Jazz Guitar Today talks to Sean McGowan – a premier fingerstyle jazz guitarist on the scene, both as a performer and an educator.
Sean McGowan has managed to earn more than a few accolades along the way, establishing a strong marketing base that has allowed him to accomplish a great deal in this business of music. McGowan’s influence reaches far and wide. In this in-depth discussion on his musical journey and influence on today’s jazz guitar terrain, Sean shares some of his secrets of his success with the readers of JGT.
JGT: Your fingerstyle jazz sets you apart from most jazz guitarists—how did that come about?
I really like playing the guitar with my fingers – I just feel more connected to the instrument and have more control over sound, dynamics, and timbre. And I’ve always been attracted to players who could make the guitar sound like a mini-orchestra. When I was young I saw Chet Atkins live, and he just blew me away with his style and ability to play all that music coming from just one guitar! Later on, in high school, I was listening to a lot of different guitarists in all styles, but I also listened to acoustic fingerstyle guitarists such as Leo Kottke, Michael Hedges, and Alex de Grassi. Also, a teacher of mine made me tapes of classical and South American guitarists like John Williams, Segovia, Luiz Bonfa, and Cacho Tirao, which I just loved the sound of. And then there was Stanley Jordan, but he was doing something completely different. Being from Maine of course I became aware of Lenny Breau and I knew many people who knew him and played with him. There were all these different ways and approaches to playing the guitar that sounded so musically complete that I really enjoyed listening to.
JGT: Which fingerstyle guitarist had the most influence on you? What did you take from them?
For me, the two players that really set me on the path of wanting to focus on fingerstyle jazz were Tuck Andress and Earl Klugh. I would listen to their solo recordings (Tuck’s Reckless Precision and Earl’s Solo Guitar) every day, not understanding how they played any of it, but trusting that if I listened deeply, it would start to make sense – conceptually, harmonically, and technically.
Tuck’s playing on the early Tuck & Patti recordings just blew me away. He was so swinging, so complete, yet he played ballads beautifully with harmonics and lush chord voicings, plus driving funk grooves – no doubt inspired by his time playing in the Gap Band. And I loved his guitar tone – it was so clear and articulate. He represented everything that I loved about Benson and Wes, but also combined with the sensibilities of the Windham Hill acoustic guitarists that I loved. I had the opportunity to meet Tuck and study with him for a week in 1992 at a retreat in New York. I had been working on solo guitar for a year or so by then, and I had a few things together. We hit it off that week and the following year, he invited me to co-teach a week-long workshop on fingerstyle jazz guitar in California, which was incredibly exciting as he was my guitar hero. He still is! His ability to connect and communicate with people through his instrument and his teaching style made a deep impression on me. I was 22 at the time and that experience teaching alongside him, but also watching and learning from him as a mentor really inspired me to want to teach in addition to playing music.
Most people are aware of Earl Klugh’s more commercial recordings – and those are great – but fewer guitarists are aware of his solo recordings, which to me are at the top level. His tone and touch are exquisite – so elegant – it’s the epitome of control and musical balance. The way he manipulates different parts simultaneously – not just technically – but dynamically, is just ridiculous. It’s almost intoxicating – definitely on the level of any virtuoso classical guitarist. When he plays solo in time, he does the stride piano thing so well, but also the sparse piano hits under solo lines like how Bill Evans would play solo piano. Lenny Breau spent many years developing his style to emulate Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner, and it’s still unbelievable to listen to. And I think Earl took Lenny’s approach, did his own thing, and really perfected it.
In addition to guitarists, I’ve been deeply influenced by pianists, both in group and solo settings. I love the way Thelonious Monk played solo, and of course Bill Evans. I was influenced by Marcus Roberts – his inventive counterpoint and voicings – and also Oscar Peterson’s solo playing. Check out his My Favorite Instrument record – so swinging, the block chord stuff, amazing rhythmic feel and drive, but also listen to his ballad playing. “Little Girl Blue” is breathtaking. People don’t talk about Oscar’s ballad playing so much, but his voicings and approach were so deep and sophisticated.
