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Interview Two: At the Barney Kessel Guitar Clinic
Les Tomkins talks to Barney Kessel about his skills and style of playing the guitar.
Source: Jazz Professional
Although I have been playing the guitar a long time, I certainly don't know the answer to all the questions. There are a lot of things I can't do, although I've tried to do them and given it up as a bad job.
But inasmuch as I have been playing for 32 years and for 30 of them as a professional, I have been blessed with a crazy kind of life and wide experiences. I've played with Charlie Parker, Mahalia Jackson, Gene Autry and Maurice Chevalier! I'm not being presumptuous or trying to give the impression that I'm the Great White Father and I've got the answers. But if there are any questions, I would welcome them. I find that most of the time I learn more than the person asking the question. Many of you may ask questions that I've not even thought about.
You mentioned in your book it's better to play a passage, on just two adjacent strings if possible. Why is this better than covering six strings?
Well, I don't know if I said that. I'll have to have a look. I'll try to explain what I meant. The guitar at this point does not have a standardised technique like the violin or the piano or trumpet. There is no one definite book that will answer all questions. But if you are playing any passage and wish to lessen the technicalities of it, if you wish to play it with greater ease, finding a way of reducing the number of strings involved will aid tremendously. You can :play faster on two strings than you can on three. The fewer the strings, the greater the technical possibilities. The greatest hazards to master on the guitar are to play without looking at the fingerboard and to master playing up—and—down picking on strings that are not adjacent. Without looking even at eighth notes, to be able to play passages that involve string skips with up—and—down picking.
This is the most difficult thing to do with the right hand—this and to be able to do it without looking at the fingerboard. If you are following a conductor you will never be able to do this anyway. You can only keep one eye on the music and one eye on the conductor: there are no eyes left. So if you are expecting to look at your fingerboard, you are not preparing yourself for the circumstances that you may meet in professional life.
I think as guitar players we all tend to look at the fingerboard and I have been very conscious of this. My wife thinks I'm crazy—but I sometimes sit up in the bedroom when its dark. Then I've got to go by what I hear. Do you think this is a good method of practice? You are crazy ! I have had occasion to play the guitar in the dark and I don't pride myself on being able to do it well.
But playing without seeing is not really quite what I meant. There is a kind of peripheral vision where you can see the fingerboard out of the corner of your eye—even though you are gazing elsewhere, at the music or at the conductor.
But you must not become dependent on looking at the fingerboard. When you have to watch a conductor—especially when it's not definite time, when it's a very rubato passage, you will not have the convenience of looking at the fingerboard.
It's the same sort of thing as when people begin to play chords with a barre on, say, the third finger, they use the second finger to bolster the third. To do that is to defeat the object of the exercise—that is, to develop and strengthen the third finger.
I noticed that you used your thumb quite a lot in playing. Do you advocate this?
Well, I certainly do not advocate it for the Classical guitar, because I think it destroys the form of the hand. But for other than Classical guitar, if you are blessed with a large thumb, or are the kind of person that seeks a particular end result without bothering about the means to achieve it, you'll use it. Frankly, if I had to, I'd use my nose. Because I'm interested in the chords.
Playing with the thumb has never hung me up; it's never been a problem. It's been a great help, it's given me many times the use of four fingers. I think it can be a negative factor for developing with the Classical guitar.
Some chords are more difficult for me when I do not use the thumb; some are equal. The main thing is the result. Is the thing I'm using my thumb with worth playing? I don't want to sound weird or anything, but, a number of years ago, I stopped thinking of myself as a guitar player. I don't think from a standpoint of what is guitaristic, what is good guitar or bad guitar, what the guitar is for, what are good guitar voicings. I don't even think of what I do as jazz. I just play and let other people call it what they will.
I use the guitar to express myself. I'm interested in being myself. I want to subject myself to influences. I want to be aware of all the things there have been in music, to let these things permeate my soul, to rub up against them. I want them to be in my life. I want the people who hear me to know I haven't been in a well for twenty years, practising. That I've been playing , on the scene. Nevertheless, I want to use a guitar, and to use it competently, to express myself.
I feel that I have something to say—I feel we all have something to say beyond the range of learning the fundamental things. Like learning to speak; once we have learned the words we all have different thoughts. I think that's where the real expression in music is.
A lot of people don't believe this: to me, doing it as long as I have, it's no Big Deal. Of the things that I've played for you today, the only piece that was set was "Danny Boy". Everything else was off the top of my head—made up. Except I have played some of these things before and I might have played them similarly.
I have always striven to express myself. If I can hear something in my mind, I can find it on the guitar . . . immediately. I sing it first and I can play it. I am not thinking about the chord, or the picking or anything else. I hear the sound in my mind.
