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Artist Interview: Chris Buzzelli

by Stephen Rekas

Chris Buzzelli is among the few guitarists I know who teach, perform, and record on both the 7-string archtop and 7-string nylon-string guitars. He is active as a leader and sideman with various groups and on several recordings, and has taught at Bowling Green State University and the University of Michigan. His most recent recording is called I Can Pick My Friends. The title reflects the fact that Chris has been in this business long enough and at a level sufficient to choose a stellar lineup of collaborators. In addition to his recordings, Chris has published several articles and arrangements, and has written a book summing up his knowledge of the 7-string fretboard entitled Mel Bay's Complete 7-String Guitar Method/A Comprehensive Method Including Chords, Scales & Arpeggios (99988BCD). Check it out as the "Featured Book" in this issue of Guitar Sessions®.

       Stephen Rekas
       Guitar Sessions® Editor

Guitar Sessions: Who or what events inspired you to play the guitar? Was music a part of your household when growing up?
Chris Buzzelli: There were no professional musicians in my family but my mother was an amateur pianist and I have an older brother and sister who both played at that time. I think I wanted to play by the time I was 6 or 7, but I was small and we couldn't find a teacher who would take me. Finally, when I was 9, I was able to get into lessons with a teacher in the Trenton area named Frank Hipp.

Child-size guitars probably weren't yet available when you started to play. Did you begin with a uke or go right to a full-size guitar?
I started on a full-size guitar. I didn't buy my first uke until just a few years ago when I got a call to play with the traveling company of the show Chicago. I needed a uke for that, so I bought one the week before the show. I haven't touched it since closing night.

What styles interested you when you first began to play? How do those preferences influence your current music?
I didn't know anything about style. I just wanted to play the guitar. My teacher had me do a little of everything, including reading music right from the first lesson, and all of that turned out to be a good foundation for the things I wanted to do later. One thing that I was always interested in was trying to put melody and chords together. I remember doing this very early on with folk tunes, or pop tunes, or anything. I think this came from have a brother who played the accordion and a sister who played the piano. On those instruments you learn to accompany yourself right from the beginning. On guitar you're either strumming chords or plinking out a single note melody. I wanted to be able to play by myself and have it sound complete.

When did the 7-string guitar come into the picture? How do you tune that 7th string- B or A? Aside from the obvious advantages of the extended range and being your own bassman, what are the other benefits of playing the 7-string guitar?
Wow, we're jumping ahead about 25 years! It's just as well since I didn't do anything very interesting in those years anyway. I got into the 7-string only about 8 years ago. Because of my interest in playing solo guitar, it was a natural way to go. I tune the seventh string to a low A, like Bucky and the majority of other jazz players. The thing I like the best about the 7-string is that you can spread your chords out a lot more. For example, if I want to play an Fmaj7 chord with a high E in the melody, I can still play a low F in the bass. Now, all of those notes are on a 6-string guitar, but you can't play them all at the same time.

You play both archtop and classical 7-string guitars. Who built your instruments? Do you experience any problem in switching from one to the other? Is the 7-string guitar for everyone and every situation or are there certain applications where the 6-string guitar still serves best?
My archtop is the American Archtop model made by Dale Unger and my classical was made for me by Gary Zimnicki. When I first started playing 7-string I thought maybe I should get all of the necks made to the same specs, and in fact, I did have a semi-hollowbody make with a wide neck like a classical. But because of the logistics and expense involved in doing that, I didn't continue with that idea with my other guitars. I don't really notice a problem in going back and forth as far as the spacing is concerned. Look at what percussionists have to deal with. They go from marimba to xylophone to vibes or whatever and all of the instruments are different sizes. I think you just become accustomed to adjusting.

There really isn't anything you can play on a 6-string guitar that you can't play on a 7. Of course, there are certain situations where you won't get much use out of the extra string. But just like a piano player doesn't play all 88 keys on every gig, you don't have to use the 7th string just because it's there. Since I do a lot of solo playing, as well as duos with other guitarists, or singers, it really suits the kind of playing that I do.

What are the key areas a student jazz guitarist should pursue? In your role as a teacher, what areas do you emphasize with your students?
I try to do a little of everything with my students. Since I'm working with guitar majors, I'm trying to prepare them as best I can for a career in music. I spend a lot of time on the mechanics of the guitar. That is, scales, arpeggios and chord voicings. Having a command of that stuff will serve them well regardless of what kind of music they may end up playing. The other thing I focus on is repertoire. As a jazz player, there's a certain body of standard tunes that they will be expected to know. If we can get a respectable tune list going, then they'll be much better prepared for the real world.

Did any Mel Bay books figure into your development as a guitarist?
Like thousands of other students, I went through the original Mel Bay Modern Guitar Method- all seven levels. Some of the things that Mel Bay Publications has come out with in recent years are terrific and I'm not just saying this because this is a Mel Bay interview. I think it's great how many of your authors are also some of the leading guitarists on the scene today.

How has your family affected your music?
I already mentioned my older brother and sister. Both my mother and father listened to music all the time. My mom liked show tunes and I think I inherited her interest in that. My dad likes opera and big band music and I think that all affected me as well. Now my kids are studying violin and I'm finding it very interesting to watch how they learn things.

