“I don’t really think in terms of chords, scales and theory when improvising (unless I don’t know the tune well). I am just trying to hear melodies in my head and play them as I go. I try to focus on telling a story in my solos. Trying to build a good solo is something I work a lot on. Taking a breath and leaving space between the phrases is important for me. Sometimes I take my hands off the guitar neck.”Jostein Gulbrandsen
Jostein Gulbrandsen is a New York City based Jazz Guitarist originally from Namsos, Norway who has made quite a name for himself in his adopted country. In this interview Jostein discusses his musical background, his early love for Fusion music, his artist deals with Collings Guitars and how his method book “Modern Jazz and Fusion Guitar” came to be. An insightful and entertaining read. Enjoy! 🙂
JGL: Thank you Jostein for taking the time to talk to Jazz Guitar Life. First off, if we can get into a little background about you that would be great. What geographical area do you currently reside in?
JG: I am in the north-west part of the Bronx NY, nearby Van Cortland Park. I love it up here. Lots of great musicians and some great trails for running.
JGL: For those who may not know you, could you give us an elevator pitch of who Jostein Gulbrandsen is and then we’ll get into more detail as this interview unfolds.
JG: I am a professional guitarist originally from Norway, who came to the US to study Jazz. I have three albums out as a leader (“Twelve”, “Release of Tension” and “Looking Ahead”) and a method book released on Hal Leonard called “Modern Jazz and Fusion Guitar”. My group has performed at the Rochester International Jazz Festival, Trondheim Jazz Festival in Norway and many other places.
JGL: At what age did you first start playing the guitar and were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz? How did you find your way to this particular music and instrument?
JG: I started playing when I was nine. I had group lessons and started out on a nylon string guitar. My teacher Terje Olsen was an inspiration and he really believed in me. A couple of years later I got my first electric guitar and was lucky to perform in different bands in the area. I value this early opportunity to perform in front of people. The music was pop and rock, I later got into some metal but luckily I got out of that and got heavily into blues. Hearing Sting live with Kenny Kirkland really got me interested in exploring jazz. I was also introduced to the music of Norwegian ECM legends such as Arild Andersen, Terje Rypdal and Jan Garbarek early on.
JGL: When coming up as a young player, did you attend a formal educational institution or are you self taught? Was there one – or more – particular moments that opened the flood gates so to speak as you went about learning this music?
JG: I entered a Performing Arts High School in my hometown and it was a crucial part of my introduction to jazz, classical and general music education. I didn’t read music at that time so I had a lot of catching up to do. My teachers Jakob Vejslev and Trond Keilen got me into studying jazz and fusion. I was probably leaning more to the fusion side of things at that time. I was heavily into Scott Henderson, Allan Holdsworth, John McLaughlin etc and I mainly soloed with overdrive and sometimes synth guitar sounds. My main guitar was a PRS CE24 which I still own to this day.
Pat Metheny was the first guitarist that played jazz with a clean sound that I really took a liking to. His solo on “Have you heard” from his live album “The Road To You” blew me away. I still remember the moment when I first hear it. At that time I wasn’t really interested in straight ahead guitar, that happened much later.
I later attended Agder College of Music in south-Norway for two years then moved to the United States to study at University of North Texas under the excellent Fred Hamilton. After that I did my Master’s Degree at the Manhattan School of Music where I studied with Chris Rosenberg, Dave Liebman and many others.
JGL: You’re originally from Namsos, Norway. Have you been back since moving to the US and do you miss Norway? What would – if any – be the challenges of being both a professional guitar and a Jazz Guitarist in Norway had you stayed? Has the US been good to you?
JG: I usually go back at least two times a year, sometimes more. Due to the pandemic I haven’t been back in quite a while now. There are some really great musicians over there and I am sure I would have a nice life if I lived over there. I do however think living in NYC and the US in general has given me some opportunities and experiences that I wouldn’t have gotten if I had lived in Norway or elsewhere the whole time.
