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 NonsenseJazz 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 are improvising?
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 Buddy Rich.
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 did too.
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 exclusively?
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 guitar.
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!