John Lee

an essay about me

John Lee’s Eclectic Music

Graham Doby
May 2, 2013
Ethnography Project
Dr. Robinson

When first listening to John Lee’s music the first word that may come to mind is epic. J.C. Kuhl says, “John Lee is all about the epic guitar solos.” There is always a story being built and always something unexpected. His solos will change texture dramatically with one solo consisting of beautifully constructed jazz and blues lines and another consisting of entirely “environmental sounds.” In congruence with his dynamic guitar solos, his compositions lend themselves to this fluid style of playing. His compositions range from many different genres including, but not limited to, reggae, rock, funk, latin, jazz, and punk. When a musician plays and writes at this highly diverse level, it begs the question of where their musical influences came from. It is my goal in this paper to show how John Lee’s musical background and study has influenced his compositions and overall guitar playing.       
John Lee was born in Fairfax in 1979. He began playing guitar at the age of ten and started gigging in the D.C. area by his junior year of high school. His interest in guitar started to appear at the age of nine when his family first got cable. He began watching MTV during the “thrash period,” and every song that was played had a ten second guitar solo that was described by John as “over the top.” At the time his brother was taking saxophone lessons at Music and Arts close to his home, and there was a guitar in the window that John was persistent to have. His mom rented him a guitar and he began taking lessons. He practicing ferociously, and this is where John Lee’s musical journey began.
Some of John’s early influences included, Steve Vai, Van Halen, Guns and Roses and Metallica. He then got into Grateful Dead and Yes.
By the time he was going into college he was really into Kurt Rosenwinkel and Wayne Krantz. He then began getting into free jazz, with one of his big influences being Fred Frith. Frith’s music is similar to John Cage, except that it was for prepared guitar. John went backwards with some of his influences. He got into Jimi Hendrix a lot later in his musical career. After getting into Hendrix he began to delve into Delta Blues, where he learned slide guitar and harmonica. These musical influences had a big effect on his compositions. He says,
Through playing rock, I realized that really simple dynamics can have a way     of bringing out emotions in people. Then I combine that with jazz and folk,     which don’t have as much of that sort of climax in the compositions, but more     in the     improvisation. (Album Notes-The Nature Series)
When we rehearse John Lee’s originals he is very particular about dynamics. Each section must have contrasting dynamic levels throughout the song. These dynamic changes draw the audience in and keep them coming back for more.
John kept “morphing” his different influences and after studying blues guitar he took a lesson with Indian guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya. Other influences include John Mclaughlin, Allan Holdsworth, and Tony Rice.  John says, “I get into little small phases and I always move on. I’ve never been obsessed with one person, and just try to completely copy them.” This is precisely the reason John’s music is so unique. Some musicians devote all of their time studying one person or style and do not branch out. If one only studies a single style or person they will inevitably start to sound like the musician they are studying. In this type of study there can be a void of originally but as we have seen with the music of John Lee, a collective study will lead to an independent and unique sound.
John went to Mannes College The New School for Music from 1998-2002.  While at The New School he studied with variety of teachers including jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. The biggest technique Rosenwinkel showed John was how to be able to comp for himself. When accompanying themselves, many guitar players will play a chord and then play a line but Rosenwinkel told John that the chords always follow the melody not the other way around. This enabled John to be able to write melodies and chords at the same time while composing. John said that Rosenwinkel did not directly influence his taste in music, but opened his eyes to new concepts in other guitar players. For example, John never understood Allan Holdsworth’s guitar playing until Rosenwinkel said, “Holdsworth plays very melodically.” After listening again John heard the more intricate parts of Holdsworth’s music noticing the complicated chord changes and the way he soloed over them. As you listen to John’s music you can hear a similar concept in his compositions. John writes pieces with very intricate changes and plays very melodically over them.
As well as studying jazz with Kurt Rosenwinkel he also studied with George Garzone. Garzone is a jazz saxophonist born in Massachusetts. He received his degree at Berklee College of Music. He spent most of life in Boston and now splits his time between New York and Boston. He is a co-founder of pianoless trio called The Fringe. Garzone has a harmonic concept that uses jazz a technique to organize twelve tone rows using triads. In this concept you move up or down a half step when reaching the top of a triad in any inversion, and then do it with major, minor, augmented and diminished. This leads to his philosophy that 30% of the percent the time you will hit a right note, and when you do hit a right note it is going to sound amazing. In some of John Lee’s songs the solo section will call for “a-tonal” style playing and the teachings of George Garzone directly influenced his playing over these sections.
