Mimi Fox—The Reigning First Lady Of Jazz Guitar

This interview was originally published in 2010. Acclaimed for her exceptional technique and sense of melody, Mimi Fox is undoubtedly one of the very best jazz guitarists out there. Fox recently signed to Steve Vai’s Favored Nations record label and released She’s The Woman, her debut for the label, but her sixth solo album. The […]

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This interview was originally published in 2010.

Acclaimed for her exceptional technique and sense of melody, Mimi Fox is undoubtedly one of the very best jazz guitarists out there. Fox recently signed to Steve Vai’s Favored Nations record label and released She’s The Woman, her debut for the label, but her sixth solo album. The disc includes a collection of original tunes with a few standards mixed in, and has received rave reviews from all the trade magazines, as well as from her contemporaries.

Fox chatted with Guitar.com, describing her roots as a musician and explaining what led her to become a jazz artist, since her original musical interests had stretched in many varying directions. Fox also discussed the writing and recording process for She’s The Woman, and told us why old-school methods and technology seem to provide the best and most effective ways of capturing traditional jazz.

Guitar.com: Your bio mentions that you had started out playing drums. What made you switch to guitar and who were your first influences as a guitar player?

Mimi Fox: Well, I started playing drums when I was about ten. My dad had all these old 78 Dixieland jazz recordings, and when I was around seven or eight, I used to listen to them and sort of bang along on my mom’s soup pots. Finally, she got sick of me digging up her pots, and she got me a little snare drum when I was about nine. Then I started playing in the school band. When I was ten, I was very into the Monkees, and my mom got me a guitar, and I just kept on playing. But I also kept up playing drums and I still do still play drums. I have a kit that I will use when I’m composing a new piece, just to work out grooves or stuff. But I had played drums in junior high and high school jazz band. At that time, they didn’t have guitar in the jazz band – it was mostly horns, piano and drums. As a guitarist, I was pretty much playing folk music and then in the ’70s, I got into funk, and I got into Stevie Wonder, and some of that stuff, but that’s where my guitar playing was at. But I’ve always loved jazz because my mom and dad played it. It’s sort of a schizophrenic kind of way to grow up because everybody in my family had different tastes. My brother and sister were listening to Janis Joplin and the Beatles, and Motown and stuff, and I heard a lot of different things. My mom was into all the standards – Gershwin and Cole Porter, and stuff like that. So I heard a lot of different things growing up.

Guitar.com: Were you the only person in your family who actually became a musician?

Fox: Yes. My mom sang semiprofessionally up until I was about 12 or 13, and then with having a family and everything else that was going on, it just became too much for her. But she actually wrote songs and sang, and occasionally would have a job at a nightclub. But I’m the only one who stuck with it, even though everyone in my family loved music. I’m the only one that went on to become a professional musician.

Guitar.com: What was your first guitar?

Fox: It was a little classical nylon-string number that my mom got with green stamps. It had strings about 500 yards away from the fretboard. It was just something cheap and something to learn on. I was very precocious and my cousin would come over to my house and show me a few chords, and I would just learn really fast. He gave me the Beatles’ Rubber Soul album, and within two weeks, I was playing all of the guitar parts to “Norwegian Wood” and “Michelle,” and I had just taught myself this. So my cousin was kind of freaked out because basically, within a few months, he was telling my mom he can’t teach me anything anymore.

I would just come home from school and play along with records. My friends were all pissed off at me because instead of going out and playing baseball or whatever they were doing, I would just hole up in my room after school with the record player until my brother and sister would be telling my mother to tell me to shut up. I’d play until dinner, and then do the same thing – hole up in the room and just keep playing – until it was time to go to bed. I just sort of kind of fell in love with playing guitar.

Guitar.com: When did you start teaching?

Fox: I started teaching when I was about 12 because I was already good enough to teach all the neighbor kids. I knew all the songs by the Beatles, and Simon & Garfunkel, and all the tunes that people were wanting to learn. I had figured them out. I also figured that I made more money per hour by teaching than babysitting, which is what other girls in the neighborhood were doing.

