On a bright and sunny day, I met the fantastic guitarist Nir Felder for a podcast interview in Brooklyn, New York City. We talked about many aspects of his guitar playing, and I’m sure you will get a lot of precious information from this interview. In addition to this podcast, you'll find a PDF with a great melodic idea of Nir that I transcribed and analyzed so that you can use it in your music. Enjoy!
Max Frankl: So it's a beautiful day in Brooklyn, New York and I'm here with the fantastic guitarist Nir Felder. Nir, welcome to this interview!
Nir Felder: Hey, thanks for having me, Max.
MF: So, what people have always asked me, is: How did I come to music or what did inspire me and I was always curious about what inspired the players I admire and since you're such an amazing guitarist, I think everybody wants to know: What was it that brought you to music, what inspired you to be a musician?
NF: It's actually kind of a maybe a boring answer, but I grew up in New York State in the eighties and at the time I would come home from school and both my parents worked so what did kids do when they came home from school I mean they played outside for a while but then you went home, and you waited for your parents to come home, and you turned on the TV. And for me it was MTV. It was kind of a cool time for MTV because it was pretty new at the time, and they were just trying stuff out, so they would play all sorts of different music all day long from like you know Heavy Metal, Headbangers Ball, Alternative Music, 120 Minutes, MTV Raps like all of the popular music styles that were out there at the time and I was just entranced. This is before I played any instrument, but I would watch for hours, and you know, I loved music and musicians. I didn't think about becoming a musician, but I was just fascinated by the whole thing. Both by the popular aspect of it and then also by the music itself, it seemed like it was the cutting edge at the time. The confluence of video and music and fashion, all the cool stuff they were doing. So that peaked my early interest, yeah, it was funny.
MF: I think that’s s a great answer because for me it was the same thing: I had a friend in high school, he had an older brother, and he introduced us to MTV, and we were listening to Nirvana for hours.
NF: Yeah, and there was a lot of cool music that came out of that time, and I think there was a real love in the culture for music and art, for trying new things and it wasn't as commodified as it became later, so it's an interesting time.
MF: And did you have some role models back then like guitarists that you saw on MTV, that you were like, oh I want to play like this guy?
NF: You know, it is actually way before I actually even played guitar so, no, it was just like little things that I, maybe liked one song by a band or something and also radio played a part. I think radio was more influential than maybe it is now and I would turn on the radio and maybe just listened to just trying to find new stuff. I was always very curious about like new music and who's this person people are talking about, and I wanted to know. But I didn't play guitar yet, so I mean definitely no guitar heroes at that point.
MF: Ok and what made you start to play the guitar, was there a certain experience that you had?
NF: Sure there was, just a simple thing as, like a guitar player coming into our, it was middle school at that time, I was in seventh grade and doing a little demonstration, and it just speaks the need of having music available in schools because for me it was like a light switch, I saw this guy play guitar and was like: That, I wanna do that! It was a real like lightbulb going off moment, and I asked him if I could take lessons with him. I don't even think he was very good, but it was like: It's incredible! So I took a few lessons with him, and it sparked my interest and got me started and once I started, you know they say, you get bit by the bug; once I got started I was definitely bit by it, I couldn't stop. So I was really in love.
MF: Amazing! And fast forward to your studies at Berklee College of Music. How was it for you to study at Berklee, is there something that you’d say is the biggest thing that you’ve learnt there?
NF: I think the best thing for me being a kid from the suburbs, I was interested in all these different styles of music but mainly as a guitarist, I was kind of a blues kid: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, Albert Collins, Freddie King, etc. But I was interested in jazz, I was exposed to you know, from buying whatever CD's I could once every two weeks or whatever. I had heard John Scofield, Pat Metheny, people like that but I never really played jazz with people hardly at all, and I got to Berklee and now it was my first time being around so many musicians; where I grew up, small town, there weren't that many people I could play with so and that's still kind of to this day very important: I wish I had more time to practise, but I do feel like even though I don't practise as much as I'd like, I still improve. Just by playing with people and by playing with people a lot. Now it's in the form of doing lots of gigs, doing lots of tours, doing recording sessions, just hanging out with great musicians but at the time when I first got to Berklee, it was like playing sessions for the first time, just every day after class: 'Hey let's go play!' Playing in a lot of ensembles, just playing as much as I could was pretty huge for me because I'd never done that before school, so just being in that community of musicians.
