Saturday, May 26, 2012

Interview with Jazz Guitarist Tom Lippincott

I first became aware of jazz guitarist Tom Lippincott through his excellent Modern Jazz Guitar modules on Mike's Master Classes. For anyone interested in the modern stylings of Jonathan Kreisberg, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Ben Monder, Tom's series of videos hold nothing back!
jazz guitarist Tom Lippincott
A proponent of the 8-string guitar, Tom currently teaches at Florida International University and Miami/Dade College.

The Guitar Column:  Thanks for taking time out to do this interview, Tom!

Tom Lippincott:  I'm happy and honored to do it. Thanks for asking.

TGC:  When did you start playing and who were some of your early influences growing up?

TL:  I started playing guitar when I was 13, although I had started out on trombone at 11.  Trombone gave me some good preliminary experience with reading and basic musicianship.  People tell me I take a breath before playing a phrase, and I think this is because of trombone being my first instrument. 

When I was around 12, I used to sneak into my sister's room and check out her records.  This was the late '70s, and I remember listening to the Bee Gees, among other groups.  But then one day she brought home the two-record collection The Beatles '62-'66, and that hit me like a lightning bolt when I heard it.  Pretty much right then I decided "that's what I want to do," and I started bugging my parents to buy me a guitar.  After about a year of this, they finally relented and got me a cheap steel-string acoustic for Christmas when I was 13. 

I was totally crazy about The Beatles, and still am today, but I also ended up getting into Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, and then later on some of the great rock players and bands like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Rush, and Van Halen.

TGC:  When did you get into jazz?

TL:  I played trombone in jazz band in high school, and our band director was into jazz and played some jazz trumpet.  I was intrigued by the sophisticated harmonies and rhythms I heard in some of the music.  I actually tried to talk the director into letting me play guitar, but he had too many guitar players and too few trombone players, so I was stuck. 

I also remember reading about Miles Davis and John Coltrane in music magazines and was interested enough to buy some records of those guys.  I loved Miles in particular from the first time I heard him and eventually grew to love Coltrane just as much. 

During my senior year in high school, I sought out guitar lessons for the first time from a guy named Randy Wimer in Tulsa, Oklahoma (where I grew up). Randy, a great player and teacher who I still keep in touch with today, introduced me to jazz and classical guitar.  Through him, I became aware of guitar players like Joe Pass, Johnny Smith, Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Pat Metheny, and John McLaughlin, all of whom ended up being some of my biggest influences.

TGC: You attended North Texas State which is pretty well known for its jazz program. How did that experience shape your development as a jazz musician?

TL:  Attending North Texas had a huge impact on me.  First of all, it provided me with a wake-up call.  As a teenager, I had gradually developed a reputation at my school and among my friends as a really good guitarist, and I went to college with the notion that I was going to “wow” some people.  I remember when the results from auditions for my first semester were posted. My name was about a third of the way down this list of 80 guitar players ranked from best to worst, and I didn't place high enough to make any of the ensembles.  I really struggled my first year or two and consequently had to buckle down and practice hard. 

I also learned quite a bit just from being around other young musicians who I would practice and jam with whenever I could.  One guy, Pete McCann, the top undergrad jazz guitar student at UNT at the time, would generously spend time hanging out with me, playing tunes, and patiently answering questions like "How do you get that tone?" or "What was that lick you just played?"  I learned as much from Pete as I did from any of the teachers there.  Not surprisingly, Pete is a very successful jazz guitarist in New York now.

TGC:  Were there any teachers at North Texas who stood out and had an impact on you?

TL:  Absolutely.  Jack Petersen, who was the jazz guitar teacher there, really kicked my butt at first.  He had a great, very organized approach to teaching chords, rhythms, and scales, and it did me a world of good.  I have adopted many of his ideas for use with my own students over the years. 

Dan Hearle, who was the jazz piano teacher, was also a big influence on me.  Jack was down-to-earth, practical, real-world guy, whereas Dan had a little more philosophical, hippie kind of vibe. Of all my teachers, Dan’s the one I’ve emulated the most in terms of teaching-style and the way I interact with my students. 

I also fondly remember two other teachers from those days: Rick Peckham, who at the time was a grad student and teaching assistant and is now the assistant chair of the guitar department at Berklee; and Phillip Hii, who I took classical guitar lessons from.  I completed my master’s degree at the University of Miami, where I also learned a tremendous amount. 

Randall Dollahon, who just retired this past year, was my guitar teacher there, and I was influenced greatly by his dedication to his craft and the high standard that he held himself to.  I still look to him as an inspiration in both my playing and teaching.  I also was influenced quite a bit by some of the other teachers there like Ron Miller, Whit Sidener, Matt Bonelli, and Steve Rucker.  Ron, Matt, and Steve have become good friends and frequent musical collaborators over the years.

