Howard Roberts

H.R. Was a Dirty Guitar Player!
Howard Roberts
Howard Roberts: Andrea Augé.

In his prime, Howard Roberts played more than 900 studio dates annually and recorded the hippest guitar records of the era. His legion of fans still revere his incalculable influence and musical legacy.

Vesta Roberts, who grew up in a family of lumberjacks, gave birth to Howard just three weeks before the Wall Street Crash in October of 1929. Howard’s dad, a cowboy, wasn’t happy about the boy’s affinity for music. But his mother prayed for her baby to be a musician, and Howard often told the story about, “When I was about eight years old, I fell asleep in the back seat of my parents’ car one very hot summer afternoon. When I woke up I just blurted out, ‘I have to play the guitar!’” So when his dad saw the youngster’s attempt to build one from a board and bailing wire, he acquiesced. For Christmas, he bought young Howard an $18 Kalamazoo student-model acoustic manufactured by Gibson.

By age 15, Roberts’ guitar teacher, Horace Hatchett, told the boy’s dad, “Howard has his own style of playing and there’s nothing else I can show him. He plays better than I do.” Howard was already playing club dates in their hometown Phoenix area – usually blues and jazz gigs on which he would gain playing experience and develop his improvising skills. He was receiving an extensive education in the blues from a number of black musicians, one of whom was the brilliant trumpeter Art Farmer. Journalist Steve Voce, in his 1992 article in The Independent Newsletter, quoted Roberts on those nightclub gigs, “I came out of the blues. I started in that scene when I was 15 and it was the most valuable experience in the world for me.”

Roberts had created an heroic practice regimen with his roommate, guitarist Howard Heitmeyer. The two would practice three or four hours in the morning, catch an afternoon movie, then return to practice until it was time to hit the clubs, gig or not. Heitmeyer would remain Roberts’ lifelong friend, and someone with a comprehensive talent Roberts found staggering.

At age 17, Roberts was drawn to a class created by composer/theorist Joseph Schillinger, whose students included George Gershwin, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Oscar Levant. Noted musician Fabian Andre was commissioned to teach

Schillinger’s system of applying mathematical principles to art piqued Roberts’ curiosity, so he arranged a deal with Andre; he’d sweep the floors after class to defray his tuition. That attitude was indicative of the teenager’s precocious intellect and passion for music and science.

By the late ’40s, many of the better players in Phoenix had split for the more rewarding jazz scenes in Chicago and New York. Roberts was gigging with his boyhood friend, Pete Jolly, who’s now a name jazz pianist. In fact, Roberts’ birth of fire on the road as a pro musician was with Jolly. The two toured Washington and Idaho in early 1950.

A group of Roberts’ regularly-used guitars in 1982 (from left); a Gibson ES-175 with a 22 fret dot fingerboard, the Gibson ES-150 “Black Guitar” (see sidebar), Epiphone HR Custom, a Gibson HR Artist in natural finish, Gibson HR Fusion. Photo: Andrea Augé.

In late 1950 – 20 and driven by ambition – Roberts headed for Los Angeles. He arrived with no place to live and carried only his guitar and amp. He was attired in a shiny blue suit that he would wear daily for the next year. Sometimes he’d have to staple its split seams.

For a year or so, he paid his blues dues and lived a spartan existence by choice. He didn’t want possessions, save his guitar and amp. He said he didn’t want a car or even a wristwatch. He’d sleep on friends’ sofas or in their cars and would avail himself of whatever largesse was offered. And he nurtured himself with music, haunting the after-hours scene and jamming with jazz luminaries like Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, and Buddy DeFranco. That focus and dedication was a harbinger of the attitude and aura he exuded, especially after he became well-known.

Roberts met jazz great Barney Kessel after hearing him play one night. That meeting developed into an important and lasting friendship; Kessel introduced Roberts to guitarist Jack Marshall, who was becoming a heavy hitter in the Hollywood music scene. Marshall became a close friend, employer, and mentor to the young guitarist, and would eventually sign him to Capitol Records. But Roberts’ first L.A. gig was working on “The Al Pierce Show,” a radio broadcast that a prescient 10-year-old Howard had told his mom he’d be on someday. It was the first folding money he was to make in L.A.; he was paid $550 per week. He also landed a gig teaching guitar at the vocational Westlake College.

