Mark Capon – Jazz Guitar Life Interview

If I could do it all over again, after I heard Joe Pass play, I should have gotten simple vocal versions of the tunes he was playing by great singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, etc. Granted a lot of these recordings were not very jazzy per se but it was still great music and because of the simplicity you could grasp the melody and chords much easier than hearing a jazzed up version. After you can walk down the street and whistle the song and know the lyrics you are ready to figure out how to play it.

Mark Capon

I first became aware of Mark Capon back around 2004 when I first started the original Jazz Guitar Life. He sent me his CD for review and I was struck with how mature and wonderful a player he was. Then to find out that he had been taught by none other than Tal Farlow…well, let’s just say I needed to find out more about Mark….and it only took 17 years…but here we are 🙂 In this lengthy and very detailed interview, Mark opens up abut his thoughts on teaching, his chord solo concept, and of course his experience with Tal Farlow. A very informative, entertaining and insightful read. Sit back, slowly sip a hot or adult beverage of your choice and enjoy 🙂

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JGL: Thank you Mark 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. How old are you?

MC: This interview is being done in September 2021 so at this time I am sixty three.

JGL: Now, for those who are unaware of you, can you tell us a little about who Mark Capon is?   

MC: I am a jazz guitarist who lives in New York City. During my youth I was greatly interested in the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and some of the other popular rock groups of the day. I discovered jazz purely by accident after hearing Joe Pass on the radio in my early to mid teens. I was  fascinated in what I heard and I eventually discovered many of the other major guitarists in jazz as well many of the other major jazz instrumentalists and jazz vocalists as well as classical guitar. I consider myself a player influenced by the swing era, bebop, cool jazz and the bossa nova music that became very popular in the 1960’s.  

I have played as both a leader or sideman in various restaurants, bars, hotels, festivals, and private engagements. I have played in New York City, Long Island, New Jersey, Texas, and in the New York State Capital district. In 1988 and 1989 I received jazz study grants from the National Endowment for The Arts to study with Tal Farlow and Billy Bauer respectively. In 1994 I was a featured artist on the television broadcast TELEJAZZ in Newark, New Jersey.

In 1995 and 1996 I was selected as a contestant for the Fish Middleton Jazz Scholarship Competition in Gaithersburg, Maryland. One of the adjudicators was vocalist Jay Clayton and years later I met her and played for vocalists during her scat lab. In 1999 I recorded and released my lone CD The Jazz Guitar of Mark Capon which was reviewed on your website as well as other jazz websites and publications.

In 2009 I received a write-up in a New York State Capital district newspaper in the music column. I have been interviewed on a number of radio broadcasts, the most recent one being the ‘Cexton Records Jazz Hour’ hosted by fellow jazz guitarist Larry Luger who I also performed with.

In 2012 I appeared in the New York City documentary ‘Sandy Jordan’s World Of Jazz And Cabaret‘.

In 2016 I appeared In Sandy Jordan’s next documentary ‘Live At La Rivista‘. 

As of the date of this interview I currently play every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (weather permitting as we play outdoors) at the Tudor City Steakhouse in Manhattan with vocalist/band leader Sandy Jordan and bassist Bob Arkin. I also freelance with other musicians at other venues.

I am experienced in using music notation software, video and audio editing software and home music video production. The players who influenced me most in my early years and who still influence me a great deal are Joe Pass, Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, and Johnny Smith. I am continuing to discover other great jazz artists and great classical guitarists.           

JGL: Thanks for the detailed background Mark. Looks like you’ve been busy!! LOL! Whereabouts are you located?

MC: Manhattan, New York City.

JGL: Let’s go back a bit. What was your first guitar and what are you playing now? Any memorable guitars owned along the way?

MC: I do not remember my first two guitars as I was a young boy then but they were acoustic flattops. Some years after that I got a Harmony Marquis acoustic flattop which I still have but it is need of either a good setup or repair. My first electric guitar was a Gibson SG which I got when I was sixteen and which I still have and play on occasion. My main guitars are a Gibson ES-175 which I bought new in 1988 and an Eastman AR372CE which I bought new in March 2020. The Eastman AR372CE, except for a few minor differences embraced the Gibson ES-175 design and it sounds great. I had my luthier set it up for the type of strings I like (D’Addario Chrome XL ECG26 13-56).

My Gibson ES-175 was in need of extensive work at the time I bought the Eastman as I was advised to get a new guitar which I did but after it had been worked on it plays great although it still has it’s cosmetic blemishes due to normal wear and tear but it is there to play music not win beauty contests so I am glad I still have it because Gibson discontinued producing ES-175’s except by special order. My Gibson ES-175 and Eastman AR372CE are the guitars I play the majority of the time.

JGL: What other gear are you using? Do you have a specific stage set-up that works best for you in a variety of musical situations?

MC: Jazz is the only style I play although I may use my Gibson SG when busking in cold weather because it is easier to get my arm around it when I am bundled up with multiple sweat shirts and a heavy jacket or on the rare occasion if I get offered a commercial gig. I do not like playing a solid body for jazz but you can get a good jazz sound out of it. However I do not actively seek out commercial gigs because I stay focused on jazz.  I have a Fender stage lead amplifier which I bought new in 1982. I rarely use it now as I discovered that on most of the jobs I play I do not need an amplifier that big. I have an AER compact 60/2 and Bugera AC60 amplifiers, the latter embraced the AER compact 60/2 design. They both sound great for jazz.

I also have a Fishman Loudbox Mini amplifier which runs on an internal battery and I use it for busking. It sounds great for jazz as well. I have a Boss ME 5 effects pedal which I hardly ever use. At one point many, many years ago I bought it in case I might get some commercial gigs which needed a more modern sound. I would still use the jazz patch on the Boss Me 5 in case I was not playing through a good amplifier but instead playing through a bad sounding PA system in a club and the jazz patch might pretty up the sound a bit. But basically I am a purist. I play traditional jazz so I do not use effects and I just want a plug in and play amplifier that gives me a nice clean traditional jazz guitar sound without a lot of unnecessary knobs and switches and the amplifiers I have do the job. I also had a Polytone Brute IV but it stopped working after twenty years and I trashed it. Amplifier repair techs do not work cheap so I figured I should just get a new amplifier.    

