Jeff Kollman Interview - The Tone King
Ohio born, and current LA resident, Jeff Kollman is one of the great unsung guitar heroes working today. I make no bones about the fact that he is just about my favourite player, with a sinuous fluididty to his playing and an absolutely amazing tone that never fails to impress fellow guitarists. More than that, his melodic forays also seem to work for the casual non guitarist listener in a way that many virtuosos do not.
Whilst Jeff has world class rock chops, he also has some of the funkiest grooves out there – and an ability to go ‘outside’ into jazz territory with such an ease and naturalness of touch that to define him as a ‘rock’ guitarist does him disservice. Jeff is one of the most complete players it has ever been my pleasure to hear.
Out of a varied career, particular mention must be made of 1999’s solo album ‘Shedding Skin’ – an absolute master class in intelligent heartfelt guitar playing, it runs the gamut from almost Stevie Ray Vaughan style blues via Charlie Parker style bebop lines to Warren DiMartini/Michael Shenker style chops – all encased in some of the most emotive rock soloing out there. His virtuoso instrumental band Cosmosquad operate in a uniquely Funky/Jazzy/Fusion area of hard rock – almost metal at times. Their ‘Live at The Baked Potato’ is an outstanding album that everyone reading this should check out post haste! As a songwriter and composer Jeff also scores heavily: his track ‘Journey Through Life’ is in my absolute top tracks ever. Jeff is also currently writing with the ‘Voice of Rock’ Glenn Hughes for Jimmy Barnes’s – Aussie vocalist supreme – new album.
Jeff is acknowledged to be a top working guitarist with an enviable list of film and TV credits to his name, as well as having played with some of the rock worlds elite such as Glenn Hughes, UFO, Michael Sheneker and Red Hot Chilli Peppers drummer Chad Smith. He has also worked alongside some of the studio worlds most legendary session cats.
Yet, in many ways, Jeff’s profile is not as visible as it should be – so AOG made it a mission to get the full run down on the man. I spoke with Jeff in August 2006 as he was getting ready for rehearsals for Glenn Hughes’ European tour.
As this interview is being published Jeff is currently in the middle of the tour, and has just released a new live album ‘Guitar Screams Live’, available from www.jeffkollman.com We will reviewing this very soon.
The Early Days
Jeff Kollman grew up in Dayton, Ohio and takes up his story…
My brother Tommy had always wanted to be a drummer, and he started playing in 1978. My Father asked me if I wanted to play something and the guitar seemed to me kind of an obvious choice.
What were your formative musical experiences?
Well, by now I’d been to my first Kiss concert – and that was life changing! Our dad took us to that and it was our first experience of that whole big rock’n’roll thing – the pyrotechnics, the whole show My Dad really got it as much as I did, so he was really supportive to us learning the instruments – which was great.
Did you have lessons from the beginning, or follow the perhaps more typical self taught route of our generation?
Right away I got lessons, and from the beginning I was working on sight reading – which wasn’t really much fun at that stage. It’s kinda frustrating spending a year playing ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’! So, it was fairly gruelling, but I kept at it thinking it would all be worthwhile in the end. After about a year I met a friend in school who knew how to play a Ted Nugent song, so he showed me how to do that. Ted Nugent was actually the second concert that I went to in my life, so Ted and Kiss were the first real influences that I had I guess. When my friend showed ME how to play stuff like that I was totally hooked!
It opened everything up, and I started working things out from records all the time. I also got into things like the Rush ‘2112’ album, and for the whole of that second year of playing I immersed myself in learning song after song, and trying to emulate everything that I heard on those records. By the end of that second year it really had taken off for me as a player – you know, once you’ve learnt your bar chords and pentatonic scale you’re off and running! I think I’d also dropped my first teacher for someone a little more…‘rock’ focused as well, which all helped.
How much playing were you doing by the end of that second year?
Oh, I was completely engulfed! I was running home from school instead of walking, and I would play literally all day. I would try to keep up the sight reading as well – which was tough to make myself do, as it wasn’t as fun as blazing through a Kiss track – but I figured it could be important some day so I kept at it. I would play along to things like ‘Frampton Comes Alive’; and figure out how to do a B pentatonic scale all over the fretboard… and jam on stuff like that. I would get Guitar Player magazine and try to absorb as much out of that as possible, and with my guitar lessons gradually getting into more sophisticated stuff I was developing really well.
