Steve Khan: 17 Questions

[1]    Steve, when did you take up guitar? What was your first guitar? What was your earliest guitar experience?
[SK]  I started very late, I was 19 yrs. old at the time. My first guitar was a Fender Mustang - and, I paid for it myself with money I had earned playing drums for The Chantays. I really can't recall the first time that I tried to actually play music with anyone - but, I know that I tried really hard to learn all the great Freddie King instrumentals, such as: "Hide Away"; "San-ho-zay"; "Sen-sa-shun"; "Heads Up"; and others.

[2]    Who inspired you the most to play?
[SK]  Well, believe it or not, the guitarists in The Chantays inspired me to want to play the guitar, but more than that, they inspired me to want to learn about, and understand, the inner workings of music. I admired both Bob Spickard and Brian Carman a lot. But, it was Bob Spickard who played me my first Wes Montgomery. Although I didn't "get it" at that moment, hearing "BOSS GUITAR" changed my life - forever.

[3]    Do you have your own Facebook page? If so, what do you like about Facebook?
[SK]  Yes, I have a Facebook page. Initially, it was not something that I wanted to do. I was 'forced' to join in order to communicate with 'someone.' Perhaps, not the best reason in the world, but that's what happened.
    Not too long after that, I began hearing from people, from all over, who had been listening to my recordings. Needless to say, this is very nice. But, what struck me as so very strange was that these people did not seem to be people who knew about my own website, nor about my MySpace page. Very bizarre! I had experienced this before when my MySpace page was first launched. Those fans knew nothing about my website. How could that be? When one just Googles my name, the first thing that comes up is my website. How could someone miss that? I just came to accept that, it is as if these two Internet "worlds" do not cross paths. And now, I have learned that it is as if these three Internet worlds do not cross-pollinate. I don't get it, but I accept it graciously. Thank goodness people are listening.
    But, let's talk about what I like LEAST about FB! Firstly, I hate receiving "group" messages. This same thing happens when people, in regular e-mail, have bad e-mail etiquette, and put a list of people in the To: sector, instead of hiding all the names and e-mail addresses in the Bcc: sector. It's just common courtesy, and people don't do it, or haven't learned how to do it.
    In FB, someone, usually not a 'real life' friend of mine, thinks that something is amusing and/or interesting, and so, they send a message(like an FB e-mail) to many people. But, because this application was obviously programmed by a moron, the first option that people see below the message is: REPLY TO ALL. Not the simple option, the correct option, REPLY, to only the sender!!!!
    And so, I then begin to receive tons of unwanted comments about a message that I didn't want to receive in the first place. My first retaliation is to immediately "unfriend" the person who sent it. This can't stop the avalanche of unwanted messages, but, it prevents that person from doing it to me again.
    I also hate the fact that we can't choose, in our "preferences" for FB, to never receive the following: Friend Suggestions; Page Suggestions; Event Invitations; and Group Invitations. These are also extremely annoying! And some people send them to me almost daily!!!
    If they could ever fix these issues, maybe I could figure out what I "like" about FB. Right now? Not much, I'll tell you that.

[4]    How would you describe the sound of Steve Khan? Any tips on how to recreate the sound?
[SK]  Firstly, I share everything about "my sound," etc. at the EQUIPMENT page at my website.
    The "Steve Khan Sound"? Well, I would only hope that people might say that it's "big, warm, full-bodied, and with a bit of bite to it." That would be nice, considering I'm only using a set of .009 gauge strings!!! For my particular touch, I end-up sacrificing a bit of the tone.
    Capturing my vision of what I "sound" like has never been easy for me. But, I have had the good fortune, since 1987, to have worked with two of the finest recording engineers I've ever known. The contributions of both Malcolm Pollack and James Farber to my recordings have been inestimable. Each has his own way of doing things, and both methods achieve spectacular audiophile results. I still believe that "CROSSINGS" represents the finest sonic presentation of what I 'imagine' that I sound like. Can I explain it, could I recreate it, exactly like that, again? No, I don't believe that I could. "CROSSINGS" was recorded in '94 by James Farber.
    I don't know why it is, but I tend record in groups of three. The three recent recordings, all anchored by John Patitucci and Jack DeJohnette were recorded by Malcolm Pollack, and capture how my sound has evolved. Malcolm's input and advice, before the 'red lights' went on, is always essential. Too many damn mid-range knobs on contemporary amps drive me crazy! I am just a Volume-Treble-Bass-Reverb kind of guy!!! It's a bit laughable, but true! The three recordings that I am speaking of are: "GOT MY MENTAL"('96); "THE GREEN FIELD"('05); and, "BORROWED TIME"('07). Each recording will always mean a great deal to me.
    On a side note, I would hasten to add that, James, Malcolm and I are also good friends, and we socialize together outside the world of the studio. Our regular lunches, and time spent in one another's homes, are filled with story telling, laughter, but also some very serious discussions, exchanges, about the sound quality and sound design of other recordings. I have learned so much from them both, and I value their friendship above all.

