Corey Christiansen – Player, Educator & Jazz Cowboy
Corey Christiansen is recognized as one of the preeminent jazz guitarists in the world.
Intro by Bob Bakert, editor – I first became aware of Corey Christiansen when my interest in jazz led me to Mel Bay’s how to play “In the Style of” jazz luminaries series authored by Corey Christiansen. I bought many of the books and found them to be very helpful. Probably a dozen or more years ago while attending the NAMM show in Anaheim, I took a break to visit the Mel Bay booth on a quest for more interesting books. Of course, this was before the web explosion. While perusing the titles I heard someone yell to “Corey” and I instinctively knew it was this author who I admired but never met. I had no idea what he looked like so I was more than a little surprised to see this guy who looked more like a college football wide receiver than a guitar player, theory monster and guitar book geek. I thought – “how in the world did this guy get so sage so young?” Well after a little digging, I uncovered his father was a guitar professor at Utah State and Corey started learning guitar at the age of five! After receiving his bachelors degree at USU, Corey moved to Florida to earn a Masters degree. So that explained it… Since then Corey and I have spent time together on the phone, texting and in person. It is with great pride that I call Corey a friend and I’m additionally very proud he is on our cover this month.
On Jazz Guitar Today
JGT: What is the biggest misconception about jazz and jazz influenced music?
Boy, I’m not sure about this one, but lately I’ve been feeling like too many people, including many younger students, feel that jazz is supposed to be simply a polite music. You know, something that’s supposed to be in the background or played very timidly in the corner of some kind of society event. There is that type of jazz, but so much of this music is played correctly when you are swingin’ for the fences. (Pun intended.) The pioneers of this music and everyone that is really doing it on a high level, plays “all in.” I mean, they really go for it. There is an element of this music that needs aggression to pull it off, in my opinion. In some cases, it has to be played like you’re playing for blood. It’s not about volume. The music can be super intense and be played at a whisper. It’s more about the intent.
I think another misconception is that the music is difficult to learn. Jazz is definitely a high-level art form but it’s like learning to a language. You have to listen to a spoken language a lot to learn the right attitude and the inflection, etc. Same thing with music. There are some other hurdles, but jazz education has come so far that there are all kinds of systems in place for accelerating the learning process. The thing that can go missing is the “feel.” That’s where listening comes in, of course. You must listen to capture the essence of any language and so it is with jazz. So while it is seemingly difficult, it’s not as difficult as some people make it out to be.
JGT: Are there some new players on the scene you think we should check out?
There are so many great players these days. I’m not going to try to list all the new guys that are inspiring me because I know that I’ll just miss a bunch of great cats. But I can list a few that I’m excited about, who aren’t really “new” but are younger than me (which becomes more prevalent every year). If you haven’t already checked out Julian Lage, Nir Felder, and Yotam Silberstein Gilad Hekselman, please do. To be honest, most of my listening is devoted to older players. Not sure why, but I still listen to Wes, Grant Green, Jim Hall, Coltrane, Miles, etc. Of course I’m into Pat Metheny, Pat Martino, John Scofield and Bill Frisell. There’s a lifetime of listening to these guys. I’m not sleeping on the new guys coming up. Not at all, But I am still rooted in the generations before me and so that still makes up the bulk of my listening time.
Corey Christiansen, The Player
JGT: Your sound is very modern – how important is gear (pedals/amps) to your style?
I’m lucky to have some amazing gear and I’m finally starting to realize some sounds that I’ve been chasing for a number of years. But, to be honest, I think that if I do have a modern (or otherwise) sound, it’s because of the way I apply the vocabulary I’ve accumulated over the years on the guitar. I spent so many years studying and playing the music of Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and various other blues players. I’ve spend a big chunk of my life studying and playing straight-ahead music. I’d say that the way I blend certain aspects of these different musical languages is ultimately what give me my sound. I do use some reverb and a little delay and sometimes some overdrive, but at the end of the day, I sound like all the languages I’ve learned put together in my way. That’s my sound. I played a gig not too long ago with basically no effects. Just the amp. I was even shocked at how much I sounded like my usual sound, which does use some processing. I use reverb and delay to get a little more sustain. I’ve always been jealous of how horns can really sustain a note to generate a different emotion and like to play with a guitar sound that gives me more of that singing quality.
