Bruce Arnold Talks Shop
As jazz and jazz guitar grew in popularity during the decades of the 20th century, many students of all backgrounds and experience levels began to seek out the top teachers and players in the field in order to better their comping and improvisational skills. Because of this, several pedagogues became recognized as the most sought after teachers in jazz guitar.
Players such as Ted Greene, Howard Roberts, Joe Pass, Joe Diorio and Mick Goodrick all became accomplished players who were also known as the jazz guitar gurus that everyone wanted to study with. With a huge list of educational and performance accomplishments to his credit, New York guitarist and teacher Bruce Arnold can now be added to this list of guitar gurus, the cream of the crop of the guitar teaching and performing landscape.
Arnold’s intense study of the instrument not only comes out in his many published teaching materials, as well as his in person lessons and classes in his role as Director of Guitar Studies at both New York and Princeton Universities, but in his recordings, where he brings new and exciting approaches to both jazz guitar composition and improvisation. Two of his latest records that showcase his personalized and highly informed approach to playing are Heavy Mental and Art of the Blues.
Heavy Mental features the guitarist in a more modern, rock influenced setting than most would expect from a jazz guitarist. But, Arnold’s deep level of musicianship and musicality rise to the top of every song, allowing him to perform in any genre that he pleases without the risk of “selling out” as some artists have done in the past.
As well, his playing on Art of the Blues, which features blues compositions written in all 12 keys, is more traditional in nature, but still maintains the highly creative and emotionally intense playing that Arnold brings to any musical situation, no matter the style or genre he is playing in.
Guitar International sat down with Bruce Arnold to talk about his albums Heavy Mental and Art of the Blues as well as discuss his thoughts on the New York jazz scene, guitar education and the quest for tone.
Matt Warnock: On your album Art of the Blues, you recorded 12 songs, each in a different key. What was the inspiration behind this unique approach to a record?
Bruce Arnold: I was inspired by J.S. Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, which are in 12 keys, and The Art of the Fugue, which explores the potentials of a single musical motif. In my case, the motif is a half-step and a minor third, also known in integer notation as a 013 pitch class set.
All compositions, melodies and harmonic structures found on Art of the Blues are built on this combination of notes. I also use a dotted quarter note as a compositional element, both for melody and to modulate to different metric levels, time transformation.
Matt: Did you find that certain keys inspired you in ways you hadn’t expected? Maybe some felt better faster or slower than others, or some inspired more harmonic movement than others, that sort of thing?
Bruce Arnold: I didn’t find that keys affected tempo, but because of the tuning of the guitar some keys lend themselves more to the use of open strings, so that did affect the G, E and A Blues. You can really hear that in the G Blues, where the openness of the G tonality on the guitar definitely affected what came out in the compositions.
Matt: On Heavy Mental you have more of a rock feel than a traditional jazz sound. Have you always had this side to your playing and do you feel that using distortion and playing over heavier grooves is more acceptable on the jazz scene today than it was 15 or 20 years ago?
Bruce Arnold: I’ve wanted to do a CD like Heavy Mental for a very long time. But first I needed the proper equipment and the right musicians. I’ve got that now.
There are some jazz musicians who absolutely can’t stand the idea of a distorted guitar, and there those who love it. I think in some cases it has to do with what you grew up with. I grew up in the ‘60s, so I spent most of my time listening to players like Duane Allman, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton, who all used a distorted guitar sound.
So, for me it wasn’t about whether it was about “rock” or “jazz,” it was about how the guitar can express something, just another “color” to convey. I’ve never thought you had to confine the potential tone of your instrument to just one genre. How does that music grow if you limit it like that? I continued using this type of sound when I went to the Berklee College of Music in the late ‘70s at the height of the fusion movement.
But when I moved to New York City in ’86, the acoustic sound of jazz was much more popular with only a few exceptions, so it was harder to fit in. I’ve recently been getting very good feedback from New York City musicians about the sound I’m using so I’m glad that at least that part of my playing isn’t so controversial now.
Matt: How are you getting your distorted sound on the album, are you running through a pedal or overdriving the amp?
Bruce Arnold: I’m using a Peavey JSX cab and head. For distortion I’m either using the amp distortion but most of the time I’m using a Klon Centuar distortion pedal. I should also mention that I always play through an Apple laptop using the program SuperCollider. While I’m only using a fraction of this program’s capabilities on Heavy Mental you can hear some of its unique sounds on “12 Tone Boogie,” “Heard Instinct,” and “Numbers.”
Matt: You feature a different rhythm section on each album. Do you prefer to work with varying groups on different recordings and why did you choose to work with these particular musicians for these projects?
