Jake Reichbart Interview With Jazz Guitar Life

“The lessons are very informative and are designed not only to show what I do in any particular song, but also to show how I got there and how you can create your own, plus countless other tips. Each lesson may also go in depth into one or more unique topic that makes a particular arrangement stand out.”

Jake Reichbart

If you live in the Detroit/Ann Arbor area or have visited youtube at least twice in your life, chances are you have heard the remarkable playing and solo guitar arranging talents of Michigan Jazz Guitarist Jake Reichbart. While being a top shelf Jazz Guitarist, he is also a tremendous arranger of solo chord melody tunes in a variety of genres from Jazz to Rock and Pop and his use of the popular youtube video site has provided an army of beginning, intermediate and professional guitar players with choice musical arrangements of popular songs.

Recently, Jake, through the music publishing giant Hal Leonard, has released the Jake Reichbart Plays Jazz Classics which is a DVD/book set that features “ten stylish ‘performance ready’ chord-melody arrangements” of familiar jazz standards.

In this interview, Jake talks about his early influences, his current guitar collection, his experiences playing for actor/director Clint Eastwood, and shares his thoughts on arranging for solo guitar. A very enjoyable and entertaining read.

This interview was conducted via email in 2012. You can find out more info on Jake by visiting his website at http://www.jakereichbart.com.

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JGL: How old are you?

JR: 48

JGL: What geographical area do you live in?

JR: Ann Arbor, Michigan

JGL: Given the huge influence that Detroit has had on the world of Pop, R&B and Jazz, is there a different vibe living and playing there than say New York or LA?

JR: From my personal experience, travelling the US and beyond, I’d say that Detroit metro musicians, in every style, are among the finest anywhere. Many, if not most, are content to stick around and as a result we have a vibrant scene with lots of after-hours jam sessions.

JGL: How long have you been playing guitar for and at what age did you first get into guitar playing?

JR: I first picked up a guitar in my teens but didn’t get very serious about it until after my military service, around age 21. Then I went in all the way…

JGL: Do you consider yourself primarily a Jazz Guitar player and if so, were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz?

JR: Yes, I am a jazz guitar player although obviously the term “jazz” is pretty fluid. As you know many of my solo guitar arrangements are of pop music but I consider it jazz for a variety of reasons even if not strictly swing or of classic jazz repertoire. I may also be playing with a rock or funk band but I bring my jazz attitude to the situation.

JGL: Can you recall that particular moment that first excited you about jazz guitar or jazz in general? The one that made you say “that’s what I want to do”!

JR: Yes! This was in my early 20’s and I was already playing when someone lent me Joe Pass’s “Intercontinental” album. I couldn’t stop listening to it and I decided that one day I will play like that, I’m still working on it and I still consider it the ultimate in what a jazz set is supposed to sound like. This album is one of his less known, but I think every jazz guitarist should have a copy. Several other very influential albums from this period that shaped my guitar direction were “Travels” (1982) by Pat Metheny, “I.O.U.” by Allan Holdsworth,” Gaucho” by Steely Dan, “Brother to Brother” by Gino Vanelli and “Room 335” by Larry Carlton.

JGL: Nice! Similarly, was there a defining moment when you decided that Jazz Guitar would/could be your career path?

JR: Probably around the same time, in my early 20’s. Only thing, I wasn’t only set on jazz guitar as a career path but all forms of popular guitar playing. I wanted to do studio work and freelance with all kind of bands. I held Larry Carlton as a role model for this; I loved his playing and wanted to do what he did.  I have been lucky to do plenty of both all through the 90’s so now jazz is probably 75% of what I do.

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?

JR: I think this is a question of attitude. I am willing to take on all kinds of jobs that are not strictly jazz in order to survive and “support” my jazz habit. I play with bar bands and I do wedding ceremonies and what’s more, I don’t hate these jobs, I’m actually grateful to have them in this day and age when more people are surrendering their music needs to iPods and such. So I guess the answer is both in that it’s easy now since I have a fairly large network of colleagues, clients and agents who hook me up. It’s also difficult because you have to spend plenty time on the phone and online and do jobs that are not always “the dream job”.

