My Afternoon with Lenny Breau
by Sam Yerardi, McDermott, Ohio
Since I was 9 years old I've loved the guitar. I've always had a wide range of taste in music styles from the very beginning. I've loved the Beatles, the Ventures, and then one day I heard a fellow by the name of Chet Atkins play Mr. Sandman and life has never been the same. I hung out at the local music store on Friday and Saturday nights when I was in high school hoping to learn a new lick from some of the better guitarists in the Portsmouth, Ohio area.
In the late 70's I went (with another guitarist friend, Steve Bowles) to Nashville with one goal in mind. I wanted to meet Lenny Breau. I read in an issue of Guitar Player magazine that he was in the Nashville area and could be contacted through the musician's union there. We went down not really thinking that we had a chance to meet him let alone play with him.
We did succeed in contacting him and he asked us to come over to his apartment where he was staying at the time. He had been in Nashville recording with Chet and some of the work ended up on the album Standard Brands. It was my first introduction to what life on the road for musicians (even famous) was like and it was a revelation. The apartment was a run-down motel type of place right on Music Row. When we first went there he hadn't shown up yet and we thought we were in the wrong place because it looked so run down. As we started to leave he came walking up the sidewalk drinking a coke. He was a very small man and looked amazingly like Sal Mineo. He introduced himself and when we shook hands he would only use his left hand as he said he didn't want to break a nail. We went into his apartment and the next two hours became one of the most memorable experiences in my life.
Probably unknown to most people today (as it was to us at the time) Lenny had a very bad
stutter. He seemed to be a very hyper person which probably made his stuttering
worse. We went there with the intent of just meeting him and talking to
him for a few minutes and it ended up being two hours - about an hour of
teaching and an hour of playing. Steve and I only brought one guitar and we wanted to play a duet for him and get his opinion. Lenny let me
use his guitar and I was thrilled but the high hadn't hit just yet.
When I first started to just finger the instrument I couldn't help but notice that the action was amazingly high and stiff and seemed to
require the grip of a bear - and it was a nylon string guitar! As I started playing a few chords (no picking just yet) Lenny offhandedly
mentioned "Chet gave me that guitar...". My hands froze. It was a once
in a lifetime moment, actually playing a guitar that Chet had owned and played! I looked inside the guitar to see who it was made by and it was
a Marcello Barbero. I thought back at what earlier albums Chet had used a nylon on and there was one album where he specifically mentions that
Anyway, Steve and I started playing MacArthur Park (the Chet & Jerry version). Our timing wasn't the greatest and Lenny pointed that out but what caught Lenny's attention was my picking. He said 'Like man man man man your thhhumb really sssswings!'. I can't describe how happy that made me feel. He said 'like like man man do you know thhhat TTTravis thhhing?' and started playing the first chords to Cannonball Rag. I said yeah and he and I played Cannonball Rag together. It was moment I will cherish the rest of my life. I got the whole two hours on tape as well. I played the secondary part and he took off on the lead part and just blew me away. He was playing Travis licks, Chet licks, and while he was playing he was talking to us saying "I've played this with Merle and Chet before... like man man Chet knows all the second parts, man...".
When we finished Lenny said 'wow man I just wanted to pick one
with you... your thumb really swings!" and then he looked at Steve and said "doesn't he have a great thumb?" My smile was beaming a mile wide.
I played another tune just by myself and in the middle Lenny stopped me
Lenny then spent the next two hours teaching us things like jazz chord theory and just playing tunes and describing how he arrived at his style. He was absolutely amazing. He would move from playing a Chet tune in his own style to a Carlos Montoya number that was authentic flamenco in technique. He spent a lot of time teaching us about the flatted fifth concept and how to apply it for chord changes. I remember playing a few bars of Summertime thinking I had done a fair job of applying what I thought were jazz chords to it. He then showed us how to go the next step beyond in applying flatted fifths and it was something to this day I still use now. He then played Summertime in a loose jazz improvisation that was nothing short of incredible. He was constantly talking while he played which blew me away. It was like there were two people sitting there - - one talking and one playing amazing stuff.
Steve mentioned to him about the song Emily that Chet did and Lenny said that was his (Lenny's) daughter's name and took off playing it in his style that just left our mouths gaping. He talked a lot about Chet. He said that usually when he came to Nashville to play with Chet he just stayed at Chet's house. He said they would be sitting at the breakfast table and Chet would have a guitar in his hands. He said "..Chet's a really cool guy - - he's just worth about 5 million..". He showed us how he took the harmonics Chet used and then took them to the next step.
I was just awestruck watching him. He was in another world while he was playing. Even though he was just playing for me and Steve it was like he was playing for a thousand. He would still make mistakes and stutter while he was trying to cuss which he would then start laughing but the stuff he would make mistakes on was more where he was going chord-wise and not technique. Only one time did I hear him get hung up on technique - he was playing tremolo with the right hand that had five notes between each thumb stroke. When it got to the point in the tune he was playing and he went to use that technique (which he told us he had been working on) he was really straining and started laughing and then cussing and then stuttering and it was really funny but he played it.
He played an amazing version of The Claw by Jerry Reed. And he had a lot of licks in it that he said Jerry showed him. I've tried to learn Jerry's stuff for years but these were licks I had never heard on record. Just learning those made the trip worthwhile. He mixed the song with a jazz tune that I never got the name of but the fingerpicking in it is amazing as well. I've learned the version but there are still licks in it I can't get.
He told us that he listened to Bill Evans
(jazz pianist) a lot to apply it to the guitar. I told him I was looking for Art Tatum records and he jumped up and ran over to a pile of
albums that were sitting on the floor and pulled out two Art Tatum albums and gave them to me. They were labeled 'RCA Library - Not For
Resale'. He said Chet had given them to him. He said 'you're welcome to it but like man man man like don't try to play this cat's stuff
'cause IT IS HARD!" and just started laughing hysterically.