George Ott bills himself as a “long-suffering, underappreciated Jersey Shore musician.” At least that’s how he “signed” the blurb he wrote for my forthcoming book, My Body the Guitar (see previous post).
As a thank you to George for writing the blub—and to amp up appreciation for him and his remarkable talents, I interviewed him for The Muses’ Refugia. Maybe readers will join me in celebrating him and his musicianship.
- How did you get started playing guitar? That is, what’s your guitarist “genesis story?”
I actually started off playing keyboard. I wanted to get into a band but had no way to amplify the keys, so I switched to guitar. Blame the British Invasion! I got into my first band by playing “The House of the Rising Sun” over the telephone for two guys looking for a guitarist.
2. What guitar(s) were you playing in those early formative days?
My first guitar was a Kay acoustic. My first electric was a $75 Kent hollow body with three pickups and a bunch of slide switches that didn’t do anything. Then I got a Hagstrom solid body. My first real “pro” guitar was a Fender Telecaster.
Those first guitars all were strung with medium-gauge strings, which came standard back then. They hurt my fingers until my calluses built up. The skin would just peel off my fingertips. I didn’t even know you had to change the strings once in a while. And I never knew light-gauge strings existed until Steve Van Zandt told me about them.
3. There are so many styles of guitar playing, from blues to rock to jazz to classical to…. What style(s) of music do you play? Why? And what instrument(s) do you play to make your music?
I guess you could call my style “Funky country blues fusion.” It’s a hybrid of several styles. I’ve always been a fan of weird scales and tricks. Just trying to find my own “voice.” I also get called on to play a lot of bass. In the studio I’ve put down tracks playing piano, synth, Gretsch lap steel, autoharp, and glockenspiel. I’m not a virtuoso on any of them by any means…
The country part of my style comes in part from two bands I played with for a long time. In the mid-to-late 70s, I was in the Grand Canyon Band, playing California rock (Eagles, CSNY, Poco) and original music. We played a lot of colleges and opened shows for artists like John Sebastian, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and the James Cotton Blues Band (whose guitarist was Matt “Guitar” Murphy, who later joined the Blues Brothers). We almost got the chance to be the backup band for Johnny Cymbal (who wrote and sang “Mr. Bass Man” in 1963 and had a hit under the name of “Derek” with the song “Cinnamon” in 1969), but he never got the recording contract he was looking for.
In the 90s, I played guitar with the BethAnne Clayton Band, and we did lots of shows for the New York country station at that time, WYNY. Every Friday afternoon we’d play live on the radio from Mickey Mantle’s on Central Park South, and then we’d race back to the Shore for an evening gig. We’d play at festivals and at clubs like the Lone Star Café, Webster Hall, and Denim & Diamonds in New York and the Bluebird in Nashville. Sometimes we were the main act, and other times we’d open for artists like Marty Stuart, Clay Walker, and John Berry. We were booked to open for Brooks and Dunn in Carnegie Hall, but it was cancelled two weeks before the show.
My country influences are, to name a few, Johnny Hiland, Albert Lee, Brent Mason, and Doug Seven. Some of my jazzy bluesy funk fusion influences are Larry Carlton, Guthrie Govan, and David Wallimann.
When I played solo in Florida in the late 80s and in later years in New Jersey, I played singer-songwriter acoustic music (Jimmy Buffet, Cat Stevens, Van Morrison). When I play in bands, as I always do now, I play whatever style I’m called on to do. Surf music, 50s music, British Invasion, Motown, psychedelic, Southern rock, disco, 80s pop, alternative, Latin rock (like Santana), pretty much anything.
My instruments nowadays are a Gary Moore Les Paul, an American Tele with active EMG pickups, a Nashville Tele (three pickups and a five-way toggle switch like a Fender Strat), a Gibson 335, and a Gibson SG. My acoustics are from Martin, Taylor, and Guild, and I have a Yamaha 12-string. I also have a 1977 Fender P-bass (which weighs a ton!) strung with flat wound strings (Motown all the way!) and an Ibanez SR-600, also with flats.
4. Who are your favorite composers? What draws you to them?
I like some things by just about everyone, but I’m really drawn to the outside-the-box stuff. If I had to name one person, it would be Frank Zappa hands down!
5. Do you also compose? If so, what’s your latest composition? What’s currently under development?
I write a lot of music. Mostly satire. In 1989, the Dr. Demento Show played my song “Rock Club Moron” under the band name of Eddie Hutch and the Tile Comets. In the mid-80s, I composed and recorded the title song (“The Dead Are After Me”) for a low-budget zombie movie called Raiders of the Living Dead, a movie that has apparently become a cult classic—in Italy! A couple of Italian bands did covers of it. The band Grim did a death metal version of the song, and the Mad Zanes performed it live at a music festival. My wife, Beverly, happened to find these videos online as well as the original that someone (not me) posted on YouTube:
George with his Gibson Gary Moore Signature Les Paul
Lately I’ve been composing soundscape music, mostly on my keyboards. When I write, lots of ideas come to me at once, and I record them. Then the ideas dry up for several months. I work with a lot of bands, so I don’t always have time for my own songs.