In ’52, Roberts scored his first record date, the obscure “Jam Session No. 10” with reed man Gerry Mulligan and pianist Jimmy Rowles. Later that year, he recorded Live at the Haig with the Wardell Grey Quintet, then a Bobby Troup album for Capitol in ’53.

By ’55, he was working with drummer Chico Hamilton and bassist George Duvivier. They recorded an album for the Pacific Jazz label entitled The Chico Hamilton Trio, a recording that netted Roberts the Downbeat New Star Award.

In ’56, Bobby Troup signed Roberts to Verve, a label where Kessel had an artist-and-repertoire position. Kessel produced Mr. Roberts Plays Guitar featuring arrangements by three of Hollywood’s best – Jack Marshall, Marty Paich, and Bill Holman. Another album for Verve, Good Pickin’s, followed in ’59. Roberts was becoming a success.

One of his session dates became a legendary Hollywood studio story. In May of ’58, he was hired for a Peggy Lee record date. When it was time to lay down the track for what would become Lee’s huge hit, “Fever,” producer Jack Marshall decided to lose the guitar part. Consequently, that’s Howard snapping his fingers along with Max Bennett’s bass line and Lee’s vocals. Some still wonder if he got paid what session players call a “double”; he made the date with his guitar, but ended up appearing with another “instrument” – snapping his fingers.

In ’59, Marshall was composing hip background scores for a western TV series entitled “The Deputy,” which starred Henry Fonda. Marshall wanted to feature jazz guitar on the scores, and hired Howard to improvise over many of the action sequences. Having a jazz guitar line complement a scene with cowboys riding at full gallop was a fresh and distinctive approach.

“Jack Marshall let Howard just blow as much as he wanted to,” studio vet Bill Pitman said of the sessions.

Howard Roberts Black Guitar
Photo: Rick Gould.
Howard Roberts’ “Black Guitar”
The “Black Guitar” was Howard Roberts’ trademark guitar of the 1960s-’70s. “H.R.” preferred this highly modified instrument during his most active years, playing it on countless studio dates. It can be heard on many of his recordings, including Color Him Funky, H.R. Is A Dirty Guitar Player, and The Magic Band Live At Donte’s.The Black Guitar began life as a Gibson ES-150 “Charlie Christian model.”Roberts acquired it from Herb Ellis, who remembers buying it new and keeping it as a spare. Roberts made numerous changes reflecting his tastes and preferences, the most dramatic being the slimmer body, the shape of the cutaway, an extended/repositioned neck, fingerboard replacement, and upgraded electronics.The original ES-150 was 33/8″ deep with a carved spruce top, maple sides and back, and a non-cutaway shape. H.R. had it thinned to a 23/4″ profile. The ES-150 had a flat back, while the Black Guitar has a laminated-maple arched back and possibly a reworked arched top. Nick Esposito did the labor.The Black Guitar sports an asymmetric double-cutaway shape, a notch in its upper bass bout, and a deeper Venetian cutaway going to its 17th-fret joint. The modified junction block has a larger maple piece to stabilize the deeper cutaway and joint. The fingerboard was replaced with a longer ebony board with dot inlays and 20 frets. Roberts recontoured the neck in stages, applying autobody filler that could be easily shaped and sanded. Its scale length is 251/4″, its fingerboard is fairly flat with a slight radius. Its width is 111/16″ at the nut and 23/8″ at the 12th fret – slightly wider than normal. The fret wire is .093 (a wider modern style) and the frets were milled down. Fingerboard and fretwork was performed by Jack Willock, an original artisan at Gibson’s Kalamazoo factory.The headstock retains a Gibson silhouette and is fitted with Grover Imperial tuners – five chrome-plated and one nickel-plated. It has a simple truss rod cover and no ornamentation or script. The headstock shows wear at the top edge, owing to H.R.’s habit of leaning his guitar against a wall.The guitar received a black nitrocellulose-lacquer finish, applied by H.R. himself. Cosmetic appointments include single binding on the headstock, fingerboard, body edges, and f-holes. Replacements include barrel knobs, Brazilian rosewood bridge, and tortoiseshell pickguard. The trapeze tailpiece is likely its only original ES-150 part.H.R. replaced the bar pickup with a P-90 single-coil unit. He modified its cover, enlarging the polepiece holes so the coil was closer to the fingerboard. Its resistance measures 8.67k ohms, slightly greater than a Gibson P-90 reissue. The output jack was relocated to the side rim.The guitar has unique tonal qualities – a woody, live acoustic sound that sings and is filled with harmonics. – Wolf Marshall

