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Ben Monder: Interview with Bowie's 'Blackstar' Guitarist

Ben Monder: Interview with Bowie's 'Blackstar' Guitarist

Talking Bowie, Blackstar and Ibanez AS-50 with the prolific guitarist

Ben Monder is a rare gem in the world of guitarists. A prolific musician based in the New York area for over 30 years, Monder has recorded on over 130 albums, both solo and as a sideman, with the likes of Jack McDuff, Marc Johnson and Lee Konitz requesting his services on their records.

He has honed his unique style of guitar playing, fusing Jazz, Rock and all manner of sonic architecture, to a point where he has become a highly sought after collaborator and revered artist in the world of music.

Possibly the highest testament to his playing capabilities came when someone very special came knocking and asked him to play on their latest and, as it turned out, last record.

Ben has now joined a rare and highly coveted “club” of guitarists, by contributing to the 25th and final David Bowie studio album, Blackstar, released 8th January.

We caught up with the extremely talented musician (and all round nice guy) who was kind enough to offer us his time for an interview to talk gear and a little about his experience recording with David Bowie.

N.B. this interview was sent out before the sad news of David Bowie’s passing.

Your guitar work is world-renowned – how does it feel to be Ben Monder these days?

I’m not sure that statement is accurate, but leaving that aside… I feel pretty much the same as I've always felt - looking for the next idea, trying to stay inspired, trying to maintain some semblance of ability on my instrument (this last is proving to be progressively more challenging…). But the writing has been starting to flow again after a fallow period, so I'm feeling good about that.

How was the experience recording with David Bowie on the new Blackstar album?

It was a fantastic experience, and I'm grateful to have been a part of it. The atmosphere was very relaxed and conducive to creativity, and David and Tony (Visconti) were just a joy to work with. Of course the members of Donny's band (Donny McCaslin Quartet) are some of the best musicians I know, and as a lifelong Bowie fan I was pretty excited to be there. I never thought in a million years I was working on what would be his last record. I'm still kind of stunned…

I never thought in a million years I was working on what would be his last record. I'm still kind of stunned...

Ben Monder

Can you tell us about the equipment you used on Blackstar?

I used my normal setup. Two amps in stereo - a 65 fender Deluxe Amp and a 68 Princeton Reverb, modified by Harry Kolbe (it now has a 12" EV and a larger power transformer).

The effects were a Lexicon LXP-1 modified by Audio Upgrades (Jim Williams), MXR Carbon Copy delay, Strymon Blue Sky reverb, Ernie Ball volume pedal, Walrus Audio Deep Six compressor, Walrus Mayflower distortion, Keeley modified RAT, and a Fulltone Deja Vibe. My guitars were an Ibanez AS-50 (my main guitar) and a ESP/Fernadez hybrid Strat with old Fender pickups.

You’ve played on over 130 albums and released a myriad of your own material to acclaim, what’s your secret to success?


Do you have a favourite album that you have recorded on?

My favorite of my own is Hydra. As a sideman, apart from Blackstar, which I think is fantastic, a couple that stand out are Reid Anderson's The Vastness of Space and Tony Malaby's Paloma Recio.

What would your advice be for guitarists and musicians out there hoping to break into the session musician world?

I don't know much about the "session" scene. What that term connotes to me is the world of the studio - jingles, movie soundtracks, pop albums, etc. While I've done a little of that I'm certainly not someone who is called for that kind of thing regularly.

So from a position of ignorance my advice would be: work on your reading, your time, and most importantly your sound. Be versatile and comfortable in different styles. Then of course you have to figure out how to meet the people in that world who can help you. Good luck.

Jazz wasn’t always your first love. Tell us a little about your journey from Rock to Jazz - I believe a Joe Pass record helped?

I started out playing rock, since that was the music I listened to - I never had much exposure to much else as a kid (save for my father's classical records), and I liked to learn songs off the radio.

When I decided to take lessons at age 14, the guitar instructor at the local music school was a jazz guitarist, so I kind of fell into it accidentally. But I also found it an interesting challenge. By the way, that teacher was the great guitarist John Stowell, and we remain friends to this day.

Yes, Joe Pass Virtuoso I was the first jazz record I owned, but records by Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel, and Pat Martino were early inspirations as well. Then a couple of years later when I heard A Love Supreme for the first time, my head kind of exploded.

