Archive for August, 2011

Cab City Combo

Posted in Players with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2011 by theguitarcave

“We’re a Novelty Band!”

The most offbeat and longest-running musical project of my career(!) was with the New York Novelty Rock band, Cab City Combo. Although we’ve never actually broken up, it’s been years since anything new has been recorded and released. The Combo was the brainchild of Paul Rubin and over the years many friends and acquaintances played sessions with the band. The project was strictly a recording affair; no gigs were ever played and for that reason “I” always looked at the group (especially in the early days) as if it were The Beatles during the Magical Mystery Tour period. No one will agree with my assessment once they listen to the music, but at the time all of the other bands and musicians I knew were very focused on live performances and a live performance dictates certain things. Cab City didn’t have to concern itself with the limitations of the stage and was therefore able to use people, instruments, noises, and studio tricks that worked as a one-off in the studio, but would’ve been hard to reproduce live. Unlike many of my other musical projects I was restrained by a guy functioning as the producer of his own music so I had to come up with cool little parts and riffs (if they weren’t already part of the song) and function as part of an ensemble. It was a continuously fun and interesting challenge and I’m ALL about the challenge ya know? It also afforded more trips to the recording studio and I’ve have always LOVED being in the studio. I can’t remember ever having a bad time recording back in those days. We were lucky because we worked with 3 very sympathetic engineers over the span of our career: Jim Fourniadis, Greg Talenfeld, and Gary Knox. They always went the extra mile to indulge Paul’s whims and offered invaluable assistance to get the production to really POP. It certainly helped that they are all boss musicians in addition to being studio wizards. Jim was actually a member of the Combo for the first couple of sessions.

Cab City Combo's Cabbie Road CD

When I was a kid,  The Dr. Demento show was on the radio every Sunday night and for 2-3 hours he would play a dazzling assortment of weird and funny stuff. (Kind of sounds like 1930s but we’re talking early 70s) I used to do homework while well-known, goofy gems like They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Transfusion, Lil Red Riding Hood and Shaving Cream, the song that won many of the top 10 countdowns on the show in those days, played in the background. I think the family bought 1 or 2 KTEL novelty compilations but I don’t remember them getting a lot of attention. Not only was I also discovering rock and roll and more interested in that, but there was something cool about hearing the funny stuff in the context of a radio format. The songs seemed to lose some of their zip on an LP because I knew what was coming. I didn’t think about the whole concept of Novelty again until the early 90s when I was asked by friends if I wanted to play guitar in the Cab City project. I didn’t know Paul at that point, but we did the first session and it was a whole lot of fun. Since Paul was doing Novelty Rock I didn’t think of it as a huge departure from what any of us were playing anyhow and historically this has always been true.  Sam the Sham and the Pharohs are considered by many to be a fine rock n’ roll band as are a host of other bands who recorded songs that are considered novelty-esque,  like The Champs with Tequila and The Kingsmen with Louie Louie. Cab City was kind of carrying on in the same tradition, but Paul’s influences included people like Martin Mull, The Bonzo Dog Band, Frank Zappa, Steve Martin and other twisted luminaries from the 1970s, while Cab City was always a Novelty Project, that definition could be pretty broad at times. Even though the line-up changed for the next session a year or two later, I stayed on and kept doing it…for eleven years. Paul and I had a pretty good working relationship and as time went on our approach to the project changed to something more like Tommy Tedesco or The Wrecking Crew because Rotgutter, the power trio band I was in at the time, became the core of Cab City. As a band we were already super-tight and that allowed all of the Combo recordings to proceed very quickly and smoothly. Dr. Demento actually played the Combo on his show a few times and Paul had a map going on how many people in how many of the US states bought the CDs. While Cab City was never a threat to Weird Al‘s popularity, it was a nice little project and over the years I was able to put down some really cool and varied guitar on a wide range of music. The sessions were totally fun and part of an era that is rapidly disappearing. Today musicians can avoid recording studios and put their music together on laptops and hardly anyone works with tape. Most of the studios we recorded in over the years are gone now, but it was always an education and a blast to be in that environment putting a project together with like-minded people and friends.

