“I’VE BEEN BLENDING GENRES IN
works for many years, but I’ve lost the words
to describe what I do, because they all sound
so trite now,” says Joel Harrison. “I mean,
haven’t phrases such as ‘genre-bending,’
‘eclectic,’ and ‘world music’
all meaning at this point?”
Perhaps so, but the fact that there may
be a dearth of adequate phrases to describe
Harrison’s music in no way devalues his singular and occasionally
visionary compositional approach. For example, on 2008’s The
Wheel, Harrison brilliantly integrated classical
string composition with jazz improvisation
and ideas derived from traditional African
and Appalachian music—eliciting effusive
praise from critics and artists alike.
Harrison’s other releases span a vast stylistic realm from
interpretations of jazz drummer Paul Motion’s
compositions (The Music of Paul Motion) to a
collection of folksongs from around the globe
(Native Lands) to his takes on alt-country (Free
Country) and songs by the Beatle of the same
name (Harrison on Harrison). He even went
the singer-songwriter route on Passing Train.
To realize his iconoclastic works, Harrison has joined forces with a
of other forward-thinking artists, including
fellow guitar renegades Nels Cline, Nguyên
Lê, and Liberty Ellman. More recently, Harrison has come under the
spell of Indian
music—largely due to his collaborations with
sarod master Anupam Shobhaker, whose
influence can clearly be heard in the guitarist’s National steel and
electric slide playing.
On last year’s Search [Sunnyside], Harrison
continued his exploration of the jazz-classical nexus with a septet that
Hammond B3, violin, and cello. Two particularly surprising covers appear
an arrangement of 20th century classical com-
poser Oliver Messiaen’s “O Sacrum Convivium” featuring lovely blues-inflected jazz guitar
lines, and a rendition of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post” that doesn’t
feature a guitar solo (though Harrison kills on
the brief slide solos that bookend the piece).
Harrison’s guitar work is also spotlighted
on his most recent release, Holy Abyss [Cuneiform], an intriguing collaboration with Italian bassist Lorenzo Feliciati. “For me, that
record was more about guitar playing than
writing,” says Harrison, “and I play more
guitar on it than on most of my records.”
Do you think of yourself primarily as a guitarist or
as a composer or are the two inseparable?
They’re pretty inseparable, although over
the past few years I’ve done more and more
composing and that aspect of what I do has
been developing greatly. Composing brings
me a lot of joy, and I feel like I have an almost
unlimited amount of ideas that I’m eager to
pursue. With guitar, as much as I love it, I
feel there’s so much that’s already been done
that’s great that it is harder to find some -
thing fresh to say.
What percentage of your music is composed
directly on the guitar?
My composing is mostly done straight
onto score paper or with a little help from the
piano, because you can see the way the harmony is moving a lot easier, especially when
composing for larger ensembles. As far as
guitar playing is concerned, one of the great-
est joys in life for me is playing simple American guitar music, be it New Orleans music
or Appalachian music or just plain blues. But
when it comes to composing, I’m not going
to write, say, a blues tune, because I think
that would be redundant.
Maybe so, but you did manage to sneak some blues licks into
In 2012, what does “jazz” really mean?
I have no idea, but I will say I’m extremely
hostile to anybody who tells me that they do
know. One thing I can tell you, though, is that
more and more jazz music is coming from
the conservatories rather than the street—
for better or worse.
Did you study classical guitar, and if so, how
much of the technique do you still employ?
I played classical guitar for a couple years
but quickly realized that playing classical
style and every other style were in many
ways mutually exclusive. Classical guitar
requires its own obedience if you are going
to get anywhere with it, and it really wasn’t
my voice. The repertoire was also limited,
though it was great being exposed to the
music of composers such as Bach. The experience probably helped my right-hand tech-
nique to some degree. My left-hand technique
and chord-voicings come more from studying with Mick Goodrick and Charlie Bana-
cos, and from listening to Jim Hall.
Speaking of right-hand technique, do you
mostly pick down/up/down/up?
Yes, almost always, though I also try to
do as much legato pulling off and hammer-
ing on as possible. Lately, however, I’ve been
practicing picking irregular patterns—groups
of five, seven, etc.—so that my up and down
strokes are equally strong.
What picks do you use?
I use Fender extra heavies, though
frankly I should probably think more about
how picks affect tone. Someone loaned
me a tortoise-shell pick and that sounded
You are playing Gibson Les Paul and ES-345
guitars, and a PRS Hollowbody in the photos I’ve
seen. Are those your primary guitars?
I have a bunch of guitars. The one I’ve had
the longest is a ’63 Gibson SG, which I use for
slide a lot. I also have an old Telecaster that I love, but it
doesn’t go out of the house much.
I’ve gotten some of my best tones on record
using that Tele. The PRS is a relatively new
purchase, and it is nearly perfect. It’s light, it
plays wonderfully, and it stays in tune. Paul
Reed Smith is some sort of genius. I also love
my National steel resonator.
