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Helpful Advice For Players from Guitarist, Composer and Educator, Pete Smyser



Pete Smyser‘s diverse palette ranges from traditional jazz to acoustic renditions of blues, folk, contemporary, and rock songs all doused in altered dominants on a custom 7 string.  

Pete Smyser – the Harleysville, PA resident is not just an extended bass string guitar recording artist and in-demand performer but also composes, arranges, and serves as an educator with wisdom beyond his years.  Jazz Guitar Today would like to thank Mr. Smyser for this exclusive interview.

You have made 10 recordings starting with the 1996 debut Out of Nowhere leading to 2018’s “Wee Small Hours” and “Slow Boat,” in what ways do you feel you have grown as a recording artist and live performer?

Wow, I would probably need to do a deep dive of self-analysis to answer that comprehensively. I’m not sure if certain outside observers would consider it growth, but I am always evolving in terms of what I aim for and what songs or styles I enjoy playing or hearing. When compared to my more youthful sense of taste, I would say that now I prefer less clutter and cacophony, more structure, less abstract, more refined and direct melodic and rhythmic phrasing, less loud volumes, more subtlety, less lengthy improvised solos, more conciseness. I’ve heard it said “Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.” I think that hits the nail on the head for me.

For recording, I have often been less than 100% satisfied with the results of earlier efforts, not because of what I played or musical content, but rather because I felt the tone captured failed to embody the natural beauty of the instrument’s sound as I experience it while performing. Don’t get me wrong, the recordings sound very good, but I often feel that the recorded tone, presence, punch, etc. could or should somehow be better. I’ve been told I’m a perfectionist. To be fair to the audio engineers, the guitar is challenging to record effectively, and I often presented them with less than ideal instrument and amplifier combinations. It’s been difficult to accomplish my vision of an ideal jazz guitar tone, which is why I initially began investing in better recording equipment. I had to try to figure it out for myself. It has been a long road, but I am finally at a point where I feel I am able to put together the crucial elements of high-quality instruments and the right audio/video equipment to self-produce high-quality recordings. Of course, it’s a moving target and there’s always room to improve.

Please tell Jazz Guitar Today readers about your American Archtop made by Dale Unger of Nazareth, PA.

I met Dale in 1999 and he asked me to become one of his “players” and we have been friends ever since. Dale was the one who, upon hearing me perform, suggested that my style was perfectly suited switching to a 7-string guitar. I agreed and we made plans for him to build me a solid spruce top “American Legend” guitar. I picked it up from him in early 2000 and was thrilled. The extra string took some getting used to, but I am so glad that I made the switch. At this point a standard 6-string guitar feels like an incomplete instrument to me.

As one of American Archtop Guitar’s “players,” I have pretty much played them exclusively for the past 20 years when performing jazz. I now own two “American Legend” 7-string guitars, the original one from 2000 and one that Dale and Tyler made for me in 2017. Both instruments feature a solid European spruce top and flamed maple sides and back. They look beautiful, sound amazing and the playing “feel” is exactly what I want from an archtop guitar. I am somewhat of a traditionalist, so for me, a well-made archtop guitar is a must when it comes to realizing my ideal jazz guitar sound. American Archtop guitars are among the best available (IMHO).

Do you employ any other guitars?

In addition to my two American Archtop 7-string American Legend guitars, I own other instruments that I utilize when performing other styles of music such as classical or contemporary popular music. This would include a spruce-nomex-spruce double top classical guitar from an amazing German luthier named Achim-Peter Gropius, a 6-string Gropius (2018) spruce-nomex-spruce double top classical guitar, a 7-string acoustic steel-string guitar made in 2001 by Stefan Sobell, as well as many others.

What level of playing technique is generally expecting before audition? 

I have found that most non-classically trained guitar students have had little or no instruction regarding “proper technique” when auditioning. I was trained simultaneously, by separate instructors, in jazz guitar and classical guitar. Most of the left hand and finger-style technique that I endorse tends to be that which I learned from my classical studies. There are many different jazz guitar icons with a wide variety of playing techniques. So, the audition process tends to focus on a student’s ability to demonstrate competency in the areas of notation reading, theory, improvisation, comping (chords/ accompaniment), chord melody (solo guitar playing) relating to the genre of jazz.