Finally, I would add the sheer genius of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn in their arrangements have been deeply inspirational. And vocal a cappella groups like Take 6 have had a profound influence on my thinking and how I want to play the guitar. Cedric Dent’s and Mark Kibble’s arrangements – just unbelievably beautiful – and that kind of thinking along with arrangers like Gene Puerling, Marty Paich, Andre Previn, Earth, Wind & Fire records – all of that had a big influence on how I approached playing solo guitar.
JGT: In many ways, you are a self-made man. Your career didn’t develop in the traditional way of serving as an apprentice on the bandstand under the watchful eye of some legendary jazz guitar icons—thoughts?
I think we are all self-taught to the extent that, at the end of the day, only we are responsible for taking the initiative and commitment to practice, learn history, dig deep, transcribe, learn repertoire – all of it. At the same time, we all have had important teachers whether it’s in a formal school setting, or going out on the road with someone, or even on the bandstand in an informal jam session. There are always opportunities to learn if your eyes and ears are open. That includes learning what not to do as well as what to do. I’ve been very fortunate to have studied with some great thinkers who happened to play guitar, such as Tuck Andress, Mick Goodrick, Joe Diorio, Frank Potenza, Tom Giacabetti – as well as numerous clinics and opportunities to spend time with other musicians. I remember being deeply inspired by a single workshop with Clare Fischer because was so articulate, creative, and heavy. In just one clinic, he went deep into the playing of Meade Lux Lewis, then Brazilian music, to all those beautiful orchestrations and arrangements he did for Prince! However, in most applied lesson settings, it’s an opportunity to ask someone how they see a situation or solve a musical problem, and often just to play together in a duo setting. And I didn’t go to school to earn my degree until I was 26, so I’d already been playing for years in a variety of musical settings and had my own ideas of how I wanted to play. I do enjoy learning about how different people see and approach harmony on the guitar, for example. There are so many different ways to do it – the fingerings, string sets, fretboard concepts and patterns, voice-leading – but at the end of the day, you have to find your own way of doing things. Everyone has their own voice, which is in part, a culmination of all their influences, teachers, experiences, and inspirations.
JGT: What was your DMA experience like at USC?
I loved it! I really loved living in L.A. and being around all the creative energy, vibrancy, and diversity there. There’s always been an amazing guitar scene with wonderful players, and that’s true of USC, too. There were a lot of great students who are now out there recording, touring, and teaching – jazz players like Perry Smith and John Storie (of the New West Guitar Group), Charles Altura, Adam Hawley – and so many others in all styles of music. There would be regular guitar recitals where everyone would play and people like Larry Koonse and Sid Jacobs would come hang out – it was very inspiring. And the faculty were of course stellar. I took classes and lessons with Frank Potenza, Pat Kelley, Richard Smith, and was very fortunate to study with Joe Diorio right up until he retired. The guitar community in L.A. is strong, and very friendly and welcoming – full of respect and camaraderie. A weekly tradition was John Pisano’s Guitar Night, which was always a great time.
I never studied classical guitar formally, but while at USC, I took some classes in the Classical Guitar department with Jim Smith, who was a legend there, mostly on classical guitar pedagogy, literature, and history, and also spent time with Bill Kanengiser and theory with Brian Head. Jim was fantastic – such a scholar and lively person. He really liked how I played and loved extended techniques such as right-hand fretting. He would talk about going to see Joe Pass play in L.A. clubs back in the day. I found the classical program to be very open-minded there, and of course the guitar players would all hang out anyway – because that’s what we do! (laughs) I have such an admiration for and appreciation of classical guitarists, and I would go to guest workshops that featured renowned musicians such as Pepe Romero and learn so much just by watching how he would teach and get immediate results from a player. When I lived in Philadelphia, I taught at the Classical Guitar Store and was surrounded by great classical players. I love what they do, and they usually appreciate what I do as well. I was very honored this past June to be featured as a performer and masterclass artist for the annual GFA Convention, which usually only features classical guitarists.
JGT: Discuss your teaching duties at the University of Colorado Denver—what are your students like? How have you influenced them, and vice versa?
