Started: since age of 8 in 1977
Instruments: Guitar, Bass, Piano
Styles: Jazz, Blues, Funk
Books Publications: (National Guitar Workshop Publications/Alfred) Sight-Reading for the Contemporary Guitarist Classic Jazz Guitar Styes Theory For The Contemporary Guitarist (DVD)
Recordings: Blues In The Slope (1998) Perspectives (2003)
Gear: Yamaha SA 2200 Gibson M5 CES Gibson- Chet Atkins Acoustic Edge Cabinets Thomastik-Infield Swing Series strings
Lesson Text: Learn to Play Guitar with Tom Dempsey Tom Dempsey's guitar lessons focus on the fundamentals of Jazz guitar. Tom's thorough discussion of scales, interval definitions, positions on the guitar, and fingerings lay the necessary foundation for guitar playing in any style, and for Jazz guitar in particular. For Jazz guitar beginners, Tom covers how to read notes and how to locate notes on the guitar, including major scale in open and 2nd, 5th, 7th and 10th position, introduction to accidentals and key signatures, introduction to triads including diminished and augmented, and open position major and minor triads. He'll explain the cycle of 4ths, the use of target tones, 7th chords, and introduce you to the basic blues progression and the call-and-response technique. In his lessons, Tom emphasizes the development of strong rhythm; four-to-the-bar comping, Charleston rhythm, shuffle comping techniques, and an introduction to clave and basic Bossa Nova. At the intermediate level, you'll study the theory and fingerings for modes and modal improvisation.
Tom Dempsey's reputation in the New York jazz scene for excellence, versatility, and sophistication is evident in the groups that he leads, including The Tom Dempsey/Tim Ferguson Quartet. Whether it be his trio or quartet, Dempsey's groups show how creative modern mainstream jazz remains in the 21st century. You can find Tom playing in great clubs around NYC and beyond! He is a veteran teacher at the National Guitar Workshop.
When did you start to play? My first real exposure to the guitar was watching Hee Haw. I used to get really excited to hear Roy Clark and Buck Owens. They would play different guitars, and banjos, and all sorts of stringed instruments. They had some really fantastic musicians who were on that show. So in some ways it was country and folk music that I was first into. And then I got more into rock. I got into jazz in 7th grade. There were a bunch of musicians my age or slightly older that were all into it that I had met at this jazz camp. That was my first real exposure to studying jazz, and I kind of got hooked from there on. The biggest influence on me as a kid was growing up with all those guys - and none of them were guitar players. There was a great bass player named Slam Stewart who retired in Binghampton, NY, near where I grew up. He used to come to all of the schools and do concerts - I remember hearing him when I was in the first grade. I got exposed to the right stuff early on. By that point I had heard Wes Montgomery - "Smokin' at the Half Note." I've worn that record out several times. When did you start to notice that your playing was different from everyone else's? My voice as a player has gone through several different evolutions throughout my life. As a kid, your voice is kind of clearly identified with your influences, and two of my big influences were Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall. So, like any jazz musician, you go through a period where you're emulating what they do - or trying to. In my later teens and early twenties I was really steeped in the tradition of jazz guitar, which was a great place to come from. And then I realized that there's just so much other stuff out there, and I tried to have my playing become more a part of the times that I was living in. I started really taking in modern harmonic influences, and other cultural influences. But to call myself a jazz musician - it's funny how in this country we need to have everybody identified by a certain style of music - sort of quantified and classified. But I play all sorts of different kinds of stuff. Jazz is what people consider what I do, but I don't need that title. How do you keep your playing fresh? That's a good question. I think by just trying to connect with the music and be as honest as I can be, and also by exposure to different kinds of music and different kinds of players. You're constantly being influenced by different sorts of playing situations, different sorts of artistic situations that you find yourself in. Your overall personality comes through the music in those situations. But as far as trying to keep fresh, I try to listen to inspiring music. What do you do when you get stuck? I think getting stuck is part of the whole process, and you have to allow yourself to be stuck. If I find myself stuck in any kind of a musical situation, generally by relaxing and allow myself to accept the fact that I'm stuck, eventually something starts to break away and you become un-stuck. Sometimes you just need a little distance. You need to step away and listen to some other kind of music. I remember