AFTER DECADES OF BEING A SESSION heavyweight, charting time on the bandstand with Frank Sinatra and Buddy Rich, and releasing some hard-bopping solo albums, Jimmy Bruno is charging into his third act as an online teaching phenom and as the flagship artist for former AOL Vice President of Technology David Butler’s Affiliated Artists label. Maplewood Avenue—Bruno’s first solo disc in three years— is an intimate trio workout with vibraphonist Tony Miceli and bassist Jeff Pedraz where every selection was recorded in one take with no overdubs. It’s an old-school, but still brave approach that quietly spotlights Bruno’s teaching method emphasizing improvisation and song analysis. For those who wish a closer communion with the master, the Jimmy Bruno Guitar Institute (jimmybrunoguitarinstitute.com) offers thousands of hours of online video lessons, and invites students to post videos of themselves playing Bruno’s material. Bruno responds to each video, allowing students—who currently number more than 1,500 from 42 different countries—to “sit-in” on other members’ lessons (tuition is currently $60 per three-month period), giving them the opportunity to pick the brain of one of jazz guitar’s elite educators.
What made you decide to record Maplewood Avenue yourself in a home-studio setting?
The whole project was an accident. I had just gotten all of this new studio gear, and I wanted to try it out. I figured the simplest way to do that was to record without drums, because miking up a kit is an ordeal for me. I called Tony and Jeff, and I said, “Hey guys, I want to play with my new toy.” So we played a bunch of tunes, and we screwed with preamps, EQ, high-end reverbs, and all of the bells and whistles that come with Pro Tools. However, we always preferred the takes that had nothing done to them. That’s when I realized the trick to all of this is mic placement, and we began experimenting with that. But we still had no idea we were making a CD.
You’re known for your extended solos, but you’re playing a lot more rhythm this time around.
I love playing like Freddie Green—I always have, ever since I was a kid. I’m fascinated by harmony. I’m not so much concerned about what the chords are between “x” and “y,” but really think about the lines I can use to arrive at chord “y.” Also, this record is more about the trio—me being one of three—making one sound.
You have some pretty celebrated recordings with different-sized ensembles, as well as your solo outings. How much do you change your approach between these surroundings?
At the very root of it, any changes in my approach are focused on going for different sounds, and, hopefully, it all happens organically. The best way I can explain it is as an orchestration. I want to try to marry the music to the sounds, so I orchestrate my performances with lots of textures. For example, if someone took a flute line in a Debussy piece and played it on guitar, it probably wouldn’t sound good—even though the line is still a beautiful melody. You need to ensure the tones and textures you’re using are appropriate for the musical arrangement you find yourself playing.
How do your online lessons compare to the lessons you’ve taught privately or at universities?
It’s completely different. I don’t know how to say this without hurting the schools, but there’s really no way. The chord/scale approach that is taught in the universities may have outlived its usefulness. Music is not scales—it’s about making melodies. And crafting melodies is something that happens to a player gradually, to the point where eventually they’re not thinking about the process anymore. I think the academics don’t realize that theory is the result that comes after the music, not before. When you get to a certain level of proficiency—and it doesn’t have to be very high—you find yourself not playing from a concept of scales, but from a melodic one.
How would you describe your method at the Institute?
I discovered something that I knew all along, but I just wasn’t able to articulate it. When guitar players get in the zone—when they can’t make a mistake—they start to analyze things. “What was I doing then? “What did I eat?” You’re looking for something, because you want to be able to do it again. On the guitar, those discoveries always turn into a visual thing, so what I’m trying to do is help guitarists associate a sound with putting a finger down. We’re button pushers— piano players are button pushers. You may not even know the name of the notes, but you know that if you put your hand like this, and you move your fingers like this, you get a certain sound. When I go to play, it’s something that I’m seeing and hearing simultaneously. I don’t know which is first, but I think it might flip-flop back and forth. So that’s the initial part of the course— attaching the ear to the guitar.
You keep mentioning the piano, and in one of your video lessons you call your five shapes concept “the five pianos” of the guitar. Can you elaborate?
The picture changes on the piano as you change keys, so the piano has 12 pictures. For the guitar, all 12 keys have one thing in common: the five shapes for every key. It’s not as hard as a Rubik’s Cube, or playing chess and having to look 20 moves ahead. It’s the practice, and practice takes repetition.
You’re pretty adamant about three-note voicings throughout your lessons.
I emphasize that for two reasons. With a lot of amateur guitarists—and even some pros—I see that the chords are too thick all the time. This approach allows guitar players to get away from that. When you listen to orchestrated music and the texture changes, the whole orchestra is not playing all the time. Guitar players always seem to make the mistake of always playing the same texture with chords. Pianists tend to play very sparse, and give listeners the impression there’s a lot more going on than there really is.
How time consuming is the Institute?
It’s not as overwhelming as you might think, because the students aren’t all posting their videos on the same day. On an average day, there might be anywhere from ten to 25 posts. I look at the time code for things I want to address through e-mail or on the forums, and then we film and upload the videos with my response. I’m real strict about fingerings at the beginning, and, for the advanced students, it’s more about concepts—such as stating why a tritone substitution might sound good in a tune, and then demonstrating what it would sound like.
A generation or so back, a player’s practical knowledge of jazz was pretty much limited to their personal music library and the albums they learned note for note. Now, digital music sites, online lessons, and live performances offer tremendous exposure to myriad players and techniques. Howmight this oversaturation affect the development of jazz?
Oversaturation is an understatement! I think someone learning to play jazz today has to be very selective about what he or she is listening to. I’d recommend sticking to influential players such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, and others. B.B. King is essential, and then there’s the Clapton thing. If you try to piece a lineage together, you’ll start to see connections from the originators all the way up to Derek Trucks. If you seek out the names that loom large throughout music history— the cream of the crop who are saying things you need to hear—then you shouldn’t get lost in the overwhelming sea of stuff that’s out there.