“I went to the University of Miami for a year and Queens College for a couple of years but I never graduated from anywhere. I haven’t really taken a guitar lesson since the age of about 20, but I’m starting to think I’m overdue…”Ben Monder
Ben Monder is a New York based Jazz Guitar player who has played on over 200 albums as a sideman with leaders like Lee Konitz, Toots Thielmans, Paul Motian, Maria Schneider and the late David Bowie. In this interview Ben shares with us his early years on the instrument, his influences, his thoughts on chords and improvisation and what it is like being a working musician. A very insightful, entertaining and often humorous read. Enjoy!
Interview by Lyle Robinson May 2017
JGL: Thank you Ben 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?
JGL: What geographical area do you reside in?
BM: I live in Brooklyn, NY.
JGL: For those who may not know you, could you give us an elevator pitch of who is Ben Monder and then we’ll get into more detail as this interview unfolds.
BM: I was born in and grew up in the NY area. I try to be a guitarist that can fit into a variety of professional situations, as I enjoy playing and have always listened to many different styles of music. My main focus however is jazz improvisation. I also write music that derives from my many influences as a listener, but strives to present something of a unified voice.
That should get us to the 5th floor or so.
JGL: LOL! 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? In essence, how did you find your way to this particular music and instrument?
BM: I started on violin at the age of about 9, trying to emulate my father who was an amateur yet dedicated violinist. I accidentally discovered a guitar in a closet of our house at the age of 11, and realized it was much more fun and also much less painful to play. It was also less painful for those around me to listen to. So I eventually made the switch. At first I went through the Alfred Guitar Method books and then started learning the rock songs I liked off the radio. I had a band in high school that consisted of two guitars and drums because there were no bass players. I think we did one gig for which we were paid in beer. I came into jazz only later, when I started taking guitar lessons and my teacher happened to be a jazz guitarist. This was John Stowell by the way, in his last year in New York before he moved to Portland, OR.
JGL: What’s your background re: music education? Self-taught? Academic institution?
BM: Apart from John, I had a couple of other teachers, most notably Chuck Wayne, who was really fantastic. I still use many of his methods in my teaching today. I went to the University of Miami for a year and Queens College for a couple of years but I never graduated from anywhere. I haven’t really taken a guitar lesson since the age of about 20, but I’m starting to think I’m overdue… However, I do feel that once you have the basics down, you might be better off devising your own study plan in accordance with your artistic aspirations. There is so much information out there, you just need to pursue what resonates with you, organize it, and commit to it.
JGL: Did you know early on that music was something you wanted to do as a career choice and if so, what were some of the things you did to make this choice work for you? Or…did you just sort of fall into it as a career?
BM: I had an inkling about halfway through high school that I would try to attempt music as a career. Mainly because I was becoming obsessed with it and couldn’t think of anything else that held as much interest, or that I was even any good at. As far as making it work for me, fear was an effective motivator. I just figured if I worked as hard as I possibly could something might come of it. Also, I was fortunate in that I could find commercial work early on (e.g. wedding bands, top 40, etc.) so I could at least make a living playing the guitar, which was more than enough to hope for at the time.
JGL: In all that I’ve read about you, you are – for the most part – referred to as a Jazz Guitar Player. Is this a valid “label” or is it somewhat misleading? I guess the question is, do you consider yourself a Jazz Guitar Player, or is there more to it?
BM: Not misleading at all. Jazz has taken on so many influences that the label “jazz guitarist” can mean a lot of things, and I think people understand that. Plus I think everything I do comes out of the basis of jazz improvisation. That said, there are particular influences that inform my music, foremost among them rock and contemporary classical. I think that can be said for a lot of us at this point though.
JGL: Do you give private lessons and if so, how does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?
BM: I do teach privately, but don’t have time to do a lot of it. Sometimes people contact me trough my website, and if it’s possible we schedule something. Skype has worked on many occasions. I’m happy teaching any level – what is important to me is if the student is receptive and motivated, and if there is a good connection between us.
