Earl Klugh Interview and Lesson  

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Earl Klugh Music Examples

Earl Klugh is smiling broadly on the cover of his latest release, The Spice of Life, as if the photographer caught him in a moment of pure joy. Such moments are well deserved for Klugh, who, with the release of Spice, has a lot to smile about. The album offers a satisfying mix of moods—from the easy breeziness of "Ocean Blue" to an elegant rendering of the jazz standard "My Foolish Heart" to the poignant "Venezuelan Nights," which was inspired by the waltzes of Venezuelan composer Antonio Lauro. Spice's variety makes for an intriguing listen, and it's just that sort of variety that has propelled Klugh's career for more than three decades.

Besides variety, the other constant in the Detroit-born guitarist's career has always been balance. Time and again, he has established himself as an artist with a knack for making music that's not only celebrated by fellow musicians and jazz aficionados but is also accessible to casual listeners. Few players of his generation—or any generation—have built such universally successful careers. Perhaps only two come easily to mind—Chet Atkins and George Benson, both of whom Klugh befriended and recorded and performed with. As a younger player, Klugh assimilated some of the concepts he'd heard in their music. When he later met his heroes, they encouraged him to find his own musical path. Benson, in particular, advised him to focus his efforts on the nylon-string acoustic and to avoid getting distracted by the electric guitar. "George really encouraged me in that direction," Klugh says. "He said, 'This is exactly what you should be doing. Don't worry about trying to play both instruments.' It was good advice." And, again, Klugh is smiling.

Klugh surely has found his own guitaristic voice, and that voice is the central element on all of his recordings. From a playerly perspective, however, it's his two solo-guitar releases—Solo Guitar (Warner Brothers, 1989) and Naked Guitar (Koch, 2005)—that highlight his sound and ideas most clearly. One thing that sets Klugh apart from many other solo players is that he's able to generate forward momentum without reverting to four-beats-to-the-bar chording or walking bass lines. Instead, he renders swinging melodic lines, punctuating them with chordal jabs on the beats between phrases. He makes it look easy, but this is sophisticated stuff.

I met with Klugh in New York City last summer to talk about his approach to solo playing, and throughout our interview the guitar never left his lap. Alternately playing and chatting, Klugh talked about his approach and influences—Atkins, Benson, and beyond. He began our session with an extended improvisation on the classic jazz tune "It Could Happen to You," modulating through several keys and exploring the guitar in every practical register.

That's a great workout—playing one song through so many keys. Is that part of your practice routine?

KLUGH I like to do that as much as I can. It comes in handy. I sometimes worked with singers back when I lived in Detroit, and I'd have to play jazz standards in their keys. Then I'd work with horn players or organ players, and everybody wanted to play in Bb, F, and Eb.

When you're arranging a particular piece, how do you decide on the best key?

KLUGH Picking the key has to do with keeping the register where it's not too high and not too low. You want to make sure you don't run out of room on the neck for the melody—that's one thing. I might modulate to a key that's not necessarily a good melody key but would be the key I'd improvise in. In the end, I always try to get back to where the guitar sings the melody best.

Could you talk about how you first got into jazz?

KLUGH Early on, I'd been a big Chet Atkins fan, and Laurindo Almeida—that kind of thing. Then I heard Wes Montgomery. I liked the work Wes did with [producer] Creed Taylor and, from that, I found his other records. When Wes passed [in '68], I was still too young to go to nightclubs, but I kept hearing about "the new guy"—George Benson. I figured, ok, I'll check him out, but he can't possibly be anywhere as good as Wes. But he was pretty amazing. That's what got me into the whole thing.

When I was old enough, I went to hear George at Baker's Keyboard Lounge—a Detroit jazz club that's been there since the '30s. I saw a lot of people there. I'd go every Friday and Saturday night. It was an education, because jazz didn't come into play for me until I was 18 or 19 years old. That's pretty old to get initiated. It opened up a whole different world to me.

Was Benson the first great guitarist you had a chance to see live?

KLUGH Yes.

After hearing him on record, did anything about his approach surprise you when you got to watch him?

KLUGH He was playing amazing things, but it didn't seem like his hands were doing that much. I mean, sometimes he'd just go, but basically it was all within one position or another. When you listen to his records, you imagine he's going up and down all over the neck, but it really wasn't like that. It's interesting—now that he's older, he's even more economical.

This economy is a striking element of your own solo-guitar as well; you use small chord voicings to great effect.

KLUGH I really try to visualize the guitar more like the piano—particularly the way Bill Evans would play. I've listened to his records for countless hours. He had so much expression, and there was economy in a lot of the things he did, in his voicings—all that close harmony. I felt a kinship with that approach.

So you've cultivated that in your own style?

KLUGH Yes, over time. Since I'm not a plectrum player at all, and I don't have terribly fast right-hand technique, I tried to find something else that would be musically interesting for myself and for whoever cared to listen. A guitarist can't really do everything a piano player does, but you can get that feeling going. When you really get into a piece, you can get it going and keep swinging it.


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