The Combo did get some love over the years, including a nice letter and encouragement from Jello Biafra, punk icon and leader of the Dead Kennedys. Because there was always a veneer of punk rock music and sensibilities in Cab City I was convinced that Paul had aspirations to be a punk rock star! Because most of the musicians in the Combo were capable and comfortable doing that and because punk rock is usually humorously irreverent, the combination worked and it appealed to fans of both styles of music. Even when the music didn’t sound like punk, there was usually a twisted, misanthropic attitude to the lyrics that sounded like PUNK ROCK or NEW YORK. The SUV Song is a good example — musically it’s such a pleasant-sounding song and I was going for a very Caribbean guitar thing. Lyrically it was a different story and that juxtaposition and the sing-a-long chorus made it one of the Combo’s more accessible numbers. Two kids in England liked it so much they made a video for the song.

Some of my other favorite Cab City tracks in the above player illustrate the range of different styles involved in the band and what I did guitar-wise. Paul wasn’t a taskmaster by any stretch of the imagination; he actually let the band have quite a bit of room to come up with their own stuff. But he did have certain ideas about what he wanted and didn’t like. This kind of relationship was good for me as it always forced me to focus and try to see outside my own musical parameters. All of the musicians involved had played with each other in some capacity or knew each other so that made it easy to get the music together and record it quickly. Songs like Monkey King, High Entropy and Insulin were pretty close to being POP numbers. Monkey King always felt like a Broadway show tune meets the aforementioned Beatles Magical Mystery Tour-era to me, I don’t know why. Insulin has a phased kind of George Harrison/Eric Clapton “Badge” era thing going on and I do remember Paul having a lot of input into how that solo sounded. What’s funny is that although I was playing through an MXR Phase 90, I didn’t have it turned on, but it sounds like it was. I’m also playing a Rickenbacker 6-string for the strumming part, which is the only time I’ve ever used a Rickenbacker guitar in my life. I’ve never owned one and the one I used (which was really boss!) belonged to the guy who owned the studio. After You Alphonse, which is the comedy gag of more than 1 person trying to get through the door simultaneously, is probably Cab City’s most obvious punk number. Less than a minute long, the guitar approach is: Just PLAY FAST. High Entropy reminds me of Chris Spedding and the couple of years of hanging out with him certainly influenced the cool, laid back riffing on this song, which was sung by Marti J. Cooney, a lady who contributed many fine vocalizations to the Combo over the years. So did Laurie Kilmartin and Maddie Horstman, who does the lead vocals on the next song, Santa Klutz, which was typical of the goofy fun we had making these songs. 4 of us huffed helium out of balloons to make the elf voices and I can still remember us standing around the mic trying to get it right without making each other crack up. Same was true of Lake Pennsylvania, which was a real biatch to record, especially THE SINGING NIXONS vocal parts. The music was real easy and there was also a steel drum added by Jamila Cowie. Cab City usually had special guests come in and contribute and they always performed well. Banned by the Man was surely one of the finest guitar moments of my Novelty career. I took Jimmy Page’s DADGAD tuning and used it on an acoustic and couple of electrics to create an Indo/Persian feel for Paul’s rant on copyright laws. Since The Beatles figure heavily in the rant, I felt that the almost sitar-esque quality of the music worked well. I forget if we planned that or not. I also played bass on the track and used an Echoplex to get the delay/echo effect. Later on I developed this piece further and I think it will show up in it’s entirety on this blog someday. If you wish you can download other CAB CITY stuff HERE.

Cab City Combo released two full-length CDs; compilations of all of the sessions we did over the years and they are STILL FOR SALE! It’s interesting how during the band’s career and since it was shelved, so much of the music business and New York City has changed. In that way listening to these songs for me is a snapshot of a special time in my life. I’m not a fan of any modern novelty music and probably never will be and the fact that I wasn’t a fan even when we were recording allowed me the freedom to just come up with ideas that would fit the songs and vision Paul was trying to put across. All of the other people involved in the core band over the years were total pros, and many are still involved in the music business in some capacity. My first attempt at a jazz song occurred with the Combo and it’s kind of funny that is where I am now — playing music that I originally did as a parody for a Novelty band. The Combo’s parody stuff was really brilliant and someday maybe it will find it’s way on here. If you want to know why it isn’t, listen to Banned By the Man. Perhaps the Combo will do another session in the future, but even if it doesn’t, there is a bunch of great stuff I was happy to be a part of and am pleasantly surprised when I hear it now. I’m not one of those people who dwells on the past or listens to all the music I’ve done on a regular basis, but every once it awhile it’s a nice trip down memory lane and a way of measuring where I am and where I’ve been. Hopefully it all helps with where I’m going.

