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Oregon’s Pedal Steel Player and Jazz Guitarist, Christopher Woitach



In this exclusive JGT interview, contributor Joe Barth talks to a pedal steel player and jazz guitarist, Christopher Woitach.

Northern Oregon has several wonderful jazz guitarists with John Stowell, Jeff Putterman, and Ryan Meagher to name a few.  Within that group is Christopher Woitach.  Originally from the Ithaca, New York area, then because of his love for Jerry Garcia and the music of the Grateful Dead, leaving high school to play music in the San Francisco bay area, Christopher Woitach has lived in the Northern Oregon area for about twenty years.  Before that Chris lived in the Bellingham, Washington area.  Christopher is a composer, educator, pedal steel player, and of course a wonderful jazz guitarist.

Christopher Woitach

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

CW:  I was inspired to take up guitar at age thirteen when a classmate showed me a G chord. I played the chord and immediately said “I’m gonna do this the rest of my life”. Side note – don’t make life decisions when you’re thirteen…

A little odd, since my father was an accomplished jazz pianist, regularly playing in a trio with Slam Stewart, and friends with Art Tatum. He died when I was fifteen, so his influence was mainly osmotic, having heard that music my whole life.

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

CW:  The most helpful things in my personal development as a guitarist were a combination of my absolute obsession with the guitar (there were many 10-hour sessions when I was young), and a few well-timed meetings with crucial influencers. A remarkable guitarist in Ithaca named Ken Carrier took me in hand, guitarist and educator Steve Brown gave me some clear direction, and I was fortunate enough to take several lessons from the great Jim Hall at his apartment in New York City.

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

CW:  Sad Pig Dance  Dave Evans… not a jazz guitar album at all, but full of interesting instrumentals that inspired my composing, and the idea of interesting solo guitar that is a major basis of my own style.

Easy Living  Paul Desmond with Jim Hall…  the first jazz guitar I intentionally listened to. I found it with my father’s records in my mother’s closet and was amazed by the sound and beauty of the guitar. It was years before I had a clue what was going on.

Pianist Don Friedman with Attila Zoller on guitar Metamorphosis… the first “Avant Garde” record I heard, also in my father’s collection. Of course, not very out by today’s standards, but different tonalities than any I’d heard 

I would be remiss to not mention the profound effect that Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead had on my ideas about improvising as a group. I quit high school and went to San Francisco to play this style of music when I was sixteen.

JB:  Which of your CDs best represents your playing?

CW:  It’s difficult for me to say which of my CDs best represents my playing since there are a lot of “me’s”… My first straight-ahead recording, Guitar and Bass, a duo with Larry Holloway, shows some glimmers of the way I play now. The two recordings I made of my original music, Family and Dead Men (are heavier than broken hearts), show my modern and free playing and represent my best compositions. The two CDs I did with guitar master John Stowell show my “playing with John Stowell” sides… I will finally (hopefully) get around to a solo recording, which will be the clearest.

JB:  You are a skilled pedal steel guitar player.  What are some of the challenges in playing jazz on the pedal steel?

CW:  The most obvious problem is pitch – I played guitar for about 37 years before taking up pedal steel, and once the instrument is in tune, you just put your finger in the right fret and there’s your note. On the steel guitar, you have markers or frets to help you, but nothing is automatic – a little low, a little high, not holding the bar straight and it’s awful! 

Another huge challenge is that the instrument is an accident waiting to happen. For example, my steel is a single neck 12 string Bb6 (from low to high, CEbGBbDFGBbDFGC, the first string reentrant to the pitch between 5th and 4th string), with 8 pedals and 5 knee levers, many of which affect multiple strings – it’s remarkable how much can go wrong in the act of performing on it, regardless of the hours and hours one practices!

For all the challenges, it is an amazingly expressive instrument, and capable of any kind of music – jazz, free improvisation, classical, rock, anything. I’m lucky I was able to study with Maurice Anderson, one of the jazz steel pioneers before he passed away.

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

CW:  There are lots of little things, but the most common and most difficult to overcome is to learn to decide what’s important and what’s not important. That took me a while, myself. We hear an incredibly virtuosic player like George Benson, and think “oh that’s incredible that he plays so fast!”. It is incredible that he plays so fast, but what’s important is WHAT he’s playing. Listen to a player like Ed Bickert – although he’s technically very good, it’s his incredible harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic sense that is truly mind-blowing. Once you realize the importance of that, you know what to study and work on, and speed and technical facility will follow. Technique is, of course, important, but as a means to an end, not an end in itself.

JB:  You have lived in the Portland, Oregon area for over twenty-five years.  What do you find rewarding in your career now?

I have a wonderful quartet (me on pedal steel, John Moak on trombone, Tim Gilson on fretless electric bass, and Charlie Doggett on drums) that has a monthly gig at a place called Jo Bar. This group, if I can ever get it out in the world, has a unique and powerful sound, and has three of the absolute finest players in the Northwest, plus jazz pedal steel. I love this group.

I have several solo guitar gigs, and gigs where I’m the “band”, accompanying vocalists and horn players, which are probably the best thing I do. I’m recording a video for Mike’s Masterclasses on “Being the Band” that I hope helps others do similar work. I have other videos on similar subjects for Truefire and Mike’s, as well. I think they’re pretty good, overall.

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