Following the Footsteps of GIANTS

April 22, 2011

Is Andreas Varady the Future of Jazz Guitar?

In case you are wondering whether putting 13 year-old Andreas Varady on the cover of the April issue of Guitar Player has something to do with April Fools Day, rest assured that it does not. The junior jazzman has shared stages with some of the world’s greatest guitarists and other musicians, and unless you are of similar stature, the precocious youngster could likely play circles around you—no joke.

Born into a Hungarian Gypsy family in Slovakia, Varady was immersed in music throughout his childhood, and took a special interest in the Django Reinhardt and George Benson albums played regularly by his guitarist father. “Andreas was about four years old when I first became aware of his musical talent,” says Bandi Varady. “I bought him a small nylon-string guitar, which became his favorite plaything. At first he just played rhythm along with the CDs, using only one finger, but his sense of rhythm was perfect. Eventually, I taught him to play ‘Blue Bossa,’ which he learned very quickly, and I realized he also had a fantastic musical ear.” Young Andreas soon added Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery to his list of favorite guitarists.

The Varady family relocated to Ireland in 2008, where the young guitarist and his father performed together on the street to make practicing more enjoyable, to bring in a little fun money, and most importantly, to focus attention on the boy’s prodigious talents. The word spread further after Varady attended weekly classes at the Limerick Jazz Workshop, was featured on The Guitar and other programs on RTE (Irish National Radio and Television), and appeared on various BBC television and radio programs. He has also performed live at numerous festivals, including the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, the Sligo Jazz Festival, the Cork Jazz Festival, the Brecon Jazz Festival, the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, and the Derry Jazz Festival. In June 2010 he attended the Skidmore Jazz Institute in New York City on a scholarship from the combined Arts Councils of Ireland.

Musicians that Varady has played with include master guitarists Martin Taylor, Andreas Oberg, Frank Vignola, Tommy Emmanuel, and Louis Stewart, along with celebrated alto saxophonist and rapper Soweto Kinch, renowned trumpeter Terell Stafford, virtuoso double-bassist Michael Janisch, and Irish drumming sensation David Lyttle.

Varady’s debut album, Questions [Lyte], is a collaborative effort with Lyttle that also features Janisch and Bandi Varady. “Recording with Andreas was very easy, even though it was his first time in the studio,” says Lyttle. “We just set up in the live room and played. We used mostly first takes and there were no edits in post-production. It was all done in one afternoon. Andreas obviously has a superb technical facility, but what’s most special is his genuine sense of musicality. He improvises by ear and can aurally learn a melody or chord progression very quickly. It is only in recent months that he started learning about written music and harmony. Andreas is a very natural musician, and he’s also a great writer.”

Varady’s writing skills are evident on the two tunes he penned for Questions, the Benson- esque opener “A Day in New York,” and the super-swinging and soulful “Blues for Edward,” both of which feature Wes-style octave lines and imaginative single-note and chord melodies punctuated with freewheeling, angular runs. Miles Davis’ “Donna Lee” and John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” (the latter cleverly and convincingly arranged in a relaxed bossa nova style) are among the featured standards, and Varady kills on acoustic while burning through Django Reinhardt’s “Festival 48.” A gorgeous solo performance of George Benson’s arrangement of “The Shadow of Your Smile” closes out the ninetrack disc.

“Andreas has a lot of ambition and he’s constantly pushing himself to be the best he can,” enthuses Lyttle. “I believe that this, combined with his natural talent and modest attitude, will allow him to do whatever he wants.”

At what age did you realize that you had a special relationship with music?

I realized it when I was four, when I started to play the guitar. My father played, and was performing at the time, and I wanted to play like him.

Do you remember the first time that you tried to play?

Not really. It was a long time ago, you know [laughs]? I had a really small guitar, and I’d practice with my dad, and he showed me some easy tunes.

How much of what you do is the result of natural talent and how much is the result of hard work?

