Rolly Brown -Interview w/ Jon Sholle from Flatpicking Guitar magazine- Nov/Dec '99 . Interview appears courtesy of Rolly Brown and Dan Miller at Flatpicking Magazine.
Jon Sholle showed up at Philadelphia's Cherry Tree Folk Music Club toting a mysteriously tiny gig bag. The occasion was a performance by banjo/pedal steel maestro Winnie Winston on a return visit from his home in New Zealand, and old friends had come out of the woodwork to visit and add to the musical festivities. When Sholle mounted the stage at the start of the second set, the band was surprised to see a Papoose travel guitar, thought to be little more than a toy, in his hands. But when Sholle began playing, all jaws dropped as he rolled out a series of breaks combining the musical grace of Django Reinhardt and the powerful attack of Larry Sparks. It was the high point of the evening, and it sent me scurrying to obtain a copy of his recent CD, "Out Of The Frying Pan", which confirmed the verdict: This guy is one of the most under-rated guitarists on the planet!
A few words about this CD are in order here. It features a series of primarily traditional tunes (along with a couple Sholle originals), ranging from "Banks Of The Ohio" to "Sweet Sue", and covering all of the Bluegrass-to-Country-to-Swing territory in between. The players include Kenny Kosek, Andy Statman, David Grisman, Tony Trischka, and bassist Keith Edwards. With this lineup, one might assume that the music would have a "newgrass" or "new acoustic music" feel to it. Instead, Sholle has put together an album which feels very traditional, with solid driving rhythms that are devoid of any modernistic quirks. This is contraposed against Jon-and-company's consistently imaginative solos, which raise the musical interest level above that of many traditional recordings, and lend a level of unpredictability which ensures many enjoyable repeat listenings.
Jon Sholle grew up on Long Island, near New York City, and began experimenting with his dad's neglected nylon string guitar when he was eight. "I used to pick bugle calls on the D, G, and B strings, and then wonder why that last string didn't sound right." Eventually his mother said, "Either stop fooling around, or learn how to play the thing." The opportunity arose when Miss Ramirez, a teacher in his elementary school, taught some beginning lessons to the students in Jon's class. Several years later, he started taking lessons from Joseph Monk, a Long Island jazz guitarist and educator who took Jon through the Mel Bay books and on into more advanced work with jazz standards. Sholle credits Monk's excellent instruction for having a strong positive influence on his musical development.
Jon laughingly recalled, "He had his own arrangements and his own chord voicings, and he started showing me those, and then eventually, after several years, we just started playing together...he'd send me to the bar downstairs to get him a beer, and we'd just sit and play the blues for a half hour, and then my mom would pick me up. It was definitely a win-win situation."
By age 12, Jon was playing pop music in a band. He'd been exposed to kid's music, folk/cowboy tunes, jazz, and pop, and then came Bluegrass. By age 13, he was recording with banjo player Roger Sprung's band on Folkways Records.
q; When you started playing bluegrass, did you study bluegrass guitar players?
a; Well, there weren't any. I mean, there was no bluegrass lead guitar to speak of in 1960. We didn't have Clarence White....there was George Shuffler....
q; Was Doc Watson already around?
a; Yeah, Doc was there, but it was all brand new. Like "Wow, you can play fiddle tunes on the guitar? And on the banjo?" Nobody had done it. I remember Bill Keith started doing it on the banjo and it was a big sensation. Today, when everything is so available, it's different. Back then, you had to search for it. The essence of what Roger Sprung was doing with his "progressive bluegrass" was bringing together Dixieland jazz improvisation and jazz influence, and putting it with bluegrass material. That was way ahead of its time! Doc was around, because he played on the first progressive Bluegrass album; Vol. I.
q; So how long did you play with Roger?
a: Several years, and I also studied Scruggs style banjo with Roger. He's still around, too...you'll see him at festivals...looks exactly the same, too...I don't know what his secret is....
q; So what happened from there? When did you get tied up with Winnie Winston and those guys, and head for Galax?