TGC:  You mention on your website that you adopted your fingerstyle technique a few years ago after being a pick player for years. I gathered that it was in the interest of revamping your entire technique. Was getting rid of the pick also a result of your lesson with Mick Goodrick? Mick, as I recall, went down a similar path from pick player to fingerstyle player years ago.

TL:  Strangely enough, no.  Although I do consider Mick to be one of my biggest influences, I was only vaguely aware of him being a fingerstyle player around the time I made the switch. 

I had been really interested in piano players like Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, and Brad Mehldau and was looking for a way to get more of those sounds into my playing. 

Around the same time, I also became aware of Lenny Breau and was inspired by his pianistic fingerstyle technique.  Additionally, I was inspired by hearing some of the incredible stuff Ben Monder does with his fingers.  I’m sure that my years of classical guitar playing made the transition a fairly smooth one as well.

TGC:  Having as much knowledge and facility on the instrument as you do, it's refreshing to know that you still sought out one of your guitar heroes for a lesson a few years back. What was that experience like, getting together with Mick Goodrick?

TL:  At this point it was more than a “few” years back since it was 1997, but that was definitely a life-defining lesson for me.  I brought my guitar but never even took it out of the case.  At the time, I had been agonizing over the issue of having (or not having) my own voice as a guitarist and musician.  Up until then, I felt like I had only been mimicking this or that player and didn't really have a style of my own. 

What Mick told me was very simple and self-evident: just stop worrying about it and trying to force it to happen, and it will happen on its own.  But there was something intangible about the way he delivered the message, and just being there in his presence, that seemed to have a profound effect on me. 

After that lesson, I really did manage to stop worrying about it so much, and sure enough, I feel over the next few years my own voice did start to become more clear.  I also feel like that lesson had a pretty profound impact on my musical and professional goals. I’d been struggling with this idea that, in order to have any sense of self-worth, I had to be known and respected in the jazz and guitar community, but after talking with Mick, I began to realize that, for me, thinking that way is a trap, a distraction to what is really important, which is finding my own truth and hopefully sharing that with others. 

When I’ve had the occasional taste of career success and recognition, I’ve always felt like I ended up having to fight even harder to stay true to myself.  Mick Goodrick and Ted Greene are two shining examples and role models to me of musicians who have stayed true to themselves while remaining humble and giving people. 

One of my deepest regrets is that I never had a chance to meet or take a lesson with Ted Greene.  I had always intended to but just assumed he'd be around for a lot longer.  John Stowell is another guitarist and teacher who I've been inspired by in more recent years in that same regard, and luckily I've had a chance to get to know him and play with him.

Although my lesson with Mick was 15 years ago, I have sought out lessons with heroes of mine since then.  Just recently I took a lesson with Nir Felder, one of my favorite up-and-coming jazz guitarists.  It was great to get a chance to pick his brain; aside from being a fresh voice in jazz guitar, he’s a really good teacher and a nice guy.

TGC:  You currently teach jazz guitar and jazz improvisation at Florida International University and Miami/Dade College. Describe the jazz guitar courses you teach and what a prospective student can expect.

TL:  The jazz improvisation class at MDC is a two-semester introductory course designed for music majors of any instrument. 

In the first semester of the course, I emphasize learning the basic elements of the jazz language, with special emphasis at first on how to play a musical phrase or melody and make it sound idiomatic to the jazz style.  Students also learn tunes, learn major scales and patterns in 12 keys, work on ear training, do a brief survey of jazz history, transcribe a recorded solo, and begin to study construction of improvised lines with plenty of in-class playing, culminating in soloing on modal tunes and simple II V I oriented tunes. 

In the second semester of the class, we continue learning tunes, surveying jazz history through important recordings, solo transcription, study of negotiating the all-important II V I progression, moving on to more complex tunes while also learning scales and patterns in 12 keys for harmonic minor, melodic minor, and diminished scales.  I also introduce the concepts of chord substitution and reharmonization, with special attention to the modes of the melodic minor scale and their uses for reharmonization.

I also teach a guitar ensemble at both MDC and FIU, and that’s a class I've always loved teaching; it's one of the only situations where guitarists get to play in a section and work on blending with other guitars, phrasing with a lead player, and following a conductor.  Special attention is also paid to sight-reading, which, as we all know, is a particular weakness for most guitarists.  I've written quite a few arrangements of both my own music and other composers' tunes for guitar ensembles, and I always enjoy the process of writing, arranging, and working up pieces while the students get valuable experience performing the music in concert settings.

I teach private jazz guitar lessons at MDC and FIU, as well as at Broward College. The private lessons follow a curriculum based on the level of each student (freshman through senior and/or graduate at FIU) but also are open ended enough to address individual strengths, weaknesses, and interests of each student. 

