Sam Dunn – Jazz Guitar Life Interview

“I’ve always favoured pragmatism over artistic struggle! I’ve always made sure my rent and bills were covered by a nice teaching job, so I could pick and choose the gigs that I take – I’m not one for playing in a wedding band or whatever. The sad reality is that most jazz gigs don’t pay very well, and those that do are often only available once a year, or even less. So I’d say look for ways related to what you love that can pay the bills, and make jazz the enjoyable, creative, side of your musical life.”

Sam Dunn

I first “met” Sam on one of the Facebook Jazz Guitar groups I participate in and always really enjoyed his playing and thoughtful posts. So I was delighted when he agreed to a featured interview on Jazz Guitar Life. In this informative and insightful interview, Sam shares with us his musical background, his gear, his self-published educational materials, his association with the great Jazz Guitarist Howard Alden and much more. Enjoy! 🙂

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JGL: Thank you Sam 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?

SD: I’m 41, and was born in the UK’s capital of great music and football, Liverpool. 

JGL: Now, for those who are unaware of you, could you give Jazz Guitar Life readers an elevator pitch of who Sam Dunn is?

SD: I’m a busy working, jobbing and teaching jazz guitarist who hopefully sounds like myself! I love contemporary jazz, but have imbibed a great deal of language, phrasing and vocabulary from the masters so that hopefully my playing sounds as rooted in the history of the music, as it does in contemporary improvisation. I play in a number of bands around the UK, including saxophonist Jon Shenoy’s ‘Draw by Four’ organ quartet, with whom I’ve toured the UK several times. I teach jazz guitar at the Purcell School just outside London, which is a specialist music school for talented youngsters hoping to pursue a career in music. 

JGL: Whereabouts are you located? 

SD: I’m based in the UK, in Folkestone, a seaside town about an hour from London. Before the pandemic, I was living in London, but I took the opportunity to get out of town and enjoy the fresh sea air – I’ve not looked back. I’m up there several times a week for gigs, but am really enjoying life out here. 

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

SD: My first electric guitar was a black Squier Strat and a tiny amp that I managed to very quickly blow up by playing it on full volume too much! 

These days my main gigging guitar is a really lovely blonde ES175 from 1966 that plays and sounds exactly as I want it to. It has a really narrow neck which I love, and it has just the right amount of percussive bite to cut through in an amplified jazz setting like an organ trio. If anyone has Adrian Ingram’s ES175 book, it’s in there! I have a Collings i35LC that I use for a lot of gigs that might require a more contemporary sound, with OD or pedals etc. If I’m on tour, I tend to take this guitar as I worry about it a bit less than I would my old 175. 

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?

SD: I have a couple of other nice archtops that I gig, a Benedetto Bravo deluxe and a Sonntag Allegria. They’re both amazing instruments but I always gravitate back to my 175. I really love the stability and dependability of a good laminate archtop. I also have a K-Line Truxton, which is a tele, and I use that a great deal if I’m after a more Bill Frisell sort of vibe.

Amp wise, I tend to use a couple of nice solid state amps, although I’d like to get a good Fender Deluxe Reverb at some point. For really quiet gigs, or if I have to use public transport, usually the tube in London, I use a ZT Lunchbox, which is amazing for the size and weight. I really don’t want to lug anything heavier than that around town!I’ve used it at clubs and even had it close mic’d at a theatre gig with Judy Carmichael and Dave Green, and it sounded great! I use a Mambo for medium size gigs, or if I’m on tour for the portability and reliability. I also use a beautiful amp by Evans, an old JE200 which sounds amazing, and weighs about as much as my car. I do take it out though, if the venue isn’t up a staircase!

JGL: Any preference to strings, picks and that sort of thing?

SD: String wise I’ve been using Thomastik Bebop 13 and 12s for about 20 years and haven’t found any other brand that I prefer. I like the guages – the 13s have a lighter bottom end than other brands which feels good to me! Pick wise, I use Hawk Picks, handmade here in the UK. They feel and sound really positive. 

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?

SD: I started playing around 1992, which was a great time to be a young guitarist as there were so many rock guitar based bands playing amazing and creative music at the time. I loved (and still do!) bands like Soundgarden, Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, and taught myself to play their songs from TAB books or guitar magazines. It’s funny, I teach guitar in a couple of schools now, and so many of the teenage students even today still want to learn guitar music from that era. Before long I found my way to Jimi Hendrix (hence the Squier Strat!) and his music opened me up to the freedom of musical improvisation as a means of expression. Before then I’d been learning riffs and solos exactly as they were recorded, but Jimi taught me that you could ‘do your own thing’ and that your solo would be different every time you play it.

