Fretprints: Steve Khan

Khan-sequential Guitar
Fretprints: Steve Khan
Photo courtesy of S. Khan.

Steve Khan is an internationally acclaimed guitarist with a career spanning more than 50 years. Japan’s Jazz Life proclaimed him one of the 22 greatest jazz guitarists and Musico Pro’s Antonio Gandia praised him as “the voice of the guitar in Latin Jazz.” He has been making waves as a solo artist since 1977, collaborated with some of the greatest performers in the studio and onstage, and continues to reinvent and redefine himself to the present.

Born Steve Cahn on April 28, 1947, Khan is the son of famed lyricist Sammy Cahn (“Love and Marriage,” “My Kind of Town”). He received informal piano tutelage at six, grew up in L.A. around the world’s most-popular stars, and was exposed to a range of music, with cha-cha versions of his father’s songs sparking an early interest in Latin sounds. He studied piano for seven years but preferred sports and faked his way through lessons, playing by ear and mimicking the teacher’s hand positions. He became involved with music when the Beatles surfaced and, attracted to drums, briefly took lessons. Eschewing rudiments and practice pads, he persevered by feel in amateur groups, and through happenstance met and eventually toured with The Chantays (“Pipeline”).

He became interested in blues and jazz via band members who played surf music but admired Freddy King, Jazz Crusaders, and Wes Montgomery. The Chantays morphed into a folk-rock unit, signed with Reprise, and released two singles, one produced by Lee Hazelwood. Inspired by Movin’ Wes, Khan switched to guitar at 19, acquired a Fender Mustang, and despite warnings from his father, switched his major at UCLA from psychology to music, graduating in ’69. In this period, he transcribed Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, and Jim Hall. After playing for a year, he joined Friends of Distinction (“Grazing in the Grass”), met Crusaders saxophonist Wilton Felder, and appeared on his debut Bullitt before moving to NYC in 1970. There, he networked with Michael Brecker and Dave Liebman, attended heady jam sessions, broke into the studio scene, and joined the Brecker Brothers Band for Back to Back and Don’t Stop the Music.

Bearing the re-spelled Khan surname, he recorded acoustic duets with Larry Coryell (Two for the Road), and, under contract to Columbia, in ’77 launched his solo career with Tightrope, establishing credentials as a composer and formidable fusion player. A definitive sophomore effort, The Blue Man, and all-original Arrows followed, but in 1980 he was dropped from Columbia. He rebounded with Evidence, a solo acoustic album that highlighted music from Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Horace Silver, Joe Zawinul, and particularly Thelonious Monk in a nine-song medley that signaled greater aspirations. That year, he also contributed to Steely Dan’s Gaucho.

“Zancudoville” (“Mosquito Town”) is Khan’s ode to Venezuelan flying pests on Parting Shot. Like many originals in his repertoire, it’s propelled by a modified cha-cha rhythm. The solo stands as a prime example of his overdriven tone (TS/delay/Woods amp/Marshall cabs) of later years. This excerpt (4:13-4:23) finds him improvising over a repeating D7-C7 progression that invites blues/rock approaches tempered with jazz/fusion. Minor conversion occurs throughout. Note the traditional D7 blues-scale lick transitioning to Gm7 (over C7) in measures 1-4. He plays Am Dorian sounds over D7, generating modern blues sounds in 5-6 before coloring C7 with more pungent G Melodic Minor melody (Gm-maj7=C9#11) in 7 and reaching a climax with a flurry of fast triplets in 7-8.

Eyewitness marked a significant transition, conveying fusion intentions buoyed by Latin undercurrents. Khan partnered with bassist Anthony Jackson, percussionist Manolo Badrena and drummer Steve Jordan to develop the trio-plus-percussion format. Modern Times (’82) remains their live fusion masterpiece. Its collective improvisation and Latin/fusion ethos were unlike anything in jazz-rock and led to Casa Loco. In ’86, Khan joined Zawinul’s Weather Update, collaborated with artist Jean-Michel Folon (Helping Hand), assembled a new Eyewitness lineup (Badrena, Jackson and Dave Weckl) for Public Access (’89), and, for the first time, recorded one of his father’s songs (“Dedicated to You”). It remains his best-selling album. Eyewitness runs were punctuated by straightahead jazz forays in Let’s Call This and Headline, which included several trio renditions of ’60s post-bop tunes. Crossings presented another lineup of Eyewitness with Jackson, Badrena, and drummer Dennis Chambers plus guest Michael Brecker. Got My Mental was a modern straighforward project, with John Patitucci, Jack DeJohnette, and four rotating percussionists handling post-bop standards by Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, Eddie Harris, and Wayne Shorter plus Khan’s title track and another nod to his father (“The Last Dance”). The combination (with Badrena) was reprised on the more Latin-tinged The Green Field, which marked his return as a leader after a nine-year hiatus. The Suitcase, with Jackson and Chambers, began as a bootleg of a ’94 concert that reprised several Eyewitness favorites and in ’08 became an official release.

