George Van Eps: A Life in Harmony
By JIM WASHBURN, Special to The LA Times
On the rare occasions in recent decades when guitarist George
Van Eps--who died Sunday at 85--would go on tour, fans
in the jazz stronghold of New York would line up outside a club in
the snow for a chance to see him play.
It was far easier to see Van Eps play in his home turf of Orange
County, yet he wasn't always accorded the same respect here.
On one evening in the 1980s that has entered local legend, Van Eps
and his frequent partner, guitarist Tony Rizzi, who died in 1992,
were playing in the bar of a Huntington Beach Italian restaurant.
In the middle of one of Van Eps' typically exquisite solos, several
people came in and started a noisy game of pool, oblivious to Van
Eps until some time after he stopped playing, folded his hands atop
his Gretsch seven-string and began staring amusedly at them.
Finally noticing that the music had stopped, one of the pool players
gave Van Eps a nod, saying, "Go ahead and play. You're not
Even for those of us who reveled in Van Eps' playing, there was a
tendency to take his local performances for granted, to assume
there would always be a next time to catch up on his genius.
It was already miraculous that anybody played as well as he did;
doubly miraculous that, at 85, he only seemed to get better. So why
not expect as well that he would simply be there forever?
Van Eps was a quiet, unassuming man, and unless you were leaning
close to hear him, you'd never know he possessed the most
mischievous and devastating wit in the room.
So it was with the longtime Huntington Beach resident's guitar
playing: People put more effort into sleeping than he seemingly put
into his solos, his countenance unfurrowed, his left hand scarcely
appearing to move.
Yet the harmonic complexity and melodic invention of his
solos--spontaneous compositions is a more apt description--would
both thrill and scare the bejesus out of every musician in the club,
who were left wondering, "How does he do that?"
What the self-described "stubborn Dutchman" did was pigheadedly
ignore the limitations most guitarists take for granted.
Instead, he dubbed his instrument the "lap piano" and would play
bass line, rhythm and melody simultaneously. Where other players
were content to strum chords, his chordal improvisations were
masterpieces of harmonic movement and counterpoint.
Describing his approach, Van Eps told The Times in 1991, "I
wanted things to happen, voices to move, not just, 'Oh, that's a
chord,' dunh-dunh, dunh-dunh. I wanted something to go de da da
duh inside the chord, or for the bass to move a little bit.
"I don't care about playing 9 million notes a second," he said. "I'm
more interested in having every voice in a chord be a melody that
both stands by itself and works with the others."
* * *
When six strings weren't enough for Van Eps, he had a seven-string
guitar custom-built for him in the late 1930s. His apparent
effortlessness was the result of rigorous study--shared in several
daunting instruction books he wrote--and led to a technique in
which, like a chess master, he'd be thinking several moves in
The total concentration he brought to his music began in his
childhood. He was born in 1913 to musician parents, and, at 9, he
was struck with rheumatic fever and had to lie in bed--"flat as a
knife," he recalled--for a year.
One night the rest of the family went out, but one of them had
forgotten a banjo at the foot of Van Eps' bed. "I wiggled my way
around until I could reach the banjo, pull it up and across my chest"
Van Eps said. "When they got home that night, I played 'Somebody
Stole My Girl' and 'Alabamy Bound' for them."
Music became the thing that transported him beyond the proscribed
world of his sickbed. He overheard a doctor tell his mother that
Van Eps' heart was so weakened by his disease that he wouldn't
live to 20. So, once back on his feet, he didn't waste time. By 11 he
was playing in clubs and had his musicians union card. He made his
first recordings in 1927, when he was still just 14.
Not long after that, he heard seminal jazz guitarist Eddie Lang on a
crystal radio set. "I heard the sound of the guitar and that was it.
Oh, it sang, the sustenance was there!" he still enthused more than
half a century later.