JGL: Were you interested in jazz from the start or were there other musical interests before jazz? How did you find your way to this particular music and instrument?

MC: As a young boy and like countless others I was in to the Beatles and started taking guitar lessons. In my early teenage years I was in to the Rolling Stones. I discovered jazz totally by accident. One day on the radio I heard Joe Pass for the first time. If I remember correctly he was playing a solo piece as that was when he started getting extensively involved in playing solo. I never heard a guitarist like that before. I was drawn to the warmth of the clean amplified sound and the sophistication of what I was hearing and the virtuosic technique although I did not know any of the songs that were being played. Needless to say this was a sharp contrast from the rock guitar sounds I was used to hearing. Then I went out and bought Virtuoso and Portraits Of Duke Ellington. A fellow guitarist in high school lent me Intercontinental. Joe Pass will always be a major inspiration to me. I am glad I saw him live a few times and met him once very briefly. Needless to say I loved what I was hearing. No one had to push me into liking jazz guitar. I do not think a teacher should force a student to listen or play a certain style. I feel they should politely tell them to listen to the music they like but also suggest to them to listen to other great styles that they may not be familiar with because maybe they will really like it! And if they do not like it there is no harm done.

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)?

MC: Joe Pass was my initial big influence and still is a tremendous influence as well as my other initial influences. My guitar teacher at the time asked me “Do you want to hear a really great guitar solo?” He plopped down on the record player a Tal Farlow album and my jaw must have dropped. Again, I didn’t know what he was playing or doing but I was impressed by the drive, swing, etc. Little did I know that some fifteen years later I would be studying with Tal through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The Great Guitars Band was around at this time so I quickly discovered Herb Ellis and Barney Kessel, and I also heard some Barney Kessel guitar/bass/drums trio tracks and Barney of course pioneered that setting. I do not think anyone did it before him. I briefly met both Barney and Herb many years later.

My next teacher introduced me to the guitar playing of Johnny Smith and he lent me his classic record ‘Moonlight In Vermont’ and some of his other recordings. Unfortunately Johnny Smith’s 1950’s recordings and Tal Farlow’s 1950’s recordings were out of print and very hard to find at the time and it is a shame I did not have access to this music during my early years but when these recordings were reissued some ten to twelve years later I grabbed them! Of course today they are available on YouTube, Spotify, etc. Eventually I started listening to all the major figures in jazz like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, etc.

For many years now I have been impressed by good music regardless of the instrument. I will get just as moved by hearing horn players, pianists, vocalists, etc. I also listen to classical guitarists on occasion, I love classical guitar and I believe that great jazz guitar players who play solo guitar are definitely influenced to some degree by classical guitar. I also study classical guitar scores a little bit every now and then.

So basically for many years now I have been  listening to all jazz instrumentalists regardless of the particular instrument as well as vocalists. If I like the song and style and feel of what is being played I will get moved by it whether it is being performed by a guitarist, pianist, saxophonist, vocalist, etc.         

JGL: You had the wonderful opportunity – I’m assuming – to study with the great Tal Farlow. Wow!  How  did you get to study with Tal, for how long and could you talk about this experience?

MC: I introduced myself to Tal when he was playing at Zinno’s, an Italian restaurant located on 13th street in between 5th or 6th Avenue in Manhattan if I remember correctly. I showed him a number of transcriptions that I took of his playing which I still have. This was before home computers and music notation software so it was written out by hand. I told him I would like to study with him. I submitted an audition tape to the National Endowment For The Arts and submitted a budget proposal to study with Tal and it was approved. Once a month I would drive down to his home in Sea Bright, New Jersey and have a three hour lesson with him. Tal did not have a formal method of instruction. He told me the way he learned or asked me what I am working on so that he could possibly help me out. I played one of his solos for him along with the recording, I remember it was his blues choruses on ‘Swingin’ Till The Girls Come Home’. He was very impressed but also mentioned that the Charlie Christian solos which he learned during his developing years were shorter and simpler. So I guess what he was trying to say was that it was easier to grasp the concept and feel if you try to tackle simpler material to learn from. He showed me some of his ideas on harmony which was quite advanced both harmonically and technically and showed me how he played harmonics as both single notes and as a full chord.

Tal was a very nice man. I still keep in touch with his widow Michele who was Tal’s second wife as he survived his first wife Tina. I drop Michele an email every June 7th which is Tal’s birthday. I am pleased to say she is doing well. She came to one of my gigs many years ago! That was a pleasant surprise! I hope I was in reasonably good form that day!      

JGL: In a similar vein – and apart from Tal – who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?

MC: I would say Joe Pass for his solo guitar playing, Barney Kessel for his chord melody playing, Herb Ellis for his great swinging feel, and Johnny Smith for his elegance, refinement, etc. These players, along with Tal were my initial biggest initial influences in jazz guitar and the techniques I mentioned were possibly the main characteristics of their playing that drew me to them although they were all great at everything: swing, harmony, chord voicings, etc, not just one particular aspect of playing. I also greatly admire Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Raney and countless others which are far to numerous to mention. I am constantly discovering great talent due to the internet and just because some of these players may not be well known it does not mean that they are not well worth checking out!      

JGL: Is there anyone – alive or dead – who you’d love to play and/or record with and why?

MC: In addition to the players I just mentioned, I would have loved to play with Ray Brown for obvious reasons! What a groove, swing, beautiful sound, etc. Generally speaking whenever I hear musicians that have a great feel for swinging and accompanying and who play in a very supportive manner, and who play ‘in the pocket’ so to speak, those are the players I would love to play with because they are so easy to latch in with. I have gotten that feel on certain recordings where you can just snap your fingers and groove to the music.  

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?

