“Breath Control” for Guitarists (or Listening to Lou: Part I)

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.



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  • Joey Leone

    Lou was a friend of my dads. Spent many days at his house in Long Island. I remember him and his son Lou Jr. laughing at Leslie Wests Mountain album saying “this is guitar playing?”
    One day at his house as a boy of only 12 i surveyed part of his collection of guitars in cades when i saw a familiar sight a Fender hardshell case, i asked “Uncle Lou” about this and he sneared and said as he opened the case this piece of shit is supposed to be a jazz guitat" it was a late 50s first run Jazzmaster.
    The first guitar i ever played was a 30s era L5 Lou lent me for a few months to learn to play scales.
    I spent time with my dad at “Lous loft” with Chuck Wayne and othrr guitar players. The loft was located above Lous shop where they made “christaning sets” for Catholic families.
    My other memory of Lou was his veracious appetite. I saw on many occasions Lou consume 5 to 10 dozen raw clams at one sitting.
    His plsaing as you know was spectacular, but Lou nevet went full time with it as his business was successful and i believe that gave him the opportunity to be selective and plsy what he wanted to play.
    Thanks for posting this and for my brother Nick for finding it.

  • Michael Watters

    This point made by Lou Sosa is brilliant. If you listen to the best jazz guitarists they draw us in by allowing us to follow what they are doing. By taking little pauses and spaces in playing they don’t bombard us with a seemingly endless series of notes. It also helps us to maintain our interest in listening.

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