Do you play any other instruments? If so, what are the advantages of being a multi instrumentalist? Are there any drawbacks that you can think of?
I play a little bit on a lot of instruments and a few well enough to play an occasional gig. I play the piano at least a little bit every day, although I was never very disciplined in my practicing and always just preferred to play tunes. I suppose piano has helped me the most just because you can do so much with chord voicings, but every instrument has something to offer. You learn a lot about phrasing by playing wind instruments because of the whole breathing thing. Lately, I've been playing a lot of mandolin and that is really changing the way I finger things in the upper register of the guitar.


Please describe your practice routine.
I actually have a practice routine that's all written out and everything. But, the truth be told, I rarely pay any attention to it. My practice "routine" usually consists of looking at my date book to see what my next gig is and practicing whatever I need to for whatever kind of gig I have coming up! I don't recommend this to anyone else, but that's just the reality of it for me. I guess I'm fortunate enough to be busy most of the time, so there's always something I need to be getting ready for.

What is your opinion of tab vs. standard notation?
I've never been a big fan of tab and lately I'm becoming more militant in my opposition to it. I think guitar education lags behind most other instruments, and there are a number of reasons for that, with tab being one of the big ones. I suppose if it were used only as an enhancement to standard notation, just to indicate fingerings, that it wouldn't be so bad. But, we all know that isn't the case. Far too many students never learn standard notation and I see that as a big problem. There's a whole world of music out there that will never and could never be written in tab. How would you tab a Beethoven string quartet, or a Bill Evan's solo, or whatever? If guitarists want to be taken seriously by other musicians, they need to get with the program and learn the way everybody else does.


What inspired your new book on playing the 7-string guitar?
The use of the 7-string guitar has really taken off in the last 10 years or so, and there seemed to be a need for a comprehensive book on the subject. I tried to cover the "mechanics" of the instrument as best I could. I learned a lot in writing the book, mostly through having to organize and codify things I was already doing. I think it will be a good starting point for anyone who wants to get into 7-string guitar. By the time you work your way through the book, you'll be pretty comfortable with the extra string.

Any upcoming performance dates, travels, workshops?
Actually, I've just gotten home from doing a bit of traveling this summer. I played at the Classic American Guitar Show in Long Island and at the World Guitar Congress in Towson, Maryland. Since I have a full-time teaching job, I don't do a lot of traveling during the school year. I will be playing at the Denison University Guitar Festival the first weekend in October. That's a great festival run by Tom Carroll, the guitar teacher there. Other than that, I'm always playing a lot in the northwest Ohio area. I'll try to keep my website updated www.ChrisBuzzelli.com.

How did the "Tal Farlow Live at Bowling Green State University" DVD come about?
In 1988 I had arranged for Tal to come to the school and do a concert. It just so happened that the campus PBS station was interested in doing a series of concerts from the College of Music.
They asked if they could tape the Tal concert and he graciously agreed. They came over with three cameras and really did a nice job.
The concert aired a couple of times locally and that was supposedly the end of it. I assume the tapes went into storage somewhere. Years later, after Tal's death, I mentioned something in passing to [Mel Bay editor and clinician] Corey Christiansen about the concert and he thought Bill Bay would be interested in doing something with it. So I put Bill in contact with the people at the TV station, and he contacted Tal's widow Michelle, and somehow the whole thing came together. Mel Bay Publications released the DVD edition (MB20337DVD) of the concert last year.

Tell me about your latest CD project.
Over the years I've had many great guitarists come to do concerts at the university. Besides Tal, we've had Joe Pass, Herb Ellis, Cal Collins, Mike Stern, John Abercrombie and many others. After a while it dawned on me what fun it would be to record with some of these guys while they were in town. So, for my I Can Pick My Friends CD I selected three guest guitarists that I've had the good fortune of playing with on several occasions: Jack Wilkins, Gene Bertoncini and Randy Johnston.
Each of these guys obviously plays great and I felt that we played well together and would get good results in a recording situation. So, I recorded a few tunes with each of them during their visits to Bowling Green. With Jack and Randy, we used bass and drums, but with Gene we simply played two classic guitars. That makes for a nice contrast on the album. I also included a few tunes with our "in-house" rhythm section consisting of Russ Schmidt on piano, Jeff Halsey on bass, and Roger Schupp on drums- all fine players. I'm quite pleased with the results. The CD is available on my website: www.ChrisBuzzelli.com.

In closing, what is your advice to students who are considering becoming career guitarists?
Many students have misconceptions about the music business. Anyone who wants a career as a guitarist should seek out professionals who are doing whatever it is they want to do, whether that's studio work, or jazz gigs, or rock concerts, or whatever. If you can't find anyone who's doing whatever it is you want to do, then it should serve as a big red flag; perhaps that aspect of the business doesn't exist as you thought it did. If you do find someone in the field that interests you, ask them what skills they needed to cultivate to do the kind of work they're doing, things like- Are you a good reader? Do you know a lot of tunes? Can you play many different styles? Then set your mind on getting those skills together. There is too much emphasis put on marketing and promotion these days. I'm still a believer in the old adage that you should stay home and practice. When you're good enough, someone will come find you.

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