In 1968, Roberts was working virtually non-stop in the studios and gigging at night with such jazz greats as Buddy DeFranco and Jack Sheldon. Because he was playing both jazz and rock dates, he needed an amplifier that would produce a variety of sounds. At the time, no commercial amp offered tremolo, reverb and the various sonics he needed on a daily basis. Ron Benson, Roberts’ former student, wanted to build something that replicated the jazz sound of their favorite amp, Gibson’s GA-50.
“The GA-50 had a gorgeous jazz sound, but wasn’t suitable for the studio,” Benson said. “And it wasn’t very powerful. So if Howard played a club with even a trio, it would get buried. Also, he’d been using a very low-power Gibson Falcon in the studios. It was small with a 12″ speaker and a tiny magnet, but it got the rock sound he needed. So I told Howard I was going to build an amp that sounded like the GA-50 but with more power. He told me he’d give me the funds to build one for each of us. I took a year, but after he’d played it on several dates other players became interested. So we’d build amps in my garage. Then, one night, Howard went outside and dropped all the beer bottles in a metal trash can and woke the neighbors up. They figured out we had a business going and the city made us move.” After a few years and a couple of unfortunate investor snafus, the Benson company eventually folded, but still produced about 2,000 amps.
Today, a few lucky players own one. Studio ace Tim May has one, along with a box full of the sound-processor modules that plug in the amp’s rear. “I use an old Benson 300 with a 15″ Altec,” May said. “It gets a real presence and a rich sound. It’s a great amp and weighs 300 pounds (laughs)! But it’s the best jazz amp around. I recorded an album in ’99 and did an A/B comparison with several amps, and the Benson was the cleanest and the richest. You could play really thick-voiced chords and hear every note with no intermodulation.”
Seminars, Columns, Books, and GIT
After years of the studio grind, Roberts felt the need to fulfill his passion for teaching. He created a guitar curriculum that included much of what he’d learned throughout his career. He covered such subjects as learning techniques, coping with difficult charts, sonic shapes, and even a tongue-in-cheek icebreaker – finding a place to park. He was soon traveling the country, presenting seminars.
“I drove from Seattle to San Francisco in 1972 to a Howard Roberts Seminar at the American Music Hall,” recalls Roberts associate Don Mock. Like everybody else, I saw the ad in Guitar Player, paid my $100, and was among about 30 students. When it was time for someone to get up and play a song with Howard, I got volunteered, as I was one of the better players there.
“Later, I mentioned to him that I had a ton of students in Seattle and that he should present a seminar there. He said, ‘Okay, I’ll come. You put it on.’ And he did, and I had about 60 people show up. Then he started coming regularly in ’74.”
Not long after, having spent years on the road and having moved his family to Oregon, Mock recalls how Roberts struck on an idea.
“One day, probably in 1975, we were eating breakfast and he said, ‘What do think about a school for guitar players? I know a guy in L.A., Pat Hicks, who wants to open a vocational school for guitarists.’” said Mock. In subsequent months, Roberts’ brainchild, Guitar Institute of Technology (now the Musician’s Institute of Technology) was realized.
In addition, Howard formed Playback Publishing with the agenda of upgrading guitar education and controlling the quality of materials. Playback published The Howard Roberts Guitar Book, Howard Roberts Chord Melody, Sightreading by Howard Roberts, Super Chops, and his educational masterpiece, Praxis.
H.R. also began writing a popular monthly column for Guitar Player magazine in which he covered many of the topics from his seminars. The column lasted 15 years.
Holder reiterates Roberts’ important teaching caveat: Through thematic development, anything will work over anything. Through voice leading, any chord will go to any chord.
“That sums up the basis for his playing – thematic development was first and foremost, and you can hear that principle on anything he ever recorded,” Holder added. “I’ve got it framed in my home studio as a reminder for when I get out of line. H.R. is watching… and listening!”
Howard Roberts Prototype
Photo: Mitch Holder.
