Jazz Guitar Interviews

Steve Khan

Steve Khan is known for his work with artists such as Steely Dan, Billy Joel, Michael Franks, Hubert Laws, Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette, James Brown, Maynard Ferguson, and Weather Report

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?

Unless one is exceptionally gifted, and comes to this music being able to simply "hear" everything, the learning process can be long and tedious. When one is developing I think it would be a tremendous help to locate a really good teacher. That does not always mean someone who plays great. You want to find someone with an organized method, an approach on how to get from point 'A' to point 'B.' Rather than jumping to learning the specific language and vocabulary or the Jazz idiom, I think one should begin by learning the basic scales and modes and how they correspond to the common chord forms one is going to encounter. Then, I would try to pick simple harmonic problems (chord changes) to negotiate by linking these scales/modes while confining them to an area of the guitar with no more distance than 4 frets. While doing this, I would concentrate on mastering the guide tones for your first level/layer of accompaniment. It's essential to be a good accompanist.

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

Firstly, I don't know that one should approach being a Jazz musician with such a narrow focus, meaning to simply think of themselves as a Jazz guitarist. One should think well beyond their instrument. In other words, BE A MUSIC-MAKER. The music should always be bigger than any one player. It's great if one can be a virtuoso because it will certainly help in your ability to express your ideas, but it is not an essential component to being a great musicmaker. To contribute something great to the music, one must be involved in MUSIC that, in the end, transcends the physical part of playing any one particular instrument. The players that can do this separate themselves from that which is ordinary. One can learn to be a music-maker, it might take time, but I believe it comes from developing the ability to LISTEN to what is going on around you and to contribute to that in varying ways. Sometimes, playing nothing, using the silences can be the best contribution.

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

Any of the fundamental skills of musicianship are essential! That said, there are countless cases of musicians who have contributed great things to the genre who knew next to nothing about music theory, nor could they read a single note. However, those types of players are just gifted beyond belief. They come to their instruments and this music with the ability to hear everything. In the end, for all the basic skills one can work at, when making music, it all comes back to being able to hear something. There is no simple solution for improving your ability to read music on the guitar! Like many things in life, the more you do it, the better you will be at it.

I suppose that there are some simple suggestions I could make:

[a] Don't get discouraged! Reading is not easy on the guitar. We have our own sets of problems to overcome. Not the least of which is that the same note can appear in up to 4 places on the neck. So, this alone makes split-second decisions all the more difficult. So, with more experience, practice, the better you will get at it.

[b] Doing some transcribing will actually help, only in reverse. By learning to write what you hear.......you end-up learning to hear/see what is written. It becomes especially effective to write out melodies you like, to tunes you don't know!!! This can be more important for you than writing out solos per se.

[c] Practice reading with a metronome, but, only go as fast as the speed at which you can actually READ the music. So, if it means slowing it down to Q=60 then start there!!!! But, the key is that you must be READING the music..... processing what you see in your mind. Don't always associate 'reading' with having to play a Charlie Parker head or "Flight of the Bumble Bee"......in most cases, it is not so difficult.

[d] If you can, purchasing the book "MELODIC RHYTHMS FOR GUITAR" (William Leavitt/Berklee) might help you. It is organized in a very simple way and helps one to read 8th-note sub-divisions well and in many of the most played keys. As an exercise this might really help you in visualizing intervals.....the movement of melodic intervals!!!

[e] The problem with our instrument, the guitar, is we don't begin to play learning to read FIRST! We learn to play first, and that creates problems because sometimes we can even learn to play 'well' without actually knowing what we're doing. Then, if and when we are forced to learn to read, that becomes a big problem. On the positive side, one can do very well by knowing how to read chord symbols which IS, for all intents and purposes, what a guitar is going to be doing most of the time!!!

How important is TAB in your opinion?

For quite some time now, publishers have been concerned with making Jazz guitar books Rock friendly. That is to say, to try and make this music not so frightening for players who simply want to improve, without learning to read, nor to be forced to learn too much about music theory. So, TAB has become a necessary evil. You cannot get a Jazz guitar book published today without it. For me, as one who has had 5 books published, it's a total pain-in-the- ass!!! Mostly because it takes up huge amounts of space, which could be better put to use sharing more information.

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?

Actually, no!!! The guitar is such an active part of so many genres of music, and I was attracted to many of them. Apart from Jazz, I always loved R&B and the Blues. But, how could one not appreciate the great, great players in Country music, Bluegrass, Flamenco and Brazilian music and Classical? What one could know on the instrument is endless, so I obviously had to narrow my focus. But, in my life as a musician, I believe that, at one moment or another, everything that I've ever learned has come into play.

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

Yes!!! I don't like when some educators become too RIGID about what a young player has to know. I don't like it when some educators, and really great ones too, seem to only focus on music that was recorded BEFORE ca. 1963.

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?

It's a little hard for me to answer this, but since my "EYEWITNESS" recording in '81, students have come to me to try and understand those aspects of music-making. But, with the publication of both "CONTEMPORARY CHORD KHANCEPTS" and the more recent "PENTATONIC KHANCEPTS" people come to me to gain a better mastery of those ideas. More than anything, I believe that students come to me because they have heard, or they know that I have a system, a most organized approach to teaching improvisation.