JGL: From what I see on youtube, you have a great collection of guitars. What was your first guitar and what are you playing now?

JR: First of all, if you’re watching any of my videos that have guitars in the background quit immediately J and start viewing the more recent videos that have the black backdrop… The former are my earliest and are of “questionable” quality while the latter are nicely done in HD and with great sound. Anyway, I have about 25 guitars of every kind, including a 9 string guitar I had built for me in 92’ and which I have done nothing with. As well as a ZTAR. As for jazz, I have three main guitars. The one I use the most is my Ibanez AG75 which has the perfect size and weight and tunes very well. I use this for almost all my solo guitar gigs (unless I want to play acoustic or nylon specifically for some reason), as well as small combo gigs at low or medium volume, meaning most clubs, restaurants, etc.

For bigger stages, festivals, etc. I use my Godin Jazz which is a magnificent sounding guitar and more suitable for higher volume levels. The reason I don’t use it more for solo gigs is that it is quite heavy and since I sit with a guitar many hours daily, it’s become hard to hold up. My third jazz guitar, which I had the longest, is an early 70’s Gibson ES175. It’s also a great guitar but it is a bit more inconsistent, not all the notes up and down the neck have the same quality exactly, i.e., it has sweet spots. For this reason, it is most suitable for recordings, which is what I use it for now. As I mentioned above, if I want/need a change of sound, I also have a Takamine Santa Fe mini jumbo acoustic as well as a Godin Multiac nylon.

JGL: What other gear are you using in terms of amplification and recording?

JR: For the non-jazz guitars, I have a large variety of amps and other gear. But what I get asked about the most is all the “messy” electronics on my Ibanez AG75, so this is an opportunity to explain: I use the regular neck pickup and roll off the “tone” to about “1”. Then, I also have a Fishman Archtop bridge piezzo pickup, the signal from which I blend a little but with the other pickup to give it a little bit of an acoustic quality. I run each signal into different amps or channels. The amp that carries the piezzo has to have a tweeter to help deliver that sound. As a single amp, I use the Crate Limo for the smallest gigs and an Acoustic AG60 for medium size gigs. Both have dual channels with separate tone controls. For bigger gigs I use two amps, a Yamaha DG80 or DG100 (I have both) for the regular pickup and one of the two above amps for the piezzo.

JGL: Any memorable musical moments? Any not so epic musical moments?

JR: I’ve been blessed with many great gig moments but after close to 5,000 gigs it’s hard to remember. Musically, I have played with many jazz greats locally and elsewhere. I have done celebrity gigs, playing events for US presidents and Michigan governor’s inaugural ball several times. Pop musicians, actors. Playing for Clint Eastwood a few years ago was memorable in particular: I played with a trio for the cast and crew party of the movie Grand Torino that was shot here. We didn’t expect to see him at all and all of a sudden he walked in, sat two feet from us, asked for a beer and to not be disturbed and proceeded to listen to us for 4-5 tunes (yes, we played Misty for him!). We didn’t talk; he just raised his glass to us and smiled. Memorable indeed! As for not so epic musical moments, nothing really jumps out, just plenty of dull gigs and on occasion performing while not feeling well. Several years ago I performed a solo guitar concert on New Year’s Eve with a really high fever, the whole thing felt like a hallucination, not sure how I got through it. Not fun but the gig must go on.

JGL: Very true! Who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning, and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years?

JR: I have mentioned Joe Pass, Pat Metheny and Allan Holdsworth. I should also mention Wes Mongomery, Tuck Andress and others. I still love all of them but the difference now is that I have no time to check out the latest recordings, especially by young up-and-coming players, too bad.

JGL: Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?

JR: As I said, It is indeed too bad I don’t have as much time to listen as I used to. I tend to enjoy finding unknown artists on YouTube who are as great as anybody. I love French guitarist Sylvain Courtney. Oz Noy, who is a very old friend of mine, is tearing it up these days! But I also go back in time and try to fill in gaps in my education by learning older standards. I’ve been enjoying listening a lot to Erroll Garner lately. I also enjoy seeing and hearing locals who are doing great. James Carter, Craig Taborn and other. I’m proud to say the Randy Napoleon studied with me for a while way back. There’s a very young piano player here now by the name of Mike Jelick, he’s going to be huge one day – you heard it here.

