Steve Masakowski

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Steve Masakowski
Steve masakowski snug.jpg
Background information
Birth nameStephen Alphonse Masakowski
Born (1951-09-02) September 2, 1951 (age 68)
New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.
GenresJazz, jazz fusion, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian
Occupation(s)Musician, educator
InstrumentsGuitar, keytar
Years active1970s–present
LabelsBlue Note
Associated actsAstral Project, Masakowski Family

Steve Masakowski (born September 2, 1954) is jazz guitarist, educator, and inventor. He did not invent the guitar-based keytar but did invent the switch pick and has designed three, custom-built seven-string guitars. He developed an approach to playing the guitar by using his pick design, allowing him to switch from fingerpicking to flatpicking.

He has released solo albums and has worked with Johnny Adams, Mose Allison, Dave Liebman, Ellis Marsalis, Jr., Carl Fontana, Rick Margitza, Bobby McFerrin, Nicholas Payton, Dianne Reeves, Sam Rivers, Woody Shaw, Alvin Tyler, and Bennie Wallace. Since 1987, he has been a member of the band Astral Project.[1]

He has been voted Best Guitarist twice and included as a member of Astral Project in the Best Contemporary Jazz Group three times by Gambit and Offbeat magazines in their annual readers' poll. He has published lessons in Guitar Player magazine and wrote the book Jazz Ear Training – Learning to Hear Your Way Through Music for Mel Bay Publications. He has also been recognized by Down Beat magazine as Guitar Talent Deserving Wider Recognition.[2]


Early life[edit]

Masakowski was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on September 2, 1954.[3] The Beatles influenced his desire to play guitar.[4] When he was fourteen, he played bass guitar and co-founded the band Truth, which was based on the rock band Cream. In high school he became interested in composing, and he started taking guitar lessons to learn about harmony. His teacher introduced him to the music of jazz guitarists Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino, and Lenny Breau.[1]

He went to the Berklee College of Music in 1974, studying music theory, arranging, and composition. After getting his degree, he returned to New Orleans with his girlfriend, jazz guitarist Emily Remler, and founded the group Fourplay (not to be confused with the later jazz group of the same name).[1] From 1976 to 1978, he studied classical composition and orchestration with Bert Braud, a teacher at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts who also taught Terence Blanchard, Harry Connick, Jr., Branford Marsalis, and Wynton Marsalis.

Returning to New Orleans[edit]

Steve Masakowski with his son Martin on double bass and his daughter Sasha on vocals

In the early 1980s, Masakowski played regularly with local New Orleans musicians such as Earl Turbinton, Jr., Alvin Tyler, and Willie Tee. With Singleton and drummer Johnny Vidacovich, he accompanied visiting musicians such as Randy Brecker, Tom Harrell, Art Baron, and Dave Liebman. He founded the group Mars with Larry Sieberth (keyboards), James Singleton (bass), and James Black (drums). The band played a mixture of jazz and electronic music, sometimes combined with visual art created by Jon Graubarth. Dave Liebman played on the first Mars album (1983).

In 1982, Masakowski founded the Composers Recording Studio with harpist Patrice Fisher, guitarist Jimmy Robinson, and violinist Denise Villere. He often acted as audio engineer and sometimes record producer. The studio lasted about ten years and recorded Harry Connick Jr., Ellis Marsalis Jr., Tony Dagradi, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and pianist James Drew.

For three years, Masakowski worked in a duet with pianist Ellis Marsalis, Jr.[1][5] In 1987, he joined Astral Project. From 1993–1996, he toured with singer Dianne Reeves. He leads the band Nova NOLA, whose members include his son, double bassist Martin, and his daughter, vocalist Sasha Masakowski.[1] He released two albums for Blue Note Records: What It Was (1994) and Direct AXEcess (1995). New Orleans guitarist, banjoist, and historian Danny Barker wrote the liner notes for What It Was. When Barker died in 1994, he bequeathed his acoustic guitar to Masakowski.[1]

He was hired by Marsalis to teach in the jazz program at the University of New Orleans. In 1991, he became a full-time faculty member. After the retirement of Marsalis and a short tenure by Terence Blanchard, he became Chair of Jazz Studies and director of the jazz program in 2004.


