Comedy star Jeff Garlin on why he’s serious about guitars
We visit the actor and comic at home in Los Angeles to find out about his biggest offscreen passions: guitars and music.
All images: Eleanor Jane
When you head out to interview somebody, walk up to their front door and pluck up the courage to knock, it’s a lot like waiting in line for a roller coaster. But on this occasion, our trepidation is dismissed when the door swings open and we’re greeted by the friendly, familiar face of Jeff Garlin and welcomed into his Mulholland home.
You may know Garlin from any number of TV and film projects. There’s long-running sitcom The Goldbergs, acclaimed comedy Arrested Development, Pixar smash Wall-E and, of course, Curb Your Enthusiasm, one of the most well-regarded shows in TV history and now in its 10th season. What you may not know about Garlin, however, is that he is a huge fan and student of the guitar.
“I look at myself as a Chicago bluesman. That’s how I approach my work”
At Garlin’s side is Sage, his constant Cockapoo companion, who happens to be a TV star in her own right, having played the part of The Goldbergs’ pet dog Lucky from season three onwards. “She’s a bigger star than I am,” says Garlin.
Boisterous and gregarious, Garlin is excited to chat about comedy and guitar collecting, as well as even deeper and more philosophical subjects. His recent Netflix comedy special is entitled Our Man In Chicago but, although he was born in the Windy City, Garlin’s musical epiphany took place much further south.
You grew up in Chicago, a big music town.
“Yes but I moved to Florida in the 1970s when I was 12, so I was around the radio. My favourite music was R&B like Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Earth, Wind & Fire.”
You were around when Tom Petty was happening.
“I discovered Petty from the movie FM, the song was Breakdown. I love Tom Petty. I became a security guard for rock concerts – Tom Petty was on tour I believe with Nick Lowe or Rock Pile – and my job when the girls ran on stage was not to throw them off but move them. I’ve since become friendly with Mike Campbell and pretty good friends with Benmont Tench. I had him on my podcast a few years ago. I love that.”
Did you ever connect with Tom?
“I’m friends with [Petty’s wife] Dana Petty but I never met Tom. I found out later what a huge Curb fan he was. I would have loved to have met him. He’s special to me.”
Growing up and moving around, was music important to you?
“Hugely important to me. I have a very high reference level with jazz, blues, rock and R&B. But I don’t have much of a reference level for anything past the mid-2000s.
Who were your key musical influences?
“Musically, my influences – which have totally affected my comedy, by the way – are John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery and Grant Green.
“Truly, I’m an improviser in stand-up, and I’ll be an improviser when I’m good enough in music. In terms of what I do, it’s all blues. It’s all blues. I’d say John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy, my hometown hero.”
Your comedy feels like the blues. It has a beginning, middle and end, with plenty of room to riff in between.
“I look at myself as a Chicago bluesman, I do. That’s how I approach my work. I’m inspired by Buddy Guy. As a matter of fact, the phrase that I use is ‘living the blues through comedy’.”
So there’s plenty of room for tangents, mistakes?
“Oh, mistakes are beautiful. You know what else? Lulls. Let’s just be quiet here for a second. Just be present. That’s how I improvised so much in my [Netflix] special, I was just present. I don’t know what the fuck’s going on!
“Don’t try to hide mistakes! Who wants perfection? I don’t. It’s about being okay with a moment that’s human, being okay with it not being perfect. I aspire to it. I think I have moments of brilliance, I have moments of perfection. But most of it is not in the land of perfection.”
So when it comes to music, what moves you?
“Kingfish hits me pretty hard. I’ve been digging a band called Temples. My second-favourite rock band is Radiohead, number-one is Spoon. I love Spoon. Every album that Spoon puts out gets better and better. I’m inspired by them.
“I listen to a lot of 1950s jazz, 1950s blues, 1960s and 1970s blues and classic rock. Peter Green, Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, obviously, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor. Oh, and the Irish fellow, Rory Gallagher, I love Rory. I’m open to new bands and new sounds but not much inspires me.”
You’re on Instagram. Is there anyone you’re following who inspires you?
“Kingfish! Him, I follow. Jared James Nichols, he’s a pal. He’s been here playing guitars. The best player I have ever seen in my life is Nathaniel Murphy (@zeppelinbarnatra). I’ve actually written ‘fuck you’ in his comments.
“I’m friends with different guitarists, I know so many. Steve Lukather. I’ve gotten to know Jonny Greenwood. Tom Morello and I filmed a thing with Vince Vaughn in Chicago. Jerry Cantrell. Conan O’Brien’s band leader Jimmy Vivino. He’s a pal of mine, an actual pal. Great guy.”
And you used to be roommates with Conan, who is way into guitar.