JGL: Your 1982 Ibanez AS-50 has been a constant companion for over two decades. What was your first guitar and what attracted you to the AS-50.
BM: My first guitar was the aforementioned nylon string acoustic that belonged to my mom. Eventually, somebody sat on it and that was the end of that. My first electric was a Fender Mustang, and then I went through a few others (ES-175, L-4 etc.) before I saw an ad for the Ibanez on a Queens College bulletin board. I liked the look of it and imagined I could get the sound I was looking for out of it. This did not happen immediately, but through constant playing I got closer. To this day I haven’t played a guitar I like better. By the way, it’s been more than three decades.
JGL: As an aside to the above question, has Ibanez – or any other guitar maker for that matter – offered you your own signature model like Scofield or Metheny have? And is that something you would embrace?
BM: No offer like that, and I do not anticipate that happening, but I did do a video for Ibanez promoting their Artstar series, which is an excellent guitar.
JGL: Much like Bill Frisell, your use of out-board gear seems to be an integral part of the composition process as much as the harmonic and melodic content involved. Where does that come from and what gear are you using to convey your musical message?
BM: I wouldn’t say pedals are part of the composition process, save for the occasional distortion or super long reverb. I’ve expanded my pedal collection very slowly, but my core sound these days is a Lexicon LXP-1, Carbon Copy analog delay, a couple of Walrus Audio pedals, a RAT, etc.
As much textural variety as there is in a guitar already, electronics can effectively broaden the sonic palette and allow me to get to places that would be otherwise unexplored. Sometimes I feel I’d like to emulate a larger group, like a string orchestra or something, and the right pedals can help me get closer.
JGL: Who were your influences on guitar – Jazz or otherwise – 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)?
BM: I think I’ve taken a similar trajectory as a lot of my contemporaries. Early influences were Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass (especially the Virtuoso records), Barney Kessel, Pat Martino, and then Jim Hall, who remains probably my biggest inspiration. Later John Scofield and Bill Frisell were hugely important to me, as were Ralph Towner and Egberto Gismonte. I probably tried to sound like them, but for me it was mainly that I just loved their music so much, as guitarists and composers. I don’t listen to a ton of guitar music these days, but some newer players I find inspiring are Julian Lage, Tim Miller, Nir Felder. Lionel Loueke and Jeff Miles. Among many others!
A couple of composers I’m listening to at the moment are George Friedrich Haas, Bernard Parmegiani, and Luigi Nono. I should also mention Steve Lehman’s new record Sélébéyone. I’ve acquired that recently, and it’s just fantastic.
JGL: In the same vein, who has been most influential in your life musically and why?
BM: I had a teacher (not guitar) named Irwin Stahl who instilled important values in me at an early age. He stressed the value of improvising thematically and economically. He didn’t tolerate a lot of extra information, or things played with the intent to impress, which he called “note spinning”. I also mentioned Chuck Wayne earlier, who couldn’t have been a better guitar teacher for someone just getting his head around the nuts and bolts of jazz improvisation.
JGL: Is there anyone – alive or dead – who you’d love to play and/or record with and why?
BM: I keep thinking I need to try and hire Jack DeJohnette for something but I’m not sure what yet. I had the good fortune to play with him once at an informal jam session a few years years ago, and that was pretty exciting. Really felt amazing.
I’m going to let the dead rest in peace.
JGL: I’ve heard “rumors” on more than a few occasions that you – in your early days – took to memorizing Ted Greene’s Chord Chemistry book in its entirety. First off, is this true and secondly, what was your practice routine like when you were beginning and what is it like now? Are there specific areas that you find need more work than others?