MF: So after you graduated from Berklee College of Music you moved to New York City; was it the same thing there like, was it easy to play with lots of people there? How did you feel about the scene back then?
NF: It was absolutely the same thing and I see this happen to people a lot: They move to New York, and I hear them play and they're good, and then I hear them a few years later and they're twenty times better just because being around a place like this where the concentration of great musicians is so high, it's like you almost can't help getting better. One part of it is an inspiration, but another part is just like that factor of learning through osmosis, just kind of sucking it up. In terms of the second part of the question like how I got involved with the scene: I was very lucky, I had played with some people in Boston that had like I remember Joe Lovano, he was nice enough to have me on a few gigs when I was still in school and through him I met his drummer Francisco Mela and at the time Esperanza Spalding was also in the band, so when I moved to New York, I think right away I had a few gigs with those guys, and so I met a lot of New York musicians almost instantly which is really lucky. I remember like maybe I'd been living in New York for four days, and we played a gig at Smalls with Mela and Smalls had just reopened, and a lot of people were hanging out, so I met so many people just that first night which was really cool. Lucky kind of just to meet people and I was used to in Boston the idea of like you kind of had to prove yourself a little bit before anybody would take you seriously, you couldn't just walk up to someone and say 'Hey you know I'd love to play with you sometime do you want to do it?' I don't know why, but something about the environment in Boston was not receptive to that kind of openness, but I found quickly in New York it was kind of the opposite which is funny because they kind of prepared you for it being more intense than a smaller city, but when I got here I found people who were very open to playing, very open to connecting and making music and that's really what it was all about, so those first few gigs helped but also just the climate here was very accepting of 'Hey, let's just play, let's play that's what we're here for'.
MF: So last time we've met in New York City it was just before the release of your album ‚Golden Age’. So many musicians and guitarists love this album. Could you talk a little bit about how this release influenced your career and how it developed after that?
NF: That's great to hear that people are checking it out. Yeah, I feel like it was a big step for me because I had, I didn't really jump right into leading a band when I moved to New York. I had led a band back in my college days and when I moved to New York, I kind of stepped back from that because there are so many people I want to play with, I kind of wanted to learn how to be the guitar player in the group and elevate the group and make the bandleaders sound better and be a great sideman, because there are so many people that inspired me that I really want to play with. When I first got here that was just, it wasn't a conscious decision but it was kind of where my heart was and then fortunately some friends in the city kind of pulled me into a band and you know they said, 'hey you should lead a band in my club' and etc. etc., like 'I have a little record label maybe you could record for us', stuff like that inspired me to start doing it again so ‚Golden Age’ was kind of my return to bandleading after a long break from it. And, I'm so glad that it was well received, you know. It was a really fortunate thing in the way it all worked out, and I think that the main I guess appeal of it – I can't really speak for others, but for myself was that, I think what we were trying to do was make music that was kind honest in its influences, you know. And not to be afraid to say ‚hey, we are really into this and this and this’ and it's ok because it might not have been a typical jazz record, and I might not be a typical jazz guitarist, and I think that you know in this day and age where you have so much, excuse the word, BS., you know both in the industry and in politics and just in daily life and social media, it's nice to have a little honesty from time to time, so that's really all I tried to do is make an honest record and going forward. I think that's what we're going to keep doing.
