Something else I might suggest, although it’s not really a component, is to keep an open mind and listen to everything that you can, because there are so many ways of playing guitar. And don’t listen only to guitar, but listen to all the instruments, including drums. That way we start hearing how the language is spoken and begin to be able to speak it ourselves. It’s the same way a person learns any language, by listening and imitating.Greg Skaff
I’ve known of Greg Skaff, the wonderful NYC Jazz Guitarist, for many years but mainly on the periphery of my Jazz Guitar excursions. This all changed when I heard a few tracks from his recent Polaris CD featruring the dynamic rhythm team of Bassist Ron Carter and Drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath. I decided to reach out to Greg for two reasons. One was to feature his gorgeous ’59 Gibson ES-330 which he was gracious enough to share with us all (link below) and two, was to feature him in a full length JGL interview, which he was also gracious to spend the time responding to my bunch of questions.
In the interview below, Greg shares with us his early years, his associations with Jazz Greats like Stanley Turrentine and the like, his thoughts on playing and much more. It is an insightful and interesting read and I hope you enjoy Greg’s thoughts 🙂
As a one-man operation, if you would like to support all the work I do on Jazz Guitar Life, please consider buying me a coffee or two. Your support helps me to focus on Jazz Guitar Life so that I can continue to bring you great interviews, reviews, podcasts and other related Jazz Guitar content. Thank you and your patronage is greatly appreciated regardless if you buy me a coffee or not 🙂 Or if you prefer PayPal – Lyle Robinson
JGL: Thank you Greg 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?
GS: Thanks for asking me to do this interview, Lyle. I’m 65 years old.
JGL: And what geographical area do you reside in?
GS: I live in El Barrio, also known as East Harlem, in the borough of Manhattan, in New York City.
JGL: For those who may not know you, could you give us an elevator pitch of who Greg Skaff is and then we’ll get into more detail as this interview unfolds.
GS: I’m a NYC-based guitarist, composer, and educator with six albums as a leader who has worked and recorded with Bobby Watson, Stanley Turrentine, David Hazeltine, Ron Carter, and others.
JGL: Nice company you keep! 🙂 How did you find your way specifically to the Guitar?
GS: My parents weren’t musicians but there was always music around the house from the radio and records that they and my siblings would buy. Guitar was a popular instrument when I was young, and my parents bought me a Harmony Bobcat guitar one Christmas and I took to it right away, played it for maybe a year before getting a Fender Mustang, which I played in my first band.
JGL: Very cool. Tell me Greg, 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?
GS: I started playing guitar when I was about 16 years old when a couple of friends and I got instruments and decided to form a band and play the songs that were on the radio, mostly rock and soul music.
JGL: Nice and a good way to start the ball rolling. When coming up as a young player, did you attend a formal educational institution or are you self taught?
GS: I’m primarily self-taught, an autodidact. I became interested in jazz a couple of years after I started playing guitar. I wanted to attend Berklee School of Music, but my parents didn’t have the means for that, as we were a large family. I took lessons briefly with guitarist Jerry Hahn in my hometown of Wichita, KS, but I mostly learned from studying books and the recordings I liked, trying to play along and transcribing.
After a while I noticed that all that listening and transcribing solos was developing my ear as well as my musical vocabulary. I also bought books by Joe Pass and others. I also became interested in classical guitar, so I bought a nylon string guitar and I would buy sheet music of classical guitar pieces and that’s how I learned to read music. It wasn’t until about twenty years ago that I studied with a teacher. I studied classical guitar with Michael Lorimer from 2003-2009. That was a very rewarding experience and I feel like it broadened my understanding of music as well as the history of the guitar itself and what has been done with it. More recently I’ve studied with the Peruvian classical guitarist Jorge Caballero.
JGL: Wow! Those sound like awesome experiences. More specifically, and apart from the cats you just mentioned, was there one – or more – particular moments that opened the flood gates, so to speak, as you went about learning this music?
GS: When you say “this music” I assume you mean jazz...
JGL: I do.
GS: The rock band I was in as a teenager would hang out at the organist’s house (We had an honest to goodness B3 player in our band) and his father had a record collection of jazz. That’s where I first heard bebop and other jazz. I remember listening to Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles, Elvin Jones, Sam Rivers, Eric Dolphy, George Shearing, Chick Corea, etc.
