Anybody so into jazz guitar that they think they’ve seen it all may want to take a gander at the video clips on Robert Conti’s website. Chances are they’ll end up joining the growing ranks of those who start wondering where he – or we – have been.
It could be chalked up to the “flying under the radar” maxim, but get to know Conti’s inconceivable chops, astounding technique, and downright revered teaching materials, and it seems more likely he’s simply been flying above it. A Philly native, Conti grew up with fellow jazzer Pat Martino, was gigging on the road by his early teens, has released a number of recordings (including The Living Legends with Joe Pass), and spent years playing and teaching in Florida and L.A. Now settled in Las Vegas, Conti is still gigging and has a flourishing internet-based business through which he markets instructional books and DVDs. He recently celebrated his 60th birthday with the release of a new CD and the fifth volume in each of three instructional DVD series.
Vintage Guitar: Walk us through the new CD a bit.
Robert Conti: To The Brink was recorded in Vegas and contains several originals, a couple of Mark Stefani tunes, and a couple of standards – “Our Love is Here to Stay” and “Here’s That Rainy Day.” Billy Moran played Hammond B-3 and is one of my regular sidemen in Las Vegas. Rocco Barbato, a rather new discovery of mine, is on sax. And Aldo Bentivegna was the drummer in my L.A. quartet.
What guitars and amps did you use?
My preferred six-string is the Höfner Jazzica. The carved top is extremely activeand micro-responsive; that instrument reacts instantly to every nuance from the player. I’m working with a luthieron a hybrid design of it that I’ll present to Höfner for consideration. The amp is a Polytone Mini-Brute IV. It produces a very warm sound, even though it’s solid state. A few years ago, I discovered the Bluetube by PreSonus, a preamp that has become a staple for me, as it does two things extremely well – the tube substantially warms up the top end, and it boosts the usually weak signal from the guitar pickup, hot as a firecracker if you need it. The Bluetube is the perfect fix for cold-sounding amps. And I used to use very heavy string gauges, starting with a .016 on top. But the tips of my finger started bleeding, so I settled on .011-.048 for my six-strings. On my eight-string guitars, I add a .090for the low B and a .12 for the low F#. I’ve always been happy with plain nickel GHS strings. I see guitarists buying far more expensive strings, but to my ears there is no appreciable difference in sound.
Tell us about the new DVDs.
There are 15 total. Each series of five is focused on single-note improvisation, but Big City Blues is geared to blues tunes and changes; The Smoking Lineman is focused on bebop, and The Sound Of Rio is focused on bossa nova tunes.
Many of your students say that with your material, things finally clicked. How have you been able to break the theoretical into workable tools?
Before production, I watched several videos. With rare exception, the player/instructor would present some abstract idea followed by a directive to “go make music.” That’s not the type of video I wanted to present, so each of my DVDs is focused on a tune selected based on the level of improvising difficulty. In the opening segment, I play an improvised solo with a rhythm section. Then I begin breaking that solo down into easily understandable two-measure segments. The camera zooms in on my left hand and I explain every note of the subject line.
Talk about your right-hand technique and why you stress the importance of using the proper pick.
It generally comes as a shock to most players that I use a .38mm pick. Although a little more rigid, it’s not much thicker than a piece of paper. The up/down stroke of the pick in my right hand is restricted to little more than the thickness of the string. Any additional space in the up/down pick stroke is wasted motion, especially at an upper-level tempo where one is playing eighth or 16th notes.
What’s your next project?
The time demands of performing and developing my learning products haven’t allowed me to record as much as I should have during the last 15 years. I’m still performing, but I’m also now in an aggressive recording mode. I’ve received a truckload of requests for an improvisation DVD directed at entry-level jazz guitarists. It’s in production.