George Van Eps
|George Van Eps|
|Birth name||George Abel Van Eps|
August 7, 1913|
Plainfield, New Jersey, U.S.
|Died||November 29, 1998
Newport Beach, California
|Labels||Euphoria, Capitol, Concord Jazz|
|Associated acts||Freddy Martin, Benny Goodman, Ray Noble, Howard Alden|
|Seven-string guitar, Gretsch signature model 1968|
George Abel Van Eps was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1913. He was the son of Fred Van Eps, a popular jazz banjoist. George Van Eps was self-taught and performed professionally beginning at the age of 11. He started on guitar two years later, giving lessons when he was 15. He played with Smith Ballew, Eddie Lang, Freddy Martin, Benny Goodman, and Ray Noble.
Noted for his recordings as a leader, and his work as a session musician, Van Eps was also the author of instructional books that explored his approach to guitar-based harmony. He was a pioneer of the seven-string guitar (including a Gretsch signature model released in 1968), which allowed him to incorporate sophisticated bass lines into his improvisation. He was a strong influence on later seven-string players such as Howard Alden, with whom he recorded four CDs for Concord Records in the early 1990s, Bucky Pizzarelli, and John Pizzarelli.
Van Eps died of pneumonia in Newport Beach, California on November 29, 1998 at the age of 85.
A Brief History - By Ted Greene (written in 1981 for Guitar Player Magazine as an intro to an interview for cover story article )
Many highly respected guitarists are known for their ability to double on other instruments such as the bouzouki, the balalaika, or even the seductive standup bass ukulele. But George Van Eps must be a union rep’s nightmare. Picture this scene: You’re in a club listening to some very attractive music. A friend wanders in, sits down at your table, and whispers, “Hey, good group. Who are they?” You point to the stage and his mouth drops open: There’s only one person up there—a very special person: George Van Eps, the master solo 7-string guitarist, weaving subtle melodies, counter-melodies, chords, and bass lines all at the same time. And he does so with the utmost in refinement and taste. There is no category in the union book for George. Ask him what he plays, and he’ll tell you: lap piano.
More than 40 years ago, George Van Eps significantly extended the playing range of the guitar by adding a seventh string, tuning it to a low A, one octave below the fifth string. Because of his radical approach to the instrument, it is likely that his work has earned him a place in musical history such that it will long be studied by a diverse assortment of musicians including bass players, arrangers, and composers.
And then there is his impact on guitarists, that class of fellow creatures who have benefitted the most from Van Eps’ work. In a fast-food, instant world where one may virtually become an overnight star and then fall back into obscurity almost as quickly, the esteem in which the more knowledgeable and respected players have held George has endured, indeed even grown. He has been a guitar hero for more than 40 years.
Tributes from many of the world’s leading guitarists are voluminous. A sampling: Ton y Mottola [GP, Nov. ‘77], himself a top recording artist for 40 years, says, “George is the master of them all. He influenced me so much with his chordal harmonic concepts—of course he influenced everybody.” Barry Galbraith [GP, July ‘76], a giant among jazz guitarists, has “wished that the younger players knew more about Van Eps. There’s nobody like him. Harmonically speaking, he’s the greatest ever for guitar.” Bebop jazz star Remo Palmier [GP. Aug. ‘78] comments, “If you mentioned George Van Eps to any of the jazz greats like Jimmy Raney or Tal Farlow, they’d bow to the waist.” And Barney Kessel thoughtfully reflects, “George is a master. George on guitar and Art Tatum on piano were lightyears ahead of almost everyone else harmonically. Van Eps is simply a genius, a superb guitarist with exquisite taste.”
Of course, younger players have also honored George. Earl Klugh considers George to be one of his major influences and favorite players. The late bluesman Michael Bloomfield found that “unlike most jazz guitarists. George plays real romantically and emotionally, with a lot of heart. There’s a great deal of soul in his music.” And these quotes are just the tip of the laudatory iceberg; many guitarists pay even stronger tribute to George in the ways that they play. You can easily hear George in the unaccompanied styles of Joe Pass, Jimmy Wyble, Johnny Smith, and Howard Roberts, among others. Suffice to say that very few guitarists in history have carved a comparable niche.
