If you’ve ever ventured onto YouTube to search for the “secrets” to great Jazz Guitar playing, then Jen Larsen probably doesn’t need any introduction. But if you are one of the three people who don’t know Mr. Larsen, he is a performer and educator based out of the Hague who happens to have one of the biggest YouTube channels devoted to the teachings of the improvised line. To date he has over 33 THOUSAND subscribers and over two MILLION instructional video page views. In this interview Jens shares with us his beginnings. talks about his recording and performing band TRÆBEN and goes into detail about YouTube as a platform for spreading his teaching prowess to the world. An insightful and entertaining read indeed. Enjoy!
Interview by Lyle Robinson via email May 2017
Experience has taught me that the problem was not so much my abilities as it was understanding what I needed to learn, and I have improved those aspects of playing a lot and will keep doing so. The biggest problem is the fear that an unclear description of the problem leaves you with more than actually fixing the problem in your playing.
JGL: Thank you Jens for taking the time to talk to Jazz Guitar Life. First off, if we can get into a little background about you that would be great. How old are you?
JL: Sure! I am 44 years old.
JGL: What geographical area do you reside in?
JL: I live in the Hague in the Netherlands, but I am originally Danish and grew up in Denmark.
JGL: For those who may not know you, could you give us an elevator pitch of who Jens Larsen is and then we’ll get into more detail as this interview unfolds.
JL: I guess I am a Danish Jazz Guitarist. I Live in the Hague and work mostly in that area. I am a part of several groups, my main two are my trio and the band Træben where I write most of the music. I also teach at the Royal Conservatory and I have a YouTube channel with a lot of Jazz videos which by now have 33K subscribers.
JGL: At what age did you first start playing the guitar and were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz? How did you find your way to this particular music and instrument?
JL: I started when I was 12, mostly because my best friend played guitar and did not have time to play with me on Thursdays. I could only get classical lessons so it was not really about what I liked. My introduction to jazz came a lot later while I was studying Mathematics at the University in Århus. At that time I was 22. So actually I have now been playing jazz for half of my life.
JGL: From the performance videos I’ve seen of you, you tend to favor a slightly overdriven sound over the more traditional dark sounding tones usually associated with Jazz Guitar. Is this influenced by certain more modern players or is it a sound style that goes deeper than that?
JL: I think that is something that came along the way, in the beginning I liked to use an overdrive pedal to cut away bass and make the guitar come across better live. Later I also started to like to have the dynamic range of playing very soft and clean and then digging in a bit and getting of overdrive.
Even though I have listened to a lot of guitar players that do use overdrive (Scofield, Rosenwinkel and Bill Frisell), it didn’t really come directly from that.
To be honest I find that the dark sound is a bit of a myth, Wes, Martino and Grant Green don’t actually have that dark a sound. The dark sound came later.
JGL: What was your first guitar and what are you playing now? Any other guitar(s) worthy of discussion in between?
JL: My first guitar was a cheap classical guitar, I don’t remember the brand. Right now my main guitar is a ’77 Ibanez AS2630. My other guitars worth mentioning are probably my SRV strat and my ’52 Gibson ES-175.
JGL: What other gear are you using? Do you have a specific stage set-up that works best for you in a variety of musical situations?
JL: For the last 6-7 years I have been using Fractal Modeling amps, first and AxeFX Ultra and then an AX8. They are both amplified through a QSCK10. The Fractal Audio stuff is so flexible that I can do almost anything with it from Theater to Pop and Jazz at pretty much any volume and I can record myself very easily.
JGL: Did you know early on that music was something you wanted to do as a career choice and if so, what were some of the things you did to make this choice work for you?
JL: Actually my classical teacher pointed out to me that I was very busy with music (I was playing classical guitar and writing music on my computer) and that I should consider making it a career. I hadn’t really thought about it before he said that. I didn’t get really serious about it until a few years later. Probably the biggest choice I made was to go study in another country to get a degree in Jazz Guitar rather than a more general one as an electric guitarist.
JGL: Who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning, and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years? Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
JL: My influences are always changing, and I go through phases of listening to artists. Scofield was one of the first jazz artists that I liked, and I still love his playing. I have listened a lot to Wes and the early Martino as well. While I was studying at the conservatory I was checking out a lot of Kurt Rosenwinkel and Bill Frisell. Lately I have been listening a lot to Pat Metheny and Gilad Hekselman.
Of course these are all guitarists, and other musicians that have had a big impact on my playing are Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau and Bill Evans.
JGL: Is there anyone – alive or dead – who you’d love to play and/or record with and why?