Guitar.com: Did you find that teaching will often reinforce within yourself some of the techniques you’re teaching to your students?

Fox: Absolutely. I laugh now when I think of some of the things I told people. Like when someone asked, “Why is a chord minor?” I said, “A minor chord is a sad chord,” which of course, is not a bad answer if you’re 12 years old. Obviously now, I can say many things about what makes a chord minor, particularly the flat third. Of course, the level at which I’m teaching now, in colleges and universities, it’s very different. People inspire me with the questions they ask and it really makes you have to think about what you’re saying and to communicate with people in the most effective way. But I did start very young, and I think it was a good thing. If I didn’t know the answer to something, I would try to find out.

Guitar.com: After discovering the Monkees and the Beatles, which players became most influential to you as a guitarist?

Fox: I know this makes great bio material, but this is really a true story! It’s really true! I was 14 and I went into a record store and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps was on sale. I was playing drums at that time in kind of a quasi-jazz group. We were doing stuff like Herbie Hancock and Stanley Clarke, “Chameleon,” and stuff like that. There was a pretty good guitar player in the band and he told me that I had to check out John Coltrane. So I was in this record store and the album was on sale. I bought it, took it home and put it on, and that completely changed my life because, of course, it was one of the classic recordings, but it wasn’t just the amazing stuff like “Giant Steps” and “Countdown,” and just the incredible tempos and harmony, but then he had this incredible ballad on there that he wrote for his daughter, “Naima,” and it just kept literally playing it over and over again until I just wore out the grooves in record and I had to get another record. But I just kept playing it over and over again, and it just really touched me.

I thought, well, there’s jazz and there’s jazz. My mom had turned me on to all this classic stuff when I was younger, and my dad liked the real old stuff. But then here is this modern jazz. There was something about Coltrane and the emotional impact of his playing was just so powerful. That led me on to sort of a domino effect of listening to Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, and Elvin Jones. One player just led me to the next. So I did quite a beeline from listening to Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell to jazz, and then I never really looked back. However, I hadn’t really started playing jazz guitar until my early 20s. There was still a gap. I was listening to it, but for sure, there really weren’t any other women playing jazz guitar to look to at that time. I was playing drums in a jazz group. But I had sort of a schizophrenic musical life. On guitar, I had a group where we were doing Crosby, Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell, and some original stuff. And then I was in a funk band playing guitar. So I was in three or four bands playing every conceivable style of music, and it wasn’t until my early 20s, when I came out to California that I started playing jazz guitar. It was then that I met Bruce Forman and I heard him play a combination of bebop and the blues, and I thought that I had to find out what this jazz guitar thing is all about. I was really pretty bored at that time with everything else that I was playing, so I thought that I had to see what it was about. And I really haven’t looked back since then. But there was definitely a period of time where I was playing everything on drums and guitar.

Guitar.com: What was your first good guitar?

Fox: Well, my first good guitar was actually a steel-string acoustic – a Guild F30, which I still have, and it’s just a beautiful guitar. My parents got it for me at Manny’s Music in New York when I was 14, and I still use it on a lot of my recordings. It’s really roadworn and chewed up from being on the road so much when I was younger. I even had to have the back of the neck repaired because of some damage done back when I was younger and used to use a capo. It cracks me up now because I haven’t used a capo in 20 years! So I had to have it refilled and repainted on the back. So it’s been through a lot, but that was my first good guitar. When I came to California and I started getting into jazz guitar, I got an ES-175, which was like a 1975 guitar that I bought in 1980. Then I eventually got into the Heritage guitars that I play today. So it was sort of a transition that started with the Guild.

Guitar.com: When did you start playing Heritage guitars?

