“The most important elements are knowledge of the finger board and knowing how to construct chords. It’s amazing what you can do with basic theoretical knowledge. One of the common problems is that although theoretical knowledge is important some people tend to become preoccupied with it and worry about playing the right notes so their playing sounds stifled and overly safe. I tell them to just go for it and I try to show them ways they can make the notes they didn’t like work.”Shan Arsenault
Shan Arsenault is a dedicated and committed working Jazz Guitar player out of Halifax, Canada who talks about his musical background, the many artists he has worked with, his association with another great Canadian Jazz Guitarist Lorne Lofsky, and his way of just “going for it”. A great read.
This interview was conducted via email August 2005.
JGL: How old are you?
SA: I am 50 but I could pass for 49.
JGL: What geographical area do you live in?
SA: I live in Halifax, NS.
JGL: How long have you been playing guitar for?
SA: I started playing around with it when I was 7 or 8. My mother always had a guitar around the house. She still does but I don’t think she plays it much anymore.
JGL: What was your first guitar and what are you playing now?
SA: My first guitar was some no-name acoustic thing with strings a mile high which is probably why I prefer low action. I go through guitars like crazy but right now I am playing a Gibson ES 137, an Epi Les Paul Standard and a Yamaha acoustic.
JGL: You seem to favor the thinner body guitars. Is there a specific reason or is it just what’s there that day?
SA: I just got used to the thinner bodies because of the feedback problems with most of the bigger guitars.
JGL: At what age did you first get into guitar playing and were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz?
SA: I had my first band when I was 11. Back then I used to sing and play guitar. We played rock of the day; Hendrix, Zeppelin etc. I didn’t even know you were supposed to practice the guitar. Around my mid teens I heard a recording of Koko by Charlie Parker and my exact thought was “that is what music is supposed to sound like.” It started me down a road of serious music study to find out how the heck he did that.
JGL: What excited you about jazz guitar or jazz in general when you were young?
SA: Definitely the challenge. Most of the stuff I played before that, I just played it without too much effort but jazz was a whole new world with endless possibilities.
JGL: Did you take formal study or did you learn on your own?
SA: I took a composition and arranging course from Berklee and private lessons from many teachers in many of the cities I have played in. But I would say I am self taught.
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?
SA: Barney Kessel was the first player I really liked a lot. He just sounded like he was having so much fun when he played. I heard him in person and talked to him for a while. He was a beautiful soul. But if you named 100 guitarists I probably lifted something from all of them.
JGL: Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
SA: Right now I am listening to Ahmad Jamal at the pershing (beautiful) and a guitarist by the name of Jesse van Ruller. The cd is called Circles.
JGL: Did you know early on that music was something you wanted to do as a career choice and if so, what were some of the things you did to make this choice work for you?
SA: When I was about 17 I found out you could get paid to play the guitar. That sounded good to me. After doing various so called day jobs I realized I had no choice but do music because I could not live without that freedom of expression. If a person feels they need to play for his or her very sanity then they will find a way. Just don’t be concerned with making a lot of money. Barney Kessel said his mother called the guitar a starvation box.
JGL: Were your parent(s) and family members supportive of your musical career choice?
SA: All parents want their kids to get real jobs. They eventually came to realize it was the best choice for me.
JGL: In your bio it mentions that you were inspired by your mother’s playing. What was it about your mom’s playing that got you hooked? Did she play professionally? What style of music was she playing?
SA: My mother was the first person I saw play and I was just fascinated by it but she never played professionally. She played mainly Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.
JGL: Could you describe some of your best musical situations or experiences and the worst?
SA: I think anyone who has been in the music business for a while has some pretty awful stories and some funny ones too. Generally speaking any gig where my playing is appreciated is good. I have become selective about gigs I do now because I got tired of people telling me to “play normal.” I guess some people did not think my Alan Holdsworth imitation over I Feel Good by James Brown was very amusing.
JGL: What type of musical sitaution do you enjoy the most (ie: trio, quartet, duo, solo, etc.)
SA: I have always enjoyed the trio format the best but a quartet with a good pianist frees you up and is a lot of fun too. Solo at this point in my life is my least favourite. I am in the process of putting together a weekly gig (Saturday nights) at a bar/restaurant here in Halifax called The Wooden Monkey with an organ trio format which is also one of my favourite sounds.
