Mimi Fox was a precocious youngster, playing drums and then guitar before reaching her
teens. She rapidly taught herself to play pop, folk,
R&B, and other styles—but it was encountering John
Coltrane’s Giant Steps that set her firmly on her current
path. She relocated from New York to the San
Francisco Bay Area around 1980, a time when there
was a vibrant local jazz scene. “I used to sit in with
Bruce Forman and have my ass kicked several times a week,” she says. “I learned an enormous
amount from him overall, but being up there
on the bandstand taught me things I could
never have gotten just from taking lessons
Another pivotal moment was Fox’s first
encounter with her friend and mentor the
late Joe Pass. “He’d played the night before
and I’d pestered him for a lesson,” recalls
Fox. “It was early in the morning at his hotel
room and he was wearing a bathrobe and
smoking a cigar. After gruffly telling me to
sit down he had me play six or seven pieces
before he put out his cigar and said, ‘Mimi,
you play really well. You wouldn’t believe the
schmucks that come see me that can’t play
their way through a 12-bar blues.’ Then, a
little later he said, ‘You have a lot of fire in
the belly, and that’s something that no one
can ever teach you. Don’t lose that.’ That was
a transformational moment, because like all
artists I’d struggled—and still struggle—with
the feeling that I’m an imposter [laughs].”
If Fox is an imposter, she’s certainly hoodwinked
a lot of important people. In addition
to garnering accolades and awards from
an impressive list of publications, receiving
grants and commissions from prestigious
arts organizations worldwide, and teaching
at numerous colleges and universities such
as Yale and Berklee School of Music, she
has played with scores of great musicians,
including guitarists Charlie Byrd, Jim Hall,
Kenny Burrell, and Martin Taylor.
Beyond her passion and technical virtuosity,
Fox plays with a profundity that only
results from a lifetime of commitment and
total immersion in one’s art—the latest manifestation
of which is Standards Old & New
[Origin], an engaging collection of acoustic
and electric solo guitar performances.
How did you choose the tunes on your new
The past two years have been very eventful
for me, with real highs and real lows, and
I was looking back on my life retrospectively.
I wanted to pick tunes that reflected the different musical influences that I’ve had.
For example, my sister was really into folk
music and turned me onto songs like Bob
Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Woody
Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” when
I was about ten. That’s also why there’s a
Beatles tune and Michael Jackson’s “She’s
Out of My Life.” And the songs have great
melodies, which is all you need to be able
to reimagine them in a jazz manner.
Is there a typical process that you go
through when arranging a tune?
The arrangement has to respect the
melody and do justice to the composer—
including lyrically. For example, if I’m playing
“She’s Leaving Home,” I’m not only
digging into the beauty of the melody and
trying to get the cello part in and making
the music happen, I’m thinking about the
meaning of the tune and the lyrics. I also
try to find a way to make an arrangement
fresh, because if I’m going to play “This
Land Is Your Land,” I’m not going to play
it like Woody Guthrie. He already did that
and it was great.
Your arrangement of Wes Montgomery’s
“Four on Six” manages to capture
the full flavor of a piece with a prominent
bass line and an ensemble feel. How did
you accomplish that on solo guitar?
When I play that piece with my organ
trio, I play different hits than Wes does, and
this arrangement just takes that a little farther.
I reharmonized it slightly and transposed
it from G minor to E minor so that
I could have a low-E bass pedal tone, but
otherwise I’m still honoring the basic harmony
and melody of the tune. The bass
line runs throughout the original, but I
just play it at the beginning and hope that
people will feel it continuing underneath as
a layer while I’m playing the changes over
it, even though I don’t actually return to it.
Many contemporary jazz guitarists avoid
straight-ahead harmonic and melodic
approaches, seeking to find their voice
outside of those perceived constraints,
whereas you tend to expand the tradition
from the inside out. Would you agree?
Yes. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the
more modern language of jazz, and I do
incorporate some of that. But to me it’s
important to honor the legacy of the great
players that I’m standing on the shoulders
of, be it George Van Eps or George Barnes
or George Benson. There’s quite a lineage,
and I’m humbled to bear the title of jazz
guitarist—particularly solo jazz guitarist.