Over the years I’ve taught a variety of courses, including music theory and ear-training, improv, history, and I’ve developed several guitar courses that survey acoustic, electric, and world guitar styles. I also recently developed a course called, “The Holistic Musician” that is open to all students. It covers health and wellness for musicians and includes strategies for the prevention of injuries and cumulative trauma, mental wellness, spirituality/music/mindfulness, and creating a career trajectory based on one’s own awareness and definition of happiness and success.
I’ve been blessed to have worked with many inspiring and talented guitar students who have gone on to accomplish wonderful things. One of my students has won the Winfield International Fingerstyle Guitar competition twice! And I have to say, I felt more joy from watching him win those and grow into an incredible guitarist, than if I had won a competition, you know? My wife studied djembe for a long time with an incredible master, Famoudou Konate, and he would often speak of the energy exchange between student and teacher, between the drum and the player, between the musicians and community.
I’ve always had a strong sense of service in my core personality – I think most teachers who dedicate their lives and energy to working with students share this. I’m sure you do Wayne! The reciprocal nature of teaching and learning is really a beautiful cycle. I learn just as much from my students as I hope to share with them. I hope to have inspired them to work on creating a musical life and career on their own terms – not someone else’s. And to be patient with yourself as your organic ideas and development unfold naturally. It’s not a competition. We’re in this for the long haul. And I’ve learned so much from my students. One of the things I enjoy most is their courage to question things these days. Because it requires both of us to take a good hard look and ask questions about or further establish the legitimacy of certain things. They’re coming up in an extremely tough and challenging world, and I so admire their courage to commit to a life in music.
Last summer I became the department chair of the music program. We have the largest contemporary music program in the Rocky Mountain region – almost 600 students and over 50 faculty. It’s a lot to manage and it’s been quite a steep learning curve for me personally to work on the administrative side for the first time in my career. But I also enjoy solving problems in this capacity, and it’s similar in a way to solving musical problems that are challenging. I really believe in our faculty and students, and I want to serve our program in the best way I can to continue to grow, and impact students’ lives – and subsequently our society – in a positive and meaningful way. Think about all the lives you’ve touched through your teaching Wayne – those people become teachers, parents, members of society doing important work, etc. And all of them have benefitted from a teacher who really cared about them and their work and self-development.
JGT: Let’s discuss your music: Your first solo album, River Coffee, was a phenomenal debut in 2002—it got a lot of immediate fanfare, yes?
River Coffee was chosen as one of Acoustic Guitar magazine’s Best Independent Releases of the Year in 2002, which really helped with publicity since I wasn’t on a label and didn’t have any management or marketing agency to speak of. Music from that recording was featured on BBC radio and Mel Bay published my composition “August” as part of Masters of Fingerstyle Guitar compilation. I really loved making that record because it represented my affinity for jazz and acoustic music traditions, which I tried to encompass with the voice of solo acoustic guitar.
JGT: I love how you tackle the classic standards on Indigo in 2008—what was your inspiration for that?
After River Coffee, I knew I wanted to record another solo guitar record, but with an archtop guitar. It was recorded by Pat Kelley, who knows how to get a great guitar sound, and we used a combination of amps, direct signals, and a microphone on the f-hole to get a pristine and full acoustic tone. The recording featured a collection of tunes I had been playing for years with bands, but wanted to explore in a solo context, and also develop some new techniques with right-hand fretting for the introduction to “My Romance” and trying to capture Oliver Nelson’s beautiful horn lines in “Stolen Moments”.
JGT: Do you use any special tunings?
I mostly play in standard but will sometimes play in drop-D to get that low note if I need it. One tuning I use occasionally is CGDGBE, which gives you kind of a 7-string effect. I came upon that tuning when I was transcribing Duke Ellington’s exquisite “Single Petal of a Rose” for River Coffee, and I really wanted to get those low piano notes. It’s a nice tuning because you get the stacked 5ths on the bottom three strings, but the top four strings are still in standard so you can play the same voicings you normally would. I think of it as kind of a cello tuning, and I used it for “Where or When” on Indigo and “Light Blue” on the Monk record.
