Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal has been name checked by Jeff Beck, David Torn, Bill Frisell, Andy Summers, Nels Cline—and possibly even Jimi Hendrix—as one of their favorite players. He has released and appeared on dozens of recordings throughout his 36-year association with the prestigious ECM label, running the gamut from cutting-edge jazz to orchestral works to rock power trios. His sound is one of the most original and immediately recognizable on the planet. And he is celebrated throughout Europe as one of the finest musicians and composers of the past half-century. Yet despite these myriad musical accomplishments, Rypdal remains comparatively unrecognized within the United States.
The son of a composer and orchestra leader, Rypdal studied classical piano and trumpet as a child, and then taught himself to play guitar as he entered his teens. At age 15, he formed the Vanguards, a Hank Marvin and the Shadows-inspired band that had a string of hits during the early-to-mid-’60s. By 1967, he was performing Are You Experienced? in its entirety live, as part of his band Dream’s repertoire. Other early rock influences included Jeff Beck, Bluesbreakers-era Eric Clapton, and Stevie Winwood (who personally taught a teenaged Rypdal how to use a Marshall amp after a Spencer Davis Group concert).
Rypdal’s interest in classical music was reignited in 1968 after seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey, and he began voraciously consuming all the contemporary classical works he could find, as well as studying with composers Finn Mortensen and Kryzstof Penderecki. Concurrently, Rypdal’s involvement in jazz—he was a fan of Charlie Christian, Kenny Burrell, and Wes Montgomery—intensified. In addition to performing and recording with Jan Garbarek, he accompanied Lester Bowie at the historic Baden-Baden Free Jazz Meeting in 1969, and studied and worked with pianist/composer/theorist George Russell.
Rypdal’s eponymous 1970 ECM debut successfully merged the guitarist’s diverse musical interests, though it wasn’t until a few years later that he finally realized his signature sound—a majestic, echoed, singing tone with precisely articulated vibrato and nearly endless sustain, and a string-like attack via volume-pedal swells.
On his latest recording, Vossabrygg [ECM], Rypdal heads up a commissioned live work that pays tribute to Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis. Upcoming releases include Melodic Warrior (featuring the Hilliard Ensemble), and Ancestor of the Sun (inspired by American and Norwegian indigenous cultures).
What guitars and amps are you currently using?
I have several Stratocasters, but the one I use the most these days is a Mexican-made model assembled from two guitars. It has a wide maple neck and an upgraded Fender vibrato system, and it sustains fantastically. I also have an 8-string Stratocaster, which is very nice, but it takes about 15 minutes to get in tune, so it mostly stays at home. Recently, I’ve been using Snake Oil Brand strings (.010-.046), which are softer and warmer sounding than other strings, and have great sustain. For amps, I have a couple of Marshalls that I use from time to time, but, these days, I mostly use a pair of Vox AC30s. I prefer the older ones to the reissues, and I usually run them in stereo.
How about effects?
I use a Boss SD-1 Super OverDrive for distortion, a Zoom 508 delay, and either a Marshall ED-1 or a T.C. Electronic Sustainer/ Equalizer for compression. Additionally, I have a Boss DD-1 delay that I sometimes hook up so I can switch between two delay sounds quickly without having to change programs. At one time, I used Roland RE-301 and Vox Echo Machine tape delays, but those are too bulky and delicate to use live. I also use a Yamaha volume pedal, which is small and easy to travel with, though I can get the same sound using any volume pedal.
Do you ever use the guitar’s volume control instead of a volume pedal?
Yes, and that’s one reason why I use compressors. If you have a good compressor, and you turn down the volume on the guitar, the volume stays almost the same, but the tone changes.
Guitarists often say that tone is in the fingers rather than the gear. Would you agree?
Another guitarist and I did an experiment once, where we plugged our own guitars into each other’s equipment, and we still sounded like ourselves. So, it is in the fingers, and how you hold the pick. But you also have to have equipment that you like. For example, I’ve tried overdrive pedals that enhance the bass, which was not for me, but guitar players who play heavier music might like them.
Vibrato is an essential part of your sound. How much of that is finger vibrato, and how much the vibrato arm on your guitar?
It is a combination of both—though I used to use the vibrato arm more in the past. I use a lot of finger vibrato—along with volume pedal swells—to get a singing sound. Sometimes, I’ll also bend the arm down and start playing a chord out of tune, and then release the arm so that it rises up to the correct pitches.
What other techniques or devices do you use?
I use a bottleneck sometimes—mostly for melodic parts, but also for effects and some Hawaiian sounds. And I have a guitar with microtonal frets, which I like, but I don’t play very much. I had a fretless guitar at one time, but I gave it away.
How large a role does improvisation play in your music?
For the orchestral works, I generally write out all of the parts for the other instruments. Otherwise, usually only the themes are written, and everything else is improvised, though some tunes are looser than others.
You are usually described as a “jazz” guitarist, though you don’t play standards or take much from the typical jazz guitar vocabulary. Do you think of yourself as a jazz guitarist?
Not really—or at least not as a be-bop-style player. I’ve tried playing some more traditional jazz at home and with friends, but that’s about it. I have too much respect for it to make a fool of myself [laughs]. But I do have roots in the era of [Miles Davis’] Bitches Brew, Weather Report, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and also albums such as Coltrane’s Meditations. So there are jazz elements in the way that I improvise, combined with European classical elements and rock.
Speaking of Hendrix, I understand you recently got news of a connection you made with him back in 1967.
Yes. Dream recorded an album called Get Dreamy that was strongly influenced by Hendrix, and even included a tribute to him called “Hey Jimi.” I had a girlfriend who knew one of Hendrix’s girlfriends, and we asked her to give him a copy of the record. On the cover I’d written that it was a tribute to a fellow musician, and that I hoped he liked it. I never knew whether he had gotten it until last year, when my agent got a fax from a guy who had bought part of Hendrix’s record collection in London. I called him, and he said that I would be pleased to know that the record had been “well played.” That was very important to me.