One other pivotal experience for me was knowing organist/vocalist Mike Finnigan, who was based at the time in my hometown and led a band there. Mike had been to NYC and had recorded with Jimi Hendrix, and he urged me to check out Jimi Hendrix, as well as George Benson and others.
JGL: Sounds like you had some wonderful guidance and experiences along the way in your early development which, more importantly, you took to heart. Had you always wanted to be a working musician or did you come to your current standing in the Jazz World through a variety of circuitous paths?
GS: I always wanted to be a working musician and I pretty much always have been that in one way or another. When I was nineteen I moved to San Francisco and worked for a year with a band at a strip club. I played in and toured with different rock and blues and R & B bands along the way. I also had various other day jobs; I worked in a QuikTrip convenience store while I lived in San Francisco. Once I moved to New York City I had a few day jobs as well, such as delivering food for a restaurant on a bike. But during that same time I was also working the New York clubs playing music and doing some traveling with a couple of jazz groups such as tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, organist Jimmy McGriff, and a few others.
JGL: Once again…nice company you keep…lol 🙂 Before we get into those days, who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years?
GS: In the beginning there was George Benson, Pat Martino, Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel, Jim Hall, Herb Ellis, Lenny Breau, Joe Pass, Grant Green, Jimmy Raney, Tal Farlow, John Abercrombie, Ralph Towner, Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin, etc. However, I was also listening to pianists like Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Chick, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner, and horn players like Wayne Shorter, Coltrane, Bird, and Lester Young. I had notebooks full of transcriptions by nearly everyone I just mentioned. I think I was listening to guitarists from the standpoint of the mechanics of the guitar, and how they translated the language from those other instruments to the fretboard. I’ll still listen to all those I just mentioned but I listen to all the modern players and, in general, a much broader range of music.
JGL: Who are you listening to today then (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
GS: I try to listen to and keep abreast of what’s going on today so I go out to listen to music in the clubs here in NYC. The other night I heard a fantastic set by Chris Potter and his great band, which included guitarist Adam Rogers. I heard Pepe Romero in concert recently. And last night I heard Valerie June at City Winery. At home right now, next to the turntable is an Andrés Segovia record, Keith Jarret’s album Belonging, Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel, Sonny Rollins’ The Bridge, Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle, Elvin Jones’ Live At The Lighthouse, Glenn Gould’s The 1955 Goldberg Variations, Tom Petty’s Wildflowers & All the Rest.
JGL: Nice! That’s a pretty eclectic bunch of albums. Before we move on Greg, can you share with us who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?
GS: There is no single guitarist I consider to be most influential to me. It’s just too hard to choose. I suppose that in the past I studied Wes Montgomery and Charlie Christian more than I have any other guitarists.
JGL: Ok, that works 🙂 Let’s shift a bit and talk a little about your playing. 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?
GS: When I first started playing jazz I would listen to recordings over and over and try to figure out what they were doing. It was slow going at first, but what changed that was learning scales and their modes and, as you put it, chord/scale relationships. That gave me the key to learning to speak the language, so to speak, and to hear how players used the scales to create lines and chords and melodies. And I would buy books on jazz and classical theory. The Slonimsky Thesaurus, George Russel’s Lydian Chromatic Concept, and others.
When I practice now it can be several things; I might look at how I’m coordinating my two hands, or isolate the left or right hand in order to see if that hand is playing efficiently, or playing ideas that I have and getting them so that I can play them fluidly, or practicing the songs for an upcoming gig. And yeah, I do play through tunes.
Today I was reading through a song by John Abercrombie called “Foolish Door” (I know, it’s a strange title) and “Blues A La Carte” by Wayne Shorter. Then I played through the heads of a couple of my own songs so I don’t forget them when it’s time to play them on a gig, lol. I’ve got this arrangement of “Green Chimneys” that I have to practice. It’s not actually my arrangement, but there’s this counterline to the melody and these two-note chords that Monk plays, and to play the head without them doesn’t have the right sound, so I use pick and fingers to play it all. The challenge, besides coordinating the parts and making the melody stand out, is to make it swing. I recently recorded it for an upcoming album.