[5]    What was your big break in music?
[SK]  I guess it would have been the moment, during my college years at U.C.L.A. that I was rehearsing for a Friends of Distinction gig with Clarence McDonald(Keys) and Michael Carvin(Drums) - and, keyboard player, Phil Moore, Jr. phoned Clarence about an upcoming recording for Atlantic Records. Phil heard me noodling in the background, and said to Clarence, "Who's that?" Next thing I knew, Clarence told me that Phil said: "Tell Steve to come too!!!"
    When I arrived at the rehearsal for Phil's recording, I was in a room with both Stix Hooper and Wilton Felder of the Jazz Crusaders! I almost died right there. I was terrified. But, I guess I survived, and the next thing I knew Wilton invited me to play on his first LP as a leader, "BULLITT." At that session, I was in the company of all the top horn players in the city, and Paul Humphreys was playing drums. I just remember being so very nervous. Of course, with my luck, when the album came out, I looked inside, searching for my credit, and saw that they had listed NONE of the musicians. I was crestfallen at the time. That was only the beginning, because this was to happen to me many, many more times
    Now did this "break" lead to anything that was to happen to me just before or after my move to New York? Absolutely not! But, these were important experiences, great learning experiences. My move to New York in 1970 would never have happened if hadn't been introduced to David Friedman(Vibes) and John Miller(Ac. Bass) when they were playing in Los Angeles, at the famous Troubadour, with singer/songwriter, Tim Buckley. But, it was David's invitation to come and play with his quartet in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, during the summer of '69, that really opened my eyes, ears, and showed me exactly what I needed to do, and what I had to do. My musical dreams were only going to come true in New York.

[6]    Who do you consider to be the ultimate guitar player?
[SK]  Wow, that's practically impossible to answer, because there are brilliant players in every possible idiom and genre. Masterful players all. Quite simply many are blessed with a superb gift of perfect coordination between the two hands - hence, the technical execution of any passage borders on perfection. How can one not admire and respect this? But, all the practicing in the world might never achieve this result.

[7]    Which guitarists have most influenced your style?
[SK]  Initially it was quite simply: Wes Montgomery; Kenny Burrell; Grant Green; and Jim Hall.
    I would also hasten to add that, had Larry Coryell not been accepted by the jazz critics as the "new voice" on the contemporary jazz guitar - you probably might not have seen any of us! At least, perhaps, not for quite some time.

[8]    Steve, what is the main guitar you're currently using? And tell me a little bit about your guitar set-up and your favorite bits of equipment.
[SK]  My main guitar, as it has been for years, is my Gibson ES-335 from their Heritage Series between '81-'82. As I said, I'm a complete wimp when it comes to string gauges, I use a set of .009s by Dean Markley. I always change all my frets to the Dunlop #6140. I use Fender Extra Heavy picks. And, perhaps because of that, my attack has become much lighter than it ever was before.
    If there's one pedal that's the key to my sound, it is the Ibanez DCF-10. It's a very unique stereo chorus pedal. It is actually "on" the whole time that I'm playing. I don't know why, but, when I play single-note lines, you don't hear the chorusing effect - and when I play a chord voicing, somehow, the sound just opens-up, and spreads out. Of course, on some of my earlier recordings with this pedal, I did not exactly achieve what I was hoping to achieve. So, forgive me for that!

[9]    Tell me about your future plans.
[SK]  I tend to think of things in terms of simple, short-term goals - always. My dreams haven't changed much over the years. I always wanted to be able to tour regularly and freely with my own group. It's never been easy for me, because I've never had a muscular, energetic manager, nor a booking agent.
    But, in the short term, I just want to find a way to record again. And usually that means that I have to figure out a way to finance it myself. Over the course of my career, I have now done that ugly process 7 times. It's painful to do, but if anyone has ever done it, even once, one gains a great appreciation for the privilege of recording. It is never one's right to record or to be recorded, it is always a privilege, never to be taken for granted.