George Van Eps was born in Plainfield, New Jersey on August 7, 1913, into a highly creative, rather remarkable family. There had been five earlier generations of both professional watchmakers and musicians, and George’s was no different. Besides pursuing music, he and his three older brothers—pianist Bobby, trumpeter Freddy, and tenor saxophonist John—also learned watchmaking from their grandfather (it is no accident that George often deals with the guitar in terms of what he calls “harmonic mechanisms”). George’s father Fred was considered the premier classical 5-string banjoist of his day, and his mother Louise was a fine classical and ragtime pianist. George started on banjo at age ten, was playing professionally within a year (he joined Plainfield’s musicians’ union when he was 11), and switched to guitar when he was 13. He quickly progressed, and started gigging with his brothers and soon after with the legendary banjoist Harry Reser.
From 1929 to 1931 he was a member of vocalist Smith Ballew’s group, which included the famous Dorsey brothers. It was the first of many respected dance band s with whom George would be associated. A two-year stint in Freddy Martin’s ensemble between 1931 and 1933 further tempered the young guitarist. His first big-time break came in 1934, when he joined clarinetist/band leader Benny Goodman’s orchestra. Although he was with Goodman only for a year, it started George’s professional momentum. In 1936 he became a member of English singer Ray Noble’s orchestra, which had been hand-picked by one of the day’s top bandleaders, Glenn Miller. Van Eps’ tenure with Noble lasted on and off until 1941. He moved from New York to Hollywood in 1938, and lived there for two years, appearing on radio shows and on record dates. (It was during this period that he wrote his first method book, The George Van Eps Guitar Method). When World War II broke out, he returned to Plainfield to help in his father’s recording equipment factory, but returned to Hollywood in 1943 to resume musical work. In 1944 George worked in radio with Ray Noble once again, but also appeared on record with the Paul Weston Orchestra.
Around the time of his late- ‘30s hiatus from the East Coast, George became fascinated with the possibility of a 7-string guitar. Having long dreamed about extending the low-end range of the instrument so that he could play his own bass lines, George approached the Epiphone company, and they agreed to build a 7-string for him. It was delivered in 1938, and George never looked back at the 6-string guitar.
Through the years, he became one of the most sought-after studio sidemen, doing literally thousands of radio, TV, film, and record dates both as a staff guitarist and as a freelancer (he was in the staff orchestras of New York’s CBS and NBC affiliates, as well as those of WOV and WNEW and later Los Angeles’ NBC station). His credit s include work with Burns & Allen, Edgar Bergen, Jack Benny, and almost four dozen other radio shows and serials, plus he’s recorded and appeared on TV and radio in orchestras with about 50 different artists. including Paul Whiteman, Red Norvo, Jack Teagarden, Frank Sinatra. Paul Weston, and Ozzie Nelson. George was also in a 1955 movie entitled Pete Kelly’s Blues, and played on the soundtracks of The Big Broadcast of 1935, The Big Broadcast of 1936, Damsel in Distress. The Red Nichols Story, The Last Picture Show, Picnic, Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, and The Black Forest. He also spent two years at Republic Pictures providing guitar parts for Roy Rogers and Gene Autry soundtracks, and many Vitaphone “shorts” also included his talents.
At various times. he appeared on daily TV shows with Jo Stafford, Johnny Mercer, and Peggy Lee, was featured on the Tonight Show, and programs featuring Danny Thomas, Ronald Reagan, and Ray Bolger. For his diligent work, George has received top honors in Downbeat and Playboy jazz polls. Since 1968, he has been a member of Guitar Player’s Advisory Board, and he has been featured three times previously in the magazine: December 1967, March ‘70, and November ‘74.
Throughout his busy years as a top-notch studio guitarist, he continually experimented with new harmonic ideas on his beloved 7-string friend—idea s which had never before been heard on guitar. He wrote down his findings and continued to do so for 41 years. Not one to be scared by long-term projects, in 1976 George began to assemble all of this information into book form. Five-and-a-half years later, he is still writing. The first of three volumes, Harmonic Mechanisms for Guitar. Vol. I [Mel Bay Publications, Pacific, MO 63069] has already been published; the second is completed, and the third is well under way. Naturally, these books deal with the multi-line style of guitar playing for which George is famous. They are intended to teach the mental and fingering disciplines necessary for the creation of sounds where moving voices are the order of the day, and where independence of thought blossoms into simultaneous melodies which engage in artistic dialogue. Anyone who studies George’s fingering system must stand in awe of the thousands of hours of tedious work this man went through in order to piece all this material together.
Of course, during his long career George has recorded quite a few albums that showcase his solo guitar style, but sadly almost all of these are out-of-print. Because he produced such revolutionary sounds on the instrument, it was only natural that many musicians would want to study with him, so there have been quite a number of Van Eps students through the years, some of the more notable being Tony Rizzi, Jimmy Wyble, Bobby Gibbons, and Allan Hanlon. But above all, George is a player, and he longs to get back to performing as soon as his writing chores are finished.