MF: It's a very interesting point that you just mentioned about being a good sideman because when I follow you on Facebook and Twitter and stuff and I see you with those guys and I'm like who's that and then I google him, and he's like one of the big cats of whatever kind of style of music, so I just wanted to know how do you develop the skill of being a good sideman, is this something that you can learn, is there some wisdom that you could share?
NF: Sure, I think there are a lot of so many things I'm trying to figure out how to put it into words. A lot of it obviously is learned by doing like everything in music, you know, the more you are a sideman, and the more you learn how to be a good one, a lot of the things are no-brainers: Learn the music, show up prepared, show up on time. I guess basically the unquantifiable part of it is how do you elevate the music and make the bandleaders' vision come to life and that's really hard to put into words. One thing is that, as much as you do this when you're a leader, you kind of do it as a sideman which is like you have to play the gig your way. You can't try and sound like somebody else on the gig because it never really works quite as well when you're not yourself. I think it's true in life as well, so there's a way to make someone's music come to life just by being yourself and the same time you have to realize that doesn't mean that the focus is on you. The focus is always going to be on the music. When it's someone else's music the focus might be a little bit on the bandleader, but it's really about the music. So when I say be yourself on the gig that doesn't mean the focus becomes on you or your guitar playing or whatever instrument you play. It's always on the music but you wanna make the music the best version of the music it can be and the bandleader's vision of it come to life in whatever way you can, so that means listening very closely, being receptive to comments and criticism but also be kind of assured of what your role is supposed to be, you know, I always find checking out like the history of whatever style you're playing helps because then you kind of know what your purpose is a little bit and then it's ok to kind of break those rules and make it more suited to your individuality. So those are just some thoughts off the top of my head.
MF: Yeah, that's great, I think that's helpful!
NF: Yeah it's so funny how a lot of what I've learned in music is just these basic little, like you know, tips about life: you wanna play music honestly, you want to make sure that it's not all about you, you want to make sure that you know you do your best, just little things that are so obvious but somehow they get lost in the in the shuffle sometimes.
MF: Two things that students of mine and guitarists always mention when the name Nir Felder pops up is your sense of timing and the way you create lines that have some intervallic concepts in them, that, somehow sound like we've never heard this before, so fresh and amazing, and everybody wants to know how you do that, so could you talk about these two concepts that you have in your playing?
NF: So the rhythmic part of it is, there's like, I guess there's two elements to rhythm right, the study of it and all the different permutations of whatever polyrhythm and having great time and I'm not talking about myself, I'm just talking about in general having a great time and mastery of complex rhythms and odd meters and all this stuff and then on the other side of that there's just like having a good feel. So for me, I've always been more interested in the feel part of it than in the specific study of, I mean of course that's also been part of my pursuit, I want to be able to play in all these meters, I'm interested in all that but for me the more important thing is how to make it feel good and a lot of that study is kind of trial and error until you find it, til you find the pocket so if I was going to practice, maybe I would just play something very simple and listen to the groove and make sure it feels right, because we all know when it feels right and and also playing with a lot of different drummers, I've focused on that, that really helps. I've always wanted to play drums, it is probably my favourite instrument of all time, you know, I can sit on YouTube all day and watch drummers, I just love it, so finding drummers to play with, that play differently. It's great to have a specific hook up with one drummer and play with him all the time, I love that, but I also love playing with new drummers it's kind of figuring out how they feel it and check out their rhythmic feel and same when I listen to guitar players: Maybe if I want to like, check out Jimmy Nolen all day or check out Mike Campbell or like guitar players and different styles or like an African soukous player or Moroccan stuff just to check out the feel and try to understand the feel, the stuff that you can't write down. Yeah, I love that, I remember being at a rehearsal with the great drummer Chris Dave and the bandleader had a chart and like somehow what we were playing wasn't exactly like the chart and he said Oh, I'm gonna rewrite it and Chris said, you can't