a; That was also part of Roger's influence! Roger had a lot of students who were interested in this Southern music, and he had a lot of contacts and friends in the South, and a whole network of people he could stay with, so he organized these trips: He'd load up his old maroon Pontiac Bonneville convertible, and take a few of his students down for a trip on the Blueridge Highway to Galax, and sometimes as far down as Georgia. I guess our parents paid him something for it. I did that for several years before going down to the festivals with people like Winnie Winston and Jody Stecher...We just used to go. Roger would compete, and I played in his band. We met a lot of great players...one time I played with Clark Kessinger. There was a fellow named Gene Meade, who was a descendant of Riley Puckett, and played very much in that style. He had a big influence on me, and a lot of others. There was a whole scene. I met Tut Taylor around that time as well, and Curtis Burch. We all used to jam in the hotel rooms and parking lots. There was a lot going on, and I guess Roger Sprung was very influential in all of it. He was the only guy in New York who knew how to play that Bluegrass style at that time, and everyone used to gravitate towards him. He gave lessons, and he had a little shop. He made "Sprung" Tuners, which were his version of Scruggs tuners. He had a little machine shop in a closet in his parents apartment. So, for me, it was really like a melting pot. I was playing electric guitar in this band, I was learning all this Beatles stuff, or whatever was coming out, and also going to Washington Square and playing Bluegrass...tasting a little jazz on the side...there was a lot of music going on.
q; So where'd it go from there? At some point, you won the guitar contests? (Sholle is a two time flatpicking champion at Galax.)
a; Right. In '67 and '68, the New York Ramblers did pretty well, and brought home some loving cups and ribbons.
q; and did you guys then gig as the New York Ramblers?
a; Not really. I mean, I can't recall any. The New York Ramblers had a lot of different incarnations, and there were a lot of other people involved: Fred Weisz, Sandy Rothman, people like that.
q; Now, the New York Ramblers as an entity...was Grisman the common thread, or Jody? Or was there a common thread? Was it just a name that someone hung on to every time the band changed?
a; You know, I'm not sure...I know Gene Lowinger was part of it at some time. It existed before I came on the scene. It was probably just a name that guys from New York used when they went down to the festival! In '68, I was in the middle of college. Around the time we won the festivals, I decided that I wasn't going to be an English professor. I moved to New York to study film at NYU, and about a year after that I got my first pit job in a Broadway show, and realized I didn't want to be a filmmaker. That came about through David Nichtern, an old, old buddy of mine. Pete Wernick and David Nichtern are two guys who were very responsible for me getting involved in Bluegrass. Pete because he had the radio show on WKCR on Saturday mornings, which used to play Bluegrass. I'd listen to it on my transistor radio as I mowed the lawn... and David and he were friends. David was playing a lot of banjo at the time. Well, David's mother, Claire, was quite a high powered Broadway producer, and she had a show running at the time, called "Jimmy Shine", which starred Dustin Hoffman, and I got a job in the pit through David somehow, playing 5 string banjo and guitar. There was a scene where Cleavon Little was supposed to be playing guitar on stage. But he didn't know how to play, so I would stand in the wings and play what he was supposed to be playing. As I recall, the music for that show was composed by John Sebastian. So that was pretty interesting.
q: Many guitar players around the country first became aware of you when Rounder released your album "Catfish For Supper", which was recently reissued on CD. When was that recorded?
a; Catfish was recorded in 1978, so, by then, I'd spent some time in the late '60s to early '70s in San Francisco playing street music with a dixieland group, and some time in the mid '70s on the road with Esther Phillips, and some other people...Melissa Manchester...I guess, before Catfish was made, I went through a period when I was playing a lot of blues, a lot of electric guitar, and working on the road with pop and blues artists. Esther Phillips was great to work with. Her musical director, PeeWee Ellis, had also been James Brown's musical director for a long time, and he had written things like "Popcorn". PeeWee was definitely a great mentor to me, and I learned a lot from him. He was a great band leader and saxophone player.
q; During all that time, were you learning music sort of by osmosis, or were you a serious student...were you transcribing people's breaks...?
a; I never did alot of transcribing...Osmosis is probably a more accurate term.
q; Did you do a lot of teaching?
a; No, I've never been very good at teaching. I did always try to study with good guitar players, especially jazz players...I studied with a few guys out in California. Had a couple lessons from Joe Pass. When he'd come north, I'd try to corral him into teaching me a little bit, but he'd only give me a couple lessons. Either he thought I'd learned enough to proceed on my own, or he ran out of patience...I guess most of my development was just from listening to records and figuring it out...when you reach a level where you can hear something, know what it is, and then just play it, then you don't need to transcribe.
