Tony Richards Interview with Jazz Guitar Life

“When I saw Monk, I didn’t quite grasp of how big of a deal it was at the time. That is because I was so young. But, it left me with a huge impression and became the start of a journey. Horowitz and Segovia were when I was around 17. Those shows were at Carnegie Hall and I certainly realized how big a deal they were.”

Tony Richards

I first “met” Jazz Guitarist Tony Richards on Facebook in a few of the Jazz Guitar related groups he posts in. Posting primarily solo guitar arrangements I was thoroughly impressed with his taste, tone and harmonic sensibilities and was delighted when he agreed to a “sit-down” via email 🙂 In this interview Tony shares with us his background, his process for working out solo guitar arrangements and much more. An enjoyable read indeed! Enjoy 🙂

JGL: Thank you Tony 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?

TR: 62 years old.

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

TR: I am a Chicago based jazz guitarist who plays originals and classic straight up jazz, and a bit of the Jobim songbook. My sound is primarily based on a melodic approach that utilizes my finger style technique. I perform solo, duo with acoustic bass and, also with my trio (with bass and drums). There are other projects that I am working on with a few other musicians in town. Patrick Noland, who is great pianist and composer, and I are collaborating quite a bit.  And, I am also performing some fun duo gigs with the very talented jazz guitarist Steve Knight.

JGL: Whereabouts are you located?

TR: City of Chicago.

JGL: Your online bio states that you began your guitar journey at the tender age of 11. Were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz? How did you find your way to this particular music and instrument?

TR: I was interested in all types of music and my parents were opera singers. When I was 11, my cousin took me to Philharmonic Hall to see Blood, Sweat, and Tears and the opening act was the Thelonius Monk Quartet. That really stuck with me.

In terms of the guitar, I was at a friend’s house when I was 11 and he let me play his guitar and showed me a few cowboy chords. I fell in love immediately. 

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)?

TR: I think things always change whether you realize it or not but the music and players that I love have stayed with me. Wes was the first jazz guitarist that I heard. It was his version of Round Midnight which just blew me away. I also, heard some swinging bebop recordings of George Benson that really hit me hard.

Then, I was exposed to other guitarists such as Joe Pass, Jim Hall, Lenny Breau, Baden Powell, Ted Greene, Johnny Smith, Kenny Burrell, Ed Bickert and few others.

When I was in college (1977-81), I lived in Rhode Island and got to hear Metheny quite a few times. He played around the Northeast quite a bit back then.

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

TR: Probably Wes and Lenny Breau.  Wes for obvious reasons, and Lenny because he was such a guitar geek and was so unique.

And then there are so many others, such as Bill Evans, Ben Webster, Miles, Coleman Hawkins, Ella, Louis Armstrong, and so many other great musicians who are not guitarists but really influenced me.

JGL: What was your first guitar and do you still own it?

TR: It was an acoustic guitar that I bought at a garage sale for five dollars. It was a mess and barely playable. I don’t even think it had a brand name on it. You really couldn’t push the strings down past the fourth fret. I think it just disintegrated one day!

JGL: In an earlier feature titled Jazz Guitar Beauties, you were gracious enough to feature your Koentopp Chicagoan which was just beautiful. Thanks for that and if you don’t mind sharing, what other guitars do you own/play. Do you have one particular “go-to” that gets played more than the others?

TR: My “go to” guitar is my Koentopp Chicagoan. It is one of Dan’s early guitars and I have owned it for 12 years or so. The other guitar I will play out with is a 67’ Gibson Tal Farlow. 

I also have a 57’ Gibson 175 that I occasionally play.

Other guitars that I have accumulated over the years are a Koentopp Amati, Koentopp Classical, Gibson 335, 73 Telecaster (I am the original owner). I have a few acoustics which I don’t play much.

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?

TR: The only effect that I use is a touch of reverb. Just below 3 on most amps. I like a clean warm sound and just have never used much beyond that. So no pedals.  Just plug into the amp and go.

My main gigging amp because of the sound, weight and low maintenance is a Quilter Steelaire. It really handles archtops beautifully. It has a 15” speaker and an open back so it sounds a bit warmer than most of the solid-state amps that I have played. I also will bring out my 66’ Fender Vibrolux which sounds amazing but is a bit heavier. 

For small places I will use a Henriksen Blu.

JGL: Is you could put your dream band together with musicians either alive or dead, who would they be and why?