Ok, but that being said, man I do love playing with good gear. My main amps are all serious-level boutique tube amps. I have an amp guy named Wally Gibbons that is making a killer 45-watt amp that should eventually be called the CMC-45. There are only two out there, but it’s an amazing amp. Great clean tone and it takes all the pedals really well. Old style amp in that there isn’t an effects loop. I also have a great little travel amp in the Positive Grid Mini Guitar amp. One of the best amp modelers out there. I have my Dumble tones dialed in on this amp and really do love how it works on the road with just a speaker cabinet. It can also go direct so there’s a ton of versatility with this amp.
JGT: How did you get into the music business?
My dad was a guitarist and I studied with him all the way through my first four years at Utah State University. He’s a great player and a great teacher. I was always around the business, I guess. I started playing in a little band when I was eleven and started playing clubs with my dad when I was thirteen. I started teaching in my later teens and put myself through school playing gigs and teaching students. There was a time I was playing three or four nights a week and teaching around 50 private students and going to school full-time. Half an hour lessons but still, I was burning the candle at both ends. Those experiences helped me understand how hard I would have to work to succeed as a professional musician. I guess I’ve just always been in the music business in one way or another.
JGT: What kinds of work have you done as a musician?
After finishing my master’s degree at the University of South Florida I was offered a job by Bill Bay working for Mel Bay Publications as their clinician and eventually became their senior editor. That was an incredible time for me because they had me touring all over the place doing clinics, working with authors, developing curriculum, attending industry conventions and guitar shows. I met so many great musicians and got to play with many of them. It was simply a magical time for me and Bill Bay was a great boss and mentor. His love of the music and the instrument is just contagious. He was all about doing interesting projects that pushed the instrument forward in all genres. Incredible time. We created important books, book series, started a record and DVD company and had a great time doing it. I eventually left Mel Bay and moved back to Utah which is where I currently reside, but I continued touring a lot while I also started recording for Origin Records and worked with some independent music education companies. I also started getting involved with online learning and created the Corey Christiansen Modern Guitar Community. This has all happened while also teaching at Utah State University three days a week and flying out to Indiana where I pioneered the jazz guitar program at Indiana University working with David Baker and his incredible faculty. Currently, I run the guitar program at Utah State University and am an artist in resident/consultant for Atlanta Institute of Music and Media. I still record albums and tour, but I do find the educational and online aspect of the music business very rewarding and have a lot of energy going in that direction.
JGT: What led you down the road of blending jazz and old cowboy tunes?
For several years I’d been putting out recordings that I think were decent but in a strong way were “craftsman” records. They were jazz records and I’m happy I did them and I was fine with that, but I really wanted to get back to my roots. I started noticing, in my live shows on the road, that a lot of the elements of my rock/blues days were really creeping back into my playing no matter how “straight ahead” the gig was. Around the same time, I moved back to Northern Utah, where I grew up, and started getting into the mountain culture there. Lots of hiking, fishing, etc. I had played a lot of old cowboy tunes when I was growing up and still love the melodies and I thought it would be great to blend what I know about jazz and rock and blues with these old cowboy tunes. Of course, Bill Frisell beat everybody to the punch with this idea, but I knew I could do it in a way that would be original and me. I have a strong background in each one of these styles and it just made sense to go down that path. Most importantly, it felt very natural. The music just kind of laid itself out. So, the first record (Lone Prairie)felt very successful to me from an artistic angle. The tunes that ended up on the record serendipitously kind of told a story I created about a cowboy coming west and outlined this fictitious story. It was from a male perspective so I started researching songs about women and those from that era that are usually sung by women and that’s where I got the inspiration for Factory Girl.Not every tune on that record ended up being a feminine perspective, but the process got me in a zone. It was around that time that I was really working on my sound. Specifically, my recorded sound. I was very happy with how that record turned out. Dusk is an album almost exclusively made of my originals that were written while I was arranging many of these old tunes of the American frontier. There is one old lullaby on the record but other than that, they are all originals.
On the Road…
JGT: What gear are you using on the road and regional (non-flying) shows?
