Harp Guitar Player of the Month

Phil deGruy: Limitless Guitar

by Gregg Miner, September 2004


2000

“Phil's approach to the guitar sounds like John Coltrane meets Mel Brooks at a party for Salvador Dali.” - Steve Vai

“Philip deGruy is the Victor Borge of the electric guitar, but only if Victor were as good as Art Tatum and as hilarious as, say, Lenny Bruce." - Matt Resnicoff

“(Reminiscent of) earlier generations of guitar hotshots, such as Roy Smeck, George Van Eps, Carl Kress and Dick McDonough.” - John Corbett, Down Beat

“He's a virtuosic genre-straddler with a flair for solo guitar inventions and a blissful resistance to convention.” - Josef Woodard, JazzTimes

"I have never been more impressed with anybody's playing, ever!" - Danny Gatton

"The most original solo guitarist of the '90s." - Larry Coryell

“Every guitar player should have this in their collection, no matter what kind of music they play.” – Charlie Hunter

 



1994

 

AND he’s a harp guitarist.

So who IS Phil deGruy, besides another candidate for “The Most Famous Guitarist You’ve Never Heard Of”?

I first became peripherally aware of Phil while researching and collecting examples of all forms of harp guitars, and coming across a picture and description of his infamous “Guitarp.”

I didn’t get around to checking out his music until recently, when a friend lent me his first CD (Innuendo and Out the Other). Within minutes of putting it on, my jaw had firmly dropped, and remained there for most of the entire album. I don’t have the vocabulary to begin to describe Phil’s playing or arrangements, but can testify that the above quotes are all accurate!

You may have noticed that Phil is placed in the "Non-Conventional" section of our Players page. This is not due to his decidedly non-conventional music (which truly needs its own separate category!), but to the type of harp guitar he plays. 1) It has "super-treble" strings rather than the typical "sub-bass" strings, and 2) it is a solidbody electric guitar, as opposed to the more common acoustic harp guitars.

After some email introductions, I recently got a chance to talk to the man himself - but before we present the Interview, or listen to a Song Sample, let me quickly encapsulate Phil's music, background and instrument.

2004
Born in New Orleans in 1955, Phil deGruy (pronounced "degree") has steadfastly remained in Louisiana his entire life, despite the constant humidity wreaking havoc on his Guitarp's seventeen strings at every gig. Even now, he seldom ventures from his home town (Phil says New Orleans has two speeds: stop... and mildew). Luckily, it's home to a vibrant jazz scene that's not just limited to Dixieland.

Taking up guitar at an early age, he quickly gravitated towards the music of Chet Atkins. After thoroughly assimilating Chet's style through a local teacher, Phil next discovered jazz guitar legend Lenny Breau. He met the master in Nashville in 1976, and began a series of sporadic but intense study sessions with Breau over the next several years. It was Breau, the first to add a seventh high A string to his guitar (rather than the more common Van Eps low A as the seventh string), who turned Phil on to the possibilities of this new instrument. 

In 1983, Phil commissioned his first custom instrument, killing two birds with one stone when he combined the high A, 7-string concept with one of his own - an extra bank of treble "harp" strings. A friend soon coined a name for the new invention, and the “Guitarp” was born. Phil has never looked back.
 
  The Guitarp is a (relatively) standard solidbody electric guitar with an added bank of ten high, open harp-like strings.  As they are fully incorporated into Phil’s playing, rather than just added for sympathetic vibration, the result is a true harp guitar (Form 4, body harp string attachment). The standard neck is a 7-string, with a high A. The first Guitarp was commissioned from local New Orleans luthier Jimmy Foster in 1983. This instrument (at right) was used on Phil’s first CD, Innuendo Out the Other. A second, similar, white Guitarp was later built by Foster, and makes an appearance on Phil's soon-to be released third album.