JGL: Cool. I look forward to hearing it. So then, when improvising, are you thinking chord/scale relationships or is there something else going on?
GS: Maybe in the back of my mind I’m always thinking of the chord/scale relationship, but I think that once you know those things it’s a subconscious thought and you’re not thinking of it consciously. Otherwise, there would be too much to think about. It might also depend on how well I know the song I’m playing. When I’m learning it, I’m considering those chord/scale relationships. However, if I know the song fairly well, I might even play by ear. I’ll also listen to what the other players are doing to get ideas from them, rhythmic things and the like. It also depends on how difficult the song is and how many changes it has and how complicated those changes are.
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?
GS: It’s hard to choose just two, but I would say, assuming a person doesn’t already know them, to learn scales and their modes; the major scale, melodic minor scale, harmonic minor and major scales. It can seem like a steep learning curve, especially at first, but once a person understands scales they can decipher most of what musicians are doing. I would recommend that guitarists check out Segovia’s Diatonic Major and Minor Scales. It’s good for learning how to shift horizontally on the fingerboard, which I think is important so that we feel comfortable moving around on the neck when we have to, and not just staying in one position. The Chuck Wayne book Scales has some good ideas about that.
Another thing I would suggest is to work on coordinating the two hands. Because on guitar, one hand is fretting and the other hand is (usually) picking or plucking the string, and the two hands need to be synced up for economy of motion.
Something else I might suggest, although it’s not really a component, is to keep an open mind and listen to everything that you can, because there are so many ways of playing guitar. And don’t listen only to guitar, but listen to all the instruments, including drums. That way we start hearing how the language is spoken and begin to be able to speak it ourselves. It’s the same way a person learns any language, by listening and imitating. Another thing I would advise is to find a mentor or mentors, someone to study with and learn from. Because most of us need guidance of one kind or another. Also, do some transcribing, or at least get some books of transcriptions and learn some solos that you like.
JGL: Great advise Greg and thank you. Tell me, as a highly regarded member of the Jazz Guitar community, what are you most grateful for and on the other side of the coin, what irks you?
GS: I’m grateful for the experience and good fortune of working with some outstanding musicians who have taught me so much about music. It’s so inspiring. Every gig and recording session that I do is a learning experience and I’m thankful for every opportunity to play. It’s equally inspiring to be able to hear world class musicians live in the city where I live. As far as what irks me, I ride the NYC subway daily, so I’ve learned to get over things that irk me, and accept what I can’t change.
JGL: LOL…I hear ya! Now since you mention the NYC Subway system, if what I have read is correct, you originally hail from Kansas but are now based in New York City?
GS: Yes, I grew up in Wichita, an overgrown cowtown, but I’ve lived in New York City for about 35 years.
JGL: If not too personal, and if you don’t mind sharing, how did you find your way to NYC?
GS: It was a circuitous route. Before I moved to NYC I lived for a year in Rochester, NY, where I had a touring gig with a saxophonist who was based there named John “Spider” Martin. Besides Rochester, we played Buffalo, Cleveland, Hartford, CT, Newark, and other cities on the east coast. I loved it, but after a year I was ready to try my hand at the big city. Before I left Wichita I had met musicians who had come through there, organist Lonnie Smith for instance, who was responsible for me moving to Rochester and who encouraged me to come to New York. But I had few connections, and no job prospects. I was pretty naïve about what I would find and how I would make it. I didn’t have much money but I had a lot of determination, and my girlfriend at the time was determined to move to NYC as well. But honestly, if I had known then what I do now, what the chances of success are, I would never have moved here.
JGL: Wow! But if you had stayed in Kansas do you think you would have attained the relative measure of success you now enjoy?
GS: There’s no way I would have attained any measure of success if I had stayed in Kansas. There was simply nothing there, musically speaking.
JGL: So it was more like “NYC or bust”…lol?
GS: I set my sights on New York City because so many greats were based here, and after I made the move I knew I had made the right decision.
JGL: Speaking of greats, you played with sax legend Stanley Turrentine for five years in the guitar chair that had previously been sat on by many jazz guitar greats including Kenny Burrell, Dave Stryker, George Benson and Grant Green. How did this association come about and were you nervous…lol? Was it both recording and performing?
