In 1940, the jazz establishment was just coming to recognize the potential of the electric guitar as a lead instrument. After joining Benny Goodman’s orchestra in late 1939, Charlie Christian earned recognition as a 1940 Metronome All Star for his fluid lines and deep hornlike tone. By the time of his tragic death two years later, Christian’s approach had set a template for jazz guitar that remains valid to this day.
But 1940 also produced one of the few guitarists who would definitively break that mold by never playing electric: Ralph Towner, whose style has always remained apart from the jazz guitar mainstream. “I am a piano player who plays guitar,” he told Innerviews.org’s Anil Prasad in 2010. “It’s always been my approach to the instrument.”
Towner—who turned 80 in March—started on piano as a young child and was a serious trumpet player growing up. He didn’t tackle the fretboard until his final year at the University of Oregon, when he began playing classical guitar as part of his composition studies. “I somehow managed to buy one for almost nothing,” he told All About Jazz’s Mario Calvitti in 2017. “I started to teach myself and I realized I was not gonna go very far.”
After college, Towner scraped together the money to study with Karl Scheidt in Vienna. He set aside horn, keyboard, and jazz and spent a year focusing on his new instrument. “The classical technique got the most sound, the most colors and articulation,” he said later. “When I studied the classical guitar, all I played was classical music and I tried to stay away from improvising.”
A return to the U.S. did bring a return to jazz and improvisation—only it was on the piano, where he found a foothold in the NYC jazz scene. But the division between classical guitar and jazz keys crumbled in the 1970s as Towner co-founded the band Oregon and began collaborating with the likes of Weather Report, Gary Burton, Paul Winter, and his frequent artistic partner John Abercrombie. Besides the classical guitar, he would eventually bring 12-string and baritone guitars into his unconventional arsenal—additions that make a certain sense, as both instrument types have wide necks and fingerboards, closer to classical models than a standard steel-string acoustic.
“Towner didn’t have guitar players as role models for his unique style of guitar improvisation,” biographer B. Kimberly Taylor says. “The influence of Bill Evans was channeled through the medium of guitar instead of piano, and Towner [plays] the guitar in a ‘pianistic’ manner, almost transcending the instrument in a way that makes it sound like a small orchestra.”
The guitar he favors most for doing this is a 1995 classical made with East Indian rosewood and European spruce by American luthiers Jeffrey Elliott and Cyndy Burton, which he has described as “the most perfectly balanced guitar I’ve ever played.” Sticking to his acoustic principles, Towner has never installed a pickup in the Elliott-Burton, preferring to capture its tone with a microphone. He’s slightly less finicky about the natural sound of the 12-string that Guild built for him in 1972; it has a Fishman under-saddle pickup, which he often uses in combination with a vintage Beyerdynamic M 160 double ribbon mic.
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Everybody Digs Ralph Towner