Steve Khan

From his days as a fusion pioneer in the mid ’70s, Steve Khan has managed to forge his own musically distinct path. Whether it was as a sideman (Brecker Brothers, Billy Cobham, Grover Washington, Jr.), a studio ace (Steely Dan, Billy Joel, and hundreds of others) or as a leader, Khan’s unrelenting musicality, as well as his lush, gently modulated tone, has made him one of jazz’s most distinctive 6-string voices. His latest release, Borrowed Time [Tone Center], finds Khan’s arrangements and compositions delving deeper into Latin rhythms, and it also flaunts his transcendent clean-toned chordal mojo.
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You haven’t used a distorted tone in years. Why?
Overdriven tones left my sonic vocabulary in 1981. At that time, I became bummed at how I was playing and sounding, so I put the guitar away for a while. Then, when I formed Eyewitness with bassist Anthony Jackson, drummer Steve Jordan, and percussionist Manolo Badrena in late ’81, I wanted to go back to a very basic clean sound, but more importantly, one sound. I’d been approaching the guitar in a more pianistic way for decades, where the balance between single-note lines and chords is more blurred, rather than the typical rhythm guitar/solo delineation. And if you’re going to have a distorted guitar sound and then switch back to a clean tone for chords, you not only have to turn on a pedal or switch a channel with your foot, but oftentimes you need to change pickups too. All of that stuff gets annoying to me, so I decided to go with one sound. Plus, when it comes to my own music as a leader, I just don’t hear overdriven tones.

One of the main components to your sound is the Ibanez DCF-10 chorus/flange pedal. How did you come to rely on that pedal so much?
It was a total accident. My friend, bassist Mark Egan, turned me on to it in the early ’80s, I don’t remember the exact moment, but somehow that stupid little pedal changed my life and became the key to my sound. When I play single notes, they don’t sound overly chorused to me, but when I play a voicing, the sound just opens up and it sounds so wide. I don’t know what’s going on in the circuit or anything like that, but it’s the only pedal I’ve heard that gets so expansive.

You’ve really immersed yourself in Latin music over the years. What can a guitarist learn from playing over those grooves?
A ton. Unfortunately, most guitarists rarely get to play in a context with real Latin players in a situation where there isn’t a drum kit and there’s only percussion such as timbales and bongos. One of the things that all of the great Latin players I’ve played with do, is move between a feel of two, three, and four very gracefully. And believe me, if you’re putting accents in the wrong places, good Latin players recognize it right away and it drives them nuts. It’s one thing to understand the feel, but it’s a whole other thing to get comfortable with it and make the feel second nature. Growing up during the ’50s and early ’60s, there was a wacky cha-cha craze in America for a while, and my father loved to hear versions of his tunes done in the cha-cha style [Khan’s father is the late lyricist/songwriter Sammy Cahn who penned such tunes as “Love and Marriage” and “Come Fly with Me” amongst hundreds of others], so I would hear those rhythms around the house all the time. As time went on, I guess I just developed an instinct for the feel of the music.

What did you use to track Borrowed Time?
I use a Walter Woods stereo head because it’s small and powerful and most importantly, it’s simple. Give me volume, treble, and bass controls, and that’s it. When there’s a bunch of midrange controls, I’m way out of my area of sonic expertise. I’ll let the recording engineer mess with those frequencies. I run the Woods into a pair of Marshall 2x12 cabinets. I replaced the stock Celestions with EVs—a change I’m actually regretting because those cabs are so heavy now! Each cab is miked with one Shure SM57 and one Neumann SM87.

When I’m recording, I put my head between the two speaker cabs and get my tone to where it sounds good to me. Then, I’ll let the engineer tell me what, if anything needs to be changed. When tracking, I think the hardest thing for jazz guitarists to accept is the fact that if you record your tone too dark, and then try to brighten it up at the mixing stage, you’re just adding noise. So I think it’s better to dial in your tones a little brighter than normal, because it’s much easier to make your sound a little warmer in the mix.

For guitars, I used my Gibson ES-335 for most of the record. On the track “Face Value,” however, I used my Strat-style ESP. It has a really flat ebony fingerboard and an old DiMarzio replacement tremolo that has Gibson string spacing, which was something Bill Connors suggested to me. That way, a Strat doesn’t feel so foreign if you play Gibsons a lot. I string them up with Dean Markley .009s. For the steel-string acoustic stuff on the record, I used my Martin MC-28. I use a plain G string rather than the normal wound G so I can use my vibrato more and the guitar doesn’t feel so stiff. The nylon-string parts were recorded with a Yamaha APX-10N. My picks are Fender Extra Heavy.

Who are some players that have informed you sonically over the years?
Growing up, my favorite players were Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Jim Hall, and Grant Green. But by 1967 or ’68, a lot of things changed. Miles had gone electric, and the Gary Burton Quartet with Larry Coryell came out—Larry was the first guitarist that jazz critics embraced who played differently in a jazz context. He opened the door for guys like myself, John Abercrombie, John Scofield, Bill Connors, Joe Beck, and even an acoustic player such as Ralph Towner. But I don’t know if Larry and, say, John McLaughlin were as influential with their actual sounds as much as their aggressiveness. I think the guy who turned everyone’s head with his actual tone was Allan Holdsworth. When he came over here from England to play with Tony Williams’ Lifetime, he set a whole new standard as to what a beautiful overdriven sound can be. A lot of guys tried to pick up on that.

You have done a ton of session work in the past. What are some of the biggest lessons you took away from those experiences?
Well, when I moved from California to New York in ’69, I didn’t intend on becoming a session guy. But like a lot of players, I just fell into it. The best thing about doing sessions is that it keeps your musicianship at a high level, and you’re forced as a guitarist to be a small part of the bigger picture. And no matter the style of music, you learn to do what’s right for the song. And many times that means doing what someone else asks you to do—even if it goes against every musical instinct you have.