GP Flashback: Emily Remler, September 1981


Seldom does a woman venture into what is generally considered the man’s realm of jazz guitar. Indeed, most people can only name a handful of famous female guitarists in any genre. But, at 23 years old, Emily Remler is making inroads not only into jazz guitar (for which she is best known), but also rock, funk, and various fusion styles for studio sessions. Experienced jazz veterans such as Jim Hall, who calls her “just incredible,” and Herb Ellis are among her many admirers.

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In 1978, at the Tenth Anniversary Concord Summer Jazz Festival in Concord, California, she shared the stage with Ellis, Barney Kessel, Cal Collins, Howard Roberts, Tal Farlow, and Remo Palmier on a venue billed as a “Guitar Explosion.” She has performed with the “Great Guitars”—Charlie Byrd and Herb Ellis, substituting for Barney Kessel—and has worked with New Orleans’ esteemed jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain.

A native of Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Emily started playing folk music at age ten.

“My brothers played guitar,” she recalls, “so the instrument was around the house, and I started to teach myself to play. I never really practiced—it was mainly for fun.”

A few years of formal lessons left little impression, and her interest shifted from folk to rock. Although little more than a hobby at first, playing guitar took on a more important role as Emily was exposed to music theory at boarding school in her teens.

“It became a challenge. I always liked challenges.”

Upon graduation from high school, Emily enrolled at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she was exposed to the works of jazz guitarists Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino, and Charlie Christian. With her Berklee diploma in hand, she moved to New Orleans, and became one of the busiest guitarists in town, playing everything from mainstream jazz to contemporary rock.

“It turned out to be the best move I could have made,” she says, “because I got all my experience down there. There weren’t too many guitar players around, and I was one of the few who could read, so I got all the show gigs, and, later, some jazz and even rhythm & blues gigs.”

In New Orleans, she met Herb Ellis, who invited her to appear at the Concord festival. A contract with Concord Records soonfollowed, and the result was Emily’s first solo album, The Firefly.

Has the fact that you’re a woman had either positive or negative effects on your getting work, or being taken seriously as a musician?

Both positive and negative. There have been times when it seemed to help, andthat did bother me, but there was such a long period of not getting gigs because I’m a woman that it was simply refreshing to get gigs for any reason. Hopefully, I can overcome that aspect by playing well, and people will forget about it. On records, no one can see me, so if the music’s not good, then I won’t get hired. But I do agree that it’s definitely something of a novelty, and since there is nothing anyone can do about it, I might as well use it to myadvantage.

Have people suggested carrying the novelty further, say, by putting together an all-girl band?

Oh, yes, but I have no desire to do that. In fact, the whole women’s thing—I’m not interested at all. Many women are angry and trying to make a political statement, and all I want to do is to play my guitar. The fact that I’m a girl is secondary. It’s something I’m hit with as soon as I come off the bandstand, but when I’m up there playing, I don’t think about what sex I am.

How important is composing to you?

Actually, I think of myself more as a composer than as a guitarist. I want to be a composer more than anything else. Eventually, I’d like to write for movies. But right now I’m into guitar, so I’ll make the switch later on.

At Concord’s festival you were in some very heavy company—Herb Ellis, Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, Howard Roberts, and others. Were you nervous?

Well, first of all, the guys are so nice that they make you feel relaxed right away. And don’t forget, I had already done a gig with Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd in the Great Guitars. Barney Kessel is in that group, but he couldn’t make this particular date, so I was asked to take his place. Well, I made sure I knew my part for the festival. When it came time to play there with Herb, I was very prepared so that I wouldn’t be nervous.

How did you go about getting ready for such an important gig?

First, I made sure I got there early, so that I could go over the music with all my might. When I worked with the Great Guitars, I bought their records and learned all three parts, because I wasn’t sure which one I would have to play. For that job, I was really prepared. I’m a great believer in copying things off of records. I’ve always done it. It’s a great way of developing the ears. First, you start off with little bits of solos, and they gradually become whole solos. I’ve done complete transcriptions like that.