MC: My first teacher taught me how to read music and had me studying through the Alfred’s book, when I was older my teacher had me study from William Leavitt’s book A Modern Method For Guitar, Sal Salvador’s Single String Studies and Ronny Lee’s Jazz Guitar Method. My teacher after that had his own exercises, like single string lines and he also gave me chord melody arrangements that he wrote out for tunes like “Misty” and “Sophisticated Lady” which I had to practice. The chord melody arrangements that he wrote out were written out in notation, not tablature or chord diagrams, I had to read the notes on the stave. I consider it very fortunate that I learned how to read because whenever I meet someone who does not read music I believe that the lack of that skill is holding them back.

When I studied with Billy Bauer I practiced his regimen: scale exercises and four part harmony exercises, triad exercises, etc. Billy Bauer constantly stressed the importance of getting a good sound, he constantly emphasized tone. As I mentioned in my response to one of your previous questions I transcribed many Tal Farlow solos. I also transcribed solos of other players, if not the whole solo then certain parts of it: Charlie Parker, Joe Pass, and some others. I still do some transcribing and I have the transcription preserved via music notation software. The software does NOT do the transcription. It just allows me to notate it by selecting the duration, the pitch, the sharp or flat indicator which you need if the note is an accidental, etc. I can control the number of measures per stave and other formatting options. When I print it out I think it looks really good. Here is a video of me playing a Barney Kessel solo of the Irving Berlin tune “Remember” along with the transcription.

I mainly just work on tunes these days. When I am not actively practicing I am listening to the next tune I will be working on. I listen to a few versions so I am reasonably confident that the one version I will be learning from is faithful to the melody and harmony that the songwriter wrote. I also try to get a recording that has the verse. I put the recording on repeat play and listen to it over and over while I am eating, getting dressed, etc. till I feel I know it in my head. Then I figure out the chords and melody from the recording as I constantly have been advised NOT to mechanically learn tunes from the Real Book. I think this was great advice as I think learning by ear in the long run makes everything easier including transposing. I then practice the tune for twelve days, each day in a different key. I practice the songs chord accompaniment, playing the melody in at least two different octaves, and practice a chord melody arrangement.

When practicing a chord melody arrangement in all keys (and even playing the melody in single notes) you eventually discover which keys for that song are totally out of range or somewhat inconvenient and usually one key which works great. You also discover optimal fingerings that can be used in certain keys but not others because the chords or even the melody played as single notes may be out of range or require awkward string skipping, or picking, etc. Selecting a key is mainly more important for solo guitar and chord melody which I will generally do if I am leading the group and playing without a rhythm guitarist or pianist. If I am working as a sideman for a horn player or a singer I am mainly playing accompaniment and improvising a solo as they are usually performing the melody so they always call the key. When I finish going through the song in twelve keys I make a solo guitar video of it and upload it to YouTube and Instagram. I also link to it from my personal and band Facebook pages. I may practice some simple exercises if there is a specific musical skill that I am trying to utilize in a tune (more on this topic in one of your later questions).       

JGL: Apart from your studies with Mr. Farlow, are you basically self-taught or did you study formally at a music school or privately? And do you have one preference over the other?

MC: Aside from my private instructors I took some music classes in high school and college but unfortunately the jazz band class got dropped from the curriculum when I entered college in the fall of 1976. Actually they had no jazz courses at all. Later on I took some jazz workshops with various instructors including saxophonist Bill Saxton and master classes with pianist Barry Harris at the Jazz Cultural Theatre and I attended some free guitar clinics presented by Sam Ash where they had a featured guitarist and you could ask questions. Some of the featured guitarists were Tal Farlow, Herb Ellis, Jack Wilkins, Gene Bertoncini, Chuck Wayne, Joe Puma and perhaps some others which I can’t quite recall as this was a very long time ago.

I have also read tutorial articles by Joe Pass and others and have various method books by Joe Pass and others. I occasionally may watch YouTube videos that others may post and I pick up some knowledge that way as well. Picking up little bits of knowledge here and there from workshops and classes and studying with a teacher and everything else is certainly helpful but after you master the basics such as reading and being able to navigate around the fretboard moderately well and learning basic guitar technique it takes a lifetime to master these skills as well as developing stylistic proficiency and developing an extensive repertoire and you really have to dig in and get your feet wet. Eventually I feel most of what you learn is going to have be dug out the hard way with a lot of listening, experimentation, playing with others, etc.  

So I would have to say most of what I learned aside from the basics is self taught. I really do not see any other way. As Joe Pass once said in the preface to his book Joe Pass Guitar Style, “experience is unquestionably the best teacher” and “no book can substitute for your own experience…there are to too many things you can learn on a stand that cannot be translated into printed words”. I firmly believe that. For example a classical player and a jazz player and even different jazz players may phrase or accent the same notes with the same duration differently. Or they may play long quarter notes or short quarter notes. You see indicators like that in sheet music.  I do not think you can learn stylistic proficiency from a book whether it be jazz, rock or anything else. Listening to recordings and playing with other experienced players that you can learn from is of the upmost importance.            

JGL: Speaking of studying, do you teach and if so, how can a potential student reach you? Is there a specific student you are looking for?

MC: I never taught formally but I am always glad to help out another musician. I do not want to teach someone just to make money. Whenever someone asked if I give lessons I tend to ask them questions such as “Who do you listen to and/or who would you like to play like?”. If they tell me they want to play like players who I am not familiar with or in a style that I do not play then I would not volunteer to teach them as I do not feel I have anything to offer them. Of course I can teach complete beginners in regard to reading and basic guitar technique. But if they are beyond the beginning stage and they are interested in the players and styles that I play then I feel I could help them. I have suggested to some of them that we get together and I would not ask for money for the initial get together. I want to have them play for me and then I would tell them what I think they need to work on and what I can show them and then if they want to take some lessons we could talk about it.