I think it is mainly natural talent, but it is a bit of hard work, too. I’d practice, like, once a week, and then after that I’d want to practice another day, and then after that I wouldn’t want to ever practice again—so sometimes it seemed like hard work.

What sorts of things do you practice when you do practice?

I practice new tunes, and the tunes that I play with my father. I don’t play scales or exercises because I actually don’t know many of them—I only know, like, two scales.

Two scales? It seems like you can play more scales than that.

I haven’t actually had a real teacher. I saw one for about five months, but mostly I play by ear.

You’ve studied some music theory, though, like when you attended Skidmore Jazz College. What did you learn there?

Skidmore was really great, but I mainly just learned about the history of jazz music and jazz musicians, and only a wee bit about notes and music theory. I’ve always mostly just played by ear.

So, you must have a pretty good ear?

Yes!

Describe what’s going on inside you when you are playing over changes.

When I know the tune, and I know what the changes are, I just react to the chords. So when I improvise I’m just playing the notes that I think best suit the chords, and I try to play really good lines. Sometimes I’ll go outside of the chord, because some notes that are outside of it harmonically can still sound really good. It is kind of hard to explain.

So you just hear the chords and sense what are the right notes without really thinking about it?

Yes. I don’t ever think about which scales or things will go best with the chords in that way. When I improvise it comes from me, you know? It doesn’t come from scales. I just play what I think it will be good to play over those chords, and I get that just by listening, and also from experience.

When did you first become aware of jazz, and what was it about the music that attracted you in the first place?

There were lots of things about jazz that were attractive to me. Number one, I really liked George Benson when I was younger, and he is still my favorite player. My dad bought lots of CDs by him and other jazz musicians and played them all the time and I really liked them, so I got into that music, and then later I got into all sorts of other jazz. But George Benson was the first one that really moved me.

Do you feel strongly attracted to other types of music besides jazz?

Not really. I like funk, and I like intelligent rap, like Q-Tip, with no bad words. I like all sorts of music except for maybe heavy metal, because I don’t understand it.

What was your first guitar?

My first guitar was a Richwood. It was a very small nylon-string, and not too bad for a beginner. The funny thing is that when I was younger I didn’t have a pick, so I played with my thumb.

Like Wes Montgomery?

Yes.

You still do that for some things, don’t you?

Yes, when I’m playing octaves, because it makes a warmer sound. I just palm the pick and switch over and play with my thumb on those parts.

You are playing several different guitars in the photos I’ve seen. How many guitars do you have?

I have several, but I didn’t buy any of them, they were all presents from different people. The guitars I play most are my Tokai Signature model and a Yamaha SA2200. The Tokai is my favorite, because it has a warm sound like George Benson’s, and the Yamaha has a great sound for modern jazz. Another guitar I have is a one-of-a-kind electric with a great acoustic sound, handmade by Fritz Howard. It was patterned on a Benedetto, has an Eastern European spruce top and flamed sycamore back and sides, and a floating Benedetto pickup. I also have a Fender Stratocaster that I got for a birthday present, which isn’t bad, but I don’t use it much, because it isn’t really made for jazz. I play it at home when nobody is there, with lots of distortion [laughs].

Did you have much input when they were building your Tokai signature model?

Mainly I told them that I wanted it to be a full-sized guitar in most ways, like with a full-sized scale length, but with a smaller body to fit my size.

What type and gauge of strings do you use, and how important are strings in achieving your sound?

My favorite strings are D’Addario Chrome sets with an .011-gauge first string. I have an endorsement with them. The strings are really smooth and make a warm, jazzy sound, like the old flat-wound strings they used back in the ’60s.

How about picks?

I use Dunlop Jazz IIIs, but I also have a big pick collection. Like, I have a lot of Bart Simpson picks.

Have you ever played with a turtle shell pick like many of the Gypsy jazz players use?

Do you mean the really big ones? I would like to, but I don’t know where to get them. They don’t have them here.