It varies. I have a signature model guitar built by John Buscarino that is a semi-hollow arch-top with a solid spruce top. This guitar is the best guitar I’ve ever played. It’s been used on every album I’ve done since 2005. It’s the guitar that goes in the casket with me. The thing is, it’s irreplaceable so I’m getting away from using it on the road. And flying is a pain with a guitar. You never know how the airlines are going to react. So, I’m using one of three guitars right now. I have an amazing Custom Shop Gibson SG that I’ve been using on recordings but also on the road. A lot of people sleep on the SG as a jazz guitar, but I can get a great clean sound from mine. It’s small and easy to travel with because it always fits in an overhead and it plays like a dream. It has a chunkier neck which I like so I’m in love with it. Very versatile so if I’m recording a project away from my stash of guitars, I can get a lot of tones out of it. Plus, it just looks cool.
The other two guitars are teles. I have a Nash T-63 with Lollar pickups and it’s amazing. It’s just a well-built instrument. I get a myriad of tones from it’s basically a battle ax of a guitar. I never worry about it. It flies well in the overhead. I can get many sounds from it. It has a chunky neck that feels great to me. I have another tele on the way being built by Pablo Valle in New York which I’m really excited about. It also has Lollar pickups. I had Pablo make me two pickguards mounted with two different pickups and a male/female plug so I can swap pickups in just a couple of minutes. One pickguard has a P-90 and the other has a Charlie Christian style pickup. I’m very excited about using this guitar.
At home I have some very nice boutique amps and there’s only one problem with that. It makes it hard to use anything else when I’m on the road. But lately, I’ve been travelling with a Positive Grid Mini Guitar head. I can use it direct or just get a speaker cabinet and power it with the head. It’s 300 watts (solid state Class D wiring) but it works great. I spent a lot of time with it and have modelled my boutique amps from my home collection pretty closely. It’s been a life saver to take on the road. Fits in my gig bag and allows me to take my tones on the road.
I always travel with some kind of pedal board. I’m using Strymon reverbs and delays most of the time. I have a few different EQ pedals and find that might be one of the most important pedals on my board. I also am in love with my Vertex Boost pedal. I use various wah pedals but am loving the MXR that Bob Bradshaw designed. It is Killer. I have an Electroharmonix Pitch Fork that I love but I use it sparingly. The sounds are so distinct that if I over use it, I think it becomes annoying.
JGT: Do you have any tips for those flying with instruments?
I have flown quite a bit over the past 20 years. Before 911 it was definitely easier but it was still a gamble. I was using a bigger archtop guitar back then and I was always a nervous wreck at the airport. I was nervous because I was always using a gig bag and if there was problem with a completely full flight or a less-than-helpful flight attendant the guitar would go down with the luggage in a way that was not protective. I did all kinds of things to get the guitar on the plane. I used to have a black leather gig bag and I’d wear a long black leather coat and black slacks. I’d walk up to the gate with the neck of the guitar under the coat and synchronize the bottom part with my leg so it was almost invisible (or at worst look like a small carry-on) as I walked up to the plane. I was going to so much trouble and I realized that this was just simply not worth all the hassle. I bought great instrument insurance and a great flight case and just started checking the guitar. I was simply a better person at the airport. Totally worth the bread to just let all that hassle go and hope for the best. With the solid-body guitars I fly with now, I haven’t had any problem getting them on the plane. Some airlines are better than others, of course, but I’ve had great luck. After about 2,000 flights I have only had my guitar delayed one time. It’s worth it to me to just buy the insurance (I use Heritage Instrument insurance) and try to relax a little while I’m traveling.
JGT: What projects are you excited about right now?
I’ve always have a lot of things brewing that I am excited about. As far as performing goes, I’m pretty excited about my original music. I’m getting ready to go back into the studio and record with a band that blends some familiar faces with some new faces. That’s about all I’m going to say about that at the moment.
I just finished a great album with a fantastic singer named Rosana Eckert. The album should be out in the spring of 2019. She’s an amazing musician who happens to sing most of the time. We are starting to do a little touring as a duo and that is going to be exciting because it’s stretching me in a number of ways. I love playing in duos with other instrumentalists and singers, but playing with singers in a duo setting requires some skill. And, I think you have to think hard about the esthetic. There have been so many killer singer and guitar duos that it’s easy to try to be “like” one of them, but I think you’re really setting yourself up for failure if you do that. It’s better to find your own way of playing in that configuration and work toward making your thing iconic.
