Steve Herberman is a popular Jazz Guitarist and performer in the Washington, DC Metro area. Steve is also a top-shelf educator in both the real world and the virtual, providing Mikes Master Class, YouTube and other Internet areas with valued lessons and learning resources. I have had the pleasure of reviewing Steves CD Ideals and hes definitely the consummate jazz guitar player, always reaching for more.
In this interview, Steve talks about his influences, his role as an educator, his use of the 7 string, and he shares with us his first meeting with the late, great Ted Greene. A wonderful read.
(editors note: The last segment of this interview features a variety of playing questions from Chicago Jazz Guitarist James Seaberry who has studied with Steve via Mikes Master Class. Thanks James for your valuable input and thanks Steve for taking the time to answer each question in your own inimitable way!)
Interview by Lyle Robinson via email 2012.
“I was also looking to get a lesson with George Van Eps and thought that maybe Ted (Green) could help persuade George into seeing me while I was there. I had never met either Ted or George and Ted answered his phone and George didn’t! It was so exciting to be in Teds apartment and playing with him and talking music. I told Ted that I wanted to somehow combine the Van Eps and Breau styles with my own. He immediately commented on how different their styles were. In fact I remember him saying that there styles were millions of miles apart conceptually. Ted was so encouraging after he heard me play he wanted to call George so I could get a chance to play for him. I really couldn’t believe this was happening, that one of my heroes was telling me that George should hear me play!”
JGL: How old are you?
JGL: What geographical area do you live in?
SH: Washington DC. Metro area.
JGL: How long have you been playing guitar for and at what age did you first get into guitar playing?
SH: About 34 years, I started at about 12 years old.
JGL: Were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz?
SH: I first heard jazz when in first grade and was taken with a film my teacher showed us. It was Louis Armstrong playing and singing with his band. But then like most other kids I gravitated towards rock mainly Beatles and Eagles early on. But that film of Pops left a lasting impression.
JGL: Can you recall that particular moment that first excited you about jazz guitar or jazz in general? The one that made you say thats what I want to do!
SH: I used to watch a show called Showtime At The Apollo which was was a compilation of old soundies. When the Nat King Cole Trio appeared with Irving Ashby on guitar I was hooked right away. It was so sophisticated and swinging I couldnt get enough of it. I was around 15 years old and I got reacquainted with jazz at that point.
JGL: Similarly, was there a defining moment when you decided that Jazz Guitar would/could be your career path?
SH: I was still playing in rock bands at around 15 or 16 and the drummer in my band was really into fusion and would play his brothers records after band practice. When I heard John McLaughlin and Jean Luc Ponty with the guitarist Jamie Glaser I knew I wanted to quit playing rock and dedicate my time exclusively to jazz.
JGL: How difficult do you/did you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player, or have you found it to be relatively easy?
SH: Its not easy at all then or now! I love it and that is what keeps me going. Luckily I like to teach and Id say that accounts for a little more than half of my income.
JGL: What was your first guitar and what are you playing now?
SH: My first guitar was a Yamaha nylon string and then soon after that a Gibson Maurader solid body kind of like a budget Les Paul with groovy green and red transparent pickups. Today I play a Bill Comins Concert Seven string exclusively. The 7 string Comins archtop is perfect for me I wouldnt change a thing about it. Ive been playing it for about the last 10 years. Im also about to get a Kirk Sand nylon mahogany model 7 string. It should be great for studio work and recording in general when a nylon string is needed.
JGL: What other gear are you using?
SH: I use an AER Compact 60 for my solo gigs and for band gigs I use an Acoustic Image Clarus with a Rich Raezer built RE NY8 cabinet. Its a very simple set up. Although Ive experimented with effect pedals I tend to prefer a pure clean sound.
JGL: You appear to favor the 7th string arch-top. How did your fondness for this particular instrument come about and do you play it all the time or do you switch from 6 to 7 stringed guitar on and off?
SH: In working through the George Van Eps Harmonic Mechanism books back in the early 90s I thought it would be nice to extend the exercises down into a lower range. After listening to Van Eps and Ted Greene using the lower tunings I was really excited about the possibilities there. And I started to be convinced that playing fingerstyle was really the way to go for solo guitar. I still love the sound of pickstyle solo guitar but prefer the flexibility fingerstyle technique allows. The guitar Bill Comins is building me is a 6 string classical so Ill be switching between 6 and 7 for the first time in a long time. Ive owned two 7 string classical guitars and both were tough to play so Im trying a 6 string thinking Id play it more and would be happier with the sound over the 7 string classical. Since I use the low A tuning I havent found a low A nylon string that resonates the same way as the Low E at the standard scale length. I believe the Asturias and Carl Barney nylon 7 string guitars I used to own had slightly longer than average scale lengths.