q; As you grew older, who were the players who were a big influence on you?
a; I'd say Django, Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, and some other more obscure players, like Snooks Eaglin. Tal Farlow, Joe Pass. Jimmy Raney was certainly a pre-eminent single string player. I was also influenced by a lot of non-guitar players: Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker...anybody who influenced the whole course of improvising, it's gotta filter down to other instruments. To me, it was not so much about guitar or licks, but about the Music. I mean, licks have their place, I suppose, but so many people just compose their playing out of licks...
q; So, for you, as a player, what's the alternative to that? What are you doing that isn't "licks".
a; Well, it IS licks, but...it's hard to describe. I guess the process involves thinking, yet not thinking... It's sort of a zen thing. You can't think too much. So, your repertoire of "licks" is your palette...When I sit down to play a solo, somewhere back in my mind is everything from Arthur Smith's "Guitar Boogie Shuffle" to John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme", and you extract whatever seems to fit with what's going on at the moment, and try to build something.
q; As you're playing, do you think theoretically at all?
a; No, I try NOT to think at all. I try to just let myself go into the music, because that's the only way that the music is going to come through you. I don't really think it comes out of us...it comes through us. So you have to let it come through you, and if you're thinking too much, that impedes the flow. So you have to learn licks, just like you have to know scales, or theory, and understand what you're doing, know why and how a V chord leads to a I chord, or the different ways to negotiate these progressions...and then forget it all somehow, and make the leap...it's an inspiration, and you have to let it take you. It's hard to describe the process: We have some kind of a base of knowledge, and it's going through you, through your body, your mind, your fingers, and it's coming out somehow.
q; Is that process the same for you whether you're playing a fiddle tune on an acoustic guitar, or whether you're playing straight-ahead jazz, or are there differences?
a; That's an excellent question.....(ponders) I guess, theoretically, it should be exactly the same, but I don't know about the reality...it's hard to gauge what's going on inside your head when you're actually playing. But assuming you know the song, and you're familiar and comfortable with it, the improvisatory process should be identical. The only difference would be whether you sometimes might be forced to go back and think more concretely, because the changes might be more complex, or if the tune has an extra bar, or someone's cueing you. You know, you can't totally go into a trance, unless you're playing solo.
q; To me, listening to your playing, you seem to have a great mastery of the ability to cut loose and improvise interesting stuff. When you're playing in a genre like bluegrass or Appalachian flatpicking, how confined do you feel about sticking close to the melody of the tune? You seem to take more of a jazz player's approach, of creating new melodies and motifs after you've stated the original melody, as opposed to, say, a Texas fiddle player's approach, of playing all around the melody but always being in the melody.
a; Well, first you have to know the melody (raucous laughter)! And even that can be questionable...all these melodies have variations, it's part of the folk process. Even the chords are subject to negotiation. I suppose I don't really make conscious decisions about "Should I stay close to the melody right now, or should I break new ground and try something totally different and just play over the changes." It just becomes an organic thing that happens. It's almost happening on its own, somehow. I guess the answer to the question is, "I don't really consciously make decisions like that while I play." I try NOT to think! (laughs)
q; How did your current CD, "Out Of The Frying Pan" come about?
a; "Out Of The Frying Pan" came out because 20 years had passed, and it was high time to make another CD, and I wanted to record something in that genre.
q; So you just went into the studio and did it?
a; I have a home setup here, so I can record whenever I want.
q; What kind of equipment did you use?
a; Well, "Frying Pan" was recorded on a half inch 8 track Otari. I've updated a little bit, and have an ADAT and ProTools now, but I'm not that crazy about the digital sound. It's sort of "today's format" though.
q; And you've been doing a steady gig with fiddler Kenny Kosek lately?
a; Yes. We do a Bluegrass thing every Thursday night in NYC. Great group: Dave Thompson, who's a wonderful singer and guitar player, Akira Satake on banjo, Roger Mason on bass. We get a lot of people sitting in, too. Last week Matt Glaser came down...Tim O'Brien was there recently... and I've been playing mostly lead guitar, and a lot with the little Papoose thing you saw. The Papoose is good in this particular context: When it's amplified, you can chunk it like a mandolin, and you can almost make it sound like a dobro, because it has a lot of midrange.So that's a lot of fun. We enjoy that, and it's nice to have a regular place to play.
