"Wondrous… unique… exquisite": The seven-string guitars and smooth "lap-piano" style of forgotten jazz and swing guitarist George Van Eps

George Van Eps' My Guitar album
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I recall my first guitar lessons at Bronstein Music in South San Francisco with Bunnie Gregoire. She was hip, way hipper than I was. So when she brought the George Van Eps Method for Guitar books for me to study, I was not pleased. All I wanted to learn was “Spoonful” from Cream’s Wheels of Fire. As with most things, Bunnie tried to teach me, it took decades for me to realize how right she was. Better late than never. 

George Van Eps’ My Guitar album was released on Capitol Records in 1966 and was his third record as a leader. Van Eps isn’t the household name it deserves to be. Among other things, he pioneered seven-string guitar, employing a standard six-string tuning with the seventh string tuned down a fifth. Aside from adding a world of bass counterpoint, his style sounded amazingly smooth and effortless, and was reminiscent of Lenny Breau, Ted Greene and, fittingly, to my ears, pianist Bill Evans. After all, George always described his style as “lap piano.” He knew he was onto something. 

I have a few of Van Eps’ LPs, but My Guitar is my favorite. It’s all about George playing solo guitar, except for some percussion, piano, vibes and marimba that are sparingly sprinkled in, as if not to draw too much attention from Mr. Van Eps’ virtuosity. I love that George never belabors the obvious. His interpretations of these 12 contemporary classics are uncompromising and deep. 

Side one opens with a swinging “Spanish Eyes” that upon first listen had me trying to place the song. His interpretation is innovative as he showcases everything interesting about the composition. George could find the nooks and crannies in any song, sometimes discovering what we mere mortals couldn’t hear. “Spanish Eyes” is followed by the first two of five Beatles covers on the album: “And I Love Her,” a certified gem on which he manages to swing while expressing the song’s smooth melancholy; and “All My Loving,” which is almost unrecognizable as George elegantly ekes out every bit of counterpoint. 

After a brief visit to the lovely “There Will Never Be Another You,” George tackles another Beatles classic, “Yesterday.” His wondrous take on the song shows off his arranging skills, full of counterpoint and clever musical bass lines, as well as a bongo accompaniment that gives the tune a unique and new perspective. Side one comes to a close with a deep and exquisite performance of the pop classic “Lollipops and Roses.” 

Aside from adding a world of bass counterpoint, George's style is amazingly smooth and effortless

Side two finds George returning to the Beatles theme as it opens with “Love Me Do.” Captivating from the start, George’s take is once again miles away from obvious, with “Love Me Do” hiding coyly within his arrangement. His performance of “I’ll Walk Alone” is defined by a great jaunt of chord and bass movement, while his version of the Beatles’ “If I Fell” presents a straighter take on the tune — although he eventually drives it off-road before returning to the song’s tried-and-true path. “I’m Glad There Is You” and “It’s Been a Long Time” follow respectfully before we reach my favorite piece, “Theme From ‘A Summer Place.’” I’ve always felt this song is an underrated and underplayed tune, but here George coaxes every nuance out of it. Vibes add a subtle atmosphere while Mr. Van Eps combines sweetness and virtuosity on this great rendition.

George Van Eps’ My Guitar is a wonderful body of work that reveals him as an artist stretching the limits of guitar. Yes, I still love Cream’s “Spoonful,” but George Van Eps playing his lap piano is a smooth and serene rollercoaster ride through pop classics that’s well worth the price of admission.  

Jim Campilongo has 14 critically acclaimed instrumental records available on vinyl, CD and digital download at jimcampilongo.com

Jim Campilongo

Jim Campilongo has 14 critically acclaimed instrumental records available on vinyl, CD and digital download here.