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?
SH: They’ve changed somewhat over the years. Or shall I say Ive added to the list as the years have gone by! Before college I was really into Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass and Charlie Parker. Once at Berklee I began listening to more horn players like Clifford Brown and Dexter Gordon while getting heavily into Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell and Oscar Moore. After Berklee I focused on George Van Eps, Lenny Breau and Ed Bickert and began listening a lot to piano players.
JGL: Who are you listening to today (guitarists or nonguitarists)?
SH: Ted Greene, Jim Hall, Larry Koonse, Ed Bickert, and Wes Montgomery lately but I listen to new guitarists all of the time. Thelonious Monk, Kenny Barron and Bill Mays are a few piano players Ive listened to recently. Im sure Ill get back to listening to more horn players again soon but my recent focus has been piano and guitar.
JGL: Who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?
SH: Definitely all of the people Ive mentioned who are great musicians. And I’d have to add Bill Leavitt to that list as he was so supportive and helpful to me as was Larry Baione, Charlie Chapman and Jon Damain, all teachers at Berklee. The two lessons I had with Ted Greene in the mid 90s really gave me the confidence I was lacking at the time. Ted was so supportive and made me believe I had a chance to succeed playing the music I loved. I could say the same thing for John Pisano who believed in me and gave me a chance to perform with him whenever it was possible. John was an important connection for me to the history of jazz guitar since he had played with Lenny Breau, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery (I think!), Billy Bean and George Van Eps not to mention Louis Armstrong. Other guitarists who were influential to me that that I got to know a little bit were Joe Puma, Mundell Lowe, Jim Hall and briefly Don Arnone.
JGL: Back in 2004 you were the moderator at the World Guitar Congress on a panel that included guitar greats Jim Hall, John Scofield, Ralph Towner,Jimmy Bruno, Howard Alden, Eric Johnson and Martin Taylor. How did this come about and what was your experience of this wonderful event?
SH: One day while teaching at Towson University I received an email from Helene Breazeale who was the head of the world music congresses office at the school. She had done several successful cello congresses and wanted to do a guitar congress as well. She hired me as a consultant to help her decide which jazz guitarists to book for clinics and concerts.
My list was literally a mile long so she picked the people from the list that she wanted to go with. All styles of music were to be represented so jazz guitarists were only about one quarter of the artists that came to Towson. Helene decided what each jazz artist would do during the week of the guitar congress and bounced ideas off of me but ultimately decided it herself. She was very kind in allowing me to choose the guitarist who would write a symphonic piece for guitar and orchestra and without hesitation I recommended Jim Hall. He did a beautiful job as only he could do. Dr. Breazeale asked me to moderate a couple of panel discussions the most memorable being the one you mention.
I performed a few times at the congress once with my trio, and with guitarists Tom Lippincott, Chris Buzzelli, Wolf Marshall, Beth Marlis, and got to play one tune with Jim Hall! That was obviously the highlight for me. While playing solo guitar at the press party before the congress began I looked up to see Pat Martino standing right in front of me listening which was as you could imagine quite scary! I hadnt met him before that experience and found out right then what a beautiful person he was. He asked to hide his briefcase behind my amp and said it would be safe there with the beautiful warmth emanating from my speaker. Put me at ease right away!
JGL: You have made education a big part of your music career, much to the benefit of others I might add. This leads me to three related questions: 1)How did you get involved in teaching.
SH: Thanks Lyle I appreciate you saying that. Ive always loved teaching the guitar. It started for me back in high school helping the other guitarists in the jazz band. I was grateful for the chance to help them and they in turn were happy to have me show them things. I remember bringing in chord chemistry and showing them chords from it. Of course I was just figuring this stuff out myself. After college I did what many guitarists do and started teaching in the music stores. Then luckily I moved into the university setting.
JGL: 2) What do you personally get out of teaching?
SH: Besides the good feeling of passing along information and advice I get to work on my sight reading and tighten up the fundamentals as I’m teaching it to students. I realized at some point I was getting by without having all of the arpeggios and scales down rock solid in all positions form any scale degree. I was using more jazz vocabulary than anything else and realized I needed to expand my toolbox. Teaching for me fills in all of the gaps, or most of them anyway. It also keeps me current with the latest developments in educational materials and philosophies. My students keep me in tune with the new players on the scene as well as other players and educators they’ve learned from.