The Blackstar album has been noted by critics for its Jazz influences. How do you feel about that?

I find it very much a rock record, even though there are colours taken from jazz and other influences, and it's performed by improvising musicians.

Even though members of the core quartet are known as jazz musicians, they are certainly versatile and great rock players as well.

I find it (Blackstar) very much a rock record, even though there are colours taken from jazz and other influences...

Ben Monder

On to the equipment - What’s the best guitar/amp/pedal you’ve ever owned?

I'm as happy with the equipment I have now as I've ever been with anything. I've had my Ibanez for 33 years now and I guess there is a reason I haven't traded up.

However, I did have a 1968 Gold Top Les Paul in high school that I foolishly sold for $600 before I went to college. I sometimes pine for that one...

What was the first song you learned to play on guitar?

Hot Cross Buns?

You have a distinctive sound, how do you achieve that? Any particular amp or pedal settings?

I favour tube and analogue equipment because I like to let the overtones of every note breathe as much as possible. For "bright" sounds I still use the neck pickup, but with the tone knob on maybe just 2 or 3. For distortion, I have the tone on 10 and use either the middle or bridge pickup position.

I also feel it's important to imagine a sound ideal and to try to manifest it with just your hands and the instrument, apart from any equipment. Then use the pedals, etc. to help get closer to it.

Are there any particular items in your rig that are really special to you? If so, what and why?

The LXP-1 is pretty crucial for my sound, as it gives me the spaciousness and atmosphere I find important. That said, I think one should be able to realize a personal sound no matter what the equipment.

Some guitars feel like they have more songs in them than others. What’s your go-to guitar when you need some inspiration?

I write mostly on the Ibanez, but different guitars give you different ideas. So I also turn variously to my acoustic (a 1934 Martin O-19), a Fender Bass VI, or an SG that I tuned a 5th lower. Also, altered tunings can push you into some unexpected places, so I experiment with those as well.

Who inspired/inspires you as a guitarist?

The list is too long to enumerate, and if I did I would inevitably leave out someone important. So, we have the pantheon of rock greats, and then the jazz guitar giants, but a few standouts to me personally are:
Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jim Hall, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Ralph Towner, Egberto Gismonte, Allan Holdsworth, and Ted Greene.

But currently, I'm as inspired by my contemporaries, like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Julian Lage, and Tim Miller just to name a few, as I am by anyone. Also, lookout for a young guitar player named Jeff Miles.

Are there any brands you’re particularly loyal to?

Not really, but I do seem to always buy D'Addario strings.

Your Ibanez AS-50 is gorgeous, please tell us a little about that.

Thank you. There was an ad for it on the bulletin board at Queens College, where I was in school in 1983. I thought it looked cool. I just sort of imagined myself playing it and thinking it would sound like what I was hearing in my head. It didn't initially but it got there eventually, just by playing it a lot. I string it with .13's, by the way, with an unwound .20 for the G string.

In today’s current musical climate with downloading etc. are you noticing that it’s getting harder for musicians to make a living?

Definitely, but on the other hand jazz record sales have always been negligible compared to more popular genres. The most noticeable thing for me is not being able to sell CD's at gigs, and the other big change is most labels will not give you an advance of any kind.

Fortunately, live music has not gone out of fashion, and I think that's where most of us have always made most of our income. Although one disturbing trend is that a lot of the audience is sitting there staring at their phones while you're trying to play. What's up with that?

What would you say to kids who want to be in a band now?

Work as hard as possible on your craft, and it should take care of you. And try not to fry your brain on the internet - you'll need your attention if you want to do anything meaningful.

What’s the next step for Ben Monder?

I'm writing for a new record, but I don't know when it will be ready, and I'm not even 100% sure what the instrumentation will be. I still have a dream of recording a standards/covers album, so this is still on the back burner somewhere. Also, I have been doing increasingly more solo shows, and this is something I would like to continue to pursue.

Finally, if you could own any guitar and any amp what would they be?

As stated earlier, I'm completely happy with the guitar I have, but maybe I haven't played through my dream amp yet so I don't know what it would be.

Photo credits: 1. John Rogers. 2. John Labbe.