Guitar Stories

Herb EllisHerb Ellis
Interview with a Jazz Legend

By John Southern

Herb Ellis, was born in 1921 in a farming area north of Dallas, Texas. He first played harmonica at age three. Then, when he was 7 or 8 years old, someone left a flat-top roundhole guitar at the house…

Although Ellis never did take a guitar lesson, he studied bass in college for two years until “…the money ran out.” One evening, Herb and a group of college friends went to hear a band that included Charlie Fisk. The band had a guitarist, but Herb approached the bandleader, anyway.
He introduced himself and said “If you ever need a guitarist, I’m your man.” The bandleader said, “So you’re that good, huh?” Herb said he was, and proved it at rehearsal the following day. Soon after, the band’s guitarist had to enter the Army, so Herb took his place.
Ellis became a true craftsman, evolving into a magnificent jazz guitarist. Through the years, he shared the stage and recording studio with an impressive list of jazz greats including Jimmy Giuffre, Gene Roland, Harry Babasin, Jimmy Dorsey, pianist Oscar Peterson, bassist Ray Brown, fellow guitarist Barney Kessel, Charlie Byrd, and Joe Pass, and many others. Among his most notable working engagements was as guitarist for legendary singer Ella Fitzgerald. Today, Ellis is recognized worldwide among the elite modern jazz guitarists.
Here is some of that history.

VG: So when you went on your first road job, could you read music?

HE: Yes, but not enough to hurt my playing.

VG: Did you teach yourself to read music?

HE: Yes, so I left there shortly after that and went on the road.

VG: What guitar were you playing at the time?

HE: I had an acoustic Gibson and an Epiphone electric.

VG: Which did you prefer?

HE: I liked them both. I liked to play rhythm, still do. If I’d had to choose, I’d have chosen the electric, it was a blond archtop, and it was a good guitar. I bought [the Epiphone] in Dallas, I paid it on the payment plan.

VG: How did you stay out of the war?

HE: I had a heart murmur, they didn’t take me. And I had palpitations then. I don’t now. But they didn’t know when the palpitations might occur. They could have come at a time when they really needed me, you know.

VG: Lucky it came when the stethoscope hit your chest!

HE: That’s right.

VG: So you were with the Charlie Fisk Band for how long?

HE: About a year, then I met this guy from Kansas City. He was a sax player. Charlie White was his name.  He invited me to come and stay in Kansas City, with him and his parents. So I stayed in Kansas City for two or three years and played, and there was still some of that old jazz left, so you found a lot of places to play. That’s where I first heard Charlie Parker. It was great.

VG: Did you, at that time, play country or any type of music other than jazz?

HE: No.

VG: How would you describe jazz to someone who doesn’t understand music?

HE: I would tell them it’s something you can’t get too intellectual about. It’s a feeling; you have to have it. You have to feel it. It has a certain rhythmic feeling, just like rock does. That’s why the two are very opposite, they can’t blend together. That’s why I’m against jazz fusion so much. Because you can’t fuse jazz and rock, like you can’t fuse oil and water.

VG: So did you play big bands, mostly?

HE: No, more small bands mostly, 3 or 4 piece.

VG: Who did you play with next?

HE: Glenn Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra. Ever hear of him? He had a big name in the ‘30s and ‘40s. So he came through [Kansas City] and they needed a guitarist, so I auditioned. I got it and went out on the road again. From there, I went to Jimmy Dorsey, then one thing led to another and here we are having a taco salad and a Coke.

Three of us from Jimmy Dorsey’s band quit, formed a trio, and took a job in Buffalo. All of the rhythm section left, except the drummer. Jimmy was none too happy about that. We played for two or three years, on and off, and one Sunday night, Oscar Peterson, who lived in Montreal but was in Toronto visiting friends, came in and sat in with us. After that night, we went and sat in at another club. That was in the late ‘40s.

Then, in 1953, [Oscar] needed a guitarist after Barney Kessel [finished] a one-year contract. Barney had a big name then, and deservedly so. And Oscar paid him a handsome price to establish the trio. Barney went back to Los Angeles, and maybe did some more studio work.

VG: Were you still playing the Epiphone at that time? (Barney and Herb were both playing electric guitars by then).

HE: When I went with Oscar, I bought a Gibson ES-175. I’ve still got the same one [from 1953].

VG: Was the pickup a P-90? The one that was black with the ears on the side and six pole pieces in the middle?

HE: That’s right, and I changed it to a humbucker, and I liked it much better.

VG: Why do you prefer a laminated top over a solid spruce top?

HE: I like the sound. See, a lot of people don’t know that if you’re playing electric guitar, if it has a great acoustic sound, that’s bad, ‘cause it gets mixed up with the electric sound and it will feed back and you’ll have a lot of trouble. So you’re better off to have one that doesn’t make much sound. The pickup takes the vibrations from the string. So long as the strings are vibrating, you’ll get a sound.

VG: Do you still perform with Oscar Peterson?

HE: I did studio work after the first six years I played with Oscar, and the last few years we’ve still done things together. You know with studio work, you seldom do jazz music. You have to play anything from country to rock to a television or movie theme. You just work for all of them.

I recorded at Universal a lot. I didn’t love studio work, but it kept me home with my family. I never was a great music reader, but I got away with it, somehow. They never sent me home, anyway. I played banjo, ukulele, 5-string banjo, 12-string guitar, Dobro, everything. You have to have a whole case full of instruments.

VG: What type of amplifier were you using?

HE: For studio work, I had a Fender. But I like Polytones much better for my jazz work.

VG: Tell us more about the Polytones.

HE: In my circles, it is well know. It’s been around for a long time. George Benson, Ray Brown, Joe Pass; most of the top jazz players play Polytone. Most of the amplifiers are made with rock in mind, they are way too heavy on the bass end, and much too thin at the top. The Polytones are more well-rounded. The bass isn’t too heavy and the top still has some roundness to it. It’s just perfect for jazz.

VG: Is it a tube amp?

HE: The first ones were, but they’ve gone to transistors. They say there’s a difference but I’ve never noticed it.

VG: How did the Gibson Herb Ellis guitar come about?

HE: Well, I’ve played a Gibson since 1953, and I guess because I’ve been playing so long and hopefully very well, my name is bigger than it ever has been. So Gibson thought it would be wise business to offer the instrument. And it has been a good idea, they sold several of them.

I mostly play the new Gibson model bearing my name. Every time they sell one, I get a royalty payment.

VG: When did Gibson approach you?

HE: It was about the time someone new bought Gibson, some young enthusiastic guy (Henry Juszkiewicz). Terry Holmes and I drove over to Nashville and made the arrangements.

VG: I see a funny looking contraption on the end of your fingerboard. What is that?

HE: That’s a string damper, a George Van Eps invention. it keeps the open strings from feeding back.

VG: You keep that on all the time?

HE: Yeah, you can still play open strings they just don’t last as long, which is better in fact. A lot of people ask about that.

VG: Do you have arthritis in your hands?

HE: No, thank God.

VG: Are you still playing jazz festivals?

HE: Yes, some. Not as many as before. I still play jazz parties in Denver.

Herb’s wife, Pat, likes the Denver gig because all the players’ wives get together. They have all become good friends. Herb fans will be glad to know that the Soft Winds release "Then and Now" will soon be available on compact disc, and in the near future, we can all look forward to hearing much more from this timeless performer.