JGL: 3) Can the essence of Jazz truly be taught?
SH: I like to believe it can. Especially through the careful listening and study of recordings and a lot of practice. Transcribing and analyzation, singing, ear training, theory, harmony, rhythm and fingerboard visualization can all come together to make sense as a whole.
JGL: Apart from all of your text and virtual lessons, do you teach privately one on one, and if so, how does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?
SH: Most of what I do in teaching is one on one private lessons. I teach at Towson University and also at my home studio. Students either sign up through the university after passing an audition or I can be contacted through my website and I schedule lessons either weekly or in some cases more sporadic. For sporadic lessons it makes more sense that the student be on an advanced level. My ideal student would be one who has played for at least a couple of years and is a hard worker and has passion for learning and playing music.
JGL: According to your online bio, you are a graduate of the Berklee School of Music. What was that experience like for you and what would your advice be to someone who is on the fence between taking private lessons or learning in an academic environment?
SH: I had a great experience at Berklee back in the mid 80s. One of the benefits to studying at a college is that the student can get different points of view from many teachers and broaden their knowledge of things outside of music. I really enjoyed being a student and like to think of myself as one currently. Getting all of this useful information from many sources that come together and work as a whole is what helped me thrive when I was in college. Its a fertile ground for becoming a well rounded musician. I knew a couple of people who moved to a city like Boston or New York and studied with a lot of private instructors some who taught at the reputable colleges. That approach can work but it is probably more difficult to balance and schedule.
JGL: Speaking of private lessons, back in 1996 you took two lessons from Ted Greene, who is undoubtedly the greatest jazz guitar teacher ever, apart from Mick Goodrick. Can you describe how these lessons came about and how was the experience being in the presence of Ted?
SH: I was working equally as hard on playing in the Lenny Breau style and the George Van Eps style and was aware that Ted had studied with George and played with Lenny. Having owned Ted Greene’s Solo Guitar LP (vinyl) devouring it since my Berklee days it made a lot of sense to go see Ted in California.
I was also looking to get a lesson with George Van Eps and thought that maybe Ted could help persuade George into seeing me while I was there. I had never met either Ted or George and Ted answered his phone and George didn’t! It was so exciting to be in Teds apartment and playing with him and talking music. I told Ted that I wanted to somehow combine the Van Eps and Breau styles with my own. He immediately commented on how different their styles were. In fact I remember him saying that there styles were millions of miles apart conceptually. Ted was so encouraging after he heard me play he wanted to call George so I could get a chance to play for him. I really couldn’t believe this was happening, that one of my heroes was telling me that George should hear me play! It was truly humbling playing for and with Ted. Ted got excited by many things that he heard by many players. I remember him raving about Danny Gatton, Phil DeGruy and John Pisano and telling me stories of his lesson with Joe Pass. Ted obviously was a great,great musician and person and the experience could not have been more impactful and inspiring for me.
JGL: For the student of Jazz Guitar, what would you say is the most important thing to do when learning to improvise and play over changes?
SH: Id say playing with a good time-feel and phrasing and limiting the notes to chord tones in the beginning. Once the student can do this they can learn to connect the chord tones by step-wise motion. Then do the same thing with scales, voice leading scales by step from one chord change to the next. Then combining the two approaches which creates a nice balance. I’m currently working on presenting this material for my next masterclass for Mikes Masterclasses.
Of course its also important to listen and transcribe building a good jazz vocabulary. I know that is more than just one thing, but there’s so much that goes into it I cant just pick one!
JGL: What is your practice routine like these days? Do you work on specific things or just play tunes?
SH: It varies a lot depending on what projects I have going on at the time. I’m always trying to compose so when I want to record or play my original music on gigs Ill have some new things ready to go. I need to work on how to play on my own tunes so sometimes Ill work on a guitar trio arrangement harmonizing the melody in different ways. And Ill figure out different ways to approach the chord changes. Other times Ill work on trying to keep my repertoire together re-learning old tunes I haven’t played in a while and transposing tunes and working out voicings and also contrapuntal approaches to the tune. Other times Ill target single note things like bebop heads and single note soloing concepts over particular tunes. Working on solo guitar concepts are a constant in my practicing.
JGL: You have three CD’s out as a leader, what is your thought process when deciding to come out with an album and why was there such a long time between your first CD Thoughtlines and your second Action:Reaction?
