Jack Gates Comes Together

There are some guitarists who do one thing, and do it well. Then there are the ones who dabble in a bunch of styles, but seem to know just enough about each one to get themselves in trouble. Then there are players like Jack Gates who play a ton of different styles and own every single one. The Northern California guitarist/composer showcases his mastery of classical, jazz, Brazilian, Latin, flamenco, and pop guitar on his latest recording, Earth Messenger [Whitegates].

“It’s part of my musical nature,” he says. “I heard Segovia when I was a kid, and then I heard the Beatles—I was amazed at each new album they came out with. The next thing was Jimi Hendrix and that was overwhelming—I still feel that he was one of the most important guitarists, acoustic or electric.”

Hendrix was a role model for Gates from a technical standpoint and also as a stylistically diverse songwriter. “I’m still floored by how he could bring so many different elements to his music. He had blues, jazz, funk, and classical and he brought all that to his writing.”

Gates’ rock influences led to steady gigs and sessions, but all the while he was drawn to the classical world. Studying with virtuoso David Tannenbaum gave Gates the guidance to hone and refine his nylon-string technique. “It was a huge learning curve to go from playing with a pick to getting the right-hand technique you need to play classical,” says Gates. “He repositioned my hand and got my alignment correct so I could play with a relaxed technique and really get a lot of sound out of the instrument naturally. I did a lot of practicing over the years to get my sound.”

The sound that Gates refers to is actually hundreds of tones and colors that jump out of what might strike some a one-tone instrument—a nylon-string guitar. “One thing that’s true on any guitar,” he explains, “is that as you move your picking hand from the bridge to the fretboard, it’s almost like an EQ. The tone is very bright by the bridge and gets progressively darker as you move toward the neck. You can use that to get the timbre you want for any musical situation.” Those tonal shadings can be heard in the tune “Ocean Samba” and the Latin jazz of “Tigris and Euphrates.”

Gates’ main instrument on Earth Messenger is a classical guitar built by Antonio Marin from Granada, Spain. “This Marin guitar intonates really well. It lets me play complex jazz voicings high up on the fretboard, and I can count on them being in tune. That’s sort of unusual with a lot of acoustic guitars.” Gates will often play those voicings against open lower strings, for chords that might sound more at home on a piano. “I’m influenced by Baden Powell and South American guitarists who use the whole instrument. I’ll stretch chords out that way. I love the coloristic differences between open strings and fretted notes, but the guitar has to really play in tune to make those chords sound right.”

All the hard work on tone and chops certainly seems to have paid off, with Earth Messenger being the culmination. “This record really reflects my background and my tastes,” he says. “I like a lot of different kinds of music. It’s exciting for me because I’m using a classical guitar to play Latin-influenced music with a jazz rhythm section and throwing in pop and fusion elements too. It all came together. It’s a sound I always imagined but never though I could achieve.”