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One of Washington D.C.’s Finest, Steve Herberman

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In this exclusive JGT interview, contributor Joe Barth talks to a Washington D.C./Baltimore area jazz guitarist, Steve Herberman.

Washington D.C. is, of course, the center of many world affairs and government leaders.  It is also a place where great jazz can be found and one playing that jazz is guitarist Steve Herberman.  Steve got hooked on playing a stringed instrument when, at age eleven, his parents brought home a souvenir ukulele from Hawaii. This led to the guitar which led to his majoring in jazz guitar at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Steve later returned to the Washington D.C./Baltimore area and established a career as a musician there.


Steve Herberman

JB:  When did you start to play jazz guitar and what inspired you to take up the guitar? 

SH:  I began playing jazz on guitar in my freshman year of high school. Before that, I was inspired to pick up the instrument by hearing so many guitarists via recordings played on the radio, mostly all rock guitarists. 

JB:  What was most helpful in your personal development as a guitarist?

SH:  My first guitar teacher, Charlie Kilmain, was the most helpful. I started with him when I was about 11 years old. He had me get a couple of fakebooks and was big into music theory and learning tunes. He was my first real exposure to jazz music. 

JB:  To you, what are three of the most influential jazz guitar albums and why?

SH:  I can’t pick a single Wes Montgomery album but he was the most influential, I loved all of his recordings. He used to say, to paraphrase, that no single jazz guitarist had everything in perfect balance, but I feel that if anyone did it was Wes! His timing was impeccable. His chordal soloing was unbelievable and the octave playing, stunning. His musicality on the instrument is arguably unmatched, even to this day.

George Van Eps is also one of my biggest influences. His concepts of harmony on the guitar are very deep and always inspirational. He showed that it was possible to develop a chordal vocabulary on guitar that dealt in multiple lines while improvising through chord progressions. He was a modern day J.S. Bach.

Lenny Breau is another guitarist that I think of daily. His idea of comping beneath a melody like a jazz pianist is inspirational, not to mention all of his other innovations on guitar. When I flew cross country (twice!) to take a couple of lessons with Ted Greene in the mid 1990’s Lenny Breau and George Van Eps were my main topics for Ted. And of course, Ted’s playing and teaching was a prime motivator for me. Those two lessons were impactful in that Ted’s approval of the idea of fusing the styles of Van Eps, Breau, Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass, kept me on the path, even now. Ted was such a genius and a very warm person and I’m grateful I got to know him a little bit and learn so much from him.

Speaking of Joe Pass, I heard him play live quite a few times in the mid 1980’s. Most of the time it was Joe playing solo guitar which really got me interested in trying to do this myself. In speaking with him about music and guitar he was very supportive and very motivational. His playing was so exciting. Seeing and hearing him do it right in front of you was incredibly inspiring. He was daring in that on a couple of occasions he’d ask for requests and then ask what key they wanted it played in!

I heard Kenny Burrell several times and saw him teach a clinic at Berklee a few years after I had graduated. The biggest takeaway from that day was to use my ears more and learn tunes off of the recordings. I love Kenny’s sound and his time-feel. I listened to him so much while in college that a few of my teacher’s referred to me as “the Kenny cat!”

Barney Kessel was yet another model of excellence for me. I wore his recordings out and found him the “most transcribe-able” out of all guitarists. I used to hear him with Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd in the Washington DC clubs and he played every note like his life depended on it, and he would be the first one to tell you that this was his philosophy. A truly one of a kind person and musician.


JB:  Which of your CDs best represents your playing?

SH:  Probably Counterbalance since it’s a solo CD and that has been my main focus over the last 10-15 years. But I’ve also done a lot of duo gigs with vocalists, bassists, and guitarists and have CDs representing that part of my playing. I really enjoy the duo format as well as the classic – guitar, bass, and drums format which I’ve recorded several CDs with. 

JB:  Apart from the lower string, what do you enjoy most about playing a seven-string guitar?

SH:  I love the range it gives. Whether I’m playing open-string bass notes or fretting them, there is always a good low note available it seems. The 7-string guitar led me to get better at playing fingerstyle guitar and approach the instrument more orchestrally. I love juggling all of the parts and inventing counterpoint over harmonic progressions. I don’t think that will ever get old for me. 

JB:  Over your stellar career as a teacher, what are some traps that guitar players get themselves into? 

SH:  Maybe the biggest trap is when the student is not doing enough critical listening in order to improve or add to aspects of their playing. Another trap is for the player to leave the imitation stage once they are ready. Once a student studies one or more players for an extended time it is best to be yourself and find out what you can offer that is uniquely “you.” Another thing I see too much of is the reliance on charts over memorization of tunes. 

JB:  Except for your time in Boston at Berklee College, you have lived in the Washington DC area all your life.  What do you find rewarding in your career now?

The things I find rewarding now are the same as they’ve always been. Playing with good musicians and listening and learning from each other. Being able to share what I know with students and continuing to hone my craft and add new elements, which may be the hardest part. Performing music at a high level is a goal that will hopefully never change.


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