Once Van Eps and the guitar teamed up, his career took him
through the big bands of Ray Noble, Benny Goodman and the
Dorsey Brothers, into the house orchestras of the Burns & Allen
and Jack Benny radio shows, among many others, and through
thousands of recording sessions, working with everyone from
Sinatra to Frankie Laine to Stan Freberg.
His albums under his own name have become collectors' items,
while a revived interest in Van Eps' playing at the start of this
decade prompted the Concord jazz label to get him into the
recording studio as often as possible. "Maybe they think I'm going
to die soon," he quipped at the time.
In recent years, Van Eps recorded with relative youngster Howard
Alden, while locally he was championed by bassist Luther Hughes.
* * *
Performing with Hughes at such venues as Restaurant Kikuya in
Huntington Beach and Steamers Cafe in Fullerton, Van Eps finally
found attentive O.C. audiences. What they found in return was a
musical vision and staggeringly articulate technique that was
undimmed by time.
By Van Eps' measure--recalling what the doctor had told his
mother--he figured he had cheated death for more than six decades.
Still, it's hard for the rest of us to not feel cheated, given the singular
nature of George Van Eps' music, and the better graces of
humanity--the warmth, wit and ever-questing intelligence--that he
expressed through it.
There was no one else like him. Not even close.
Copyright 1998 Los Angeles Times. All
Jazz Guitarist Dies
Obituary: George Van Eps, 85, added a seventh
string and amazed peers with his technique.
By BILL KOHLHAASE, Special to The LA
Jazz guitarist George Van Eps, who played
Goodman, George Gershwin and Fats Waller and who was
revered by his peers for his mastery of the seven-string guitar he
pioneered, died Sunday night in Newport Beach of complications
from pneumonia. He was 85.
Van Eps had been admitted to Hoag Memorial Hospital
Presbyterian in late October for pneumonia, at which time it was
discovered that he'd recently suffered a minor stroke. He went
home after a couple of weeks, then returned Nov. 14, again for
Before the recent hospital stays, however, he had been in generally
good health, playing monthly concerts near his home in Huntington
Beach at Restaurant Kikuya, among other Southern California
nightspots. He had been scheduled to play there next Sunday.
In the mid-1930s, Van Eps became one of the first guitarists to add
a seventh string to his instrument, because standard six-string
models were too limiting. With the seven-string, he could play lead
lines, bass notes and harmonic rhythm support on his own.
Upon learning earlier that Van Eps wouldn't be well enough to
make his scheduled performance Sunday, bassist Luther Hughes,
who played with Van Eps often in recent years, said he had to find
a replacement--and hired two guitarists.
Van Eps' nearly effortless style and eclectic sense of harmony went
unduplicated for more than half a century. In recent years, other
musicians have taken up the seven-string guitar, among them
Orange County guitarist Ron Eschete and hot young grunge-jazz
player Charlie Hunter.
Highly regarded studio guitarist Mundell Lowe told other musicians
that he had played with everyone in his career and now, after
jamming with Van Eps earlier this year, "with God."
Van Eps, however, maintained an unassuming modesty about his
talent, which earned him as much respect among his peers as his
Van Eps made infrequent appearances in recent years, but in the
last year, he began playing more. His performances were
characterized not only by his rich, fluid style but with his anecdotes
about his experiences with Waller, Gershwin, Goodman and others.
Van Eps, who had lived with his daughter in Huntington Beach
since 1977, was born Aug. 7, 1913, in Plainfield, N.J. His mother
was a pianist; his father, Fred Van Eps Sr., was a well-regarded
banjo player, and his three older brothers were all musicians.
George Gershwin would visit the family home to play with Fred Van
Eps and the younger Van Eps often recounted how the composer
would bring a bag of penny candy with him.
During a childhood bout with rheumatic fever, Van Eps was
ordered to bed and to stay flat on his back. One day he grabbed his
father's banjo, which had been left by his bedside and, still flat on
his back, learned to pick out "Somebody Stole My Girl" and
"Alabamy Bound." By 11 he was a member of the musicians union
and was playing in clubs. He recorded his first album in 1927,
playing banjos with brothers Fred and Bob.