JGT: Talk about Sphere: the Music of Thelonious Monk in 2011: How challenging was it to tackle his music?
Very challenging (laughs!) But also, very liberating. I think one of the many reasons we all love Thelonious Monk’s music so much is that it gives us permission to explore. His creative spirit was so playful, so rhythmic, and so perfect, I think. I always loved the way he played in a quartet setting, and also his solo piano recordings – incredibly beautiful and poignant.
Since I play guitar, I didn’t have to worry about replicating his music and voicings perfectly like a pianist might. Instead, I tried to capture the essence of his music and the things I love about his writing and the way he played the piano. It was a fun challenge to recreate that and gave me the opportunity to explore playing clusters using right-hand fretting, playing multiple parts at once, comping while soloing – that kind of thing. I wanted to stay in his original keys – not sacrificing the integrity of the music or playing in a different key just to make it easier on guitar, you know? So, one challenge was figuring out these little musical riddles, which I love doing. On “Trinkle Tinkle” for example, I had to drop the low string to Eb, while keeping the others in standard just so I could get that low note in the home key. That took a minute to wrap my head around (laughs)!
JGT: Discuss your approach to the guitar arrangements of holiday music (Thanksgiving and Christmas Tidings) in 2014?
I love Christmas and Holiday music, and had always wanted to arrange and record a solo guitar album of some classics and lesser-known pieces. Once I decided on acoustic guitar, that gave me the direction to explore these songs, some of which are very old. In a way, this project was as challenging as Sphere in the sense that some of those songs have been recorded a million times, and there’s a certain expectation from the listener. So how can you add your personal touch to one of those Holiday standards? For me the answer was in the style and mindset of arrangement, adding some less common but beautiful repertoire, and also exploring different tunings like DADGAD that I don’t really know and have to use my ears to get around and find things.Those arrangements were later published in 2019 by Acoustic Guitar in a book & video tutorial called, Holiday Songs for Fingerstyle Guitar.
JGT: What inspired you to devote an entire album project to My Fair Lady in 2015?
I really like having a unified theme to my recordings, even though most people these days listen to music in a fragmented way, shuffling through the phone or on a playlist. But I’ve always loved a concept with a record, and in jazz it’s often with a songbook like all those incredible Ella Fitzgerald songbook collections. I had played some of those songs like “On the Street Where You Live” and had always loved the musical and film (my son was infatuated with Audrey Hepburn when he was little, haha!) Then I started listening to Oscar Peterson’s and Andre Previn’s trio recordings of My Fair Lady, and that sold the idea to me. So once again, there was that challenge of conveying a song that people know without being able to convey the lyrics, in addition to the challenge of playing solo. But I always try to imagine the way I’d want to play something with a trio, and then try to realize that on solo guitar. And it’s so important – whether you’re playing Monk’s music, standards, or Lerner & Loewe – to always keep the melody clear, upfront, and intact.
JGT: You have a new album, Union Station, just released—what’s the story behind the title and the music?
2020 was so brutal for all of us musicians, and of course for all of society. We were all stripped of doing the things we love plus what we do for a living – overnight. All of a sudden, no one could gather together. We were all under lockdown, and even though many musicians pivoted swiftly to online streaming and teaching – I know I had a big learning curve in that regard – it just wasn’t the same as playing live, of course.
Musically, it had been a while since I recorded any new music, and I really wanted to explore a collection of original music for a trio. Prior to the pandemic, I had been working on and off with a wonderful trio in Denver that featured Jeff Jenkins on organ and Todd Reid on drums. We did a residency at a club in town just playing the music of Wes Montgomery, which I loved so much. I think the organ trio has a special place in guitarists’ hearts because it has featured so many luminaries over the years. Another thing that’s cool is you can play in a totally different way because of the sound; it’s really like four or even five different instruments in a trio format, depending on how you play with the organist and drummer, and how you swap parts and melodies, etc. I really like the creative format of the organ trio.