A new phase started in 2011. Parting Shot was the first Latin jazz recording led by a guitarist in almost 50 years and initiated a cycle of similarly inclined albums, Subtext, Backlog, and Patchwork. In addition to his work as solo artist and voluminous studio credits, he served as producer for Larry Coryell, Mike Stern, Bill Connors, Biréli Lagrène, Eliane Elias, participated in tributes to the Beatles and Beach Boys, and most recently worked with Mark Kibble (Take 6). Their effort married Kibble’s vocal artistry with Khan’s acoustic guitar for a Latin-tinged take on Shuggie Otis’ “Island Letter.”

Khan personifies fusion. His spectrum includes blues, rock, jazz, funk, pop, avant garde, R&B, and world musics, particularly Latin. Even surf (“Penetration” on Casa Loco), Indian (“El Faquir” in 11/4), and new age didn’t escape his purview. Inspired by Latin jazz via Herbie Hancock, Grant Green, Cal Tjader, and Jazz Crusaders, he cultivated Latin/fusion combinations as far back as the ’70s, which led to “wild, free, strange Latin music” perceptions of Eyewitness. His Brecker Brothers stint inspired championing of their approach on the Columbia albums, evident in the jazz-funk amalgam, mini-horn-section sound, in-the-pocket tightness, and Brecker modernism in improvisation.

He’s further distinguished by a palpable groove-dominated feeling in rhythm playing and blues/funk improvisation that differed from the shred priorities of other jazz-rock performers. These aspects reached an apex on Public Access where listeners were treated to funk (epitomized by the “Kamarica” riff), Latin, rock and swing (“Butane Elvin”) grooves, post-bop dissonance, and jazz-rock complexity (“Blue Zone 41”). Though his Columbia albums flaunted a rock tone and attitude, from Eyewitness on, he embraced a cleaner, lightly processed sound that suited his growing Latin predilections, contrasted occasionally with a distorted voice, as in “Casa Loco” and “Zancudoville” (Parting Shot).

“Hackensack” embodies Khan’s Monk passions. Though recorded earlier in a swing treatment (Headline), the version from Subtext is definitive–marked by a fast mambo Latin interpretation, chord/melody textural alternation and “ideal guitar tone.” This segment (1:08-1:27) contains characteristic cluster chords (measures 1-4), whole-tone lines (5-6), quartal-based open-voiced 9sus4 sonorities–favorite extensions evoking a Chick Corea impression (8), bebop/blues combinations (9-11), the ii-V cadence (Am7b5-D7b9) addressed by a harmonic-minor (Gm) gesture in 12, intervallic angular arpeggios from the G diminished scale over C7 implying C7#9 and C13#11 (14), and use of the altered scale (Gb Melodic Minor over F7) in 15-16 to produce a bop-approved connection to the IV chord Bb.

An imaginative, skilled composer, Khan writes originals animated by enriched harmony and melodies reflecting colors rather than technical histrionics. In Eyewitness, his emphasis on ethereal textures, atypical sonorities, and intervallic melodies further separated him from scalar-fixated fusion players and invited comparisons to The Police. Famed French journalist Peter Cato said, “If The Police could play jazz, this is what it would sound like!”

Concurrently continuing the bebop tradition, he followed the practice of writing new contrafact melodies over existing changes for compositions such as “Naan Issue” (Montgomery’s “Movin’ Along” blues), “Buddy System” (modified “Rhythm” changes) and “Blue Subtext” (“Blue Bossa”).

Khan exploits exotic sounds like Lydian and diminished scales, but primarily relates to minor modes, particularly Dorian. Much of his jazz, post-bop, modal, and blues vocabulary, gleaned by transcribing countless solos of various instrumentalists, shares this touchstone. He unapologetically blurs the line between lead and rhythm guitar, mixing textures while purveying a free alternation of single-note and chord passages, as in “Masqualero.” The latter are played fingerstyle, with hybrid-picking and/or traditional plectrum strumming. A harmonically savvy soloist, he is known for distinctive improvised lines connoting Wes-informed exuberance and telling aspects of bebop/post-bop jazz in functional chromaticism, mutated pentatonic sounds, polytonality, substitutions, superimpositions and side-slipping. These are augmented by soulful blues/rock phrasing with idiomatic string bends and vibrato, and atmospheric ethnic-tinged modal playing over synth orchestrations as heard on Local Color (’87), which earned Khan and Rob Mounsey a Grammy nomination in the “new age” category. Moreover, he proves equally adept at interpreting standards like “Dedicated to You” in a trio context with single-note and chordal textures, evoking a reimagined Hall/Burrell approach, or applying Mayfield/Hendrix R/B dyads and chording (as in “Dr. Slump”).