Jimi Play the Cave

Posted in Players with tags , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2011 by theguitarcave

Well, not really. But this is a super cool bobble-head doll from FUNKO (sounds like RONCO or TELCO or K-TEL doesn’t it?) They have a whole line of toys and bobble-heads including Dee Dee Ramone, Johnny Ramone, Tupac and many more, like the Wonder Woman computer sitter. Grrrrrrowlll! They even have a Ronald Reagan doll but I can’t imagine that someone who would buy one of those would be that much fun to hang out with. It looks like the Jimi Doll has been discontinued…but Elvis is still there!

Jimi Hendrix was a huge influence on me…and, of course many other people. Over the years I’ve tried to cop his vibe on a whole lot of things as you can tell from the short film clip, which features music from one of my favorite projects of all time. The guitar lead was played on my Strat taking a lot from the Master of the Stratocaster himself and maybe it also came from listening to another Jimmy (Jimmy Page) but it’s hard to tell where one influence stops and another starts. (The studio where this was recorded in July of ’99 was so hot the A/C was being rationed and plugs were literally melting in the electrical sockets. Every track sounds like it’s on fire. The week I did overdubs was one of the hottest on record until it was topped this year…FUN WEATHER FACT!) I also still get the occasional jolt out of listening to Jimi’s music. It is interesting to watch as different media shows up all over the web from all of those years ago. Some of it is downright killin’ and other stuff, not so much. I’ve never liked the Isle of Wight concert because Jimi looked really tired, burnt and pissed off. The version of Red House from that show is almost painful to watch. But there is other stuff from those later days scattered about the web that is actually really good. I haven’t checked out any of these official releases…but since Jimi’s family regained some kind of control over his music after so many years, I have heard that this stuff is a treat. While they don’t have any video, Wolfgang’s Vault has a ton of streaming concert audio from Berkeley, Winterland, and both Fillmores (west and east). I’ve listened to most of this stuff and a fair amount is Jimi at the top of his live game. Definitely grrrrrreat! Except for the Band of Gypsies shows, Mitch Mitchell was always part of Jimi’s experience and he has to rank as one of the greatest drummers ever. Together they were a very explosive and innovative team.

Speaking of great, here is Chris Squire, famed bass player for YES telling a fantastically funny tale about opening for Jimi at one of his legendary early London performances (The Marquee Club). Dessert!

MAKING IT HAPPEN! — Vital Van NYC

Posted in Music Business, Players with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 9, 2011 by theguitarcave

Many things that have made my life exciting happened completely because of timing, synchronicity and luck. While it is always good to try and plan a future and be prepared for anything, there are many situations that I couldn’t have plotted out. For instance, I was introduced to the VITAL VAN Community the same day I I interviewed Mick Ronson for Guitar World Magazine. After the awesome interview I met the VITAL crew while I was recording at the Vital Studio for a session that I had nothing to do with arranging. Within a couple of months, not only was my Mick Ronson article about to be published, but I had also served as a roadie and tech for Robert Gordon, Chris Spedding and The Merchants of VenusShane Fontayne’s band at the time. Chris and Robert need no introduction but if you are in the dark about who they are look no further than HERE. Shane Fontayne was in the under-appreciated band 80s band Lone Justice for a time and has also has played with a whole cast of rock superstars from Springsteen to U2 to Paul Simon.  This was the beginning of a three year odyssey of meeting many different players and learning a MILLION things about the music business. Because VITAL provided moving, transportation and roadie services, I was able to put the experience I had from the previous years as driver/party set-builder to good use. But it wasn’t like I’d set out to do this, it just happened. After my experiences at VITAL were over I knew so much more about the music business and guitar playing that it’s hard to conceive how life would’ve turned out had I not had been involved and while I certainly can yap with the best of them, I did a  lot of listening and the knowledge all of the great players I met became a part of me.