What do you string your electrics with?
D’Addario .011 sets mostly, but some-
times .010 sets.
Do you have a favorite amp?
I’ve been using old Fenders for years. I
just got a brown ’74 Super Reverb restored
to its original condition and it sounds amazing. I also have a dual rectifier ’56 Bassman
that is incredible, and I love blackface Prince-
tons and Deluxes. It’s pretty hard to beat that
stuff. The only problem is that those amps
need constant care. I try new boutique amps
every now and then, but for some reason I’m
never willing to part with the $2,500 or so.
I’m still waiting for the amp equivalent of
the experience I had buying the Paul Reed
Your amp choices suggest that you get distortion from pedals. Which ones, and what other
pedals are critical to your sound?
I seldom play venues where I can turn up
enough to get distortion from my amp. I’ve
been using a Boss DS-1 since 1982, which
I really love, but I also have an SMS Earth
Drive that Nels Cline recommended, and
a Hermida Audio Zen Drive. A few other
pedals that I use regularly are a Line 6 DL4
delay, a DigiTech Whammy, a Cry Baby wah,
and most recently an Electro-Harmonix
Ring Thing ring modulator. I also have an
old rack-mounted Lexicon PCM-41 digital
delay modded for longer delay times, which
is a fantastic instrument, and Ben Monder
inspired me to buy a Lexicon LXP-1 reverb.
Passing Train is a collection of songs. What
makes a great song as opposed to a great com-
Early in life I was enamored with songs
by Jimi Hendrix, Greg Allman, James Taylor,
and other great writers, and I actually started
out as a songwriter myself. As for what makes
a great song, take Merle Haggard for exam-
ple. He condenses a whole novel into about
12 lines and does so with impeccable musi-
cianship and a voice that immediately gets
inside your heart. Writing a great song is one
of the hardest things that any musician can
do. I’ve written a few songs that I’m proud
of, but mostly I try to speak like that through my instrument when I improvise.
What led to your recording Harrison on Harrison?
I realized about 12 years ago that although
I’m grateful for having learned some of the
standard jazz repertoire, that wasn’t my business in life. When not writing my own music,
I prefer to play music that hasn’t already been
widely articulated by hundreds of other jazz
artists, because it is more exciting and feels
more open. Recording Harrison on Harrison,
Free Country, and similar albums is essentially
my way of creating my own jazz repertoire.
You have collaborated with instrumentalists
from around the globe. Provide some examples
of how non-Western approaches and techniques
have affected your guitar playing.
I’ve been playing a lot of slide for the
past few years and at least half the time I’m
trying to play Indian music, because the way
Indian musicians move between pitches—
the melodic ornamentation—is an incred-
ibly beautiful thing. Jeff Beck and Derek
Trucks have been exploring similar things,
and that’s really exciting because it is kind
of fresh on the electric guitar. That’s one
area where I can keep growing and not be
rehashing what’s been done before.
African choral and stringed instrument
music has also been a big influence. The
polyphonic right-hand picking pattern in 5/4
that I play on “Wishing Well” (from Passing
Train), for example, was inspired by African
music. There are rich traditions involving
guitar-like instruments all across the planet,
and I think they are great places for guitar-
ists to look for inspiration.
What are your thoughts on the connection
between contemporary classical and jazz com-
There is an amazing wealth of material
from throughout the history of classical
music, surprisingly little of which has worked
its way into the jazz continuum. There have
been major exceptions, of course, such as the
music of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus,
Gunther Schuller, and George Russell—
but generally there has been a great deal of
antipathy amongst jazz musicians, particularly regarding notation. If you take the time
to analyze and really understand some of the
great classical pieces, however, you’ll discover
secrets that you’ll be able to use for the rest
of your life. There are universes within universes in any great composition. It is a little
different when it comes to improvisation, as
many jazz musicians listen to a tremendous
variety of music, including classical music,
and incorporate ideas from that music into
their improvising. To me, some of the most
interesting music balances notation and
improvisation in equal measure. That’s the
approach I took on The Wheel.
Why did you choose not to take the main solo
on your cover of “Whipping Post”?
I’ll be honest, that was a hard solo to
give up. But I wanted to avoid the obvious
comparisons, and it would have been really
hard to get the sound of Duane Allman and
Dickie Betts out of my head, so I decided
that by giving the solo to the cellist I’d be
doing something with the piece that no one
had done before. At the same time, I wanted
to play some nasty slide, so I weighed in on
the intro and the outro.
Your slide parts fit perfectly with the tune,
but they are pretty outside, and don’t really say
What could be stupider than me trying
to sound like Duane Allman? I’d love for
Derek Trucks and the guys who originated
this music to hear my version and say, “Wow,
I’m so happy that this guy did something
that we haven’t already done with it. God
bless him, he really took a chance and fol-
lowed his own course.”