Fox: I started playing Heritage around 1989/1990. Some of what attracted me to the company was my own political reasons of what was going on between Heritage and Gibson. Of course, the Heritage craftsmen did work at Gibson for many years and I felt like Gibson’s guitars were declining at that point in time. I was in a music store and I happened to play a Heritage. I got a Heritage 575, which I played for many years. The Heritage people approached me when they found out that I was already playing the guitar, and asked me if there was anything else that interested me. They wanted to have me as an endorser. So then I got the Sweet 16 and a Golden Eagle, although the Sweet 16 is the one I use the most. I like it because it’s a little bit smaller-bodied, so if I have outdoor festivals where it’s more appropriate for me to stand, I’m not going to shred my shoulders. I played a Les Paul when I was younger, and I don’t have much of a left shoulder left anymore! I mean, they’re great guitars, but unless you’re Shaquille O’Neal and you weigh 300 pounds and are 7’5″, then it would be like you and I playing a ukulele.

Guitar.com: When were you introduced to the S3 guitars?

Fox: There’s a builder in Palo Alto who approached me about a year ago. He knows that when I go on the road, I either play with a group or sometimes I do solo concerts, depending on what the festival is or the guitar societies or different things, I was having to take two guitars – my Heritage and my Guild, to really do a whole show. So he said, “What if you had one guitar, and you didn’t need two?” So he built me a guitar that has a really fat, really nice acoustic feel, and it even sounds nice played acoustically. It’s a larger body with the f-holes, and he built everything to my specifications. So now when I go out and I do solo shows, I have this guitar that’s sort of a nice combination between an acoustic and an archtop hollowbody.

Guitar.com: In what ways have your guitar style and tone evolved since you started playing jazz?

Fox: I think that’s a very big question because there’s so many ways that my playing has changed. Right before I started playing jazz, I dabbled in classical guitar. I played for about two years, and that really sort of helped my tone. Obviously, it also helped my reading chops, and I think it also helped with my sense of dynamics. Someone I did an interview with recently was asking me about my dynamics. The fellow said that he noticed on my records how sometimes I would play soft and then get loud, and really vary the dynamics. I said that I think it has a very big impact on people and they don’t even realize it. And I wish more players paid more attention to dynamics. The way that you attack a tone – softly or roundly or piercingly – really affects people. All of these different things feel different to the listener. It’s like speaking, and all the inflections that we use. So obviously, there was a transition period for me of going from being basically a folksy and rootsy kind of musician – folk, blues, R&B, funk, to playing jazz. The reason that I got into playing jazz and chose that path rather than classical guitar, which I still revere and I totally love, the reason that I got into jazz was because it allowed me the freedom to really speak from my heart. It seemed like the total meshing of using my mind and my heart when I play because I’m able to take all of the harmony and scales and arpeggios and theory, and then combine it with what I feel at the moment. So if we’re playing a blues, and I’ve probably played a blues ten gazillion times, but on this particular night, maybe it will be with a certain rhythm section or we’ll take it a little slower. What’s going to come out of me? I never know. It’s really an amazing language and there’s always more to learn. I mean, there are 12 notes, but how you put them together and what you do with them is what makes all the difference in the world. So jazz is a language that I just can’t say enough about. I love it because it allows me to express what I’m feeling at any moment in time. It’s very real and very authentic, and I love it for that reason. I love that the origins go back to the blues, to classical music, and so many different influences that come to bear upon you as a jazz artist, from the people that you listen to and who they listened to. So it’s just a process of devoting yourself to a lifetime study.

Guitar.com: How has your over all musicianship evolved in terms of what you expect from yourself as a player?

Fox: Well, that’s a good question. I think you become more demanding as time goes on. Your standards become higher because you know what you’re capable of, and you know what the music deserves. Jazz is a music with a very rich both musical and cultural legacy. I feel that in order to honor that, not only do you have to keep your chops up, but you have to keep your ears open, always be listening to new things, and willing to learn new things. I listen to all kinds of music. I listen to everything that’s going on in the jazz world and beyond because I feel like it informs what I do and helps me to better express myself.

Guitar.com: What are the most essential characteristics you strive for when dialing in your guitar tone?

Fox: I’m about as straight ahead as you can get. I came from being an acoustic player, so I think that my tone is round and kind of full-bodied. The changes that I make to my tone usually come from my attack rather than effects or anything like that. If I’m in a mood where I’m feeling kind of funky, I can slap and do all that stuff, but I just do it naturally and kind of organically, and that works better for me than trying to put a whole bunch of reverb or effects on what I’m doing. So I like to interact with the guitar and make the tones that I’m hearing in my head come out, rather than mess around with a bunch of pedals or signal processors.