As has been chronicled with many of our interviewees last issue, the turn of the decade (into the 80’s) was when the influence of Eddie Van Halen (in America at least) was probably at its zenith…( in Europe it was arguably post ‘1984’ when Eddie really hit the ‘guitaristic radar’)
Oh, totally. Everyone playing in rock guitar was blown away, and I thought it was the most incredible thing I‘d ever heard in my life – and I still think that!! I remember bring very impressed at his whole approach. Musically, obviously you have it all. Everyone always goes on about his tapping and whammy bar stuff, but it was as much for me his whole ‘sound’ – you know totally live in the studio and no overdubs – as well as his approach to gear and everything. Everyone tried to cop what Eddie was doing and no one really got it because it was…sort of…the whole package that he had.
I’d started writing my own stuff, and with Tommy drumming we could practise together, which really got my live playing chops up. I’d also got hold of a 4 track and started messing around with it: learning how to record and engineer stuff. I took it all very seriously and was intent on learning my craft and being as well-rounded as possible.
Then I started playing for a local school band called The Stain, who were a hardcore punk type band. Now, as you know, I was a real rock guy into Randy Rhoads and Eddie and also developing my ear for some more sophisticated players like Lukather and Carlton – so it was pretty weird to be playing for this punk band!
Jeff’s first recording band were punk outfit The Stains – and with them he achieved the almost unheard of success of having both a record out on a ‘proper’ label and placement on national TV…whilst still at school!
All of this happened around the same time, so I started to get really busy. The drummer in The Stain was a real go-getter, and he had somehow managed to get us onto a west coast label called Mystic Records . This label was really into that whole Surfer scene, and had people like Black Flag and The Offspring on it, and we got on a compilation album, then did a full length record – and this stuff starts getting used on adverts and stuff for things like Vision Streetware – so I was still at school but this stuff was on TV and everything!
What was the local scene like at the time?
Well, the weather’s terrible for most of the time, so you’d get loads of us who would rehearse a lot because there wasn’t much else to do! We’d go and see a lot of bands in places like Detroit; within a few hundred miles radius of home you could hit a lot of cities, so the live scene was pretty good both as a fan and if you were in a band.
What were your plans after The Stain? Did you have any specific ‘life goals’?
I was really heavily into recording by now and through connections made from The Stain I found my music appearing on adverts, and then background music. This combined with my playing and everything really made me think that I could make it as a professional guitarist. I had a studio set up in our basement and really worked on my craft, concentarating on finding my own voice as a player. Everything from tone, bends, harmonic colours, groove – ya know, the whole package!
With Jeff’s brother on drums Edwin Dare were a locally put together band who developed into a significant concert draw from 1988 onwards; their brand of almost Euro metal had plenty of room for the spotlight on Jeff’s by now extremely significant guitar prowess. Before long Edwin Dare were the hottest local band and very soon were gracing larger stages – what do you think Edwin Dare had that maybe some of the other local bands didn’t?
That’s a good question. I think that because we had worked very hard on always putting on a big show with all the lights – the walls of Marshall stacks and everything, the whole big production – when it came to playing with the bigger acts who came through, we were sort of the obvious group for agents to hire. And of course as we played to bigger audiences our own profile got bigger which meant that we could do more touring, and it all developed from that. Locally we were probably the most proficient musicians, and the timing kind of helped. Doing all original music and having albums for sale at the shows also really helped to build an audience instantly.
Your playing was getting very accomplished by this period, on the Edwin Dare early albums there is a lot of very evolved and technical playing – how did you get a handle on that to such a high level?
It a funny story, but I remember when I was about 14 years old I was walking down the street carrying a gigbag and this guy saw that I had a guitar and asked if I wanted a ride – which you shouldn’t ever do! But I got in, we got talking and he was a monster guitarist – he really had it all! To this day I don’t know if I’ve ever been as impressed by anyone! His name’s Chuck Stohl, and he’s was – and still is – the guitar legend in my hometown. He was really hot on all sorts of styles, and to see that up close was very helpful and really turned me on to a lot of the European guitarists and technical players. He really helped me get to the next level as far as techniques go.
What was your music reading like at this point? And did you make a point to keep your reading chops up?