BM: That’s not entirely true, but I did try to learn as many of the voicings in the section where he lists 2-3 dozen per chord type as possible. This is before I had any concept of organizing them in any way. My practice routine at first was just dealing with the basics and tying to digest them as thoroughly as I could. Triads, 7th chords, arpeggios, etc. I’m still finding ways to expand on these basic materials. The Mick Goodrick Voice Leading Almanacs are a great resource for this, taking pretty much every diatonic three and four note structure and taking them through every possible cycle. I also work on voice leading between intervallic based structures that are not cycle based.
I still practice my picking technique, which I find needs the most work. I try to concentrate on playing slow, getting a good sound, and relaxing.
JGL: How do you approach composition? Do you write with the guitar in hand, on piano, or either/neither?
BM: I usually write on the guitar, although I get many ideas away from any instrument and then try to flesh them out on guitar or piano.
I don’t have any kind of consistent method for writing, but try to commit to and develop whatever initial idea I have for a given piece, whether the idea be a melodic fragment, a rhythmic cycle, a harmonic progression, or whatever. This often leads me down paths I have never encountered or studied before.
JGL: When improvising, are you digging into the usual chord/scale relationship model or are you approaching it from a different perspective?
BM: If I’m playing over a chord structure then yes, for the most part, although part of being free harmonically is to occasionally superimpose your own structures over the existing ones. This could be in the form of a “synthetic” scale or a progression or cycle that takes you out of the key and brings you back.
If I’m improvising freely I try to be more responsive to whatever is happening at any moment. Sometimes this involves favoring elements such as texture and timbre over harmonic concerns, sometimes it’s avoiding tonality altogether, and sometimes it’s committing very specifically to a tonality. But in all cases listening with total immersion is the most important thing, I think.
JGL: What would you advise students of Jazz Guitar to work on if you could only choose two components?
BM: Rhythm and voice leading.
JGL: You have played on over 200 albums as a sideman, not to mention your own body of work, which I believe comes to nine albums at the moment. What is it that others are looking for when they hire Ben Monder?
BM: I honestly have no idea.
JGL: Similarly, how do you approach playing other people’s music? Do you find playing other people’s music limiting or freeing?
BM: Obviously it depends on the artist, but I try not to get myself involved in things that feel stifling. It’s always nice to feel I have some creative input, but sometimes people are just looking for me to play a very specific part. If I like the music, then that’s fine too, of course. And some music is so difficult and unfamiliar it almost requires a rethinking of one’s own vocabulary, so while the challenge might be rewarding the feeling is not exactly one of freedom, even if that’s the ultimate goal.
JGL: Among your prodigious number of recordings are there any that you dig more than the others? Any special moments you would like to share from these sessions?
BM: I’ve done many recordings as a sideman where I feel good about the final product, and probably many more where I just hate my playing and wish it would go away. The both good and bad news is that almost no one will ever hear any of it anyway.
The Bowie record stands out as a particularly positive experience, and a few others that come to mind are Chris Cheek’s A Girl Named Joe, Bill McHenry’s Rest Stop, Reid Anderson’s The Vastness of Space, both Tony Malaby records I’ve played on, and Matt Pavolka’s Something People Can Use. Of my own records I’m probably happiest with Hydra.
JGL: Speaking of Bowie. How did your association with him and his last recording come about? Did you play on the whole album and what – if any – were the challenges involved in getting his musical vision onto “tape” as it were. Did you meet him and were you aware that this was going to be his final recording? Has this recording altered you career in any way?
BM: Donny McCaslin, who had been hired along with his band to realize this batch of tunes by David, called me for the project. I play on 4 out of the 7 tracks, although more were recorded on the original session. Some of these were released this year as the EP No Plan. I was in the studio for a full week – six days of tracking with the band and one of just guitar overdubs. The whole experience was very positive, as the atmosphere was very supportive and open. We were all given a lot of leeway to explore ideas, even though David’s vision was very strong and distinct. He was in the studio every day and sang every tune as we were tracking it, which really helped the vitality of the performances, I think. I had no idea it was to be his final recording, or even that he was ill in any way. As far as the project having an impact on my career, I don’t know, it hasn’t in any obvious or direct way. Maybe more things have come my way due to slightly heightened visibility but it’s hard to say for sure why things happen…
JGL: It seems like you’ve done it all! What type of musical situation do you enjoy the most (ie: trio, quartet, duo, solo, etc.) and is there something that you’d still like to do?