George Van Eps’ playing can be described in many ways, but for those who’ve never heard him, the following synopsis may give you some idea of why the sounds he makes have enthralled so many of his fellow guitarists for so many years. The cuts “Lover” and “The Blue Room” from his last album Soliloquy [Capitol, ST-267 ] illustrate virtually all the hallmarks of his style: (I) delaying the entrance of notes in the chords so as to create an almost conversational texture on fabric—sometimes bass notes speak first, sometimes the melody, and sometimes the whole chord; (2) attractive rhythmic conception, communicating a feeling of joy and general well-being; (3) tremendous right-hand agility, especially when executing rapid-fire arpeggios; (4) exciting reharmonizations and surprise chords—sometimes just adding a few welcome additions to a basic progression, sometimes creating an entirely new chord progression for the song; (5) clearly audible moving inner voices, often resulting in chromatic or semi-chromatic lines; (6) striking interludes with subtle variations on the main theme of the piece; (7) a feeling of continuity due to brilliant fills, which often employ the chromatic line but often in the soprano voice; (8) the use of sustained bass tones together with two or three floating lines on top; (9) the opposite—sustained soprano tones with two or three lines moving about underneath; (10) a general improvisational feeling or quality; (11) intriguing tags and endings; and of course (12) that deep, rich seventh string, helping to create the full pianistic sound that George loves.
This music could only be conceived of and played by one with a highly disciplined and creative mind, a pair of hands trained to produce sounds beyond those previously thought possible for the instrument, and an attitude that does not accept other people’s limitations but instead takes the view that George has developed towards the 7-string guitar: “let’s see what else is hiding in there.”
George’s intelligence is highly evident when he speaks, manifesting in a wide array of inflections, pauses and wonderful emphases on certain words in a manner that the printed page cannot capture. And yet his wisdom, his wit, and his warmth still come shining through in the following interview.
So here is George Van Eps, who, in addition to everything else, personally designed and built a string damper (still widely acclaimed by jazz guitarists, even though not commercially available) to help eliminate feedback, a height-adjustable bridge for changing the action height on string basses, and from memory of his own design of some 50 years ago, recently built an engine that runs on compressed air. Perhaps most startling of all, he designed and built the only known one-tenth inch to the foot-scale working live steam locomotive because he happened to be in a hobby store and overheard some people say that it couldn’t be done. He didn’t know them, and he never saw them again. But he spent eight-and-a-half years of his spare time to prove to himself that it was possible. George has never made good friends with the impossible; and it’s not crazy about him either—he keeps diminishing its ranks. [See full interview in Guitar Player magazine, August 1981, also available at TedGreene.com]
- 1956 Mellow Guitar (Euphoria/Sundazed)
- 1965 My Guitar (Euphoria)
- 1967 Seven-String Guitar (Capitol)
- 1968 Soliloquy (Euphoria)
- 1992 Hand-Crafted Swing (Concord Jazz)
- 1992 Seven & Seven (Concord)
- 1994 Keepin' Time (Concord)
- 2003 George Van Eps, Eddie Miller, and Stanley Wright (Jump)
- Van Eps, George (1939). Method for Guitar. Epiphone. ASIN B004IHGA1Y.
- Van Eps, George (1993). Guitar Solos. Mel Bay Publications. ASIN B0013GHRKG.
- Van Eps, George (1980). Harmonic Mechanisms for Guitar, Volume One. Mel Bay Publications. ISBN 978-0871669063.
- Van Eps, George (1981). Harmonic Mechanisms for Guitar, Volume Two. Mel Bay Publications. ISBN 978-0786609246.
- Van Eps, George (1982). Harmonic Mechanisms for Guitar, Volume Three. Mel Bay Publications. ISBN 978-1562223663.
- Peerless, Brian (2002). Kernfeld, Barry, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. 2 (2nd ed.). New York: Grove's Dictionaries Inc. p. 825. ISBN 1-56159-284-6.
- Ginell, Richard S. "George Van Eps Biography". Allmusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved 24 April 2013.
- Watrous, Peter (7 December 1998). "George Van Eps, 85, Musician Who Popularized 7-String Guitar". The New York Times.
- "George Van Eps | Album Discography | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved 19 August 2016.
5.George Van Eps, Guitar Player Magazine, August 1981.