Describe your picking style.

I mostly pick with up and down strokes in the normal style, though sometimes I use just down strokes if I want to emphasize particular notes.

How about when you are playing those superfast arpeggios across all of the strings? Are you sweep-picking those parts?

No, I don’t use sweep picking. I just pick up and down really fast [laughs].

Do you have a favorite amplifier?

I actually have a signature amplifier, but it hasn’t arrived yet, and I can’t tell you who made it until they give me permission. I mostly use an AER Compact 60/2 when I’m playing the Fritz Howard guitar, but sometimes I use a Roland Cube 60D when I’m playing the Tokai. I think the AER is the best amp you can get for hollowbody acoustic- electric guitars.

You don’t use many effects, do you?

It depends on what I play. I like chorus and all that stuff—mostly whatever I can find on an amp. But I prefer a clean tone for most things.

You played on the street for a while. Describe that experience and what it taught you about playing and also about performing.

I played on the street with my father for about a year. The main reason we did that was to get recognition, and lots of people came around and listened. We also did it to make some money and to make contacts with people that could help me, so it was really good. It taught me a lot about performing in public and what people liked. I really like to play live, and busking on the street helped to make me feel comfortable doing that.

Wes Montgomery and George Benson are obviously big influences on you. What is it about those two guitarists that you like so much?

What I mostly like about George Benson is the way he sounds—the tone that he gets— but I also like that he plays very melodically and doesn’t show off by playing fast all the time. I also really like his singing. He has a great voice. Wes Montgomery also had an amazing tone and played really well. I love everything about his playing.

Did you listen a lot to those guys and try to learn their songs?

Yes, I did. I learned them by ear. I would put on a CD and just play along until I got the parts, though sometimes that could be kind of hard.

You learned to play all the parts by ear?

Yes, that’s the way that I learned nearly everything that I know by them, and also by other musicians. Like when I arranged my version of Miles Davis’ “Donna Lee” for Questions, I did that by first learning the tune by ear. But let’s say I’m trying to learn a John Coltrane solo. I can do it, but it would make things much easier if I was shown the notes. And I think you should know how to read notes, because if you are playing with someone who has their own tune and you’ve never heard it before, they will give you the music and you have to play it.

So you would like to study more music theory and learn to read music?

I want to learn more about music, and I also want to learn the notes. But I don’t want to learn too much about reading music—I mostly just want to learn how to read chord charts, so that I can solo over the tune. But I want to play in the way that I want to play, not the way that written notes tell me to play.

You cover “Festival 48” on your album. Do you feel a special connection to Django Reinhardt?

I really like Django’s playing. I listened to him a lot when I was younger and he is really amazing. I’m a Gypsy, too, and if you are a Gypsy you kind of know the music. You are born and you know it. It just comes naturally.

What do you think of the worldwide Gypsy jazz movement?

That’s great! Everybody should play that music. You don’t have to be a Gypsy to learn how to play it. Like Andreas Oberg—he isn’t a Gypsy, but he really knows how to play the music well.

What do you think of jazz-rock fusion?

You mean like Allan Holdsworth? I like his music sometimes, but not always. I like to listen to it more than I like to play it.

Do you like Mike Stern and John Scofield or other guitarists with a more contemporary sound?

I don’t really know a lot about those guys. I know their names, but I haven’t heard their music.

You do a very laid back version of “Giant Steps” on Questions. Why did you choose that song, and why that arrangement?

I chose that song because it is a really good song, and it is a great song to solo over because of the cool chord changes. I like to play hard songs. Most people play it as a swing piece, so I decided to arrange it as a slow bossa nova, instead, which I think came out really nice.

What was it like playing with other great guitarists, such as Martin Taylor, Andreas Oberg, Frank Vignola, and Tommy Emmanuel?