Most of these teachers had more of an influence on his playing but the influence on his compositions was on a spiritual level, especially with George Garzone. John said, “He influenced my compositions on a spiritual level. Everything I wanted to write I want it to have some profound meaning.” This goes hand in hand with another quote from John Lee. “A lot of really good jazz musicians write really bad music, and there are a couple of guys that are really awesome players that write really great music. Most of the players that write great music have more of a soulful quality in their playing.”
I have seen and played with John Lee many times and it is evident that the spiritual element is key to his epic compositions and guitar solos. Every time John plays you are bound to hear something unexpected. I remember playing a show with John at the Kenmore Inn, located in Fredericksburg. We were playing a song called, “The Thing.” During this song there are a few guitar solos. The first one is with the band and the next one is just John by himself. Now, with most guitar players this would be overkill and monotonous. However, when John Lee plays there is never a dull moment. His first solo consisted of beautifully connected lines that built to a high level of intensity and then petered out into his next solo where he was playing by himself. John uses pedals when he plays to add textures and fill out the sound, and during this next solo he displayed his true genius of sound and effects.
He used his pedals to create a unique blend of sounds that I have never heard before. It started with a loop he created on his loop station on the spot. He then was able to reverse the loop and he kept adding layers. It was an incredible solo to watch because it was different then anything else I had heard that night. The way he layered the sounds and the textures drew me in immediately. It took me to a meditative state where I was focused on the moment. As I looked into the audience I noticed that it had a similar effect on them. The focus on John Lee during this solo was unwavering; nobody was talking and the audience was enthralled by the sounds he was creating.
The next show that truly reflects the influences of John Lee was located at Colonial Tavern, in Fredericksburg. There is a song we play entitled “Bamboo Baba.” We have played this song many times but the version we played at Colonial Tavern was very different. In this song the guitar solo follows the saxophone solo. The saxophone solo is usually very dark and intense and John will carry this same vibe through his solo. However, this particular guitar solo took a complete 180. He started off his solo by laying down the groove and locking up with the drums and bass. He then began to develop the groove into a semi-bluegrass feel.
I specifically remember this moment because when this solo started to develop it took me back a step. I was playing drums and I remember having to develop the solo in a different way. As the solo developed it slowly began to morph into a darker mood. He began using more jazz vocabulary as well as more out lines showing his influence of free music. After the guitar solo there is a drum solo that ends the song. This guitar solo demonstrates how John can build a solo using all of his knowledge in bluegrass, rock, and jazz.
John Lee has also had a considerable amount of playing experience with other notable artists such as Cyro Baptista, Matisyahu, David Amram, Nate Leath, Baye Kouyate, and Hassan Hakmoun. Cyro Baptista is a Brazilian percussionist that John plays with on a regular basis. In this Cyro’s group they play a variety of styles ranging from Brazilian, Arabic, and African. In these styles John says, “When you are driving the rhythm it has to be very pushing and precise.” In jazz, a guitarist will slur their lines more, but with these new styles John had to be more precise. John’s precision in his picking came from his study in bluegrass. This precise style of playing extended to the recordings he made with Hassan Hakmoun, a master of Gnawa music.
John Lee’s playing experience and philosophies have truly inspired his music. George Garzone and Kurt Rosenwinkels’ teachings mostly influenced John’s guitar playing. This in effect will influence his compositions. When a player has this level of musicianship and experience the compositions are bound to be complex. However, some musicians add complexity to music in order to fulfill their ego instead of thinking about what is playable and sounds good. John Lee is an example of musician who does merely the opposite. John writes for a purpose and when I play drums behind him I can feel the depth in his playing.  
Regarding John Lee’s compositions, the blend of styles comes naturally to him. John says,
That’s just kind of the way I write – I’m heavily into the post-rock thing and I’m also into this music from all different cultures. And then with my jazz improvisation background, I mix it all together without really thinking about it. (Album Notes-The Nature Series)

 Every song he writes has an element from a different culture and people are drawn to his music because of it. His spirit as a performer and a person is inspiring to all who attend his concerts.


Secondary Source
Laura Kuhn, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, vol. 2, (New York: Schirmer Reference, 2001), 1232.

Album notes from The Nature Series (
Interview with John Lee
John Lee Bio (