At FIU, I also teach a jazz guitar class for jazz guitar principles who are not performance majors.  This class functions pretty much like a group lesson, although I have a set curriculum and a syllabus that’s laid out from week to week.

TGC:  What is the current state of jazz guitar education like and how has YouTube affected things?

TL:  I thank my lucky stars that I got to live through the rise of the Internet and YouTube.  There is so much music and educational material available that I would have given just about anything to have access to when I was younger. 

I still haven't gotten over the fact that pretty much any time I want, I can think of a subject I want to learn more about (music or non-music) and, within seconds, have oodles of information at my fingertips.  I think that, in many ways, the Internet and YouTube have been a terrific boon to both aspiring jazz guitarists and also to professional musicians. 

There obviously are some slippery intellectual property issues associated with the posting of that material, but I am convinced that overall the rise of the Internet and YouTube has been extremely beneficial for jazz guitar and jazz in general. 

There are negative aspects as well; for one thing, I think it's easy for students to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information available.  When I was first starting out, I thoroughly exhausted the few resources that I had.  Now, students have to wade through tons of information and decide what to spend their time and effort working on. 

There's also Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap.  YouTube and the Internet definitely prove that rule, so that's another pitfall for the student.  It can be difficult for a beginner to know what information is valid and which players they should listen to.

TGC:  You also teach privately. What is a typical Tom Lippincott lesson like?

TL:  I typically approach private lessons outside the school setting a little more freely and open-ended and based more on the student's specific interests, without the burden of worrying about conforming to a curriculum or doing a jury, recital, or other performance. 

There are certain basics that I think are important for all guitarists, especially those interested in jazz, to master, and I do often find myself coming back to those with many private students.  Whether a student is inside or outside of a school setting, I like to spend the initial lesson finding out about that student's background as well as what his/her goals are for the lessons and for the long term with music and his/her guitar playing, so that I can tailor the lessons more specifically to those needs. 

I also always want to hear a new student play to get an idea of his/her strengths and weaknesses.  I know that some teachers can be real taskmasters; I have experienced teachers like that and have gained value from that approach as a student, but I just don't have that type of personality.  I also think that the inspiration and desire to learn and improve has to be there already, so I don't like the idea of being like a drill sergeant, and if I tried that approach I think it would come off as humorous and ridiculous more than anything. 

As a teacher, I think my strengths are introducing new concepts (or a different way of approaching an old concept) in a very clear and organized way, making observations or suggestions about a student's playing, and hopefully providing an inspiring role model as a student of the guitar and music myself.  It's also very important to me as a teacher to help my students find their own paths rather than advocating that they play like me or subscribing to a specific style of playing or approach.

TGC:  How did your association with Mike Gellar and Mike's Masterclasses come about?

TL:  I owe that association completely to John Stowell.  He was very proactive and kind of twisted my arm in a way by sending Mike Gellar a note recommending me and by making sure I emailed Mike an introductory email.  I'm very thankful to John because my association with Mike's Master Classes has been a positive experience so far, and it's a relationship that I hope will continue for a long time.

TGC:  I've got a couple of modules from your Modern Jazz Guitar series on Mike's Masterclasses and you cover topics which, seriously, I've not seen anywhere else -- especially the Kurt Rosenwinkel/Jonathan Kreisberg approaches to modern improvisation.

TL:  Thanks!  Steve Herberman actually suggested to me when I first started doing classes for Mike that I do something addressing modern jazz guitar styles.  Steve told me that it was something he gets a lot of requests for and that he thought I was a good person to approach the subject. 

As you say, I think there isn't a whole lot of information available right now addressing that subject specifically, so I was happy that I could introduce something to the general body of knowledge that hasn't already been covered. 

TGC:  Do you have any more lessons in the works for Mike's Masterclasses?

TL:  I definitely am planning on recording new classes this summer, probably at least a couple more Advanced Jazz Guitar Harmony classes.  One student also requested that I do a class covering single note improvisation on modern style tunes…how to negotiate chord progressions that don't contain II V I or other more traditional movement, and I'm considering doing that also.

TGC: This interview wouldn't be complete without the obligatory guitar and gear questions. Your Conklin 8-string solidbody features both a high A first string and a low B string. Tell us a bit about this instrument.

TL:  I do tend to get a lot of questions and comments about the guitar when people see me play, and what I usually tell them is that it's not all that crazy of a guitar; it's just a regular six-string with an extra string on either side of the range, kind of the same concept as a six-string bass versus a traditional four-string. 