write this down, and I thought I was like, that's awesome, he's totally right: You can't write this down it's just like it's a feel thing and that's part of the beautiful mystery of music, so that's that, I love the other stuff too. I love the studious study of rhythm, but for me I've always prioritized the other one just a little bit more, but one final comment is, rhythm definitely is a study within itself, and it's important not to get lost in, you know, all the other elements of music while ignoring rhythm and that's true of every other element of music; I mean we prioritize harmony so far over rhythm, so far over dynamics, so far over every other element of music, so I do try to like keep that balance in mind, like if I'm going to study harmony for a little while, which is great I also want to make sure I'm studying rhythm and studying dynamics and studying space and studying the tonal aspects of music you know, so that the playing is in balance. That's been an important thing for me in my practice, playing soft, playing loud, playing you know fast, relatively fast, playing slow, playing high, playing low, playing open strings playing frets, you know, everything that I could think of. Just to make sure that I'm exploring it all, because first of all because I like it all, second because some my favorite players are like, when I think of Sonny Rollins I think of like you know in one solo he plays high, plays low, he plays fast, plays slowly, plays swinging, he plays even, and it all makes sense, it's doesn't sound disjunct at all it just sounds complete. And it sounds like anything is possible which is something that I love about music, so yeah.
MF: Amazin, great! So yeah, I asked about the intervallic kind of technique that you use or that you developed, because people always tell me like 'it's like I know my boxes like I know D-Dorian in this box, but when Nir played, it sounds like I can't achieve what he's done with that technique...' so yeah.
NF: So, to that effect, yeah, definitely I'm not a boxes player, I never really learned the boxes because it was felt very unnatural for me when I was learning how to play guitar. So I just kind of figured out like, string by string and the whole kind of trying to see the whole guitar neck is one thing, because it is right, the boxes are just something that we've invented, it's just trying to subdivide and make it easier to go piece by piece which is fine, but if you keep them forever, it's like having the training wheels on forever. I mean, at some point you have to get rid of it and just think of the guitar neck as one thing because it is. So that's one part of it, and the intervalic stuff, it's the same idea just like I want to play whatever we call regular intervals seconds and thirds and stuff, I also want to play bigger ones, also want to play smaller ones like moving in tiny little minor seconds and little chromatic stuff so it's kind of just an outgrowth of that philosophy of trying to see the bigger picture and get it all in and acknowledging that there's no right way to do things and that if you hear it a different way it's ok to do that and to explore. Yes, I'm trying to stay creative with it and stay having fun. Although I do believe in music as art and of course in the serious nature of it, I believe like, when you can have fun with it, it can bring out all these cool possibilities that can be applied to serious contexts, you should have fun while you practice sometimes.
"Ease up. Breathe. You can change. Reduce pain, tension and fatigue and gain knowledge, confidence and comfort. Connect with yourself to improve self awareness, presence and mobility. Play better. Play more."
In this video, the fantastic Lori Schiff is my guest on the podcast. You'll get great insights into how the Alexander Technique could help you with back problems you have while playing your instrument.
You'll also get a great exercise (PDF) you can use to experience the enormous impact Alexander Technique has on your back, your sound and your overall well being. Check out Lori’s fantastic exercise „The constructive rest“ here and download the PDF:
F.M. Alexander wrote, "the most valuable knowledge one can possess is that of the use and functioning of the self."
Lori Schiff teaches the Alexander Technique at The Juilliard School and at institutions and events across the country and internationally.
She has been teaching the Alexander Technique for more than 25 years to performers, athletes, business professionals, professors, writers, kids, high school and college students, doctors, lawyers, creative artists and anyone who wishes to improve the way they live and to do what they do. You can find her students in major orchestras and opera companies, on stages and in courtrooms, military posts, studios, classrooms, offices and athletic venues.
I first met Lori soon after a major pain issue in my lower back, and I had been in physiotherapy at that time, too. I was blown away by the effect Lori’s lesson had on my lower back problems, and I have been taking lessons whenever I came back to New York City. I’m more than happy to present this interview and have Lori as a guest on my podcast!