Well, all of them are really, really, really great guitar players. I like to play with all of them, but my favorite is Martin Taylor. He brought me over to play with him at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, and there were like 900 people there. We did lots of crazy stuff during the gig. It was so much fun to play with him. Martin is one of my favorite guitar players, and in my opinion he is the best at playing chords, bass lines, and melodies at the same time. Joe Pass was really good at doing that, but I think Martin is even better.

I’ve said that I think Martin Taylor is arguably the greatest living solo jazz guitarist in the world. Would you agree?

Yes, definitely.

Are there any musicians that you haven’t played with yet, but would like to?

I’d like to play with Birelli Lagréne, George Benson, Herbie Hancock, and Diana Krall.

You have chosen to play in a relatively straightahead style. Can you imagine a time when your playing might evolve into something different, and if so, what do you imagine it might be?

Right now I play modern jazz, but I also play hip-hop style jazz, and I think in the future I may be doing more of that. But I would also like to play old-style music. I’m really interested in playing a lot of different styles of music.

What advice would you give other young players who are hoping to become jazz guitarists?

They should learn a lot of chords and try to play by ear, but at the same time they should try to do their own thing and make their own music.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Guitarists should definitely play more quietly when other musicians are soloing.

PEER PLEASURE Andreas Varady’s Instrumental Admirers

“Andreas plays with confidence and maturity and has a total understanding of the language of jazz improvisation. It’s inspiring to hear him improvising because he has so many ideas and knows how to put them all together. He doesn’t just play a bunch of licks, he improvises for real and tells a story when he plays. It’s going to be interesting to watch Andreas develop over the years. He’s already an incredible player, but I have the feeling this is only the beginning of an amazing musical journey for him—and for us!”
—MARTIN TAYLOR

“Andreas has a natural blues feel, a relaxed and fluid technique, and the ability to improvise already at a young age. He definitely improvises a lot, and that’s rare among young guitarists of today because most of the youngsters you see on YouTube just play worked-out arrangements and solos. It will be interesting to follow his progress in the years to come. I’ve met lots of young talents through the years and many of them have ended up on the wrong path—drinking, doing drugs, etc. Andreas has a nice family and a lot of great support, so I’m sure he’ll avoid the many temptations to come and have a bright future.”
—ANDREAS OBERG

“Andreas sent a message to my YouTube account saying he was 12 years old, played guitar, had heard about me, and would love to play some day. I was very impressed by the clips of him playing duos with his dad. I arranged some festival appearances for Andreas, and began featuring him alongside some of the international guests in my own band, such as Soweto Kinch, Terell Stafford, and Andreas Oberg. Every time I play with Andreas, I notice a significant improvement of some kind, be it in his lines, his comping, or his interpretation of a tune. In addition to growing as an artist, he’s learning other important things, such as how to present a performance and how to play for an audience.”
—DAVID LYTTLE

“Andreas not only has prodigious gifts, he’s also so composed and comfortable at his instrument that you never feel like he’s trying to prove anything. I find all his accomplishments even more remarkable as he hasn’t studied music formally, and isn’t a theory whiz. His senses of harmony and phrasing are really developed, however, and show maturity well beyond his years. I really look forward to hearing how he will grow and evolve creatively in the years to come.”
—SOWETO KINCH

“Andreas sounds like George Benson, and has an incredible feel for the music and a respect for many different styles and players. He has the potential to be one of the greats of his time.”
—FRANK VIGNOLA

“I had the pleasure of jamming, unrehearsed, with Andreas at my concert in Limerick, Ireland. We never even met before the show, as he was driving with his family from another show. I introduced him onstage to wild applause. He came out very shyly then proceeded to take over the show like a pro. He played so well I couldn’t believe my ears and eyes. We jammed our way through three jazz standards, and had so much fun together. Let me tell you: It looked like a young, freshfaced kid playing a big guitar beside me— but in truth, Andreas is a giant. His talent is enormous, and his heart is so in the right place. He’s a gifted young player with a huge future. Much respect.” —TOMMY EMMANUEL

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