Ben Monder is a New York based jazz guitarist. He attended the University of Miami. He has worked with a wide variety of musicians including Lee Konitz, Toots Thielmans, Paul Motian and Maria Schneider. This exclusive interview for PlayJazzGuitar.com took place on Thursday August 16th 2012.
When did you start playing the guitar and how early did you become obsessed with it?
I started when I was eleven - I found a cheap nylon string guitar in my mom's closet and decided to start fiddling with it for some reason. I don't think it took long to get hooked - I got a beginning method book and took it from there. Then most of my time was spent learning pop tunes off the radio.
You sound and look like you have had a formal education in classical guitar. Is this the case? If so can you tell me how beneficial that was with regards to your jazz playing?
I took a few classical lessons as a kid but never got very far with it. The lessons were all on the aforementioned guitar, and I stopped studying when someone sat on it. I don't really consider myself to have had serious classical training, but it's possible the exposure to it had an influence. Any classical-looking technique is pretty homegrown, and the use of the footstool for certain tunes is just practical - it's much easier to play certain pieces with the neck closer to the center of my body.
What technical aspects of the guitar gave you the most problems, if any, in your formative years? How did you overcome them?
I don't recall anything in particular being more of a problem than anything else when I was starting out, but right now I'm not too happy with my right hand picking technique - it used to work better but I think I have some bad habits that are catching up with me, like using too much of my right arm. I am working to turn it around though - hopefully it's not too late...
What musicians have had the most impact on your guitar playing throughout your life?
Okay, here goes, in no particular order: Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Ritchie Blackmore, Tom Scholz, Al Di Meola, Larry Coryell, John McLaughlin, Jan Akkerman, Rick Derringer, Allan Holdsworth, Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino, Joe Pass, George Benson, Chuck Wayne, Barney Kessel, Jimmy Raney, Johnny Smith, Tal Farlow, Jim Hall, Ed Bickert, Lorn Leber, Marc Shulman, John Scofield, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, Ted Greene, Mick Goodrick, Ralph Towner, Egberto Gismonte, Gerardo Nuñez, John Stowell, Gordon Gaines, Steve Morse, Shawn Lane, Scott Henderson, Kurt Rosenwinkel. I'm sure I left out a bunch, but this is off the top of my head.
Were there any specific books or educational material that turned your life around?
I have a ton of guitar books that I've accumulated through the years. Some I bought in a fit of optimism and some have been given to me, but I honestly haven't done justice to most of them. However, the one book that stands out as supremely influential to me is Ted Greene's "Chord Chemistry". I've gone through that one thoroughly many times over.
I also love all of Mick Goodrick's books, from "The Advancing Guitarist" to the "Almanac of Voice Leading" volumes, but I should give a special plug to the new one he co-wrote with Tim Miller. Also, the George Van Eps "Harmonic Mechanisms" books are great, if a little daunting.
But at this point I spend most of my practice time working on things I've devised for myself, so even though I would love to delve into the many resources I now have, there just isn't the time to do everything.
Do you remember any particular 'light bulb' or 'aha' moments during
the guitar learning process?
I do, and it refers back to the Ted Greene book. In one of the chapters on voice leading he takes a four note structure and simply moves it diatonically up the scale. It occurred to me that you could do that with any structure of any intervallic makeup, so I starting working on that idea and found a wealth of possibilities therein. This still constitutes much of the practicing I do now.
What guitar players in particular do you like to listen to today?
I honestly don't find myself listening to that much guitar music these days, but there are obviously scores of great guitarists out there - too many to mention. I did recently go through a Pat Martino marathon though.
Other than that, I think my current favorite is Tim Miller. He has such a beautiful sound, and it's just mind boggling what he is able to do as an improviser. I have a solo CD by Nelson Veras that is just amazing. But the little time I have for really concentrated listening I usually devote to either classical records or older jazz records. I've been listening to a lot of Sonny Stitt lately, trying to get some of that spirit in my playing.
I see you particularly like the trio format, is there any particular reason why?
It allows me to try to use the full textural range of the instrument, and to have more influence in the direction things take, harmonically and orchestrationally. But I also really enjoy playing with horn players. I would often rather comp for a good soloist than have to take a solo myself.
You have a nice sense of space when you play. I like that you let the music breathe. Is this something you consciously worked on?
I guess I am aware that an idea has more significance and weight if it is framed by space. One of my first teachers, Irwin Stahl, stressed the idea of improvising compositionally and logically, and this necessitates the use of space to be effective. Plus, as I said before, my technique is kind of sucking.
Do you practice obsessively these days? If so how much time do you dedicate to it?
I still practice a lot when I have the time, but the amount really varies depending on what else is going on. Sometimes I only have a chance to warm up for a half an hour, sometimes (rarely) I can put in 8 hours or more. Also, I noticed if I practice too much before a gig I burn myself out, so I have to be careful about that.
What are you practicing right now and why?
I'm mainly working on a variety of chordal ideas, from trying to become more fluent in the use of triads to the aforementioned intervallic structures to voicing out various pitch class sets. Actually all these pursuits are years long projects.Why? I think we work on anything to have more options at our disposal, to have access to the widest variety of colors, and ultimately to achieve the most freedom as improvisers.
Are you working on a new CD? If so can tell us a little about it? When might it be released?
Yeah, I've been working on a recording for a while now. We recorded the first tracks a year ago but it's been kind of slow going. It's been a long process with many obstacles, but I'm hoping to finish sometime in October. It's another quartet record (electric bass, drums, voice) but maybe compositionally a bit more ambitious than the last one. There is more overdubbing on this one, for example, especially of vocal parts.
Are you happy with where your career is going at the moment? Do you have any wild ambitions you care to share?
Really, my only ambition right now is to finish this record. Once that's out of the way I guess I'll reassess my career choices...
Where can we see you playing live right now?
I don't know when this will be published, but I'll be better about updating the calendar on my website. Thanks for reminding me... I don't really have any regular gigs in NY but I do play in town pretty often somewhere or other.
Do you teach? if so are there any particular aspects of your playing that students tend to want to grab from you?
Yes, I do teach. Almost everyone wants to focus on chords, so I have certain things I give them if they don't have more specific questions. It mostly has to do with a thorough approach to the basics of guitar harmony. I really just give people the things I've practiced and am practicing myself.
What advice would you give to a guitar student looking to enter the music profession today?
Don't worry too much about your career when you are starting out - If you love to practice and play it will take care of itself. And if it doesn't you'll learn that quickly enough.
Visit ben Monder on the web at www.benmonder.com
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