GS: It’s gonna sound strange, but I actually auditioned for Stanley Turrentine’s band, which is the kind of situation that probably doesn’t happen too often.
Shortly after I moved to NYC I heard that Stanley Turrentine was looking for a guitarist for his band, so I went to a club in Harlem called Small’s Paradise where he had an engagement. I figured out who his manger was and approached him and told him who I was and that I was interested in playing in Stan’s band. In those days I had little reservation about doing things like that because I was young and dumb and hungry. Also, I was familiar with Stan’s legacy and his music because we used to listen to all of his CTI and Elektra recordings back in Wichita. Stan’s manager, Richard Carpenter, told me that there was going to be auditions for the guitar spot and he gave me the information.
On the appointed day and time I went there and waited my turn and played and afterwards he told me to be at Carnegie Hall the next day for a concert there.
JGL: Wow!! That was fast! 🙂
GS: That was my first gig with Stan, at Carnegie Hall, the day after I auditioned. I never recorded with Stan but we toured incessantly for the five years I was steady in the band. It was a learning experience and lots of fun and good music. I really used to love doubling the melody with Stan on some of the songs and trying to match his phrasing and timing. I also learned a lot by being around Stan on a day-to-day basis. And I met a lot of musicians during that time who would come to his shows; Jimmy Smith, George Benson, Max Roach, Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Rollins, and a lot of others.
JGL: If I read correctly, you have also performed or recorded with jazz greats such as Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Watson, Victor Lewis and David “Fathead” Newman to name but a few. Can you talk a little about how these associations came to be and – given the “competition” – what specifically did you bring to the table that was uniquely your own?
GS: I suppose what I bring to the table is my particular musical personality, which every musician has. I’d like to hope that I was chosen because of that. But I think there was also a degree of serendipity, because each of those associations came about somewhat by chance. I met Bobby Watson at jam sessions around the city and we both lived in the same apartment complex, Manhattan Plaza. He told me he was thinking of adding guitar to his band and asked whether I would be interested.
When I joined Bobby’s band Victor Lewis was the drummer, so that’s I met Victor.
I met Freddie Hubbard on a few occasions when he and Stanley Turrentine shared the bill. In 1998 I was approached at a gig by a person who was managing Freddie and he asked for my number because he said Freddie had an upcoming gig and he needed a guitarist. I didn’t think much of it because at that time Freddie Hubbard didn’t use guitar in his band, but I gave him my number and I wound up working with Freddie for a week at the now defunct Jazz Standard. That was so much fun! Once, when I was in LA, I called Freddie up and he invited me to his house and I had a fantastic visit with him, talking and listening to records.
David “Fathead” Newman was a person I was so much in awe of that I couldn’t imagine working with him but I became acquainted with his wife Karen when she worked at the Blue Note and I would be working there periodically with Turrentine.
Around 2000 I was working at a funky blues club called Dan Lynch’s, a real dive, and Karen brought David there to hear me. I was so starstruck with “Fathead” that I could barely speak.
On a side note, when I was a boy, even before I played guitar, my father took me to a Ray Charles concert and I’ve always wondered if David was in the band I heard. I do remember that Billy Preston was featured that night. But I digress.
Anyway, when Karen and David Newman came to the gig I was doing at Dan Lynch’s, I remember thinking, “What would “Fathead” want with me?” And I was embarrassed for them to see me playing in such a lowdown venue. But a couple weeks later Karen Newman called me about doing a date with David. She had actually emailed me the day before and she was annoyed that I didn’t respond to the email. That’s how my relationship with David began. He turned out to be a really fun person to work with, very chill, very down to earth. I remember on one gig when we took a break he said to me, “You sound good Skaff! Whaddya been takin’?” He knew how to put a person at ease.
JGL: Wow…awesome memories Greg and thanks so much for sharing. Of course, as we are talking about Jazz Heavies, your most recent trio album release Polaris features legacy players Ron Carter on Bass and Albert “Tootie” Heath on Drums. Wow!! That is a rhythm section dream team if there ever was one! How did this all come about and where do you go from there…lol? Were there any hiccups along the way?
