Gitbox Culture

Musings on guitars, guitarists, guitar styles and approaches, technical matters and guitar design by a professional guitarist with a Ph.D in ethnomusicology. Also covering electric bass, lap and pedal steel guitar. And what the hell, banjo.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Eddie Lang and Jeff Healey

When I was in the first year of my masters' degree I asked Howard Spring, Guelph University music professor and guitar freak, what I should write about in my first graduate essay, for Bob Witmer's jazz seminar.  He suggested Eddie Lang.  I had read Jas Obrecht's 1980s Guitar Player article on Eddie Lang, the first jazz guitarist to gain prominence, but I knew little else about him.  Over the next few weeks, I researched (pre-internet, mind you!) Lang as much as I could.

Eddie Lang was born in 1902 in Philadelphia as Salvatore Massaro, the son of a mandolin builder.  He grew up playing violin in orchestras alongside Joe Venuti, who later became a great hot jazz violinist and worked as a duo with Lang.  He took up the banjo and switched to guitar in the early 1920s.  Moving to New York, he gradually became the first-call session guitarist and worked with most of the best white jazz musicians of the day - Frankie Trumbauer, Bix Beiderbecke and Adrian Rollini, as well as doing sessions with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.  He was retained by the Paul Whiteman organization, the best-known dance band of the era, and at the end of his life in 1933 he was the accompanist and right-hand man to the rising star Bing Crosby.  He died of an embolism during a routine tonsillectomy.

Lang's style was a sophisticated blend of bass note/strum alternation with quick runs and cascades of chords.  He was at the vanguard of 1920s jazz harmony, incorporating diminished and whole-tone scales and pedal point.  His single-note solos were simple and elegant.  Lang never got the chance to use an electric guitar - it was not yet available in his lifetime - so he got the most volume and tone possible out of a Gibson L-5 archtop, using a stout pick and, by today's standards, ridiculously heavy strings beginning with a .15 on the E string and including a wound (!!!) second string.
(Tech. note: if the embedded video won't start, click on it once and hit the space bar to start and stop)

He is credited with setting the groundwork for jazz guitar style and providing the impetus for thousands of dance-band banjoists to make the switch to guitar.  His hundreds of recordings are still treasured today by a small worldwide community of enthusiasts, many of whom study and emulate his style and sound.

Incidentally, it was my research into Lang that led to my first meeting with Jeff Healey back in 1994.  Bob Witmer suggested that I get in touch with him, since he was known to possess thousands of 1920s jazz 78s, many of which had never been reissued on vinyl or CD.  At the time, reissued recordings of Lang were few.  I put in a phone call to Healey's record company and was told by the secretary that Jeff was on tour, and would probably get back to me in a couple of weeks.  Jeff called back within five minutes, excited to have me over to listen to Lang records and talk about his music for a couple of days.  He made two 90-minute cassettes of rare Lang recordings for me.  This was the first time that I got a sense of Jeff's incredible knowledge and computer-like memory for information.  We even traded a few Lang licks on my guitar.  I didn't see Jeff again for a few years after that, but those couple of days were the foundation of our friendship and musical work together.

1 comment:

  1. what a great story Mike!
    i had a similar relationship with Jeff - he really inspired me to take a closer look at this type of music, which has given my playing 'deeper roots'.
    who is the young leftie in the youtube clip?