I'm euphoric to announce that AMA Publishing released my first book on March 30th, 2016! I wrote this book especially for beginners who are interested in learning to play jazz guitar. Since I came across many books in my career as a young musician, I tried to offer some special tricks for practicing and composing that I couldn't find in other books. Right now the book is only available in German, but since I hear we're selling lots of copies, it will be a matter of months until the book will be available in English. In the meantime, you could check out my Masterclass program, in which I am currently offering one-on-one lessons/coaching to a select number of students. You will have the opportunity to discuss technique and the tactics of playing jazz and also have access and personal insight into my compositional approach. You will receive learning material custom tailored to your needs and interests. Furthermore, I'll answer all of the questions you might have and help guide you to achieving your personal musical goals.
If you are interested in booking master classes via Skype, please visit my masterclass site by clicking on the picture below. I look forward to hearing from you!
I am more than happy that after around half a year of putting together a concept, writing music, putting my ideas into words, my new book "Introduction: Modern Jazz Guitar" has been published by AMA Publishing on April 7th, 2016. I always wanted to write a book that helps you to learn to play jazz guitar, inspires you to write your music and comes with someone who cares about the reader so much, that he offers online support for every question you might have while you are learning with this book. So, here it is! I am very excited! I'll be doing some workshops in cooperation with D'Addario in June 2016. The book is written in German, but the translation is already on its way. In the meantime, just check out the video I produced, I'd be glad if you like it!
As a young guitar student at the age of 15, I got into Pat Metheny`s music through my best friend, who was a piano player. He had enough money to afford to buy the only decent jazz magazine at that time, and he would eventually give it to me, to dive into the music we liked so much. The first guitarist I saw in this magazine was Pat; it must have been around that time when the Pat Metheny group released 'Letter from home', which is an epic album by the way. The only way to check out the music back then was to travel 40 miles north all the way up to Munich, which had a great record store.'Jazz at Beck`s' felt like a candy shop, for music. We spent hours and hours of listening, checked out albums, sometimes without even buying anything, since we were both teenagers with a small budget.
I remember that we once got 'We live here', another of Pat`s great releases for playing a little gig at our school; the principal of the school gave this album to us as a present, and we were so happy to check out the music. It is hard to imagine, but back then, it was almost impossible to read interviews of your idols, without buying jazz magazines; the internet was still years away, at least in Germany. When I heard that Pat Metheny released a book with all his compositions and a section with quotes, I simply had to get my hands on this book. My parents gave it to me on my 18th birthday. I tried to play all the tunes I loved and read through all of these quotes, in one single day.
Out of all of the brilliant thoughts he presented, one thing stuck with me most:
'Everybody has a unique voice and a story to tell, that is theirs alone. The challenge is to develop your skills enough so that you are able to tell that story in a compelling way'. I printed this out and put it on my wall, right next to my bed. It became my mantra for every second I played the guitar. It`s still there, after 16 years. And every time I visit my parents, I get this little reminder of what it means to develop your voice. This little quote made me try to learn all that I can, to achieve that goal Pat was talking about.I thought a lot about Pat`s influence on my playing when we recorded the music I had written to the poem "Der Panther" by the famous writer Rainer Maria Rilke. Especially Pat`s album 'One quiet night' had a significant impact, both on my writing and playing for this album we released in 2011. I am so grateful for everything Pat gave us and I am sure that without him, music wouldn`t be the same for a lot of people.
The 2012 Echo Jazz winner and guitarist positions his music "in the moderate center of the improvisational modern." Frankl composed pieces for a combination of trombone (Nils Wogram), tenor saxophone (Domenic Landolf), and piano (Pablo Held) that go straight to the ear. His superbly well-harmonized sextet enriches the German jazz scene.
- Kultur SPIEGEL / Nov 2012