Letch Patrol

LETCH PATROL

The East Village of NYC back in those days was like Tombstone Arizona in the 1880s; wild, wide-open and dangerous. The VITAL crew was perfectly at home in this environment and the vibe of the people involved attracted many other musicians and some of New York’s most eccentric characters. VITAL VAN started primarily as a partnership between the two guitar players in the band Letch Patrol, along with a couple of other guys in another band, Rats of Unusual Size, who had started Vital Music Records. Chicken John, founder of VITAL VAN, and guitarist/writer in Letch Patrol was and is a total man with a plan. Over the years Chicken has: been GG Allin’s guitarist, owned and traveled with the Circus Rediculous, owned and operated the Odeon Bar in San Francisco, built a truck that runs on garbage, sailed from California to Italy on a Junk Boat, was a candidate for Mayor of San Francisco in 2007, and about a billion other things. He was a mover and shaker at the very young age of 22 and at the time we met was on page 3 of the NY POST for being one of NYC’s most notorious scofflaws. He has a book coming out in this fall that I’m sure will be very entertaining and enjoyable. Mark, the other guitarist from Letch Patrol had his own van and contacts in the punk-rock underworld and was the Ying to Chicken’s Yang in the business partnership. They had been friends going back several years and had already been involved is some very wild and crazy times together. Jim and Tom from Vital Music Records were running the office, working jobs (my first official job was with Jim and we ended up playing in each others bands off and on over the next 5 years) AND were signing artists for singles on their new record label.

The company was based in a loft on 2nd avenue, four blocks south from my apartment at the time, totally in the middle of where everything was happening. A typical day at the loft was like being in the middle of an animal menagerie run by Monkey Business-era Marx Brothers with special appearances by Paola Passolini, Keith Moon and Freddie Mercury, as well as a host of other sparkling personalities. In addition to the van service and record company the loft was home to a guy named Harris, the singer for Letch Patrol. He was also a very well-known street bookseller, so every wall in the loft that wasn’t a window held a bookcase full of books. Less than a block away was the Cooper Diner, our food and hangout zone. A few years earlier it had been the Binibon Cafe, notorious in East Village lore as the place where writer, career criminal Jack Abbott stabbed a young waiter to death. We were treated royally by the Greek family who took over the place, especially The Guy who was a spitting image of Dan Ackroyd. Right up the avenue was Ron Wood’s club Woodys and CBGBs and St. Marks Place were within stumbling distance. As soon as I joined, the business really started to take off and while I have always brought a lot of energy to every situation, there was already plenty of energy and creativity at VITAL, so once again, it was all about the timing and luck. The company developed a good reputation and had many repeat customers. The first full year I was with the van service the business cleared more than $300,000 and we EARNED every dime.

KISS in Guitar World

Paul Stanley — Was not impressed! Gene Simmons — Stones fan, great talker!

This new relationship I was developing with the music business allowed me to see it from many angles. I had begun writing and interviewing musicians about 4 months prior to joining the van service so I was meeting people at the front of the business; performers, management, publishers, editors, publicists and they all tended to have at least a modicum of sophistication and polish and the settings were much more formal and polite…usually. Then there was the other side, which was loud, vulgar and dangerous at times. Away from the offices and publicists rock and roll can be pretty messy and it falls on the roadies, drivers, techs and sometimes the performers to MAKE IT HAPPEN! and GET THE JOB DONE! That was the VITAL creed, and I could more than handle that, but it sometimes made for uncouth appearances and conversations at the magazine offices or on Guitar World interviews.  I went to interview Paul Stanley of KISS straight from a driving job and Paul was not impressed! I was dressed for roadie work, totally wound up from rushing from the job to the interview, awed to be meeting Paul Stanley and babbling like an idiot. I don’t know that Paul is overly impressed with anyone and when you are facing a guy who is sitting in an office with his feet up on a desk the size of a pickup truck that holds nothing but 2 speakers, and the rest of the room is bare except for a straight back chair and 3 walls full of Gold and Platinum records, you kind of just have to wing it and hope for the best. I did my best, but the conversation was a bit strained although maybe he was preoccupied with something else like “IS IT TIME TO BRING BACK THE MAKEUP?” It’s Paul Stanley after all, he had bigger things to worry about than our 35 minute interview. On the other hand, I interviewed Gene Simmons on the phone because he was in LA at the time and we talked for like 2 hours. Gene loves to talk and is a really sharp interviewee. I had been to see the Rolling Stones in concert at Shea Stadium the night before and he was impressed with that because he has always been a big fan. Gene’s got a pretty mean reputation in the business, especially these days, but he was a really nice guy when we spoke and was interested in my opinion on subjects we were discussing. That always blew my mind…that people like Gene wondered what I thought. He obviously didn’t have to stroke me and neither did any of the other people I interviewed. We had a really good rapport, especially since neither of us was fond of Hair Metal.