JGL: Apart from keeping busy playing and performing you have a large roster of over 50 guitar students. How do you find the time to do everything and have a social life? Or do you have a social life…:)?
SA: Social life? What’s that? Fortunately my girl friend has a social life and I tag along with her sometimes otherwise I would probably be the ultimate guitar geek.
JGL: In your experience as an educator, what are the most important elements of jazz guitar study that young people (or any student of jazz guitar) need to acquire early on to sustain the dream of becoming a professional musician? Are there any common issues or problems that you encounter regularly that happen when beginners first start out learning jazz guitar?
SA: The most important elements are knowledge of the finger board and knowing how to construct chords. It’s amazing what you can do with basic theoretical knowledge. One of the common problems is that although theoretical knowledge is important some people tend to become preoccupied with it and worry about playing the right notes so their playing sounds stifled and overly safe. I tell them to just go for it and I try to show them ways they can make the notes they didn’t like work. But generally I try to approach all students as individuals with their own goals.
JGL: How does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?
SA: As long as a person has a desire to learn and is receptive to my approach, it’s all good.
JGL: As a teacher and a player, what is it that you try and impart on your students? Any valuable life lessons that go beyond the mechanics of guitar playing?
SA: I think the most important thing is to find your own voice. It’s too easy to copy someone else and no matter how close you get to their sound you will just be some player who sounds like a lot of other players who are also trying to copy Django or Benson or Metheny etc. You have to take something from everyone so you can learn about the spark behind the notes and find your own spark. I believe the note choices are a small part of the music. If you find a way to get your heart into your music then you are really playing.
JGL: What was your practice routine like when you were beginning and how has it developed over the years?
SA: When I was about twenty I started practising about ten hours a day. Although I would still like to practice 10 hours a day as I’ve gotten older there’s less time to do so. If I can get 3-4 hours a day in now I feel pretty good.
JGL: Your playing is quite fluid but with an edge that sounds as if you have a “rock” attutude” in terms of energy and a “what the f***, just go for it” attitude. Am I correct in stating this or am I way off base?
SA: My initial major influences on guitar were people like Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana etc. so those first impressions stick with you. I have always liked players who exuded almost a physical energy when they played. Bird and Coltrane also had this dimension to their playing. As far as the “what the f***, just go for it” attitude goes, that is something I have always had and am still trying to perfect. A wrong or right note is all to do with attitude and approach. It’s where music leaves the world of academics and theory. So no, you aren’t way off base at all. Thank you for implying that my playing is quite fluid but I think this can be acquired by anyone who is willing to put in the practice time.
JGL: Could you talk a bit about how you approach a tune improvisationally? Are there worked out patterns, or is it right off the top of your head.?
SA: I approach all tunes hopefully 100% improvisationally. Any symmetrical patterns that may arise are pure luck or things that I have practised but did not consciously intend to play. The appeal of jazz is the improvisational aspect. Complete freedom in my playing is what I am looking for, that means harmonically, rhythmically, melodically, emotionally. Worked out patterns or parts is not freedom. But if you hear me play the same thing at two different gigs don’t hold it against me.
JGL: You have performed with some top name jazz and pop artsists including Joan Baez, Jeff Healy, Jerry Granelli, Terry Hattie, Alfie Zappacosta, Dutch Mason, Kirk MacDonald, Lorne Lofsky, Joe Sealy, Peter Appleyard, clarinetist Francois Houle, Dutch percussionist Han Bennink as well as the Paul Cram Sextet, Skip Beckwith, Don Palmer, Chris Mitchell and Doug Mallory. That’s a lot of people and varied playing situations. How did you get to work with such a diverse group of musicians and styles?
SA: A lot of those situations were about being in the right place at the right time. Though I am almost 100 percent interested in playing jazz at this time in my life I have spent a lot of time playing and practicing many different styles of music. The Joan Baez thing came about because I was playing in a band where the singer was a friend of hers. She came to the club after her concert and just hung out and played and sang a set or two. The audience was a very young crowd so hardly anyone knew who she was.
JGL: What did you and Lorne Lofsky do together and how did that association come to pass?
