ABOUT FOUR YEARS AGO, legendary jazz guitarist Jimmy Bruno
had undergone carpal tunnel surgery and was still getting
his playing back together when he was hired as a “birthday
present”—though he wasn’t required to jump out of a cake.
“David Butler of ArtistWorks was a student of mine, but I didn’t
know him yet,” says Bruno. “He had been working with my
Jimmy Bruno: No Nonsense Jazz Guitar DVD, and his wife Patricia
hired me to perform at his birthday party as a surprise. We
became friends and he wound up coming to Abington, Pennsylvania,
for about 14 weeks for private lessons. During that time
we discussed creating an online guitar institute, and about a
year later he had it up and running.”
Butler—a computing and Web guru who
among other things played key roles at
AOL—devised a site that allows students
to swap videos with Bruno for one-onone
instruction, access videos of Bruno’s
lessons and master classes, interact with
other students in a thriving online community,
and more. Thousands of students
have enrolled in the Jimmy Bruno Guitar
Institute since its inception.
Bruno’s first pro gig was playing in
drummer Buddy Rich’s big band when
he was only 19, followed by stints with
Frank Sinatra, Anthony Newley, Doc Severinsen,
Lena Horne, and other major
artists. Later, he logged thousands of session
hours in Los Angeles alongside
Tommy Tedesco, before returning home
to Philadelphia to refocus on playing jazz.
Bruno has also collaborated with jazz guitarists
Joe Beck, Jack Wilkins, Tal Farlow,
and Howard Alden, and won high praise
from the likes of George Benson, Hank
Garland, and Johnny Smith. His most
recent recording was 2007’s Maplewood
Avenue [Affiliated Artists], and he is currently
completing a new album.
What’s the most common problem that you
encounter with jazz guitar students?
The biggest problem with students
who want to play any type of music is connecting
their fingers to their ears. That’s
the last thing that comes natural to a guitar
player. For a saxophone player, when
you play middle C your fingers go to the
same place every time, because there is
only one middle C on that instrument.
But on the guitar there are five places it could
be, and when you multiply that by the four fingers
you could play it with, it gets pretty crazy.
That’s why no matter how much theory someone
knows, if they can’t make the connection
between their ears and their hands, they’re
just moving their fingers without hearing.
What’s the solution?
I’ve divided the guitar into what I call the
Five Shapes. There are five areas on the fretboard
where all of the notes exist. For
example, imagine you can’t play above the
fifth fret. By restricting yourself, your fingers
will fall on the same places over and
over again as you play or improvise, just like
they would if you were playing a sax. I ask
the students to stay in that one place for
however long it takes until they eventually
say, “Wow. I can hum something and play
it.” They only have to see it work with one
Shape, and then they want to do the same
with the other four. At that point they can
use any fingering they want.
How important is it that students read music?
I learned to read music by playing classical
violin etudes. My father knew this old
Italian guy that played first violin in the Philly
orchestra who sort of adopted me as a student
when I was a kid. He’d tell me to learn
etudes by composers like Paganini, and if I
didn’t get them right he’d bang me on the
knuckles with a pencil, which hurt like hell.
That helped me learn to read and to find the
notes on the fretboard. I think it is a good
idea for guitarists to learn to read, but at the
very least they need to know where the notes
are. I see some guys calculating in their head,
“G, A, B, oh it’s C.” It’s hard to make that
go away unless you really make an effort,
and there are no shortcuts.
Explain the concept of “no nonsense improvisation”?
I really don’t get into the idea of using
theory to analyze each chord in the moment
before playing something along with it. You
can analyze transcriptions like that after
someone’s played something, but not as you
are creating in the moment, because that’s
not how improvisers conceive things. Some
schooled players think things like, “You have
a C7b9, so you have to play Ab.” But if you
look at any transcription and listen to the
recording, it’s not happening like that. You
don’t know what a piano player’s going to
do. You’ll only know that if you stop the
music right there and isolate the chord and
the pitch—and of course they’re not going
to line up. They only line up in books. The
best example I can give is Bach’s fugues. Pick
a measure, pick a beat, go up and down and
see what kind of chord you get. The melody
lines and the accompaniment have to be in
motion. I see all music like that.
What is your psychological experience as you
At this point I’m listening rather than
thinking. I’m listening to the chord, and most
important, I’m listening to what I just played
so I can react to that along with what others
are playing. It’s a language that I don’t
have to translate anymore. Like say a guy
learns Spanish in high school and then moves to Spain. After a year or so of being immersed
in the language he’s not thinking about it
anymore. To tell the truth, though, most of
the people I learned from really weren’t
schooled. I never met any of those kinds of
musicians until I went on the road with
Rich is famous for being difficult to work with.
Briefly, how did you get the gig?
Buddy asked the sax player in his band,
Vince Trombetta, whether he knew any good
guitarists and Vince recommended me.
When I got to the audition I couldn’t believe
it. There were hundreds of guys lined up
with their guitars, and one would go up and
play like four bars and Buddy would yell, “Get off!” I watched this for about an hour
and when it got close to my turn I chickened
out and said, “I’m not doing that. He threw
his sticks at a guy.” But he said, “You got a
good recommendation, he’s waiting for you,”
so I did it. I made it through a whole chart
and he didn’t say anything. Then he called a
chart I couldn’t read, but I knew the tune, so
I just faked my way through it. Then he asked
me to play like Freddie Green, which I did.