I find it helpful not to get trapped into playing certain little things that are familiar and comfortable. I go out on a limb and try for things. In the course of a night's playing, I'll try many things that I've never tried before. Some of them come off good, some of them don't. But by extending yourself constantly, you do extend in a creative way. If you keep playing things that are 'under your hands', you don't grow.
To get this kind of adventurous spirit? Sometimes when I hear a sound in my mind, I don't really stop to think what it is. I know after I figure it out. I think about a sound. For example, I might think about an F chord with a C on top. Well, in my mind I hear it as a texture, the way you might see a piece of cloth, wool or silk, or whatever. I might hear it in any manner of voicing. I hear the texture and I go after that particular one. Sometimes I hear things that are kind of crazy, hard to play. I go for them just the same.
And when you find all these different ways of playing something, instead of your saying : play?" "Gee, which one do I play?" It should be to your advantage, because you have a choice. They all have quite a different sound. They have different values, different colours. If I were playing a passage with a trombone or tenor saxophonist, I would tend to move toward the larger wound strings to match their timbre.
If I were playing with a clarinet or alto, I would play unwound strings, so I would get a thinner sound. There is no right or wrong, though.
There is no right or wrong among players, among compositions. It's all a matter of value judgement. It is what it awakens in you. If you hear a man play music, or hear a composition that doesn't do anything for you, it is because your life experience has not awakened anything in you to respond to it.
Have you ever found that the guitar is less expressive than other instruments?
No. To me, it is the perfect instrument.
How do you practise? Do you play exercises or play tunes?
That all depends on what the exercise is supposed to do. The most ridiculous thing in the world is to pick up the guitar and not know why you're playing. There must be some reason why you're playing what you're playing. If you don't know what it is, you're wasting your time.
I've had people come up to me and say: "I practise four or five hours a day. But I'm never sure that what I practise is the right thing." I say to them: "What is your goal?" ask them what they practise. They say this or this. And I tell them that's the wrong thing. And when they ask why, I say: "Because it is not going to take you to your destination ." It's interesting. We could sit here and talk about the wood, we could talk about the strings, we could talk about musicology, when Segovia was born and what his favourite colour is. It doesn't help you play. You have to figure out what it is you want to do. Are you professional or are you semi—professional? Are you doing it for fun? Do you want to play jazz, folk, rock? Do you want to make money, to express yourself, to become popular? All of these things are vitally important.
You must be clear on what you want to do with music . . . not just clear—specific. It's not good enough to say: "I want to be in music." You have to be as positive as booking a certain seat on a certain plane for a certain destination. The minute you become clear on what you want, it becomes also very apparent what you don't want. You begin to see the interesting studies, the things that could be intriguing to do, but which are not pertinent to your goal. Today, with all the perplexities, it is not what to practice, but what to avoid practising. What do you want to do? It is time—wasting to taste a little of all these things and not to be master of any—unless you are doing it strictly for amusement. But to accomplish anything, you have to know what you want.
When you practise, the things to practice are those that will help to take you where you want to go. If you aspire to be a professional, I think the most important thing to do is to spend your time developing to be a good reader. You are going to be playing for many other people and performing services for them. You will constantly be playing things that are not of your choice, nor things of your own mind. The easiest way to be able to play these things is to learn to read. Reading is the answer. If you are playing for fun, it's whatever you want.
As you practise, I think it essential that you make demands of yourself beyond what would be made of you. I purposely demand more of myself when I practise. This puts me in a situation of never playing in public under great stress.
Sometimes I'm surprised : they demand quite a bit!
On reading someone else's music that you don't particularly dislike, but wasn't really in your mind, do you find that it rubs off on you?
No. No more than conversation with someone. The things that rub off are the things you like; or they will be things that you hear over and over again. I find myself sometimes singing or whistling a melody that I detest, simply because I've heard it so many times.
The whole difference between playing for money and playing to express yourself is that when you play to be yourself, you come closer to making a total commitment to the music. If you are performing for someone else and doing something which doesn't interest you, you are making no sort of personal commitment : therefore it wouldn't stay with you! it's no part of you. You are not involved—any more than the clerk in the drugstore is involved when you order this and that.
Reading music that you don't necessarily like, would you play it as well?
No. However, even there, I think that most professionals who have played a long time can reach a standard of performance in which, even if they were told their home was on fire, they would still play well. A professional will simply not play badly. It is a motor reflex.
I don't think I will play wrong or badly. If I have been playing for thirty—two years I ought to know what I am doing.
If I don't, I'd have to be stupid. What is elusive if I play night after night is that I may not play with inspiration. Creatively, spontaneously. I like to play things so that when I get off the stand I think about it and wonder what I did, and whether I can remember. And marvel that God, or the Supreme Power, or whatever it is, let me do this. For I didn't even know what was going to happen. Very rare moments—but this is what you strive for.
Copyright © 1969, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.