Lenny Breau, 1974

August 1, 2007

Johnny Smith had warm words of his own for Breau, calling him a musician who has “created a new concept and direction for the electric guitar.”

Breau’s guitar style has evolved in complexity so that the young, now Canada-based artist has come to rely on all five fingers of his right hand for his intricate, simultaneous comping and melodic explorations.

What do you think distinguishes the jazz guitarist from the rock guitarist?
It seems that with the rock player, the main thing is the blues, or the rhythm and blues scale—which is used a lot, with maybe one or two other scales. Now, in jazz guitar, you’re using a lot of scales, and I think that’s the main difference. Jazz players are using a lot of different colorings and chords and stuff. It’s not a folk music—it’s not so down-to-earth.

How would you account for the increasing difficulty to get record dates playing straight jazz?
The guitar is the main instrument of rock, and I think that has maybe put a damper on jazz guitar. I know a lot of jazz guitarists have sort of laid back for the last few years, and haven’t recorded like they used to. Let’s face it, the people who run the music business are in it for the money, and they aren’t going to record something that won’t sell in huge amounts. You almost have to be a guitar player to go out and buy a jazz guitar album. The run-of-the-mill person isn’t going to buy a jazz guitar album by a specific cat, because that isn’t the kind of thing they’re playing on the radio.

Are you saying that jazz guitar music might be too subtle for the average listener?
It demands listening. A lot of people just want to dance, and you can’t dance to most of it.

Do you use any specific amp settings?
I try to get a sound that’s not all highs. I want a full sound, and you’ve got to use a certain amount of bass to do that.

What about your thumbpick and fingernail style?
My thumbpick, and the way I use it, is just like Chet Atkins’. I take care of my nails pretty much the same as any classical guitar player would. I have to treat them as part of my instrument and part of my sound. I’ve had to get used to opening doors with my left hand, so if somebody is coming in on the other side, I won’t break a nail. Fingerpicks are a lot less trouble, and they’re used in a lot of folk playing, but, for jazz, I wouldn’t want to use anything but my nails. I think fingerpicks are kind of clumsy. All I’m really doing is using almost classical-style fingerpicking—except for the thumbpick—and I’m approaching the guitar, musically speaking, as if it were a piano. Using all my fingers gives me a lot of control.

Did Chet Atkins influence your use of harmonics?
Yes. I learned that from him, and, like everything else, I just adapted it to jazz. I feel that it gives the guitar a whole different sound—a whole different shading. And when you go back to the normal sound, it changes again. So what I’m trying to do is get all the different kinds of colors, shades, and ranges out of the guitar that I can.

Excerpted from Martin K. Webb’s interview in the September ’74 issue of Guitar Player.

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