BM: I’d like to get to the point where I feel I can effectively improvise an entire solo set. Usually when I play solo it is mostly through composed pieces, but I’m not confident I could sustain enough interest for a whole hour of improvisation. I should probably just try and see what happens. If everyone hasn’t left by the end I’ll consider it a success.
JGL: Conversely, almost every musician, no matter their level and professional stature have 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?
BM: Sometimes it feels like I’m battling the guitar, like there is no flow from mind to hands to instrument, and the first thing that seems to go is time feel. There doesn’t seem to be any consistent pattern to this, but I try to warm up regularly and do hand/arm exercises, which seem to help. Also, relaxation is essential. As they say, ninety percent of it is half mental. Or is it the other way around?
JGL: Have you had issues getting gigs or do they pretty much come to you now. Was it difficult at the beginning getting work?
BM: Thankfully I have enough work now and have for quite a while, but I’ve gone through slow patches, mainly in my twenties. As I mentioned earlier I was doing mostly “commercial” type playing early on, but trying to get jazz gigs for myself was really difficult. I went through the usual pattern of going around to clubs and trying to get them to listen to my demo tapes, which was usually fruitless, although I did get a couple of great gigs out of that. One that I remember is a place called Three Of Cups in the East Village, where I played every Tuesday for like a year with Ben Street and Jim Black in 1993. But yeah, for the most part a lot of rejection… I also remember sending what I was hoping would be my first album to over 70 labels (which actually existed in 1990!), along with a flowery cover letter and everything, and getting about one third rejection letters and two thirds silence.
JGL: What – if any – new technology (ie: Internet, Face Book, YouTube, Instagram etc…) do you incorporate into your looking to get gigs or get hired?
BM: Pretty much none, but I do post my own gigs on my Facebook page. I should pause here and thank Matt Merewitz for wresting said page away from an imposter and giving it to me.
JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar?
BM: Stop reading this interview and practice!
JGL: LOL! Ok, we’re almost done. 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.
BM: I’ve had second thoughts for sure, but those thoughts cease when I realize I’m not qualified to do anything else, and never have been.
JGL: Apart from being a guitar player, what other things occupy your mind/body?
BM: I try to run as much as possible, but I get sidelined a lot with various knee and foot problems. I’m a poor chess player. I try to read a lot. But keeping up with music and its attendant responsibilities doesn’t leave a ton of room for other things.
JGL: If you had to do one thing over again, what would it be and why?
BM: I would have asked out Debbie Maldonado.
JGL: Ha! Maybe she’ll read this and you’ll get a second chance 🙂 Before I bring this interview to a close, I’m curious about something and I hope I can ask it in a way that makes sense!! You are considered by a large number of players, enthusiasts and critics alike, to be “up there” with the likes of Joe Diorio, Ted Greene, Mick Goodrick and other guitar gurus for the lack of a better word. Is this something that provides its own pressure of expectation – from those who hire you and towards yourself – or does none of that “stuff” enter into the equation? I hope that made sense.
BM: As one who is sensitive to perceived pressure, if I thought about any of that stuff I wouldn’t play a note… I think one of the most important things we have to learn as performers is how to genuinely enter into the moment without distraction. It’s something I think you can train yourself to do. Plus I don’t consider myself up there with anybody, and I can’t second-guess what anyone else’s expectations might be.
JGL: Well stated. Thank you Ben for taking the time to speak to Jazz Guitar Life. I realize that you’re very busy and I do appreciate your time. All the best.
BM: Thanks to you!