I’m covering a lot of ground and, frankly,
it takes a lot of chutzpah to put myself out
there doing this stuff. As an artist you live
with a certain tension between your self confidence
and your fears. There are times
when I think, “Oh my, I’m just a Jewish
girl from Queens—how the hell did I end
up doing this?” But the music means so
much to me. Joe Pass wouldn’t have liked
everything I do, but people such as myself
are continuing the tradition, and we have
taken it to another place. It’s just that we
continue to honor the legacy—the lineage.
You have several very nice guitars. Which
ones did you play on the new album?
I played “This Land is Your Land,” “She’s
Out of My Life,” and “She’s Leaving Home”
on the Guild F-30 acoustic that I’ve had
since I was 14. And I may have used my S3
archtop on “500 Miles High,” though I’m
not sure. Everything else was played on my
Heritage 575, which has also been my main
touring guitar for many years.
What is it about the 575 that makes
it so perfect for you, and keeps you from
searching for something else?
I have received offers from some great
builders over the years, but I’ve stayed with
Heritage. After Jim Ferguson wrote the first
Guitar Player article about me in 1991, one
of the Heritage builders contacted me and
asked if there was anything I was interested
in. I’d been playing a Gibson ES-175, and
the Heritage 575 was a little thinner and
lighter than the 175, which appealed to me.
My 575 is sort of a prototype, with a cedar
top rather than maple, and a few other
tweaks. It feels great, has a beautiful tone,
stays in tune, and holds up on the road.
How do you set the controls on the 575?
I use the neck pickup and keep the
volume and tone controls all the way up.
What strings do you use on your guitars?
I string my electrics with Thomastik-Infeld Flat Wound Medium Light sets
gauged .012 to .053, and my acoustic with
Martin Marquis Phosphor Bronze Lights
gauged .012 to .054.
Do you have a favorite amp?
I use a JazzKat TomKat when I’m playing
smaller gigs around town. It’s a 1x10 solid-state
combo with a tube in the preamp that
you can switch in and out. It has a warm
sound that I really like. When I’m playing larger rooms or I’m on the road I ask for
Fender amplifiers, usually a Deluxe Reverb
or a Twin Reverb. I’ve also used Roland JC-
120s, and I like those too.
How did you record the album?
I recorded it in my home using Avid
Pro Tools and an Mbox interface that I
plug directly into. I’m by no means a great
engineer, but I can get a good clean sound.
I do have some nice microphones, and at
some point I’ll try recording with them, but
for this one I just went direct. Afterward,
an engineer named Gary Mankin helped
me draw some additional beauty out of
the recordings, particularly the acoustic
Speaking of good clean sounds, your
tone is always beautifully clear and undistorted.
How much of that is due to technique
and how much has to do with your
choice of instruments?
It’s a mixture of both, but it is also a
matter of sensibility. Years ago I was doing
a session and the producer asked me to try
playing with distortion, but it just sounded
silly. I guess it is my background—and maybe
that I studied classical guitar for a few years
in my early 20s—but I like the pureness and
the challenge of playing with a naturally
beautiful tone. So, I do choose instruments
that will reveal that, and I also apply myself
to developing the right touch and articulation.
Of course, that’s just me. Guitarists like
my friend Steve Vai sound fantastic playing
As an educator, what is the most prevalent
problem with jazz guitar students?
For one thing, they don’t practice enough.
They want it overnight, and they don’t work
on essentials such as arpeggios. Also, I typically
encounter two types of students: those
that are devoted and put in the hours, but
don’t have a good time feel or don’t swing
or have some other serious issues musically;
and those that have a lot of innate musical
talent, but are lazy. The study of any art
form requires tremendous discipline, and
jazz is paradoxical in that all this discipline
is so that when you get up on stage you can
Another thing is that students don’t do
enough transcribing. They think that somehow
they’ll get their own sound by osmosis.
And, although it is actually by osmosis—it’s
an osmosis that has to happen from listening
and working to acquire important harmonic
and melodic data by really digging
into the music. I can play dozens of solos
note-for-note that are still in my head from
the first transcriptions that I did, and that’s
because I spent so much time listening and
then writing those solos down and tapping
out the rhythms. So, again, paradoxically
you get your own sound by listening to other
people. But you don’t get it by saying you are
going to get it—you have to work at it.