In 1997, West Coast luthier Ralph Novak redesigned and built deGruy's present Guitarp (below), employing the Novax fanned-fret system. This appears to provide a more seamless transition from the Guitarp’s low strings to the high A, and directly into the “super-trebles.” Phil plays this instrument on his second CD, Hello Dali.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Playing fingerstyle, sans picks or nails, Phil coaxes, prods and rips an assortment of colors and sounds from all 17 strings. With his trademark arpeggio harmonics (that magical Lenny Breau-created device, which Phil takes to a whole new level) mixed in with the chime-like upper register tones of the super-trebles, he succeeds in creating an entirely new instrument - what one reviewer described as giving the illusion of a "limitless" guitar. 

Equally limitless is Phil's creative muse. In the liner notes to his first CD, Matt Resnicoff describes Phil's "lunatic majesty" and "tender, sinister madness," evident while putting forth a "constant stream of alliterative puns and improvised parodies." Yes, if it hasn't already become apparent by now, Phil's music is often hilarious. Perhaps "parodies" is the wrong word. Phil isn't making fun; he's having fun, his free-association brain providing instant access to a wellspring of musical ideas and quotes, which flit in and out of seemingly ad-lib arrangements. Admittedly, his very original style may not be for everybody (it is decidedly NOT background music, or contemplative noodling for "New Age" fans). However, even the most critical of reviewers agrees that "the humor never slips over the line into simple silliness" and that "deGruy's musicianship and quick and inventive mind keep it from turning into a curiosity or novelty item."

Apart from his originals, Phil prefers accessing repertoire from all possible sources, rather than sticking to a genre such as standards. He has said, “I don’t play jazz, I play jazzy. I don’t play classical, I play classless.” Material ranges from bossa nova to Delta blues to Debussy, along with covers by the likes of Jobim, Coltrane, Bill Evans, Steely Dan, Gershwin and the Beatles. One never knows what's next - showtunes from the Wizard of Oz, re-invented versions of "corny" tunes like "My Girl" and "When the Saints Go Marchin' In," or obscure rock and roll ("Woolly Bully"). And though his admitted influences can clearly be heard (Chet Atkins, Lenny Breau, Ted Greene), one can never predict the context or tone of each selection. Many appear to be stream-of-consciousness, while "Claire De Lune" is played as faithfully as the Guitarp’s seventeen strings will allow.

For listeners with open ears and minds, Phil’s albums can serve as a perpetual playground.


 
 

Interview

After hearing Phil's music and exchanging a few wacky emails, I wasn't sure what to expect on the phone. What I got was a very laid back fellow with a resonant Louisiana drawl, who provided very straightforward answers to my "roving Harpguitars.net reporter" questions. 

August 18, 2004, via telephone.

GM: Phil, were you surprised to find yourself on a harp guitar site?

PD: Yeah! I didn’t know the popularity - that anybody gives a hoot about anything to do with a harp guitar. And then, number two – what IS a harp guitar? I’m going in the opposite way of the traditional bass strings.

GM: Exactly! Why are you going higher when all of us are going lower?

PD: Lenny Breau. To me, the higher the register the note, the more defined it is. If you do an arpeggio on the low register, it’s muddy. Maybe you’ll get away with it on a Bosendorfer piano or something, but on guitar, it just seemed like the logical…. I’ll tell you what happened. I had a 330 Gibson [hollowbody electric] with a Bigsby [vibrato bar]. This was in my deep Chet days - you know, when I was on the Atkins diet. Behind the Bigsby, you know how it goes underneath the roller? I would hit the strings back there and there was this wonderful little Eb tinkling - I said “Wow!” - and I would use it at the end of certain tunes. Then I said, “Why not have it so that I can make the strings longer back here, and put tuning keys on?” And so - I was going to have a guitar built anyway, because I wanted a 7-string like Lenny had, with a high A - at this point I was introduced to Lenny Breau’s new guitar.

GM: And his main guitar was a 7-string all along?

PD: Well, he got his in 1980. I met him in 1976, and met him again in 1980 in Nashville. And that’s when he had the 7-string, and he was using fishing line – 20 pound test - to get up to pitch. And he was doing all this Bill Evans stuff - you know, I’m all excited –and I go back home and order one. My teacher got it and gave it to me for cost. Same guitar – Aria – made in Japan, with the high A on it.

GM: This would be the classical I heard about?