Doing the VITAL roadie gigs was a lot of fun and totally educational. Most of the bands were drag and drop — drive them to the gig and pick them up when they were finished. Sometimes on the weekends we would do as many as 8-10 different bands a night. Higher-profile bands like Robert Gordon, The Merchants of Venus, former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor and others, we would help set up the equipment and then stick around to ensure the gig ran smoothly. This included changing strings, helping with sound, fetching drinks (shades of the Kool-Aid lady), dealing with any problems onstage as they arose and keeping people who were not known to the band away from the dressing room. This is when I learned things like the best way to string and stretch out the strings of a guitar before a gig, how to set up and take down a drum kit even though I wasn’t a drummer, how to set up other guitar rigs to the player’s specifications, how to stack and wheel large amounts of equipment effectively in and out of the club and that ROBERT GORDON ALWAYS USES A STRAIGHT STAND FOR THE MICROPHONE. The first time I set up the Robert Gordon band alone I did everything perfect and Chris Spedding and Kenny Aaronson gave me the thumbs up and they started playing and Robert came walking out and was making his way to the mic and then took three steps straight back and stood there looking at me and looking at the mic stand. DOH!! It was a funny moment and he was laughing too. I ran onstage bringing a straight stand to replace the boom stand that was there and the show began. During this time I learned all of this info and technique that I then applied to my own guitar rig and playing. Shane Fontayne used an Echoplex and I had just bought one so it was really fun to watch him work it and check his settings. He and Chris Spedding were real masters when it came to using echo/delay to create either a really lush sound or the classic slap-back that works so well for punk, rockabilly or rock and roll. Here’s Shane with Sting and punk legend drummer Josh Freese

Jean-Paul Bourelly was another guitar player we worked for on occasion and he was always fun to drive around — great guy, great sense of humor. One day while driving all over the Bronx picking up the other guys in his band he laid a rap on me about the Stratocaster and Jimi Hendrix that really made an impression since I loved Hendrix and the Strat was my guitar of choice at the time. I followed his advice to use 4 springs for the whammy bar and to set put the action “up a little bit” and that has been my set-up ever since. He totally blew me away when I saw him play, especially a very memorable gig at CBGBs. I still remember — it was the kind of gig where afterwards I just wanted to go home and play!

I missed being in on any Mick Taylor gigs. I’ve always thought his period with The Stones was really awesome and that he is one of the most underrated players ever. His guitar was at the loft when I first started and I was able to play it. At the time I thought that it might’ve been the one of the Les Pauls from the Get Yer Ya Yas Out period, but according to this thread that guitar was lost or stolen in the early 70s. Mick Taylor did like his Les Pauls with Bigsbys though ’cause the one I played had one as well! Chicken had some great stories of doing these gigs, like the band getting paid in nickels for a performance one night! Mick and Ron Wood have been stepping out together lately…Could a Lynyrd Skynyrd style 3-guitar line-up of the Stones be on the horizon? (Wouldn’t that be awesome?)

Another really cool cat was blues and rock player Jon Paris, who was Johnny Winter‘s bass player for a long time. Jon was a totally cool guy and not only played great guitar, but also sang well, played awesome bass and was a killer harp player. He is still at it too — I’m only writing in the past tense because I saw all of it in action many times. He had a Black Telecaster with a string bending/damping system that I haven’t seen before or since. It was a combination whammy bar meets Clarence White pedal steel B-bender. The first time I took him to a gig he took that guitar out of the case and I said, “hey I have a black ’72 Custom — WHOA what the heck is that thing?” I was pointing to the little metal arms and he just started fooling around and it sounded fantastic. I said “COOL” and then went and found a parking space for the van and came back and watched him play until I had start picking up other bands to take them home. Jon did Springsteen-esque sets, especially at a former blues bar on 2nd avenue, Dan Lynch. We usually didn’t go back and pick him up until 4:30-5:00 in the AM and it wasn’t uncommon to see Jon playing the guitar behind his neck and duck-walking Chuck Berry-style to a bunch of people who, by this point in the evening, could barely stand. He had superhuman stamina when it came to rocking an audience.

