Joscho Stephan: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview

Joscho Stephan Interview

Photo courtesy of Joscho Stephan

When we think of the word “virtuoso” as far as guitars go, German jazz ripper Joscho Stephan probably isn’t the first name that comes to mind—but he should rightfully be in the conversation. Though he’d never admit it, Stephan has gypsy jazz down to a science, though the expanse of his playing ranges far further than that. But considering he received his first guitar at age five and was off and running by age six, we suppose that checks out.

With over a dozen studio and live albums out, Stephan has been around the block a time or three, but that doesn’t mean his creativity is running dry—quite the contrary. These days, he’s busy writing new music and growing a mega-following on all social media platforms, which, as most know, is key to making a proper break for it in today’s musical landscape.

That aside, Stephen took a few precious moments away from his busy schedule to beam in with us here at ClassicRockHistory.com to dig into his origins, process, gear, and more.

What inspired you to pick up the guitar, and what keeps you inspired to pick it up?

I was surrounded by music at a very young age because of my father. He played in a top-40 band just for fun; they did not play a lot of gigs; it was more of a hobby for them. So, if I can imagine, I wanted to be a musician, and my instrument of choice would have been drums, but of course, my parents were not amused by that idea. Instead of the drums, they persuaded me to play the guitar, and to be honest, I am happy that I play the guitar instead of the drums because of all the possibilities I have now.

What was it like picking up the guitar at age six?

Maybe I got the guitar for Christmas when I was five. I just played around with it for half a year until I got more serious. So, when I was six, my dad started showing me the first chords and songs. I remember him showing me, especially Beatles songs in the beginning. I think “I Should Have Known Better” was one of the first songs I could play. He decided to get guitar lessons for me, even with some riffs like “Day Tripper,” etc., and I could play most of his repertoire within a few weeks.

At that time (mid-80s), only classical guitar lessons were available. At age 10, I stopped playing classical guitar, returned to my electric Les Paul, and tried to play rock music (Santana, Gary Moore, Joe Satriani). I found that I was more interested in improvising than learning all the original parts, so that was the beginning of me focusing more on music that had a jazz background.

What did your early guitars look like, and how did you develop your style?

My first guitar was a Seiwa Powersonic, a weird electric guitar with an involved speaker. Still, to be honest, I just bought the same type of guitar a few years ago (for sentimental reasons) because you never forget the first instrument you own. Then, of course, I played a cheap classical Yamaha guitar, which was quite good, and later (when I was 11), I got a Gibson Les Paul Custom guitar, my first “real” guitar.

When I first heard Django, I wanted a gypsy swing guitar, but at that time (maybe early 90s), it was very hard to find one (nowadays, it is much easier because of the internet). So, I was lucky enough to find a Hoyer 3063 Gypsy Guitar, the first guitar I used in that style. Today, I play Volkert guitars (for more than 20 years).

What does the term “gypsy jazz,” which you’re often associated with, mean to you?

I would never call myself an authentic gypsy jazz guitarist because I use a lot of other influences today (pop, rock, jazz, blues, Latin, classical stuff, etc.). However, I think the spirit of Django is still visible in our instrumentation (we mostly play as a trio with two guitars and double bass), and what is still a big inspiration is the dynamic range that Django used in his playing, which always fascinated me.

So, I never tried to copy him 100%; I just used the typical arpeggios and things that sound like gypsy jazz, and of course, I worked hard on the right-hand technique (which is unique in gypsy jazz). Still, after that, I tried to incorporate many different things to become my own voice within this style, which is not easy.

Where were you pulling from in terms of songwriting these days?

Also, at the beginning of my career, I tried to sound more authentic with my compositions. Today, I am more open to incorporating other ideas for songs to make our live set more interesting for the audience. For example, with my friend Richard Smith (a fingerstyle virtuoso living in Nashville), I composed a reggae shuffle I often play with my trio.