JGL: Thanks for the tip. I’ll check him out. Who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?

JR: I’d say probably Pat Metheny and Allan Holdsworth. Not so much in trying to emulate their playing, which I am unable to do at all, but because of their total commitment, innovation and as composers. Very inspiring.

JGL: Are you self-taught, did you take private lessons or did you go the academic route to get where you are today musically? And do you have one preference over the other?

JR: I am completely self-taught – other than books, videos, etc. I sometimes envy folks who took the academic route because of the connections they make but eventually you make your own.

JGL: From what I can see, you are an extremely busy player doing everything from weekly restaurant gigs, club gigs and casuals, to weddings and synagogue gigs, as well as rock gigs. Obviously you have great word of mouth. What is it that you offer that maybe other guitar players don’t?

JR: Well, obviously a level of ability on the instrument and also being able to read lines and lead sheets. All kinds of shows, as well as orthodox Jewish weddings in particular, require reading busy lines. I also work hard at maintaining old contacts and making new ones (I still go to jam sessions). But above all, I try to demonstrate that I love playing all these gigs, which I do.

JGL: Apart from your busy playing schedule, you also have a series of Hal Leonard instructional books/DVD’s out and you are also featured on their guitarinstructor.com website. How did this relationship with HL come about?

JR: As I mentioned, I used to do lots of session work. One of these gigs was recording guitar tracks for accompanying CDs that came with Hal Leonard bass method books by a bassist by the name of Jon Liebman. It started in the mid-90s, we did 6 or 7 of these book/CD packages.  In fact, we just did one as recently as last fall called Bass Aerobics, which is advertised a lot and endorsed by the best of the best, Leland Sklar, Alphonso Johnson, Darryl Jones, Dave LaRue, Jerry Jemmott, Jimmy Haslip, Kai Eckhardt. We will be doing yet one more this coming fall of 2012.

Anyway, a few years ago I started my YouTube channel and made a casual inquiry if there’s something I can do for Hal Leonard in my own name. Turns out they needed someone who can demonstrate solo guitar pop and jazz arrangements but not in a finger-stylists way but more in a jazz approach. They gave me some criteria, I recorded some demos for them, we went back and for the few times till we got the format right, and that was it. Since we started, about three years ago, I have been producing for them one or two lessons per month. The format is basically the same, total running time is approx. 15 minutes, I show the basic arrangement right at the top and for the remainder of the time I proceed to show how I do it.

These arrangements/ lessons are available to download individually from guitarinstructor.com and they are also bundled eight or ten together to make a DVD. To date we have “Pop hits for solo jazz guitar”, which is out, a “Latin hits for solo jazz guitar”, which is finished but not published yet (although, as I mentioned, the individual lessons can be downloaded now). We just finished “jazz standards for solo jazz guitar” which should be out “any minute” now and “Christmas songs for solo jazz guitar” (not sure of the latter’s exact titles, but again, many of the lessons can be downloaded already from guitarinstructor.com), which will, hopefully, be published in time for the holiday season of 2013..

JGL: How many youtube videos do you have online and how did the whole YouTube thing come about?

JR: To date, I have some 170 videos, the vast majority in the solo jazz guitar format. Among these, about 65% are pop tunes and 35% jazz standards. Other than solo guitar, there are also about 10-12 videos with my trio and a handful with backing tracks. Oddly, my most viewed video by far is something called “Jake Reichbart Plays Smooth Jazz Funk Guitar” with nearly 160,000 views, go figure!

The way this started is very simply seeing other guys do it and thinking “me too”. One nice unexpected outcome has been that I have made contacts and friendships with many other such players, we communicate regularly and make plans to meet and play. I mentioned Sylvan Courtney in France; through him I had the opportunity to teach at the MAI school in Nancy, France, this is a Berklee affiliate school. I have also had some nice exchanges with Steve Herberman out of DC. These are examples of two world-class guitarists who are hardly known at all but should be.

JGL: So true. Great players! Tell me Jake, how do you go about choosing a tune for your chord/melody style? Would you mind describing how you go about breaking down a song you want to feature in this way?