Oh yeah, I’ve always kept up the reading – after those first couple of years it just became something that I did. I was keeping it up on a daily basis – because it is something that you lose if you don’t use – and I was also covering jazz standards, bebop type chord melody stuff, bits of classical guitar, funk – you know I really worked on getting properly good at all styles. Whilst I am a rock guitarist, I have never really considered myself as only a rock player. In learning Jazz, I had a great guitar teacher Dan Fahnle (Diana Krall’s guitarist) who turned me much more on to Gene Parker, who is the best musician I’ve ever met in Toledo. He turned me on to horn, saxophone, piano players – trumpet players like Chet Baker – but not really jazz guitarists themselves. He was the most influential person for me harmonically speaking, and in getting all my improvisation together. These were all very important in getting ‘my’ sound together, and approaching everything from the perspective of being a musician rather than just a guitarist.
How did you find touring and recording with Edwin Dare at this time?
Oh, man…that era was some of the best fun I’ve ever had! We opened up for loads of top acts: Cinderella, Warrant, Foreigner, Dream Theatre – you name it! We got a really good national following and the CD’s did well in Japan. Then, after loads of work, from 1989 through to 1994, Grunge came along and put everyone out of business! It was amazingly sudden. I remember loads of clubs that had been doing great business only a year before having to shut down – it was like “where have all the rock fans disappeared to?”
You had already started recording your solo albums at this point…
‘Schizoid’ had come out end of ’89 and from this I started to get quite a lot of attention. It was after this that John Stix at Guitar For The Practising Musician magazine got pretty involved, first with me and then with Edwin Dare. What happened was there was a competition with a bunch of guitarists and the readers from GFTPM could vote who they liked the most, and then this guy would get his record released through Guitar Recordings. They were trying to sort out their own record label – I think that they were a bit slow off the mark after Mike Varney’s Shrapnel – but they’d started with things like Blues Saraceno’s stuff so they were pretty serious about it; anyway I was the player who the readers had voted for. The problem was that by this time John had heard Edwin Dare and thought that they should go with the band instead – I guess they thought that it could sell more as a proper vocal led band. The thing is that all their readers were only really into the full on instrumental stuff, and their market expertise was mainly that area as well; basically it got caught between two music genres and failed to do as well as it perhaps could have done.
I was working loads throughout this period in my studio in the basement of my father’s place. But when the music scene changed it made everything that much more difficult, and it became very apparent that Edwin Dare – like many other bands – would have an impossible time getting the right record deal. I began to feel very strongly that I had just about done all I could at home, and that if I was ever going to really get to the next level then I had to head out west. LA, New York and Nashville are where the real music industry is – so I decided to go where the action was.
In the mid 1990’s Jeff made the decision that he had done all he could at home in Ohio, and in order to take things to the next level must move to one of the main music industries cities. Jeff chose LA as his destination…
Now what actually happened is that I stopped off in Phoenix Arizona for a few months – I had family there so I could stay for a while. I guess I wanted to take it step by step! There were probably only 4 or 5 main studios in Phoenix; but a lot of serious rock stars and players lived here, and used these places – Alice Cooper, Michael Schenker, George Lynch, Lyle Lovitt. What I did was literally just call these places up and said I was new in town and ready for work, and I got to know the local players and fairly quickly it got to “I’ve got a recording session in later – we need you to play on this…” and suddenly you are in there, working regularly.
I also think that, as far as the local guitar scene in Phoenix went, there weren’t many guitar players that were of the standard you’d find in LA. So, I got my foot in the door and made a lot of the contacts – many of which have since stayed with me all my career. I first met Shane Gaalass and Barry Sparks here; they were working for Michael Schenker at the time. We got to know each other well and played a few sessions together. That was where the basis of Cosmosquad was formed, and we had definite ideas about being instrumentally very intense. We had a lot to prove.
After these precipitous meetings Jeff commenced on the next leg of his journey and arrived in LA in 1996.
Well, I was always going to get there – but when Shane said come out and we’ll all get a house together it made a lot of sense! You know, we got a big house between us all and the rent was cheap; it was here that I set up the studio (in the garage) where Shedding Skin and all the later Cosmosquad albums were recorded. It’s pretty funny, because in all the years we had the studio the landlord never knew!
Cosmosquad’s self-titled debut release is an outstanding album with a funkiness and breadth of styles perhaps only hinted at in Jeff’s previous recordings. How did you go about writing this?
We jammed in a rehearsal/recording room in downtown LA – a few days of jamming and recording became that record. It was interesting to make a record and not really discuss the vision prior; we just plugged in and started creating!