The Thelonious Monk factor exerts a powerful force in Khan’s style, exemplified by his precedent-setting medley on Evidence and “Reflections,” a collaboration with Donald Fagen on That’s the Way I Feel Now. Monk’s influence persisted, extant in similar unpredictability, expressive dissonance, melodic angularity, and rhythmic eccentricities in Khan’s own music. While many jazz guitarists have covered “Round Midnight” and familiar Monk standards, occasionally producing an entire tribute album as in the case of Joshua Breakstone, Peter Bernstein, and Bobby Broom, Khan regularly included Monk compositions after Let’s Call This. Consider “Think of One” (Crossings) “Eronel” (The Green Field), “I Mean You” (Borrowed Time), “Played Twice” (The Suitcase), and “Bye-Ya,” “Hackensack,” “Criss Cross,” and “Epistrophy,” from his last four albums.

The Blue Man, Evidence, Eyewitness, Modern Times, Public Access, Let’s Call This, Parting Shot, Subtext, Backlog, and Patchwork provide glimpses into Khan’s evolution. Collection gathers 10 tracks selected by Khan from his Columbia albums. Several albums have been issued as three-part compilations including the Columbia records, Eyewitness/Modern Times/Casa Loco and Public Access/Headline/Crossings.

“Naan Issue” is a leading track on Patchwork. Here, Khan combines numerous ingredients for an exotic stew. Based on Wes’ “Movin’ Along,” the Eb blues changes occur over a Latin groove, are elongated to a 24-bar form and colored with numerous modern twists. This sample (2:21-2:51) begins with chord textures exemplifying Eb9sus4 extended sonorities and parallelism. In measure 7 he commences single-note soloing with a side-slipping move from F#m pentatonic to Bbm (Bbm7/Eb=Eb9sus). This is intensified in 8, where he applies a chromatic transition (half-step above) of Em hexatonic (sub for A7) to approach Ab7. There, his melodies are extended, also based on minor conversion (Ebm7=Ab7) and largely diatonic. The section closes with a sparse pentatonic line and vibratoed string bend producing a momentarily funky contrast in mood.

Highlights include “Masqualero” (Bottom Line, ’92), “The Guitar Show” (’90), and interviews for the NYU Steinhardt Series (’19). Khan’s website offers personal transcriptions and facts about recordings and equipment.

Chord Khancepts, Pentatonic Khancepts, transcription books on Pat Martino and Wes Montgomery, Eyewitness Songbook, and Steve Khan Songbook.

Khan’s main guitar since Eyewitness has been an ’82 Gibson honeyburst ES-335. Earlier, he played a ’70s Telecaster Custom with neck humbucker by Charles Lobue, ’63 Strat with Bill Lawrence neck pickup and DiMarzio bridge for Gibson spacing (Arrows and “Dr. Slump” on Eyewitness), and David Russell Young steel-string acoustic (Evidence and Columbia records). He used a Gibson ES-Artist for his “Glamour Profession” solo.

Current instruments include the 335, ESP solidbody with EMG pickups, along with Martin MC-28 and Yamaha APX-10N acoustics. Also in his arsenal are ’59 and ’01 335s, a 335 12-string, ’82 Heritage Les Paul, Super 400, Charvel Strat, and Young acoustic 12-string. He re-frets with Dunlop 6140 jumbo wire and prefers Fender extra-heavy picks. He favors Dean Markley SLP and Super V .009 extra-light string sets and Darco New Yorker .010-47 acoustic sets.

In his Columbia period, Khan used Fender combo amps (Super, Deluxe, and Princeton Reverbs). Since ’82, he has favored stereo rigs – two Roland JC-120s with digital reverb (Modern Times, Casa Loco, and Weather Update), and a Soldano three-stage preamp with Carver power amp and Bradshaw rack system that housed the Korg DVP-1 Harmonizer (Public Access), and Pierce G-1 heads (Let’s Call This). He currently employs Walter Woods preamp/power amps feeding two Marshall model 1966 2×12 8-ohm cabs with EV speakers. His clean sound is colored by an Ibanez DCF-10 chorus/flanger pedal. For distortion he relies on Tube Screamer TS-9 pedals. Other units in his Tom Peck pedalboard include joined (ping-pong) digital delays wired by Harry Kolbe with a micro mixer, Zoom RFX-300 reverb, and an Ernie Ball stereo volume pedal.

Khan maintains he achieved his ideal tone on Subtext, experimented with different miking on Backlog, and returned to his Subtext rig on Patchwork.

Wolf Marshall is the founder and original Editor-In-Chief of GuitarOne magazine. A respected author and columnist, he has been influential in contemporary music education since the early 1980s. His books include 101 Must-Know Rock Licks, B.B. King: the Definitive Collection, and Best of Jazz Guitar, and a list credits can be found at

This article originally appeared in VG’s August 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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