I love all the playing I get to do regionally and out on the road. I am lucky to guest with a lot of different people and groups throughout the year. I think the more people you play with, the more you can actually find yourself in an original sound. Same thing goes for the number of people you study with or study (as in transcribe). Originality comes through a deep understanding of several artists. I’m just lucky to be able to play with a lot of great players throughout the average year.
Educationally, I’m excited about the program at USU. I have very good students and every year the level of incoming freshman seems to go up. I have great colleagues there at the school and we are supportive of each other. Lots to be excited about up at USU.
I am very excited about a program that I’ve been working on for quite some time. I helped design and build an online learning high school where students can get high school credit toward their graduation by studying and going through our curriculum. The school is Educational Advantage School of Music. The link is https://www.easchoolofmusic.com/for anybody interested. Most of the current classes are at a beginner level but the curriculum is rolling out steadily and before long we will have more advanced classes up. It’s a cool program because private music teachers around the country can team up with us and offer high school credit to their students. We have guitar, bass, drums keyboard sax, theory, etc etc. classes. There’s something there for just about everybody. The future of learning involves online platforms.
I’ve been involved with online learning platforms for many years now. A lot of my own more advanced lessons can be found at another exciting site, Musiclessons.com. Very cool platform in that any music teacher can set up a curriculum with PDFs and videos and start to generate an online learning community and another revenue stream. Check them out at https://www.musiclessons.com/
JGT: What kind of things are you currently practicing?
Well, I should be practicing more to be honest, but it’s harder once you have a busy schedule and are playing all the time. I go through different phases about what I practice but one thing that stays constant is my technique. I have a whole bunch of technique exercises that I do and it keeps my game together. Also, if I have time to practice I need to practice my technique so I connect with the instrument well and can then focus on a musical concept. If my chops are up I can focus more on the musical concept and less about how to execute it on the guitar. That seems to work for me. As I’ve mentioned earlier, to me, the most important thing is my sound. That’s the mark of good technique, your sound. It’s not just being able to play fast but how deep your sound is. My hierarchy for music is this. My sound is most important. Then my time is next. Then the form and lastly the lines and harmony. I’ve taken months off from practicing harmony and melodies to simply work on my sound. Technique and yes, gear. But I try to use the gear in subtle ways most of the time. I want the gear to enhance my fundamental tone, not be the deciding factor of my sound.
JGT: Can you tell us about your new project?
Well, I’m headed into studio around the middle of January and I’m recording a bunch of my original music with musicians who are specialists in Afro-Cuban music. I’m am totally stoked. I have been listening to a lot of this music and studying, but I understand that, at the end of the day, I’m a gringo so I’m not professing to doing a real Afro-Cuban album, but rather have my music interpreted by real Afro-Cuban and Latin artists. I’m very excited to hear what we come up with. Lots of guitar going to be on this record. I have been working closely with percussionist extraordinaire, Michael Spiro, and I have just been learning so much. Learning a lot about the music, but also about the players, and some things about the culture and these things are making me a deeper person and musician. I’m very excited about his project, and a little terrified. But, the players are all so amazing, I’m just happy to be along for the ride, even though it’s my album.
Corey Christiansen, The Educator
JGT: What are the hardest concepts, techniques, skills for your students to learn?
I think it really depends on the student to be honest. Students struggle with different aspects of the music. But, I do have a hierarchy for what is important in the music. I think a person’s sound is the most important thing, then their sense of time, then knowing the forms of the music and then the chords and the melodic possibilities.
Here’s my justification for this order. Your sound is your sonic signature. It’s the thing that everyone will recognize about you before anything else when they hear you play. Think of the great players throughout history. We all know them by their sound. If you have a good sound, your technique is together. If you’re sound has some depth and personality, you’ve most likely spent time on all the fundamentals to a high degree. If the fundamentals are in place then most things will eventually come together to make some great, high-level music.
Time feel is crucial because it’s the thing everyone knows when it’s good and when it’s bad. If things are in the groove everyone seems to feel it. If the time is bad, everyone feels it as well. You can play sophisticated chords and great lines but if they aren’t sitting in the time in a good way it’s not going to sound good to anyone. More importantly, it won’t feel good and to me, that’s everything.