The concept for this album was centered around the inherent joy of traveling and gathering with people, which of course, we haven’t really been able to do and just took that for granted. I’ve always liked trains and train stations, and walking into Union Station in downtown Denver is kind of like walking into the past. The architecture is so elegant and classic – like Kenny Burrell’s playing! And it’s cool to see all the people coming and going, and imagining where they will go and the people they’ll see. We ended up recording 14 full-length tunes and improvising six short interludes in two days that have a recurring theme, kind of like telling a story. I always want my music to take the listener on a journey, if possible.
JGT: You have a very strong commitment to instructional books and videos—can you share how you’ve built your following with several companies in those areas?
I started writing columns and lessons for Acoustic Guitar magazine in 2004 when I was in grad school living in Philadelphia. I’ve always enjoyed teaching, and also putting together ideas on paper to share in the form of a concise lesson or article. I’m a total guitar book nerd, and had always dreamed of writing one someday. After years of writing articles for AG, they asked me to write a method book focusing on fingerstyle jazz, which became Fingerstyle Jazz Guitar Essentials. That was a lot of fun and really challenging to put together, because with a print publication you have to fit a lot of information and music into a short amount of space. I later wrote another book, called The Acoustic Jazz Guitarist, which is a primer for jazz guitar, but also gets into some advanced harmonic and improv concepts in the later chapters. A few years ago, Hal Leonard published a compendium of full transcriptions from my solo guitar recordings, called Fingerstyle Jazz Guitar Solos. I’m very proud of that, and it was a lot of work putting together.
I recorded many video lessons that are downloads available with the books, which really taught me how to be efficient when teaching and demonstrating concepts on camera, with and without a script. In the last couple of years, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting and working with the incredible team at TrueFire.com. They produce super high quality video tutorials and online courses for all styles of guitar. I currently have a dozen courses with them that cover all facets of jazz guitar, from comping and improv to arranging for and playing solo guitar, developing fingerstyle techniques, and collections of fingerstyle jazz études. They’re a great company to work with!
JGT: Let’s talk about equipment. I know you have a very strong relationship with Henricksen amps, and also no less than four different guitar luthiers–how did you cultivate each of those relationships?
Yes, Peter Henriksen and I are very good friends – the Henriksens are like family to my wife and I – and it’s been amazing to watch the business and amp designs grow and develop over the years. I started hearing about a new amplifier called the “Jazz Amp” when I lived in Los Angeles. When I moved to Denver in 2007, I realized they were made just outside of town in Evergreen, so I drove up there to visit the shop. There I met Peter’s father Bud Henriksen and we all immediately started talking about sound, amplifier circuitry, Johnny Smith and Jim Hall, and then I started playing through some of their amps. I was truly blown away by the clarity and quality of sound and the also rugged build of their amps, and right away I bought one of their “Convertible” models, which I still use and love the sound of.
Peter would often ask me to come to the shop or give me an amp to test out on gigs. I think a real breakthrough design for them – and so many acoustic and electric guitarists – was the Bud combo, which was named in tribute to his dad after he passed. Peter and his dad would joke and talk about creating a tiny amp that actually sounded good and could function on a gig, and I think it was kind of an engineering challenge, too. I played through the first set of prototypes and they sounded amazing with their unique EQ setup and speaker/tweeter/cabinet combination. But then one day I had my acoustic flattop guitar with me at the shop and plugged straight in, and Pete and I looked at each other and we were like, “Wow, this thing sounds incredible for archtop AND acoustic instruments!” And then there was the added benefit of ridiculous portability, which is perfect for loading in and traveling. One of my first gigs with the prototype was up on top of a mountain where I had to take a gondola, chairlift, and then finally walk through the snow to the gig. Now, that’s the kind of gig where portability is invaluable! I’ve even flown many times with my Bud amp, either checking it or bringing it on board.