TR: Good gosh, that is tough one. I love playing with the musicians here in Chicago. We have a really vibrant scene with a ton of great players who I learn a lot from. This has been a real blessing for me. So, I am very content with the musicians I already play with.

But to fantasize a bit, I love Ben Webster and it would be so cool to comp behind him and listen to his wonderful tone and phrasing.

JGL: Given that you come from a musical family, 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 your parents supportive of your decision?

TR: I was not considered very talented as a youth, and I was working various jobs. Given those circumstances, I ended up being self-taught. Becoming a working musician came years later for me.

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?

TR: In the beginning I mostly played to records, used songs books, and tried to figure out what was going on. Now, I work a lot on arranging tunes, working on rhythm, phrasing, and mostly listening to the great musicians that I love. The more I listen, the more I hear things that I want to do.

People whom I have met later in life that have helped me are Matt Warnock, Roddy Ellias, and Chicago’s own Andy Brown. I have heard Andy play well over a hundred times.  He is amazing.

I am also a fan of a video I saw of the late Connie Crothers – the great teacher from NYC.  She said a lesson that works for almost any player is to pick a seminal player and sing what they were doing. I started with Charlie Christian and, it has really stuck with me. It’s a great way to get ideas, into your head and under your fingers.

JGL: Your online bio states: “As a teen he was fortunate to see live performances by Thelonius Monk, Vladimir Horowitz and Andrés Segovia.” WOW! Those are some serious players. What was it like witnessing those players perform and were you aware of the impact that each of those players had on their respective genres at the time?

TR: When I saw Monk, I didn’t quite grasp of how big of a deal it was at the time. That is because I was so young. But, it left me with a huge impression and became the start of a journey. Horowitz and Segovia were when I was around 17. Those shows were at Carnegie Hall and I certainly realized how big a deal they were.

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?

TR: Not really, they are all thrilling and challenging.  I just feel very fortunate that I get to play and explore music. 

JGL: 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?

TR: There is a tradition of solo guitar playing that I got exposed to and wanted to try my hand at. Players like Van Eps, Lenny Breau, Ted Greene, Joe Pass, Kenny Poole out of Cincinnati, and Andy Brown here in Chicago.

I absolutely love figuring out tunes for solo guitar. The whole process is fun for me. I usually pick a tune that seems like it would translate well, then find a great singer to listen to. Ella has been very helpful in this regard. I like to listen closely to lyrics, phrasing, dynamics. With that in mind, I then work out the bass, chord voicings, etc. I end up going back and forth till I got something that I like. After that, I practice to get the ideas “under my fingers”.

Playing solo can be nerve racking because you are carrying all the weight of the performance. You must play in time, and cover everything – bass lines, comping, melody and soloing over the form. If you make a mistake or have a brain cramp, there is no place to hide!

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?

TR: I really lean on my ears and the lyrics here. Once I know the melody, I then work out the voicings that really sound interesting to me. There is a great Ben Webster line, in which he was asked why he stopped playing, and he said, “I forgot the words”.

JGL: 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?

TR: Definitely Lenny Breau. And in the last 15 years, Andy Brown, who is a great friend of mine. I can’t say enough of how fantastic Andy is. And there are others, Ted Greene, Kenny Poole from Cincinnati, Joe Pass, Van Eps, Howard Alden come to mind.

JGL: I see that you have played with Guitarists Andy Brown, Steve Knight, Roddy Ellias – who I knew from my Concordia University days in Montreal, Canada – Matt Warnock and Guitarist/Record Producer Jay O’Rourke. First off, what skills do you bring – or do you NEED to bring – to the table when playing with another guitarist who shares a similar style and secondly, have you thought about other Guitarists you would like to play duet with? If so, who and why?

TR: The biggest thing for me is to listen. I play the best when my attention is to hearing what is going on, as opposed to thinking about my left hand (a common thought for many) or other things. The great players are so free and spontaneous and very much in the moment, really feeling the music. To me, that is the greatest skill of all. 

JGL: There seems to be a lot more cats playing 7 and even 8 string Guitar these days. Has that been something you have done or plan to do? Or is 6 strings more than enough?

TR: 6 is plenty for me! But I love hearing Howard Alden play 7!