PD: Right. And so I dealt with that for like, two years. And in the meantime I’ve got my 6-string guitar, right? And I’m loving the 7-string idea, but the classical – you know – I wanted an electric seven. So I said, “Well, if I’m gonna get a 7-string built, let’s see about these extra strings.” And that’s when it all just started evolving. But don’t just put the strings in the back where the tailpiece is, why not put them where the pickguard would be? - where the right hand wants to keep going – sort of like what my teacher suggested.  And it just sort of evolved - and it was a beautiful instrument, the first one. But little things about it didn’t add up. Mainly the scale length – I kept popping strings. At first, I didn’t pop strings, because D’Addario made a .007” that held up. Then they quit making ‘em, and no other .007” would hold up to that pitch. I tried everything! So, it was a problem – I’d have to tune down a half step if I played with a band – it wasn’t convenient.

GM: Interesting. So that’s when the fan frets started?

PD: Well, the fan frets didn’t come along until I met Charlie Hunter [player of a fan fret 8-string combo guitar-bass] in the mid 1990’s.

GM: Really – that late?

PD: Yeah – I guess I met him in ’94. And I finally went out to California, and Ralph [Novak] came to a little gig I had that Charlie set up for me. I got to meet him, and he understood my problem. And then finally I said, “Let’s do it.”

GM: Who design the “Novax” – you and Ralph together?

PD: It was actually Ralph. He took down a rough drawing of the one that I had - the original harp guitar. And he just took from that – and without even showing me any drawings, he came up with what I have now, which is – you know – right on. He took off the banjo keys – the first harp guitar, I tuned the harp strings with banjo keys.

GM: The new treble tuners are what then?

PD: They’re little spring-loaded … (pause)… they’re on the end of the guitar…and they’re just spring-loaded, and…it’s hard to describe!


Custom treble tuners

Beneath the magnetic back plate

Front view

GM: But they’re manufactured by somebody now?

PD: Ralph did all of this. It made it all lighter – so I don’t have to sit down. The first couple one’s were so heavy, that I had to sit down. I kinda like to stand.  

GM: What other advantages to the fan frets did you find?

PD: Oh, George Van Eps type of little applications – where I can…...be catching the seventh fret on the bass string, and slanting my index finger to catch the sixth fret on the treble string. That’s a big one. And here’s the real catcher – like if you did a regular E chord, first position – and put your little finger on the second fret of the first string – which would be on a 6-string, an F#, right? On the 7-string, it’s B. Now – what I can do on the fan fret, which is very hard to do on a regular guitar, is to hold my little finger down on the second fret B on the high A string - and to move the E [chord] up to F. Almost impossible on a regular guitar. And so, I use that in one of my tunes – “Hello Dali,” in fact.

GM: It fits your…atonal style!  


Phil's finger calisthenics. This is a perfectly normal chord for him.   Ouch. 
On top of that, he's creating what he calls "nosemonics." The scary thing is, he's probably being completely serious.

PD: Yeah, it’s just amazing how it worked out. Closed voicings, stretches – like Johnny Smith-style stuff – it lends itself to that. It just works out – and each string has its own intonation. It’s like Pythagoras building a guitar to me – the whole equidistant trip. You want a longer bass string; you want a shorter string – just for the sound. Ralph didn’t have me in mind when he was making fan frets, but like, it was almost made for me – so I could tune the damn thing up to pitch. Because most people have the low A, or low B.

GM: Yes, the 7-string jazz guitars are normally a low string, aren’t they?

PD: Right. All ‘cause of Lenny Breau, is why I’m….

GM: He changed it to a high string…

PD: Right. And for years, I’d have fear of the high A string breaking, therefore developing my own disorder called “High A-itus.” You know, waiting for the balloon to pop.

GM: Do you ever tune your 7-string neck to anything besides standard?

PD: I tune the low E down to D, and on occasion, Db.

GM: And here’s the million dollar question: Those treble strings – what in the world are they tuned to?!

PD: It’s real simple. I look at the harp strings as the black keys of a piano, mostly in Db. There’s a C note in it, and an F# [Gb], so it’s like a big Db-suspended. And then I look at the regular strings as the white keys.