This was a lightbulb moment for me! I had a trio, and we played open ended improv based songs like ‘Voodoo Chile’ or ‘3rd Stone from the Sun.’ It was all going so well, then I discovered jazz! A typical after school jam would involve me playing with my friend Stu, who is a bassist, and his dad Johnny, who plays drums. We’d play some rock and funk, and then go have supper downstairs. One evening, Johnny put a record on, ‘Bean Bags’ by Milt Jackson and Coleman Hawkins, recorded in 1958. I thought it sounded fine, although I couldn’t yet relate to the complicated boppy lines played by the band leaders. Then the guitarist took a solo and I was hooked. I could hear how it related to the blues based music I’d been playing up to that point, but there was a sophistication to the lines that grabbed me, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to play like that ever since! The guitarist was Kenny Burrell of course and if anyone out there is in touch with him, please pass on a thanks from me!

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)?

SD: From Kenny Burrell I quickly discovered Barney Kessell, Django, Joe Pass, Pat Martino and Wes Montgomery. I became a total geek and would take the train up to London to visit the jazz record shops (now sadly long gone!) and would spend any money I’d made on gigs on 2nd hand albums that looked like they might be interesting. The more I immersed myself in the music, the more my tastes broadened, and while I will never tire of hearing any of the guitarists mentioned above l enjoy listening to the Paul Motian Trio as much as I do Oscar Peterson. Of the guitarists active today, I love Peter Bernstein’s playing, Russell Malone, Jesse Van Ruller, Bill Frisell, its just wonderfully endless. I recently discovered an amazing Hungarian guitarist, Ferenc Snetberger, who plays beautiful, lyrical, and harmonically rich music on nylon string guitar that is not dissimilar to Ralph Towner (another hero!) Also John Abercrombie has had a big effect on my playing. Of course that’s just guitarists, I could spend all night naming other musicians whose playing I love! 

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

SD: I keep coming back to Joe Pass – I’ve had periods where I’ve played a lot of solo guitar gigs, at sea and on land, and for me he was the best there’s ever been at that. I’m not really interested in hearing an immaculate, pre-worked out arrangement of a tune that sounds the same every time the artist performs it. I love the way Pass could just sit and play anything, presumably without too much forethought. He makes it looks so easy! I wish I could have seen him play live. 

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

SD: I really enjoy guitar duos, and would love to play some music with Bill Frisell. He’s so creative and I love the ‘anything goes’ attitude he seems to have to music. If I could choose someone who is not with us anymore, it’d be a duo with John Coltrane. I love how he played standards – his recording of ‘Like Someone in Love’ is one of my favourite pieces of music, and so I’d love to just play a few tunes like that with him. Come on Elon Musk, invent a time machine please. 

JGL: Who were you listening to when coming up and has your tastes changed over the years or have they relatively stayed the same? Who are you listening to these days?

SD: My tastes definitely got less selective the more I listened and explored the music. At first, all I could hear was swing and bop, but I soon discovered all the other beautiful sub genres in jazz, and beyond. Personally I can never understand how some people limit themselves to only listening to or playing one way. I enjoy playing Django tunes as much as I enjoy working on an Adam Rogers transcription, it’s all beautiful, and often ends up being the same information anyway,, just played with a different intention! 

JGL: Did you know early on that music was something you wanted to do as a career choice and if so, what have you done to make this choice work for you? Were there any barriers or obstacles that you had to overcome at the beginning?

SD: I started gigging very soon after I started playing – I think I would have been around 14 or 15. Very quickly I was making more money from gigs than my friends were who were doing paper rounds. Unfortunately, many of the gigs still pay exactly the same as they did in the mid 90s, so my friends who did the paper rounds won in the end!

Once I started performing live, I realised that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I think that performing live as soon as you can is crucial to anyone who wants to go on and be a professional musician. By all means, take lessons, do grades, do exams and so on, but more than anything, get gigging! Its never too early, and developing the ability to play live in a relaxed and spontaneous way is something you can only learn on the job. 

I studied music, and have been fortunate to have never been short of gigs or related work. I spent several years playing solo jazz guitar on a very posh cruise ship, which really helped me get my solo guitar chops in order. I’ve done a lot of theatre work, touring shows, as well as working as a sideman in other musician’s creative projects. I have to admit I’m not the most proactive when it comes to pushing my own career as an artist, but this is one area of my life that I have re-evaluated during all the down time we’ve had during the pandemic. 

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?

