, which eats into my free time somewhat.

To counter this, and because it’s less of an economic necessity nowadays, I’m stepping back a little from corporate live work. For the last decade, 80% of my gigs were weddings & events. While it’s been amazing, the time has come to be a little more selective with the performing work I take on.

I’ll still be gigging, but it’ll be music I fully believe in…

…such as my own projects, which are finally scheduled to get off the ground this year! Thanks to what I’ve started calling the Commune Method (using the same players on everyone’s projects, producing one person’s creative work at a time), I have a small team of talented musicians and producers to help me get my newer compositions down on a format I can share with you soon – updates to follow!

Finally, I’ll be refreshing my gear list in a new post soon, the crowing glory of which will be the custom-made classical guitar that has been built for me! Very excited to share more details with you soon in a post all of it’s own.

Naturally, since we’re in the ’20s now, it’s easy to draw parallels between the times we live in and those from a century ago. Far-right thinking is entering the mainstream, and it feels to many as if many G20 countries are bogged down in nationalism, isolationism and teetering on yet more war. Yet such times produce good art. Except this time around, more than ever, the art is all of us, and I hold out the hope that it’s not too late to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Finally, thinking about the ‘prohibition’ age in ’20s America, I’m struck by the creative lengths people went to in order to continue drinking. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, true creativity comes from working in and around the rules, when necessary.

Until next time…

A ‘Harp Guitar’ – where can I get one?

R.I.P. Dr John (1941-2019)

Terribly sad news that another musical legend has passed away – another musician who has been a huge inspiration to me over the years…

When trying to describe my new still-in-progress project to people, I mention that it could sound a little like Dr John. While this may be true, in terms of a focus on the gritty, lo-fi blues, jazz & soul from New Orleans, admitting the influence feels like stealing a sacred cow. No one can, or ever will, sound like Dr John…

But if you listen closely, he could surprise you by jumping out of any preconceived notions you may have of him. To me, that’s what his music was all about – taking one thing, and throwing it into a mix (and a groove) with several other elements, leaving us with something which never quite sounded exactly the same twice, and was all the better for it.

He will be missed & I’ll be giving his back catalogue a spin today (especially ‘Gumbo’ and my personal favourite, ‘In The Right Place’).

R.I.P. Malcom ‘Dr John’ Rebbenack (1941-2019).

You can read one of many effuse obituaries online, such as this one from Pitchfork. Enjoy x

Guitar News: Fender announce new Player Series to replace MIM models

Recent news from Fender. It looks like the ‘Made In Mexico’ tag is being either rechristened or replaced…


There’s more on the story via this link to Reverb.com:

https://reverb.com/uk/news/fender-discontinues-mim-standard-series-replaces-with-the-player-series

The general consensus amongst guitar gear fans is that the MIM range improved greatly from 2006. I briefly owned one from 2012 (a lovely HSH model I sold as I wasn’t using anywhere near enough) and can testify to the improvement. My first ‘proper’ electric guitar was a Fender MIM Strat from 2000, which I still own. Hopefully I’ll never part with it. The original pickups were a little flat but otherwise I can’t fault it – but that’s just my humble opinion.

(I upgraded the pickups on this old Strat around ten years ago – more in that in a new post coming soon).
Still, having given up the more recent MIM guitar, I might have to give these new ‘Player Series’ models a look-over in the very near future. Do let me know your thoughts…

Guitar tone: have you been missing the obvious trick?

Still looking for a better guitar tone? You might have been missing something obvious for some time. You have the guitar, the amp, the overdrive pedals, EQ, but that sound isn’t quite there? It just doesn’t feel right. The obvious answer is to do less. More specifically…

Dial down the gain. Clean up your sound.

Sound ridiculous? Stay with me for now and I’ll try to explain why I believe a cleaner sound makes for not only a better guitar tone, but also helps your sound cut through the mix of a full band. A few things to consider…

Here comes the science (sort of)

Adding overdrive or distortion to your guitar smooths out the tone. Yes, it can sound lovely and ‘syrupy’, not unlike Clapton’s famous ‘woman tone’ or the thick lead sounds of Gary Moor or Slash, but have you ever noticed how your solo cans till get lost in the live mix? This is particularly true if your band includes keys, a second guitar player or a horn section, as all of these instruments predominantly occupy the midrange of the frequency spectrum. In effect, your smooth tone is competing with many different voices, and all that lovely smoothing-out (which sounds so cool for your legato runs, etc) makes your sound more likely to dissolve into the wider sound of your band.