Everyone always want to know if the fanned frets were difficult to get used to, but they weren't at all.  The hard part was getting used to the high A string being there.  It took me a long time just to acclimate myself to the high E string no longer being on the edge of the fingerboard.  If anyone is interested in more details about my guitar, I have a couple of pages devoted to it at my website at http://tomlippincott.com/8str.htm

TGC:  What made you gravitate toward the 8-string?

TL:  I was inspired by Lenny Breau's use of a 7-string with a high A. 

At one point I decided that I wanted to try a high A 7-string, but after doing some research (and trying it for myself), I realized that it's nearly impossible to tune a string up to a high A on a conventional scale length guitar, so just buying an off-the-rack 7-string and stringing it with a high A was not going to work. 

Once I realized I needed to have a custom guitar built, I thought why not add an extra low string as well, ala George Van Eps, another big hero of mine.  After I got the guitar, I ended up liking the low B better than the low A that Van Eps used.  Since the low string was more of an afterthought for me, I'm not too concerned with having the extra whole step into the bass register.  It's great to have the low string for solo gigs or for duos with a singer, but I'm not out to put any bass players out of work. 

I am interested in approaching 8-string more like a piano player than like a guitar player plus a bass player ala Charlie Hunter.  That's the other comparison people often make: "Oh, you play 8-string like Charlie Hunter," but to me, what I'm doing is totally different.  Charlie Hunter is amazing at what he does, but that's not what I'm trying to do.

TGC:  What is the advantage of the Novax fanned-fretboard?

TL:  Simply that it allows me to have a short scale for the high A string and a longer scale for the low B.

TGC:  You also play solo guitar gigs. A lot of guitar players would miss having another harmonic instrument or at least a bass player on the gig. What do you like about playing solo?

TL:  I have always loved the idea of solo guitar from the first time I heard Joe Pass.  I love the challenge of being responsible for everything: melody, harmony, bass, and rhythm.  There is also an intimacy about playing solo that you can only get that way. 

Some of my favorite music ever is solo guitar or piano recordings and/or concerts I've heard by people like Ted Greene, George Van Eps, Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, Art Tatum, Bill Evans, Lenny Breau, Ben Monder, Bill Frisell, and probably lots of others I'm not thinking of.

TGC:  Tell us about your CD Painting the Slow Train Brown.

TL:  In the wake of the aforementioned lesson with Mick Goodrick, I decided it was time to record, and I decided I should make sure it was something that was truly honest, that would be "all me," so that if I died after recording that music, I'd feel like I'd done one thing that justified my existence here on planet Earth. 

I've always felt more like a composer who also plays rather than the other way around, so I recorded that album with an emphasis on the compositions rather than on the playing.  Plus, I've always hated the way I play on recordings; from a playing standpoint, I end up wincing when I hear anything I've recorded.  I can honestly say that Painting is something I am not ashamed of, and I don't even wince when I hear it; I'm proud of the compositions, and I think a couple of the guitar solos don't completely suck. 

TGC:  You're credited with also playing lap steel, accordion, and harmonica on that album. I'm a big fan of lap steel for adding textures and I think it's a hugely underrated instrument.

TL:  That's nice to hear.  One of the ways I tried to keep things honest for that recording was to follow my inclinations with regards to orchestration. 

I grew up loving records by The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix where the recording studio was just as much of an instrument as a guitar, and a lot of the music I hear in my head is very orchestral in scope.  So I added other instruments that I had access to just to get some different sounds and textures.  I don't pretend to be any kind of lap steel player; I was just tinkering with the instrument for a little while there around the time the CD was recorded, and, to tell the truth I haven't touched it since then, but it was a lot of fun to play, and I think it did add something interesting to the tunes I used it on.

TGC:  I, for one, would love to hear a straight-ahead type album from you. Any inclination to do one in the not-too-distant future?

TL:  Well, I have actually done several recordings over the years since Painting, including some of standards, and all of them have ended up on the cutting room floor because I just wasn't happy with my playing, and also in some cases with the recorded guitar sound. 

I once read an interview with Pat Metheny where someone asked him, after his Question and Answer recording, why he'd waited so long to release a recording that had standards on it.  He said he wanted to wait until he felt like he had something to say that was unique and hadn't already been said before. 

When I think of recording standards, I always hear that quote in the back of my head.  But, my wife has been insisting that I record a new album this year, and I think she's probably right that it's time again.  I have several compositions that I'm pretty happy with that I'd like to record with a sax/guitar/upright bass/drums quartet (and that are a little more in the "modern straight ahead" vein than those on Painting), and I'd also like to finally record some solo guitar stuff for real, maybe even a few standards.

TGC:  Thanks so much for doing this interview Tom, and All the Best for the future!
TL:  Thanks again for asking me!

Check out Tom Lippincott's page on Mike's Master Classes

(pic source: www.tomlippincott.com)



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