Not only did VITAL VAN move a whole lot of rock and roll guitar players, but we also had regular work with local businesses including Forbidden Planet NYC, and Village Comics. We also transported materials for art installations including several trips with a coffin that weighed almost 600 lbs. In addition there was a ongoing affair with local keys superstar Joel Diamond and his very heavy Fender Rhodes piano. We also got frequent calls from drummers, JT Lewis and Ronald Shannon Jackson…who described me as “the guy who looks like Jeff Beck”.  Another regular client was The Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians. Their contact person, a woman named Ginny Wilson, was the greatest and they gave us a lot of work as they performed all over the country. We would sometimes have to pick up their drums and equipment from Kennedy airport at whatever hour. They were based in a studio on lower Broadway that was right out of the Three Stooges Ache In Every Stake short. (The Stooges are Ice Men trying to take a block of ice up a very long staircase) The staircase to the Laura Dean dance studio was that high…we’d get nosebleeds.

Guitar World was giving me a lot of interviews with the NOIZE genres: like punk, hardcore, metal and early alternative guys like Paris Mitchel-Mayhew from Cro-Mags, Piggy from Voivod, Jimi Hazel from 24-7 Spyz, Dr. Know from Bad Brains, Pete Koller from Sick of It All and others like Forbidden, Armored Saint and Shotgun Messiah. All of these bands were really intense and the shows they played were totally pummeling, in-your-face excitement. But talking with them was a blast ’cause they were all really mellow, especially Dr. Know, and Jimi Hazel from 24-7 Spyz. Paris from the Cro-Mags gave me one of the most quotable lines ever with regards to potential managers: “Don’t trust anyone who looks like Doug Henning or Geezer Butler…”. It was really enlightening that while many of these dudes played completely heavy uncompromising stuff, their range of influences was really broad. As Dr. Know said of his band’s mix of many musical styles, “man needs other things in his musical and nutritional style to keep him healthy.” I could certainly relate to that given all the different players I was meeting at the time. Page Hamilton from Helmet worked with VITAL for a short time just as his band was blowing up. Of course Helmet went on to own heavy music for a couple of years in the early/mid-90s and since I got the chance to see the band early on, hand out and talk with Page, it wasn’t any surprise to me that they did. He was a guy who knew exactly what he wanted and his band had a sound and live show that totally ruled.

Chicken roadied for Helmet on some of their first tours, but I had already departed VITAL VAN by then as had most of the others who had worked for the company. Like the other crew jobs I have written about, it was very easy to burn out on this kind of work and it was also hard for me to get something of my own going. That came later when I had a more stable kind of gig. Hustling and being in bands works for some people but I wasn’t able to concentrate on what I wanted to do while simultaneously having to worry about other bands and musicians needs. The weird and long hours thing had gotten pretty old too as I had been working that kind of schedule for almost 5 years. But what I learned during these days has stayed with me forever and still comes in handy from time to time. The advice, anecdotes, discussions and experiences became a part of the way I do things and for that I am eternally grateful.

Django and Harry

Posted in Equipment, Players with tags , , , , , , , , on August 9, 2011 by theguitarcave

Django Reinhardt and Harry Volpe NY 1946

Back in the old days of this blog I mentioned in THIS post on Django Reinhardt that I’d found some cool pics and information about Django’s time in New York City in 1946. This period coincided with Django leaving his acoustic-based sound and moving to electric guitar, which thanks to Charlie Christian, had become a viable tool guitarists could use in performance and recording. This was a time of transition for Django and while, in my opinion, he weathered it brilliantly, there are many people, Stephane Grappelli (his partner for many years) and Les Paul included, who believe he never really adapted to the electric format and should’ve stuck with what he had. However, Bebop swept the post-war world and all of the swing bands were no longer the HOT thing and for a guitar pioneer of Django’s stature it couldn’t have been easy to be thought of as “old hat.” When the chance to tour America with Duke Ellington (a chance that was offered to his whole band) Django jumped at it. Alone. He arrived in the USA thinking that the country would roll out the red carpet for him and luthiers and guitar makers would be waiting to hand him the best of what they had. He couldn’t have been more wrong. By the time Django returned to Europe many illusions of his international stature were shattered, but I think that says more about unrealistic expectations than anything else. Had he brought his band they might’ve done very well. What did happen was he met some very interesting players and returned to France an electric, bebop-influenced guitarist. There would only be a few more sessions where he would play acoustic before ditching it altogether in favor of an electrified sound. In the end, I think he got a really good electric thing going. It must have been a thrill for him to have VOLUME and AMPLIFICATION at his disposal — two qualities every guitar player in the West takes completely for granted in this day and age.

