In this wide ranging conversation John and Rick discuss Jazz music, Berklee College of Music, Blues influences, recording, playing gigs and much more.
Getting into Jazz (0:40)
Early roots (age 12-18) influences were primarily Rock and Blues. At 18 became a self-described “jazz snob” and didn’t look back. Had a guitar teacher at age 14 that turned John towards Jazz.
“I wanted to be a professional musician, but I couldn’t convince my parents that I would be a Rock guitar player. But Jazz had some cultural weight. It was guitar music, I was really into it…”
“Smokin` At The Half Note” by Wes Montogomery was one of John’s first Jazz records.
First Jazz Records (3:50)
“Live At The Half-Note” by The Art Farmer Quartet featuring Jim Hall
“Djangologie” by Django Reinhardt
“I didn’t know they were playing free, I just liked the sound of the songs…”
Learning to play Jazz (5:10)
In his youth had a teacher that knew some Jazz, but wasn’t an expert. Thus he entered a long process of learning to play Jazz by ear, but also learning about scales and construction of chords.
It was a gradual process of figuring things out because he loved the music so much.
Berklee College of Music (10:50)
“I was pretty crappy my first year…”
But was now around students and teachers that could play. Began to practice all the time. Listening to records, taking classes, playing with other students. Began to develop as a guitarist and musician.
Blues influence (11:50)
I started with Blues guitar, loved the sound of bending notes, vibrato.
John really fused the Rock/Blues sound and playing over chord changes.
John’s influences included: John Abercrobmie, Mick Goodrick, John McLaughlin.
Process of recording in the 80s & 90s (13:30)
Typical session had one rehearsal, then recorded the tracks doing a live playthrough.
Drums would be in a booth, guitars out in the main room. Everyone had headphones on.
All records from the 90s were recorded at Powerstation studio in NYC.
John copied out the parts (leads sheets) for all the musicians. Learned a lead sheet method from Gary Burton at Berklee. Typically melody on the top staff and chords (if no bass part written) on the bottom staff.
The drummer would typically get a lead sheet.
Guitar tone on records (24:00)
“I’ve never been really good at getting a guitar sound, compared to some people, I’ve always been too impatient…”
In the 80s describes himself as a “chorus addict” – chorus has the effect of masking everything.
John does like his guitar sound in the last 5 records that he made.
Likes to turn the guitar down on chordal stuff to get clarity in sound. Turn it up for the leads.
Will use a RAT distortion pedal. Likes VOX amplifiers, having it loud enough so there is distortion in the amp.
Playing with space (26:30)
“For me anyways, it’s a big mistake to always try to play long lines…”
Would listen to his favorite records, and identify players that played with space.
Miles Davis said it best to John: “Play with space will ya`…”
Remember, with guitar, you don’t have to breathe (versus say a trumpet). So you have to be conscious of taking a breath, playing with space.
It sounds better. Something happens when you pause, the band comes into focus for the listener and you. You are able to come back into sync even stronger with the group.
Overdubs & playing with others (28:20)
Overdubs are here to stay, but it does take a bit away from the magic of interplay that happens from a moment when musicians are playing together, live.
“That’s what I love about the Jazz world, people playing together, and now it’s more important than ever…”
There is an underappreciated importance of listening to the band, then playing in a way to make the band sound better. Miles Davis really commanded this ability.
The Jazz thing is about playing with others, not so much about making records…
“When the band comes together and you have a good night, there is nothing like it…”
Developing time, internal pulse (31:30)
Using a metronome or drum machine for practice is just fine, as long as you don’t become reliant on it. Test yourself, are you able to keep a groove on your own without a device?
“If I don’t practice, I’m screwed…”
Will typically practice the tunes he is currently playing for projects and gigs. Has also been working on right-hand picking technique, doesn’t consider himself a great picker.
Songwriting: put in the time to get something (36:00)
Will typically write music when planning to do a record. General formula of the types of songs needed (we need a fast tune, a slow tune, etc) and will write the songs.
“Steve Swallow has been my big teacher on writing music. And basically he just said, you put in the work, you’ll get something, you put in the time. It’s not fun to compose until you get something you like and then it’s the most fun, but all the other time you just think oh this sucks…”
Note from Andrei: This is a very similar sentiment to songwriting that Steven Wilson also discussed.
Writing today, John may write out two bars, record an improvisation over it on his iPhone, that then becomes the seed of the song. What follows is the hard part of adding the other parts to this idea to complete the song.
Currently listening to (38:40)
Continue to listen to the Jazz greats such as: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Lester Young, Duke Ellington.
Dynamics & Swing (45:00)
Create dynamics by not picking every note. Use legato to add dynamics to your playing. John was inspired by the blues guys (Hendrix, Clapton) to hone that sound.
The swing feel is critical. Practice to hone it in.
Practicing tips (46:30)
Learn the tunes. First, really learn the progression. Keep the groove going.
Play a melody or solo with one finger. Learn to play by ear. Practice lines over changes.
Favorite solo by someone else (48:20)
Miles Davis’s solo on “No Blues” (studio recording)
String gauges (54:15)
John plays heavy gauge strings. His current gauges are: 12-16-22-32-42-52 (unwound).
“Pat Martino played the heaviest gauge strings you could get, he played 15s, I couldn’t play his guitars because the strings were too heavy…”