How did the actual recording go?
It was really cool – 8 days in this slummy downtown rehearsal room! You could hear other bands rehearsing and stuff, and the sound was bleeding through onto our recording! Awesome stuff!
How was the record received?
Really well; we got it distributed in the States, throughout Europe and in Japan, and to this day we are still selling records.
The professional music scene in LA is notoriously hard to break into, yet Jeff seemed to hit the floor running…:
Hey – I’m still trying to break through, ha ha! Here in LA the session scene is really, really tough. At the top there’s a few guys that have got it all wrapped up; then there are guys like me who are on the next level, and we get a lot more of the indie kind of stuff. These days I’m also doing a lot of film stuff.
But, physically, how did you actually get the breaks in the first place?!
The way I broke into the LA scene was through introductions to other musicians and gigs from my first contacts – like Shane. I did a record for Mike Varney’s Shrapnel Records right away when I first moved to LA – that was singer John West’s solo album. Shane and I then got the gig to do the G3 tour in Europe playing with Michael Schenker. Mike Varney then called me to do the Mogg/Way record with the members of UFO. So, it’s all referral and word of mouth…
Over the years you have worked with an impressive array of talent, do any spring to mind?
I’ve played with guys like Kenny Arranoff, Matt Rollings, Reggie Hamilton, Steve Pocaro, David Paich, Billy Sheehan, Munyungo Jackson, Karen Briggs, Chad Smith Jerry Douglas – the real cats! Recording artists artists include Jill Scott, Lyle Lovitt, Linda McCartney, Wayman Tisdale, Steve Vai, Joe Lynn Turner, UFO, Glenn Hughes and Michael Schenker.
As I mentioned earlier I’ve also been doing a lot of film work and these include Slither, Beerfest, Failure To Launch, Sahara, Brother Bear, Garfield 2, The Marine, Clerks 2, You Me & Dupree and Poseiden.
Apart from your international touring, have you played a lot in and around the LA scene?
Always – and all sorts of different stuff as well. As part of Cosmosquad we have been doing the clubs since we arrived; but also loads of random gigs with singer songwriters, lots of random jams at The Baked Potato with guys like Virgil Donati – and I’ve been recording and touring with contemporary Jazz pianist Lao Tizer as well.
As already detailed in the opening paragraphs, 1999’s ‘Shedding Skin’ – the third Jeff Kollman solo release – is a personal favourite, and was my first introduction to his playing. As this is a very different album to the first two solo releases, I wonder if Jeff approached the writing differently as there does seem a real defining of the ‘Jeff Kollman’ sound on this album…
I cleared my schedule for 30 days, and my goal was to write a song a day during that time, then go in and track it after that. Also, Shane Gaalaas recorded multiple drum grooves for me to get it started – so some songs would stem from a groove, others from a melody, or maybe even a bass line or chord progression. There was no set formula. The recording was really painless: working and recording that way at home is great and very relaxing compared to having to go and track down at some other studio.
And what was the reception like when you released it?
Shedding Skin has been my best seller. I think it’s a good representation of the scope of my writing, and there is certainly a lot of different styles and influences on there.
Like many a world class rock virtuoso, Jeff’s paths have crossed with the inimitable Mike Varney on a number of occasions…How did you hook up with Mike in the first place?
Mike first called me for the John West record. I sent tapes to Mike when I was 15 and he knew of me from that time period. I think I sent ‘Schizoid’ for him to sign; but he said “You have artwork, a CD, and an attorney representing you. You don’t need my help!” He’s awesome! He’s gotten me some great contacts since.
The Cosmosquad album Live At The Baked Potato is a fantastic display of funky virtuosity – and one of the most palatable instrumental records for the casual listener. The vibe comes across as a relaxed and very much in control live performance – was that how it all went down?
This was recorded in 2001, at the infamous Baked Potato in North Hollywood. This is a small, intimate and infamous club – and all the main cats in town have played here! This was actually recorded on bloody ADAT and a cheap mixer – but it turned out great! We played for 3 hours in total so we had quite a bit of material to choose from.
2001’s Cosmosquad release ‘Squadrophenia’ was a more involved and less loose-limbed recording – a very textural and layered album. I wonder again if they had changed the writing process again?