JL: There are so many it’s hard to mention any to be honest. Imagine playing guitar in the Count Basie orchestra or playing with Joe Henderson or Ron Carter?
JGL: I’ve really enjoyed your playing in all that I’ve heard you do, from straight-ahead to some outside playing as well. What was your practice routine like when you were beginning and what is it like now? Are there specific areas that you work on or do you just play through tunes?
JL: I guess I have a sort of open ended technique part of my practice, so scales and exercises through scales. Some basic arpeggio and triad things. Right now I am working through some Kreutzer etudes as well (Picked that up again after talking about it in a YouTube Video). For the rest I am working on playing songs and learning new tunes. A lot of the work needs to be done in applying something to real music, so playing songs is very important.
JGL: What would you advise students of Jazz Guitar to work on if you could only choose two components?
JL: Learning and playing songs as one component (or is that two?) and then probably work on the melodies they improvise.
JGL: According to your online Bio, you have played with some great artists including Jim McNeely, Slide Hampton and Michael Brecker. How did these associations come about and what was the experience like playing with these stellar musicians? Any fun stories that you’re willing to share?
JL: These were all three while I was studying at the Conservatory. Jim McNeely and Slide Hampton were both guest conductors for the big band and we did a project with them which ended with a concert at the North Sea Jazz Festival. Brecker came to the school to give a masterclass and we played a small band concert with him in the Hague.
Michael Brecker refused to play most of the stuff we had prepared because he only wanted to play the repertoire that he was really used to. Most of what we had done was transcribed from his records, but he didn’t want to play it. At the time I did not understand why, but now I do get it if I see the amount of music he had to play and read in such a short time.
JGL: Speaking of stellar musicians, you perform with the Danish/Dutch band TRÆBEN which was formed in 2007 “…and has since been active on the international jazz scene playing concerts in Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg and toured in Canada.” How did this group come about and for what purpose?
JL: The group came about in a really weird way because Olaf, the bass player, had done a course in applying for grants and as an exercise had written an application for an imaginary band playing Scandinavian music. He decided to send it in and got the grant. Now we needed to make a band and write arrangements of the music, which I did for most of the pieces. We made that album and decided to keep on going, but with our own compositions. Now we have three albums out and have been on tour in a lot of places. I am very proud that our last album was very well received in Denmark and Germany!
JGL: As an aside – and since I am Canadian – how did you enjoy your visit with TRÆBEN to Canada back in 2013? I regret missing your show at the House of Jazz in Montreal, where I live!
JL: The tour in Canada was great! Very friendly people and we had a great time at the Ottawa, Sunfest and Montreal Jazz festivals. I hope to come back some time!
JGL: You’ve been on YouTube since 2006 but it seems that you have only started the whole Jazz Guitar Instruction thing within the last two years or so. With over 360 videos, 32, 719 subscribers (at the time of this interview) and almost at the 2 MILLION views mark, did you ever expect that your work would be so popular?
JL: No, that is completely incredible and I feel very blessed because of it, even if it is also hard work.
JGL: What got you into teaching through YouTube and what – if any – are the challenges involved in prepping, transcribing, recording and putting out a new lesson every week.
JL: I found out that the transcriptions on my website got a lot of attention and then I decided to also write some lessons. I thought I had some ideas for articles that no one else had made and I found it fun to write them.
I posted these lessons on Ultimate Guitar and got to know some of the guys over there. Mainly Chris Zoupa, who runs a 95k YouTube channel. He advised me to start making videos instead of written articles, so I thought I’d give that a shot.
JGL: How do you choose what you’re going to teach via a YouTube video?
JL: In part I listen to what people ask on the videos.That’s probably the biggest contributor. But I also just use stuff that I find interesting or that I am using in my work as a teacher at the School for Young talent at the Conservatory.
JGL: From the germ of an idea, to the final resulting video uploaded for viewers to learn from, what kind of gear are you using to get your instructional ideas in front of your subscribers?
JL: In the beginning it was my Samsung S3 phone and GuitarPro. Now it is still Guitar Pro, but I have upgraded to a Panasonic Camera and I use Adobe Premiere to edit it with. To be honest it is quite modest in gear. Most of it is having a solid idea for a video.
JGL: Do you feel that anyone with a webcam and a guitar can do what you’re doing, or do you bring something to the table that is different than the norm.
JL: I do consider myself an above average teacher to be honest, but sometimes that does not help you with making videos. People who are making as useful lessons are doing a lot better than me.
