Diaa Bekheet | Washington, DC – In the fall of 1980, a college friend introduced me to the music of some famous American and British guitarists who were making big headlines at the time. While he made mint tea for us at his home, I spotted a guitar catalog on his desk. I started flipping through the pages and looking at photos. I was introduced to the work of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, the Bellamy Brothers, and the Who’s Pete Townshend, an artist known for smashing his guitars on stage many times. At the time I was looking for a picture of Elvis Presley, America’s world famous guitarist-singer-actor. I was spellbound by the way he shook his legs on stage. I found nothing, unfortunately!
But in one of the catalog’s photos, a young guitarist was sitting next to American guitar legend Bucky Pizzarelli. That’s how I learned about John Pizzarelli. “He looks Italian to me, not American” I said.
My friend Ahmed el-Gebali, now Egypt’s top guitarist, said he cared about his guitar style not his nationality.
“Music knows no boundaries, dude. We’re talking about guitar skills here. John Pizzeralli has them in spades,” he said. “One of the keys to success in guitar is to study someone who has gone before you and learn from his styles or often follow his footsteps,” explained Gebali who has tasteful, yet blisteringly fast, guitar skills.
John Pizzarelli is an American musician who sings in English while playing the guitar. “You are always stuck to the guitar no matter what. It’s always sealed to my shoulder,” said Pizzarelli who turned 51 last month. He spoke briefly with VOA’s Jazz America.
John is the son of acclaimed guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, who played a custom seven-string guitar with some of the biggest names in jazz in the 1930s and 1940s. The extra-low A-string, introduced by jazz guitarist George Van Eps, expands the guitar’s range to include bass lines.
Ahmed el-Gebali is a guitar maestro who sings in English and Arabic thousands of miles away in Egypt. He’s known for fusing jazz with rock, classical and Arabic music for the first time at a live show in London. The style was so popular that he released it on a special album titled “Gebali Show.”
“My past experience and guitar studies abroad harnessed my skills that I was able to come up with this music mix,” he said. “I loved American music, jazz, rock n’ roll, hard rock and heavy metal [stars], and I wanted to play guitar like them until I developed my own style,” said Gebali who bought his first guitar during a visit to Syria while in middle school.
“I learned a lot from my guitar lessons in Canada and Germany, where I rubbed shoulders with professional guitarists,” said Gebali as he recounted challenges he’d had during a composing and arranging project in 1993. He has released more than a dozen albums since 1990.
What do Pizzarelli and Gebali have in common? Both guitar virtuosos grew up in the 1960s and 1970s listening to the Beatles. In fact, the Beatles’ popular music culture was immense at the time. Their all-time hit, “Hey Jude,” inspired musicians around the world. I used to sing “Hey Jude” in the corridors of VOA when I first came to the United States in 1989. The song stuck with me since I had first listened to it at Gebali’s home in the Nile Delta city of Zagazig, Egypt in 1979.
I learned to play acoustic guitar at school, but I never wanted to be a star. From the time I was a little kid, it always baffled me how just a box and six strings could produce different kinds of music, including jazz, blues, classical, flamenco, rock, folk and more.
For more on jazz music, listen to VOA’s Jazz America