Generally speaking I think a student can be taught everything a teacher knows in a few lessons however MASTERING those skills is what takes a lifetime. I do think I might be interested in giving group classes to guitarists or singers or for anyone else who needs to better understand harmony, key signatures, song forms, modulations, etc. I can be contacted via email which is displayed on my videos or through social media, Facebook, and Instagram. My contact information is on certain jazz websites that have a ‘musicians list’ and is also at the bottom of this interview. I just would like to say that I think the way I learned certain things was wrong when I was a beginner and I do not understand why it was taught that way in guitar books.

For instance, instead of learning harmony by studying the chords that are built on each degree of a major scale and understanding the intervals, chord inversions, the difference between closed voiced chords and open voiced chords and such, many books, at least when I was starting out taught harmony by just giving the student tons of chord diagrams. I think a better approach is something like this: take a C major scale. How do we form a B chord in the key of C? A chord is four notes: the root, third, fifth and the seventh or another way of thinking of it is starting on the root and then the remaining three notes is every other note in the scale. So the notes in a B chord in the key of C is B D F A. What kind of a chord is it? The interval between B and D is a minor third interval. The interval between B and F is a flatted fifth interval. The interval between B and A is a flatted seventh interval. Therefore the chord is a Bm7b5. And the order of notes is B D F A in closed voice root position meaning it is all in the same octave range. By moving the B to the top of the chord the order of notes is now D F A B in closed voice, first inversion. Go to the piano and play it. No problem. Go to the guitar and play it, if you CAN play it which many times cannot be done because the finger stretch is to far unless we are playing it on the A, D G and the OPEN B string. Now take D F A B and move the F up an octave and now you have the chord in open voicing, first inversion which is playable on the guitar.

The point I am trying to get across is that I believe things like this should be studied on manuscript paper using standard musical notation and optionally with diagrams or at least position markers and fingering indicators to help show the fingering(s) and positions on the neck which can be used. But the diagrams and fingering and position indications should be used in addition to standard notation, not to replace it.  I have met to many young guitarists who study harmony by memorizing ‘grips’ and diagrams and tablature. I believe understanding the science of how this is put together will take more time in the short run but in the long run the student will have a much more thorough knowledge of music which will help them become better musicians and will make learning easier. When I was starting out the Beatles were the thing and most beginning guitarists just wanted to quickly bang out a couple of easy chords so they can go to a party, impress girls, etc. I am not saying there is anything wrong with that. If a student just wants to learn a few chords to have some fun to play some easy rock songs the teacher should show them what they need to know quickly and not try to string them along just to squeeze more money out of them. But if they get to a point after the initial excitement wears off that they want to learn more musically involved styles such as jazz and/or classical guitar I believe they really need to understand the science of how music is put together.

I got into jazz guitar for the right reason: I was fascinated by it and I wanted to play it. I did not get in to it to be the life of the party or whatever. It was suggested to me that that may be the reason some books teach by diagrams because they know they are catering to young students who are just taking up the guitar to play a few easy rock tunes at a campfire or party or something like that. But even some jazz books taught like that. Do they assume the student already knows the science of harmony or was the book just lacking in that subject? I do not know. I remember Barney Kessel’s video on chord melody. He says at the outset that his course is not a definitive course on harmony and that you should formally study harmony.

In the William Leavitt book he says his comments on theory are not meant to replace the serious study of that subject with a competent teacher. What I illustrated in detail is what I would want to teach to a beginning jazz guitar student who is completely overwhelmed and does not know where to begin, especially when they get saddled with a thick book that gives them nothing but fingering diagrams to memorize. And that was me when I started! I have seen many books which I feel are very disorganized. Understanding harmonic theory I believe should be understood, not memorized by rote. Brute memorization is hard, understanding is much easier I think. I also would like to mention that I think a teacher should give the student recommended recordings to listen to. There are classes called ‘Introduction to Jazz Improvisation’ and things like that and the students are told ‘listen to ‘Confirmation’ and transcribe Charlie Parker’s solo’. I think that is like taking a little league baseball player and throwing him right in to the major leagues. I think they should listen to Charlie Parker but do not try to tackle that in the beginning. I think they should concentrate on learning lots of simple songs like ‘All Of Me’, ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’, ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, etc. Assuming of course that they are interested in traditional jazz playing standard tunes. I feel they should concentrate on just learning the melody, playing the chordal accompaniment, and being able to do it in all twelve keys and if they can do that and play the melody and comp the chords with a good jazz feel then they are well on their way.

When the pioneering jazz improvisers were starting out, jazz was a simpler form of music and when I say simpler I do not mean it is inferior by any means to the more complicated material that came along starting with bebop. I guess what I am saying is that jazz was the pop music at the time. Benny Goodman was a popular music star. He was the King of Swing. EVERYBODY in the 1930’s knew who Benny Goodman was and they weren’t even necessarily musicians and I would imagine that many of them were at least vaguely familiar with the songs he played like ‘Stardust’, ‘Memories of You’, etc. People probably heard these songs every time they turned on the radio or went in to a dance hall. These songs became the jazz standards that the jazz musicians embraced and made part of the jazz repertoire. When bebop came along I believe the musicians already knew the melody and chords so well that a lot of the preliminary work was already mastered.

If I could do it all over again, after I heard Joe Pass play, I should have gotten simple vocal versions of the tunes he was playing by great singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, etc. Granted a lot of these recordings were not very jazzy per se but it was still great music and because of the simplicity you could grasp the melody and chords much easier than hearing a jazzed up version. After you can walk down the street and whistle the song and know the lyrics you are ready to figure out how to play it. The problem when I was starting out was that the internet and YouTube did not exist so it was difficult, expensive, and time consuming to find good recordings of a tune. What I mean by a good recording is one where the verse is hopefully included and the melody and harmony are faithful to what the songwriter wrote and the chords that are being played are clear and obvious. In other words the pianist or guitarist is clearly showing that the chord is dominant or major seventh or major or minor.