(Interviewer's note) When it comes to gear, I've found that high level
players are often either totally meticulous or completely oblivious.
Beneath that obliviousness is often the belief that, once you have a
decent instrument with excellent playability, the important thing is
the player. While Jon didn't come right out and say this, it seemed
implicit in the following discussion;
q; For the gearheads in our audience, what do you use equipment-wise when you play Bluegrass?
a; Oh,... I use a dreadnaught...
q; That's the farthest you'll go? Is it a Martin?
a; Yeah! A Martin dreadnaught is what I recommend! (laughs)
q; Well, that narrows it down!
a; Hey, listen, as long as it's not a D-35, you can't go too far wrong!
q; And for electric stuff? On your album, you're holding a D'Angelico. Is that yours?
a; Yeah, I'm a D'Angelico owner, but I don't use it that much.
q; Are there other electrics you use?
a; Mostly a recent Strat. It's pretty versatile. And, for swing and jazz, I use an older L-5 fitted with one of those Benedetto pickups. it's a good, easy playing guitar. I got it in a trade for that guitar that's on the cover of "catfish". That guitar was a Gibson Super 400 that had been re-topped by Jimmy D'Aquisto. I got what I felt was a better playing guitar, although the other guy may have gotten a more valuable guitar.
q; In playing acoustic guitar, have you made any kind of careful examination of tone production with the right hand, or has it just naturally evolved?
a; Well, this used to be a big topic, about how you hold your hand and your wrist...It all comes down to the question, "How do you hold a flatpick?", and the answer is, "The way that works for YOU! The way that's comfortable for you."
q; Did you go through a period where you tried all different kinds of things?
a; No. I find that the less you concentrate on the physical stuff the better, as long as your guitar is in tune, and set up to play. Let your ear be your guide, and if it sounds good, then you're doing something right! I remember guys who used to say, "Well, you have to imagine a steel bar from your elbow down to your knuckles", or "you gotta hold a flatpick this way or that way,"...I don't know....everyone holds it a different way, and I've heard great results from people holding it a myriad of ways, so I don't want to tell anyone how to do any of that. It doesn't matter how you get there, as long as you get results!
q; Any advice about approaching that process?
a; Yes. I think your ears are your best tool. Use a tape recorder if you need to, or ask a friend's opinion. Here's one comment: If you only have a tiny bit of the flatpick projecting past your finger, then you're not going to get a good tone. That's physics! You have to have something out there to hit the string. It can't be too big or too small.
q; Was there a point where you consciously worked on keeping everything relaxed? Did you work on speed? Did you work with a metronome?
a; Yes, I did work with a metronome, playing exercises and scales, and try to develop speed and agility. That's just part of learning the physical practice. The most important thing is having a good physical relationship with your instrument, which means being comfortable and relaxed with it. You can tell a lot by just looking at how someone picks up a guitar...the way they hold it, and put it close to their body...If it moves...if it doesn't move....you have to become comfortable with the instrument, and make it be part of yourself.
(Interviewer's note) Jon's future plans include more recording,
possibly a swing or jazz project with the Papoose, which has received a
lot of positive attention at gigs. He also makes himself available for
studio work of various kinds, and on various instruments: guitar,
banjo, dobro, some mandolin, bass, lap steel, so if you need a great
musician on your next project, or if you want to order Jon's CD's, you
can order via Paypal at the Jon Sholle website
I closed the interview by asking Jon about his advice to aspiring guitarists:
a; Don't quit your day job!! (lots of laughter).....
My advice about learning the instrument is...well....LEARN THE INSTRUMENT!! Really learn the fingerboard. Know where everything is. Be able to play all major, minor, diminished, etc., scales in any key, be able to play any given chord in any position on the neck, develop your facility by learning exercises, understand theory, understand substitutions, work on the ii-V-I progression, learn a million different things to play when you're sitting on a C chord for 8 bars, and have fun!