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JGT Series: Acoustic Flattops in Jazz #3, Ralph Towner



Jazz Guitar Today contributor Marc Silver continues the ‘Acoustic Flattops in Jazz’ series with musical innovator, Ralph Towner.

In 1972 I left the Berklee College of Music and returned to my hometown of Detroit to figure out my next move. I started working at a well-known jazz record store called Land of Hi-Fi so I could make a few bucks and get a discount on the copious number of LPs I was regularly purchasing back then. Many of the employees at this particular store were some of Detroit’s established jazz musicians supplementing their gigging income, so it was definitely a good place to be hanging out every day.

Great music was constantly playing in the main record room, especially new music. One of the new albums was Weather Report’s second album, “I Sing the Body Electric.” Weather Report didn’t employ guitar in their group, but there was one track on this new LP that featured a 12-string acoustic guitarist named Ralph Towner. His improvised solo intro on “The Moors” was unexpected, astonishingly funky, and introduced Towner to the jazz world at large. It certainly made me want to hear more of him… a lot more.

Since this series of articles is about acoustic flattops in jazz, we must take into consideration that when we electric players pick up an acoustic guitar our sonic universe changes. The feel of the instrument, harmonics, open strings, string gauge and action all conspire together to move our fingers in search of those distinctive sounds inherent to flattop acoustic guitars. And we only play acoustics part-time…

On the other hand, Ralph Towner has been playing 12-string and nylon-string acoustic guitars full-time for over 50 years in live performances and recordings. Whether playing solo guitar, duos, trios, or larger ensembles, Towner’s unique voice on the instrument is instantly recognizable. In addition to being a master guitarist, he is also one of the most prolific composers of the last five decades, writing for, and performing with artists such as The Paul Winter Consort, Oregon, Weather Report, Gary Burton, John Abercrombie, Larry Coryell, Keith Jarrett, Charlie Haden, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette, and many more.

His live performance rig consists of a custom-made nylon-string classical guitar and a Guild 12-string steel-string acoustic. He doesn’t use pickups on his guitars and relies solely on a Beyerdynamic M-160 hypercardioid ribbon microphone to pick up his instruments acoustically when performing live. Ironically, this is the same microphone that was used to capture Jimi Hendrix’s guitar amp when he recorded his studio albums.

Even if you’re a Ralph Towner fan, he doesn’t fit neatly into the “jazz guitar” category. His music is a category unto itself. He started out as a Bill Evans-influenced jazz pianist in NYC in the late 1960s, but then traveled to Vienna to study classical guitar and got hooked on the guitar as his primary instrument.

Mr. Towner includes jazz standards in his repertoire, but he draws mostly from his vast catalog of original compositions… and thankfully so. Ralph is a wonderfully original creator of melodies and harmonies that are not based on typical jazz progressions, yet provide fertile ground for his adventurous improvised solos.

Take a listen…

With Weather Report…

As the story goes (I’m paraphrasing), Ralph’s 12-string was stolen just before this Weather Report recording session, so he went to a local music store and rented a 12-string that happened to have super light strings on it. He didn’t have time to change the strings and just took it to the session as-is. He asked if he could have a few minutes to warm up. He didn’t know that Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul told the recording engineer to roll tape. When Towner came into the control room to say he was ready, Zawinul told him they already got what they wanted. The improvised intro of the song is what was captured when Ralph was warming up.

With Oregon…

Icarus is probably Towner’s most famous composition, written for the 1972 Paul Winter Consort album, aptly titled Icarus, recorded in 1971. Eventually, Towner and three other members of the Consort left to form the now iconic acoustic improvisation group, Oregon.

Various Solo/Duo Performances…

Playing Standards…

These musical examples only scratch the surface of Ralph Towner’s musical legacy. If you like what you hear, there’s a lot more to explore. Enjoy!

Marc Silver is a guitarist, composer, and author, best known for writing the classic instruction book Contemporary Guitar Improvisation (Utilizing the Entire Fingerboard), which has been teaching guitar players around the world how to improvise since 1978. Visit online at

Flattop Acoustics in Jazz? Absolutely!

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