GS: Yes, there were a couple of hiccups along the way. For one, there was something called a pandemic that reared its head when we were scheduled to do the second of the two recording dates. But to give some background, for several years I worked with Ron Carter in his big band. Seated next to Ron and hearing him up close, I could almost forget to play sometimes.
During that time, I started thinking about doing a record with him, but I didn’t ask him until I had all the plans together for the date. I know he’s a very organized person, so I made sure that I would be organized. After I had Ron on board I had to get a drummer for the date and I was having a hard time deciding who to ask until one night I went to Smoke jazz club and “Tootie” Heath was playing with a group. I was just knocked out and I knew right away that I wanted to have him on the date. He had the right combination of interaction and swing and attitude. I didn’t know “Tootie” and he was busy the entire night so I didn’t speak with him. But as I was leaving the club I noticed him standing alone outside so I approached him and sounded him on doing a record. I think his exact reply was, “Yeah but I’m tired and I wanna go home.” So that was that and I figured I better think about getting someone else. I considered several drummers but I couldn’t forget how “Tootie” played that night. I didn’t know how to contact him as he doesn’t live in New York, so I called his brother Jimmy, who was still alive at the time, and I asked him if he knew whether “Tootie” might be interested in recording with me. Jimmy encouraged me to call “Tootie” and gave me his contact info.
When I called “Tootie” and told him my proposal for the recording he just listened. I got his attention when I told him that Ron would be playing bass and that’s when he committed. We did two three-hour sessions on two different dates. The second of the two dates was planned for Monday, March 16, 2020, the day that New York City went into lockdown because of the pandemic. I was planning on cancelling the session but the studio said they were open and expecting us. I wasn’t sure what to do so I called both Ron and “Tootie” and asked what they wanted to do. They both wanted to go ahead, so we did the second session that day in spite of the city being in lockdown. They were both easy to work with, consummate sidemen, offering suggestions only when they thought it was necessary, otherwise at my disposal.
JGL: Thanks for the background Greg…sounds like it was meant to be. Given the amount of great talent you have already played with, is there anyone – alive or dead – who you’d love to play and/or record with and why?
GS: Gosh, there are so many living and deceased musicians that I would like to play with, but the first one that come to mind is Elvin Jones. I used to go hear his band at the Village Vanguard and Elvin is probably my favorite drummer of all time. I also would like to work with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette because one of my favorite guitar trios is the Gateway Trio with those two and John Abercrombie. I would also have liked to play with Charlie Haden, Milt Hinton, Lee Konitz, as well as a host of others currently on the scene here in NYC. And I certainly hope to play and/or record with Ron Carter and “Tootie” Heath again!
JGL: Amen to THAT brother! Now, given that you have recorded and performed in a variety of musical situations, is there one that you prefer over the other and is there a particular situation you have yet to play in but would like to (ie: trio, quartet, duo, solo, etc.)?
GS: I don’t have a preference, but in recent years I’ve found trio format with bass and drums to work well for what I’ve been writing and the direction in which my playing is going. The Villa-Lobos Preludes and Etudes and other classical guitar pieces really opened my eyes to certain inherent aspects of the guitar; voicings, open strings, right hand patterns, etc., and made me want to use some of those aspects in my playing and writing, so what I’m doing seems to work best for me in the context of a guitar trio. I also like playing with organ. I’ve done three records with three different organists. But in the guitar, bass, drums trio format there’s a certain freedom and openness that I don’t get when I play with an organist.
As for a particular situation I have yet to play in but would like to, I have an upcoming gig with guitarist Ed Cherry and his trio. So, two guitars, bass, and drums. I don’t believe I’ve done anything in that setting before and I’m really looking forward to it!
JGL: I’m sure it will sound great (this duo performance has already happened)! In a similar vein, is there a particular style of music that touches your heart more than others?
GS: My listening tastes are pretty eclectic, but I probably listen to classical guitar more than anything besides jazz. So many colors, textures, a rich tradition. It’s fascinating to hear how a guitarist can bring out two separate voices in a piece of music with their hand technique. I’m not adverse to listening to pop music though. I remember once I was listening to a Lady Gaga song on my phone and a friend of mine who plays guitar happened to see me and came over to say “Hi.” When he heard what was playing he looked puzzled and said, “Why are you listening to that?” I couldn’t think of what to say, so I just shrugged and said, “Cuz I like it.”
