Hailing from Spain, the birthplace of the
modern guitar, Oscar Peñas’ approach to guitar playing
and composition is transcontinental, combining contemporary
jazz with traditional Spanish music and music
from Latin America.
After graduating cum lade from the Berklee College
of Music, Peñas returned to Barcelona, and recorded
two albums for the Fresh Sounds label that showcased
a mature, reserved style. In 2005, Peñas’ search for fresh
forms of inspiration brought him back to the U.S., where
he earned a masters degree in Jazz Studies from the New
England Conservatory, studying with such luminaries as
Danilo Perez and Charlie Banacos.
Peñas then relocated to Brooklyn, New York, where
he teaches and performs regularly. The guitarist’s third
album as a leader, From Now On [BJUR], features an
international cast of musicians that includes legendary
jazz pianist and accordionist Gil Goldstein on three
tracks. Peñas plays nylon-string predominantly on the recording, a collection of sublime compositions
that delve deeply into his Spanish
heritage while simultaneously honoring his
What guitars did you play on the new album?
I played a Prudencio Sáez Cutaway nylonstring
acoustic and a Gibson ES-175 through
a Fender Pro Junior amp.
Are those the same instruments that you
No. Live, I play a nylon-string Frameworks
Modern Classic model through an
AER Compact 60 amplifier, and my electric
is a Klein Custom, which I use along with
a Pro Co Rat distortion pedal and a Lexicon
LXP-1 reverb and delay processor.
Were you an electric or acoustic player first?
My first guitar was a nylon-string. I was
trained to play classical as a kid, though
after a while it got a little boring. I also discovered
that when playing other genres you
could choose your own notes! I switched to
jazz and got my first electric when I was 17.
Studying classical guitar in Spain was pretty
rigid, but I’m happy to have gone through
that because it really helped my fingerpicking,
which is kind of my signature. I wanted
to play nylon-string on the new recording
because that was my first guitar and it is a
part of me.
I’ve seen you play fingerstyle and solo with a
pick. What’s your usual approach?
I usually hide the pick in my fingers, so
I can combine both styles when needed. I
feel more confident playing lines with a pick.
The compositions on From Now On draw more
from Spanish music than those on your previous
albums. What caused your sound to evolve in
Every album is a product of the moment,
and at the time I recorded my first two albums
I had just graduated from Berklee, where I
had been exposed to all the music from the
late ’90s, like that of Kurt Rosenwinkel and
Mark Turner. It may seem kind of weird, but
when I was living in Spain, I was playing
music that was rooted more in America, and
since I moved to New York, I’ve been playing
music more rooted in Spain and Latin
America. It’s not a matter of feeling “homesick,”
that was just the music I wanted to do
at the moment.
What made you decide on the instrumentation
There was Fender Rhodes piano on my previous albums, which blends really well
with guitar, but for this album I didn’t want
to play with keyboards anymore. Gil Goldstein
played piano on one track, but he’s
a monster who has worked with the pioneers
of merging jazz and flamenco, such
as Carles Benavent and Jorge Pardo from
Paco de Lucia’s band, so I knew he would be
sensitive enough to give me space and complement
what I was doing. Moto Fukushima’s
6-string electric bass playing gave me
a unique harmonic pillow, and Richie Barshay
can play drums and percussion at the
same time. There’s also a ballad that has a
flamenco-like harmonic and rhythmic vibe,
so I asked Gil to play accordion on that song,
which really added a lot.
How do you decide whether to play acoustic or
electric on a particular piece?
I don’t decide until the last minute, though
I usually work out ideas and practice them
on the nylon-string first, because that gives
me more strength that I can later transfer
over to the electric if I choose. My approach
to playing both instruments is essentially
the same, and if I’m comfortable playing
something on the nylon-string then I’ll also
be comfortable playing it on the electric—
at least most of the time.
Which Spanish or Latin American songwriters,
composers, and guitarists have influenced
Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of vocalists
and piano players. But as far as guitarists
go, of course Guinga, Lula Galvão, Tohino
Horta, Egberto Gismonti, and the Aca Seca
Trio would be among my influences. I love
all of these players, though I have never transcribed
their music or tried to figure out
what they are doing on the instrument—I
just meticulously listened to them. Some
pianists won’t transcribe Monk because he
is so one-of-a-kind, and it’s the same way
with these guitarists for me, because they
are so particular and so personal.
Who are some of the guitarists that inspired
you to study jazz?
When I first started jazz guitar I had two
heroes: Joe Pass and Pat Metheny. I was crazy
about Joe Pass’ solo work and the way he
accompanied Ella Fitzgerald. And the way
Pat Metheny has imparted so much to music
in terms of different styles and technology is
also amazing. Later, I got into Bill Frisell and
Jim Hall. I had a chance to meet Hall personally,
and since that time I’ve loved him even more. I think he’s one of the most musical
people on earth.
Do you have a different approach to accompaniment
in your Spanish and Brazilian playing
as opposed to your jazz playing?
I try to play with musicians that have a
very solid groove so I don’t have to take care
of that part [laughs]. That way, I can focus on the creativity and interaction with the soloist.
When I was learning genres like choro
and samba, I would just focus on learning the
groove and feeling it with the metronome.
When I was in school I tried to practice with
percussion players and pick their brains to
find out what they do. There’s also a great
book by Nelson Faria called The Brazilian Guitar Book. At some point you have to understand
the groove; you have to listen to it and
then try to feel it. In straight-up jazz it’s different—
my goal is not to focus on a pattern,
not to do anything repetitive, and just react.
Do you see merging styles as inevitable given
your musical background?
Living in New York, I realized that if I tried
to play standards or “pure jazz,” I wouldn’t
be as authentic as people who were raised
here, because that’s part of their culture. I
know the techniques because I studied the
greats here, but I have to say something that
is part of my own persona and culture. When
you devote your life to music, your intention
is to move people. If I want to say something
of my own, it makes sense to play something
from my culture.
What do you think about when you are improvising?
I don’t like the “lick” approach to improvisation.
What I aim for is motivic development.
If you simplify everything, there are two
approaches: vertical and horizontal. Vertical is
when you think about the chord scale of the
moment, and horizontal is trying to develop
a melodic idea and then feed that idea into
the changes, which is what I’m trying to do.
But before I do that, I write the music and
I think, “Wow, these chord changes are not
so easy.” Then, like a puzzle, I put the pieces
together, finding common tones, chromatic
connecting lines, chord scales, and arpeggios—
and after that I practice them. When
I’m improvising, though, I try to forget about
all of that.
Have you begun thinking about your next album?
The next album probably won’t be as
acoustic, and I’d also like to experiment
with different instrumentation, including
violin and vocals. I’ll also probably incorporate
some non-original music, for example,
from a composer from Catalonia named Federico
As a teacher, what advice can you offer to
Seek out lots of different music, but don’t
necessarily try to play like your heroes—try
to play like yourself. And you should write
music, because writing all the time nurtures
your creativity, aids your ability to improvise,
and provides a way to develop your own
voice. Again, don’t be afraid to play your own
music. Everything is doable, and not everything
has been done yet.