one time I got really stuck on something, and I just stopped listen to jazz for a couple of weeks... And sometimes by having that distance it allows for things to settle. What do you still find hard to do? Play guitar! It's a challenge every day to try to sit there with a guitar and make some music, and make it consistently on a high level. Music, I think, is one of the most humbling things that I know of in my life. Whatever you give to it, it will give back to you ten fold, but if you're not really good to the music, it won't necessarily cover your butt. I know Wes Montgomery used to talk about how the guitar was so intimidating, he sometimes wanted to throw a steak into the guitar case. I think the most difficult thing about playing music is being able to play consistently on a high - and most importantly on an honest - level. Just trying to be true to it, and trying to deal with it with the respect it deserves. How often are you surprised by your playing, or what you're listening to, or music in general? I discover new things often. I would say it happens to me several times a week, that I'm surprised by something that I've played, or something that I've heard. Every time I move a little deeper into Brazilian music I'm surprised by how much deeper it really gets as far as the traditions and the rhythm and the complexity of it all - how rich and deep that tradition is. Do you have a regular practice regimen? When I'm home, I generally find that the best thing for me to do is start first thing in the morning - right out of bed with a cup of coffee. Get my fingers moving. I have some exercises that I do to start to gain that physical connection with the instrument. And then a lot of times that just leads me into playing a tune. The best case scenario for me with my practice regimen is to divide it into four different areas. There's the technical area, which is the physical connection with the instrument and the different technical skills that are attached to playing. There's the improvisational element, which could be anything from working on improvising on certain tunes, to trying to develop new ideas and new ways of playing, to transcribing and any of that kind of stuff. Then there are musicianship skills, which include sight reading and ear training. I'm still constantly working on getting better with all of that and maintaining those skills. And then there's repertoire development - learning tunes. As far as a tool kit, it varies based on where I'm practicing. My home is a large by New York standards studio apartment in mid-town Manhattan, so there's not a whole lot of room, but there is an area which has my guitars, which are always out, and my amp. I have a little mini-studio here - so that's part of my "elaborate" tool kit. Also included in that would be music stand, music paper, and a metronome. The sort of "bare-bones" kit would be the metronome, the music paper and the guitar. I'm constantly practicing with the metronome, because it's so important, I feel, to always be working on your time and keeping your time really strong. You can play all the wrong notes in the right time and still make it feel good. If you play the right notes, but not be able to play in the right time, it's going to sound less than convincing. When I'm on the road, it all depends. If it's all one-nighters, it's hard to get any kind of consistent practicing. If I have to take a flight first thing in the morning, I've found time for me to grab my guitar while I'm waiting at the gate and get half an hour of practicing in with the metronome. If I'm going to be in a town for a week or something, then generally my morning are going to be free - a lot of times, my whole day will be free, and so I'll be able to get a lot of practicing in. I'll bring a laptop on the road, and nowadays with all the technological advances you can actually do some recording and some composing. I have a little Oxygen8 keyboard that I bring, which is a couple of octaves, and you can do all sorts of stuff. In a perfect world, I try to get to all four areas every day. A lot of times I end up having to practice what's most important to what I'm doing professionally at that time. If I'm getting ready to do a record date, my repertoire development and my improvisation fall into one, and I have to learn the tunes for the record date. It's hard nowadays to devote a lot of time to practicing. When I was in college it was nothing for me to sit there and practice up to six or eight hours on a week day, and on a weekend up to ten or twelve. I may have logged a lot of hours, but those weren't necessarily hours well spent. So I look at more like I'm trying to accomplish things. I try to walk away from every practice session, whether it was half an hour or three hours, and really feeling like I had accomplished something. Because that's the stuff that draws you back. As a kid you could brag about it - "I practiced for four hours." Well, yeah, I spent four hours with a guitar in my hand, and I was doing stuff. But if you establish goals, and try to accomplish something in