The Gibson Howard Roberts Prototype
Howard Roberts played this first prototype of his signature-model Gibson after he retired his famed “Black Guitar” in 1973 until his passing in 1992. It can be heard on numerous albums, including Sounds, Equinox Express Elevator, and The Real Howard Roberts. It’s also pictured in the book American Guitars by Tom Wheeler, and The Jazz Guitar, by Maurice Summerfield. He also used it for his own clinics as well as those he conducted for Gibson, played it on the road, and at G.I.T.Bruce Bolen, who was the head of R&D at Gibson in the ’70s and ’80s, recalled how Howard wanted a couple of changes over the Epi models, mainly a laminated top rather than spruce, and the addition of two frets, giving it 22. At the time, Gibson was working with Bill Lawrence, who designed a full-sized humbucker for the guitar, using a combination of Alnico and ceramic magnets.
According to Bruce, building this guitar proved a challenge, as shop personnel were reluctant to take it on because it would require a lot of handwork. But it happened, and the guitar was then sent to Howard for final approval.
While playing in Seattle in 2000, I visited Patty, and asked if any of Howard’s guitars were still around. She said this one was being cared for by a friend. She had it sent to me, and I was surprised at its condition, as Howard was noted for being hard on instruments. He did make some changes, including removing the outer mid-range control, replacing it with Volume and Tone controls. He also changed the original Epiphone pickguard for a bound Gibson-type typically used on an L-5, Super 4, Byrdland, etc. – Mitch Holder
Roberts was frequently pictured with a modified ’30s Gibson ES-150 known among aficionados and collectors as a “Charlie Christian model.” It was his main jazz axe from the early ’60s until 1973. Holder’s book documents how it was altered so much it’s almost unidentifiable as an ES-150.
Originally belonging to Herb Ellis (it was his first guitar, in fact), Roberts purchased it from him in the ’50s. Ellis had a repairman replace the neck to allow access to the upper fretboard, and created a notch/cutaway on the upper bass bout. Roberts had his repairman, Jack Willock, make an ebony fingerboard for it. He also had Willock use Bondo autobody filler to beef up the neck, and changed the original bar pickup to a P-90.
On Mike Evans’ website dedicated to Roberts, guitar aficionado Larry Grinnell recounts the story behind the first Epiphone Howard Roberts model. “Chicago Musical Instruments, Gibson’s parent company, called on product designer and clinician Andy Nelson to head the Epiphone line. In 1962, Nelson contacted a very receptive Howard about endorsing an Epi. The two traded ideas and sketched a concept Nelson sent to the suits at C.M.I., who in turn passed it along to the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, where Epiphones were being built.”
“Many months later, I saw a memo from C.M.I., announcing a new Epiphone Howard Roberts model,” Nelson added. “It was nothing like our drawings; it was more like a Gibson L-4 (16″ wide, sharp cutaway, carved spruce top) body with an oval soundhole and a Gibson humbucking pickup mounted on the end of the fingerboard. The neck had a notched block inlay on the rosewood fingerboard and Epiphone’s ‘tree of life’ inlay on the peghead. It was a beautiful instrument, no matter who designed it. I later heard through the grapevine that Ted McCarty, Gibson’s president, contacted Howard and got him to agree to the changes that became the Epiphone (and later Gibson) Howard Roberts model. The Kalamazoo factory was busy building a variety of models, and a unique new one would have created an additional burden. So they used the slow-selling L-4 as a base. It was easier to modify and they could use existing tooling rather than create a new guitar.”
After taking delivery, Roberts called it, “The best guitar I’ve ever owned.” Unfortunately, it and his Benson amp were stolen just three months after it was delivered.
Benson 300 amp
Tim May’s Benson 300 amp, designed and built by Ron Benson and Howard Roberts. photo courtesy of Tim May.
In ’64, the Howard Roberts Standard was introduced, and shortly after, the Custom. Both had an L-4 body but differed in neck configuration, hardware, and cosmetics. The headstock of the Custom sported Epiphone’s traditional vine inlay and an ebony fretboard, while the Standard had an unbound headstock with a different inlay and a rosewood fingerboard. Gibson used its new Johnny Smith floating humbucker attached with a bracket at the end of the neck.
“The first version wound up in the price list in ’69 and early ’70, as Gibsons,” said Holder, who owns a Gibson H.R. prototype. “The main differences are the laminated maple top and rosewood fingerboard.”
The H.R. Fusion was another, less-fancy model, with 22 frets and a stop tailpiece. It had little in the way of cosmetics, but Roberts used it while conducting seminars and on a few club dates.