His banjo-playing days ended when, at 13, he first heard jazz guitar
pioneer Eddie Lang play over a crystal radio set. Van Eps would
go on to play beside Lang in the Smith Ballew band, which he
joined in 1929, and from there went on to work with Goodman,
Freddy Martin and Ray Noble.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1936, Van Eps began searching for
a way to broaden his sound, enlisting guitar maker Epi Stathopoulo
of the Epiphone guitar company to add a seventh string.
It was this innovation, and what Van Eps would do with it, that
earned him the admiration of generations of professional guitarists.
"He was the sharpest and most brilliant musician I've ever met," said
bassist Hughes. "But he was also a kind and gentle man with a great
sense of humor."
He is survived by the daughter, Kay Van Eps. He will be cremated
following private memorial services. His family requests that in lieu
of flowers, donations be made either to the American Red Cross or
the American Cancer Society.
Copyright 1998 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved
By PETER WATROUS The
New York Times
George Van Eps,
85, Musician Who Popularized 7-String Guitar
George Van Eps, a guitarist who played with some of the biggest names in
jazz and pioneered
the seven-string guitar, died on Nov. 29 at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian
Beach, Calif. He was 85 and lived in Huntington Beach , Calif.
His family said the cause was pneumonia.
The seven-string guitar, which Van Eps helped popularize, allowed him to
use his harmonic
imagination. The seventh string, added in the bass, gave him the ability
to play more orchestrally,
adding bass lines below the chord, and making the guitar a more convincing
solo instrument. Van Eps
referred to the guitar as his lap piano.
Though his career started early in jazz history, his quiet sophistication
never received the attention
received by the guitarists Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and their
followers. But he did have
several important students, including the guitarists Ron Eschete, from
Louisiana, and Howard Alden
and Bucky Pizzarelli, from New York.
Van Eps came from a musical family, with his mother, father and brothers
all playing; George
Gershwin was a regular guest in the house. He began professionally at the
age of 11 in New Jersey
and he performed for six months with an early idol, the guitarist Eddie
Lang, in the Smith Ballew
During the 1930s, Van Eps worked with Freddy Martin, Benny Goodman and
In 1938 Van Eps, who had recently moved to California, went to the Epiphone
guitar company to
broaden the palette of his instrument, adding the seventh string.
He then spent much of the next several decades working in recording studios,
in part for the 1950s
film and television series "Pete Kelly's Blues."
He recorded occasionally for Capitol records during the 1960s; in the 1970s
an illness, and an
accident that injured his hand, took him off the music scene for a while.
But in the 1990s he surfaced with a series of fine records for Concord
Jazz, recording with Alden,
and an album with the guitarist Johnny Smith.
He is survived by a daughter, Kay Van Eps of Huntington Beach.
George Van Eps
Now, there was a true guitar wizard.
More notes, more chords than most
guitarists will ever learn, let alone
know how to use. If ever there was a
musician deserving of the name "legendary",
it was he. He was in the first
US band (put together by Glen Miller,
and to me his best band) of Ray Noble,
he was the guitarist in the first Benny
Goodman band, later had something to
do with sending Freddie Greene on his
way, and spent many years in the
Hollywood studios. His unique tuning,
combined later with his design seven
string guitar was almost instantly recognizable.
He had a lovely, soft
sound that was so rich that it was fattening,
and I don't know where to stop
in my praises for him.
Years ago, the "Jump" label issued a bunch
of his stuff with Eddie Miller on
tenor sax, along with bass and drums.
They also issued a companion album of
alternates, and partial takes. All
hell could break loose on the partials,
but it was never George's fault when they
Like a lot of musicians, he was also a
tinkerer, loved model building and
opened up a hobby shop in the LA area,
which started taking more and more of
his time to the point where he realized
he hadn't picked up his guitar in
years, so dumped the store and got active