GM: Interesting!

PD: But I came across the tuning for the harp strings when I made an arrangement – or attempted to make an arrangement - of “Claire de Lune.”

GM: The one on the recording?

PD: That’s on Innuendo. That’s where I tune my E string down to Db.

GM: So you’re playing in Db, and the trebles are tuned to Db suspended?

PD: Right. Well (clarifying), I’m playing in Db, and I’m a guitarist tuned up to pitch - but the low E is tuned down to Db….

GM: I see…

PD: ….and the treble strings are, uh….

GM: …are always tuned to Db.

PD: Yeah. And I decided – when I started learning that tune, which took me years – I said, “I’m just gonna leave it here,” because the tuning – especially on the first guitar – was like, I can’t be tuning up between…not even every third song.

GM: So you leave them there, period.

PD: Right. I need to be Pat Metheny, and order four or five more guitars, in different keys…and every one has a different key – and of course, that’s not gonna happen. I used to have all different kinds of tunings. It’s ten strings - so I’d have the first five in a major key, and then the next five in a minor key, or a whole-tone scale, or something like that. And it just got too much to deal with - I was tuning too much!

GM: So, for our readers - what would be the pitch of the “super-treble” string immediately next to the high A (on the neck)?

PD: OK – I’m starting on Ab [1 half step below the high A on the neck], Bb, C, Db – so that half step right there is fun. Eb, F…hmmm, I’m getting’ lost now…(goes to get the Guitarp). Let’s see (sounds of plinking). After F, I drop down to C….

GM: Oh - down to a C.

PD: Yeah. Down to the C that’s the third harp string [from the bottom]. Yeah, because if I kept going high – it would just be too high to hear, too hard to tune, blah, blah, blah – so I drop down. This is all part of that “Claire de Lune”  - so I can get all the different notes that I needed to get. Eighth would be (plinks) C# [Db]. Ninth would be F# - the suspended that I told you about…Gb, I’m sorry (it’s dawning on me that Phil looks at his instrument enharmonically).  And then I end on Ab again, an octave from the first [harp] string.

GM: You have a scale and a chord, almost.

PD: Right. And I’ve got this half-step – F and F#. Check it out (plinks the two strings together, like a semitone for dogs). And I’ve got the C and C# (plinks).

GM: Very ingenious. I don’t think too many of us are going to be imitating your tuning!


Guitarp tuning - actual pitch (guitar notation is written one octave higher)

PD: Yeah – I kinda wish I had some other tunings I could get to right away. Now, what Ralph talked about was enabling me to raise the whole shebang up a half-step to the key of D. And I might have him do that this Fall – you know – because I’m playing in this band – you know – we’re playing in the key of G, key of D.

GM: Are you planning a fourth Guitarp?

PD: (pause) No.

GM: Just modify this one as needed?

PD: If anything, it’ll be this half-step thing. With the humidity here most of the year, I spend half the time tuning up, the other half playing out of tune. It’s not a picnic.

GM: Have you ever thought about doing an acoustic version of the Guitarp?

PD: Well, not really. I did think about it, and mentioned it to Ralph. For me it would have to be a nylon string classical version – I don’t know if I could deal with a steel string. I could, but I don’t know if I’d want to. If I’m gonna do it, I’d rather do it and have it really sound like a harp, you know what I mean? Number one, I wouldn’t get to deal with Ralph Novak, I need the fan frets, it would cost a lot more money than what I have now, I’m sure - and I’d have to go visit your boy Beyond the Trees, I guess [luthier Fred Carlson]!

GM (laughing): I bet he could whip you something up!

PD: He flipped me out. I mean, just his web site – with the different pitches of the guitars, and eighty-nine strings on this one, or whatever.

GM: Yeah, you and he in a room together would be something else.

PD: And he’s right in Santa Cruz – because I have some good friends in the Big Sur area. I try to get out there once a year, and I do a few gigs, you know – right around there. But I’d love to visit him.

GM: And I‘m sure he’d love to meet you and have you over, too, knowing Fred. Phil, lets cover some Bio. How long have you been playing guitar?

PD: Since I started playing my brother’s guitar behind his back when I was eleven.