‘Squadrophenia’ took a bit more time with many jam sessions, a lot of re-thinking things through and then re-writing. Some songs were pretty quick to get down – ‘In Loving Memory’ was pure inspiration; but some other tunes, like ‘Chinese Eyes’, took a bit more time getting the feel and everything together. My favourite track is ‘Cauldron Of Evil’.
How did the actual recording go?
Well, we finished it! Seriously though, I think we achieved a new level with Squadrophenia. There’s a lot of serious composition, some jammy improvisation moments – and many cool textures on there.
Almost as soon as Jeff arrived in LA he became involved in a musical scene of veteran (primarily UK) rock stars – including Phil Mogg erstwhile UFO vocalist and leader, and the great ‘Voice of Rock’ Glenn Hughes, holder of arguably the most soulful larynx in the rock arena for the last 30 plus years. Again I ask how Jeff managed to score these gigs, and if any hold specific memories…
With the Phil Mogg and UFO connection, Mike Varney let me know in advance that he was setting up a meeting with me and Phil; so I thought it would be make sense to write some suitable few songs in advance, record them, and then have something solid to play him when we met – and that sealed the deal! I got the Glenn Hughes through being referred by Shane Gaalaas, who had played live with Glenn on the HTTP record.
I would probably say my favourite memories of that whole period are working on the ‘Sign Of 4’ record with Phil, he stayed over at the house for a few weeks and we had a great time – he’s great to hang with!
Glenn Hughes is great too – we had so many laughs…he’s a really funny guy! Also he is great in the studio – he records so fast that I can barely remember producing him.
Jeff has been particularly active in recent years with some more vocally orientated projects, The Crumb Brothers Brothers and The Jeff Kollman Band. I ask Jeff to give us the low down on these…
These are very different to my solo albums and the Cosmosquad stuff. The Crumb Brothers is myself, Mark Renk on Vocals and Shane Gaalaas on drums – it’s compared to the likes of Radiohead, Pink Floyd, and Zeppelin. It’s very singer songwriter oriented. Dark, moody and pretty melancholy. It’s a real vibe sort of record, very minor sounding.
The Jeff Kollman Band is myself, Chalie Waymire on drums, and Kevin Chown on bass. Now this is a raw power trio; heavy, rocky and dynamic – definitely not an overproduced band. We wanted to capture what it really is – a proper power trio. I’m singing as well as playing guitar in this band. Both of these records are still trying to find a home with a label.
As mentioned earlier in this feature, Jeff is out with Glenn Hughes touring as this interview is published (beginning of November 2006) I ask if he’s playing on the latest very well received Glenn Hughes album ‘Music For The Divine’.
I’m not on the new record, but I played on ‘Songs In The Key Of Rock’ and ‘HTTP 2’. I’ve played some gigs with Glenn before in the States, although these were always one offs – not a full blown tour like this European one. Glenn called to get me more involved and start touring in his new line up for Europe – and I’m really excited to get out there and do a full tour with ‘The Voice of Rock!’
Finally, what future plans have you – and is there a follow up to Shedding Skin planned?
I’m first writing a new Jeff Kollman Band record as well as the third studio release from Cosmosquad. Also I am releasing a live Jeff Kollman CD titled ‘Guitar Screams Live!’ which is available October 23rd 2006. It can be ordered at http://www.jeffkollman.com or the fan club, which is P.O. Box 33992 Granada Hills Ca 91394. So there’s lots going on, and I’m real positive about the what’s going to happen next!
The LA Scene
As a ten year veteran of LA, what are your general views on your adopted home city?
LA is really strange place. Bad things about LA include its radio, it’s the absolute worst – half of the stations are Mariachi Mexican and the other half is sort of Green Day! It’s crazy, but I really have to go home to the mid west to hear new acts – and I’m like “Who’s this?” “Oh, it’s….” and I won’t have heard of them, but they are big million selling bands. There also isn’t really a thriving new band scene in LA – as the other problem is that the general LA audience has very much ‘been there done it’. They are kind of blasé as they have seen everyone there is.
I mean it doesn’t necessarily affect us – when we play The Baked Potato, our fans are great, but if you are a younger band starting off and you are thinking “We’re going to go to LA to make it” – don’t! If you are a great guitar player then, maybe, because there are still a lot of opportunities and gigs available. You know, if you want to try and be the next guitar player for Christina Aguilera, LA is where they audition, where the agents are and everything – but if you want to form a band and start playing to build your audience it’s not the place; you can’t really get the people in the clubs to watch you because you’re new. If you do it in Austin, Texas or somewhere else I think you will find it easier to build that regional base.