your practice session - that's really the way I try to look at it more. What makes me feel good about it is if I feel like I'm getting someplace. The great thing about the guitar is that, at least for me, the more I play, the better I start to feel about my playing. Every once in a while, I have two or three gigs in one day, and by that third gig, all of a sudden I'm playing stuff that I can't even - "Wait a minute! Is this me?" You just become looser with the instrument. Is there a piece of gear you just can't live without? Besides my guitar and my amp, I would say the two gotta-haves would be the metronome and the tuning fork for me. Because that's the fundamentals of it all. Whatever guitar I'm playing on, and whatever amp I'm paying through, I'm going to get pretty close to what I sound like. I'm always looking at different guitars, but if I didn't find anything else for the rest of my life, I'd be pretty happy. I'm always looking at new stuff, but I'm relatively happy with what I have. Ultimately, the sound comes from your fingers. Are there one or two core ideas that are central to your teaching that you make sure every student learns? I try to teach everything with regard to these ideas that I call tonality shapes. They are a methodology I use to try to unlock the fingerboard. There are five octave shapes within a twelve-fret span of the fingerboard. Three of them are one-octave shapes, and two of them are two-octave shapes. And they all connect together into this cyclical pattern. It really starts to open up the neck. It's been an effective thing for me, and I've had a lot of success with students who've embraced it. The other thing is an awareness of sound. Most of the people that I teach are playing some sort of electric guitar. Sometimes they come in and they'll be playing so hard on the instrument, I'll ask them, "When you practice at home, do you play with the amp?", and they'll say, "No." Well, the amplifier is part of your instrument, and it drastically affects the sound that you're producing. So I really try to get students really aware of their sound - connecting notes and getting a beautiful sound. Do you find yourself returning to listen to the artists who inspired you when you first started to play? Absolutely. Absolutely. Now in the days of iPods, I subscribe even more to a regular diet of Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall and Grant Green, now as much as any time in my life. Does your playing change when you switch instruments? The choice of instruments is directly connected to the type of music that's being played at that time. And because of that, the situation and the color and the mood of that music is going to affect how I'm playing at that certain time. There are certain things that will remain common and consistent. I'll play differently in different situations, and a lot of times those situations will warrant certain kinds of instruments. How often, when you're playing, do you find those moments of pure music, when your head is clear, your fingers are working, there are no distractions, and it's just you and the music? More often than not. Every gig has its own inherent musical challenges. The most important thing is to be able to creatively and artistically have your soul in that musical space at that time. I used to sub in a band on a television show here in New York, the Rosie O'Donnell show. And it may have been at the first gig when the drummer said to me, "Doing this gig is kind of like doing sprints. You have to be totally on, with everything perfect in your musical execution of something, and it could be four second long." And that was the inherent challenge in doing that gig. You might have four of five measures of music, but they had to be a perfect four or five measures of music. And you had to be on, and ready to ready and react and go in whatever different situation the show warranted at that point. Or you could be playing for a dance. That's one of the things that's really lost for the current generation of musicians, is learning how to play for dancers. I had the great opportunity growing up to play a lot of dances. The challenge, the inherent goal in that process, is to make people feel so good that they want to dance. What music would you suggest for students? There's just so much great music everywhere. There's one of the great solo jazz guitar players out there, Gene Bertoncini - he's got so much stuff that he's put out that's so great. Jim Hall is one of these guys who doesn't stop evolving. A lot of musicians of his generation would have a certain identity and play a certain way, and do that for the rest of their lives, but Jim is constantly evolving. One [recent CD] was just with viola and celli - no violins - it's just a beautiful, beautiful sound. He's done some stuff with brass instruments, too. I just got hold of this new Wes Montgomery record that just came out. Some guy taped his only tour in Europe - this was from the end of the tour, when they were in France. It's this newly-discovered gem - just incredible. One of the people that I feel