JGL: LOL…’Nuff said! 🙂 Given your busy schedule as a player, do you still have the time to 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?
GS: I’m currently teaching at the 92nd Street Y here in New York City. I haven’t taught privately for a few years now only because I’m pretty involved there and I don’t have time to teach privately. My students there are all different levels and styles, but most are intermediate level.
JGL: Let’s switch gears a little. Recently Jazz Guitar Life featured your beautiful 1959 Gibson ES-330 as part of our Jazz Guitar Beauty series. Thank you for sharing her with us and I am wondering, what other guitars do you have on hand? Is there a special “go-to” guitar that you instinctively grab for?
GS: My go-to is a 2005 Gibson Byrdland. The label inside is signed by luthier James W. Hutchins, who was with Gibson for 45 years. I tend to use that guitar on recordings and for my own trio gigs. However, it’s not good if the band is playing loud so I’ll often bring the ’59 ES-330. The ES-330 is a hollow archtop, but it’s not as prone to feedback as the bigger hollow bodies, and the P-90 pickups sound fantastic. The Byrdland and the ES-330 cover most of the bases for me. I also have an ES-335 and a Strat that I might use on occasion, and a nylon string by Brazilian luthier Sergio Abreu.
JGL: Nice!! Still on the topic of gear, what do you use live in the way of guitars, amps and – if any – processing? Is there a guitar and/or amp that you would love to own but for whatever reason aren’t able to?
GS: I prefer a good tube amp. I have a brown ’62 Fender Deluxe that really seems to get along with my guitars. If I need a little more wattage I’ll bring a Fender Vibrolux Reverb which has about 35 watts. For recording I’ll use the brown Deluxe or a Bartel Sugarland, which is a 12-watt tube amp. As for processing, on most jazz gigs I don’t use any effects except some reverb, and that’s from the amp since I don’t have a reverb pedal. I do have a slew of pedals, overdrives, fuzz, modulation, delay. I just got a Neo Instruments micro Vent 16, which is modeled on the Fender Vibratone, which was a Leslie speaker for guitarists that was made in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s. it’s a great sound and I want to use it but I’m not sure where or when. Maybe never, lol.
I try not to go down the equipment rabbit hole because it can never end. I see a lot of beautiful well-made instruments, works of art really, that I’d like to get my hands on, but I’ve decided that another guitar or amp is not the answer, at least not for me. For me the answer is to focus on what I’m playing and finding my voice on the guitars that I have. I know I’m fortunate to have good instruments so I want to use the ones that I have to their, as well as my own, full potential.
JGL: I so agree! Like many players of your generation, you seem to have an affinity for the “crunch”, as I’ve heard you blow with a very saturated distorted tone combining both Rock and Jazz elements along the way. When you were coming up as a jazz guitarist, was this something that you had to reconcile with as a way to be comfortable with who you were as a player?
GS: A little bit, yes. Because the traditional jazz guitar tone was clean and somewhat dark, e.g. Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, etc. But I would also hear the guitarists in the fusion bands, i.e., Miles’ electric bands, Chick, Mahavishnu, and I had records like Tony Williams’ Believe It with Alan Holdsworth, and Billy Cobham’s Spectrum. It didn’t seem so radical to use overdrive, but it would depend on the context or the style of the song whether that sound was appropriate and in a lot of the playing situations I was in a clean sound worked best. For me that’s the challenge of using effects on guitar, to enhance whatever else is going on instead of just using effects for their own sake. My second to last album, Soulmation, has some overdriven guitar sounds and I think they work really well for the songs.
JGL: I would tend to agree having listened to it a while back. Speaking of songs, you tend to write a lot of original tunes. What is the process when composing your own tunes? Do you sit down with your guitar and come up with ideas or is it more cerebral? In the same vein, do you compose on the spot or do you need inspiration of some kind?
