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What I Learned From a Master
By  Jim Carlton

In this issue, my guest is Rich Severson, one of the most comprehensive players I know. He’s a former GIT instructor and studio veteran, meaning he can cover everything from rock to country to folk to pop. But his heart really lies in jazz. And he plays jazz guitar at a very high and impressive level. Today, Rich owns and operates GuitarCollege.com, famous for its online study courses and 99-cent guitar lessons. Rich has the gift of translating his jazz insight into accessible lessons for the serious student. Here he talks about his influences: Mitch Holder, Howard Roberts, Wes Montgomery, Tommy Tedesco, Joe Pass and Ted Greene.

Wes was my first introduction to jazz guitar. Specifically the “Bumpin” album. Besides the obvious octave thing, I always felt Wes had the best tone of all the great jazz guitarists. In my mind that’s how a jazz guitar should sound, round and warm and with a lot of soul. That’s the benchmark I’ve always aimed for.  Howard Roberts was second on that point. 

In my college years, Howard was the pinnacle guitar player. I learned volumes of material from Howard via Mitch Holder. I studied for about a year with Mitch. He started me back to the basics by developing my technique. Up to that point I didn’t pay much attention to it, I just played. But I must have been a pretty good player before my studies with Mitch because I was in a signed band in high school and doing outside studio work.  However, I’m grateful that Mitch showed me Howard’s technique of holding the pick, the left hand and even the guitar.  This is still my approach with the Guitar College program for those who don’t have good technique: let’s go back to square one and learn the instrument the most efficient way. It’s well worth the effort.

H.R.’s ideas are peppered throughout everything I play and teach because of my teaching at GIT. Through Howard I learned the value of a good education and that you’ll only be held back by what you don’t know, not what you do know. Howard was the first player who I heard say, “Steal for one, it’s stealing, steal from two, it’s research, steal from ten, it’s inspiration.”  A Barney Kessel quote that’s always stuck with me is, “I’m a musician who happens to play guitar.” This is why when I teach guitar, I teach music as well.

Ted Greene was also a major influence. I was lucky enough to teach at the same music store with him. Ted taught me about chord inversions, playing chords with walking bass lines and harmonics. One idea that I took away from being around Ted was that you can take a musical concept and expand it through all its possibilities and then distill it to just a few. This will help you define your playing.

Joe Pass, wow! I remember working on a solo of his over a minor blues and finally realizing he was playing over changes that weren’t there! I always thought you had to play over the written changes. What an eye-opener.  For Cmin7 he’d play over a C7alt moving to Fmin. Then instead of playing over Fmin he’d back cycle though D7 alt to G7 alt. That made me realize that a jazz soloist’s lines are stronger than the harmony underneath it. That’s why, the better the soloist, the less comping needed underneath him. Joe’s comping ideas and reharmonizations have been a huge influence. The first time I played with John Pisano his first comment was, “Man you sound like Joe Pass.” Joe’s influence is immeasurable.

I studied jazz soloing with Charlie Shoemake, the vibraphonist for George Shearing. He was another major influence because he introduced me to Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Bud Powell and other bebop greats through his transcribed solos.

And I should mention that Tommy Tedesco showed me economy, or speed picking, which is invaluable. Tommy is often overlooked as a jazz influence.