“Conan! He’s the one who really made me appreciate Led Zeppelin, ’cause that’s pretty much what he listened to exclusively when we were room-mates. What’s funny is, he played the later stuff, Physical Graffiti. Whereas I was all I, II, and to a degree, III, because I love the blues. Zeppelin’s first album is my favourite, I just love it.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m a collector – I have guitars that mean something to me”
How did you start playing guitar?
“I always loved the guitar and music but I didn’t start taking lessons until I did a movie called Daddy Day Care in 2003, where I had to look like I knew what I was doing. To tell you the truth, looking back on it now, there’s no way I looked like I knew what I was doing. I just gripped the neck but I had no idea. I just strummed. I can’t even watch it.”
So you learnt on the job?
“Yes. I started taking lessons with a guy called Fast Freddy Rapillo, former guitarist for Rick James. He still teaches me guitar to this day.”
How’s that going?
“You know, here’s the problem I have: my schedule is too busy to allow me to be a really good guitarist. I’ll practice, I’ll start feeling good about it and then I stop because of filming.”
Do you ever take a travel guitar with you on set?
“I did but I’m not going to anymore. I had a parlour guitar in my trailer but I had no time to play it. It served its purpose, and its purpose is to show me I’m not going to play it. You’re looking at somebody who’s been playing for 12 years and I am as mediocre as any human can be at guitar.
“It was ‘Ideal Jeff’, who I’m a big fan of, who played guitar in his trailer. I didn’t play though, ‘Real Jeff’ would stare at it and face immense guilt.”
Do you ever sit around and jam with anyone else?
“Nope, no one sees me play. I did that with photography, I didn’t show anybody any pictures. I think the first time I showed pictures was at the nine-year mark. I wish I could have done that with comedy, where nobody saw me.”
“The market is always up for Les Pauls and Blackguards. There’s some strange magic between those two”
It seems like you’ve taken up guitar collecting.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a collector – I have guitars that mean something to me. I think for me, there’s always a Blackguard. My dream guitars are 335s and Teles, and I’ve just fallen in love with a hardtail Strat. I’ll never buy a ’58, ’59, ’60 Les Paul, it’s too crazy. I won’t. Besides, the ones that Gibson makes now are so delightful.
Are you after a connection to a certain player or just a great guitar?
“Both. It’s often a connection to a player and a connection to the guitar. My year is ’64. Because of Mike Bloomfield, I would love to get a ’64 Tele. I have a ’64 Strat, which is what Dylan played when he went electric. But I have to say, the Blackguard is my most valuable guitar. It’s all original. For Fender, it’s the Blackguards that are the ones that are always gonna go up, you won’t lose money.”
You seem to understand how the guitar market works.
“The market is always up for Les Pauls and Blackguards. There’s some strange magic between those two. And a ’59 ES-335 is always gonna be delightful. If you have a blonde one? You’re fuckin’ loaded. That’s only gonna go up. I had a very rare Epiphone Sheraton that was blonde but I didn’t keep it. I got rid of it because playing it didn’t bring me joy. I don’t care about the money.”
So while you’re aware of the investment potential, that’s not your motivation?
“God, no, not at all to make money. When you invest, you probably won’t lose money, but my ’55 Les Paul, that’s a refret. Somebody else made that mistake. I own a ’58 Tele that I love and someone refinished it.”
So you’re not opposed to issues?
“Look, I’m not a nitpicker. If someone else refinishes or refrets, I’m the one who benefits. Because it’s still the same magical guitar. I am a collector if the instrument sounds good. Generally, guitar collectors don’t care how it sounds but to me that’s the first thing. I’m not going to buy any old guitar if it’s not a good player, a great player. For me it’s about the playing. I’m going to play them.
“Let’s say I get a great deal on a Les Paul and it’s all original, perfect shape – if it doesn’t sound good then I’ll have no interest. Sound is number-one. Number-one!”
You mainly stick to Fender and Gibson. What appeals to you about those brands?
“Fenders are tools that are instruments and Gibson are works of art that are instruments. As much as I love a Blackguard, it really could defend me in a fight. I couldn’t defend myself with a 335 but if I’m holding a Strat, you better get the fuck away from me. But as a guitar, there’s the same thing. There’s an aggressiveness with a Telecaster that you can’t get with other guitars.”
It’s an incisive sound.
“That’s why all the punk guys use them. What can’t you do with a Tele?!”
Speaking of sounds, we noticed pedals in your practice room.
“I’m experimenting with them to see what I’ll keep. The pedals I always use are a Tube Screamer and maybe a wah. I learnt that from watching Buddy Guy. He has the wah and the Tube Screamer and that’s it.”
We hear you were at NAMM this year but you used a pseudonym on your pass.