Is your approach to learning jazz different from your approach to rock?

Yes, I have a definite way of looking at jazz. There are two basic scales, the Melodic Minor and the Lydian. They may be applied in certain ways to get you through a lot of situations. Let’s say you have a dominant-seventh chord moving down a fifth. For example, from G7 to C in the key of C. You can play the Melodic Minor scale a half-step higher than the root of the dominant. In this case, the dominant is G7, so for that chord you can play the Ab Melodic Minor scale. Now, if the dominant chord does not resolve to the tonic chord, then you play the melodic minor scale built from the 5th of the dominant. The 5th of G is D, so for a G7 that doesn’t resolve to C, you play the D minor melodic scale. This D minor is the II of the key, which is a very typical thing—it creates that nice minor-major sound.

Why use the Ab Melodic Minor scale for the G7 only if it’s going to the C chord?

Because it provides all those tension notes, and when it finally resolves to the C[the I chord, or tonic], there is a greater sense of tension release. If you just play on the G7 scale, and then change to the C, there wouldn’t be too much difference. You want that feeling of movement toward the I chord. If the change isn’t going to the I, you don’t need that tension—there’s no demand for the resolution. So with the second alternative of playing the Melodic Minor scale based on the 5th of the dominant, you get that minor¬major sound, which is so desirable because of its bluesy feeling.

In light of all your work with singers, can you offer any advice on accompaniment?

The important thing I’ve learned is that you shouldn’t overpower singers—you must complement them. They’re carrying the melody, they’re on top. Don’t let your ego get in the way. Don’t whip out all of your guitar licks that you’ve been practicing. I think I’m a successful accompanist because I’m sensitive. And if sensitivity is a part of your personality, then that’s all you need.

Do most singers give you the chords or a lead sheet, and leave the rest up to you?

Sure. Most chord sheets for guitar are ridiculous, anyway, as are a lot of big-band charts, because of the way they give you every chord that the horns are playing, when all you need to play is the basic skeleton of each chord. That’s one thing that Herb Ellis taught me. When a dominant 7th chord is given, all you have to play is just the tritone, because the horns are taking care of the chord’s upper-structure tension notes. If you play them, too, you’ll just get in the way. They need the bottom.

When you were into rock, whose music did you like?

Johnny Winter and Jimi Hendrix. I was crazy about them. I wasn’t good enough to play like them—especially Hendrix—because I only played with one finger in those days. How much could I do? But I lovedeverything they did, and I could sing everything they played note-for-note.That’s why I knew I’d become a musician. I could sing the whole solo by Ravi Shankar from the album Concert For Bangladesh. I knew the entire raga note-for-note.

Have you been as concerned with equipment as you’ve been with musical styles?

Well, my first guitar was a Gibson ES- 330, and I recently went back to playing on that same instrument. I tried others, but some were too fat and restricted my right arm in such a way that my picking—which is my strongest point—would get tired. The ES-330 has a nice thin body, so I don’t have that problem.

What kind of amp do you use?

I have a Polytone, which is kind of like a Fender Twin Reverb, except the Twin is much too heavy for me. I can’t pick one up, so I use the Polytone. I’d much rather use a tube amp, though.

As one the few young women in the jazz field, do you have any suggestions or advice for other young women who want to go into jazz?

The first thing is to not get discouraged or bitter about some of the reactions you might get. Just keep playing with conviction, because, at first, you’re going to have to prove yourself every time you play. Try to be the greatest player you can be. There will be many times when you won’t get hired, or when you do get the job, the guys will look at you with faces that show panic, because they think that you’re going to play folk music, and screw everything up while they’re trying to play jazz. You have to stay cool. Be nice to everybody, and you can do more for yourself by playing well. Be confident in yourself. Just realize that the music is everything, and it has nothing to do with politics or the women’s liberation movement.

Excerpted from the September 1981 issue of Guitar Player