Back in the 90s, I started attending a couple of guitar shows because I was interested in trying to find and buy a vintage archtop like an L-5. The prices were so expensive back then it was a little depressing; the vintage market was really inflated. But I also visited some tables where luthiers were displaying their handmade guitars, and I thought it was the coolest thing. I’d never played a handmade archtop before, and it was immediately clear that these instruments were far superior to the vintage ones I had been looking at. After one show, I became friends with Brad Nickerson, who was one of the luthiers of the famous Blue Guitar collection commissioned by Scott Chinery. I would drive a few hours to hang out at his shop in New England and watch him work – that shop was like a place of magic for me. I finally got enough money together to commission a guitar from him – his 17” Virtuoso model, which is featured on the Indigo and Sphere recordings. I recorded River Coffee and the Thanksgiving & Christmas Tidings albums with one of Brad’s flat top acoustics – his FC3 model. It was his shop loaner model before I bought it. It looks pretty beat-up, but it sounds spectacular! I also have one of Brad’s Solstice model guitars, which is incredible. It’s a fully hand-carved archtop but no f-holes, so it never feeds back no matter how loud I play. We put a TV Jones T-Armond pickup in it, and the sound is huge. I recorded My Fair Lady with the Solstice – I love it.
In the early 2000s I started playing and teaching at guitar shows and festivals such as the Healdsburg Guitar Festival and Newport Guitar Festival, and later the Artisan and La Conner Guitar festivals. I love going to these festivals, meeting luthiers, and learning about all the incredible work that goes into building an instrument. I think it’s an amazing experience to work directly with a master luthier to design and build an instrument – it really is magical. I realized that while I had been playing guitar for a long time, I really knew nothing about the design and construction of the instrument, and how that could impact the sound I was looking for. Plus, luthiers are a lot like jazz musicians – they are super dedicated to their art and constantly striving to improve their skills and instruments. They’re very inspiring and humbling to be around!
A few years ago, I met Tad Brown, an incredibly talented luthier from California, at a guitar festival in Santa Barbara, and demoed several of his guitars in concert. I was immediately impressed by his keen design aesthetics, astonishing finish work, and commitment to sound and ergonomics of the archtop. His guitars are so present and lively – incredibly responsive to the touch and acoustic, with design aesthetics borrowed from violins and cellos. After some lengthy discussion, we decided to collaborate on an acoustic-electric model, called the True Blue. It was all Tad’s design and incredible work – I just had a couple of ideas, and I really liked one of his guitars that had a spectacular blue finish made from lapis lazuli that he actually ground into a powder and made lacquer with. It’s an incredible instrument, weighs just under 5 lbs. as a full 16” archtop! It features a combination of red spruce and red maple with Honduran rosewood that is absolutely beautiful and sounds great. We put a K&K pickup in it in tandem with a Fralin P90, and it sounds great. It’s featured throughout Union Station.
I’ve always preferred single-coil pickups over humbuckers and really wanted to try a Charlie Christian style, which is a commitment because of all the hardware and screws, etc. But Tad was open to the idea – luthiers are usually horrified at the thought of cutting into the top(!!) – and he found a great pickup maker in the UK, which resulted in Tad’s “CC “archtop design model. He shipped the first model to me to make some video demos, and I absolutely fell in love with it! Unbelievable responsiveness and clarity – especially for solo guitar. So now I also have the second “CC Gold” model that is featured on the new Union Station recording. This one has a red spruce top with sugar maple back and sides, along with African Blackwood. It’s slightly smaller at 15 ½”, but still has a 25.4” scale that I like. The Charlie Christian pickup adds some more weight, but it’s still just over 5 lbs. and very comfortable to play as Tad builds smooth bevels into the sides that meet the player’s body.
I also have a Comins archtop, one of their GCS-16 models, that is a fantastic sounding and playing instrument. Bill Comins is widely known for his incredible handmade archtops, and these are designed by him, but produced for him at a small shop in Asia. Bill does the final set-up work, etc., and I think they’re superb instruments for working musicians. Finally, I have a Bourgeois OM acoustic guitar that I absolutely love – it just sounds like a piano, each note has incredible depth and detail. I amplify it with a K&K Sound Trinity mic/pickup combination through a Grace Design preamp that sounds fantastic.
JGT: Thanks so much for sharing all this with our readers.
Thanks so much, Wayne for these great questions, I really enjoyed this interview! I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of your series in Jazz Guitar Today–thanks for all that you do!!
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