GM: You were obviously influenced by Chet (Atkins). Did you also meet or study with him?

PD: Well, that’s a story. With Chet, I threw away the pick, and started studying with somebody who knew the technique, and knew the mysteries that I couldn’t hear -harmonics being number one. But, the second time that I saw Lenny … I told you I met him in 1976 in Nashville, and I went back in 1980. I was passing through, and he happened to be in town – the first gig that he had on his 7-string. So, you know – Lenny’s in town, Chet’s in the audience, blah, blah, blah. So Lenny remembered me from four years ago, and we got together. The next day I went over to his hotel - and we played, and I played for him. He goes, “Man! I want you to meet Chet. I gotta bring him back an amp anyway – you wanna give me a ride?” So I get to meet Chet on my 25th birthday – and play for Chet – and ironically, Les Paul calls up, and he’s talking to Chet and Lenny. And I’m, like 25, and just drooling – I couldn’t believe it!

GM: That’s fantastic! Then did you study with Lenny specifically?

PD: Yeah, I hung with him for a week when I was 21 in 1976, and then in 1980 we just got together for a little bit. And then in late ’83 – right after I got the first harp guitar built, in March of ’83 – I sent a picture and a tape to Lenny, to Lenny Breau c/o Guitar Player magazine – didn’t know where Lenny was. And Lenny got it - and he was gonna come around here to sell a guitar to somebody, not far from New Orleans. So we connected. And he came over and he hung out for a few days at my house – I had my tape going –and had some sessions. I put together a concert, and rented chairs and a space, charged people – and got Lenny going.

(Interlude: guitar player talk about the mystique of Lenny in the mid-70’s – we couldn’t find his records, etc. Phil finally found the first two LPs in NY in 1976 for $27.50 apiece! I never did get more than a bootleg tape. There is now a ton of stuff on CD.).

GM: And then your main teacher was Hank Mackie – tell me about him.

PD:  He went to school here in New Orleans, got his degree in Classical, but loved jazz. Just an amazing teacher – and player. And we just got to be great friends – and do duets together – and just began a long friendship.

GM: And he was sort of the guy behind the Guitarp concept?

PD: Pretty much. He’s the one who suggested I should put the strings where they are now – you know, so the right hand can keep going for a 17-string arpeggio.

GM: How about your creative process – the tunes on the CDs – how much of that is improvised?

PD: Well, I’m more like an arranger. When I studied with Hank, I would study this Chet Atkins stuff, and then I’d go home and do my own thing with it. And I improvise – but it’s sorta like, when I have to - when I get lost, or at the end of a tune. It depends what sort of gig I’m doing. If I’m doing a recital or some sort of concert where a bunch of people are listening, I’m kind of doing arrangements that I’ve made. But they’re not gonna come out the same way every time.

GM: Clearly you have the knack to improvise, but some of those outrageous harmonies are so complex, I can’t believe…

PD: Yeah, but I’m not improvising bass lines and all this stuff like a piano player would. You know - like the Wizard of Oz stuff – it’s pretty much worked out. Now, a year or two later, I’ll start changing this and that – either because I want to, or because I can’t remember the original.

GM: Yes, I noticed you did two tunes from Innuendo again on Hello Dali, and they were quite different.

PD: Yeah, “If I Only Had a Brain” was one, and what’s the other?

GM: Um...something by Jobim.

PD: Oh yeah – “Wave.” The thing with Wave – I did “When the Saints Go Marching In” over the Wave changes.

GM (laughing): One of your many creative….

PD: Well I don’t know how that happened. That’s the thing where, “Hmmm, don’t ask me how that popped into my head!” But, you know – I’d do something like Dixieland gigs here in town, and I’d have the horn player – like, somebody I never met – I’ll say, “Look, just play straight When the Saints, in D.” And they’ll start it, and then hear the changes, and they’ll look at me, and start laughing.

GM: So are you telling me you do regular gigs in Louisiana?

PD (laughing): We don’t want to use the word “regular!”

GM: But you’re playing with other musicians, playing - not “normal” guitar - but in that context.

