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Jazz Guitar Today Talks To The Legendary Gene Bertoncini



Gene Bertoncini talks to Jazz Guitar Today about playing beautiful music on “God’s favorite instrument, the Guitar”

Through the history of guitar there are only a handful of artists that have commanded and earned the universal respect, admiration and appreciation that Gene Bertoncini enjoys.  His accomplishments and contributions to his art, guitar, are immense.  Gene Bertoncini’s is as respected for his thousands of performances and cherished recordings as he is for being one of the most prodigious guitar educators of all time. He is an American treasure and it is with great pride we publish this interview of this incredible man, Gene Bertoncini…!

JGT: You’re a brave man… First of all, you’re playing jazz guitar, which takes some bravado in and of itself, but you also play jazz on a nylon string guitar. And that’s a whole different challenge.

Gene: Ha! I owe the nylon string playing to one of the jazz guitar players in my life, Chuck Wayne. I was a student of Chuck Wayne’s – he told me to listen to the music of Julian Bream because he loved the nylon string and classical guitar. So as soon as I got a Julian Bream recording, it changed my whole life because I just loved his playing and the sound he got. I immediately started taking classical guitar lessons. I kept the electric guitar but I also started playing classical on a Velazquez guitar, as well as a Buscarino guitar.

JGT: You have an Architectural Engineering Degree from Notre Dame – you think like an engineer, do you think your background has influenced the way you approach guitar?

Gene: I do. One of the concepts – the idea of planning – planning for a situation. If I’m thinking about a piece of music, I try to plan a little bit to come up with something that is unique or something special about it. Something that might lend itself to a certain kind of creativity.  

Thinking even of the lyrics of a song can change your whole approach. It’s nice to add those elements to the creative process.

JGT: Your approach to the instrument and your approach to learning the notes against chords is interesting. I was watching one of your master classes, you said, okay, the melody note lands on the third of the chord, see for a minor. How about if we try it with the fifth of the chord? How about if we try with a major seventh of the chord? That’s just a novel way to think. And then you said, I’m going to play the five against the root. I’m going to play the sharp five against the root, etc.  The sound of the intervals was one of your themes. Once you get the sound of the intervals in your head, you can apply those in a lot of different places.

Gene: One of the things I like to use in my chords are open strings – this part of the process. I see every open string as the function of a bass note. So if you take a low E and – the open G is the minor third or the open D is the minor seven, and they all can be part of if.  If you’re playing a D flat chord, the open D is the flat nine.  And the G is sharp 11 – and the open B is a flat seven. You can employ these open strings as colors in the chords – really nice colors. And then you get to hear these intervals in a different way, too. They become strong, melodic ideas for you. And if you can add a lyric of a song to your knowledge, that will always enhance the way you’re thinking, as well. Thank you for asking – now that I talk about it. I don’t even know if I do all these things (laughs).

JGT: You mention interpreting the lyric and how they can be essential. 

Gene: Yes, I became very, very aware of lyrics when I started working with Alan Bergman, the great lyricist. I listened to his recordings. He had an album out, Lyrically, Alan Bergman and I listened to it so much – not that it wasn’t for great orchestrations – but it made me aware of the importance of the melody and the lyrics. I started memorizing the lyrics to the songs by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. I played concerts at their house in Hollywood – Barbara Streisand would be sitting in the front. Thanks to Alan and Marilyn.  I loved the knowledge of the lyrics.

Guitar night at the Birdland

JGT: Can you discuss your three-finger technique?  A lot of the classical players will play with two fingers, and some of the flamenco players.

Gene: Yeah, I like to use all – because I practice with all the fingers. Cause in jazz, you never know what you’re going to need.  with the extra finger, you can do more colors, maybe even a chord – I like to use this third finger for a really nice melodic tone.

JGT: And we’re talking right hand, third finger?

Gene: Correct, it’s called Apoyando Rest Strokes. I still like playing the top note of a chord individually with this third finger.

There’s a lot of Gene Bertoncini’s technique on YouTube. If you are interested in seeing what we’re talking about, just go to YouTube and check out the many masterclasses and concerts.