Masakowski with his keytar above a seven-string guitar
Masakowski's switch pick

In 1978, Masakowski invented the key-tar, a guitar-like instrument with seven rows of keys instead of strings, one key at each fret. This pre-MIDI controller was hardwired to a Moog synthesizer. One advantage of such an instrument was that it allowed playing more than one note in a row of keys at the same time, the equivalent on the guitar of playing multiple simultaneous notes on one string. Masakowski's song "Stepping Stone" was composed on the keytar, which allowed for the cluster-type chord voicings.[3] For the duration of the Mars era, his rig included a Gretsch seven-string guitar with the keytar fastened to the top. He chose not to pursue a patent for the keytar, opting to concentrate on a revised prototype of the instrument that failed due to lack of funding.

In 1987, Masakowski invented the switch pick to help when switching from fingers to plectrum. "I invented something I call a switch-pick, which is a sort of thumb pick...[made] in such a way that if I slide it up my finger, the support part doesn't come in contact with my thumb, so it feels like a normal pick. And then if I want to use it as a thumb pick, I just slide it up my finger, and I can play finger style with the thumb pick using all five fingers."[3]

He told an interviewer, "The pick is more efficient and has a better sound on fast lines where I need swing drive, but certain ideas, like fast diatonic-fourth runs, are easier to play fingerstyle."[6]

Inspired by a visit to New Orleans by seven-string guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, Masakowski began to explore the seven-string guitar, first finding an early Gretsch, then designing his own models which have the expanded range of a normal guitar and bass guitar combined. His custom designs were built by luthiers Jimmy Foster and Salvador Giardina.

Personal life[edit]

In 1982, Masakowski married German pianist Ulrike Antonie Sprenger. The couple have two children, both professional musicians: vocalist Sasha Masakowski (b. 1986) and double bassist Martin (b. 1990). Since 2007, the Masakowski family has been playing in bands together, including the group Nova NOLA.

In 2017, under the group name Masakowski Family, they released the album N.O. Escape, a combination of electric jazz, gypsy jazz, and vocal jazz. Steve Masakowski co-wrote three songs that were based on the novel A Confederacy of Dunces.[7]

Awards and honors[edit]

  • 10 best guitarists list, Wavelength magazine (1991)
  • Big Easy Award, Astral Project (1993, 1994, 2000)
  • Best Guitarist (1994–1998, 2002) OffBeat magazine
  • Best Contemporary Jazz Group (1994–2002), Astral Project, OffBeat magazine
  • Keeping the Music Alive Award, Danny Barker Estate (2003)
  • Global Excellence Award, Summers Multicultural Institute (2005)
  • Germaine Bazzle Award for Music Education and Performance (2014)


As leader[edit]

Date Album title Personnel Label
1983 Mars Dave Liebman, Kent Jordan, Patrice Fisher, David Torkanowsky, Larry Sieberth, James Black, Ricky Sebastian, Mark Sanders Prescription
1991 Friends Rick Margitza, Michael Pellera, Ellis Marsalis Jr., Bill Huntington, Herlin Riley Nebula
1994 What It Was Rick Margitza, Michael Pellera, Larry Sieberth, Bill Huntington, David Torkanowsky, James Genus, Ricky Sebastian, Don Alias, Hector Gallardo Blue Note
1995 Direct AXEcess James Singleton, Brian Blade Blue Note
1998 Live at Snug Harbor Earl Turbinton, Jason Marsalis, Bill Huntington, Johnny Vidacovich Marzian
2000 (For Joe) Bill Huntington, Johnny Vidacovich Compass
2002 Los Tres Amigos, Moon and Sand James Singleton, Hector Gallardo Mirliton
2009 Nova NOLA, Wetland Sasha Masakowski, Martin Masakowski, Ulrike Masakowski, James Westfall, Ricky Sebastian, Hector Gallardo, Scott Myers, Nick Solnick privately published
2013 Things I Like Rex Gregory, Peter Harris, Julian Garcia self-release
2017 N.O. Escape Steve Masakowski, Sasha Masakowski, Martin Masakowski, Paul Thibodeaux self-release

With Astral Project[edit]

Date Album title Label
1988 Dreams of Love with Tony Dagradi Rounder
1994 Acoustic Fusion Dorn
1995 Astral Project New Orleans LA Astral Project
1997 Elevado Compass
1999 Voodoobop Compass
2002 Big Shot Astral Project
2004 The Legend of Cowboy Bill Astral Project
2006 Astral Project Live in New Orleans Astral Project
2008 Blue Streak Astral Project

As sideman[edit]