SD: I have had periods of my life where I’ve practiced religiously, and then others where I only seem to take the guitar out on a gig. When I was studying music for my degree, there were periods where I was practicing 8-10 hours a day, because I felt I had a huge amount of catching up to do, being self taught up until that point. These days I have a fairly consistent yet flexible routine that I do most days, consisting of short bursts of specific, targeted practice. I use a metronome a great deal, and also work on sight reading and interpretation of a lead sheet, as that’s a skill that comes up often in my professional life.

JGL: You are a graduate of the Guildhall School of Music (MMus Jazz) and Leeds College of Music (BA Honors Jazz). What were your formative years like? Did you study privately or were you self-taught up until you began formal studies? Do you have one preference over the other?

SD: I was self taught until I went to Leeds – although I will say that I consider Wes, Joe Pass, Pat Martino et al to be my teachers as I have learned so much from transcribing and analysing their playing. I have always been a fan of transcription, although to get the most out of it, you have to really get stuck in and incorporate what you learn back into your own playing – just writing it down isn’t anything more than an academic exercise in my opinion. I had jazz videos by the likes of Emily Remler, Adrian Ingram and Joe Pass, which helped a great deal.

I like to use experiential learning theory in my teaching, and also realised a long time ago that that is how I taught myself. Once at Leeds, and then the Guildhall, I was lucky to have some excellent teachers who helped fill in the many blanks in my knowledge. I will add that I was also lucky enough to play a great deal with some of the tutors at Leeds on a professional basis at functions or weddings which was incredibly helpful at the age of 18 or 19. Having someone like Al Wood (a great sax player here in the UK) ask you to play an 8 bar intro to Body and Soul in Gb, on stage with no preparation, made me get my playing together more than anything I learned in the lecture rooms! 

JGL: Do you teach privately and if so how can a potential student reach you? Is there a specific student you are looking for?

SD: I do teach privately, and have students all over the world. The best way is through my website samdunnguitarist.co.uk For the more casual learner my teaching style is tune based, so learning a nice chord based way to play a standard for example. For more advanced students I think its good to help with harmony, and to show different ways to express that on guitar. Incorporating melodic minor harmony is something that seems to be a challenge for advancing guitarists, and I like to help students explore that with some specific exercises and ideas. 

JGL: Speaking of teaching, you have quite the selection of self-produced backing tracks, transcriptions (Joe Pass’s complete For Django album is one example) and self-published instructional books. Can you talk a bit about the response to these educational resources and the pros and cons – if any – between self-publishing versus the mainstream publishing route?

SD: During last year’s lock-down I set myself the challenge of transcribing ‘For Django’ just to give myself something to do as much as anything! It’s such an amazing album, his playing goes from sophisticated chord melody to absolutely burning bop, and everything in between. It was quite a challenge but I got there! I have tried to get it published but didn’t have much interest unfortunately. It’s available on my website if anyone is interested, as are a couple of instruction books I wrote several years ago. One is a licks/language book, and the other is geared towards accompaniment skills which I think is such an overlooked area of study for jazz instructional material. There’s so much info out there on how to build burning solos, and also playing solo guitar, but not much on what you could play in a duo, which lets face it, is a lineup that many of us earn much of our jazz related income from and something that we can all work on.

JGL: 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?

SD: Of course it’s totally dependent on the musicians one is playing with, but I do really love a Hammond quartet with a sax player. Guitar just sits right in that lineup, and isn’t as exposed as it is in a bass/drums/sax quartet. I have a quartet called ‘North/South’ with a great sax player, Nadim Teimoori, here in the uk and we play original material with that line up. We did a nice tour a few years ago and ended our run of dates with a gig at Ronnie Scott’s in London, closing for Pat Martino’s trio which was an amazing experience. 

JGL: In the same vein, you have been involved in more than a few theater productions. Can you talk a bit about what you need to bring to the table for such a gig – in contrast to a regular casual or club date – and what was your overall experiences in these endeavors?

SD: I really enjoy theatre work, but not for too long as the jazz brain kicks in and I get bored! A few years ago I did a European tour playing Freddie Green style rhythm guitar in a big band, which was an amazing experience. We played opera houses in tons of amazing cities like Oslo, Copenhagen, Graz, Cologne and many more, it was great fun. Sadly since Brexit opportunities like that are looking impossible for UK musicians, so I consider myself lucky to have had the chance. I’ve managed to do most of my other theatre work on a pretty simple rig – usually a tele and a boss pedal board.  The skill you need to bring to the table is consistency – every night you have to sound exactly the same, and to play the part with whatever stylistic authenticity the arranger or composer intended. That’s almost the opposite of a jazz performance where you have been hired because of your individuality as a musician, so it’s tough. You need to be able to read of course, but you’ll get sent the music in advance. Old school sight reading gigs don’t tend to exist anymore. 