Magnanimous, Mystical, and Anything But “Misty”
Session ace Mike Anthony considered Roberts his avuncular mentor. “The first time I took a lesson from Howard, just being in his presence changed my life and attitude,” he said. “He put me on a new path and kicked my ass into a studio career. He told me I was ready. And with confirmation from someone like Howard, it really meant something.”
Bassist Chuck Berghofer echoed Anthony’s sentiments. Best known for his bass line on the theme for TV’s “Barney Miller” and his upright playing on “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” Berghofer said, “Howard called me for his Capitol sessions, helping me get a foothold in the studios. And he showed me how to use the power of positive thinking. I’m still playing regular studio dates 40 years later.”
Guitarist Howard Alden studied at G.I.T. and remained there as an instructor before splitting for New York and a major jazz career. Among his many other film gigs, that’s Alden playing guitar for Sean Penn in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown.
“Howard encouraged me to hang with good players, because they won’t be competitive,” Alden said. “And if you have to find a substitute for yourself on a gig, find the best player you can. Your employer will appreciate it. The first two or three afternoons we spent together, he made so many things understandable and clear, and introduced me to his ideas of learning efficiently and intelligently. At that time, he was showing me what eventually became his book, Super Chops.”
Roberts son, Jay, whose album, Son of a Dirty Guitar Player, showcases his own monster chops and progressive playing, gave a glimpse of his dad’s teaching technique. “When I moved out at age 18, I’d return every night to hang and play. Sometimes, when I’d ask, ‘What song?’ he would say, ‘No song and no key.’ And he’d turn off the lights so we’d be in the dark. He’d accompany me with these lush chords and provide a real foundation. And he’d always save me just before I’d crash. Sometimes, he would limit me to one string and tape off the other five. He’s say, ‘It takes 21 days to “own” something you’re learning.’ That’s how long it takes the brain and your muscle memory to retain what you’re working on. He also taught me to put down my guitar after I’d played something correctly so my subsconscious mind could process it. You don’t want to clutter things and undermine your progress.”
And May, who played the outrageous version of “Johnny B. Goode” for Michael J. Fox’s character in Back to the Future, adds, “When Howard was very sick I’d call to ask him how he was doing. He’d say, ‘I’m dying, and there’s nothing anyone can do about that. But how are you doing? Are you getting to play?’”
Mock, who today works with Jay Roberts at the Roberts Institute of Music, in Seattle, added, “I’ve never met anybody even remotely similar to Howard. He was so intense and inspiring.”
Pitman, who was usually in the rhythm section of H.R.’s Capitol recordings said, “Howard was always learning and striving for new things and wanted everything to sound hipper. He had so much energy and wouldn’t settle for his own brilliance. He had to keep moving and finding something new. He was insatiable that way.”
Roberts’ daughter, Madelyn, relates a story of her dad being called for a San Francisco rock session he didn’t want to play. He knew there was capable talent there to cover it, so he priced himself out of the date by asking an ridiculous amount, “Something like three grand,” she recalled. “But the producer still wanted him. When he got there, he looked at the chart and saw it was a mess. That’s when he knew why he’d been called. The producer knew Dad was a professional and wouldn’t embarrass him in front of his artist. So he laid down tracks he thought would enhance the session, like nothing was wrong. He told me, ‘I got the call because I was an old pro.’”
In Menn’s 1979 feature in GP, Roberts said, “I don’t like to play in public, especially when the name of the game is ‘Play “Misty” the way we heard you do it 20 years ago.’ Every kind of music you’re forced to play and can’t get out of drives me crazy. Whether it’s rock, jazz, or even classical, after its identity is established, it comes clichéd. So the player has to act out the cliché or he’s not believable. And jazz doesn’t mean a doggone thing. Does anything fall shorter of the mark than to describe a form of music as jazz? You ask people on the street, and one might say Stan Kenton and another might say John Coltrane. But their music is vastly different. So for me, if all things were wonderful, I’d be an explorer, an astronomer looking for a new star. Or a hobbyist putting combinations of pitches and notes together. The guitar to me is like what a typewriter is to a novelist – a tool for expression. And I truly believe that a good musician can do more to change the temperament and attitude of society than 30 of your average city mayors.”
Roberts died in June, 1992, after being diagnosed with prostate cancer a year earlier. His wife, Patty, perhaps best reveals his philosophy and attitude. “Howard was very sick, and I had asked him if he was worried about crossing over. He said, ‘I’m only worried about one thing. What am I going to say to Bach?’”