JR: Choosing the tune is easy, I arrange tunes I like, of which there are thousands. In my lessons I go over the arrangements very slowly and in great close-up, and for some time now in widescreen. I’ll state the notes, finger, fret and string number. The lessons are very informative and are designed not only to show what I do in any particular song, but also to show how I got there and how you can create your own, plus countless other tips. Each lesson may also go in depth into one or more unique topic that makes a particular arrangement stand out.

JGL: Apart from your YouTube offerings and DVD’s, do you teach privately and if so, how does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?

JR: Yes, I’ll take on the occasional student. Usually I’ll give them one or two lessons fully loaded with broad principles and have the student contact me when they’re ready for the next lesson which is often months, years, or never. I always advise to bring a recording device. Email is great, jake.reichbart@gmail.com.

JGL: For the student of Jazz Guitar, what would you say is the most important thing to do when attempting to play a song as a chord/melody arrangement?

JR: Knowing the song, that is to say being really familiar with the melody and harmony, and having a feel for the kind of groove you want to give it are a must. Obviously, you can use the guitar to get familiar with the song even if not at the arrangement level. Then, the most important for the arrangement itself, about 90% of the time, is to give the melody, chords and bass each the appropriate rhythm of their own. You don’t have to do it fast, and the bass doesn’t have to sound like a great bass player, but if the melody is syncopated, and the bass notes needs to come on the strong beats, then that’s what you need to do. Also, just playing a melody with a bass in this way, without any chords, will sound great and is another approach to arranging because you really need no knowledge of theory, you just need to know the melody and bass which you can plan out. I have a lesson on YouTube demonstrating this principle exactly, check it out at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jg-et0nVgo8. There’s an introduction and the demonstration starts around minute 1:40.

JGL: Very cool. Thanks for sharing! Please share with the readers what your practice routine is like these days? Are you working on specific things or just playing through tunes?

JR: When it comes to solo guitar, I don’t practice at all, all the arrangements are done on the gig. This is not ideal; I do find that I tend sometimes to rely on many of the same voicings so I wish I had more time. When I do practice, it’s usually lead guitar, lately I’ve been trying to get my alternate picking to improve. This is not to say I don’t do other things that are not strictly practice, I record a lot and learn music for specific gigs so that counts too in my daily routine.

JGL: Apart from your solo guitar endeavors, what is your favorite playing situation? (ie: quartet, trio, duo)

JR: The answer is probably a bit too obvious but it’s true, I love them all. Solo guitar has been a unique feature of my playing, I love it because there’s a musical challenge, gigs are a little easier to get, etc. I also love bass/guitar/drums trios because I still get to play my harmonies while being able to play solos more freely and I also love piano quartets because it’s nice sometimes to have that harmony under you and every once in a while to be a follower instead of leader. One additional format of gigs I like is the guitar/vocal duo; I have accompanied singers for years. That, too, is a bit different in approach. Here is an example http://brad-jake.bandcamp.com/.

JGL: How do you get such great definition between your low strings and high strings? Is it a thumb strength factor or the way you have your amplifier set up?

JR: The addition of the piezzo pickup I mentioned above really helps with note definition; you can hear where each one starts.

JGL: Did you work on any classical techniques to get your strumming hand to the point where you could isolate certain strings independently, or did this just come out of necessity?

JR: The latter. Like thousands of guitarists the world over, I have made an attempt at Giuilani’s 120 exercises for the right hand but I never got past the second page. I make my right hand work by “willing it” to play whatever notes need to be heard until they do. I wish I had a better right hand technique but I guess at this stage it suits my particular style.

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?

JR: Well, both are part of my “portfolio”, you take gigs as they come. They each have advantages, as a leader you get to set the tone musically but as a sideman you have less responsibility which is also nice sometimes. It’s also good to be exposed to other people’s musical ideas and styles, which you get as a sideman.

JGL: How do you go about marketing yourself? Are there any tools that you have come across that you have found to be effective?

JR: In the “older” days, the phone of course. I got an 800 number early on, when such a thing actually made a difference. I’d go see local entertainment agents and I’d do jam sessions and give out business cards. Today, I still do some of the above but of course now there are additional tools – YouTube, Facebook, I have a blog where I post my gigs, http://jakereichbart.blogspot.com/, I have a professional looking personal website, http://www.jakereichbart.com/, I’m in the union, etc.

