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Artist of the Month for August 2002: Paul Asbell

Note: For sound clips, please visit Paul's CD Page. This link will open a new browser window so you may listen while you read.

Name: Paul Asbell
Age: 53 (how did THAT happen?)
Town: Burlington, VT
Hometown: Originally from Chicago, IL, though I moved to Vermont in early '70's...
At what age did you start playing guitar?
12-13 years old
First guitar: Stella, of course!

Early Influences:
Lightnin' Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Woody Guthrie, Carter Family, Doc Watson, Leadbelly, Bill Broonzy, Blind Willie Johnson, Dave Van Ronk.

Later on, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Earl Hooker, Robert Nighthawk, Albert Collins, Albert King, Jimmy Nolen, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Billy Butler, Eric Gale, Cornell Dupree.

STILL later on, George Benson, Howard Roberts, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt.

And these are just the GUITARISTS!

First gig:
First gig I remember being PAID for was at a dance at the University of Chicago, in a band that contained Kaz Kazanoff, now Austin, TX-based saxophonist/horn arranger for many Black Top and Alligator blues artists.

Shortly after that, I started playing in a band led by harmonica player Jeff Carp. Members included Ray Anderson, now NYC-based jazz trombone great, and pianist/drummer Joel Smirnoff. Joel now plays (are you ready for this?) first violin in the Juilliard String Quartet!

Acoustic Guitars you own:
Oh lord... you WOULD have to ask...:)

Various older 0, 00, and OM-sized instruments by Martin, and a '60's Martin D-28. These are NOT museum/collector pieces, but very played, workhouse instruments, that I use all the time.

I also own Martin-style 000's or OM's by Santa Cruz, Julius Borges, T.J. Thompson, Ted Thompson, and Collings. Oh, yes... (thanks for reminding me, Dave!)... in an interesting trade, I got the ORIGINAL prototype, built by Dana Bourgeois, of the Schoenberg Soloist. It's got the most classically perfect Brazilian and European you'll ever see on a guitar of the past coupla decades, which apparently was how Dana lured Eric into pursuing the venture in the first place. It also has a BEAUTIFUL shaded top, and the now-familiar Soloist soft cutaway. Unlike a lot of gorgeous-woods potentially collectable guitars, this guitar has been PLAYED, and shows it. Apparently a number of folks felt that, despite the little dings and scratches that the unsanitary activity of actually USING an acoustic guitar often entails, playing this guitar was WORTH it! Isn't that what it SHOULD be all about?

Finally, I have a couple of Jumbo-size instruments, one from Jeff Traugott, one from Froggy Bottom, and another from Jamie Kinscherff. MARVELOUS instruments!

These instruments come, but they also GO... as I find myself playing a guitar less (sometimes 'cuz the neck dimensions just aren't quite right for my unfortunately finicky left-hand) I'd rather sell it than find room in a closet for it. I'm convinced that, (unless you live in the SF Bay area or close to Mandolin Bros), buying a used instrument at an advantageous price, trying it, and passing it on for what you paid if it doesn't quite "fit", is the way to go for folks who are still looking for their "grail" guitar.

Favorite Guitar:
depends on the day.... TODAY, it's the Froggy!

Your Style, and how you developed it:
I talk about this AT LENGTH on my site, www.paulasbell.com but I'll try to capsulize here:

I love the '20's and '30's acoustic blues guitar styles that I heard on my Dad's old records when i was a teen. I'm thinking of people like Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson- in fact, the whole Johnson family...:)... Ditto for early appalachian mountain music- guys like Dock Boggs, Wade Mainer, the Carter Family, Roscoe Holcomb, etc. These are the folks who set the stage for the resurgence of the "O' Brother, Where Art Thou" artists, and their music made an indelible sonic stamp on me as an impressionable kid.

Later, I absorbed electric blues guitar- Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and the many other greats who were active in the clubs near my home on the south side of Chicago. I developed enough to play with these people, that formerly were heroes to me. A great deal of my sensibilities about music were formed playing in these clubs.

At some point, I "got" what people had telling me all along about jazz- that it might appear at first listen to be cerebral, sappy, or deliberately obscure- but that, at its best, it contained the complex layers of tradition, fire, and personal expression of the music I already loved. I wanted to "unlock the door" to it, and still work hard at doing so, 30 years later. After a few years working hard at it, I started playing jazz gigs with older players, who knew the tunes, the traditions, and let me see the music more as a "folk music" than as a technical exercise (although there's a fair amount of that that's involved, too!) After a while, I formed a group dedicated to playing original compositions of mine that used a lot of jazz "language", but also incorporated latin and funk rhythms. This forced me to develop a more "electric guitar" sonic palette of colors to couch the jazz vocabulary in, and also provided a working opportunity to tour widely, and establish a bit of a foothold in "the music biz".

In recent years, I've worked hard to make the jazz guitar vocabulary a personally expressive one- this seems so obviously what jazz is about, and yet is one of the hardest things to do. Playing jazz ALSO has given me greater technical facility and a larger palette of colors with which to revisit and play the music(which folks now call "roots" music) I grew up with- that's basically what my "solo gigs" are about, at this point.

So, my style...hmmmm... how about country-urban blues/old-timey appalachian/acoustic/electric/R&B/bebop/fusion american roots music? (boy, I hope my music sounds better than that description!)

Practice Regimen:
I've been teaching guitar for almost 35 years. For several decades of that, I assumed that my job was to give students stuff to practice, but that the process of practice was fairly obvious to everyone- you just repeat stuff until you can play it well... right? It took me a while to realize that one of the LEAST intuitive things for many people is how to practice effectively and efficiently.