For example, if you just play C and G but leave out the 3rd and seventh a young player may not be able to detect the chord quality. For these reasons I feel this is why players like myself who were starting out back then were probably so dependant on the Real Book and sheet music which many times is inaccurate or overly complicated or overly simplified. Today you can search for ‘Body and Soul’ or any other standard on YouTube and get tons of versions of it. 

I also feel that teachers should work with students on hearing chord progressions, like CMaj7 Am7 Dm7 G7, CMaj7 F#m7b5 B7 Em7, Cmaj7 Bm7b5 E7 Am7, Cmaj7 Gm7 C7 Fmaj7, E7 A7 D7 G7, Dm7 Bm7(b5) E7 Am7, etc. If you can hear progressions like this which are in countless standards it will make memorization, transposing, and faking tunes much easier. I think that teachers should point out that a lot of standards for example are just basic chord progressions like C F G C but the basic chord progression is embellished. There are many ways to embellish the basic chord progression I just illustrated such as CMaj7 Am7 Dm7 G7 Cmaj7 or Cmaj7 F7 Em7 A7 Dm7 G7 Cmaj7, or F#m7b5 Fm7 Em7 A7 Dm7 G7 Cmaj7, etc. How simple or complicated it should be can depend on the tempo, style, etc. There is no one way how to harmonize it. And if you think of the chords in simple terms, not all jazzed up, it becomes easier to improvise on rather than seeing sheet music where the chords change on very beat and thinking you have to use a different scale or mode on every one.  

I feel teachers when giving students scale exercises should point out that they are learning this because these scale tones are in songs and that they will have multiple areas on the fingerboard where they can play it, they just have to find the area(s) on the fingerboard where the fingering and picking is easiest for that particular song and many times it is not necessarily going to be in one position. Many times it may be easier to switch positions at certain points and/or play a certain phrase on one string if you want to slur the notes and such. When they are studying arpeggios they should be told these arpeggios are in songs, the first four notes of “I Can’t Get Started” is a root position major seventh arpeggio closed voicing, the first three notes of “Misty” is a second inversion minor triad in closed voicing played descending.

I feel that students become discouraged because teachers many times just teach concepts but do not tell them that these concepts are in countless tunes and if they learn to recognize it on sheet music or hearing someone play it or sing it will make more sense. I feel the same should be done when learning to count rhythms. I feel a teacher should record the rhythm or direct the student to a recording where that rhythm is being used, for example the sixteenth note triplets in the melody of the Stanley Turrentine tune ‘Sugar’. When teachers give their students exercises to slur notes using hammer-ons and pull-offs they should emphasize that slurring is a different tone quality as opposed to picking and in addition it is an easier way to easily play certain very fast phrases rather than picking or tonguing or enunciating each note and the student should be directed to a recording where that phrasing is being played. I learned to slur notes because I heard Herb Ellis do that but I could have learned that concept earlier if it was pointed out to me by a teacher. It wasn’t until later on that I saw Herb Ellis’s instructional video and he teaches that concept. I feel these are the things I would try to point out to a student. I feel the worst thing is just to give a student exercises to practice and the student does not know why or what is trying to be accomplished. Practice with a purpose!                  

JGL: Thank you so much Mark for such an insightful response! “Practice with a purpose” is a great reminder for all regardless of player level! Let’s move on a little. In 1999 you released your only album to date as a leader titled The Jazz Guitar of Mark Capon and haven’t released another CD since, preferring to showcase your playing via your YouTube channel. What is the reasoning behind this decision? Is it a question of where the recording industry is at these days, or do you find that you can reach a wider audience through video than you could though CD’s?

MC: The main reason is because I feel that I have reached a wider group of people which means listeners and other musicians through my YouTube videos rather than having a CD gathering dust in the racks. It is also promotional material and it is current promotional material as I am always recording new videos. Recorded music for the jazz musician is essentially for promotion, not profit. In addition I feel the visual aspect is a tremendous asset.

Personally I have learned a lot by watching guitar players either in person or on YouTube by observing the fingerings they are using which is practically impossible to detect by the audio alone because as we all know there are different places on the fingerboard where you can play the same notes or chords and even if it is in the same position you can use different fingerings many times. I personally find it annoying when I see videos of players like Joe Pass and Barney Kessel and countless others when the camera is moving around, showing close up headshots, shots of the audience, far away shots, etc. I feel the reason this is done is because those videos are made for a general audience, not guitar players for educational purposes. I want the guitar, especially in a solo guitar video to be smack right in front of me so I can see the guitar, how the guitarist is holding the guitar and the right and left hand technique that is being used.

To illustrate the importance of making a visual observation of a guitarist, once I had trouble playing the melody to a certain passage of a tune. I just happened to see Herb Ellis play that night and just by chance Herb played the tune I was having trouble with! I was very intently observing his fingering. When I got home I took out the guitar, played it in the same position and then I thought, “that is how he plays it so smoothly!” For that reason whenever I went out to hear guitarists I always tried to get to the club early to get a seat right in front of them. I have picked up better fingerings to use by visual observation. Incidentally Herb Ellis apparently noticed how intently I was watching him. After he finished his set he shook my hand and asked me “Are you a guitar player?” and after I replied he said “I thought so”. He seemed flattered that I respected his playing so much and was trying to learn from him.     

I would like to mention that I also try to make my videos visually very good for the purpose of visual observation. The videos I currently make at home I feel are excellent audio and visual quality as I record direct in to the webcam and I balance the signal so there is hopefully no distortion. I also carved out an area of my apartment for my video area so there won’t be any visual distractions as I film with a blank wall behind me and I get as close to the camera as possible. When I filmed duets I obviously had to get two players in the camera frame but I still achieved a good video setting as you can clearly see both of us and the instruments. I spent hours experimenting with my webcam to get the best zoom in or zoom out setting. I also make sure the lighting and angles are good. My video setup is also portable so on occasion I have recorded at other locations besides my residence.

JGL: Nice! Now…you have been featured in a variety of music settings from solo guitar to large ensembles. Is there a musical situation that you enjoy the most and if so, why?