The Capitol Albums
Jack Marshall again played a pivotal role in Howard’s career. As house producer for Capitol Records, Marshall signed the guitarist to a record deal in February of 1963. Capitol wanted to create a stable of instrumentalists to record MOR versions of current pop songs and show tunes. The Capitol execs were simply looking for airplay that would translate into sales. That record contract ultimately led to 11 Roberts releases for the label. The first, in early ’63, Color Him Funky, followed by H.R. is a Dirty Guitar Player six months later, created a fan base unequaled by any jazz guitarist of the decade. He was forever after referred to by his initials, H.R., and his subsequent albums for Capitol, released twice a year through ’68, were the most eagerly awaited records of any jazz guitarist.

“Howard really blurred the lines among guitar players, and reached so many of them,” Ted Greene said in 2003. “Jazz guys, country players, and rockers all loved him because he played with such feeling and authenticity. Those first two Capitol albums were no doubt an introduction to jazz guitar for hundreds – maybe thousands – of young players. He didn’t water anything down, but it was all still accessible. And he had a recognizable sound. You immediately knew it was Howard.”

Mitch Holder (VG, January ’96/April ’97), a veteran of thousands of sessions, was Roberts’ most notable protege. In fact, he literally wrote the book on Roberts, The Jazz Guitar Stylings of Howard Roberts.

“The record company chose the tunes from the pop charts and Broadway,” said Holder. “I know when he got ‘Winchester Cathedral.’ He was thinking, ‘What am I gonna do with this piece of crap?’ But he worked it up to have an old-timey banjo sound, and it became a masterpiece.” It, and several other meticulous H.R. transcriptions, are included in Holder’s book.

Hollywood studio guitar doyen Bob Bain laughed, “Howard would pull all-nighters before those sessions. He’d stay up arranging, then go straight to the studio to record. Jack [Marshall] and Howard would come to my place and stay up writing charts and arrangements for the next day’s session. Even if I wasn’t there, my wife, Judy, would give them the run of the place. Sometimes, I’d be on the date with them the next day… though I had enough sense to get some sleep!”

The Capitol albums brought Roberts major visibility among guitarists and jazz fans. He was, however, paid only scale for the dates, and never got a dime on the back end.

The Studio Years
Holder recalls Roberts’ reaction to much of L.A.’s jazz scene moving to New York in the early ’60s. “Many of the L.A. jazz musicians consequently turned to the film and TV studios for their livelihoods,” he said. That’s when Roberts quickly became a first-call session player who would eventually, and later routinely, log more than 900 sessions per year. That includes playing on nearly 400 film scores. Howard said between 1966 and ’76, he played on more than 2,000 record albums.

In addition to “The Deputy,” Roberts’ TV work included playing the eerie theme for “The Twilight Zone,” working on the scores for “The Munsters,” “The Flintstones,” “The Addams Family,” “Gilligan’s Island” and hundreds more. He even played scene-transition cues on the plectrum banjo for “The Beverly Hillbillies.” On his record dates, he lent his talent to such artists as Peggy Lee, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, Duane Eddy, The Monkees, Jimmy Smith, The Beach Boys, Rick Nelson, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, The Electric Prunes, and even Chet Atkins.

One story commonly passed along illuminates Roberts’ iconoclastic and colorful nature. Chronicled in Don Menn’s 1979 interview with Roberts for Guitar Player, it recounts H.R. emerging heroic from an embarrassing predicament on a recording date for the ’65 film The Sandpiper.

The session was at MGM, where studio parking was unavailable to musicians. Roberts was 30 minutes late and had to park three blocks away, then run through a downpour. The part called for his nylon-string guitar, for which he had no case. So he carried it in a paper bag, and when he arrived, the impatient conductor, Robert Armbruster, glowered at Roberts, who was emptying water from his guitar on to the studio floor. Once the little Martin was wiped off, Armbruster told him, “Well, you have to play this solo and I have to get the timing right.”