6. Who are your guitar heroes? Since my blog readers may not be able to stop in for an evening of George Ott’s music, do you have any YouTube videos they could watch and listen to? If not, whom would you recommend readers tune into to get a good taste for the style of music you so adore?
When I started playing, I had no real guitar heroes. In high school I was just learning songs so I could perform with my first band, the Mags. I learned a lot from a couple local players. Eddie Ericson was good. He had a beautiful Gretsch Tennessean. Joe Mosic played a nice Ampeg solid body, and I learned a lot of songs from him by the Ventures and Duane Eddy. Joe’s dad ran a local music store. Both of those guys got drafted. But the first guitar player to catch my ear was Jeff Beck when he was in the Yardbirds. He didn’t play like anyone else. His style was quirky and fun, and I was drawn to that. Then, of course, there were guys like Clapton and Hendrix.
As for me, I suppose there’s lots of videos out there with me playing with other people, but I personally don’t have any. I’m no good at self-promotion and I’m not on Facebook. As far as I know, there aren’t any YouTube videos from those old days, but my wife found a video of a more recent lineup of the BethAnne Clayton Band (when I would play electric or acoustic or bass). Here we are in Massachusetts performing one of Beth’s originals:
If you want examples of music I like, I recommend Jeff Beck, Roy Buchanan, Zappa, Gary Moore, Larry Carlton, Duane Allman, Robben Ford, any Nashville session players, and, most of all, the Hellecasters. Those guys are from another planet!
7. Performing as you do on the Jersey Shore, you’re in the neighborhood of Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi? Do they ever show up for your gigs? Hang out?
Until recently, Springsteen lived about half a mile from our house here in Rumson. Were they at any gigs? Probably. These guys usually stay very low-key when they go out. In the early 70s, I was in a band called Mad John, and our manager was “Stormin’” Norman Seldin. Great keyboard player whose band was the Joyful Noyse. His sax player was pre-E-Streeter Clarence Clemons. We became friends and did a lot of shows together. I went to high school with Steven Van Zandt. He was in a band called the Source. We were in the school play Bells Are Ringing. During breaks in rehearsals, we would go into the hallways with an acoustic guitar and sing “Happy Together” by the Turtles at the top of our lungs. It really pissed off the teachers in the classrooms. (Ah! Good ol’ 1967!) When I was in the Grand Canyon Band in the 70s, our manager was Carl “Tinker” West, who formerly had managed Steel Mill, Springsteen’s band.
As for Jon Bon Jovi, I never met him, but I played with his two guitar players, Richie Sambora and Phil X at different times at a local jam night in Red Bank. Also jammed with Steve Ferrone, who played drums with Tom Petty and Eric Clapton.
8. What else are you up to musically that might be of interest to my blog followers?
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of studio work with my friend John Verdecias, who goes by the stage name of Poppa John Bug. John used to play bass with Richie Havens. I played on all of John’s CDs, and I coproduced his last CD, Redemption, with Mike McKernan (a distant cousin of Ron McKernan of the Grateful Dead) at Shorefire Studios in Long Branch. Here’s a link to John’s CDs:
John’s on Facebook with a million photos.
9. Do you have any words of wisdom to impart to readers who—like me—are just beginning to learn the guitar?
First, let me say you’re lucky! There are so many tutorial videos to learn from online. You can find just about anything on playing guitar. I learn new things all the time this way. Back in the 60s, if we wanted to learn guitar parts, we had to buy the record and keep picking up the needle and dropping it down, over and over, on the lick we wanted to learn till we got it! Tedious crap, but it’s all we had. As for words of wisdom, I’d say if you want to learn any instrument, do it because you have a passion for it, and practice every chance you get. Learn from everyone. Listen to a variety of musical styles. That way you can develop you own voice on the instrument. Don’t play a guitar just for the purpose of picking up girls or guys. (Of course, if I’d never played guitar, I never would have had a date in my life—it just came with the territory.) And no matter how well you play, never let it go to your head…there’s always someone right around the corner waiting to blow you right off the stage!
10. Any final thoughts, George?
Yes—STAY AWAY FROM BOOZE AND DRUGS! Just because you’re a musician doesn’t mean you have to do that shit. I never did. I’ve had to babysit too many asshole bandmates who had no self-control. If you want to fuck up your life, don’t drag other players down with you!
Th-th-th-th-that’s all, folks!