One fella that Django met in the United States was Harry Volpe. Harry was almost as much a guitar pioneer as Django and was a well-known figure at the time as a performer and teacher. He had his own music store/studio and teaching academy and in time would count Joe Pass, Johnny Smith and Sal Salvador as some of his students. He was the first guitar player to be on the staff at Radio City Music Hall. I couldn’t find any of his own performances to link to but there are some good players do interpretations HERE, HERE, and HERE. If you have heard any of Django’s solo guitar material it’s easy to see similarities between his and Harry’s styles. Obviously they got along very well musically and personally, as the pictures from their jam sessions show. Aside from the fact that it’s cool to have all the information available on Django’s only trip to the United States, the pictures and info give a nice little snapshot into that period of New York City, which is very interesting to me. A funny thing, for some reason, Downbeat, the jazz magazine of the day, seemed to think Django was a Brooklyn Bum, meaning he was born there! Not really sure where they got that idea.

Harry Volpe’s studio was in Jackson Heights, Queens and this was the scene of a memorable all night jam session he had with Django in 1946. I believe it would have been in November of that year as the Ellington band (with Django) appeared at the New York Aquarium. This is where some of the most famous pictures of Django with a smoke and a guitar were taken. After the Ellington tour Django stayed in New York until he eventually returned to France in February of 1947. A semi-famous silent home movie shows him getting ready to leave and once again, Harry is on the scene. Supposedly there were other movies of them eating spaghetti and jamming, but I don’t think those two films have ever surfaced.

Another thing that was interesting to me, especially as a Gretsch player, was that Harry Volpe endorsed Gretsch guitars, which probably meant a lot to Gretsch at the time because they were trying to compete with Gibson and Epiphone for the arch-top market. While they didn’t succeed both Django and Harry are playing Gretsch guitars at these jam sessions, which amuses me to no end. You don’t see many people trying to play jazz on a Gretsch these days or ever…Chet Atkins might come to mind. Brian Setzer doing his rockabilly/swing thing maybe. George Harrison. But in the picture below Django is playing of the Harry Volpe-endorsed Gretsch Synchromatic 400 Guitar (the same one from the above ad?) while Harry is playing a Gretsch Special.

I thought that the Gretsch would have a nice amplified Django sound and I’ve already tried to show that HERE. In the fall I play some on the Gretsch through my Schertler David amp because that sound is just TOO COOL. I didn’t buy the guitar specifically for that purpose, it was a matter of using what I had, which was the same in Django’s case. He played electric before he came to America, a fact that was established by the good folks at the Hotclub UK site HERE. This is one of only a few movies of Django playing and it is on YouTube. But don’t get too excited — the clip is only 10 seconds long.

During his tour of the US with Ellington Django used a Gibson ES-300. This picture was taken at the Pla Mor Ballroom in either Kansas City or Lincoln Nebraska (there were two ballrooms with that name). He was notorious for not having a Gearhead mentality for equipment and obviously was capable of playing pretty much anything he was handed. He did remark however, once he was back in France, that nothing beat his long-used and trusty Selmer, which he quickly outfitted with the new Stimer pickup system and used (as far as anyone can tell) for all of his recorded electric work until his death in 1953. Harry went on to endorse Epiphone in the 1950s and I have to repeat something I mentioned in my first pass at this topic. Was he the first guy with an endorsement deal? (No! As was kindly pointed out by MAC below in the comments, a fella by the name of Nick Lucas had a deal with Gibson in the mid-20s) Nowadays having a guitar named in your honor is as common as a cheese sandwich, but given Harry’s reputation and the fact that he was also teaching students and running a store makes me wonder if he was the first. Who else would qualify?

Django with his amplified Selmer guitar

Django and Harry were able to get their sound on many different guitars, electric or acoustic, because they had really great technique and understood how important great hand work is to playing guitar. There are so many things one can do, a fact I just highlighted in the Fingerpicking Good post, with or without a pick that affects how the instrument will sound. Gypsy-Jazz picking is very forceful and powerful and I’m sure Django had to adapt a bit in order to play some of those creamy-smooth modern jazz lines one can find on his recordings from the 1950s. He could also make the instrument bark if the situation required, but ballads are usually the measure of how well a player translates emotion into pure sound. (One of my best achievements last year was a version of Nuages played on my Gretsch through the Schertler amp at a gig. It was BRAVO) Django and Harry Volpe both excelled at this type of playing, which is why I’m sure they enjoyed the short time they were able to play together. Although Django didn’t do as well as he expected on that US tour, he must have had some fun times because pictures seem to demonstrate that he found a few Americans to be kindred spirits and he was a person who loved life. There was another go at this country in the works when he died and had he been able to come over in the mid-50s and blow his electric brand of music, I believe he would’ve enjoyed a much better reception.