I read something a long time ago that jazz guitarist Howard Roberts said was the emphasis of his teaching seminars- things that are complex can be broken down until the component parts are simple. "Duhhh..", I thought when i read it. But the universality of it, at least for mastering guitar stuff, is HUGE.

Specifically, for fingerstyle stuff, the "breaking down" takes several forms. Obviously, there's the left hand, and there's the right hand. I try to find ways to practice fingerpicking "building blocks" without doing left-hand work at all. A little cottage industry here in Vermont called Twanger (http://www.twanger.com/) makes a gizmo called the Prax-Ax that's quite handy for this "separate RH practice" idea.

Even the right-hand work can be broken down further. In anything remotely resembling "Travis picking", the thumb has a crucial role. Can you flawlessly play the thumb part, by itself, for a song, while singing the melody, or just talking? If not, you'll NEVER be able to reliably play the complete thumb & fingers part, let alone sing w/ it. Break EACH COMPONENT down and practice repetitiously, w/ as much distraction as you can muster, if you want to get a "bullet-proof' performance that you can pull off in a "real-world" situation.

Left-hand work is not as achievable away from the guitar- but I'll take a particularly vexing LH chord change and play the bejeesus out of it on the guitar neck while talking on the phone, or reading.

Did you ever have a grandmother who was always knitting a sweater while she sat talking, watching TV, or whatever? She'd pick it up, do a little, and put it down 'til the next opportunity to continue it arose. I think it's handy to establish a personal, ongoing "folder" of "trouble spots" that you simply need another 500 "reps" in order to get down effortlessly. Have the "folder" firmly in mind, so when an "ordinary life" opportunity presents itself, you can pick up where you left off. At some point, you'll be able to go on "automatic pilot" with the lick, at which time you pull another "trouble spot" to the top of the list.

One last thought- can you practice entirely in your head? I find this ENORMOUSLY helpful. The converse is ALSO true- if I can't "imagine" my way through a phrase without the guitar under my fingers as a crutch, then that spot will be a "trouble-prone" one in performance.

Books can (and undoubtedly HAVE ) been written on the subject of effective practice strategies- but hopefully these brief thoughts will help someone.

Favorite Artist(s):
I've already blathered at length about my huge list of favorites in the "influences" department. Some of the guitar players who I listen to and admire today who are within the "13th Fret window" are Martin Simpson, Kelly Joe Phelps, Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Woody Mann, Brooks Williams, Howard Emerson... there are SO many!

Other favorites, NOT necessarily within that window, are Buddy Miller, Tuck Andress, Pat Metheny, Duke Levine, Robben Ford, Scott Henderson, Jimmy Herring, Albert Lee, Steve Masakowski, and on and on...

Is there anything else you want people to know about you, your playing style or your views on today's music in general?
First of all, let me reiterate that a lot of info about me is on my website...www.paulasbell.com and rather than blab about myself further, I'll let the website do it for me...:)

Today's music in general... hmmmh...

I've tried and made several false starts already in an attempt to wax profound on this subject. I doubt that I can pull it off... but I'll hazard the observation that Louis Armstrong was pointing in the right direction when he said "There's only two kinds of music- good music and bad music." Duke Ellington similarly reserved for the artists he most admired the expression that their work was "beyond category".

I think the best stuff in ANY genre provides you with a solid answer to the question "why should I bother with this kind of music?", and I feel that I've heard music in just about EVERY designated "category" that's done that for me, from hip-hop to bebop, from "new age" to rap. I always felt wierd hearing some of my dad's contemporaries waxing rhapsodic about the music of their generation being the last "real music" on the planet, before the advent of the "noise" that their kids called music today. I resolved to be very wary of getting so comfortable in my own musical "comfort zone" that I failed to see what could be good about music that was of another culture, era, technological construction or mindset.

"BRING BACK THE BIG BANDS!" (or fill in your favorite- mandolin orchestras, boy bands, barber-shop quartets, doo-wop groups, slack-key guitarists or ???)

AOTM Archives:

August 2008 - Danny Combs
March 2006 - Bryan Clark
Februry 2006 - Darin Leong
January 2006 - Andy McKee
December 2005 - Don Alder
November 2005 - Doug Young
October 2005 - Nancy Conescu
August - September 2005 - Warren Greig
July 2005 - Ian Melrose
June 2005 - Roger Lasley
May 2005 - Jim Tozier
April 2005 - Jessica Papkoff
March 2005 - Todd Habekost
February 2005 - Michael Hewett
January 2005 - Steve Barney
December 2004 - Tony McManus
November 2004 - Chris Newman
October 2004 - Kevin Kastning
September 2004 - Rick Duke
August 2004 - El McMeen
June-July 2004 - Charles David Alexander
May 2004 - Tony Capri
April 2004 - Shane Simpson
March 2004 - Bill Cooley
February 2004 - Greg Meckes
January 2004 - Gary Leek
December 2003 - Ernie Hawkins
November 2003 - Keith Knight
October 2003 - Jaquie Gipson
September 2003 - Chuck Durfor
August 2003 - Cathy Horner
July 2003 - Art Edelstein
June 2003 - Muriel Anderson
May 2003 - Clarelynn Rose
March-April 2003 - Steve Wildey
February 2003 - Rick Ruskin
January 2003 - Kerry Kling
December 2002 - Tim O'Brien
November 2002 - Howard Emerson
October 2002 - Dennis Roger Reed
September 2002 - Larry Pattis
August 2002 - Paul Asbell
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