Thursday, November 19, 2015

Interview with Jack Zucker

Though we have never met in person, it feels like I have known Jack for ages. And indeed, it must have been at least 15 years ago since I first noticed his posts on a jazz guitar forum. While I was still pretty much a jazz rookie and studying my ass off at the time, Jack was already playing great. His chops have always been impressive and what I dig especially about his playing is his strong time feel and modern concept.

Over the years Jack has always kept a strong internet presence. He has produced over 250 gear and musical videos and video lessons, published his own jazz guitar method and has been around on many fora to discuss all things jazz guitar. In doing so, his opinions have always been strong and he was never afraid to state them.

Over the last years we have discussed guitars privately many a time and we often have a good laugh about certain proceedings on the internet fora ... Jack's been a good jazz guitar friend for years and therefore an inteview is long overdue! Here we go.

At what age did you pick up the guitar?

I started playing guitar at age 14. I had played bass for several years but when the guys in the rock band I played for left their guitars at my house, and because I was inspired by Jimi Hendrix’ Little Wing, I started playing guitar. Little Wing was the first tune I ever learned off a record.

When did you become interested in jazz?

My dad was a jazz musician but he wasn’t pushy about it. He always gave me space and let me “come around” on my own. At some point, I decided to learn some jazz just to help my technique. I thought it would give my rock guitar a unique approach. I found a copy of Barney Kessel’s “To Swing or not to Swing” and began transcribing “Begin the blues” which was an ode to Charlie Christian. Later I began transcribing Charlie with Benny Goodman.

After learning that, I started investigating who had listened to Charlie Christian and I came to Wes Montgomery and then started listening to his peers such as Kenny Burrell and Joe Pass and later discovered George Benson and then Pat Martino.

Could you tell us something about your jazz guitar journey. With whom did you study? What books did you use?

After starting to copy the players listed above, my dad thought I should study formally so I started studying with local DC players Charlie Cliff Jr, Ken Verano, Bill Biesecker, Fred Chapin, Rick Whitehead and Joe Namath and then I went to theorist Larry Wooldridge. I also reached out and studied with Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel, Howard Roberts, Joe Pass, Dennis Sandole, Pat Martino, saxophonist Andrew White and pianist Marc Copeland.

I learned to read but almost none of my jazz playing came from books. I went through the Berklee books but despite all my studies, 99% of what I learned was from transcribing. I’m a firm believer that in jazz, you learn by copying. All the lessons in the world won’t help you but if you are motivated to learn from the masters, they are the only lessons and books you will ever need!

When did you start gigging? With whom? 

I started gigging in DC with almost everybody and did gigs and opened with such notables as Chick Corea, Andrew White, Danny Gatton, Marc Copeland, Tommy Cecil, Paul Bollenback, Walt Namuth, etc. I worked at Blues Alley, The One Step Down, and pretty much all the local DC jazz haunts.

Do you still study regularly? What are you working on currently?

I still study and practice for hours every day. I do not study with anyone currently but I’m open to learning from anyone. I’m regularly transcribing and listening and stealing from guitarists such as Jesse Van Ruller, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Michael Pavone, etc.

Do you play other styles besides jazz?

I do play some rock and blues but I only got into it seriously in order to help my more modern fusion playing. I enjoy the mixing of jazz and rock idioms such as Allan Holdsworth, Frank Gambale, Tim Miller, Scott Henderson, etc.

Are you in a band right now?

I freelance and regularly jam with local players but there is not a huge amount of work in the Cleveland area so I’m currently not playing with a single band but I play with several local collections of musicians doing everything from straight ahead jazz to fusion.

Who are your favourite jazz players?

I love guitarist Fareed Haque, bassist Tony Grey, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and anyone pushing the envelope. I particularly enjoy guys coming from an indian or middle eastern discipline who push jazz in directions that are unexpected.

Sheets of Sound
You are the author of “Sheets of Sound’, a book based on your own philosophy of “playing the music that you hear.” Could you tell us something more about that concept?