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 back then to make this choice work for you?
JG: I believe so. I have been drawn to the guitar since I was 5-6 years old. Once I started playing I could never imagine doing anything else. Playing the guitar came fairly easy to me but I have put in a tremendous amount of hours on the instrument over the years and continue to do so.
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? Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
JG: After my fusion period I got more into Jim Hall, Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie, Wolfgang Muthspiel, John Scofield.Those guys along with Metheny, Holdworth, Scott Henderson, Robben Ford, McLaughlin, Larry Carlton,Django Reinhardt, Jeff Beck, Terje Rypdal, Ulf Wakenius, Staffan William-Olsson, Sylvain Luc, Bireli Lagrene and many others.
I also love Keith Jarrett and Coltrane. In fact, I took a break from listening to the guitar for a long time. When I got back to it I got more into guys like Wes, Jimmy Raney, Joe Pass, Benson, Pat Martino, Grant Green etc. I probably listen more to sax players, my favorites are Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley and Joe Henderson.
JGL: In the same vein, who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?
JG: I think Pat Metheny. He is the one that really got me hooked and later John Scofield. I love the melodic and rhythmic drive of Metheny and also his writing. Scofield has such a unique sound and phrasing. I just love how his lines flow.
JGL: Has there been a major influence in your life who was not a guitarist and why?
JG: I would say John Coltrane. He just has everything; melody, Bebop, outside lines, writes great music, and is a deeply soulful and spiritual player.
JGL: You have studied both Jazz and Classical Guitar formally. How has one art-form benefitted the other and had you thought of going the route of being a Concert Classical player at one time or another?
JG: I don’t think I was ever on the level of classical guitar to consider a career in it but I have always enjoyed it and practice it almost every day. I was studying for two years at the Agder College of Music under Jan Erik Pettersen having classical guitar as a 2nd instrument and also at the University of North Texas where it was mandatory for jazz guitar majors to have it. I think it has helped with a lot of things, developing a better left hand touch and sound, obviously the right hand technique and reading. In periods where I play a lot of classical I can feel that I have better control over the instrument when playing electric. The main reason I play it though is because I enjoy it.
JGL: As a long standing and popular member of the Jazz Guitar community, what are you most grateful for and on the other side of the coin, what irks you?
JG: LOL!! There are a lot of characters, both good and bad, on the forums these days. Most people are cool though, just a little opinionated (myself included). One annoying thing is when players cut down on legendary players, not even considering them as real jazz players, criticizing people for using lighter strings or playing solid body guitars etc. We should welcome the fact that there are so many different players out there and there are things to learn from almost everyone. I feel like 95% of the people on forums would get along if we all sat down for a coffee or a beer, it’s sometimes easier to disagree with people when it’s just on the internet, a lot of the nuances such as body language, tone of voice etc gets lost. I wish guitarists would have time to hang out more in real life.
JGL: Who are you listening to these days and is there anyone we should know about that might not be on anyone’s radar?
JG: I was just checking out some Ted Dunbar, he seems really under the radar. He wrote some great tunes and has a deep and interesting way of constructing lines. Another one is Thorgeir Stubø, a Norwegian Guitarist who sadly passed away really young. I had an album with him and Doug Raney growing up, I think it was called “Just Friends”. I really love Ulf Wakenius and have been listening to him for a long time. James Muller from Australia is great too, also Sylvain Luc who’s from France.
JGL: Is there anyone – alive or dead – who you’d love to play and/or record with and why?
JG: Keith Jarrett. I would be scared though. I think he is one of the best improvisers of all times, maybe Jan Garbarek too.
JGL: What was your practice routine like when you were beginning and what is it like now? Are there specific areas that you work on or do you just play through tunes? When improvising, are you thinking chord/scale relationships or is there something else going on?