SH: The way it has worked for me is once Ive collected a batch of original tunes that Im happy with I decide whether or not I want to mix in some standards and then set a date to record a CD. My favorite instrumentation is guitar, bass and drums and for Thoughtlines I added a saxophonist to that. The reason for the 5-6 year gap between those CD’s was due to the fact that I became a new father right after Thoughtlines was recorded. Id like to record another trio CD with some new original music Ive written that I’m excited about and I also want to record a solo CD at my home recording it myself with a laptop. I’m still learning the ropes as far as recording it myself.
JGL: You have been both a leader and a sideman. Which do you prefer and what are the differences in roles that you need to bring to the table?
SH: I like both scenarios for different reasons. Its a challenge to play someone else’s original music but luckily Ive been given a lot of license to do what I would like with the music. For the most part when Ive been sideman we’ve played standards which makes things more comfortable. Recently I was asked by a vocalist to write arrangements and play on her project. When I get this kind of opportunity it feels a lot like making my own CD except I didn’t choose the material. There is certainly a lot more responsibility involved in making my own CD’s. Sometimes its nice to have less responsibility! A balance between both is really nice and I always learn useful things on the sideman recording sessions that help me when I’m in the studio doing my own projects.
JGL: How do you go about marketing yourself? Are there any tools that you have come across that you have found to be effective?
SH: The internet is the greatest thing for me as far as marketing. When I recorded my first CD having e-mail saved my life. I would have been a nervous wreck having to contact all of the print media and radio people by phone. Ive had some assistance with press releases from a publicist and bought mailing lists from them. And Ive hired a radio promoter on two of my CD’s which really helped get them played and reviewed. I’m really not that great at marketing myself but Ive done the best I can with the time I have to do that sort of thing. Id rather be playing! I still think that the best marketing is going out and networking face to face. The guitar show in Long Island put on by 20th Century Guitar magazine was a great help to me as far as meeting players, Luthiers and guitar fans. Ive been to NAMM several times and that has been really helpful too. NAMM is truly a case of mixing business with pleasure.
JGL: If you could only pick one individual or group to play with (alive or dead), who would that be and why?
SH: Id pick Don Thompson and Terry Clarke to see what Jim Hall and Ed Bickert may have felt like. Some of my favorite moments of recorded music had those two guys playing together. And since they are still around and thriving I must make this a priority!
JGL: You have received numerous glowing accolades from some of the top players in this business, guys like Jimmy Bruno and Gene Bertoncini hold you in high regard, yet, and please don’t take this the wrong way, your name has yet to become a household word. Is there a reason for this, or is it just the nature of the business?
SH: Id say the reason for this is that I haven’t toured much. Ive been content to stay in the DC Metro area and quietly go about my work here with my teaching,playing and recording. But Ive been getting more offers to play overseas and across the US lately so I may just have to figure something out to get on the road and see if that can help my career.
JGL: Has your impressions and experiences of being a Jazz Guitar player been what you had expected when you first decided to become a musician?
SH: Yes it pretty much has been. For me it has always been about trying to be the best musician and guitarist I could be and if I work hard enough then hopefully everything else will fall into place.
I like to think that the important thing is enjoying myself with playing music and also helping others to feel that same level of enjoyment.
JGL: How would you like to see your life unfold in the coming years and what do you think would be needed to get you there?
SH: Id like to do more touring and educational clinics and get to see a little more of the world. It would be great to meet some new people and visit people Ive conversed with online that Ive never met face to face. I think getting to that point would involve me being committed to structuring a tour on my own and having the attitude that I don’t need to make that much money in the process. That’s one of the hard parts, in the beginning Im sure I will actually not even break even! It would be great if I could find a kind soul to help me with bookings like this.
JGL: If you could do one thing over again, what would that one thing be and why?
SH: I wish I had moved to the New York City area and experienced that whole scene when I was in my twenties. That’s one regret I have but I only live a few hours away so NYC is within driving distance still.
I also wish that I had met Lenny Breau and George Van Eps and took lessons with them.
JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar?
SH: Be fully committed; learn the fundamentals and respect the tradition so you have a good foundation to go anywhere you’d like to go. Go out and hear and meet the musicians you are listening to on recordings and if possible arrange a lesson.
JGL: What else do you like to do apart from guitar playing?
SH: I like watching sports like hockey and football and playing solo basketball for fitness, playing an opponent would be too dangerous, gotta protect the hands! I really like being outside on a nice day like most people and going on interesting day trips with my family.
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.