Sheets of Sound for Guitar was written as a tribute to my two sons Andrew and Jeremy. About 12 years ago, Jeremy moved in with me (after a divorce) because he had decided to become a jazz guitarist and wanted to study seriously with me. Around that time, I suffered a serious spinal injury that left my right arm permanently weakened and required spinal surgery, an insertion of a metal plate in my neck and the fusing of 3 discs in my vertebrae. After the surgery, I was not sure if I would be able to play again so I decided to create a book representing 30+ years of practicing exercises and inspirations for Jeremy to use in his studies. One year and 300 pages later, the book was born. Due to a slow recovery, I could not play the exercises in the book, hence no accompanying audio CD was ever released but it does contain tablature. I ended up writing a smaller volume II a year later which is about 1/5 the size but a bit more digestible.

The principle of the book has been misrepresented over the years. Some folks think that it is a technique book and that it represents sweep picking. It’s true that many of the lines lend themselves to sweep picking but the book is more about continually pushing yourself with new ideas and learning to apply them in ways that each player can personalize into their own style.

Truthfully, when I wrote the book, I just took the 20-30 manuscript books that I had filled with ideas over the course of my playing career and formalized them into a book. Everyone should have manuscript books full of ideas they are interested in incorporating into their playing.

When I first wrote the book, I pitched it to Rich Severson at Guitar College who thought that it was interesting but that I would be lucky to sell a handful of them to my friends and relatives. To date, I have sold more than 10,000 copies. I have testimonials in the book from folks such as Dweezil Zappa, Brett Garsed, Sheryl Bailey, Matt Garrison, Vic Juris, Guthrie Govan, Rodney Jones, Dave Liebman and others .

Not bad for a book that has never been formally marketed!

On the internet, you write passionately about amps, guitars and equipment and have a lot of videos on Youtube with gear demos. 

Yes, I have done many demos of gear on youtube. At one time, manufacturers were regularly sending me guitars, amps and pedals to demo and additionally, I have also published many video lessons so I now have over 250 videos on Youtube. 

Over the years you have owned so many guitars.What is you are looking for in a guitar sound wise? 

There are several sounds that I really love. Joe Pass' sound on Joy Spring, Pat Martino's sound on "Just Friends" during his early years, Wes Montgomery's sound on "D Natural Blues" (early years) and Pat Metheny's on "Question & Answer."

After many years experimenting with shiny, new guitars and failing, I have finally given into the vintage bug. Most of my guitars are 30-60 years old. My favorites, in order are:

1963 Gibson Barney Kessel 

1 1963 Gibson Barney Kessel (Spruce top)
2 1989 Gibson 175 (mahogany back and sides)
3 1965 Gibson Barney Kessel (maple top)
4 Heritage Eagle Classic (single pickup)
5 Seventy Seven Albatross

We both seem to have a passion for classic Gibson sounds. I too think Joe Pass’ sound on Joy Spring is the best jazz guitar sound ever ...

Yes, that sound is the ultimate jazz guitar sound in my opinion. It’s just perfect. Although, as a close second I do love the early Pat Martino guitar sounds. They were bright and lyrical but with a hint of Wes Montgomery but with a bit more articulation.

What’s your take on carved versus laminate guitars? 

I think the laminate guitars sound warmer and more like the human voice. That is the appeal to me of laminate guitars. There is a warmth to them that is unmatched by the solid top guitar.

How do vintage guitars compare to modern guitars?