JG: I don’t think I had much of a routine early on, I was just playing all day. I got a bit more structured in high school and college but I always value having some freedom to explore things and just to enjoy playing. I tried doing a stricter approach but I can only keep that going for about 7 days. I typically do some picking exercises, play with a metronome, play some Bach violin pieces with a pick, use the drum genius and also improvise over backing tracks. I mainly play without an amp. I only use an amp when playing over tracks. Sometimes I play standards, my original tunes, other people’s originals and sometimes free or over vamps. Sometimes I play other styles of music too. I like messing with bluegrass, string swing, country and blues. I rotate guitars every day. I have many guitars and try to put them all to use.
I don’t really think in terms of chords, scales and theory when improvising (unless I don’t know the tune well). I am just trying to hear melodies in my head and play them as I go. I try to focus on telling a story in my solos. Trying to build a good solo is something I work a lot on. Taking a breath and leaving space between the phrases is important for me. Sometimes I take my hands off the guitar neck.
Enjoyment is a big thing for me. If I enjoy playing I seem to play better. I don’t time myself and keep track of the hours I play every day, I have tried it but it just became stressful.
JGL: Speaking of practice routines, you are highly regarded as an educator. What would you advise students of Jazz Guitar to work on if you could only choose two components and why?
JG: I would advise to learn tunes. Don’t get too buried in the theory at first, just learn enough to get by. Start absorbing some language, a small phrase can be enough. Try to be flexible with the phrase so that you can change it rhythmically or harmonically in the moment. Try exploring things on your own a bit too, copying is important at first, but also listening to things in your own head and trying to explore things on your own.
If the student can get to a point where they have 5-10 jazz standards they can play over (melody, chords, improv) it’s a great foundation to build one. Some medium swing, a waltz, a ballad, a couple of blues, a bossa. Listening to jazz, and not just guitar players, but sax players, trumpet players, piano players, bassists and drummers is crucial, so is playing with other people. Play as much as you can with others. Learn standards, but also write your own music. Record some of your practice sessions. Listen for both good things and things that can be improved on. Don’t be overly critical.
JGL: Do you give private lessons and if so, how does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?
JG: I do enjoy teaching lessons, even beginners. I like working with everyone from kids, young adults to adults. These days the lessons are online due to the pandemic, normally it would be in-person or online. Anyone can message me through my website to set something up.
JGL: On the same subject, you have a popular method book through the Hal Leonard Publishing Company titled Modern Jazz and Fusion Guitar. How did this book come about and how did you end up signing with Hal Leonard?
JG: I was contacted by Jeff Schroedl from Hal Leonard in 2014 to do a book. I started working with him to come up with a concept and I got a lot of freedom to do what I wanted which was great but also a bit tricky since I never wrote (or thought I would ever write) a book before. The videos for the book were all recorded in David Gross’s studio in NJ. It was challenging to record all that material on-camera. It was released in 2016 and it has been well-received and sold well. There are always things I could have done a little differently in retrospect, but I am happy with how it came out. The book has opened some doors for me in terms of gigs, master classes etc and I am happy I did it.
JGL: You got to perform for the Norwegian Royal family! WOW! What was that all about?
JG: That happened back in 2005 in NYC. My friend Eivind Opsvik, who’s a great bass player, put together a house band for the occasion. The event was in NYC.
JGL: Cool! And speaking of WOW, you are a featured artist for Collings Guitars with one of them prominently featured nicely on your latest CD cover “Looking Ahead”. Can you talk a bit about how your association with Collings Guitars came about and what is it about that particular Luthier made guitar that you love so much? Do you think there will be a Jostein Gulbrandsen signature model one day?
JG: After trying my first Collings in 2007 I got hooked and I knew I had to have one. I bought my first Collings in 2008. It wasn’t until around 2013 that I became an artist for them. I have done some showcases for them at NAMM and gotten to be pretty close with them over the years. I consider many of the employees my friends. I doubt we will ever see a signature guitar, but I do enjoy playing their instruments.