Harry Volpe Epiphone Ad

Harry Volpe lived for over 40 years after Django passed away and enjoyed some great successes, including the music production of The Time of the Cuckoo at the Empire Theater on Broadway, teaching at the Frost Conservatory and performances with his trio on coast-to-coast broadcasts of early television pioneer Arthur Godfrey’s show. He isn’t a name guy even though he lived into the 1990s, but he was definitely an important guy in the development of guitar, as an instructor to some of the best guitar players ever, and as the creator of some very beautiful music.

Thanks to the folks at the Paul Vernon Chester website for sharing their materials. There is a lot more info there!

John Jorgenson

Posted in Players with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 8, 2011 by theguitarcave

John Jorgenson is one of the hottest  purveyors of Gypsy-Jazz in the USA. He has had a long-standing love affair with Django Reinhard going back to the days when he played at Disneyland as a youngster. The guy is a monster, not only on guitar, but also 8 or 9 other instruments. I had the pleasure of seeing his Gypsy quintet a few years ago in NYC and they were great! It was really cool to be sitting 6 feet away and watching John because I’ve heard his playing and back in the day I read about his complete command of the guitar in magazines. He did not disappoint at this show and he is also a really cool dude. A gentleman. Also, he was playing his signature Gitane DG-320 Modele John Jorgenson, which is the gypsy-style Selmer I have (and I love my DG-320!!). It was awesome to watch him tear it up on that guitar and also great that he was using something he endorsed. Not everyone does that you know?  Here is an online lesson he did with Acoustic Guitar.com and below is one of the songs from the show that I really liked, Ghost Dance.

John has been a guitar hero for a long time and last week while I was spending a few hours on Youtube (I LOVE THE TUBE) I remembered when I first heard about him with The Desert Rose Band and The Hellecasters. Both of these bands and John won so many awards he probably has a room in his house set aside for trophies and accolades. I was always a fan of The Byrds and would definitely list them as one of the best and most influential American bands ever. Chris Hillman, who was the bass player/vocalist in The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, formed the The Desert Rose Band with John and Herb Pederson in 1985 and a string of hits and rave reviews followed. The DRB is what I think Country Music should sound like as I’ve always partial to what people in the 1960s — The Byrds, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Gram Parsons, Flying Burrito Brothers, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash and many others did with country to get it out of the Opry and merge it with blues and rock and roll. The Desert Rose Band have that kind of vibe and manage to avoid the excesses that turned modern Country Music into… I don’t know what. Of course, one thing all of the above bands had or have in common — great guitar picking! The DRB had two great pickers, JJ and steel player JayDee Maness, who is easily one of the best in the business.

The Hellecasters were also astounding and I remember reading guitar mags in the early/mid 80s and they won every category not won by Eddie Van Halen or Stevie Ray Vaughan during those years. John, Will Ray and Jerry Donahue actually got together because Michael Nesmith (yes that Michael Nesmith) wanted them to do an album as a gag. Nesmith actually released their first two records on his label and guitar players everywhere were like WTF? John was in his REALLY BIG HAIR period here and looks like a total rock star. Of course he rocks the hell out of his caster, as they all do, hence, the name.

John has also played for a lot of really big stars like Elton John, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Hank Williams Jr., Barbra Streisand, Luciano Pavarotti and many others. As I said earlier, he can play a whole ton of instruments, is a REALLY NICE guy and tells really cool stories. When I saw him he played Benny Goodman style clarinet on a song he had recorded with Peter Frampton called Souvenirs de nos Peres. That is the first of the final two videos below (it’s a little hard to watch because it’s sideways). But John gets a nice sound on the clarinet and it’s a really cool song courtesy of Peter Frampton. The second video is John with Roger McGuinn and Tom Petty sometime in the 1990s playing Mr. Tambourine Man. John is obviously an in-demand guy and a player at home in just about any situation. He has certainly produced a TON of great music over the years and is very generous about sharing his knowledge with other players. Obviously Gypsy Jazz is a really big part of what he does now and if you have a chance to see his band, I recommend going. He brings in a lot of other music and influences, but manages to retain the fun, swinging vibe that is the essence of the music.  Also, follow that link above for a Gypsy Jazz lesson or search for some of his other stuff and GET YOUR SWING ON!