JGT: We don’t normally do history lessons, but I think in this case, it is warranted. You’ve played with Benny Goodman and then Wayne Shorter. Gotta love that!  Hubert Laws, Paul Desmond, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Nancy Wilson, and then Chet Baker, Vic Damone, Eydie Gormé, the list goes on… You worked on the Merv Griffin show, the Jack Paar show, and The Tonight Show.

Gene: So, you are trying to say that I’m old…. (laughs)

JGT: No!  What I’m trying to say is you are respected by the finest in the world.

Gene: I really care about the audience. I’m not just exercising, playing chops, etc.

I care about the people. I really want them to be moved by the music and there’s so much beautiful music to play. And especially with God’s favorite instrument, the guitar.

JGT: So you go to Notre Dame and you get your Architectural Degree – and then you decide you want to be a guitar player…how did that go over?

Gene: My dad and mom spent every penny putting me through college and, it was called slowly. Always just be so grateful. They came out to Notre Dame to see me graduate, with honors. But then, the next week I was playing in a restaurant in the Bronx with Mike. My dad came to the show – he was there sitting amongst the others in the audience. I was wondering what he was thinking. I’m on the stage, playing the guitar after he saw me graduate from Notre Dame. So I played a couple of tunes with Mike Moore, and then I went down off the stage to talk to him. He put his arm around me and said, “whatever you want to do – I’m behind you a hundred percent.” I love my dad.

JGT: Well, that education is part of your DNA now. And you bring that mental training into your art. It’s not like it was a waste of money or time or effort or anything like that. It very much your approach and who you are.

JGT: What was it like working with Chet Baker?

Gene:  Chad was just amazing.  He wouldn’t play a note unless he really meant it. Sometimes he would wait to get an idea – just to take his time.  He was really in touch with every note he played – and it was so wonderful. I learned a lot just by being around and seeing how in touch with what he was doing. What a great player. I used to try to listen to a little Chet Baker before I played a gig, just to get that feeling of being in-touch with the notes you’re playing.

Martin Taylor, Gene Bertoncini, Jimmy Bruno, Frank Vignola, and Roger Sadowsky

JGT: And there’s no question that you have used the Chet Baker philosophy in your playing. I mean, every note that you play is just beautifully expressed.

Gene: That’s so beautiful. Thank you. I like to figure out chord voicings to arrangements so that I bring something different to the tune. I love that.  I have a couple of tunes that I make block chords, like George Shearing chords on the guitar. Melody in the basement, and then the soprano, they work. The George Shearing Quintet with just guitar – four voices. Little things like that, I took the time to do. Why did I feel the joy and figuring out arrangements for solo guitar? I think it had to do a lot with the classical guitar I studied – that opened up another world for me too. I mean, most of us did chops and single line stuff, which is great. But I discovered the reality of harmony and chord voicings. It’s a joy to work out, things like that. And I have my own little book of arrangements.

Gene Bertoncini Plays Jazz Standards: Hal Leonard Solo Guitar Library (Bk/Online Audio)

“When Gene plays a tune, he PLAYS a tune. He works the harmony in an unobtrusive but unique  way that totally uplifts and supports the melody.” Guitarist Ray Matuza

JGT: Any special moments playing with certain musicians or playing in certain places or even playing at home?

Gene: Well, one of the moments – I was a guest soloist with the New York pops orchestra. I played my arrangement of “The Shadow of Your Smile”. So I was there in front of the orchestra at Carnegie hall playing “The Shadow of Your Smile”. And, that was, I’d say that was really great.

Gene: And, one day I got a call to go to a studio and I walk in the studio and there’s Nancy Wilson, Ron Carter, Grady Tate and Hank Jones. We did an album with Nancy Wilson that day. What can I tell you…there were a lot of moments like that. 

With Burt Bacharach, I did a song called “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” and I’m playing guitar on that. It became the number one record in the country.

And it was just because I was doing studio work. Nice experiences doing studio work, but I always wanted to do my own arrangements. So I went back and I worked out things – and I had a steady gig for 18 years.

Gene: I’m really, I’m honored to be here and to be asked these questions – and to be recognized.

JGT: The honor is ours…thanks for your time!

Gene Bertoncini at Birdland. Photo by Roger Sadowsky

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