A couple of years ago I made what could be considered a “gold mine” find.
Stuffed away in a basement bin were a series of crumpling audio cassettes of lessons I had recorded with my late guitar teacher, Lou, dating back to the late 1980s. I feared trying to play them because of their visible frailty. But thanks to the help of a gifted audiophile friend, I was able to transfer each of the tapes―roughly eight hours in total―to digital files, thus ensuring their preservation and access.
Finding the tapes was a classic “OMG” moment. Listening to them has been nothing short of enlightening. It’s been an opportunity to revisit my lessons and the essence of the instruction I received from a long-lost master—a man I greatly admired and loved as a friend. Listening to the tapes, it’s amazing to recall Lou’s original guidance and hear it delivered in his inimitable style. (It’s more amazing to learn how much I forgot!)
So who was Lou?
That would be Lou Sosa―a master guitarist, teacher, painter, collector, philosopher, and entrepreneur. Lou was your classic little Italian-American guy from Brooklyn. He was a top New York-area jazz guitarist in the 50s and 60s (albeit largely unheralded) and a close friend of players like Chuck Wayne and Wes Montgomery. Lou was a fan of great guitarists across musical genres. He often talked enthusiastically about players ranging from Andres Segovia to Larry Carlton.
Sadly, Lou’s days were dwindling at the time I studied with him. He was dying of cancer. What’s more, his hands were wrenched with arthritis. He had difficulty forming chords and playing lines. He would visibly and audibly grimace every time he played. It never stopped him from teaching his devoted students.
Lou spiced up his guitar instruction with examples outside the world of music that were directly or indirectly applicable to it. He was a master of the analogy. One philosophy that I rediscovered listening to The Lou Sosa Tapes related to what he called “breath control” for guitarists.
In one particular lesson from 1989, we were focused on single-string lead playing, which he preferred to simply call picking. Months earlier we had worked on all the foundational modes, scales, and arpeggios. Now it was time to put it all together in creating melodic lines.
Lou’s instruction focused on a key thought: soloing was like “telling a story” through the instrument. The notes at your disposal in a given key were your vocabulary. Lou said, “use those ‘words’ to tell a story. And, very important, don’t forget to breathe.”
In response to my request for clarification, Lou launched into deadpan reply using a lowered, purely monotonic, staccato, Bensonhurst-tinged voice and a totally expressionless expression:
Lou demonstrated by picking out some beautiful lines on his D’Angelico Excel over the changes to I’ll Remember April―multiple, perfectly placed “breaths” included. Then he paused and reiterated: when you’re telling a story through the guitar, make sure you stop to inhale, to breathe in the middle of your soloing. And use different “inflections” throughout.
Breath control for singers means regulating the amount of air you take in to manage the qualities of sound, volume, pitch, and tone. Breath control for guitarists means occasionally pausing during your playing, and using those “breaths” to enhance the story you’re telling.
Years after Lou died, I learned of the classical composer Claude Debussy’s famous quote: “Music is the space between the notes.” Kind of like stopping to breathe during your improvisational playing. Exactly. It made me recall Lou’s guidance.
“Breath control” for guitarists was just one of many explanatory concepts this wonderful teacher set forth. To me, they were all valuable concepts that tied to the “thinking” side of playing. Having rediscovered The Lou Sosa Tapes, I can now think of them often.