JGL: Your good friend, Andy Brown, had some nice things to say about your Solo Journey album:

In the fifteen years I’ve known Tony Richards, I’ve found him to be a dedicated and astute practitioner of the subtle art of solo guitar. He’s soaked himself in the fertile soil of Lenny Breau and Ted Greene, as well as many of the other solo guitar masters, and come up with something uniquely his own. His impeccable taste, tone and touch are on full display in this beautiful recording. Tony wears his heart on his sleeve every time he plays, and this recording is sure to warm the soul of the sensitive listener. Enjoy!

Andy Brown

Is this your first recorded album or are there more? Is it your first album to feature just solo guitar arrangements?

TR: First off, I greatly appreciate Andy’s comments. As mentioned earlier, he is one of my guitar idols and a great friend.

Yes, it my first solo guitar album. In addition, I have put out probably over a hundred videos of solo arrangements. These videos I do for fun, and it an easy way to share my music. It has also been helpful in creating interest in my music and therefore getting opportunities to play. 

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? Should we all move to Chicago…lol? 🙂

TR: I always worked a full-time job till about 10 years ago. All that time, I played on weekends and practiced at home. So, I can’t really answer your first question. I don’t really have any tips but just to say that it is an economic challenge, and many musicians augment their gigging with teaching or other work activity. It is important to develop what practically works for you and try not to be resentful of the realities of life. I find it helpful, especially when I am frustrated or feeling stale with my playing, to recall the love and joy of what brought me to playing guitar in the first place. That moment when you played your first note or chord, and then thought, wow!…this is amazing. That is something I don’t want to lose.

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? 

TR: This is a big one. To be frank, I have never considered myself to be a great or even a very-good guitarist. This has led to a lot of insecurity for me which I have worked hard to get over. I need to realize that I am unique, I play music out of love, and along with working to get better, is good enough for me. The ego is something I have worked hard to get rid of in my life. That voice inside the head that gives us lousy advice. I am into mediation and study a fair amount on this topic – eastern philosophy and the derivatives.

JGL: How do you handle the other side of being a working musician – the business side? 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?

TR: It’s crazy now.  Musicians are expected to do everything.  Not just playing, but getting gigs, promoting them, etc. It seems like musicians need to be experts in social media, graphics, recording, technology for live streams, video, and the list goes on and on. You name it, we are all doing way too much that isn’t music. It can be stressful, at least for me. I find that social media is often difficult, because it tends to pull you in some potentially bad areas, which ties into ego and worry, etc. Long story there, but most know what I am talking about.

JGL: Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.

TR: No, I am very appreciative of what I have in my life. I, like many people, have gone through some tough times, and music has been a constant source of joy that has never left me. So, my thoughts are gratitude. The journey is where all the excitement is. If you play music and love it, you are lucky.  Just make sure you focus on why you love to play.

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

TR: I have great family and friends. My girlfriend Julie is wonderful and a great artist/photographer. We live in an old house, in a fun part of Chicago, very close to the lake and nature – highly unique for a big city. I like to walk and see the beautiful city around me. I also have a great music collection and love all forms of art.

JGL: Nice! Sounds very well rounded. So…what does the future hold for Tony Richards?

TR: Music for sure, but beyond that, I have no idea. Today is going to be a great day!

JGL: On a sillier note…how often do you get emails or messages mistaking you for the old WASP drummer Tony Richards? LOL 🙂

TR: Ha! I don’t know the band, but I am aware that it comes up in internet searches. I have never gotten a message or email on this topic.

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

TR: Thank you Lyle.  I really appreciate all that you do for us guitar players.

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

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About Lyle Robinson 347 Articles
Lyle Robinson is the owner/creator/publisher and editor of Jazz Guitar Life, an online magazine dedicated to the Jazz Guitar and its community of fine players worldwide.

4 Comments

  1. Great interview. Certainly goes along with all I’ve learned and heard from Tony over the six years I’ve known him. I feel lucky I get to hear him play a lot and consider him a trusted friend.

    • Hi Jane and thanks for the wonderful comment. I don’t know Tony personally but I get the sense that he’s a wonderful individual 🙂

      Take care and all the best.

      Lyle – Jazz Guitar Life

  2. Beautiful Koentopp and tremendous fingerwork. Tony is playing duet guitar in June at Pro Musica, alongside Joe Policastro, will certainly be an amazing show. Some gems in Chicago, thx for putting out this incredible interview!

    • Hi Nick and thanks for the wonderful comment regarding Tony’s interview. There are definitely gems in Chicago and Tony is indeed one of them. Enjoy the show in June and feel free to let us know what you thought 🙂

      Take care and all the best.

      Lyle – Jazz Guitar Life

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