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Published: 2005/03/06
by Andy Tennille

Used with John Scofield

_John Scofield, 14, with his first electric guitar in 1965- Courtesy of www.johnscofield.com

A walk through the used record bins of some of the country’s finest music stores with musicians, both famous and infamous.

John Scofield sits up from his stool in the middle of Blue Note Music guitar store in Berkeley, hands the handcrafted arch-top jazz guitar that he's just test-driven for the last several minutes back to the sales clerk and examines the array of beautiful Eastman arch-tops hanging on the wall. Suddenly, he grabs the guitar back from the clerk's hands.

"Hold on just a minute, I need to play this one again," Scofield says with a quick grin. "It's got a nice feel to it. Like one of those old Wes Montgomery records. I gotta remember it when I play the next one."

Just as the words fall out of his mouth, the legendary jazz guitarist's hands spring to life and a flurry of notes bounce from the small amp at his feet the guitar line from "Hottentot" off A Go Go, his fantastic 1997 collaboration with Medeski, Martin and Wood. The crowd of customers that has gathered to listen nod approvingly. Someone idly taps a drum in the next room. We need Billy Martin.

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Growing up in Wilton, Connecticut, John Scofield started playing guitar at 11 years old and got his first guitar, an acoustic, when he was 13. Like every other young kid his age in the 60s with a pulse, Scofield freaked out after hearing to the Beatles the first time, a record he grabbed from his older sister's collection. Just check out his pseudo-Lennon pose in the picture on top of this article. Ironically, the thing that interested Scofield the most about the Beatles was the band's cover song choices before the Lennon/McCartney partnership was a well-oiled hit machine.

"I really learned how to play guitar to those early Beatles records. I learned the chords and songs and all kinds of stuff," Scofield says as he pulls a copy of Meet the Beatles from underneath the bins at Amoeba Music. "The other thing I learned was that a lot of those songs on the earlier albums were written by other artists, like Chuck Berry. That's when I decided that I liked music by black people the most, you know. I used to get old R&B records at this store called Green's in Norwalk. By the time I was 13 years old, I was way into Motown and Staxx and all the great R&B and soul music."

Scofield's early obsession with R&B music eventually led to his discovery of the Blues. Just as he'd uncovered the Isley Brothers from underneath the Beatles' take on "Twist and Shout", Scofield discovered the blues greats through the Rolling Stones.

"I liked Bloomfield, Clapton and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, but the Stones were the ones to turn me on to Howlin Wolf, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters," he says as we slide into Used Blues. "I became a blues maniac after that. I was deep into it and actually turned into kind of a blues snob, to be honest. I only wanted to listen to the old guys. And once I heard BB King, I was hooked. He's my all-time favorite. I used to ride the train to New York City when I was a teenager to go hear him play."

As fate would have it, Scofield found jazz music when he began taking guitar lessons. His teacher was an aspiring be-bop jazz player who played in the local jazz scene.

"That was the beginning of the end for me, when I got into jazz," Scofield says with a laugh. "My first jazz album was a Django Rheinhardt record called Djangologie that my dad bought for me. Most of his most famous stuff was recorded in the 30s, but this is an older Django record from 1949. It's incredible, beautiful music."

From 1970 to1973, Scofield studied at the Berklee School of Music and played in bands in the Boston area. The guitarist was listening to Coltrane, Miles Davis, John Hall and a lot of the great Wes Montgomery.

"There's a Wes record on Verve called Smokin’ at the Half Note," Scofield says as he anxiously flips through the discs. "It’s just one of those records, man. The first song on the album, No Blues’, has this solo he plays that drove me insane early on. It will drive you insane if I ever track down the album in here. Incredible Jazz Guitar is also great, and I really liked A Dynamic New Sound. Wes' whole approach to the instrument was just so unique he played mostly with his thumbs, up and downstrokes on the strings without a pick. No one's ever been able to copy what he did on guitar."

Just as there are anarchy-provoking debates in rock music (Beatles or Stones…Neil Young vs. Ronnie Van Zandt…Is Jim Morrison Alive and Well and Living in South Africa?), the late-night argument over the greatest jazz guitarist of all time usually winds down to three guys Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian and Grant Green. Some, like Derek Trucks, are Charlie Christian fans and name their firstborn in his honor. Others, like Eric Krazno, seem to have been cut more from the cloth of Grant Green. While Scofield is definitely a Wes Montgomery fan, he understands exactly why Charlie Christian stands out among the rest.

"If someone were to buy this box set, they might not know what the big deal with Charlie Christian is," he says as he looks at the back of Christian's The Genius of the Electric Guitar box set. "But he was the first guy. The electric guitar was invented, and he was one of the first to play jazz on it. There’s a live record called Live Sessions at Minton’s Playhouse, which was an after-hours club in New York City in the 40s. It's just a tape of a live show of these guys getting together to jam. Charlie Christian does some amazing stuff on the first track, Swing to Bop' a song he wrote. It's really the beginning of be-bop."

As we finish checking out at the store's registers, Scofield spots the Ray Charles album Genius + Soul = Jazz and stops to flip through the discs. Scofield is kicking around the idea of doing a tribute album to Charles and is pondering who should play on it.

"Ray way a legendary singer, but I also love his piano playing and alto saxophone playing. In the end though, it's the voice of Ray Charles that I really love. I think that Solomon Burke would be great doing some of Ray's tunes," Scofield says. "One of my favorite records Ray did was an album that was never released on CD called Crying Time. All his records are great though. Ray Charles transcends musical idioms and styles of music. He's one of the greatest artists of all time, way beyond guitar or any other instruments."

I nod in agreement.

"Hey, I gotta go to this guitar store after we're done. It's not too far from here actually. Do you wanna tag along?" Scofield asks as we walk out of Amoeba and into another sunny Saturday afternoon along Telegraph Avenue.

Scofield's Picks Charlie Christian, Live Sessions at Minton’s Playhouse Howlin Wolf, The Rockin Chair Album Django Rheinhardt, Djangologie Wes Montgomery, Smokin’ at the Half Note John Coltrane, Live at Birdland

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