JazzGuitarSociety presents part two of an extensive interview with Australian virtuoso guitarist James Muller.
[JP] What about any harmonic devices that you use? I know that’s a big question. For example, at any given moment are you always aware of the changes etc are you constantly thinking “I can try these ideas”, “that these extensions will work or these arpeggios will work” etc?
[JM] Yes, I am always aware of the underlying harmony of a given tune and when I am really in the moment and I play outside stuff it will rarely be anything formulaic or anything pattern-based, it will just be “whatever”… Just following a melodic line…you know that feeling when you are playing the guitar and you can feel….you just know instinctively where the nasty notes are. That’s how it is for me. Having said that, I guess all of that “free” stuff comes out of having practiced formulaic things like chord superimpositions or transposing lines intervallically – up a semitone or a major third or a minor third or whatever…
[JP] Yes. It’s like what you said before I guess where some students know the theory and they expect to make music. You have already practiced a lot of these devices and have them ingrained. And now you can just tap into them.
[JM] Yes, that’s right. A lot of it actually is also abrupt register changes. If I am playing up high it’s fun to suddenly shift and go down very low… Or vice versa obviously… You can vary degrees of how quickly you go in between the two registers. You can go back and forth very quickly or…you know.
[JP] Tell me a little about arpeggios versus linear approach. Do you think it’s a more modern sound rather than playing in a linear fashion?
[JM] I wouldn’t have thought arpeggios versus linear would necessarily be more modern than the other but I personally tend think more about arpeggios than scales. The notes that connect the notes of a given arpeggio can just be chromatic, if you know what I mean. I am trying to think more in that way than in the 7-note scalar fashion. I think it just sounds better and really highlights the sound of the harmony.
[JP] Another observation about your playing is that you seem to transcend the CAGED type positions. I know you did not go through the University system in learning Jazz. You went around that. You seem to have developed positions when you play that cover greater amounts of the fingerboard. Larger stretches.
[JM] Right. I think with those larger stretches are probably from checking out Allan Holdsworth, really. He seems to be using larger chunks of the fretboard as a sort of anchoring point, if you know what I mean. I think I just worked on those bigger stretches but yes, I certainly never worked on any of those…the CAGED system …I mean I’d probably know them if you showed them to me but I just don’t think like that.
[JP] James I know that do a give Skype lessons. I noticed on your Facebook page you have one or two students. Are you happy to be contacted in regards to giving lessons online?
[JM] Yeah sure. I’ve put aside a little time to teach and I am happy to do that.
[JP] What would be the best way for someone to approach you about this?
[JM] I think message me through Facebook.
[JP] Getting back to music, James what is your main axe at the moment, what are you playing? Still got that Gibson?
[JM] Oh, it wouldn’t be “that” Gibson whatever “that” one was. I don’t even know which one you are referring to, but I know it wouldn’t be it! I’ve gone through so many guitars in the last few years.
[JM] (chuckles) I’ve got two guitars that I use regularly. One of them is an ES-335 that I bought last year in New York. I was there for a few months and I reckon I tried almost every 335 in New York, which was surprisingly not that many considering it was America. I think I got a pretty good one which is a 2012 Memphis ‘59 re-issue VOS. Well, it looks great, anyway!! It’s got a real chunky neck on it which is not usually to my liking but I thought it played the most in tune and seemed to resonate the best. It’s really light too which is important to me. I’ve also got my Tele – just an American standard – which I’ve been playing since… when did I get that? 2008? So they are my two main guitars. I go between them depending on which one suits the situation the best but again, maybe I should be taking both of them to gigs.
[JP] You not using many effects, I remember last time we spoke you mentioned you were interested in Synth guitars or investigating that pathway.
[JM] Right! Well yes I’d love to. I’ve actually bought a little, what’s it called?.. have you tried those things called a you-rock guitar.
[JP] No I haven’t heard of them.
[JM] I haven’t got it together yet to check it out properly yet, it’s too daunting. There are very cheap and apparently they are very good if you set them up properly. You can actually play them like a normal guitar and trigger any synth you want. I do like the thought of getting into that stuff but its…
[JP] It’s a whole world isn’t it? You have to immerse yourself in it.
[JM] Yes exactly. You can’t really just dip your toe in and sort of…It would be a matter of really committing myself to it but…(pause) I’ve never been…I have nothing against effects. I love it when I hear other guitarists use effects but I just don’t have a very natural flair for using them. You were talking before about those guys, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mike Moreno etc using delays. I always use delay too, but its very low in the mix. It’s more about changing the way the guitar feels to play than obviously changing the sound. Occasionally I’ll turn on a second delay which is louder and longer for the more sustained chordal things a la Bill Frisell. One thing I am always trying is overdrive pedals. I’ve got about 10,000 of them and they all sound like crap to me unfortunately. How do you go with them? Do you use a lot of over drive pedals?
[JP] Well I’ve got a tube screamer and RAT and they have been with me for years. Like you I am forever seeing new pedals come along. They all seem to be “much of a muchness” to me.
