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JJG Interview

Reprint fom Just Jazz Guitar Magazine
February 2004

Pro-Files in Jazz Guitar
by Eric Elias

Pro-Files in Jazz Guitar is designed to introduce you to some of the great jazz guitarists that might not be as visible as our favorite players. These guitarists might be in less visible roles such as studio players or school instructors. Pro-Files will include everything from e-mail conversations, CD and concert information, interviews and master class excerpts to introduce you to some fantastic players. You never know, some of them might be playing right in your local area. This issue will feature jazz and fingerstyle guitarist Rich Severson who hails from Coarsegold, CA.

Rich Severson is the founder and director of Guitar College, a home study guitar curriculum that provides coursework in theory and technique, jazz, blues, fingerstyle and country playing. Rich is a former Musician’s Institute of Technology (M. I.T.) instructor and has several instruction books published by Dale Zdenek. He is a California certified teacher and has performed with players such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Rich currently has a number of CDs available featuring jazz, gospel and Christmas music in both solo fingerstyle and combo settings. At age 51 he is as busy as ever, doing clinics and workshops for Guitar College, Hofner Guitars and Christian music seminars. Rich endorses Hofner guitars, Boomerang Phrase Samplers and Sibelius Software. He is also a dealer for these products.

EE: Who were your earliest musical influences?
RS: Brahms and Bach; I took piano lesson at age five through ten. I guess I was pretty good because I did win a couple of trophies. My mother played piano and my father loved big band music and was always playing records.

EE: Who were your earliest guitar influences?
RS: Gene Autry was probably my very first influence on guitar. I remember him playing guitar, shooting a gun while riding a horse and always got the girl, who wouldn’t want that? Later it was the Beach Boys, Dick Dale, The Ventures, Ricky Nelson, The Beatles and The Yardbirds,

EE: Sounds like the normal guitar interests for a kid growing up in the 50’s and 60’s. So, how old were you when you started playing guitar and what circumstances led you to be interested in jazz?
RS: I’ve always had a guitar since I was three (a Mickey Mouse with the crank). When I was about six my Mom and Dad took me down to a pawnshop and I got a Stella. My mother could play a few chords and knew how to tune it. When I was thirteen I asked my mother for guitar lessons for my birthday and that Christmas she bought me a Telecaster and a Vibroverb amp, boy that was an exciting day. Sure wish I still had them. I always had real good teachers; Bill Eucker was my first, what a player. I would like to know what happened to him. Another teacher Bob Door was a big influence he started me on chord melodies. I could already read music from playing piano so I did have an advantage. I met this older guy, Ed Mendel, who turned me on to jazz guitar. He played me a Tal Farlow record; I had never heard anything like that. He always wanted me to show him rock licks and then he’d show me a jazz lick. Then a friend gave me Wes’ “Bumpin” album which had the tune “Tear it Down.” I found the transcription in Downbeat, learned it and I was hooked on jazz from then on. I played in bands all through high school. One of my high school bands was with Pat Flynn, a Nashville studio player. All four of us in that band are still playing and have groups. We had a recording contract and also started doing some studio work while still in high school. When I started college I really got into jazz. I played in the big band and made the trek into LA to study with Mitch Holder, what a great influence; Mitch had studied with Howard Roberts. I started teaching at Ernie Ball guitars in Tarzana with Ted Greene. We would play together when we had a break together, what a treat, Ted could show you something in 5 minutes and I could expand on it for a month!
Around that time I took a couple of lessons from Joe Pass. Then I heard about a jazz teacher named Charlie Shoemate. Charlie is a great vibes player and played with George Shearing when Joe Pass was with him. Charlie’s method was simple, “Here’s a transcribed jazz solo and the recording, go home and learn it, memorize it and be able to play it in 3 keys.” I made the most growth in my playing with that simple method and I’ve applied that to my own teaching. If a student has the written music with a recording and can understand the theory and harmony of the piece and has woodshed his technique and chord inversions he has the tools to become an accomplished player.

EE: I agree. It sounds like you have a lot of influences. How would you describe your musical style today?
RS: Mainly bebop/blues. I like and appreciate all the styles and have explored many of them but always came back to jazz. I’ve always thought I should focus on just one, but never could.