After about five choruses he said, “Get a shirt,
and get on the bus. We’re leaving tonight.”
You mostly play with a pick but you also use
your fingers sometimes in combination. Briefly
describe your right-hand technique?
Basically, I don’t have a right hand
technique. I used to practice in front of the
television to try and play theme songs and
commercial jingles, and sometimes I’d leave
my pick in the kitchen and I’d be too lazy to
go get it, so I developed this mongrel hybrid
fingerpicking. When the tempo was fast I’d
just use my thumb to play all down strokes,
and when it was slower I’d also use my
middle finger. Then, when I did have a pick
I missed the sound, so I would play the bass
notes with the pick between my thumb and
index finger, and use my other three fingers
to pluck the notes in the chord.
You sometimes fret with your right hand fingers.
How long have you been doing that?
I’ve been doing that for a long time. Sometimes
I play a chord and I want a different note on the top that’s too far away to reach,
so I’ll hold the pick with my thumb and middle
finger, fret with my index finger, and use
my ring finger to pluck the note. It actually
started with adding bass notes. You’re playing
a chord, maybe around the tenth fret,
like a G13, and while it’s ringing you bring
your right hand around and tap the G on the
first string at the third fret. Tal Farlow also
used to do that, and I’m sure Lenny Breau
You’ve also been sweep picking for years, a
technique often associated with Frank Gambale?
A lot of people were doing that a long
time ago. I don’t know much about Frank,
but I think that he changes the left-hand fingering
to three notes per string to make the
sweeping easier, and I can see why because
a lot of arpeggios and things will line up to
make an easy sweep. It works very well for
him. He’s a fine guitarist. I got the idea from
reading violin music when I was 14, because
there’s no way you can play some of that
stuff picking up and down, especially if you
are skipping strings. Then I modified it even
more when I got into Parker, Coltrane, and
that kind of stuff. To me it kind of comes
down to this: if you’re going to a higher
string, always down. If you’re going to a
lower string, always up. It just seems to work
out. I break that rule all the time for articulation
and different things—but if I want to
play a really quick passage like a Charlie
Parker type line or a Coltrane thing with a
big, long arpeggio, then I use that picking.
Do you play your signature Sadowsky guitar
Mostly. I have other guitars, like carvedtop
Benedettos, but they are too expensive
to travel and gig with. For my signature guitar
I wanted a laminate instrument with a
smaller body size that still had a big sound
when plugged in, and it had to be very high
quality without being outrageously expensive.
Rodger Sadowsky made six guitars, each
one a little different. We tried different
woods, body dimensions, scale lengths, and
pickups, and finally he made one that was
perfect. Also, the guitars we sell are identical
to the ones I play.
What strings and pick do you use?
I use Sadowsky Jimmy Bruno Signature
sets gauged .013, .017, .024, .032, .042, and
.052, and extra-heavy picks that D’Andrea
makes for me.
Do you have a preferred amp?
I mostly use an Acoustic Image Clarus
head with a Raezer’s Edge cabinet. I also use
Henriksen amps if there’s not a Clarus
around. I put all the controls at halfway and
control the tone and the volume from the
At one point you had a Benedetto 7-string. Do
you still play it?
No, but I love that guitar. I found that
when I went back to playing my 6-strings it
was a whole lot easier, because I’ve got small
hands. Every once in a while I miss having
the low Eb, but aside from that I don’t miss
it. After all, Joe Pass did okay with just six
strings [laughs]. It’s also difficult to go back
and forth between six and seven. Howard Alden was the guy who turned me on to the
7-string, and he said, “When you get your
guitar, put your 6-string away, and don’t go
back and forth because it will take you forever
to learn it.” He was right, because
everything’s in a different place.
Has anything been lost since the old days when
it comes to playing jazz guitar, or has the art simply
evolved over time?
Yeah, a lot of things have been lost, like
the fact that the guitar can play more than
one note. A lot of young guys are using sound
to make a statement, rather than focusing
on chords and harmony. I understand that
different sounds make you play differently,
and using them is certainly a valid approach
to making a statement—but that hasn’t
evolved the music harmonically. I can’t hum
a lot of these new tunes or they don’t stay
with me. Don’t get me wrong, I like a lot of
the new sounds they’re getting and different
things they’re playing, I just don’t see a
revolutionary guy out there. I see lots of great
guitar players. For example, even though he
isn’t a jazz player, Preston Reid has really
taken the instrument in a new direction. I
first heard him in Nashville and couldn’t
identify one chord he played. He has great
rhythm and feel and he really composes. I
also think Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mike Stern
are great musicians. They use different guitar
sounds to create a musical palette, but
they also know how to put notes together
to make musical sentences.
Personally, I think people should go back
to George Van Eps and pick up where he left
off. There was a guy who played constantly
moving harmonies. But to do that you have
to have an ear and you have to listen. At my
age, I’m going to stick to what I know how
to do and I’m going to worry about the notes.
I’m going to find some new ways to put these
12 notes together. But music’s big, and it’s
even bigger when you add the guitar. I think
saxophone players have to be jealous of us
for a couple reasons. It’s very easy for us to
change the sound, and we can play more
than one note as a time. Every saxophone
player I know would die to be able to play a
chord. So it’s good to be a guitar player!
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