JGL: I read that you have played and toured with the great Jazz Guitarist Howard Alden. How did that come about and have you thought about other Guitarists you would like to play duet with and if so, who and why? 

SD: I met Howard years ago at one of Trefor Owen’s North Wales Jazz Guitar Festivals in the early 2000’s. I went first as a student and then back the next year as a performer, where I got to open for John Pisano and Martin Taylor which was fun. I met so many heroes at those festivals, Bucky, Johnny Smith, Howard, Jack Wilkins and many more, it was amazing. I stayed in touch with Howard and had some lessons with him which was great – it’s one thing learning lines and voicings from a CD or tape, a whole other thing when they’re happening in front of you in real time. I think we’ve only done the one gig together which is something that I must try to fix, next time he’s over! There’s so many guitarists I’d love to play with – Peter Bernstein, Jesse Van Ruller, Bill Frisell. Julian Lage is one of the most remarkable musicians I think I’ve ever heard as well, that’d be fun! 

JGL: You are featured on a number of recordings as either a co-leader or member of a band. Have you thought about taking the plunge as a leader and recording your own album? Or maybe you have already done so and I missed it?

SD: I did a trio album about 8 years ago, but yes, I must do something more representative of my playing as it is now. I do sometimes struggle to take seriously the ‘artist’ side of my career, but as I mentioned above, that is something that I have given a great deal of thought to during the pandemic, while gigs were not happening. I plan to get in the studio with my Hammond organ quartet fairly soon, as I have a ton of music written that needs to be recorded. I play guitar with saxophonist Jon Shenoy’s ‘Draw by Four’ and we’ve put out a couple of nice albums, which are available online. I also co-run a 6 piece fusion band called ‘Perpetual Motion Machine’ with whom I recorded an album, Ignition, a couple of years ago. That band has an unusual line up – 2 guitars, 2 saxes, bass and drums, and we play all original music. I’m really proud of that album, although the financial realities of trying to tour a 6 piece band in the UK’s jazz scene means we’re on a bit of a hiatus at the moment. You can also hear me on singer songwriter Nina Clark’s recent album ‘Alpha,’ which is a project I’m really thrilled to be a part of. I think she writes beautiful music. 

JGL: There seems to be a lot more cats playing 7 and even 8 string Guitar these days and you even have a book of 7-string arrangements. Have you thought of playing the 7 string guitar exclusively and if so, how has that worked out for ya? If not, is this something you may explore in the future?

SD: 7 string is hard! REALLY HARD! I played it almost exclusively for about 4 years, mostly when I had the aforementioned ship solo gig. When I came back to playing in the UK, I found myself getting really confused when moving between 6 and 7 string guitars, and I found myself second guessing my playing a great deal, so I stopped. I do miss it, its such a beautiful sound, but I don’t think it’s for me. That said, if anyone has a 7 string they don’t want, I’ll gladly take it off their hands! 

JGL: You have probably been asked this question a lot…but…do you find that there is a difference between American audiences and European audiences in response to both the music and the players involved?

SD: I’ve not played in America, so can’t really answer that question directly. There’s definitely regional differences here in the UK between areas that are comfortable showing enthusiasm, and those that aren’t. I’d better not name them so I still get booked though ha. I’ve played quite a bit in Europe and love the audiences over there – just before the Covid lock-down in the UK I did a run of gigs in Spain with a great bassist, Garry Jackson, and the audiences were amazing – respectful, enthusiastic and responsive. I’ve always found that whenever I play in Europe, there is such respect for the arts in a way that I think is becoming harder to find in the UK. 

JGL: Are there any “across the pond” Jazz Guitarists that we should be checking out?

SD: So many! There’s a really healthy crop of jazz guitarists in the UK at the moment, with lots of individual voices. Jim Mullen is a wonderful player who has been at the top of the pile of UK guitarists for decades. I know you recently spoke with Colin Oxley, he’s a beautiful player as well. There’s a lot of great guitarists plying their trade around the UK who readers should have a listen to. Guys like Simon King, Jamie Taylor and Nik Svarc, Tam deVilliers I’ve known and worked with for many years, since our time at Leeds, and they all play to a ridiculously high level. London has such a healthy and creative scene – there’s so many great guitarists there as well, Ant Law is a monster, and Nigel Price swings like crazy!

JGL: You have obviously found your stride in this business and have done quite well and I assume will continue to do so. How difficult did you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player when you were coming up? Any “tips or tricks” you can lay on those interested in doing the same? 