They make incredible electric and acoustic guitars. They sound amazing and are super well made. They keep getting better and better at what they do. I am really fortunate to own several instruments from them. I seem to feel most comfortable on semi hollow and thin-line hollow bodies such as their I-35, I-30 and Soco models.
JGL: In the same vein, you also endorse Quilter Labs Amplification, Eventide Effects and Curt Mangan Strings. How did these associations come about? Were you using them originally and they approached you or did they seek you out and offer you a deal?
JG: I met Pete Melton from Quilter at NAMM and he offered to send me some amps to check them out and I really liked them and have been working with them ever since. Main amp lately is the 202 Toneblock 202 head into a Blockdock 10 cabinet. Really great sounding and portable rig.
Eventide and Curt Mangan are two companies I have been with for a long time as well. I was already using some of Eventide’s products when meeting them at the NY amp show and becoming an artist for them. I have three of their pedals (Modfactor, Timefactor and Space) on my pedal board.
These days I don’t use so many pedals for jazz (usually just a small overdrive, reverb and delay) and sometimes I just plug right into the amp. For fusion and pop/rock I will pull out the big board. I have used Curt Mangan strings for over 10 years having met him at NAMM many times. I am using his nickel-wound 11-48 sets on most guitars and his flat-wound 12-52 sets on my two Collings Eastsides.
JGL: Is there a particular musical situation (ie: trio, quartet, duo, solo, etc.) you prefer over the other and is there a particular situation you have yet to play in but would like to?
JG: I really like a lot of different formats. My favorite is trio and quartet with piano. I also like guitar and bass duos. I have played some organ trio but I feel like that’s something that I haven’t done enough of.
JGL: As somewhat of an aside, Mark Ferber is on your latest CD and he seems to be THE drummer to go to for a lot of truly wonderful guitar players. How did you come to choose Mark to play and record with you and what is the process of finding great players to bring your ideas to fruition?
JG: I don’t remember exactly when we met, but we were on the same gig a few times. I started hiring him for gigs at Bar Next Door/La Lanterna which is curated by the great Peter Mazza who plays there weekly. Mark is just a killer drummer and a really cool guy. As good as it gets! I feel fortunate to have been able to perform and record with him.
JGL: Almost every musician, no matter their level and professional stature has their own insecurities to deal with when it comes to music and playing their instrument. What, if any, insecurities do you face on your instrument and how do you work at getting over them?
JG: Rhythm and time was a weak point early on, so I put in a lot of work in that department. These days’ things are starting to come together more so I don’t feel insecure when playing. Sometimes I get nervous before bigger performances.
JGL: As a professional recording, teaching and performing guitarist do you find the business side of being a musician distracting or should the playing be left to the player and the business side of things be left to the managers and agents? Do you have a manager or agent or is it all a one-man operation?
JG: I have been doing my own booking and it certainly can be frustrating at times, but sometimes I’ll have some luck too. Maybe at one point I will consider getting an agent.
JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar?
JG: Listen and follow what you like, don’t get caught up in trends or feel pressured by others to play a certain way. Do groundwork and learn the tradition, but don’t get looked into only doing that, unless that’s what you want. Keep an open mind to other music and art forms.
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.
JG: I haven’t really, but I might have considered becoming a psychologist like both my parents.
JGL: If you had to do one thing over again, what would it be and why?
JG: Maybe go out to more sessions and gigs, try to meet more people.
JGL: What does the future hold for Jostein Gulbrandsen?
JG: I am hoping to make another album once the pandemic eases up. I have enough material for another record. I have some gigs booked in Europe in the fall and hoping they will happen as planned.
JGL: Thank you Jostein for taking the time to chat with Jazz Guitar Life. All the best in all that you do!
JG: Thank you very much Lyle, I greatly appreciate you taking the time to talk to me and for the great work you do with Jazz Guitar Life.
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