has still not really gotten his due as far as reaching a larger audience, someone I'd definitely recommend checking out, is Rodney Jones. In his late teens and early twenties he was playing with Dizzy Gillespie. Since that time he's played with lots and lots of different people as a sideman, but his solo records are just starting to come out. He has a certain sophistication coming out of the Benson tradition, but he's got a whole improvisational language, and his technique on the guitar is astonishing. So any of his recordings - The Undiscovered Few is one of them, and Sound Manifesto - he took a lot of soul jazz sort of stuff, and combined that with a real 21st century jazz guitar language - it's really amazing. What are you listening to these days? Do you search out music that's new and unfamiliar to you? Kind of a wide variety of stuff. I'm listening to a lot of the Beethoven piano sonatas recently, because I'm just trying to get deeper into the composition and understanding of his music. I mean it's just so deep - as far as the way he uses development throughout the composition, which has parallels not only to composing but improvising as well. I listen to a lot of Brazilian music right now, a lot of Joao Gilberto. I listen to a lot of Astor Piazzola� and then just all of the players of today, and a lot of the old stuff as well. I still get as much of a kick out of listening to "Smoking at the Half Note" and hearing something now that I didn't hear before when I was 15 years old. The most important thing to understanding music is to surround yourself with it all the time. There are so many books, and so many great things out there. The answers to any of your musical questions are always going to be in the music, so the more you can surround yourself with that, the better. Sometimes I search it out, and sometimes it just gets put right in front of me. I've been spending a lot of time over the last few years really getting into Brazilian music. I was in Brazil a year ago, and got exposed to a lot of different kinds of music while I was there. Do you have a musical wish list - other instruments to learn, people to play with, artists or styles to explore? I'd like to get deeper into understanding the piano, and definitely deeper into composition. I'd like to study with some different classical composers in the coming years. I've been writing music for years, and I'm still barely scratching the surface of what's out there. What make a great teacher? Being able to identify what the music is that resonates inside the student and what the teacher can bring to the table to help the student realize the music that's inside of them more deeply. I've had some teachers that just tried to expose me to what they were into. They might have a certain methodology, and they just give it to me regardless of what I'm into. Every student comes for a certain reason. If I can identify why that student is sitting in front of me and what it is they really want to be able to do on the guitar, and then relate that in a responsible, pedagogical way show them how best to become a stronger musician, that's basically what I try to do. There were three teachers who had uniquely different influences on me: Phil Hayes - My guitar teacher growing up really opened my perspective of the guitar and strengthened my musicianship through his unique way of teaching theory. He had a way of translating lessons to the page that were so clear. He was also the first person to play Wes Montgomery for me. That was it!!!! Ted Dunbar - My guitar teacher at Rutgers. Ted was amazing!! Besides emphasizing the tradition of the music he looked at the totality of the guitar. The things he would emphasize in lessons covered the gamut. He would push me really hard about learning tunes and developing melodic phrases but he would also spend time purely on technique and sound. That was a big emphasis for him....sound. Really connecting notes. Not too many people talk about that and that's such a big thing. He also had a brilliant mind. He taught me so much about theory and reharmonization. Oh my God. He was a bad dude!!! I think of him often. Rodney Jones - I owe this man a lot. He has and continues to influence me. When I moved to New York in 1991 I was playing jazz out of the tradition with honor and respect. I studied with Rodney a few years later at the Manhattan School of Music and he really helped to open up my concept a ton. He led me to look for my voice and embrace the fact that we are playing this music in the present, not the 1950s or 60s. There was a way to honor the tradition and play music consistent with the time I am living in. He opened up my vocabulary and possibilities a great deal. Valuable lessons, valuable teacher, and a valuable friend. How do you learn best? By doing. I learn best by playing a lot. I'll be working on a certain thing, but it will really only start to come into my playing by gigging, or through playing with other people. So that's how I learn the best - by playing with other people.
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