MC: I would say my favourite format is a guitar/bass/drums trio and in a duo setting where the other duo partner is a not a bass player as I have been very intrigued listening to Joe Pass accompany others in a duo setting like Ella Fitzgerald and Zoot Sims and J.J. Johnson with his walking bass lines and interjecting chords. It is actually a lot of fun. I like the guitar/bass/drums trio because in these settings I am truly the front person. I have to play the melody, I have to harmonize the melody which guitar players frequently call chord melody, and not only improvise single notes but improvise chordal passages and play chord fills. However I also like playing with another guitarist, either in a duo setting or with a rhythm section. I also like playing with a pianist.

I have also played with organ and vibes in the past as well. In short I like playing in a variety of settings. However my favorite settings are guitar/bass/drums and in a duo setting with a non bassist so I could utilize the Joe Pass technique of walking bass lines on the guitar. I am pleased that I have had many performances in the guitar/bass/drums format, some of which you may have seen on my YouTube channel as well as various duo performances. The videos that I took in years past and even some that I have done recently were using nothing but the onboard microphones on my webcam or a camcorder as I had to use the technology that was available at the time or because I was playing in a live club setting where I could not utilize my full home video system and run wires with direct recording. Granted the audio and visual may not be quite as good as I can get at home in a controlled environment but I still felt that it was worth documenting those performances.       

JGL: In that same vein, while you are quite skilled in the art of ensemble playing, your passion appears to be solo guitar playing which you obviously excel at. What got you into this form of Guitar playing and what are the pros and cons – if any – of such a style?

MC: When I initially heard Joe Pass he was already playing solo guitar extensively and I was very intrigued how one person could play complete standalone performances with no one else to support him. I think it is a tremendous learning experience because to play a good solo guitar performance you have to know that song inside and out! And if you can play a good solo guitar arrangement and then you play that same tune with one or more accompanists, that is EASY!! On a negative point it seems while some people appreciate the art of solo guitar playing, many people consider it just background music and they do not find it as entertaining as a bigger ensemble especially with a vocalist. Playing solo guitar is a good skill to have from an economic standpoint but I was also very intrigued by it.

I have categorized my solo guitar videos on a YouTube playlist you can view by clicking here.

JGL: In a similar vein, how do you approach taking a simple lead sheet of a tune and turning it into a full-blown chord melody?

MC: I feel what is very important is to pick a good key to play the tune in. I have heard solo guitar arrangements or chord melody playing by different players that do the same exact tune but in different keys one from the other. A lot of times it is just a choice of preference. Different keys may give you open strings in different places or just somehow dictate how you will interpret the tune. I recently recorded “Unforgettable” and I liked two different keys almost equally as well so I simply modulated for the second chorus. But you don’t have to necessarily use my version or the particular song I recorded as an example. Check out different versions of any song you like  from different players and they may very well play it in different keys and thus they may very well interpret the song much differently, not just because of their individual style but the different keys may just have different harmonic possibilities in different places because of the nature of the guitar. Keys like E, A, D, G, and C tend to be good keys for the guitar (not always but many times they are, it depends on the song, the range of the melody, the melody itself, the chord progressions, etc.) because you get a lot of open strings, not only for bass notes but also for melody notes.

I feel a guitarist should work out a song in all twelve keys and then pick their favorite key. I suggest that this may be the reason why a lot of classical guitar pieces are written or arranged in guitar friendly keys. Open string bass notes and open string melody notes tend to not be as important when playing with a bassist but I find they are very helpful in solo guitar. Guitar friendly keys tend to be of lesser importance when you have a pianist or a rhythm guitar accompanying you or your main function on the performance is to provide accompaniment for another musician such as a singer or a horn player. However there have been times that I have found that flat keys for certain songs worked better. The reason is because I have found that the range of the melody in those particular songs fit in on the range of the guitar neck particularly well in those keys. As far as harmonizing the melody it is constantly stressed as many guitar players know that you do not have to harmonize each melody note. It would not even sound good.

In my visual observations of other guitarists I have found that an important skill is to avoid chords with complicated fingerings that will trip you up and replace those chords with alternate chords which I will try to explain in a moment. I think fluency is far more important and in many cases simple chords will sound better especially with a bass player. For instance everyone knows these chord voicings played in the third position:

Let’s say we are playing the Benny Goodman Blues ‘Soft Winds’. It is very simple. I am sure most guitarists are at least somewhat familiar with it. The melody at the beginning of the tune is just two notes: ED, ED, ED, ED, E

If we tried to harmonize it with the chords up above it would be to choppy sounding as we would have to lift our fingers to constantly alternate between G13 and G7. I eventually discovered that it is better to get rid of the root. Let the bass player or the listener’s ear put it in. Use a Bdim instead:

This frees up your pinky so you can hold the same chord form and not lift your fingers and play the melody from E to D with your pinky fretting the E note and it is much smoother sounding and technically easier to play. It is even possible to play the E melody note as an open E string but it may be difficult not to accidentally mute the open string especially on a plectrum guitar which has a slimmer neck than a classical guitar. If you are very intent on getting a G bass note maybe you can wrap your thumb around the neck to nail the G on the low E string on the third fret – Tal Farlow style. You can also use this alternate fingering for the G7 and G13 voicings above:

G=Thumb, B=Middle, F and D=Barre with Index

Wrapping your thumb over the neck may very well slow you down so use it only if you really have to or if you are playing rubato or at a very slow tempo.

You can also play the tune a whole step higher so you have an open root for A on the fifth string.

These are just ideas I may use to accomplish the same thing: playing the melody chord melody style and getting it smooth. I just try to pick the approach that I find is technically easiest.