EE: I definitely know that feeling. What context are you currently showcasing your music in?
RS: I play in a number of settings; as a solo guitarist usually on nylon string, in a jazz trio with guitar, bass and drums (sometimes adding a singer, sax or piano) and with a smooth jazz quintet, guitar, bass, drums, piano and sax. I also play with an 11-piece group: 4 horns, 4 rhythm 3 singers. In addition to all that I’m currently the musical director at a large church in Fresno and play in several other situations including orchestras and big bands. Fresno has a lot of great musicians and there are plenty of opportunities to play. I also play at guitar shows around the country in the Guitar College and Hofner booths and do workshops. I do all the California shows and also did the Arlington, Dallas, Detroit, New Jersey, Las Vegas, and Charlotte shows last year. Our kids are all grown up now so you never know where I’ll turn up next.

EE: Hopefully you’ll make it out to the east coast some time soon. Tell me about your current equipment. What guitars are you using now?
RS: I have a house full various guitars and amps but my favorite guitars are the Hofner Jazzica, Verithin and Vice president, G&L ASAT Classic, ’66 Howard Roberts Epiphone, and Gibson Chet Atkins nylon for solo gigs. The amps that I use regularly are Traynor Valve 40, Fender Twin and Vibrolux. I don’t leave home without the Boss ME30 effects processor. One of the most useful fun tools I have for practicing is the Boomerang Phrase Sampler. It’s also great for gigs and composing. I have struggled for years to get my music software to do what it says it will do and finally found Sibelius by far to be the most user friendly program I have ever worked with. I use it almost daily for writing lead sheets and arrangements. The new G7 is even easier and just for guitar players.

EE: What is your favorite context to play in?
RS: Just a guitar, bass, and drums trio is the most demanding and fun for me. You may not hear many guitar players say this but I also like the big band and orchestra gigs where I just show up and read the charts. I guess I like it all, with a big variety nothing gets boring. I like teaching gigs too. I started teaching privately at 14 and have taught ever since. When I got my drivers license I immediately got a job teaching at the local music store. They say if you really want to learn something, teach it and that’s true. I encourage all of my students to do a little teaching. I wrote three books for Dale Zdenek Publications in the early 80s, (publisher of the famous “Chord Chemistry” book); “Blues and Rock Solos,” “Country and Rock Solos,” and “Guitar Technique”. That company was last owned by Warner Bros. and my books are currently out of print. From ’88-’91 I was a GIT Instructor. I started Guitar Correspondence in ‘89 which evolved into Guitar College in ‘93 and have been doing that ever since. Mostly I stayed close to home with my wife and four children. I did many demo sessions, and “B” movie soundtracks, including producing demos and jingles in my own studio.

EE: Who are some of your favorite people to play with?
RS: Gary Newmark, drums, Roy Carlson, bass and Darryl Devaurs, piano. This is the group that did the “Blue Christmas” CD with. It’s funny, I play with a higher caliber of musician here in the Fresno, area then I did in the LA area. In LA I continually worked with the same guys, I kept in the same circle of players because it was easy and we were always working plus we were making good money. When I moved here I deliberately tried to hooked up with the best guys in town, turns out they are also are some great Christian guys as well as players.

EE: Speaking of Christianity, you are the music director of a church in Fresno. How do you integrate your spirituality into your music and how has that had an impact on you as a musician and a person?
RS: That’s a big question. As a musician, being a Christian has helped to take the focus off me when I play and put it on God. I try to play for His glory now not my own. That gives me freedom to be more relaxed and less competitive. I know God delights when I play for His purpose and not just my own, in and out of church. People can feel the joy when the Holy Spirit flows through the music. I can feel it too and that’s great! I am a work in progress. Personally, when I was in control of my life it was a real mess. My guitar playing was my master and it was ruining my marriage, my family and me. Once I let Jesus Christ become my Lord and Master everything began to fall into place and we were all blessed and so much happier. As you know, I put my personal testimony in all my books and on my website.