What equipment do you recommend that a college jazz guitar major should own?

I think that a traditional archtop guitar (hollow body or semi-hollow body) is best suited for a serious-minded jazz guitar student, but other types of guitars can certainly work for jazz. Along with the guitar, he/she would also minimally need a decent guitar amplifier. Owning and being familiar with a quality notation software program such as Sibelius or Finale would also be wise. Experience with recording gear and software is helpful too.

What is typically expected of a Jazz Guitar Music Major regarding their week to week applied music lesson?  Meaning what concepts are generally taught?

I taught Jazz Guitar Music Majors at Moravian College for about 10 years, but my teaching is currently from my home studio in Harleysville, Pennsylvania and not associated with a college or university. That said, during my years of college teaching, I stressed the fundamentals of notation reading, technique, theory, a strong understanding of scales and their improvisational application to various chord progressions, repertoire building, ear training, harmony (chords and comping), chord melody (solo guitar playing), improvisation, investigation of various styles and evolutions through the history of jazz (concentrating on the 1920s – 1960s with the heaviest emphasis on 1940s – 60s).

What are the essential books that anyone interested in Jazz Guitar Studies should own? either before or during college… 

For jazz studies, I have students concentrate on learning/performing repertoire from the American Songbook (standards) as well as jazz standards as they work through various concepts such as theory, reading skills, improvisation, scales, arpeggios, chord voicings, etc. So, fake books such as Hal Leonard’s “The Real Book” series are important to own. I use other method books for general musicianship skills as needed, but those are not specifically geared towards jazz studies.

Ideally what type of performance situations can a jazz guitar major be in during his/her college experience? 

There would be, as part of the curriculum, a variety of small group ensembles with bass, piano, drums, sax/trumpet, etc. There might also be a larger jazz band (Big Band) that would offer further ensemble experience. Ideally, a student should seek out and organize other informal performance opportunities (not for credit) with other music students to gain experience. Historically, students often begin to “sit in” at jam sessions (like a jazz “open mic night”) at area jazz clubs or restaurants in the local community. If a student is talented and successful with networking, then paid professional opportunities usually follow which are completely separate from those associated with the school.

How have you stayed creative during the pandemic? Any new compositions or projects in the works?

The COVID-19 pandemic certainly has hit musicians hard in terms of our ability to perform and earn a living, but I’ve been keeping extremely busy on a couple of fronts. Prior to the pandemic, I had not embraced online teaching and had concerns about its effectiveness. After about 3 weeks of being shut down, I decided to give it a try and was pleasantly surprised at how well it worked. I still feel that in-person lessons are best, but virtual lessons work well and are something that I will continue to offer even when the pandemic has ended.

In addition to teaching, I was approached in late April by a venue about putting together an hour-long video that would simulate a live concert. I accepted and then proceeded to finish editing several recently recorded solo guitar songs which were included along with some other previously released ensemble videos. Once completed, the program was delivered via an “unlisted” link on my YouTube Channel. It was a huge success. I asked around and roughly a dozen other venues signed on for their own personalized version of the video. Mind you, the video involved a lot of work, but I had the time and was beyond grateful for the opportunities.

Most of the venues eagerly jumped on board for program #2 to be broadcast in the summer. As I began work on this program, Pennsylvania entered the “green phase” which meant that I could bring Ted Lis, a saxophonist, to my studio to record overdubbed parts. This project utilized more ambitious editing techniques, so the new video took more time to complete than the first. Once again, folks seem to love the program and many asked for a third video for the fall which is currently being broadcast.

I was even more ambitious for the fall video and, in addition to multiple guitar parts and the sax, I brought a bassist and a drummer into my studio to record (one at a time to be safe). The individual songs contained in these programs will eventually be made publicly available on my YouTube Channel and possibly released as an album. I’m now working to accomplish a fourth video program in time for the holidays. The more recent videos each take approximately two months to complete. They involve producing commercially releasable quality audio along with high definition, 4K video. These projects are not simply live-streamed concerts or informally recorded parts that I’ve seen many other musicians rely on through the pandemic. I have focused, through many years, on acquiring the skills and investing in equipment to record and produce high definition audio and video. As a result, I’ve found myself in a position to take on these projects throughout 2020.

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