PD: Yeah. I mean, I can shut down the harp strings – I don’t need to use ‘em.

GM: So you gig and play with other musicians. Are you ever planning to record with bass players, drummers, etc.?

PD: You know, this is probably gonna be the next thing - a rhythm section, and just different other players, different tunes and stuff. I don’t know if I mentioned the Duet record?

GM: Yes, tell us about that!

PD:  Yeah, that’s real exciting. Most of it’s done with the Novak guitar – just a couple of tunes were done with the second Foster guitar – and, uh – eight or nine years in the making now – and about to go to press.

GM: So you’ve got pretty much every track cut?

PD: Oh, everything’s done. All the text is done, all the details. All the demons in the details have been worked out. It’s now in the hands of the producer, and he’s itching to get this going. It’s been completed for three years now.

GM: In your emails you mentioned Larry Coryell and Charlie Hunter. Who else will be on it?

PD: Seven other guitarists. Two local guys – one is Hank Mackie, the other guy’s name is Steve Masakowski, who’s an amazing 7-string with the low A [player], but – he’s got another five extra frets. Sort of like a “Bosendorfer” guitar!

GM: Where are the five extra frets?!

PD:  On the bottom end. So the guitar starts at the fifth fret! This guy is amazing – Google-search him – he’s truly an amazing jazz…he’s just an amazing musician. He teaches here at the college [University of New Orleans]. He started studying with Hank, then went to Berklee [College of Music, Boston], then came back and started showing Hank all the new stuff, you know. You can’t even talk about him…I mean, ears out the wazoo.

GM: Who else?

PD: Mike Stern. He can play any style – he’ll be doing jazz and hit his stomp-box and go full-Hendrix – and make it work! Also Reeves Gabrel, who plays with David Bowie.

GM: So are you and the other players improvising, or are you working out something in advance?

PD: We work it out, then improvise to that. A lot of this record is improvised.

GM: More so than your own?

PD: Oh, yeah - especially the other cats. Let me mention this guy, David Tronzo – exclusively slide player – but – he can play anything. You wanna play “Body and Soul?” – no problem. Unbelievable! Musicianship, and just a character of exquisite beauty. And he’s on this CD a lot. We did a couple of tunes, but then we played and improvised all afternoon, and we extracted some wild stuff from that - and interspersed it in-between all the tunes from the other guys. So a half-minute of us between these two tunes, and here’s a minute of us here. So we’re, like, scattered over the record.

GM: You’re like the comic announcer between the acts.

PD: Right! Oh, it’s bizarre.

GM: That sounds great – I can’t wait!

PD: Yeah, it’s really a versatile, diverse…perverse…(laughs)

GM: Oh, I’m sure of that. And you’re using the harp strings pretty much throughout?

PD: Uh, yeah…

GM: In other words, you’re not turning them off ever, and playing "normal."

PD: No, they’re on.

GM: And that’s what we want! Well Phil, it looks like I’ve covered everything on my list here. It’s been a great interview and wonderful meeting you!

PD: Me too. Thanks for all you’re doing with Harpguitars.net!

GM: My pleasure. Getting the word out about harp guitar players like yourself is part of our cause!


Song Sample

“The Wizard of Oz Medley,” from Hello Dali. 

In 6+ minutes, Phil covers most of the tunes from the film. Believe it or not, this is an “excerpt” of a larger medley that begins with Steely Dan’s “Chain Lightning” (why, I don’t know. Insanity, perhaps?).

To me, this whole piece is indescribingly beautiful, strange and imaginative – not to mention a complete virtuoso display of guitar technique and fretboard harmony expertise. And, of course, there's those extra “super-trebles”!

Download Phil's Wizard of Oz Medley


 
 

deGruy discography:

  Innuendo Out the Other, 1995, NYC Records. Available through Amazon.com and Louisiana Music Factory.
  Hello Dali, 2000, Otter Print Records. Avaliable from Louisiana Music Factory or Phil's web site
Additional information and MP3's downloads from both CDs can be found at Phil's web site and Louisiana Music Factory.
But if the CDs sound interesting to you, do the guy a favor and buy 'em! - Gregg Miner

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