Knowing the form is crucial to improvised music because if you don’t play all your hip chords and lines in the right place of the music, it’s not going to sound good. And finally, the chords and melody are important, but I think all the other things need to be in place for the harmonic and melodic content to reach its potential.
Here’s something that’s interesting to me; The typical school experience devotes time to these concepts in a different order. We spend more time working on harmony, melody and form than anything in most of our college programs. It’s the easiest to teach because it’s essentially math, in a way. These aspects of music are the most science-like.
Teaching time or groove is trickier. If a student has a good, natural sense of time it’s easier to develop and refine, but if a student struggles with feeling a groove, I find it to be more difficult for them to learn than melody and harmony or form. It can be taught, however, and there are a lot of great teachers that have some serious skill in this area but it is trickier. Listening is a huge part of all our learning, but I think it’s especially important when dealing with time and feel.
Sound is such a personal thing. I think I try to guide my students to understand that they need to develop a concept of their sound in their minds and then learn how to realize that sound with their instrument and gear. It’s just been the last few years that I feel I’ve been getting close to the sound I’ve heard in my head for years. I think that is an important thing for students to understand as well; that many aspects of this music take a very long time to develop in a deep and compelling way. For me, the mastery of this music has been a long-game kind of journey.
JGT: What corners do students want to cut that you just can’t if you’re ever going to “get it”?
The fundamentals. Man, sticking with the fundamentals is difficult until you see the real progress that mastering the fundamentals brings. It takes a lot of time, but when the fundamentals start doing their work it becomes addictive to work on them. I work on fundamentals every day. Pick direction exercises, triads, simple voice-leading through standards, etc. All that stuff becomes a real joy when you can use them to make some real art, but it takes time and a lot of students are impatient so they want to skip the fundamentals and get to the “hard” or “modern” stuff. All that hard and modern material is rooted in the fundamentals. So, I tell students to keep sticking with the fundamentals and before long, you’ll have some real skills and be making some real music.
JGT: What can you tell young players about the business of music that you think they should prepare themselves for?
Oh man, there’s a lot of prepare for. First of all, there are four things I think are really important. If you can do these four things, you’ll always be working. 1-Be good at what you do. More opportunities will come your way if you are good at what you do. 2-Show up on time. And by on time, I mean show up early. Be the first one to the gig or the session. 3-Be a good hang. Everyone likes to work with somebody that makes them feel better about themselves. It’s great to have someone around that they enjoy. 4-Wear the right threads. The way you dress does actually matter so be thoughtful about what you wear and why you’re wearing it. Does it make the rest band look better or worse? Is it appropriate for the setting? Now, most people can make a decent career out of being good at three of those things. But, if you’re good at all 4, success will be yours.
There’s lots of talk about how to make it in the new music business paradigm. I’m not sure anyone has the official answer, because technology has made it possible for a career trajectory to be such a personalized thing. There aren’t as many outside gatekeepers as their used to be. People really do control their own fate much more these days. So, I’d suggest every player be totally comfortable with social media. That’s such a huge part of what we all do these days as performers. Not saying I really love it, but it’s kind of how it is.
The Balancing Act
JGT: How do you balance your life between being on the road, teaching at a university and family?
Not sure I do a good job at this, but I try pretty hard. Key for me is to prioritize. My students at USU deserve a teacher that is current and relevant to a scene. When I teach them, it’s based on my experiences on the road and in the studio. So, I have to prioritize my schedule at the university first because it has the least amount of wiggle room. Then I look at my schedule and start filling in dates on the road. Pretty simple really.
When I’m home, I try to be home. I have a wife and four kids so I try to keep my music endeavors during business hours or when everyone’s in bed asleep. I practice when the kids are in bed. It worked for Wes Montgomery so I’m hoping this works for me.
On another note, let me just say, I’m really excited about this publication. There’s a huge community of guitarists out there that, even though they may play many different styles, they study or have studied jazz guitar in some shape or form. Jazz is a way to understand many other genres on a deep level and I’m excited to see this offering being made available to such a large and diverse group of guitarists. Kudos.
Visit online at coreychristiansen.com
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