JGT contributor Joe Barth talks to guitarist Russ Spiegel about his career and his new album, “Caribbean Blue”.
Above photo credit: Peter Juelich
Russ Spiegel, who for years was a New York-based guitarist, grew up in Los Angeles but makes his home now in South Florida. An outstanding guitarist with several CDs to his credit, Russ is also an actor and TV and film composer. He has just released an album of original compositions with a bit of a Caribbean flavor. I spoke to Russ about his approach to playing and his new album.
JB: You were raised in Santa Monica, California until your late teens and then your family moved to Germany, talk about when you started to play guitar and what inspired you to play jazz guitar.
RS: Funny story of how I even came to the guitar. Back when I was a budding teenager in Orange County, CA, my father was an amateur jazz trumpet player (which also became my first instrument) but one day I was listening to the radio, and I suddenly got hooked on rock music when I heard a show playing full-length versions of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women” and David Bowie’s “Station to Station.” I’m sure there were other tunes on that day, but I had just gotten a cassette tape recorder and recorded the show and I listened to this tape for hours and days after that. Radio was big back then and then I also heard Bachman Turner Overdrive and “Dream On” by Aerosmith and I started buying my first LPs. Then one day I got ahold of my father’s music catalog and saw a picture of a Fender Stratocaster and I just knew I had to get one. I bugged my parents for weeks and they finally relented and got me some cheap nylon string guitar and guitar lessons at the local music store. My teacher was a local jazz guitar player named Bob Hahn and he tried to get me to listen to jazz but I just wanted to play rock! That summer I had some lame job so I could earn enough money to buy a guitar and convinced my father to cover the rest, so I finally got myself a real Fender Strat and a Fender Champ amp, and then a friend of mine found out and brought his drums over and we started our first band!
It was only years later when I was living in Germany and had been playing in my room and occasionally playing in various bands that I began feeling that rock was a little too limited and one winter I was on a class trip (I was going to an American High School in Frankfurt, Germany at the time) and at an outdoor market there was a stall selling albums and there was this interesting one by Pat Metheny called 80/81. I bought it and took that album home and that was my first real introduction to jazz! I listened to that album a lot, but it wasn’t until years later when I went to the Berklee College of Music that I really started learning the craft seriously.
JB: During your time in New York, what was most helpful in your personal development as a guitarist studying with Adam Rogers, Paul Bollenback, and Ben Monder?
RS: Great question! After a few years in New York, I decided to go back to school to get my Master’s degree in Jazz Performance at the City College of New York, which at the time had the added benefit of having John Patitucci as our ensemble instructor! Part of the setup there was I could study with anyone in New York I wanted, so, over the course of four semesters, I chose these three (I also studied privately for a while with Jonathan Kreisberg). Adam taught me a lot about time, Ben, about getting deeper into chords and harmony, and with Paul, I developed a conception about tonal organization and sequential playing. Especially here, I came up with a number of approaches to melodic playing that I incorporate to this day.
JB: Did you study with John Hart in Miami?
RS: I think I took a semester with John at the University of Miami. However, since I was working on my doctorate in Jazz Composition, I wasn’t able to devote as much time to work on my playing as I continually had writing projects plus producing and mixing projects there. He’s a great teacher, though.
JB: To you, what are three of the most influential jazz guitar albums and why?
RS: Pat Metheny, 80/81: As I mentioned above, this was the first jazz album I recall owning, and I listened to it a lot! So much creativity, interaction, freedom, and also some very melodic tunes on that album. I really liked how Pat was able to do all this at such a high level and with a very unique and personal voice.
Wes Montgomery, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery: It really showcases his immense talent and how he was able to play interesting, swinging, and melodically and rhythmically complex lines, plus those chords and octaves, and tempo was never an issue! And let us not forget he was also a very gifted composer.
Django Reinhardt, The Versatile Giant: My first album of Django’s was this compilation, and his incomparable, innovative technique, and creativity is on full display here – especially what he does on a borrowed electric guitar on “Blues Riff” with the Duke Ellington orchestra!
One other thing about these three albums – each of them showcases guitarists with totally unique and identifiable musical personalities and sounds. I found that absolutely inspiring!
JB: For your new Caribbean Blue album, were the ten original songs composed for this album? Talk about the compositional process of a couple of the songs.
RS: I had been sitting on these songs for a while, playing them live usually with my trio with Jim Gasior on organ and Lucas Apostoleris on drums. I had originally intended on recording most of this material back in March of 2020 but then Covid happened, and everything came to a screeching halt. However, at a recent gig, a friend and supporter approached me and asked when I was going to make my next album and offered to help out if I did so, so that spurred me on to actually start the process. Then this past summer when I was on tour, I was able to workshop a lot of the tunes so I had a good idea of how they would work in the studio.
As to my compositional process, I guess you could say I mess around with ideas when I’m practicing, and if some idea sticks then I will develop it. Usually, it starts with some chordal and/or rhythmic idea and I’ll usually work on that until it feels like it’s developed enough to stick a melody on. I almost always sing my melodies, but I will also just jam to the tune to try and develop the melody. Also, I try and find different approaches to standards, and out of those come new tunes so the genesis of “Caribbean Blue” actually came from messing around with the old standard “Out of Nowhere.”