Another technique I use although I do not remember where I specifically got it from, perhaps from watching classical guitarists on occasion and studying classical guitar scores is just playing intervals. Many times just fleshing out the sound with one extra note is all you need and the listener’s ear will fill in the rest. If you have G7 with the D in the melody play a minor third interval on two adjacent strings: B and D, or perhaps an interval of a major sixth with a muted string in the middle like F to D. I believe the most important notes of a chord are the third and the seventh as they dictate whether the chord is major or minor and whether it is a major 7th chord or a dominant seventh chord. But again, many times the listener’s ear will replace the missing notes so you do not have to play every note if it is to complicated or the tempo is to fast or whatever. I have heard many times Joe Pass playing just one bass note to establish the chord sound in a solo guitar rendition.

As I mentioned before, another technique I discovered was using alternate chords which have the same function if the fingering is easier in a certain situation. I believe this is what Barney Kessel is using in his rendition of ‘Old Devil Moon’ from his live ‘Just Friends’ album. The melody for the lyrics ‘I look at you and suddenly’ are something like this:  C, B flat, B flat, B flat, B flat, B flat D C’.

The Cmaj7 chord below is in the fifth position and the Gm7 is all on the third fret. Instead of using voicings like this to play the melody and harmonize it:

I believe Barney Kessel plays:

Am7 is the VI chord in the key of C. The I, III and VI chords have the tonic sound so in a sense they are interchangeable so by replacing CMaj7 which may be indicated in some sheet music, play instead Am7 going to Gm7 and back to Am7. Am7 and Gm7 have the same fingering so you just slide back and forth without changing the fingering! Another technique I feel is helpful is trying to get as many melody notes out of one chord as possible. By this I mean that the melody would have to be on adjacent strings of the chord and the first melody note does not even necessarily have to be on the top note of the chord. Here is an example for the first two bars of ‘ On Green Dolphin Street’:  

While the chords illustrated above may work well playing the phrase rubato or at a slow enough tempo it may be very cumbersome otherwise. Here is a simpler way that sounds very good I think:

The E minor triad in the seventh position gives you all the melody notes with one fingering and it may help you by staying out of the bass players way. You do not even have to play two notes, E and G together in the second quarter note triplet. You can strike the complete triad once, let the notes resonate and play the remaining melody notes as single notes. And this is another example that could be explained to a student as to why he or she may be given triad exercises. I have found that triads are very useful tools!

You may even want to try playing it in the key of A as follows:

In the second bar playing the open string E melody note may make picking easier and an open string gives a more twangy, guitaristic sound if you like that.  

These examples are shown to illustrate a strong belief I have: I feel all the great chord melody, solo guitar players, call them what you will, and great players in general all mastered the skill of knowing how to avoid cumbersome fingerings by using alternate chords, alternate fingerings, alternate positions on the guitar, etc. There are countless examples I could give. This is just a few to illustrate the point. This is how great players play so smoothly! Not by endlessly practicing cumbersome fingerings but knowing how to avoid cumbersome fingerings and play with better fingerings! Hopefully it becomes intuitive after awhile. We have to be more than guitar players, we have to be arrangers too because standard tunes were not written for the guitar. They were written for the musical theatre, movies, and singing and we have to adapt them to the guitar in the best way we know how.

Books and teachers may touch on the subject but I feel a great teacher should constantly emphasize this as this is the secret I think to be fluent. I just feel very sorry for beginning guitarists who are posting on internet sites how frustrated they are trying to grope through a book of random diagrams that have no rhyme or reason. I had that same frustration when I was starting out.

 One last example. I have seen this being described as CMaj7:

It is not a CMaJ7 chord. In reality it is a first inversion open voice E minor triad. It certainly is acceptable to play it if you want to play a CMaj7 with the B as the top note but I feel understanding what it really is is very important. Billy Bauer was very good for that, he had me play harmony exercises diatonically. I feel I eventually saw how the notes moved from one chord or triad or pair of intervals to the next.

JGL: Wow!! Thank you so much for such a detailed response. To get to this point in your playing and while developing your art as a solo guitar player was there one particular artist you listened to more than another and why? Also, is there anyone today in the solo guitar world that captures your attention?

MC: In the beginning I listened mainly to Joe Pass. Aside from the fact that his solo guitar is fantastic I believe he is the one who really started doing it a lot at the time. Of course since then tons of jazz guitarists have followed suit myself included. The end result is that there are many jazz guitarists today who play great solo jazz guitar.

One of my favorites is Andy Brown from Chicago, Illinois – ed note: if you haven’t already, check out the Andy brown interview here – who I noticed was recently interviewed by you in Jazz Guitar Life. Due to the power of the internet and YouTube I discovered him and I followed his live streams during the height of the pandemic as well as his other videos and we have corresponded via email as I was helping him out by providing him with the time stamps of his set lists of his live stream performances so listeners could listen to those streams at a later date and find the individual selections easier. I love his choice of material and his interpretations of the material. I transcribed one chorus of one of his solo performances from one of his live streams and sent him the transcription and the video I made of me attempting to play it. I felt I learned a lot in regard to his bass line movement, choice of chord voicings, and alternate chord fingerings.  In an ensemble setting he is also a very swinging lyrical soloist and a top notch accompanist. In addition his wife, Petra van Nuis is a wonderful jazz singer in her own right. Petra and Andy and the other excellent artists they collaborate with are well worth checking out! Other outstanding solo guitarists I greatly admire are Jake Reichbart, Steve Herberman, Bert Enkel, and Martin Taylor.

I would like to say I am constantly discovering other great solo guitar players (who are far to numerous to mention) due to YouTube and social media that I otherwise may not have heard of and I am sorry I cannot acknowledge every one of them but I would like to emphasize once more that just because some of these players may not be well known or just because I may not have heard of them does not mean that they are not well worth checking out!

JGL: I see on your YouTube channel that you did a bunch of duo dates with Jazz Guitarist Tony DiGregorio. Have you thought about other Guitarists you would like to play duet with and if so, who and why?

MC: I would just like to mention at the outset that Tony DiGregorio and I met in college music classes in 1976. Years later we hooked up again as Tony saw my name in Hot House jazz magazine when I was booked to play at a New York City jazz venue. He found my email address on the internet somewhere and he wrote to me and we started collaborating together on each other’s performances from time to time and I suggested we do a video together.  In answer to your previous question I mentioned how much I like Andy Brown’s playing and I think if I ever played with him I would latch right in because he is a very supportive accompanist.

