JGT contributor Marc Silver recalls a very memorable guitar lesson…with the legendary Joe Pass
Above photo Shelly Manne, Ray Brown, and Marc Silver on guitar, the mid-70s.
In the Summer of 1973, I decided to drive cross-country from Detroit to Los Angeles to see if California was the place I ought to be to grow my career as a working guitarist. My best friend and I hit the road with a small camping tent in order to avoid the cost of staying in motels. After one night sleeping next to a mosquito-infested lake, and a second night sleeping on rocks, we reluctantly decided to spend our third night in the luxury of a cheap motel room with two real beds and a chalk outline of the previous guest.
On the fourth day, we finally arrived at the Venice Beach apartment of my former Berklee dorm roommate. My driving partner stayed one night and then flew back home the next day. After a few more nights in Venice Beach, my former roommate informed me (in true western style) that his place wasn’t big enough for the two of us, so off I went to crash temporarily with my cousin and his wife.
I wasted no time getting started with my goal to determine if LA was going to be my future home. I immediately began making phone calls… LOTS of phone calls.
Remember, this was 1973, so there were no personal computers, no internet, no wifi, no email, no mobile phones, and no texting. We all used landlines and public pay phones, and we were required to actually memorize (or write down) phone numbers.
Back then, you could look up almost anyone in the phone book. I also figured LA’s Local 47 musicians union would have a useful directory that included prominent players.
I looked up Joe Pass. His home phone was listed so I figured “what the heck?”
I dialed his number from a pay phone and he answered on my first try! I introduced myself and naively asked him if we could get together. Astonishingly, he said yes and invited me to his Northridge home that same day! I wrote down the directions to his house and started on my way. Being new in town and not knowing my way around, it took me quite a while to get from Hollywood to Joe’s Northridge home in the San Fernando Valley with only my handwritten notes to guide me.
When I arrived, Joe graciously invited me in and we sat down in his den. His D’Aquisto Excel archtop (handmade by James D’Aquisto) was sitting right there on a stand. We played together for a little bit. He even let me play the D’Aquisto. Then I started asking him questions about improvisation… questions such as “What is your thought process when you play through chord changes?” For the next hour and a half, Joe would play something amazing and then describe what he was doing in terms I could not comprehend at the speed Joe spoke. It all just went right over my head. For Joe, it was as simple as breathing air. For me, it was like trying to breathe under water. I just didn’t get what he was saying. I wish I had the foresight to tape that time together because a few years later it might have made sense to me… maybe.
No matter… I got to hang with Joe Pass for two hours at his house. I got to play with him, ask him questions, play his guitar, and hear him improvise… just Joe and me. But wait, there was one more thing to cap off my “lesson” with the great Joe Pass. As I was about to leave, Joe said “Hey wait, I want to show you something.” Then, with a child-like excitement in his voice, he walked me over to a small, framed photo hanging on his living room wall and said, “Look, there’s me with Wes Montgomery!” Priceless. Definitely a day to remember.
This all took place shortly before Joe recorded his epic album, Virtuoso. Go figure.
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 MarcSilverGuitarImprov.com
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