The trick is volume over distortion

Try listening to pretty much any classic rock record from the late sixties and seventies (the age of the ‘guitar hero’). Notice how so many of those riffs are only slightly overdriven, at best? Some, such as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, make use of guitar sounds which are virtually clean. That classic sound you hear is usually a small amp (say 30 watts) being turned up full, and breaking up into a light overdrive sound. This applies to most of the back catalogues for most of your favourite ‘heavy’ bands, from Led Zeppelin and The Who to early Aerosmith and even Black Sabbath.

My favourite example to highlight this is the classic song, Smoke On The Water by Deep Purple. The link takes you to the studio recording. Compare this with every covers band that had played this song. Ever. Heck, compare it with how Deep Purple play it now! Everyone has a different opinion, but wouldn’t most agree that the original sounds better?

These bands sounded heavy because they were playing the loudest amplifiers available, and as they got bigger, the sound got heavier, but we’re still a long way from the Mesa Boogie levels of heaviness the eighties would bring along…

Wouldn’t these bands have played heavier, if they had been able to?

Quite probably. They were considered pretty noisy for their time! If those full, thick distortion sounds had been more readily available in the mid-sixties, would the sound of rock guitar have been very different? The truth is, we’ll never know. Those artists used the equipment they had available, and we can only hypothesize as to alternative outcomes. Here it becomes a little too ‘chicken-and-egg’ for my liking, though there are numerous threads on guitar forums across the internet if this is the kind of debate you’re looking to investigate further.

Of course, one counter-argument would be the fuzz pedal. This was heavily used by some artists, notably Hendrix (if you’re not sure how that fuzz sounds, think of the opening riff to ‘Satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones as your starting point). This effect created a thick and – it goes almost without saying – ‘fuzzy’ sound to the guitar’s tone, making solos sustain for longer and creating a warm, distorted sound. However, the fuzz pedal didn’t take over the sound of rock guitar as we know it. Perhaps distortion wasn’t the end-goal for guitar players back in the sixties, after all?

So should I play clean but loud for the rest of my guitar-playing career?

Probably not a good idea. Your band mates will most likely not appreciate it!

However, I might suggest you start by dialing back the gain a little on your drive channels, pedals, etc, and make better use of volume and tone controls (on the guitar, amp and any stompboxes you are using) to allow the sound of your guitar to ring through.

But what about sustain?

It’s not always possible to turn up loud and play away. I currently gig with a digital amp which is DI’d into my band’s mixing desk, with no output from the amp itself. My main channels are a clean and a slightly overdriven channel, both of which are fairly ‘dry’ signals (not effects except for a very small amount of reverb). My lead sound (for solos) is another version of the overdriven sound, with a slight boost in volume and treble frequencies. Crucially, this sound also includes a fair bit more reverb dialed in, plus a short delay mixed low underneath the original signal. The reverb and delay both act to thicken up the sound, and assist my guitar sound not only through increased sustain, but in helping the sound to cut through the mix.

Another trick to use in the studio is to use two amps when recording; one with an overdriven sound, and another set to an almost clean tone. The cleaner of the two amps can be mixed quite low, but it’s presence will add some clarity of definition which the heavier sound loses. The whole thing makes for a guitar tone which is not only more thick, but more true to the sound of your guitar – try it!

Take away points:

  • Clean up your tone – wind back that gain!
  • Use effects to create the impression of more volume (such as reverb and delay) instead of piling on the distortion

Caveats:

I fully appreciate that everyone’s opinion is bound to differ on subjects as personal as guitar tone. What works for me may not necessarily work for you. It is also worth remembering that certain styles of guitar-based music rely on a super-distorted sound as an integral element to their sound (think of bands like Nirvana and Skunk Anansie, for instance). However, don’t be afraid to try experimenting with a cleaner tone. Be warned though, with a clean sound, there is nowhere to hide any weaknesses in your playing technique!

LEAKED: Fenders ‘Parallel Universe’ range

Some guitar news.

Just when you thought the big names, including Fender, were resting on their laurels with tweaks of their old classics (most of which have been mainstays in popular music since their introduction in the 1950’s & 1960’s), THIS is leaked…

Pic via GearNews.com

 

Fender’s ‘Parallel Universe’ range. A new model every month, starting in April this year.

Assuming the information leaked is correct, these guitars appear to be a funky mashup of the classic Fender shapes, mixing Stratocasters, Telecasters, Jazzmasters and Jaguars in some eye-catching combinations. Some of them, such as the ‘Troublemaker Tele’, have a Gibsonesque feel. Available in two finishes, I think these might be my favourite of the soon-to-be-released iterations…

Pic via GearNews.com

The downside? They’re apparently priced at over a grand a a half. Oh well…

The full story is available from a few sites, but I recorded my information from the two sites in the links below:

GearNews.com
MusicRadar.com

What do you think? As always, your thoughts & comments are welcome…