In general anyone with a webcam or phone and the will to keep trying to become better should be able to do what I do. It’s not so different from learning jazz guitar or anything else really?
JGL: What kind of response have you received from the viewers of your YouTube Channel? Have you ever gotten to the point where you’ve either said “Man, I gotta get more videos out to the masses!” or “Why do I even bother?”
JL: I have always been very lucky with a very positive response, so of course I occasionally get criticism, but until now I have almost never banned anybody. I don’t mind taking a discussion with people either. I try not to take it too serious.
JGL: Has being on YouTube helped your career in other ways other than garnering a bunch of students?
JL: Certainly! I have had the chance to record some guest solos for other people (one was a Heavy Metal album!) and I have also been invited on tours in other countries a few times in part because of YouTube.
JGL: Just out of curiosity – and for those who seem to think that you’re making a ton of cash via YouTube advertising – do you actually make any income from YouTube and – without going into personal details (unless of course you want to!) – does it help offset all the work you do in getting a video up each week for the benefit of others?
JL: I do make money off YouTube, mostly from the support from my following on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/jenslarsen and also from the lessons I sell in my WebStore.
As for how much: Let’s just say that I don’t want to calculate my hourly wage, that might be depressing..
JGL: Apart from YouTube instruction, do you give private lessons and if so, how does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?
JL: I do teach via Skype and private lessons on occasionally, but I don’t have too much time to do so, even if it is fun. I do of course already teach in other places.
JGL: One last YouTube related question – I promise – will you keep going the way you are going or do you have greater plans to ramp up the video process? Have you ever considered doing a membership style website like Martin Taylor, Mark Elf or Jimmy Bruno have?
JL: My Patreon site works a bit like that, and maybe I will move that to an independent website at some point, but right now I don’t want to spend time on that. It will probably be a lot of guitar unrelated work…
JGL: Almost every musician, no matter their level and professional stature have their own insecurities to deal with when it comes to music and playing their instrument. What, if any, insecurities do you face on your instrument and how do you work at getting over them?
JL: Starting with jazz quite late I became quickly aware of a lot of things that I didn’t do well. Some of these things were sometimes described with terms like “unmusical” or similar “not swinging” type expressions. Experience has taught me that the problem was not so much my abilities as it was understanding what I needed to learn, and I have improved those aspects of playing a lot and will keep doing so. The biggest problem is the fear that an unclear description of the problem leaves you with more than actually fixing the problem in your playing.
JGL: What’s your personal take on the health of Jazz Guitar in particular and the genre in general these days?
JL: I think Jazz guitar is doing fairly well, the internet is good for jazz guitar. I worry more about if it is good for jazz music and jazz venues.
JGL: Given your geographic roots, how is Jazz accepted in your part of the world? Do you find it to be more popular in Europe than in North America?
JL: That’s hard to say since I was never in the US, but I do find that jazz has a place in culture here in Europe. The financial crisis of a few years ago destroyed a lot in The Netherlands though. The effect was not so bad in Denmark and Germany.
JGL: Do you find the business side of being a Jazz musician something that should be taught in music schools or should the playing be left to the player and the business side of things be left to managers and agents?
JL: I think fewer people can make a living as a manager of jazz musicians than actually being a jazz musician. By now you have to at least partially manage yourself even as a fairly famous artist.
This should certainly be taught at school, not doing so would be a serious problem for the student.
JGL: What – if any – new technology (ie: Internet, Face Book, YouTube, Instagram etc…) do you incorporate into your looking to get gigs or get hired?
JL: Not much, mostly I get hired because somebody recommends me. For getting a gig it is still e-mails, phone calls and sometimes Facebook messages.
JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar?
JL: Go for it! But be aware that almost nobody makes a living only playing so think about what you want to do besides that. It will make your life easier later.
JGL: Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.
JL: I have never thought about doing something else, I really love playing guitar and all the other guitar stuff. I am less of a fan of all the other things like administration, getting gigs etc, but they are necessary.
JGL: If you had to do one thing over again, what would it be and why?
JL: I don’t know.
JGL: What is a perfect day for Jens Larsen?
JL: A day where I have time to just practice and maybe check out some new songs.
JGL: What does the future hold for Jens Larsen?
JL: Hopefully more gigs with nice and great musicians and some YouTube videos. I am also trying to write a book for Fundamental Changes , but it’s hard to find the time right now.
JGL: Thank you Jens for taking the time to chat with Jazz Guitar Life. All the best in whatever you do!
JL: Thank you Lyle.
To learn more about Jens, check him out @ https://jenslarsen.nl/
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