There is a fetish for shiny new guitars among many amateur players. They definitely look great in pictures but I don’t think there is any comparison. The older instruments just sound much better. I recently spent a year looking for a vintage ‘60s Gibson 175 and went through a ½ dozen of them. Every single one sounded so much better than a new Gibson. Unfortunately, while they all sounded great, most of them needed some major repairs. I think the moral of the story is that it requires a lot of effort to find a perfect, older guitar. You are not going to just walk into a store and find one unless you are very lucky. This is why people prefer those shiny new guitars. Most of the new guitars sound the same and are reasonably consistent but they don’t have the same feel or tone as the older ones. I have heard many philosophies about why this is and I think the one that makes the most sense is that the woods they used back in the ‘50s and ‘60s was better quality and had been dried naturally and over a longer period of time. Modern tone-woods (another internet-hyped term) are from younger trees, kiln dried and not as high in quality. Many of the woods used in the ‘60s Gibson guitars just can’t be found anymore. This is why Gibson has resorted to using plywood fingerboards, Indian rosewood instead of Brazilian, synthetic ebony, etc. I just don’t think the woods being used today are the same.

The many boutique luthiers out there are making some gorgeous instruments but many I’ve played just don’t sound like a vintage Gibson. A lot of them are designed as acoustic guitars with a pickup added as an afterthought.

Gibson just got it right and if you want a Gibson sound, only a Gibson guitar will achieve that. But, admittedly, with a new instrument you may find that even a Gibson doesn’t sound like a Gibson should!

Do you prefer full hollow bodies or semi hollow bodies?

I prefer a full hollowbody but I do like semi-hollow guitars for loud playing or for when playing more modern music where other styles and/or overdrive is involved. Having said that, my ’63 Barney Kessel gets an incredible overdriven tone…

What’s your all time favourite guitar?

Barney Kessel Custom
My ’63 Barney Kessel Custom is the best guitar I’ve ever owned. Secretly, I lust after the Barney Kessel Custom with the 5pc maple neck and ebony fingerboard. That one is similar to my ’63 but has a bit more openness to the tone and a bit brighter attack. I’ll probably never get one because they are almost always very overpriced and I’m very happy with my current lineup.

You have been around on the internet for many years. What’s your take on fora about jazz guitars and gear?

The web is full of boutique luthiers and their followers who worship from the tap-tuned, carved top well. It has become a fetish to lust after a tap-tuned, hand-carved guitar. The forums are abuzz with not only the virtues of carved top guitars but even claims that carving them with a shaver yields a better tone than carving them with a CNC machine. Frankly, the vast majority of discussions about these and related topics on the forums seem to be from the perspective of folks who spend more time posing their guitars on the couch for pictures then playing them. Along with that is the notion that the instrument is the art. I think that luthierie *IS* an art but to me, the real art is the musician, whereas I see the guitar as ultimately a tool.

Unfortunately, I think the internet forums encourage the same type of armchair-quarterbacking that you see in the golf and other sports forums. This is why I have chosen to drop off the various forums. Many friends of mine who are great players have told me the same stories.

I don’t harbor any ill will or bitterness to those sites. At one time, I maintained my memberships due to wanting to be able to participate in the classified sections of those sites but these days, there are other sites that are better for buying and selling.

Any interesting future plans we should know about?

Looking forward to a recording project in 2016 as well as a new book with audio accompaniment. I’d love to make the book something that is interactive via iBook or Kindle.

Jack, I am glad you are finally in my Blog. Thanks so much for this interview! 

You are very welcome, Dick. You and I have been friends for well over a decade and I have tremendous respect for you as a friend, a musician and a true purveyor of the art of jazz guitar. I love the fact that you stick to your guns and continually pursue the purity of the art without regard to fads or trends. It's an honor to be featured on your blog .


  1. Nice work, thanks Dick! Great to hear Jack on these topics. It's a testament to his ear that he likes his Barney Kessel so much. Back in the 70's & 80's they weren't that desirable because the double cutaway was not the classic Gibson look.

  2. Great Interview!
    I have very high respect for Mr. Jack Zucker and his talent; I value a lot his opinion.
    As one of those amateur couch musicians, I truly appreciate your input.on that very blog and and truly hope we will continue to be blessed with your presence

  3. Great Interview ! Thanks Jack and Dick ! Respect to Jack for sticking to his convictions, sometimes alone against many others on the forum. Precious opinions always.