EE: Thanks for talking about something so personal. I agree with you and I think music and creativity are a gift and can be great tools to bring us closer to God. Do you approach church music differently than jazz or other styles? You have a CD-Rom available that teaches worship music. In what ways have you blended your jazz playing into the worship songs?
RS: Well I‘ve taken some of the old hymns and written jazzed up versions. When I did the “At Peace With My Guitar” CD, I didn’t want the arrangements to over shadow the tunes. I wanted people to recall the lyrics and their meaning reflect on the tune, and God’s majesty not Rich’s guitar playing. Some arrangements are simple, almost too simple; others have lots of counterpoint and chord substitutions. There’s a good balance between hip and straight. Much of the current worship songs have 4 chords and it hard to come up with a nice jazz arrangement. The traditional tunes have more changes. I see the day coming when contemporary worship writers will start write with more musical integrity. I would encourage every guitar player to play in church. I have had some of my best playing experiences there and have had a lot of growth both personally and musically because of it.

EE: That is great. I’ve had similar experiences and there are often some fantastic musicians playing in churches who we might not get to play with otherwise. Tell me about your teaching. As a teacher, how do you approach learning improvisation?
RS: Many people push transcribing, but if a student doesn’t have the technique, or the theory and the ear, he is easily frustrated. I think you have to do all of it, if you don’t your playing suffers in some area. Play scales & arpeggio studies to build technique, learn theory and harmony, memorize solos and tunes, transpose them, actually write out your own ideas, take some lessons, when you see someone you like, ask for a lesson or two. You’ll never stop learning, that’s the beauty of music. Make music friends. It really bothered me to see students come to GIT and pay thousands just to learn the basics that they could have learned anywhere. They weren’t prepared for the great things they could have learned. The students who gained the most from the school were the one’s who could already play well and could hang and learn the advanced stuff from the teachers. One of the reasons I started Guitar College was so a student could get the fundamentals of music and guitar in an organized plan at a decent price.

EE: I can attest, first hand, that your material is well organized and really presents the right material in a very easy to understand manner. As a performer, do you prefer a particular style of tunes, like standards, ballads, modal tunes to improvise over?
RS: I do like standards the best. I like to hear how others play a standard or a blues tune. It levels the playing field as opposed to playing originals, where a player can kind of “hide” in an unfamiliar arrangement.

EE: What is the climate of the current music business on jazz and how do you think this has affected your approach to bookings and working in the music world?
RS: From my window I see the jazz guitar market as expanding. Baby boomers don’t to want hop around a stage in spandex anymore, there’s more interest in chord melodies, more interest in songs their parents listened to, perhaps as a way of still connecting with them. Jazz offers the freedom of improvisation and creativity without having a band or a singer. Years ago the only place a guy could play was in a bar or casuals now they’re all playing in church. It’s great! They are exposed to many different styles, playing situations and many times have to read. They have to be more like a studio musician and less of a lounge player, so it is more demanding. The Guitar College typical student is a guy in his forties who played in high school, quit for a career, raised a family and now wants to get back into music, but this time they want to do it right and are not content with learning a Stones’ tune. They want to learn about music and develop their skills to get the most out the instrument. They don’t watch much TV and find more relaxation and entertainment with the guitar. I see more interest in the corner stone of jazz guitar players like Farlow, Roberts, Pass, Kessel and Wes.

EE: What kinds of projects do you have coming up in the near future?
RS: I’m long on ideas and short on time. Guitar College has plenty of lessons and courses in the works. We’re just getting into interactive CD-Roms. I’ve completed three so far. The first is out and there are two more due out in July. The tools for teaching are many now a days and I want to use all of them. I think we can produce a stronger player faster than ever before. If they can see the written music, hear it, see it played and understand the theory there is really no stopping them.

EE: I’m interested in checking them out. What advice do you have for young guitarists just getting into jazz?
RS: Divide your time between technical material, (theory, scales, arpeggios..etc) and music (learning a chord melody, or transcribed solo, good comping changes to a tune). Learn to read music. Learn all you can about theory and harmonic progressions. Listen to standards with vocals, it helps you remember the tune. When you improvise don’t ramble on and on, say something, be lyrical, think in phrases with a start and a finish, take a breathe between them, let some time go by. Try to write down ideas then solos, and learn to focus.
EE: Thanks for your time, Rich.
RS: Thanks Eric for this opportunity!