GS: I use a combination of both approaches, the ‘sit down with a guitar’ approach and the cerebral approach. Lots of times I start with an idea that I have in my head and find it and try to work it. Or I might happen upon a rhythmic idea or a phrase that catches my ear. I don’t come up with something I like every time I pick up a guitar, but a lot of times if you just goof around long enough you’ll come up with something you like. Then you have to develop that idea, which is what takes time. Sometimes you might get a good idea at an unexpected time, like when you’re maybe cooking or falling asleep or something, and you find yourself thinking of an idea that you like. Or you might happen upon a rhythmic idea or a phrase that catches your ear.
Years ago, I wrote a song called “Baku” that’s written over the form of the Jerome Kern song “Yesterdays.” So that’s a contrafact, and it was relatively easy to write because I already knew the form and the changes. But others require a lot more thought and work because the form and other aspects aren’t a given. I have a song I’m just finishing, at least I think it’s finished, maybe not. It’s called “Peace Place.” It started with a progression of a few chords, an idea I got couple of months ago. I couldn’t even tell what key it was in for a long time. It had to ruminate for a while and I had to keep finding ideas to add to it that worked with it. Also, I’m not sure yet whether to play it in 6/4 or 5/4. I’ll have to keep working on that until it seems natural and makes sense. I’ll also have to write it out and see what the form is, because I haven’t done that yet. I’ve just been playing it through until it seems complete.
As for your other question, I can’t usually compose on the spot. I’m pretty sure the old show composers, Kern, Rodgers & Hart, etc., could compose on the spot. They probably had to. I remember Bobby Watson telling me he worked well writing under pressure, but I don’t work that way. I have to feel inspired, at least initially. But to paraphrase an old saying, after the initial inspiration comes the perspiration. For me, inspiration is only a small part of it.
JGL: Indeed it is! This kind of leads me into my ext question…and we’re almost done Greg. 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?
GS: I get nervous before shows, and I think that stems from insecurity about my playing. The longer I go without doing a gig makes my doubts increase. I start wondering, “Can I still play?” The nervousness and doubt usually diminish when we start playing.
JGL: It’s like riding a bike to borrow a well-used analogy. These days though, there are so many competing areas of the music biz which can also mess with our insecurities. That being said, do you find the business side of being a jazz 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?
GS: I don’t have a manager or agent. I do think they help a lot. For one, I think that people that book clubs and concerts would usually rather speak to an artist’s agent. And it’s a job that takes a lot of time. Some artists do it all themselves and that’s what I do, but I don’t spend much time on booking gigs. I just don’t have the time to spend doing that.
JGL: Not many of us do Greg…which may or may not be a good thing depending on what is taking up one’s time! As we begin to wrap up this interview, do you have any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar?
GS: Do it because you love it, not for the money. I mean, it is possible to have a career playing jazz guitar, but you probably won’t strike it rich, at least not right away. The reward is the sense of fulfillment that playing music gives. And playing in a band develops social skills. Also, don’t get discouraged if progress is slow and if gigs don’t come right away. Have patience with yourself if things aren’t progressing as you had hoped that they would.
JGL: Well said Greg. 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?
GS: I would have been a paleontologist. Digging for fossils and bones is not as romantic as it sounds when you read about it, but it’s interesting to hear about new discoveries made that redefine the history of life on our planet, and that has always interested me.
JGL: Cool other career choice indeed! Now, if you had to do one thing over again, what would it be and why?
GS: I would talk less and listen more. If I had done that, I would have learned more, and learned what I know now a lot sooner. A lot can be learned by observation.
JGL: I couldn’t agree more! As we wrap this up, and if you don’t mind sharing, what is one thing that people would be surprised to find out about you?
GS: That I’m an avid fisherman. I fished when I was growing up. When the pandemic came, I got more into it. I couldn’t stand being cooped up so me and a friend, who is an expert fisherman, would drive up to the Woodstock area and fish. We still do that.
JGL: Nice!! I love it! One last question…what does the future hold for Greg Skaff?
GS: I’m planning to release a new record later this year. My working trio of bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Jonathan Barber have seven tracks finished and I’m psyched about it. I want to record a couple more songs, including “Peace Place,” the song I mentioned earlier.
JGL: Nice! Once the new album is released lemme know and I’ll spread the word around 🙂 Thank you Greg for taking the time to chat with Jazz Guitar Life. All the best in all that you do!
GS: Thanks for asking these thoughtful questions, Lyle.
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