[10]    Where does a player's original style come from? Is it something you can consciously develop? Or does it just happen?
[SK]    Style? One can want to have an individual style, and never arrive there. I don't believe that this ever happens by design. I think that it just comes along quite by accident, but after years of hard work.
    Obviously, one's early influences play a role in one's vision of what this future "style" might be, but over time, those "influences" meld into some kind of amorphous oneness, and suddenly, out of nowhere, you are playing, making music, in a way that is born of a vocabulary that you have actually formulated yourself. But the strange thing is that, when you listen back to yourself, all you hear is your influences.
    However, for me, there is no question that when Eyewitness was formed with Anthony Jackson; Steve Jordan, and Manolo Badrena, making music with them changed everything for me - in truth, I found myself while playing with them - and I had NO idea that this was going to happen!

[11]    Over the course of your long career, you have played with a lot of great musicians. Who are some guitarists who now stand out for you?
[SK]    This question was originally worded in a most strange way - and that made it hard to answer or uncomfortable to answer. For me, it is much too much of a "guitar-centric" question, and music is so much greater than one's own instrument. In the end, at best, one's instrument is just a tool - a functioning part in the process of making music with others. There is nothing without making music with your bandmates. If this was all about oneself, then the music becomes a most shallow pursuit.
    At a certain point, even after listening to and studying the great guitarists and their styles, like everyone I know, one drifts inevitably towards the other instruments, especially the piano and the tenor saxophone. Also, I should never ignore the trumpet. In many ways, before the last few decades, the guitar was a harmonic "tinker toy" when compared to the linear formations of the horns and the piano. The guitar was way behind, and it was regarded as such by those who knew, or sensed it.
    If you look at the development of our music, in the past decades, some of the most important recordings that have been made, were made by groups that were led by guitarists!!! That NEVER could have happened at any point before. Prior to this, guitar music was just that, guitar music, and nothing more. In some ways, for some players, this still goes on today, and those players can be extremely popular, because they play the instrument so well. One can be a brilliant guitarist, but, for me, if the music just sounds like "guitar music" then I tend not to like it very much. To me, the goal is always to be playing great music, but it should just be music that happens to be made with a guitar as one of the principal voices, nothing more than that.
    However, if you are really asking me if there are any guitarists, younger than me(which now almost includes just about everyone!), which ones stand out? Well, that's relatively easy to answer. However, there is a multi-genre list of players whom I admire at this page at my website: STEVE RECOMMENDS.
    If pressed to make a short list, I would mention the following players: Peter Bernstein; Ben Monder; Kurt Rosenwinkel; Jonathan Kreisberg; Mike Moreno and Adam Rogers. Of all of them, I've only really spent some time with Peter Bernstein. To me, without question, Peter is the most musical player. Everything that he plays makes perfect sense, one idea follows what came before it. And, he has never lost his feeling for the blues. This, to me, is essential, and it gets lost with many players, because playing in the most abstract possible manner becomes the more important goal. But, that's just my opinion.
    A couple of the other players that I mentioned, we have exchanged some really nice e-mails, but two of them, I've never met. The truth is that, the instrument, the guitar, is probably at the highest level of general technical ability that it has ever been, and, at any moment in the entire history of the instrument. It's global - there are superb players everywhere. I believe that this certainly began with the advent of the LP.
    But, when the cassette came along, and music became portable, everything changed, and players were learning things faster, and better. Then, the CD, the CD-R, the Discman, the iPod, iTunes, YouTube, instructional DVDs, books, etc. - it's endless. Now, players, all over the world, somehow find access to anything and everything. This is truly an amazing time.

[12]    Would you say that there are any guitar playing trends that are different in the USA, Europe or Japan?
[SK]    Trends? That's hard for me to say. I don't think about such things. The global economy affects everything. One could say that there's a "trend" towards more trio playing than ever before - but, in part, that might only be because no one can afford to tour with more than 2 other players. This moreso than by some grand design. The musician who spends time thinking about, or worrying about 'trends', is already behind the times, because by the time that person executes the concept on a recording, it has already become passé! I know some musicians who actually think like that - and they try to come-up with a music that incorporates "What's happening now." Those records sound totally contrived and stupid to me. One should just concentrate on what one does best, and then try to move forward, always move forward.