JGL: I read somewhere that you have played for two presidential administrations. How did these come about and did you get to meet the respective presidents?

JR: Haha. First, we need to make a distinction; this is not like being invited to play at the White House. Around here, in the Detroit area, I’m the guy that entertainment agents and other contractors know as “the guy who sits in the corner and plays quietly for cocktails”. As such, I played for fancy fundraisers for past presidents, governors, senators, etc. Only a few months ago I played in a group that performed for VP Biden when he came for some event downtown Detroit. I chatted up with John McCain when he passed through a few years ago.

JGL: If you could only pick one individual or group to play with (alive or dead), who would that be and why?

JR: Tough one. Maybe Frank Zappa around 1974 because of the ultimate in musicianship. Maybe a guitar duo with Pat Metheny. I’d love to play with or for Paul McCartney and also Stevie Wonder. I work periodically with Stevie Wonder’s trumpet player, Dwight Adams, and I ask him to get me a gig with SW but I’m not sure it works that way at that level! I’d love to play with Diana Krall. Oh, did you say just one?

JGL: LOL!! Has your impressions and experiences of being a Jazz Guitar player been what you had expected when you first decided to become a musician?

JR: Not quite. The scene has changed a lot. Work opportunities have declined in some ways, mostly the local live setting, there are too many great musicians sitting at home, who, in the 70s and 80s, would be working 7 nights a week and I lament that. But who could have dreamed of YouTube?

JGL: I’ve seen references to a nick name “The Mouth”. What’s the origin of this nick name?

JR: Oh dear! When I play, I “mouth” along quite a bit, I really have to be conscious of not doing it, especially on my videos, but here and there it still comes out.

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?

JR: Well, as for life in general, I’m a family guy, so I try to keep my career to work with that aspect of my life. In practical terms, as the kids grow older, I’d like to travel a bit more. I already travel to France once or twice a year to perform and do clinics but I can see opportunities popping up all over Europe and indeed the US so I’d like to try to do more of that.

JGL: If you could do one thing over again, what would that one thing be and why?

JR: Hmm. Nothing profound really, if I did anything different I suppose it wouldn’t be me. But I guess I’d probably practice more, especially the right hand. Other than that, not too much really.

JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about becoming a professional jazz guitar player?

JR: Sure, learn to play solo guitar. It takes nothing away from any other style of playing but as a solo guitarist you can book your own gigs and keep all the money, whether a restaurant gig, cocktail party, library or church concert or wedding ceremonies. Playing a good paying ceremony can help justify playing a low paying “real” jazz gig. But a word of caution – when playing gigs that are booked as background music, restaurants and such, you have to keep the volume down. If a customer complains about the volume, you are not doing the job right and risk losing the gig.

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.

JR: Sure, there are time when I think “what have I done”, especially when the economy is bad. But you always find a way to make it work. Otherwise, I was always very interested in all aspects of construction and carpentry, cement, plumbing, gas pipes, etc., that would have been ok with me. I do all this work on my own house.

JGL: Apart from music, what else do you like to do for fun?

JR: I’m an avid gardener, especially vegetables. I like playing with my kids a lot and go camping with my family. Last summer we spent 10 days camping in the Adirondacks. I think those kinds of memories are stronger and more meaningful in the long run than any kind of gig memories.

JGL: Any cool things coming down the pike for you in the near future that we should know about?

JR: Pretty much a lot of the activities we talked about, Hal Leonard DVDs, trips, I’m currently recording guitar tracks for a French smooth jazz/funk band (will update the name soon), we hope to perform soon as well. Also, just did a recording session with the great Toronto jazz pianist Mark Kieswetter. I am working with two groups led by vocalists, Brad McNett, who is a 22 year old local vocalist who really does justice to the Classic American Songbook, as well as Gwyneth Hayes, great singer and bass player, more in the new R&B and soul style.

JGL: Thank you Jake for participating in Jazz Guitar Life. It is most appreciated and I wish you great success in your career and life.

JR: My pleasure, thanks for having me!

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