A Conversation With Jazz Master Howard Alden
We sat down with Howard to discuss what’s new in his world, some of his favorite luthiers, and his upcoming appearance at the Rocky Mountain Archtop FestivalSept 9-11th, 2022 in Arvada, Co.
How’s gigging post lockdown?
Things are slowly waking up in the music business after a two year hiatus!
Things are starting to happen. I’m actually going to Spain in a couple of weeks to, for a brief tour. I went over there last March as well. And I’m going back to play with the same guys and a little music festival up in Oregon at the end of the month. And some other gigs. You know, up until March of 2020, I spent about two thirds of the year traveling and then that all stopped for a year and a half, obviously. So it’s slowly starting to come back.
I do a few local things here in town (Phoenix AZ Metro Area) and that’s it. I’m just glad to be alive and playing and looking forward to seeing the guys up at the Archtop Festival!
Can you tell us a bit more about the gigs you’re doing in Spain?
Oh yeah. Well, a Spanish tenor player – young tenor player – contacted me about coming over to play some dates with him and more or less European band, one American, an old friend of mine, a trombone player has been playing with him a little bit and he just basically managed to promote a nice string of dates and art centers and concerts. And this summer, there’s a few festivals that he’s got us involved in. So March almost didn’t happen because there was a big upsurge in COVID then, but then it evened out enough that he could pull enough dates together to make it worth my trip over there and had a great time some great players and asked me to come back for a week this month.
How long have you lived in Phoenix? Was it a big transition moving from New York?
We’ve been here for 7 years. I was in New York city for 33 years, and at one point I thought I’d never leave. But then, all of a sudden, I saw a glimpse of a different way of life and I’m really enjoying living like a human again! New York is an amazing place and it was full of full of music and opportunity and stuff for me. But I’m enjoying other aspects of life now. My wife and I are trying to enjoy the natural beauty of the state when I’m not working. Made a couple trips to the Grand Canyon and things like that.
Any new recordings on the horizon?
No new recordings right now. That’ll come maybe in the months to come – I’ll start organize my thoughts and get something happen. My last seven string solo guitar recording was gosh, about eight years ago. So maybe it’s time to think about doing another one because that’s a format I love to play in. And I like to play! I’d like to play solo guitar as well as duo with different instruments like that.
Can you tell us a little bit about your long relationship with Benedetto Guitars?
Well, I met Bob Benedetto back in 1992. I grew up in Southern California and I started hearing about them because some great players in California started playing them. A guy named Joe Diorio – incredible guitar player – who had the pleasure of studying with a little bit too, was thrilled when he got a Benedetto. I remember Cal Collins from Cincinnati start playing one too, and it seemed like a really contemporary archtop guitar with an amazing workmanship. And everybody loved the sound.
Then when I moved to New York, I met Bucky Pizzarelli. He was a seven string guitar player and he was playing a Benedetto for a number of years. I was always intrigued by it. Finally in 1992, Bucky hooked me up with Benedetto about having him make a guitar for me. He was still building his guitars in his basement, his shop in Pennsylvania. At that point, he was really a one man operation, even though he’d been cranking out all his guitars for 20 years or so at point.
I met Bob, he was so friendly and warm. I said, “Gee, Bob, I just recorded with George Van Eps last year and I’m really thinking about getting a seven string guitar.” And he said “Well, okay, I can make you a seven string. And if it doesn’t work out, I’ll make you a six string instead.” Haha!
Anyhow, we talked about personalizing, like what I was used to playing at that time. I’d been playing a Gibson Howard Roberts model for a number of years, which is a small archtop with an oval hole. We decided the 16″ body would be more appropriate for me.
We discussed different things about the neck, and then he said, “You know, if you like the oval hole, I can put that in for you.” I said, “Bob, you don’t have to make your guitar look like someone else’s. You know, I’m getting a Benedetto guitar.” He said “No, no, I’ve never done one before. I’d like to try one.” He liked to try new things they hadn’t done before. So he came up with my first seven string a few months later and it just felt right at home immediately. He had to experiment with a pickup because at that time, there weren’t a lot of pickups being made for seven string guitars.
He called me up a week or so later and said, “How do you like the seven string?” I said, “I love it, Bob. I’m going on tour to Europe next week for three weeks, I’ll be doing one nighters. So I probably won’t take it on that, because I don’t want to take a chance of it getting hurt.” And he says, “No, you should take it with. If it breaks, I’ll fix it for you. It should be played.” So that gave me the motivation – take it right on the road with me and learn, get used to it on the spot.
Many times during the first week, I’d be about to do an introduction to the song. It’d be like, “Shit, where’s the fourth string? 1, 2, 3.” I don’t know if you’ve ever experimented with seven strings, but even though it’s just one more string, if you haven’t done it before, it’s a little disorienting. You look down in seven strings, all of a sudden it looks like 10 strings to you.
Some years later, after a particularly grueling tour in Europe where I was carrying around a big case with the archtop in it, I came back and said “Can we talk about making it like a little more compact guitar?” And he came up with a beautiful design, which felt wonderful right away. And it’s now currently being produced under the new era Benedetto company – it’s called the Bambino.
Anything he did for me, he always really took a lot of personal interest and there was always something extra. He seemed to have an intuition for what would work well and wasn’t afraid to experiment with new ideas. So I had a long, long relationship with Bob. And now with the new company headed by Howard Paul, they’re carrying on his high standards for production. It’s really wonderful to see.
Can you tell us a little bit about the upcoming Archtop Festival?
I didn’t get up there for the last one, but I heard all the glowing reports afterwards. I saw pictures and people talking about it and saw so many of my friends and acquaintances and colleagues up there said, ‘wow, this is really a happening thing’. So I was delighted when Peter Henriksen called me and asked me to come up and be a part of it. I’m thrilled about going up there.
I don’t quite know to expect – other than it’ll be a bunch of friends and new friends hopefully, and see what some of the state of the art guitar makers doing.
Since it’s out in Denver, it’ll draw players from a wider spectrum of the United States. I’m looking forward to seeing my old friend, Bruce Forman out there, who I know was there last time. And I see some guys from New Orleans are coming up – it’s going to be quite a meeting of the minds and players and makers!
You’ve been part of the archtop community for a long time. How has that community changed over the years?
Well, it just seems to be bigger than than it was, you know, 30, 40 years ago. When Jimmy D’Aquisto was still alive and making guitars – he was like a high end example of a contemporary maker. And then Benedetto came along, and Bob was so sharing and open with his ideas that he really helped create a whole new crop of contemporary makers who took what they’d learned or just by the example he set and took it out into their own in their own ways. So it’s just flowered into an incredible community.
And ironically, even though in the music business seems to be shrinking for that kind of field and for live players, there’s always people interested in playing music and looking for guitars and advancing.
So it’s really just a nice, a nice thing to see. And everybody, all the makers seem to respect each other’s ideas and thoughts. And it’s not like a, it’s not like a cutthroat type of thing. It’s really a supportive community, I think.
Connect With Howard Alden
Rocky Mountain Archtop Festival – Sept 9-11, 2022 – Arvada, CO