[13]    What are your thoughts regarding perfection vs. imperfection when recording?
[SK]    Well, we all strive for perfection, the seamless execution of one's ideas within a context of playing with their bandmates. But, it doesn't take long to realize that, it is a waste of one's time and energy to be too concerned with the notion of "perfection." Obviously with the advent of digital recording, and computerized systems like Pro-Tools, a performance can be manipulated to approach perfection - but the best players never really do that to totally insane obsessive-compulsive levels. At least I don't believe so. The goal, to me, is to always "serve the music" - do what's right for the song! And if that means using the technology to make it 'better'? - Then one must do that. Period! One has a responsibility to not present horribly flawed music to the public.
    The song, a melody, deserves to be stated properly, if not, I believe that it should be repaired. In the past, that might mean some over-dubbing and punching-in. Now? It could still mean that, but a performance can be manipulated in very simple, unobtrusive ways to make it better. For me, some degree of humanity - if that means "imperfection" - is essential. There should be 'flaws' - just not something so horrifying that it jolts the listener's concentration.
    For example, "THE SUITCASE" with Anthony Jackson and Dennis Chambers was recorded live and direct to 2-trk.! There is not much digital editing 'magic' that one can perform when this is what you have to deal with. However, WDR recording engineer, Thomas Sehringer did such a spectacular job of recording us that, I have very few sonic complaints, if any. Whatever the musical imperfections might be, or my own imperfections, I am very, very proud of this recording, as it might be the best representations of how we go about making music together.
    In the end, the great players, and here I am speaking of others, are playing at a level where such things(computer manipulation) are really not of great concern. The playing was beautiful to begin with.

[14]    Do you practice every day to keep your chops up?
[SK]    Firstly, I'm not so sure that I have any 'chops' - but, I do try to 'practice' daily - that just might mean that I am improvising with a guitar in my hands. The technical exercises that I did years ago? I still do them today, and for the most part, I still suck at them! But, even at this latter stage of life, I can tell that I have improved. That's the goal, just get a little better each day. One never gets there. For most of us, it's an endless process of small steps, and self-torture. The trick is to make yourself believe that what you are doing has some substance, some merit.

[15]    How do you prepare for a gig?
[SK]    Well, if I had a regular working group, then perhaps, rehearsing would not be such a great necessity. But, for me, rehearsing, especially with new or newer players, is essential. I like to have 24-30 pieces of music ready to go, but that's not always possible.
    What is really most important for me, from a personal perspective, is to try to find a peaceful place at the venue where I can collect my thoughts, find my 'center' - where my best music comes from - and hit the stage ready to go. Some musicians really enjoy having a dressing room atmosphere that rivals the locker room of a football team. For me, that's way too much. I prefer the quiet. In truth, if I could go right from a hot bath, get dressed, and hit the stage? That would be perfect for me!
    Philosophically speaking, I hate the concept of a set list - in the old days, when I was just a fan, I enjoyed seeing the players talking with one another and answering the simple question: "Well, what do you want to play next?" Perhaps it didn't make for the greatest flow in presentation, but it certainly felt real. I remember attending many of the great triple-bill Rock Concerts in the late '60s, and it seemed like there was almost 20-minutes in between songs. I guess it was part of the whole 'trippy' atmosphere then. When people talk about the "death of rock 'n' roll" - I always think that, it began to die the first time that someone made a set list. That's when everything started to become too polished, too slick, and the rough edges began to disappear.
    On the other hand, an audience deserves to hear a balanced musical presentation, and that means taking advantage of everything that you have at your command. Changes in mood, tempo, and style are essential. The placement of a ballad must appear at just the right moment.

[16]    Do you have a philosophy?
[SK]    I have many philosophies. But, thinking off of the top of my head, I would say, "Always trust and follow your first instinct, because it is usually correct." I say this with regards to the assessment of people too. From personal experience, and far more than I would care to admit, when I go against my first instinct about something, or someone, I am always wrong!!! One must trust that first instinct! This can apply to a 'take' or a 'mix' just as well.
    I also believe that, in this life, we get exactly what we deserve! Meaning that, the good things, that might come our way, are the result of our persistence, hard work, ingenuity, talent, and sound judgment. There is no such thing as "good luck" and, there is no divine intervention. By the same token, when things do not work out just as we had hoped, it is not because of "bad luck"! We got the exact results that we deserved. If that was because of our own poor judgment, bad behavior, lack of talent, and other things? We have to accept our failures, and, above all, we must learn from them. The person who sits around blaming everything and everyone else for their own failures is doomed to continue to fail.
    And finally, I want to adopt a philosophy as stated in the imaginary Jewish parable that serves as prologue to the most recent film by the Coen Brothers, "A SERIOUS MAN" which, when translated says: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." I need to be better at this, much better.

[17]    What advice would you offer to young players?
[SK]    Dream big, work hard, practice diligently but, above all, strive to be a "music-maker" not the world's greatest virtuoso. If you happen to be that? Fantastic, because one's virtuosity is a great tool when used towards being able to better execute your ideas within a given context. However, one should strive to be part of a great group - the greatest music, in our genre, is made, and was made by groups, sometimes thrown together by chance, and not design. Some things cannot be planned. To just dream about being a great individual player is very shallow, and will probably get you nowhere.

[Photos: Top left: Mark Wohlrab('03) | Middle right: Paul Aresu('02)]