Then I wrote some more bluesy ballads, a funk tune, and some Latin-inspired stuff, but of course, I am still working on swing tunes. The inspiration is often different; sometimes, I pick up my guitar and get an idea, and often, 10 minutes later, the tune is finished (those are most of the best compositions); other times, I meet interesting people or visit great places and get inspired to compose something new.

Do you have a favorite riff and solo?

Even though I am a virtuoso guitar player, I loved the melodic solos the most. An example is the first version of “Undecided” by Django Reinhardt. He starts the song with a fantastic solo before the singer takes over. In “I’ll Be Waiting,” Carlos Santana plays one of his best solos (I think Moonflower will be his best album ever; his playing is top-notch). “Breezin'” by George Benson is incredible, as is how Wes Montgomery plays “Caravan” on his Movin Wes album. So, there is a reason why these guys are still the inspiration for many young players.

How do you view the way you play today versus the past? What has changed most?

Over the years, I have become more and more confident in combining all my musical roots. When I started playing Gypsy Swing, I wanted to sound like Django or his successors (Stochelo, Bireli, etc.). But with my first album, Swinging Strings (1999), I noticed that the critics praised my independence. From then on, I tried more and more to incorporate other ideas and styles into my playing.

First, by combining other styles, for example, there was an instrumentation that mixed gypsy swing with klezmer, and then there was an album that included pieces from classical music in a swing style. During the Corona crisis, I made my most significant breakthrough by recording a record with Beatles songs. Apart from the fact that I used my Volkert guitar for the melodies on (almost) all the tracks, the album doesn’t have much in common with gypsy swing. I play all the guitars and bass and most of the percussion myself.

My Strat and Les Paul are used for the first time on this album. This album was very successful, encouraging me to keep inviting new guests from different genres to my YouTube channel and try to find a common musical intersection. People like Tommy Emmanuel, Stochelo Rosenberg, Richard Smith, or Bireli Lagrene are, of course, to be expected on a channel like this. But modern finger stylists like Mike Dawes, Adam Rafferty, or Sophie Chassee are unlikely to be guests of other gypsy swing guitarists.

How do you view guitar solos in the modern era? Do they need to be deconstructed and changed from being overblown?

I think that also depends on the style of music. Rock music, for example, has totally changed. In the ’70s, you had melodic players like Beck, Santana, Clapton, etc., who all had a certain recognizability. With “Friday Night in San Francisco” in the acoustic scene and the heavy players in the electric scene, the playing has naturally become more technical and virtuosic. I find the balance between fast and slow, loud and quiet, crying and laughing the most important.

A good solo makes me want to listen; a bad one doesn’t. That has nothing to do with whether it was played fast or slow but whether the structure and timing grabbed me. I also think that the live performance always requires more energy than the solo on an album. If you ask me if I would rather play self-indulgently or not, my answer would be: I don’t want to play for my audience, and my feelings will guide me on whether to play an up-tempo number or a ballad.

Tell me about your gear: guitars, amps, pedals. What goes into those choices?

I mainly use my Volkert acoustic guitars. I use an AER Compact XLR as an amp and a Tonedexter as a mic simulation for my pickup, which produces a wonderful acoustic sound. For the EQ, I use the EBS Stanley Clarke preamp. I’ve been using D’Addario strings for all my guitars for years. I use Henriksen amps (Bud6 and Bud10) for my electric guitars, which are great. Some of my archtop guitars are equipped with Seymour Duncan pickups, which I also use.

What are your short and long-term goals? How will you achieve them?

I always have so much going on that it never gets boring. I’m working on a new trio album containing more original compositions and non-genre covers. We also regularly record videos with guests for our YouTube channel, which now has almost 130,000 subscribers and around 30 million channel views.

I’m also writing a book for beginners in gypsy jazz, or instead; the book is aimed at classical guitarists who play without a pick. I also play over 150 shows a year and do several workshops. That means I’m constantly moving, so I don’t have to worry about long-term planning.

 

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