Your goal was not to play Madison Square Garden. Your goal was the play The Village Vanguard.
Did you see yourself headed in the direction of a jazz guitarist?
I didn’t even think about it. That’s the music that got me. I think somewhere in my previous lives it was a part of my soul. That music was just the most incredible music I had ever heard in my life. And we could have our little community in a University walking around wanting to play this music. I never thought about the end result. I still don’t think about the end result. I just enjoy the process on a daily basis.
One thing about studying jazz is that you can easily embrace saxophone, piano, violin, trumpet, drums. Whereas usually in rock the guitarist doesn’t want to learn about the drums or the bass.
Absolutely. I’m a bit of a guitar nudge. We all are. It’s easy to get obsessed with the thing. There are so many fun toys and gadgets and kinds of guitars and stuff. In the end, to get back to John Lee Hooker or Robert Johnson, he held up a lone Gibson and there he was. That’s all he needed to make music. But it is fun on another level because we are all comic book collectors at heart. This is our fun. “I got the original ADA flanger man! It rules.” I’ve got all the MXR boxes. I am so obsessed with distortion pedals. Yeah I got this fuzz face, it only cost me $250. Jesus what was I thinking. It sits in my draw and I pull it out every once in a while and look at it and kind of pet it. Like yeah this is great.
What can be restrictive in a traditional jazz education is that you learn the standards. You learn “Blue Bossa”and “Giant Steps.” In rock or blues you are more encouraged to write your own material sooner. At what point did you start writing songs?
I started pretty immediately. Howard (Roberts) and Gary wrote books together. The Guitar Compendium. Because we were students of Gary’s, we had the honor and privilege of meeting Howard Roberts several times and getting to sit with him and play guitar with him.. One thing Howard said was the day after he took his first guitar lesson, he gave his first guitar lesson. And by looking at the instrument from the outside in, it provides a completely different perspective. You get all caught up in the little minutia, the little sacred things, whether it’s vibrato or technique or how you are picking this or where your fingers are. If you look at it from the other side, it was a really great thing. Also the alligator wrestling thing. Gary and Howard would talk about breaking music down into its components rather then trying to mimic somebody. Howard could probably play 100 voicing of an Am7b5 chord. I’m convinced he could. The possibilities had to be finite but he seemed to make them infinite. By understanding the components that make the car go, you could create your own car. You can take your own route. I’m going to drive to the coast. I’m going to drive 100 miles north and then head east. For me, that made so much sense. I trusted those people implicitly and by having people guide me in that way Gary said, “Okay, I’ve got too many guitar students, you are going to take some of them.” These were beginning guitar students. I gave private lessons. One kid is like, “I’ve got to learn AC/DC man.” Another girl is, “I’ve got the learn the “Theme from Mash.”’ Here I am with my completely marginal ability on the instruments giving guitar lessons to beginners. Then Gary had a course for beginning guitar with about 30 students and here is your teacher assistant, Page Hamilton. I’m going around forcing people’s fingers into open position G chords. They were cringing and I was loving every minute of it. It forced me into thinking compositionally from day one.
Teaching gives you a far better understanding of how things work.
One of the first things I did with a kid who was into AC/DC, after I showed him “Back in Black,” is to say we’re going to write our own song here. I showed him how to build his own bar chords. This voicing works anywhere on the neck. You can move it all around. You can move up in half steps or whole steps. Here’s these two power chord voicing for major chords. I sort of showed him the basic 12 bar blues structure and said we’re going to write a song. Why don’t you pick a chord that you know. So he gives me a D bar chord on the 5th fret A string root. I said I’m going to set the metronome up here and I’m going to count. 1 2 3 4, 2 2 34, and that’s a measure going by. We’ve got 12 of those. And the basic blues structure is this. I never saw a kid so excited and elated. Not only could he struggle with “Back in Black” for the next couple of weeks, he had his own songs. That was so gratifying . The kid was so excited about that. I showed him the basic voicings from “Back In Black,” the E, D and A chord. He was so thrilled. I’ll come up with a rhythm right now, you do this. We had this song. I said you play these chords, these rhythms and I’m going to rock out along with you. I jammed with him and he was elated. That kid was Yngwie Malmsteen. (laughs, this is a joke)
That’s a plateau. One was Led Zepp, another was Gary, a third is teaching. What is the next plateau for you?
I guess it would be finishing up there at school and deciding to move to New York. School was a five year project. I went to Germany for a year and studied classical guitar over there. That was great because they can be so dogmatic over there about music. I remember being in a 20th Century music classes at the University and having a professor of classical music scoffing at Ornette Coleman and playing Schoenberg. I got together with a girl for ear training. She was a classical pianist. We did ear training and I was getting bored with it. I said, “Okay, let’s play, let’s jam? She is like you’re a jazz guitarist, I’m a classical pianist what can we possible do. I said you’ve got Chopin up there, and there is a Dm9 arpeggio. That’s some of the elements right there that we need. There’s a scale there too, play that scale. We’ll vamp on these two chords. She was like I can’t. Everytime I used to practice and I would stray from my exercises my exercises my parents would come in and stop me and give me back my exercises. I was like damn you’re German and Johann Sebastian Bach created everything he created as an improviser. He started with a piece of music that he loved and would improvise on that piece of music. And he came up with some of the greatest and most timeless music that we know and you’re telling me that your parents told you not to improvise. That’s fucked up. That was kind of eye opening. That whole experience over there.
I still haven’t figured out Ornette’s Harmelodic Theory.
I love Ornette. Ornette has got chops. To me he comes out of Charlie Parker bebop tradition. There is no doubt in my mind that he hears those chord changes. He improvises horizontally as opposed to vertically. It’s kind of beyond me to figure it out, but there’s a spirit in that music and the fact that he swings so hard and he wrote such beautiful songs. I love the guy. I got into Ornette Coleman before any punk rocker was into Ornette Coleman. I don’t mean Lou Reed or whoever, but as far as my scene was concerned. I wasn’t into him because everybody was into him. I was into him long before that. When I started in the punk rock scene, jazz wasn’t cool at all. And I don’t just listen to free music at all. I’m really into the standards.
How are your bebop chops?
Shitty right now. If I know a song I can get in there cut loose a little bit. I can’t play “Giant Steps.” It’s always going to be one of those goals in the back of my mind to someday to sit down and get my jazz chops up because that music is still very dear to me. There are certain songs I’m really fond of that are not necessarily standards. “Fe Fi Fo Fum” by Wayne Shorter is a beautiful song and I love the changes. I feel like I can kind of play that song. Not great because I don’t sit down and play the music much anymore. Another great one is “Little Rootie Tootie.” (Thelonius) Monk is kind of complex. “Blue Monk.” I love to play the blues and swing. If I sat down for a couple of days and went back to “Confirmation” I could get that together. I never got “Joy of Spring” down when I started the rock thing. “Daud” Those great songs. I hold those musicians and that music in great esteem but I would never say that I could do that justice.
You made some very conscious decisions for what you wanted to explore. In Helmet you are not interested in exploring the single note melodic concept
of what you’re doing. In a contemporary context you are like Freddie Green (Count Basie Band) and Malcolm Young.
I don’t know who Malcolm Young is.
The rhythm guitar player in AC/DC.
God, what am I saying. Oh yeah. You said Freddy Green and I’m thinking jazz. I know that guy, one of the greatest rock guitarists on earth. Yeah,
To be continued...