SA: Lorne used to come down to Halifax a few times a year to play at various clubs and the jazz festival. I just got to know him and started hanging out with him whenever he came to town. So it was just natural that I asked him to play. We did a few gigs together with Steve Wallace on bass and Bob McClaren on drums. Very nice band. Lorne is a wonderful player. We were supposed to do a recording together with Neil Swainson and Jerry Fuller but that didn’t happen. I’m hoping we get an opportunity to do something else together in the future.
JGL: Your debut CD as a leader, Shan Arsenault: the Jazz Beat Sessions is a wonderful CD that that features mostly orignal compositions. What was the impetus to come out with your own CD and what do you plan on doing with the CD?
SA: I would like to make the transition from sideman to frontman which would I hope give me a little more control over the music. Ultimately I hope to get gigs. I love to play but since I decided I only want to play jazz the gigs in this part of the country are not exactly plentiful.
JGL: What kind of reaction is “Shan Arsenault: the Jazz Beat Sessions” getting? And do you plan on recording another CD soon?
SA: It is doing surprisingly well on jazz radio shows across the country. Number one in a few places. I have a lot of new compositions I hope to record in the spring for summer release.
JGL: Will you be stepping onto the bandstand now as a leader more often or will you still do sideman gigs?
SA: The sideman role is a wonderful outlet for me as long as I am not expected to play someone elses part. I have done that and it is a great way to learn but at this point I am interested in improvising so the people who hire me realize this and expect it. Paul Cram, who I am playing the Guelph Jazz Fest and Montreal with on the 10th and 11th of September has been a great musical outlet because he hired me because of the way I play not because I was the only guy available. And the leader role is appealing because you don’t have anyone telling you how to play.
JGL: You have been a mainstay of the Halifax music scene for many years. What is it about Halifax that keeps you there and have you ever thought of moving to a larger metropolitan area Like Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal or even New York?
SA: The reasons for remaining in Halifax all this time have been more of a personal nature than musical, but we have been talking about moving to Montreal. I would like to start playing all over the world and if you do that it doesn’t really matter where you live. I should add that I always had gigs in Halifax probably because I played a lot of different styles.
JGL: Canada has many wonderful jazz guitarists like Ed Bickert, Lorne Lofsky, Reg Schwagger, Bill Coon, Oliver Gannon, Mike Rud, and the list goes on. What do think of the Canadian jazz guitar scene in general and is there a different mentality or approach that Canadian artists offer?
SA: I agree that some of the greatest players in the world are Canadian. In my opinion these players tend to be a little more introspective which results in a more interesting chordal approach which in turn affects the melodic line. An aspiring player from anywhere in the world would do well to study these wonderful guitarists.
JGL: If you could only pick one individual or group to play with (alive or dead), who would that be and why?
SA: That is a tough one. Probably Wayne Shorter because I love his compositions and his playing. Because of his own roots and musical history along with his forward thinking it would be like playing with an old master and a young genius at the same time.
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?
SA: Yes and no because of all the unforeseen circumstances that inevitably arise.When I was starting out I thought if you do steps 1 and 2 then the results are 3 but it doesn’t always work out that way. My love of the music has increased as has my desire to keep improving as a musician. I now believe one should play for the pure joy of the music. If fame and fortune comes knocking that’s icing on the cake.
JGL: Where would you like to see jazz guitar go in the coming years?
SA: Although I love the originals like Wes and Joe Pass I think they are, to a certain extent, still defining the role of what a jazz guitarist is supposed to sound like. The whole idea of jazz (I believe) is to stir things up. Reject the status quo. Having said that I do believe we are in a process of change at this time because of the major influence of individualists like Lorne Lofsky and Ben Monder and so on. Like it or not I believe these players are the future of jazz guitar.
JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar?
SA: Get a good teacher, practice a lot, learn how to play everything in the Charlie Parker Omnibook, listen to many different players, always try to keep an open mind, try to hear the positive things in someone’s playing instead of being critical. It will help your own playing.
JGL: Apart from music what other pursuits do you enjoy tackling?
SA: Cooking. Jazz cooking. I like to improvise when I cook so just like the music sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s not.
JGL: Thanks Shan for taking the time to participate on Jazz Guitar Life.
SA: My pleasure Lyle.