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

Where the guitar is concerned, my favorite players, when I was first attempting to understand and learn about this music were: Wes Montgomery; Kenny Burrell; Grant Green; and Jim Hall. Of course, as time went on, I realized that the guitar was really a minor player in the pantheon of Jazz music and so I gravitated to the music of: Miles Davis; John Coltrane; Sonny Rollins; and all the wondrous and varied musicians who passed through their groups and went on to become leaders too. One must keep in mind that, during the late '50s and early '60s there was not the scope and variety of books, videos and play-alongs which now exist and are just taken as common. There was no REAL BOOK; no Jamey Aebersold services; no educational music videos, no Internet. For the players of my generation, if you couldn't hear the music, transcribe the tunes, and the solos, or get them from friends, you just weren't going to get it!!! In this time, the player of today almost has no excuse for not knowing many things because the information is just sitting out there, waiting to be plucked. But, for someone who is looking to go way beyond the specifics of music, and wants to enter the world of the philosophical, I would recommend: Mick Goodrick's book, "THE ADVANCING GUITARIST"! I would also recommend pianist Kenny Werner's book "EFFORTLESS MASTERY" and again it is for the philosophy!!! The spiritual part of learning to make music!!!

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

The better question is 'how does one learn to get the most out of the time spent with a guitar in their hands?' For me, the answer is to set SMALL GOALS.......SHORT-TERM GOALS. That is to say, "something" which you can actually accomplish in a specific amount of time. This way, there is a reward, a tangible reward for your efforts. To seek to accomplish HUGE general goals makes all practice seem futile, a waste of time. One does not want to feel that way!!! To me, practicing is NOT performing, it is NOT making music with others. It is just trying to learn, to improve. So, for me there is no Zen state of being to enter. Try to focus on something very specific, and try to get better at it. Or to focus on something, a concept, which you might need to better understand......and to make that concept a part of your being. The goal is that you do NOT want to be thinking about anything while you are actually making music with others! You just want to be in the flow of the music!!! That's the goal!!!

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

One, and perhaps most important of all, is NEVER give-up!!! Don't let go of your dreams!!! No matter how many times you are told that you are NOT GOOD ENOUGH, and countless other cruel critiques, just keep believing in yourself, in your humanity, in your abilities to communicate some part of that, and something good, something positive will eventually come of it. It is easy to be beaten-down and beaten-up by the things people say, or the circumstances that life throws at us, but, never allow such things to push you "out of the game!"

Two, simply try to reach the highest level of your own potential. Do not aim low, aim to be the best that YOU can be. I know that this sounds like a trite message from some jive selfhelp guru in an Infomercial, but it does have some merit. Measure yourself, and your work against the best that is out there. Don't settle for less in any aspect of your art form.

Three, each time you're about to play music, try to envision (perhaps even the night before) just how things could go in their most perfect form. Sometimes, these thoughts of great beauty can actually help you accomplish a small portion of your dream with your bandmates!!! It is perhaps an abstract approach but it can help to guide you from the inside out to those who listen. No matter what, I would wish everyone success, but, success on your own terms!!!

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

To me, the future of Jazz guitar is in very capable hands!!! If one studies the history of this music, the entire genre, it becomes obvious that the guitar entered the picture relatively late. It was only liberated to play lines and solos long after a style and vocabulary had been long since established. So the instrument's initial innovators had to find ways to imitate what they were hearing the trumpets, saxophones, and the piano doing. There was no specific Jazz guitar vocabulary. If one studies the development of the guitar in this genre, there can be no doubt that the guitar was a harmonic and linear "tinker toy" when compared to the piano and the horn players! However, somewhere during '70s and '80s everything began to change. And I would have to say that some of the most important MUSIC-MAKING has been done by groups led by GUITARISTS. This would have been totally unthinkable during the '30s, '40's, '50s' and '60s. In many ways, the playing field has been leveled. But, on the instrument itself, there's a long ways to go.

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

Well, the process of learning in all areas of life is simply endless. So, there is ALWAYS somewhere to go from wherever you might find yourself at a given moment. It is easy to discover what you don't know, and to proceed accordingly. The pursuit of excellence (of doing something well, to the best of your abilities) is always just beyond one's grasp); and the truth is, you NEVER get there!!! There's always something left to do, to be explored. So, in a sense, there is little or no time for self-satisfaction.

Sometimes, a pat on the back is all you can do, and then you must be on your way again to the next goal, the next destination. Success (whatever that might be relative to each one of us) should never be measured in terms of fame or stardom, for these are shallow and, in the end, meaningless pursuits. One must try to never be fooled by such things, or the people who are consumed with them, because it/they can only distract you from what is truly important. So, in answer to your question. I just want to continue to get better as a music-maker. That is what I am, that is what I strive to be - a music-maker......I happen to make music with a guitar. It is not the other way around!!! More than anything, right now I want to get myself recorded again as a leader, even if it means that I must self-finance the recording. If this becomes the case, it would be the 5th time that I've had to do this!

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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