Q: I saw you last night with Steely Dan and it was one of the best shows of my life. The band and music was incredible and so was your tasteful playing. Thank you for that, I really enjoyed it. My question is about your practicing habits. When you started to become a serious musician, what were your practice sessions like? What did you work on?
A. When I decided it was time to really study the guitar, I was fortunate to find a great teacher named Harry Leahey. He was an accomplished jazz guitarist, the best sight-reader I'd ever seen, and knew the guitar and its possibilities better than anyone I'd ever met. I followed his lesson plan, which was vast. He had me doing all sorts of scales; arpeggios; chord inversions; chords played through scales; chord-melody arrangements of songs; jazz-style lines played in every possible position starting with every possible finger; picking exercises; left hand finger exercises; sight-reading practice in both treble and bass clefs; and music for solo violin and/or guitar played with a pick. At the same time, I was taking classical guitar lessons (I never got very far with them) and studying music at college, taking many theory and composition courses, studying ear training and solfege, and getting exposed to all sorts of music in the classical tradition, including a lot of modern 20th century stuff. Though I was only a beginning jazz player at the time, I was beginning to work in that field, so I was also learning lots of jazz tunes, transcribing lots of jazz solos I liked by all sorts of players, including saxophone, trumpet, piano, vibes, and guitar players.
This was a busy time, as you can imagine, and I was putting in long days. I worked with Harry for a couple of years at least, and then decided to go to a former teacher of his, Dennis Sandole, a well-known teacher of jazz players in Philadelphia. Dennis also had a wide teaching plan, but there was one way it was radically different from Harry's. When I had been going to Harry, there was so much material to cover each week that I barely had time to familiarize myself with the stuff, and never was able to acquire any real technical facility on any of the material. And though it was an amazing growth period for my brain, and I learned so much about what was possible on the guitar, it was not a great growth period for my playing from a standpoint of technique. Dennis's lesson plan, on the other hand, was a monthly cycle where each week there would be unique material, so each week there was a lot less stuff to master. Dennis expected students to put in at least four hours a day on that week's lesson material only, and he claimed he could tell if you hadn't done your time! I discovered there that the key to technical facility was lots of repetitive practice, always playing at a tempo you can control, and paying attention to efficiency of technique. For me that turned out to be the 'missing link' of my training, and though I still don't consider myself a very highly accomplished technician, that period brought about a big change in my playing.
Q: Should I study jazz? What players should I listen to?
A: I spent a lot of time studying jazz, and I feel I benefited greatly from it. I don't think I would have been able to play the Steely Dan gig without the training I had.
I can't really recommend that you do or don't study jazz, since only you know whether it is of any interest to you. I always find it's best to just try to do what you love and do what is natural to you. If you can always do those two things, you will probably take the quickest route to being the best you can be. Of course for many of us, making a living comes into play, and that can influence one's priorities.
I also don't like to recommend players, since I truly believe that you should be studying and listening to the players who move you the most right now. Your tastes will probably change as you develop, and you'll want to study other players and other music as you change. There's no great benefit that I can see from taking someone else's opinion about this. There's no harm in listening to people that others recommend, of course, but it's more important for you to learn to develop a discriminating ear for what you like. That's the only way, and probably the best way, to develop your own musical personality, in my experience.
Q: I know you studied with Harry Leahey and Dennis Sandole. Would you talk about your right hand picking technique?
A: I was never able to fully embrace Dennis's idea of the straight wrist approach, though while I went to him, I tried to use it strictly. I have come to feel that for a certain kind of precise, efficient, and even-toned playing (and with pick guitar for me that's usually in a jazz vein) there is one critical thing about the right hand/arm technique: the hand should be "free floating," that is, not anchored anywhere near the bridge, so that the movement from string to string comes primarily from the elbow, not from a change in the angle of the wrist. This allows you to access any string (and allows large string skips) without having to move the wrist much. I do find, however, that I adjust the wrist a little to ensure that the pick strikes the string as parallel to it as possible, which allows the shortest up and down repetitive picking stroke, and improves the consistency of the sound, which is crisper when the pick strikes from an exactly parallel position.
However, since I rarely find myself playing jazz in that pure form I aspired to play it 30 years ago, I find I've almost completely abandoned any fussiness or strictness about right hand technique! (Left hand, too, for that matter, since I'm bending a lot of strings, which requires the thumb up on top of the neck as an anchor to do well.) Sometimes the parallel pick attack is too sharp or clean sounding, and I'll vary the angle on purpose for a "messier" sound. And sometimes I'll mute the strings at the bridge, which, of course, can't be done without anchoring the wrist. And I find that in order to get certain sounds from the guitar I have to do some different things with the right hand - like if I want to get a particularly twangy sound I have to strike the strings very close to the bridge, for example, which means the elbow anchors in a different spot, or not at all, depending on the size of the guitar. So I certainly vary the approach for expressive purposes. Also, the extra heavy picks I use to use worked well for a jazz sound and technique, but I found them very difficult to use when playing any rhythm guitar strumming type part - that technique requires a lot of "give' in the pick (and a very loose, flexible wrist) to feel comfortable and to sound relaxed, and since it's a considerable pat of my gigging repertoire as a sideman, I got tired of switching picks for different styles and settled on a medium thickness and learned to live with it. If I find myself on a gig where it's all jazz tunes all night, I'll switch to a heavier pick, but it does mess with my touch a bit, so I try to get by mostly with the medium. There is something "fat" sounding about an electric jazz guitar played with a very heavy pick, but I dislike the "click" noise that always seems to go with it - though you don't hear it as much in a band setting with the guitar amplified. As I play more I find that I've tried to make my particular approach work in different styles, and I approach any gig a little less like a purist than I used to. I guess it's an attempt to be practical and a desire to make things simple, more than anything.