Bruce Arnold: For The Art of the Blues I needed a rhythm section that had a very specific ability. The blues compositions on the CD require the musicians to deal with other pitch organization methods and be able to negotiate changes, both in terms of time signatures and time levels. The pitch organization and time level changes are really the most demanding.
From my experience, there aren’t many musicians that can handle this. Luckily I live in New York, where there are a handful of these super-musicians who can work within a certain harmonic-melodic framework, while at the same time changing the perceived pulse of the music depending on the indications they receive from my soloing, or from each other’s directions. They also need to do this in a natural way so it doesn’t sound forced.
I was very lucky to have Tony Moreno and Dean Johnson as fellow travelers in this recording. Their dedication to excellence and their high musical sensitivity allowed me to write and perform this music with ease and a feeling of relaxation.
Heavy Mental, on the other hand, required musicians with a strong sense of groove, the ability to interact with the soloist, and the musicianship to deal with the highly structured compositional elements and unique scales that I work with. Kirk Driscoll and Andy Galore were perfect for the job.
Heavy Mental was particularly challenging for me, because all my solos are derived from the compositional aspects of the melodies, and this CD contains more different structures than Art of the Blues, which explores only one grouping , for example, half step and a minor third. On “12 Tone Boogie” and “Heard Instinct,” I use a whole step and a fifth as an organizational tool. So all my soloing uses this too.
“Multiplicity,” “Lock and Key,” “Blues for Arnie” and “Dakota Gumbo” all use the half step and minor third, as in the Art of the Blues recording, and the soloing only uses these elements. Finally, “Numbers” uses a half step and a major third. If you listen and are aware of these organizational factors you can really hear it in the solos.
Developing the ability to solo this way so that it is still spontaneous has taken me a long time. But I was so tired of the idea of getting your 150 licks together and then trotting them out on every solo you ever play. Of course, after 20 years of working on this I can see why people rely on the 150 licks; it requires a lot less work.
Matt: Both albums feature you in a guitar trio format. Is this the group setup that you prefer to record and perform in?
Bruce Arnold: After solo and duet playing the trio format is the next most exposed setting. But it also allows for a lot of flexibility in interplay between the basic elements of rhythm, harmony and melody.
I don’t have any particular preference for the trio setting in general, but when working on the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic elements for Art of the Blues, developing the interaction was extremely important to its success, and adding further instruments would have made it an even more complicated situation.
Matt: Your tone is quite different from a typical jazz sound. What guitar and amp did you use to record the album and what inspired you to seek out that particular tone?
Bruce Arnold: As mentioned, I’m using a Peavey JSX amp and Klon Centaur distortion pedal. There is a tradition of sorts among contemporary jazz guitarists that use distortion to have a certain slightly overdriven sound. While I like that sound, my heart is more with a sound reminiscent of someone like Carlos Santana.
I’m going for a sound with a lot of tone, sustain and hopefully some feedback from time to time. Balancing it to make sure it doesn’t go into the buzz saw sound or too wimpy of a sound is a real challenge. Luckily nowadays there are some great manufacturers who are going for this same sound too. So they are making my job a little easier.
Matt: Besides being an accomplished performer you are also an in-demand teacher. Do you find that your teaching inspires your playing and vice-versa?
Bruce Arnold: I get inspiration both ways. I have some great students who really bring up great questions. That makes me not only refine my thoughts but gives me ideas about sound, rhythm and composition. It is our shared excitement about the new ground that I’m trying to break that keeps me forging forward.
When you decide to write and play using new scales, rhythmic ideas and organizational structures, you’re limiting the number of people that can appreciate what you are doing. So students “get it” in ways that older musicians or listeners might not, because they start out being thirsty for new things, and open to new ideas.
I greatly appreciate the support I get from these students and from places like Guitar International that hear something unique in what I’m doing and want to promote it.
Matt: As a New York resident you’ve seen the jazz scene rise and fall over the years. What is your take on the health of the New York jazz scene today as compared to previous years?
Bruce Arnold: We’re at a particularly tough time right now in New York, though it’s gotten a bit better in the last 6 months. The Great Recession was very hard on clubs. Many bandleaders end up picking up the slack when the club is only marginally full. That can make it real hard to continue. Luckily there is a huge jam session scene here, so even if the gigs are fewer everyone is still playing a lot.
There are a lot of hardships to living here, but New York is great for sessions because just about every place is accessible via public transportation. That means musicians can play many sessions in one day, and this keeps everyone’s chops up and also sparks new ideas. This is one of the things that gives New York its character, and keeps it a creative center. But you’re not going to get rich.