JB: Let me ask about what it was like working with a couple of the musical personalities on the album, saxophonist Tim Armacost, and Hendrik Meurkens on harmonica.
RS: Well, I’ve known Tim for a very long time now. I first met him when I was living in Frankfurt, Germany, and he played a show at the Jazzkeller. Later we met up in New York and I think I talked him into playing in my big band – you can hear him on my album Transplants, and later I was leading a small band with him. Unfortunately, that small band never released any music, but even after I moved to Miami, Tim and I stayed in touch.
As for Hendrik, we have a mutual friend named Stu Deutsch who introduced us when I was living in New York. The idea was to add another voice to my big band and so I started featuring Hendrik in some of my arrangements, which led to me writing big band arrangements of some of Hendrik’s tunes. After moving to Miami, Hendrik and I also stayed in touch – as a matter of fact, both Hendrik and Tim came down and played in my band when I gave my doctoral recital. You can find some of that concert on my YouTube page.
In any case, when I decided to finally record my album, Tim and Hendrik were the first people I contacted. In the studio, they were prepared and very professional. They are both incredible musicians and great people to hang with as well. I feel very fortunate to be able to call them my friends.
Listen to Russ on the title song from Caribbean Blue at …
JB: Talk about your work with Nickelodeon’s The Naked Brothers Band.
RS: That was really just about being in the right place at the right time. I had just begun working on my master’s degree at the City College of New York and during the summer break my friend Chris Parello, who was studying there as well, was going out of town and asked me if I would be interested in teaching some kids to look like they were playing guitar for a movie that a friend of his was making. Summers tend to be slow in New York and I needed the money, so I said, “Sure.”
I got a call soon after from Michael Wolff, who, if you don’t know him, is an incredible jazz pianist, having played with some real heavies like Cal Tjader, Cannonball Adderley, Tom Harrell, Sonny Rollins, and Nancy Wilson. In any case, his wife, the actress Polly Draper had written a screenplay that starred their sons Nat and Alex. I worked on the movie, which led to me teaching Nat and Alex privately. Then, when it turned out the movie was going to be turned into a Nickelodeon series, Michael asked me if I wanted to work on it as a music instructor, and of course, I said yes!
I ended up working on that show for three seasons teaching Nat and Alex guitar, along with the rest of the cast. It was an incredible experience and led me into a small acting career which ended when I moved to Miami to work on my doctorate.
JB: Talk about the primary guitar you play.
RS: Once upon a time, I only had one guitar – a 1979 ES-175 that I played for years and years. Over time I was able to start a small collection so now I pick and choose the instrument depending on the show and kind of music I am doing. For a while now, my main guitar has been a Fret-King John Etheridge guitar which I made some modifications on. It’s a great guitar, but it’s not the perfect one all the time. For “Caribbean Blue” I play on, a Fender Tele, a Fender Strat, a D’Angelico Excel EXL-1 Throwback, a Taylor 314, and a Cordoba Fusion 14. I also have a Kiesel Zeus that I travel with plus a few others, and I still bring out the ES-175 from time to time.
JB: Tell us about how you amplify your guitar in performance.
RS: I like small amps. For a long time, I was playing on a Mesa Boogie DC-3 and an AER Alpha for smaller gigs. A while back I discovered Quilter amps, and for quite a while used the 101 Reverb through a Bugera and/or Fender single 12” cabinet, though I most often these days use the Aviator Cub – which I used on the recording – but I also use a Lunchbox Reverb and the Bugera acoustic amp. However, whenever possible, when on the road I request a Fender Deluxe – they are still the best-sounding amps around.
JB: With such a mass of talent coming out of the music colleges each year, what’s the best piece of advice you’d give these guitarists for building an international career?
RS: Having made about as many mistakes as possible in a career (laughs), I’d say it’s really about being the whole package. To have an international career you obviously have to be willing to travel, and visiting different places and getting to know people in different countries is really the only way to do that. It can take a long time! I’ve found a good recipe for success (though some of the following things may seem obvious, trust me, they’re not!) is to shower daily, dress thoughtfully, be on time, learn the music, work on your sound, be observant on the bandstand, listen to and respect others’ opinions, respond quickly to gig and rehearsal requests, get to know who you are playing with, if you are the bandleader be fair and timely with paying people, and play in time!
The Special Magic of the Guitar Trio – New West Guitars
New JGT Lesson: Davy Mooney Explores Playing “Guitar Trio”
How To Approach Note Soloing, Part 1
Thorell Fine Guitars
New Unreleased Recordings From Wes Montgomery With The Wynton Kelly Trio
New JGT Lesson: Davy Mooney Explores Playing “Guitar Trio”
New Vince Lewis Arrangement, “As Time Goes By”
Thorell Fine Guitars
How To Make Your Practicing More Musical
What Should I Be Working On?
Thorell Fine Guitars
Ryan Thorell is known for world-class original guitars collected and coveted by some of the best musicians around the planet...
For over 20 years, Philadelphia, PA-based luthier Bill Comins has been dedicated to refining a line of instruments with the...
Theo Scharpach builds Fine Archtops and Classical concert guitars from his shop in the Netherlands. Theo Scharpach is recognized as...