Date Artist Album title Label
1983 Various Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill A&M
1987 Christopher Mason Sakura GSR
1987 Damon Short Penguin Shuffle Blue Room
1987 Alvin 'Red' Tyler Graciously Rounder
1988 Ramsey McLean & the Survivors The New New Orleans Music: Jump Jazz Rounder
1989 Rick Margitza Color Blue Note
1989 David Torkanowsky Steppin' Out Rounder
1990 Various Just Friends: A Gathering in Tribute to Emily Remler Vol. 1 Justice
1990 Mose Allison My Backyard Blue Note
1990 I migliori Live at Gino's Chromatose
1991 Various Just Friends: A Gathering in Tribute to Emily Remler Vol. 2 Justice
1991 Rick Margitza Hope Blue Note
1992 Phillip Manuel A Time for Love All for One
1992 Harry Sheppard Points of View Justice
1992 Harry Sheppard This-a-Way That-a-Way
1994 Tony Dagradi Trio Live at the Columns Turnipseed
1995 Johnny Adams The Verdict Rounder
1995 Denise Mangiardi Fine Tuning Crow Hill
1995 Betty Shirley Unveiled Summit
1995 Johnny Vidacovich Mystery Street Record Chebasco
1996 Denise Mangiardi A River of My Own Crow Hill
1997 Michael Pellera Cloud 9 Pajacis
1999 Leigh Harris House of Secrets Deeva
1999 Phillip Manuel Swingin' in the Holidays Glad-Man
2000 Phillip Manuel Loved Happened to Me Maxjazz
2001 Albert–Ankrum Project Albert-Ankrum Project Lakefront
2001 Olivier Bou Boo-Shah-o-Ray Olga
2001 Kevin Clark and the Crescent City Moonlighters Big Band Music KC
2002 Samirah Evans Give Me a Moment Misha
2003 Ricky Sebastian The Spirit Within STR
2004 Harold Battiste Lagniappe: The 2nd 50 Years: The Future of our Past AFO
2004 James Black (I Need) Altitude Night Train
2004 Phil deGruy Just Duet Heard Instinct
2004 Dr. John N'Awlinz: Dis Dat or D'Udda Blue Note
2005 Dorothy Doring Southern Exposure Quarter Note
2005 John Ellis One Foot in the Swamp privately printed
2006 Colleen Porter Faith in New Orleans Independent
2006 Colleen Porter I Love My City New Orleans Independent
2007? Mary Jane Ewing I Love Bein' Here with You privately published
2008 Samirah Evans My Little Bodhisattva Misha
2008 Sasha Masakowski Musical Playground self-produced
2008 TriFunctA Hangin' self-produced
2009 Kaya Martinez Emergence Polyamorous
2011 Sasha Masakowski and Musical Playground Wishes Hypersoul
2012 Stephanie Jordan Big Band Stephanie Jordan Sings a Tribute to the Fabulous Lena Horne Vige
2013 Clarence Johnson III Watch Him Work Like Father Like Son
2014 Charlie Dennard From Brazil to New Orleans self-published
2015 Mary Jane Guiney Stay True Moxiemuzic
2015 Irvin Mayfield New Orleans Jazz Playhouse Basin Street


  1. ^ a b c d e f Yanow, Scott (2013). The Great Jazz Guitarists. San Francisco: Backbeat. pp. 129–130. ISBN 978-1-61713-023-6.
  2. ^ "Down Beat 47th Annual International Critics Poll Results 1999". DownBeat. Elmhurst, Illinois. August 1999. pp. 50, 54.
  3. ^ a b c Lasocki, David (30 June 2014). Steve Masakowski, Big Easy Innovator: The Life and Work of the New Orleans Jazz Guitarist and Educator. Portland, Oregon: Instant Harmony. ISBN 978-0-9834048-5-9.
  4. ^ Spielman, David G. (10 October 2012). When Not Performing. Pelican Publishing Company, Inc. pp. 90–. ISBN 978-1-4556-1756-2.
  5. ^ Fumar, Vincent (4 August 1989). "Masakowski Takes the Guitar One Step Beyond". The Times Picayune. New Orleans. p. L6.
  6. ^ Ellis, Andy (December 1995). "Steve Masakowski: Baritone Bop, Midnight Blues". Guitar Player. pp. 35–36.
  7. ^ Milano, Brett (8 February 2017). "The Masakowski Family, "N.O. Escape"". OffBeat. Retrieved 20 October 2017.