“Baron Von Hugecock! [Laughs] I used it in the Soderbergh movie Full Frontal with Julia Roberts. We were doing this thing where we were improvising our porn name – first dog and the street you grew up on. Everyone’s doing the porn name, and it comes to me and I say ‘Baron Von Hugecock’. Everyone bursts out laughing and I say, ‘What? My first dog’s name is Baron and I grew up on Hugecock Avenue’.”
Did anything at NAMM blow your mind?
“What blew my mind were the new Gibson Custom Shop models, the wall of Les Pauls, SGs, custom colours. The 335s were remarkable. I love Gibson, the people and the guitars. They contacted me on Instagram and said, “Come visit us”. I met with them and they’re some of my closest friends now. I was with JC [Curleigh] and Cesar [Gueikian] at NAMM. They refer to me as a Gibson spokesperson, the way they treat me is so kind and thoughtful. But I’m not paid by them, I just want them to succeed.
“They just started the Gibson TV thing and did an interview with me and my J-45. Cesar asked me in one of our interviews, ‘What do you want to see from Gibson?’ I said, ‘I don’t give a shit about new tuners, new bridges, I want to see respect for what you’ve done’. And that’s what I saw from the Custom Shop: they give a shit. There’s such great craftsmanship in their guitars. Beautiful instruments.
“The colours are beautiful. There’s not one colour that anyone would watch someone play and call them a tool. The bubblegum pink SG, I would play that, I thought that was the coolest. But nothing there was douchey.”
Did you see that orange Firebird?
“I saw it! Oh, beautiful! Look at the way we’re talking! This is joy, it’s joyful for me.”
Joy seems to be a recurring theme.
“Joy is huge. Love joy. Life is filled with melancholy and darkness – and happiness. When I speak at a college I ask them, ‘What do you look for?’ So many of them say I just want to be happy and I say, ‘You’re going to fail because there are so many days where you’re not happy’.
“When you’re down, you can look for joy, try to find joy in anything. Reading a book, petting your dog. In the darkest moments, that you can do.”
You make a distinction between joy and happiness.
“There is a distinction. Happiness to me is such a temporary thing that it’s whimsical whether or not it hits you. Whereas joy, I’m never going to stop enjoying my dog, I’m never going to stop enjoying my 1962 ES-335. At all times, that will bring me joy, but happiness is just so whimsical.
“I can be down and get joy from my dog, I can be down and get joy from my guitars. That’s the best part of playing. My joys are comedy, music, and photography.”
You just had a gallery opening. That must be a huge source of joy.
“It is. I will never tell anyone that anything I do is great but I will tell people when I’m proud of it. My special? Very proud. This photo show? Very proud, very proud of it. So I hope people dig it. I’m going to keep doing more.”
Do you see parallels between photography, comedy and music?
“It’s the stuff between the notes that separates the greats. What’s between the notes. In any art form that I’m performing live, I’m just present. I don’t think. Thinking gets in the way. If I’m doing a scene and I’m worried about my lines, I’m not going to be as good as when I know my lines inside and out. Same with playing the guitar. If I’m worried how a song goes, it’s not going to be as good as one that I know.”
“It’s the stuff between the notes that separates the greats”
What about when it’s a bad gig? Do you have any survival tips for musicians?
“First off, any musician should feel better about it than I would, because you play your song and people applaud, even if it’s a smattering. For a comedian, when they die, the whole room knows they’re dying. At least with musicians, they let you play your song, get your smattering, move on.
“There’s no comparison as to which is more difficult. And if you’re in a band, you’re all going through it together. When I stand up there, I’m improvising and I’m dying, there ain’t nowhere to go.
“I would go into my head and go, ‘Okay, the crowd’s not digging me, this is not practice. What do I do? What pleases me right now because I’m clearly not communicating with them?’ You have to get to a core place of like, ‘I’m going to do good work, I’m going to accomplish things, I’m not going to let the night be a waste and I’m going to bring myself joy here.’”
There’s that word again.
Joy abounds as we wrap up our interview and a grinning Garlin brings out guitar after guitar, beginning with his prized, polka-dot Buddy Guy Stratocaster. Garlin calls this his “TV guitar,” the one he plays while he’s watching a show. It also has his favourite neck shape, the soft V.
What makes this one so special to the Chicago-born comedian is that it was signed by Buddy Guy, at his Legends nightclub in the Illinois city. “They pulled it out of the box, he signed it, and do you know what he told me?” says Garlin. “He said, ‘I expect you to play it’. That hangs over me.”
Next, he shows off his recent model Gibson L-5, strung with flats and beautifully ornate. “A work of art,” says Garlin. He calls this his “bedroom guitar”. This one lives by his bed, plugged into a hand-wired Fender Champ. “I keep this in my room to play before bed, so I fall asleep with a smile on my face.”
For Garlin, this guitar is a direct connection to Wes Montgomery, who he cites as a favourite. When asked about his most-loved Montgomery tunes, Garlin hedges his bets. “The entire first album, all of it,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever turned off Montgomery.”