I have sat in in a duo setting with Gene Bertoncini, Jack Wilkins, and Howard Alden and I felt very comfortable playing with them and I also heard them numerous times before in recorded performances so I was familiar with their style and liked their style. You may have noticed on my YouTube channel duet videos I did with guitarists Joe Finn, Larry Luger, and Giorgia Hannoush. I felt very comfortable with all these players as well as others that I have met over the years. I think Herb Ellis sums up what I am trying to say in the liner notes of his duet album with Joe Pass, Two For The Road:

“Actually outside of Joe – Barney Kessel and Jim Hall, there aren’t too many more guitarists that I would consider teaming up with the main reason being that we might not have enough common musical ground to make it work right”

Herb Ellis

“Great players can play together, and never attain the musical camaraderie that Joe and I fell into almost from the very first time we played together.”

Herb Ellis

I guess what Herb Ellis is referring to is musical chemistry. It is elusive sometimes.  Perhaps players who have roughly the same influences may very well play well together. Speaking of Joe Pass I have a feeling I would play well with John Pisano who played rhythm guitar behind Joe many times. There are a lot of excellent guitar players out there who I have heard who I think I may play very well with in a duet setting. I always have my eyes and ears open!   

JGL: There seems to be a lot more cats playing 7 and even 8 string Guitar these days. Have you tried playing a 7 or 8 string guitar and if so, how did that work out for ya? If not, is this something you may explore in the future?

MC: Actually I remember Howard Alden and Tony DiGregorio both asked me that! I once asked Bucky Pizzarelli about how the seven string guitar is tuned. I have tried seven strings guitars that two of my fellow guitarists played and I would imagine that if I played it regularly for a few months I would get used to it but I feel my style and the sound I am looking for is better suited for the standard six string guitar.  

JGL: Almost every musician, no matter their level and professional stature has their own insecurities to deal with when it comes to the music and playing their instrument. What, if any, insecurities do you/did you face on your instrument and how do you/ did you work at getting over them?

MC: One night everything can be happening, your swinging, bouncing notes of the walls in a club like a tennis player hitting the ball on the sweet spot of the racket, the musical ideas are flowing, etc. The next night you are not playing your best. When that happens it is frustrating as we all want to maintain a very high level every time we play.

Let me present you with another quote from Herb Ellis which appears in the liner notes of his album Softly… But With That Feeling:

“I have only tried to progress; I’ve never tried to change. Once you arrive at a certain way of playing, that’s you. If you try to change, it’s not you, and you’re in trouble. As Oscar (Peterson) said to me, you can only develop what you are best capable of doing. I hope I can continue to develop in just that way”.   

Herb Ellis

I think that is good advice.

I focus on playing the styles that fits my musical preferences although I try to have an open mind and try to become at least somewhat familiar with other styles. And I certainly respect players who are playing other styles even though those styles may not necessarily be my preference or that I do not think I would play my best at. I try to seek out players that I think I will work well with. Jazz is a very generic term. There is ragtime, Dixieland, swing, bebop, post bob, modal jazz, free jazz, fusion, jazz influenced by atonal music, world music and hip hop. Would a ragtime or Dixieland player play well with a jazz group doing music with hip hop influences? Maybe but maybe not. I consider myself a player influenced by the Swing era, Bebop, cool jazz and the great bossa nova music that became very popular in the 1960’s. I love the Antonio Carlos Jobim tunes and tunes written by other great bossa nova/samba song writers. I am not a gypsy jazz player per se but I love Django Reinhardt and I have sat in with gypsy jazz players on occasion and really liked it.  I may extend invitations to record videos with players that I think I will work well with.        

JGL: What you’re not on the band-stand, filming YouTube videos or in the recording studio, what do you like to do to unwind?

MC: I may watch YouTube videos on topics that interest or amuse me but I try not to do it to much because it takes time away from music but sometimes you really need a break from it. Other than that I do try to focus on continuing to stay physically fit by dedicating time to exercise as I want to age well since I am approaching my senior years.   

JGL: What does the future hold for Mark Capon?

MC: I will continue trying to learn very standard I can get my hands on as I think learning a lot of tunes is very important as I accompanied a number of different singers over the years and I love the Great American Songbook. And I also like playing new tunes that I learn in an instrumental setting. I rarely find a standard I do not like.

I also hope to constantly progress more in all the areas of my playing. I am also very seriously considering to start doing some singing myself, not to replace playing the guitar by any means but to augment it. I have heard a number of musicians who are not primarily singers but they do sing a bit here and there so I think I want to do the same. I am always interested in collaborating with other performers that I think I will work well with to do videos and live streams with in addition to live performances.

JGL: Thank you Mark for taking the time to chat with Jazz Guitar Life. I wish you much success in all your endeavours!

MC: Thank you very much Lyle! It has been an honor and a pleasure to have been interviewed by you for Jazz Guitar Life! I hope that other musicians and music fans will know a little bit more about me and I hope that I can meet them in person at some point and perhaps play with some new players although it is nice to have developed a lot of virtual friendships with others who are all over the globe which I could not have done without the internet. I would like to send my warmest regards and best wishes to my fellow performers out there and music fans. Keep up the great work for Jazz Guitar Life! Your publication is a great asset to jazz guitarists and jazz and music in general!

JGL: Thank you Mark. Your words and enthusiasm for this music is greatly appreciated!

ed. note: If you would like to get in touch with Mark Capon you can do so by visiting him on the Web at facebook.com/markcapon.jazzguitar; instagram.com/markcapon.jazzguitar; or you can contact him directly via email at markcapon@verizon.net  

Please consider spreading the word about Mark and Jazz Guitar Life by sharing this interview amongst your social media pals and please feel free to leave a comment. We would love to hear from you 🙂

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