SH: I used to have second thoughts crop up from time to time especially when I was younger and could possibly get into another line of work. Every time I tried getting away from music as a full time profession I was miserable! I never was able to pinpoint another career other than music though I had stints working sales jobs which ultimately ended badly! I do enjoy writing and have done some equipment reviews for Jazz Times and a monthly column for Modern Guitars and Guitar International but I could never see myself doing that for a living.
JGL: Steve The questions below are from a student who has taken a few of your Mikes Master Class courses and I thought it would be a great addition to this interview if I got someone who has followed your instruction, so to speak. Of course, you can be as brief or a s lengthy as you like, and, like any of the questions, you are not obliged to answer any you don’t feel like.
JS: I would like to know, are there any features or qualities of a guitar that make it more suitable for fingerstyle rather than pick-style playing?
SH: Some people say that wider string spacing would be better suited for fingerstyle playing. I owned a 7 string nylon string guitar with narrow spacing and Ill tell you that I never liked the feel of it so there may be something to this. Ive had to lower pickguards in the past that interfere with my right hand nails. Ive also had to play with pick up height that can interfere with nails. In one case my nail was catching a pole piece. Ed Bickert really sounded great on that Tele with the unwound G string yet I still use a wound G since its what
I’m used to and I like the feel of a meatier 3rd string. Sounded great in Eds hands with his hybrid picking technique.
JS: You finger many chords one or two notes at a time; how would you teach a student to play this way who was trained in the classical all fingers down simultaneously approach?
SH: I sometimes write out or find etudes for the student in 2 or 3 parts which helps with thinking contrapuntally. I ask my students to play a melody supported only with the bass note and than later well add an essential tone such as a 3rd or 7th. Well also play a melody supported only with the harmony note or guide tone.
JS: Fingerstyle playing allows dynamic control of individual voices that pick-style does not. How do you develop good dynamic control in an electrified, ensemble situation?
SH: Ask the drummer to play more quietly! I’m kidding but there is some truth in that statement because its hard to control individual voice volume when you are digging in hard in order to be heard. I always make sure I have room to turn up my guitars volume pot for when I need a boost to bring out a line in a certain register.
A good rule of thumb is to make the melody you’d like to bring out louder than the other voices in the chord. This takes time but if your attention is on it it will come together over time.
JS: Your style is as close as guitar gets to piano technique. How do you alter your playing when playing with a piano?
SH: First of all thank you for the compliment! I love the piano, it was the first instrument I played and though I’m not a very good pianist at all, I want to make my guitar do pianistic or orchestral things. Honestly I don’t play often with pianists. When I do I often play more pickstyle since they have the chords covered. I need the pick in order to project when playing with certain pianists. There are a few pianists that Ive played with who are very sensitive and allow me to do more things with chords thus maintaining my fingerstyle technique more often.
JS: Do you find that having the ability to play different voices forces you to be more or less conscious of silence and space?
SH: Absolutely. Once I got hip to answering a single note line with a chord I found I could create a conversation between those 2 elements meaning Id edit my single line playing more to allow space for the chord to react. Lenny Breau was the master of this type of playing. It cut down on my run-on sentences, musically speaking. Balancing one line against another using different shadings and volume can add a nice compositional element to ones improvising.
JS: Do you find coordination problems with fingerstyle that are not present in pick-style?
SH: I find coordination problems with both! I do find it harder to play fast fingerstyle without the use of left hand slurs. In fact after putting the pick down cold turkey for a year or so I found that my left hand slurs increased a lot. Then when I returned to the pick to incorporate both styles I could play faster with the pick. The slurring was the key for me to playing faster and I like the legato sound of it more than picking each note.
JS: Why don’t more fingerstyle jazz players take advantage of classical techniques like tremolo and Rasgueado?
SH: I’d be afraid to try a rasgueado on steel strings as my nails might fly across the room! Ive used some tremolo but I think its harder on steel than on nylon.
JS: Have you tried to incorporate any fret-hand fingerboard techniques *ala*Sean McGowan?
SH: If that’s the technique of reaching over with the right hand and fretting a note like Tal Farlow used to do then I have only tinkered with it. I guess you can tell I’m pretty OCD about my nails and keeping them in good condition. I do recall damaging one trying a Tal maneuver once.
JGL: Thank you Steve for participating on Jazz Guitar Life. It is most appreciated and I wish you great success in your career and life.
SH: Thanks so much Lyle. It was a lot of fun talking with you. The questions were really good and in-depth. I really appreciate what you are doing with Jazz Guitar Life and keep up the great work.
For more info on Steve check him out @ http://www.steveherberman.com/