Of course, at the same time, because this is LA I can go out any night of the week to bars and clubs and see rock stars, movie stars – really famous people – all hanging out.
Are there are a bunch of clubs and bars where all the musos go to?
Absolutely: it’s how I’ve run into lots of people – you get to know people and they get to know you. Who knows where that can lead? But I wouldn’t have taken my band Edwin Dare to play the LA rock scene back in the late 80’s and try to compete because there was so much competition – I could be just as well off staying in Ohio and basing ourselves from out of there.
One of the real cool gigs in town is Marco Mendoza (Ed Note re Marco Mendozas career…) band and he plays every Tuesday night at ‘La ve lee – a really cool club – and that is probably the best show in town…You take anybody there and they are like “Wow!”
Marco Mendoza is unbelievable…they play all that Latin fiery slas stuff, R’n’B stuff – and with amazing musicianship. Basically he’s like a mixture of Jaco Pastorias on a 6 string fretless, he sings like Stevie Wonder, and he does vocal impersonations of Latin percussion – all at the same time! The band is equally great. The thing is they are putting on a real show: to entertain and to involve the audience.
We try to do the same with the Cosmosquad shows; it’s not like “Lets do this long solo in A minor” – we try not to lose the plot with the audience enjoying it. We will have stuff in there that’s like tribal, funky, jazzy, a ballad in here – some real variety whilst we’re blowing away on stage. Always keep in mind that you’re there to entertain an audience – too many virtuoso type groups lose track of that.
Have you ever thought about releasing a DVD? As mentioned earlier, Cosmosquad’s ‘Live At The Baked Potato’ CD is fantastic and it would be great to have the visual aspect as well…
We’ve kicked around the idea of putting out DVD’s for a while, although I am not sure that that kind of setting would be the best. I’ve got a couple of DVD’s floating around that people have filmed – certain people we’ll let get in there set up a tripod and go for it. If you’re really a Cosmosquad fan you’d be more than happy to have something like that, but if you compare it to some of the other DVD’s out there it may not look quite good enough – so it’s something to think about and doing properly and at the right venue.
One thing I am seriously thinking about is doing a proper instructional DVD. So far I have designed and marketed an instructional course that I call ‘Lessons By Mail’. (These are available from www.jeffkollman.com – just go to the Store section and all 32 lessons are detailed there.) They are very specific – one on phrasing, techniques etc. I mean, I think phrasing is one of the things that needs to be covered properly, and I have been asked for a long time to do an instructional DVD. I would like to do one that is pretty much all-encompassing, and covers my approach to everything – playing, sound the whole lot. There’s a lot of stuff I would like to do – it wouldn’t be like those typical ‘play three notes on this string’ deals, but all about real applications – even down to how to use a metronome properly.
As a guitarist Jeff is as at home running speed picked 32nd note arpeggio string skipped phrases as he is at effortlessly gliding through the most complex of jazz changes with a lyrical horn player influenced approach, through to laying down some of the grooviest rhythms and generally funkin’ it up big time. I personally can hear elements of players ranging from Jeff Beck to George Lynch to Andy Timmons to Scott Henderson. Jeff particularly has a great approach to playing ‘outside’ with a unique touch that doesn’t alienate rock guitar fans who often find that sort of harmony hard to digest from players such as Frank Gambale, Scott Henderson and John Schofield. Getting a little jazzy spice seems to be on the agenda for many a rock guitarist nowadays…
What would your approach be to teach the basics of outside playing to a rock guitarist with a good basic knowledge and understanding of diatonic harmony?
I think that I would first go into the idea of chromaticsm, using neighbouring tones but not chordal tones. So, for example, if we were playing a vamp in A minor there’s a few different approaches you can take. I like to surround chord tones with non-chordal tones – neighbouring tones, but I wouldn’t do it in a specific order – that makes it a bit too much ‘Flight of The Bumblebee’. You really do need to listen to the right sort of players as well, to get an instinctive feel of when to try this.
Have you any specific exercises that you can recommend a guitarist to try – alongside immersing themselves in listening to suitable players and music?