“It had to be on the money, something like 51.2 seconds long,”Roberts recalled. “And I was shocked when I saw the music. I’d never played those chords in my life. But by golly, I got it right the very first time. And the conductor got it right. It was so amazing that everyone applauded.”

The famous song from that film, “The Shadow of Your Smile” was a catalyst in connecting a teenaged Holder to Roberts. Holder was studying the tune with his teacher when he heard Roberts’ recording of “Shadow” on his Capitol album, Whatever’s Fair.

“The treatment was so different that it blew me away,” Holder recalls. “Everybody played it as a slow ballad, but here’s Howard playing it as a medium-tempo swing, and just making it cook! Well my dad, who was a doctor, had a patient who knew Howard, and arranged for me to take lessons from him. So, H.R. started taking me to sessions right away.

“The first time I met him, he wanted me to wait right outside of Universal. This was in 1966. I didn’t know what to expect, but here comes this red Porsche. The door flies open, and Howard says, ‘Hop in.’ I thought, ‘This guy is way cool. Here’s a jazz guitar player, driving a red Porsche and taking me to Universal, where he’s doing a session with my other hero, Barney Kessel.’ I was mesmerized.”

Speaking of Kessel, Roberts once asked the jazz great for a guitar lesson. Kessel responded, “The only thing I can teach you is that there’s nothing I can teach you.”

Howard Roberts Epi
Photo: Tim May.
Howard Roberts’ ’37 Epiphone Broadway
This is a1937 Epiphone Broadway, but it has a Deluxe-style neck and fingerboard. I bought it about five years ago from a guitar player named John Hannam, who lives in Oregon and hung out with Howard when he lived there. John acquired the guitar from Howard’s widow, Patty, and my understanding is that Howard got the guitar from George Van Eps. I recently showed the guitar to Bob Bain, who played a lot with George Van Eps, and Bob instantly remembered George playing this guitar before George went to the seven-string.As far as I know, the guitar was built by Epiphone with this neck, and blond finish. John had it refinished by a luthier named Saul Koll, who did a beautiful job. John Carruthers built and installed the floating pickup for me. The guitar sounds incredible, and plays great!There’s an old Epiphone ad that shows Howard Roberts playing what looks like this guitar. – Tim May

Spector and H.R. – Oil and Water
Holder also recalls how Roberts told him about one day becoming so aggravated after a studio date that he smashed his Martin nylon-string in the fireplace. “It was because of a Phil Spector session,” Holder said.

H.R.’s relationship with the producer was indeed strained. Often, Spector’s sessions called for Roberts to play a barre chord on a 12-string for hours at a time. It was typical of Spector to slavishly rehearse his musicians for hours. Consequently, Howard developed hand problems. “I had to get a specialist from Canada to come down and straighten me out,” he said.

Holder related another dissonant episode between Roberts and Spector, when the producer had a penchant for packing heat at his sessions. Roberts, an avid outdoorsman with a fervent respect for firearms, recoiled on a date when Spector’s pistol fired into the ceiling. H.R. left the session, telling Spector, “I just can’t do this. I can’t stay here. Don’t call me again.” In Denny Tedesco’s documentary, The Wrecking Crew, noted session drummer Hal Blaine said, “Howard Roberts was the only person I’ve ever seen walk out on a date.” Holder added, “It wasn’t really like Howard to get mad, but he had such respect for firearms.”

Benson Amps
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

H.R.’s Guitars
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.”

Tim May’s Benson 300 amp, designed and built by Ron Benson and Howard Roberts. photo courtesy of Tim May.

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.

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.

A 19-year-old Howard Roberts and Pete Jolly (age 16) playing at the Mecca Lounge, in Phoenix. Roberts is playing his Epiphone Deluxe with a DeArmond pickup. Photo courtesy of Mike Evans

“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.’”

H.R.’s Philosophy
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?’”

Special thanks to professor Mike Evans of the University of Toronto, Don Menn, Mitch Holder, and Larry Grinnell.

This article originally appeared in VG September 2011 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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