[JM] That’s right! They either sound terrible or just okay. (laughs) You know what I mean? They never sound like an amp breaking up naturally.
[JP] Are you using reasonably light gauge strings on the guitar? Tens or Elevens?
[JM] Yes and no. My 335 is strung 13, 16, 20(plain), 30, 40, 50 and for my Telecaster, I use a set of 11s with a 12 on the top. I don’t know, I guess that’s not super heavy by jazz standards at all. Also, it really depends on which guitar you’ve got. I’ve got a Strat and anything heavier than 10s and it becomes impossible to play.
I’ve also been really trying to pick more. It’s really been my… I had a lesson with the drummer Ari Hoenig, I don’t know if you’ve heard of him?
[JP] Oh! Yes I have!
[JM] When I was in New York, I got a lesson from him. I’ve always thought my time and my rhythmic sense were pretty good but he really pulled me up on a few things. You see, we did a gig together before the lesson – It was a gig with Sean Wayland and he said a couple of things that really blew me away. The first thing he got stuck into me about was my “time” and I thought “wow”, as I always thought that was one of my strengths. He said that overall I was playing in time and had a good time feel but the individual notes weren’t quite locking in to the “grid” i.e. not all the notes were right on the centre of the beat. They were just falling ever so slightly “out of the pocket” basically. So we started playing some exercises with a metronome, mainly polyrhythms and he started pulling these faces like he was in agony with what I was playing and I was getting really stressed…(laughs)
[JM] And he’s saying I was just constantly…rushing everything – ever so slightly. And I was concentrating you know, and occasionally he would say…”yeah that’s it!” “You just did it, then” “no, no, no..” and sort of….
[JM] That was a really huge thing to get pulled up on that! So, ever since I’ve been really conscious of note placement and I’ve been working really hard with a metronome to get everything to sit right. The other thing Ari said was that when he was playing with me it was really difficult to hear what I was playing and it couldn’t have been because I was playing too soft because, if anything, I play too loud. So, what I took that to mean was that because I am playing legato a lot of the time there’s not enough “front” (attack) of the note to cut through. So, I’ve been really trying to pick more basically. I still don’t want to have that “machine gun”, you know Al DiMeola/John McLaughlin thing but I’m trying to pick more to get that real fat front to the notes so I sound more articulate, basically. That’s been a big thing for me that I’ve been working on for the last 8 months or so.
[JP] How much work have you done on your “time”, in terms of subdivisions, metric change etc?
[JM] Well rhythm has always been at the front of my mind but in terms of doing specific work on it; probably not that much. You know, I never used to practise with a metronome, which I don’t think is such a bad thing in some ways. I think sometimes you’ve got to practice with a metronome and then other times you’ve got to practice without a metronome. They are equally important. I’ve thought about rhythm and subdivisions a lot and I have practiced going in between 8th notes and 8th note triplets a lot. I’ve also practiced quintuplets to a point. Also, I’ve practiced subdividing 16th or 8th notes into odd groups ie, 3, 5, 7, 9 etc. I’ve done a lot of that sort of stuff. But in terms of just “time” practice, like actually making sure all my notes are in the right spot – not much – but I’m really getting into it now.
[JP] I have to say I am surprised that you would take onboard personally so much criticism from Ari. I know he is a fantastic drummer and I love his music, his album “Lines of Oppression” is wonderful. I don’t mean that wrong but…
[JM] He wasn’t nasty about it all. You know, it was all said with a smile, and he was also quite complimentary about my playing too. Americans can be very matter-of-fact. Look, put it this way; by and large there is still a glaring difference between the way Australians play time and the way Americans play time. So, if someone like Ari can explain to me why my “Australian time” (chuckles) isn’t quite up with American time and can actually articulate what it is that’s not quite right then that’s really exciting for me.
[JP] So tell me a bit about that, ‘cause I’ve not heard about that before. Australian time versus American time. In a nutshell, can you tell me what the differences are?
[JM] It’s basically that we all, well, I shouldn’t say “all” cause there are a handful of Australians that really do have that – “American time.” (laughs). If I am listening to “Jazztrack” (well known Australian Radio Show)and a tune I don’t know comes on I can usually tell within 15 seconds if the track is American or not. It’s usually because the rhythmic placement is a bit lumpy OR it’s rushed or both. That’s a big thing. Americans just don’t seem to rush. I’m talking about soloists now. Of course, rhythm sections rush and drag all over the world but the way the US soloists play over the time, you’ll never hear them rushing. If anything they will be pulling back on it and that sounds cool, but if you are too on top of it, it sounds horrible. I find a lot of Australians tend to rush – including me! When I listen to some stuff that I’ve done, especially in the old days, its horrific. It’s so inconsistent! Americans usually are very…well whatever it is, it’s consistent. We Aussies will speed up at the end of phrases or get a bit muddled up and not finish phrases concisely. It’s about clarity – knowing what you’re going to play and play it will authority and with ease. I am including myself in this, I don’t mean to sound like I’m on my high horse here.