Well, you can try to apply a methodical approach; let’s take an Am7 for example. To target the A note, I am first going to play a whole step above A (B), a half step above A (Bb), A half step below A (Ab) and then the A. You know, two out of the three weren’t even in the scale (A minor scale: A B C D E F G A) but… so be it! It doesn’t really matter because you are going ‘in’ and ‘out’. Then I will approach the next note – the flat 3rd which is C – by playing a whole step above C (D), a half step above (Db) a half step below (B), and then hit C. Do the same with the fifth (E) go a whole step above (F#), a half step above (F) a half step below (Eb), and then E; and finally do the same with the b7th (G); go a whole step above (A), a half step above (G#) a half step below (Gb), and then G.
These kind of exercises are what Horn players have done for years past; when you get used to them you can apply these sort of concepts naturally and in a musical way. You can play about with hitting the outside notes on the off beats, and generally play around with the basic harmony of what you are playing over. So, there’s that way of doing it…it’s like when you are playing a m7 chord groove you can slide into the chord from a half step above or below, which you can get sounding cool pretty much straight off – why not try that principle to actual notes when you solo?
Again, if you are playing an A minor pentatonic, why not try some of the phrase in Bb minor pentatonic, and then part of an Ab minor pentatonic and then weave these into your ‘home’ A minor pentatonic – build phrases like this.
Now if you take a melodic pattern – for example I might play A G E D C, then I’ll go up half a step and play three notes from a Bb minor pentatonic, then five notes in A, three notes in Bb and it can become a nice long line. But rhythmically it’s interesting to see when I’m switching from in to out – I am not switching to the out notes on a beat so in order to get this to sound authentic it’s a much about rhythmically where you put the notes as much as the actual notes themselves.
Take (for example) this from a more rock perspective; especially with all the players who followed Yngwie, a lot had great technique but it just sounded like patterns and rhythmically it was so ‘straight’. The thing is that when you heard Yngwie, when he was playing with Alcatrazz, it didn’t sound like he was playing as many patterns as those other guys: it just sounded like he was playing great solos and was really expressing himself. He wasn’t always coming in on beat, his note groupings were not as premeditated, so there was that unpredictability there that a lot of great improvisers have.
When I am teaching I always try to get the student used to starting on the ‘and’ of beat one, or similar – take whatever line you are doing it, but displace it rhythmically.
Getting back to the idea of playing outside once more: take that Am7 chord again and look at what other options are available to you. You can try B minor pentatonic, and that will accentuate the upper chord tones like the
6th, the 9ths, the 11ths; and that will make me sound more jazzy and the higher you get in the extensions of the chord the jazzier the sound will be. You could also try applying E minor pentatonic – and try the A melodic minor (A B C D E F# G#) as well which will give you the maj 6 and maj 7 intervals, and get that m/may7 sound. Now it’s initially pretty tricky to get comfortable with the melodic minor – but try thinking laterally. For example between C and G# you’ve got 4 whole steps in a row and what you can do is open yourself up to doing a pattern using 4 whole tones and moving it away from your starting point – maybe a half step above, then a half step below.
Guys like John Coltrane could force a pattern that they’ve built so far away and off that initial chord, but the strength of that pattern in sequence will eventually take you back to a place that is harmonically in again. Michael Brecker and Coltrane could take anything and move it around and musically it works – I would love to be able to do it anywhere near that level, you know… In my dreams!
The other thing that you can do is to imply other chords: for example if you have a I chord like Am, you can imply a V chord (say an E7#9 chord) by playing a tritone over the V chord – which here would be a Bb over an A. So, try and play an altered Bb scale leading into the A (like a Bb Lydian Dominant with the #4 and b7) and weave that into the A – that will really sound like you know what you’re doing!
How would you go about making a standard dominant blues hipper?
If I am playing a 12 bar blues and I want to get outside, first off I build a line around the Mixolydian mode over the I chord, but leading into the IV chord I could play an A half whole diminished scale and weave it into the D Mixolydian and that gives a nice resolution when you get to the IV. The half whole works also if you’re just playing a chord vamp. It can get a really hip sound: a bit Steve Kahn or John Scofield. The heavy rock guys don’t even seem to know that this scale exists! I don’t think I’ve ever heard any metal guys using this one! Yet it can really sound eerie and ‘out there’.
Do you still go through the Jazz Fake books and brush up on the standards?
Always, absolutely. I found a CD online recently that had 12 Real books all on there – so much information right there. It really keeps all your skills up, your reading, harmonic knowledge – really important. It’s like when you hear how people re-harmonise something very simple and it ends up sounding so clever but retains the essence of the original song – I want to get all that down, that’s powerful.
