Bucky Pizzarelli: The Master's Touch

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Bucky Pizzarelli
By Alan Nahigian

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Bucky Pizzarelli remembers vividly the impact that George Van Eps had on guitarists in New York City. Van Eps, like Bucky a New Jersey native—he was born in Plainfield—had established himself in California.

“He was one of my heroes,” Bucky said. “I used to listen to him on the radio, but I didn’t meet him until 1969, when he came to New York demonstrating the seven-string Gretsch guitar. The next day about four of us, Barry Galbraith included, went down to Manny’s, which in those days was on West 48th Street, and bought seven-string Gretsches.”

He was born John Paul Pizzarelli in Paterson, New Jersey, on January 9, 1926. (Van Eps was born in Plainfield.) Like Van Eps, Bucky learned to play banjo and guitar and became a professional very early: at 17, he was on the road with the Vaughan Monroe band. When he got out of military service in 1946, he recorded with that band and went on staff at NBC. For two years he was with the group called the Three Suns, then freelanced and toured with Benny Goodman. He was one of the musicians who was able to maintain a cordial relationship with Goodman, and it lasted until Goodman’s death in 1986.

Was the adaptation to seven-string guitar difficult? “It’s actually much easier,” Bucky said, “because on the six-string you run out of notes. You’ve got no D-flat. I could never play ‘Lush Life’ until I got a seven-string.”

The advantage of the seven-string tuning is obvious, at least to guitarists. The normal EADGBE tuning puts a limitation on bass lines. When your bass line is descending, you run out of notes at that open lower E-string. (Classical guitarists, for certain pieces, will tune that E-string down.) Adding a lower A-string obviates the problem, expands the instrument’s range by a fourth, gives a great flexibility to voicings, and in addition gives the chords of the instrument a resonant depth.

The predominant influence in jazz guitar is usually perceived to be Charlie Christian. The influence of Eddy Lang is underestimated. With the addition of the amplifier, which permitted much longer tonal decay than unamplified guitar, Christian was able to turn the instrument into a linear horn-like instrument. Further, the amplifier made the instrument a lot louder, making it possible for it to balance with or play harmony or unison parts with horns. This was the line of development pursued by the late Jimmy Raney.“I was lucky to team up with George Barnes when I first got that seven-string Gretsch,” Bucky said. “We were doing a lot of recording. Carl Kress had just died, and George and I hooked up and that’s how I got to learn to play that thing.

“My first hero, and still my hero, was Joe Mooney, who I grew up with in Paterson.” Too often forgotten today, Joe Mooney was a remarkable accordionist, organist, arranger, and idiosyncratic singer. Blind and partly crippled, he was a musician of warm, sunny disposition and sardonic humor. “You listen to those records with that quartet even today, and they’ll floor you,” Bucky said. “I just recorded his theme song, ‘Phantasmagoria,’ with my son John for Arbors Records. That tune is unbelievable. The name of the album is Contrasts. That was Jimmy Dorsey’s theme song.”

Bucky, like a good many guitarists, loves playing guitar duets, and he has done so in concerts and recording with quite a number of them, including his son John, George Barnes, Howard Alden, Tony Mottola, and Gene Bertoncini. He played duet guitar with his daughter Mary—he has four children—even before he did with son John. I told Bucky that the late Hugo Friedhofer, considered by other film composers to be the dean and master of their craft, used to say, “The guitar is an unforgiving instrument.”

“That’s true,” Bucky said. “I play every day. ”In addition to his seven-string guitar, Bucky also plays the nylon-string “classical” guitar. He is known for his proficiency on the instrument and makes appearances in pop symphony concerts.

Even as late as the 1940s and early 1950s, the instrument had not received the recognition it has today, though Andrés Segovia had proved its suitability for the repertoire of Tarrega and Sor, not to mention his own transcriptions of Bach. This was before the advent of Julian Bream and then John Williams and its total acceptance as a concert instrument. As for jazz, the nylon-string instrument was not considered practical at all, because of its delicate sound and lack of projection, even though, as Bream pointed out, it has a much greater dynamic range than is generally supposed. The attitude toward it changed in jazz with the development of the ceramic pickup and the pioneering work on the instrument of Charlie Byrd.

“I don’t use a pickup at all,” Bucky said. “I play directly into the mike.”When Bucky started to gain a reputation on the nylon-string instrument in the early Sixties, very few jazz musicians knew much about it. Besides Charlie Byrd, Bucky’s friend Gene Bertoncini was becoming known for it. In California, Al Viola was playing the instrument and even recorded an album of standards of arrangements he had written on it, issued in tandem with a book of those arrangements. But these players were the few. How did Bucky get into it?

“Well, I used to practice classical guitar in New York between recording sessions,” Bucky said. “I owned a classical guitar, and after Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd came out with ‘Desafinado,’ I was getting calls to play that instrument on record dates when they were doing Brazilian music. Most of the big pros just played electric guitar, and they hadn’t a clue in those days about the other guitar. So I got all these record-date calls for bossa nova. And I just got better at it.”

He did indeed. If I may venture a personal observation, rooted in my own experience working with such Brazilian musicians as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Sergio Mendes, and Oscar Castro-Neves, I can tell you how much better he got. In 1969, Oscar Peterson made an album called Motions and Emotions, arranged by Claus Ogerman. In it there is a remarkable track on the Jobim tune “Wave.” The chart is marvelous, and so is Oscar’s performance. But I was particularly struck by the rhythm section guitar work. I listened, trying to figure out who the player was, and concluded that it had to be Brazilian, such was the authenticity of it. Not many Americans at that time could really play that way. Later I said to Claus Ogerman, “Who played guitar onthat track? “Bucky,” Claus said. It was unnecessary to add a surname: there is only one Bucky.

Gear Box

Bucky uses a Bob Benedetto seven-string guitar and La Bella strings, tape wound to eliminate the whistle—the “mice” of left-hand movement. He also plays a Rubio classical guitar.

Listening Pleasures

“In my personal tastes I might be regressing, but I still like to listen to George Van Eps and Eddie Lang and Carl Kress.And I love those albums Claus Ogerman did with Joao Gilberto, like Amoroso,and the ones he did with Jobim. Playing guitar, my heroes are guys who play chords.

Originally published in July/August 1999

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