Jazz Guitar Interviews

Henry Johnson

The Chicago-born guitarist has performed and recorded with Nancy Wilson, Marlena Shaw, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt, Freddie Hubbard, Grover Washington Jr., Stanley Turrentine, Ramsey Lewis, Joe Williams, Richie Cole, Terry Gibbs, organist Jimmy Smith, and many other jazz artists. His latest recording is called "Organic" - with Nancy Wilson. On A440 Music Group.

1) In your expertise, what are the main facets of jazz guitar playing that a student should focus on more than any other in his or her developing stages?

I have found that the most important thing to focus on is listening to and being submerged in the music. Without this, you cannot develop a concept of what to play, how to play it, and what it should sound like when it's played correctly.

2) What is it that separates a good player from a truly great jazz guitarist? Is it a gift or can you learn it?

A good player can function well through musical situations, but a great player is in command of those musical situations. It can definitely be learned, or your favorite players would not have developed into the great artists that they became.

3) How important do you think sight reading is in your area of the music profession?

I think that being able to read music is an advantage because the world of written music is at your disposal. If you're working in the theatre industry, I think that sight reading is a must. I must also say that even though it would be preferred that you learn to read music, some of the greatest jazz artists could not read music.

4) How important is TAB in your opinion?

I feel that tab does a big service for the guitarists who do not read music, but still want to learn things from recordings and books. It's healthy to learn something however you get it.

5) As a professional player is there any one area of your playing that you concentrated on as a student that there is never any call for?

There wasn't for me because the areas I concentrated on were the ones I needed for the particular artist I was working with at the time. So, I use everything that I have learned thus far.

6) Is there a particular area of traditional jazz education that you have disagreed with and which you think should be avoided?

Just the areas where people are led to believe that they can learn to play jazz by learning scales, arpeggios, and modes. I can't tell you how many people I run into who cannot play a simple song, but can play all their scales, arpeggios, and know the modes.

7) Is there a facet of jazz guitar education that you might be personally known for? In other words if a student came to you for musical inspiration, what might he or she get from you that they might not get from another source?

I don't know what someone may or may not get from another source, I only know what they'll get from me. I teach students how to teach themselves. I don't want a student to look at me as the 'All Mighty Teacher' who knows everything. I teach them how to speak the jazz language so they can learn to say whatever THEY want to. I do not want them to imitate or play like me. I make them find and trust their own way of playing things.

8) What musicians, books or educational material turned your musical world around as a developing artist?

Musicians and recordings are what turned my world around as a developing artist. Listening to, and absorbing as much music as I can is something that I still seriously practice today. There is so much to learn, and not enough lifetime to do so. You'll always have something to work on. I also like reading the biographies of great artists for musicial insights.

9) Is it dangerous to practice too much? If so what do you think happens?

I think that you can overdo anything if it's taken to an extreme. You can end up damaging your joints or getting carpel tunnel from repeating the same movements too many times. You also have to make sure to warm your muscles up before you jump into practicing or playing. Besides, your mind is only going to retain so much before it 'zones out' on you. At that point, you're just spinning your wheels because your mind can't process any more information, so go out to a movie or something.

10) What advice would you give to a jazz guitar student looking to enter the music profession?

Go out to see all the great guitarists in your area and all the musicians who come to your town as much as you can. Hearing jazz live has a great impact on you as well as listening to the classic jazz recordings. This also helps you to network with all the people who may be your future employers or employees.

11) Where in your opinion is jazz guitar headed? Is there any new vocabulary to be found?

Nobody knows where ANY type of music is headed these days. We can only hope that people keep discovering jazz so that it will continue to be played and heard for a long time to come. There is plenty of new vocabulary to be found in the old. People don't realize it sometimes, but there is nothing new left to be played. New discoveries are made when one studies things that are new to one's self. For example, if you've never understood the principles of Superimposition, that could be a whole new method of self discovery waiting for you to embark upon. What you come up with may be new to my ears because of the way that YOU choose to express what you've learned from Superimposition.

12) What ambitions and goals do you have right now in your musical world?

One, to take my music to as many people as I possibly can on a consistant basis. And two, continue to research, discover, and try new ways of expression on my instrument.

13) Any other comments?

Thank goodness for websites like this one, where people can log on to find out about what they love. Thanks, PlayJazzGuitar.com!

Visit Henry Johnson on the web at www.henryjohnsonjazz.com

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Read all about the great jazz guitarists here:

Bill Frisell Charlie Christian Django Reinhardt George Benson George Van Eps Grant Green Jim Hall John Mclaughlin Joe Pass John Scofield Kenny Burrell Larry Carlton Lee Ritenour Pat Martino Pat Metheny Tal Farlow Wes Montgomery