Are there any areas that you would like to develop personally as a player?
I would like to get solo guitar playing down, get that chord melody acoustic type stuff really down – stuff down like Tommy Emmanuel or Lenny Breau and those guys. It takes a lot of time to do that; when you are working a lot and have a family its hard to find the time to do it. I am constantly working on writing songs and stuff, so I work on keeping that as much as individual techniques.
Do you find that if you have a couple of weeks away from the instrument your rock chops get rusty, or are they pretty much always there?
They are always there pretty much… good enough to wow the students at MI anyway! But when you go back and listen to certain periods of your career you often go “Wow, my chops were good back then… almost halfway to Shawn Lane status!” I’ve seen some of the videos recently of the stuff I was doing around 1995 and it’s like “I can’t do that now!”
Realistically, I could get it back with a week of serious shredding but that’s not my goal anymore. Lately I’ve been playing a little more ‘sloppy’ almost – more attitude – and where I am at now is much more about the phrasing and musicality, rather than thinking about all those 32nd note runs.
In some of your playing I can almost hear George Lynch – was he ever an influence at all?
He wasn’t an influence at all, although I really respect him as a player. If you can hear a bit of Lynch in there it’s probably through Warren DiMartini – because I think they are very similar if you listen to their solos – and although I wasn’t a fan of their bands I did listen to them. But, you know, if there are similarities I think it’s because we probably all grew up hearing the same players. I think that when you compare players you should really go back to the guys they would have listened to – which would have been Clapton, Hendrix and of course Eddie.
Finally, any general advice that you can make to someone wanting to come out to LA and make it in the studio and session world?
To be quite honest with you, I used to see all these students come out to MI – and I taught there for a while – and their whole outlook was “When I finish school I am going to hang around and start doing sessions” which was… pretty unrealistic.
Not only weren’t they good enough to get in with the likes of Landau and the rest, but this town is built on relationships and it’s hard to get in there. I was talking with Don Randi – the owner of The Baked Potato – and he used to play on The Beachboys and lots of similar sessions; and back then there was definitely loads of work. Now there’s a lot less, so if you are starting out trying to get in as a session player it’s going to be tough.
For me there is still a load of work. The thing about LA is that I am finding that once you get in with a couple of in-demand producers or writers then they often have so much going on themselves that you are kept very busy. Once you are established there’s enough to go around – it’s just that getting in there with right people that can be a killer!
what guitars are you mainly using?
I have a 1958 Gibson Les Paul special with P90’s, a 1961 strat, a 71 strat hardtail and Fender Custom Shop ‘Relic’ strat. On the strats I use the Dunlop 6105 frets, and the 6100 frets for the Les Paul’s. I also use a high pass filter on all my guitars to retain the high end and take out a bit of bottom end when I turn my volume knob down.
Other guitars include my 1980 BC Rich ‘Rico’ model, and a Fender ‘Espirit Ultra’, which is a sort of Robben Ford guitar from the 80’s. I also have a 1990 Les Paul classic 1960 reissue, which has a coil tap to give me some ‘thinning’ options on the sound – I can almost get tele sounds from it. I am also playing an old tele quite a bit lately.
Acoustic guitars include a Ramirez 1A, Martin and Larrivee steel strings, and these are the main ones I use for my recordings.
As this interview is published it has been announced that Jeff has signed with Fender USA Guitars and Amps. This interview took place before that announcement, so I ask Jeff what gear he was currently using…
I often use the Fender ‘65 Twin’, and hooked up with some pedals you can get some pretty great rock tones. I also use Krank amps – which are quite unique from the formal line. I got them when the company was just one guy in the garage. I’m now using the ‘Chadwick’ series Krank which is very versatile. I also have two Bogner modded Marshalls.
I have also got an AC 30 Top Boost, and I use the Hughes and Kettner ‘ATS 120’ middle channel for that warm /singing lead tone. It’s almost a Brian May quality.
And finally, what about Effects?
I use the Fulltone ‘Dejavibe’, the Fulltone ‘Ultimate Octave’, and the TC Electronics ‘Line Drive’ Booster/ Distortion; Xotic pedals are good, and I always use an Ernie Ball Volume pedal; for the reverbs the Lexicon M1, and a Chandler Digital Echo for delays. I like the Line 6 rack delay as well, but I think that they quit making this one.