Photo by Jerry L. Neff

What kind of stuff do you work on now?
Ideas mostly, things that people have not heard. Like that thing we did with “Danny Boy.” I worked on that for a long time before I got enough nerve to bring it out. I’ve got a lot of different formulas, and I use them whenever they seem to fit. Say, for instance, my solo on “Tequila.” I started off playing nothing but basic triads with an octave on top. As simple as it sounds, in certain circumstances it works very well.

Your technique is phenomenal. In the beginning, what did you work on to get it to such a high level?
When I got to New York and found all these guys with all this fabulous technique—Pat Martino and Grant Green and a few others— I said, “Man, I’m not gonna be able to make it here.” I knew I couldn’t match those guys. So I started devising my own method and reexamined the fingerboard. If you play a standard guitar, where you’re playing across the fingerboard, you’re playing down the fingerboard instead of going up. If I move my hands in the direction, slide them up as I play the notes, then it’s a logical progression. That kind of thing. I had to examine that over and over again until I got it right. I’m moving in the direction that the sound is suggesting. It’s all about getting from point A to point B. So I said, “Well, let me try it this way.” And I said, “Whoa! This is much simpler—and I can be much more accurate if I do it this way.”

Musicians are also in awe of your seemingly flawless sense of time. Did you always have that, or did you have to work on it?
I listened to Charlie Christian with the Benny Goodman band. Benny Goodman rightfully had the name “King of Swing.” There were other cats who could swing, but he consistently swung and he had good cats in the band. I listened to that and realized that I should loosen up a little bit, leave myself room where I could pick up some extra things. Leave a note out here and pick it up later over here— add it to the swing. I began to do it until it became natural, and it’s followed me down through the years.

Photo by John Darwin Kurc

What advice would you give to players who want to develop a stronger sense of time? For example, some people recommend using a metronome, and others are completely against it.
No, some people need that.

So it depends on the individual?
Yeah, well Montgomery used it—I have the one that he used! When I first saw him with that metronome years ago, I said, “Wow, Montgomery uses a metronome! Is that why he’s so good? Maybe I better get me a metronome.” But I never used it. I have a good sense of rhythm.

Your single-note playing is fairly staccato, as opposed to, say, Pat Metheny’s, which is very legato. Is that something you do intentionally? And if so, why?
I did it because my favorite players play like that. Hank Garland, he had a very staccatoy sound. It made it sound more forceful [scats staccato-ish phrase]. It was like, “Wow, it’s like the notes are dancing in front of me!” I don’t have a lot of pressure in my left hand, I never did. I think it came from playing cheap guitars where the winding would come undone on the strings and it would cut my fingers. So I stopped pressing hard. I play very light in my left hand. Django, in order to get the vibrato, had to have a lot of pressure in his left hand. Pat Martino has a lot of pressure in his left hand.

You hold your pick at an unconventional angle. Is there an advantage to that?
There are advantages and disadvantages to every technique I’ve seen. The technique that I have lends itself toward playing phrases that are not based in numbers—y’know, eighth-notes, 16th-notes. It’s not based on that. I’m leaving myself open so I can change from quarter-notes or eighth-notes and stick some fast triplets in there. Instead of playing four notes, if I play triplets I get 12 [scats a triplet-infused phrase]. But if you play with standard technique—if you get used to playing quarter-notes, eighth-notes, 16th-notes, 32ndnotes, whatever it is—you get used to this [scats a fast phrase in steady eighths], and after a while that bores me. So the technique I’m using—which isn’t the greatest, don’t get me wrong—makes it so I can play those phrases and still be within the realm of playing the single lines with the quarter-notes or the even eighth-notes.

Photo by Jerry L. Neff

I imagine this technique is fairly dependent on specific picks or gauges, then.
I use medium picks. They’re not too stiff and they allow me to have better rhythm. And the two edges [on mine] come down to a point that’s straighter than on a Fender pick. I do that because it gives me much more snap when the pick comes off the string.

Do you usually pick every note, or do you integrate hammer-ons and pull-offs or sweep-picking in your speedier lines?
There was a period when I picked every note, but I find that it’s not necessary in the way I’m thinking now—I’m beginning to let up on that. As you get older, you don’t get into the particulars so much as you do when you’re trying to speak a language. So I don’t force that anymore. Kenny Burrell asked me that once, “George, are you picking every note?” I said, “I don’t know— I guess so, Kenny.” And he was the master of the guitar. He and Wes Montgomery dominated the jazz world at the time. So for him to ask me any question about the guitar was phenomenal.