SD: I’ve always favoured pragmatism over artistic struggle! I’ve always made sure my rent and bills were covered by a nice teaching job, so I could pick and choose the gigs that I take – I’m not one for playing in a wedding band or whatever. The sad reality is that most jazz gigs don’t pay very well, and those that do are often only available once a year, or even less. So I’d say look for ways related to what you love that can pay the bills, and make jazz the enjoyable, creative, side of your musical life.

JGL: In a similar vein – and as a creative – what does success mean to you?

SD: I’ve never had delusions of grandeur as a musician, although perhaps I should push myself a bit more. If I have a good run of gigs with musicians I love working with, playing creative music, then I’m happy. If that involves travel, then even better. 

JGL: How do you handle the other side of being a working musician – the business side? What is the hardest part of running your own career and conversely, what is the best thing? Do you find the business side of being a Jazz musician something that should be taught in music schools or should the playing be left to the player and the business side of things be left to managers and agents?

SD: The scene here in the UK is incredibly DIY, especially out of London where it’s mostly back rooms of pubs or function rooms in hotels, run by just a couple of committed people on a totally profit free basis. The only way to crack it is to be on the scene. You’ll find it much easier to get a gig at a venue if you’ve played there as a sideman with someone else’s band. Some of these venues book 1 or even 2 years in advance, so having a personal contact with the promoter is the best way forward. That takes time, years in fact, and the financial reality doesn’t often tally with the artistic side of things, which is why so many of us fit creative gigs around teaching or theatre work. I think the business side of things is taught at music schools much more so than it was when I was a student, but there is a definite emphasis on generating online interest rather than grassroots touring advice. The online world is amazing of course, and has led me to discover all sorts of incredible music and musicians from all over the world, but for me, playing live is the only thing that really counts. Everything else is a bonus. My advice is always the same – you’ll get the gig because of your musicianship and reputation of course, but you’ll keep it because of your professionalism. Learning the music, being on time, a good hang, being reliable, etc etc. Nobody wants to tour with a tortured genius, it’s exhausting! 

JGL: LOL! 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? 

SD: In all honesty it’s a daily struggle, but talking to other musicians about how they feel about their own playing helps. I tend to feel that I’m surrounded by amazing musicians, who play these burning solos, and then when it’s my turn, the same old stuff comes out. But then, when you talk to other musicians, they often feel the same (about their own playing I mean haha) If you’re playing with really killing players on a regular basis, that probably means you’re pretty killing yourself. Working on specific things that I don’t feel are working in my playing of course helps, and having the strength in rehearsal to say ‘I’m not making this sound good now, but I’ll shed it before the next play’ helps, rather than tying yourself in knots, musically and mentally! Also, never, ever say ‘I’m terrible’ or ‘sorry I play so badly,’ especially on a gig! I’ve heard that so many times from good players. I don’t think you should be looking to other musicians to make you feel better about your insecurities – rather I think that dialogue with players you respect about what they are working on and why is much more healthy. 

JGL: Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career?

SD: Definitely – As much as I love music and will never stop playing, I have definitely flirted with the idea of working in a different way, but I have to say I can’t imagine starting again in an unrelated sector at this stage. 

JGL: What you’re not on the band-stand what do you like to do to unwind?

SD: I absolutely love to travel, and find it hard to sit still for too long. I’ve visited around 100 countries so far, and would love to visit a few more once things become easier, which I guess won’t be for a while. I cycle a great deal, and would like to disappear on my bike along the silk road for 6 months. If you need me for a gig and can’t get through, that’s where I hope I’ll be!

JGL: Do you have any other creative hobbies you like to pursue?

SD: I really got into photography while I was on tour and on the ships, to document the places that I visited. I love the Magnum style of black and white reportage, and really enjoy trying to copy that style. That said, I’d imagine that being a photographer is one of very few professions that is even less reliable than being a jazz musician in terms of income, so I’m happy to keep that as a hobby! 

JGL: What does the future hold for Sam Dunn?

SD: I feel incredibly lucky to have done the things I’ve done, and while the UK and beyond adjusts to the world post Covid, I hope I can continue to play with great musicians in front of focused, attentive audiences. I’m definitely going to push myself more as an artist, while maintaining a balance between performing and teaching. I’d like to get over to Europe some more, and also have to make a pilgrimage to visit the holy jazz sites of New York and New Orleans, two cities that I am yet to visit. I’m currently building resources and content for my website, which will have a ton of arrangements and lessons available, but that’s still a little ways off. I’ve also been toying with the idea of doing a PhD in something jazz related, but again, that feels a little way off from where things are at the moment. 

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

SD: Thanks for asking me Lyle, its been a pleasure and I hope to meet you in person someday soon! 

JGL: Likewise Sam 🙂

Please consider spreading the word about Sam 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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