Garlin’s ’59 ES-330 is another bedroom guitar, and among his most cherished. He also feels that the 330 is a bit of a sleeper. “Everybody talks about Casinos because of The Beatles but the ES-330 is the most underpriced for what it is. Delightful guitars.”
The binding on this example has faded to a wonderful mellow gold, which sets off the figured sunburst top. The black pickup covers are always a sharp look, and the neck is full in the hand. In fact, the neck is the whole reason Garlin has this one. “The neck is over-sprayed,” he says. “Somebody must have thought it was too worn. But who wins? Me! It takes the price right down.”
Old Stratocasters are always breathtaking, and Garlin’s sunburst ’55 is no exception. What makes this early Strat so special is that it’s a factory hardtail instrument, a rare option for the time. Every note we audition bursts forth with an unusually warm and full character. Acoustically, this guitar is loud. Garlin describes it as “the Stratocaster version of a Telecaster”.
The wear of its honey-toned sunburst finish tells a story – one of practiced technique and a locked right arm. The edge of the maple fretboard shows the telltale tooth marks of a hard-strummed plectrum, while the body above the neck and middle pickups speaks to more acrobatic moments. The guitar has been refretted and sports 1960s pickup covers as well as two replaced tone knobs from the same era.
Two more Stratocasters feature in Garlin’s enviable collection. There’s a Custom Shop Robert Cray model, which strangely doesn’t bear his name. It’s a beautiful guitar with a highly figured neck, a ’64-style logo, the requisite hardtail bridge, and a Fiesta Red finish. At the time of writing, it happens to be for sale at Garlin’s favourite shop, Imperial Vintage Guitars.
The other Strat he trots out for us is, as he puts it, “in quite extraordinary condition”. This 1964 Stratocaster has a shockingly bright and intact finish; each band of the ’burst is vibrant and in technicolor hues. Its original pickguard has aged to that familiar shade of greenish-tan that’s so hard to replicate and, unsurprisingly, has split at the neck-pickup mounting screw due to shrinkage.
Strummed acoustically, the ’64 has a mellow response and a noticeably wide neck with very little wear. Even the Brazilian rosewood fretboard shows little in the way of divots. Garlin calls the guitar “delightful” but admits that he’s not entirely attached to it. “As much as I love this one, I’d sell it to get something I wanted more,” he says. “I’d keep this one forever if Strats prove to be my thing but I’m still discovering. I’m still learning which guitars work best for me.”
As we work through the collection, we breeze past two recent Gibsons. There’s a Murphy-aged Goldtop and a J-45 Custom, which you can see more of on YouTube in the Gibson TV series My First Gibson. Garlin picked it out at Chicago Music Exchange from a group of three, based on its sound. “It’s beautiful and sweet-sounding,” he says. “That’s good enough for me.”
His ’62 ES-335 has a special place in his heart. “There are certain ones that are personal,” says Garlin. “This was on a shelf when I was born. It’s not going anywhere.” It’s in amazing condition, retains its original PAF pickups, and boasts Garlin’s ideal neck profile. “I like the ’62 neck a lot. It was fat in ’59, in ’60 it started going down, in ’61 they’re thin, and in ’62 they came back up a little bit.”
Surely the crown jewel of Garlin’s guitar arsenal is his 1953 Fender Telecaster. As he sets it down, he’s careful in his handling of the original red-lined ‘poodle’ case, as if it houses the button of an atomic bomb.
Of course, it’s stunning, and 100 per cent original. The neck bears the signs of a vigorous player, with finish missing between the strings. The back of the neck is blackened from sweat and oxidisation, almost as if the owner changed his oil and went straight to the gig from the garage. Garlin even has photos of its original owner playing the guitar in a barn somewhere. “Blackguards are my investment collector shit,” he admits. “Family investment. If I was a pro, I’d totally refret this one and play the fuck out of it.”
Finally, Garlin’s 1955 Les Paul Custom makes an appearance, which those of you familiar with his Netflix special will recognise from its closing moments, in which a smiling Garlin, reclined on his couch, strums to the camera. The Les Paul boasts a staple pickup in the neck and a P-90 in the bridge, and is almost entirely original, save for a refret (“I win again!”).
The tuners have been replaced due to deterioration of the buttons but the originals are safely stowed away. The black finish is intricately checked, with a few spots of exposed mahogany on the edge of the body. When we point that out, Garlin cries, “Beautiful! Come on!”
The stand-up has big plans for the evening, generously hosting a party for Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram’s 21st birthday. We take one last opportunity to pet Sage – she is a very good girl – and wish him well on the imminent festivities. Shortly before leaving, we ask Garlin about his preferred string gauge and, with a wry smirk, he says, “I’m Baron Von Ten.”
Follow Jeff Garlin on Instagram: @jeffgarlin