I also find that when I’m soloing I’m often running at 90 to 100 % of my musical ability. That’s my base level. The really good American musos seem to be running at 30% a lot of the time or 50%. You know they have got so much in reserve where as usually, even at the start of my solo, I am playing at the peak of my ability (laughs) And that has a real sound! Technique plays a really big part in all of this. Sorry if I’m boring you with all this.
[JP] Are you kidding?
[JM] I think I conceptualise time pretty well but technique plays a huge part in how that time is executed on a guitar, or whatever instrument you are playing. We are talking about absolute microseconds, and if you are not there at the right time, it fucks up the whole groove. So, it’s chops too and that’s another reason why learning to pick more is really important to me..
[JM] I wouldn’t really put Pat Metheny into that “legato” camp at all. He plays some legato ‘“fast licks” but I think he picks the majority of the time. All those guys that we were talking about like Rosenwinkel, Adam Rogers, Mike Moreno etc they basically pick every note but they do it in the way that Pat does it where it is still very smooth and if you listen to those guys you can really hear a “thump” in their sound. That big bottom, and that comes from picking. You don’t get that when you play legato. I want more of that thing.
[JP] So what are you doing about it to achieve that?
[JM] At the moment its really just about being aware of it. Occasionally I will sit and do some alternate picking practice but usually I’m just blowing the way I always would have done while being aware that I want more pick in there -almost like I am willing it to happen and I think its working ok like that. That’s about it. You talk about Scofield before as being a legato player – and he definitely is – but when he does pick, its just so bang on! Even though you think of him as kind of a slippery and loose kind of player, he is right in the groove. So I just want to be playing right in the middle of the beat.
[JP] Who else have you had a lesson with recently?
[JM] Well I’ve had a few with Wayne Krantz and again, he is really big on the time thing. In fact, he is nuts about it. So he has really hammered that in as well. You know I had the lesson with Ari, and then I had the lesson with Wayne a few weeks after that and I told Wayne about the lesson with Ari. I said you know Ari said this and he was screwing up his face when I was playing and…(laughs) and Wayne said “Really? I’m surprised to hear that”. So he said, “Play for me”. He put the metronome on and said, “Play” which was really nerve-wracking. So I just started playing and he said, “..man, that’s really great, it’s perfect”. I thought, “Great!” If Wayne Krantz says that then, its fine. THEN he said “OK, try this” and he backed the tempo on the metronome down to..I think we started at 120, and he put it back down to 90 and he said, “Now, play again”. So I played and then he said “I heard it that time, you ARE rushing. Just a tiny bit, but you are rushing” Anyway, I’ve gone back to that subject.
So that’s who else have I had lessons with – Wayne and that was mainly about time. I had a lesson with the pianist Aaron Parks. Heard of him? He is incredible.
[JP] Yes I have, what was that about?
[JM] Well, we just played a few tunes and then we also I asked him about…he is a master of playing odd times. So I asked him “How are you so loose when you are playing in 9 or 7 and whatever?”. He told me just to think about the 7,for example, in lots of different ways. Come at it from lots of different angles. Come at it as long seven. Come at is from a short 7 like (counts 1 to 7 at various tempos) And breaking it up into 3 and 4 or 4 and 3. All the different combinations. He also said one thing…just in terms of phrasing. We played a tune together – I was a bit nervous – we played “All The Things You Are”. I played ok, but I really overplayed and afterwards he said this really cool thing with regard to phrasing which was, “When you play something really good – stop. When you play something really bad – stop”
[JM] Which I though was really cool. Funnily enough, a couple of months later I was having a lesson my friend Will Vinson.. do you know Will? The sax player?
[JP] I don’t, no.
[JM] Amazing. He’s an English saxophone player living in NYC and he is friends with Aaron and they all play together in New York. Anyway, I was having a lesson with Will and I told him that Aaron said this amazing thing to me. He said when you play something good, stop and when you play something bad, stop. And Will said, “that bastard, I came up with that! That’s mine!” (laughs) So that’s actually Will Vinson’s wisdom …apparently….who knows.
[JP] So this was when you were in New York in the two or three months at the end of last year. Was that part of the reason for going? What was the purpose of that trip? Lessons, play with Sean?
[JM] Yes, all of the above. And also to suss out whether it was somewhere that I could live. I was there for four months and I went again a few months back this year as well. I don’t think I could live there full-time. I want to keep going back there for inspiration.
[JP] What are you James? Thirty six or thirty five?
[JM] I’ll be 39 in a month. So almost 40, which is bit of a milestone, as you know. I’m just too old to want to struggle and scuffle over there. But, I still want regular hits of that American time and that American thing so I can keep measuring myself up against those guys. Fortunately, I‘ve got a few friends there now and I can play with these real mofos at jam sessions or gigs and it’s such a good measuring stick to see how am I fairing against these incredible players.