Guitar.com: Are there any particular players who influence your choices in the guitars that you chose and the tones you achieve?

Fox: Oh, sure. There are so many players that I really loved. Obviously, Bruce Forman was a big influence. I also loved Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, and Pat Martino, although their tones were very different, but it was the different aspects of their playing that I loved. Of course, Joe Pass for solo guitar. I just loved the sound that he got out of a gut-string guitar. There are so many incredible players. Lenny Breau was another incredible player that I really admired. He died way too young. I’m just going off the top of my head. Other than guitar players, there were many sax players who really influenced my playing. Obviously, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Johnny Griffin, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Cannonball Adderley. They’re all different, but these are people who are all immediately identifiable.

Guitar.com: Describe your songwriting process. Is there a certain creative process you’ll use for writing songs?

Fox: Yes. I think there are two different ways. One of the ways is when I might be working on some new ideas or working in a certain odd meter. A bass line will come to me, or a groove will come to me, and then I’ll just build the song from there – step by step. But a lot of times I write songs for the people that I love or the places that I’ve been and the experiences that I’ve had. On my new CD, I’ve got a piece called “Sosua,” and I wrote it about this little town in the Dominican Republic that I visited when I was on tour about four years ago. Just being in the village and hanging out with some musicians and eating the food, and taking in the smells, all that stuff affects you. I was in Asia for some extended touring two years ago and I’m still working on a piece that is called “Shinjuku Station,” one of the big train stations in Tokyo. Shinjuku station makes Grand Central in New York City look like Boise, Idaho. Then, to top it off, with half the signs being in Japanese, it’s real fun to try to get home at two o’clock in the morning from an after-hours jazz club. You just pray that you run into someone who speaks English to get you where you’re going.

I have to have a reason to want to write a song, so it’s usually an inspiration from a person or a place that I love or that touched me. When I was younger, I wrote songs with lyrics, and occasionally, I do that now, too. But I’m a real melody-based writer. I feel it’s so important to have a very strong melody. Obviously, it’s the first thing that they tell songwriters in the pop world, and it’s no less true for jazz. A beautiful melody can be harmonized many different ways. So again, I may hear a bass groove first, or lock into a certain rhythm, but then whatever I’m writing on top of it, I really try to shape a song that has a really strong and memorable melody. It may be jagged or complicated, but it still should be memorable because then you can harmonize a great melody in any number of ways.

Guitar.com: How do you document your ideas?

Fox: If I’m on the road, I always have a little tape recorder. I’ll sing the different parts into the tape recorder – that’s if I don’t have manuscript paper. But generally, I have manuscript paper, so I write stuff down. I’ll actually take the time to write in the little slurs or grace notes, so when I go back, I’ll remember how I played the part. But I will also play it over and over again so that after a while, it becomes second nature to me and part of my internal memory.

Guitar.com: Tell us about the whole experience of recording She’s The Woman.

Fox: It was a lot of fun. It’s my sixth project as a leader, and there were a lot of things that made it a wonderful project. First of all, I signed with Favored Nations. I actually went down to Los Angeles and had a meeting with Steve Vai. We just hung out and talked for quite a while. Actually, when he first called me and said they’d like to sign me, he said that this label is about selecting artists that he really feels are extraordinary, and he wanted me to have total creative freedom. I had to pinch myself to be sure I wasn’t just having a lovely dream. He basically asked about my ideas, and I had several different ones that I was shooting around. But what I came to was that I wanted to do a mixture of my original pieces, which sort of cover the gamut from burning straight ahead stuff to some ballads, blues, and then some odd-meter stuff. And then I wanted to do some solo guitar because my last recording was a solo guitar CD, and because of that, I got to play a lot of solo festivals. I felt that my solo chops were at a really peak level and I wanted to take advantage of that. I felt that doing a mixture of things for this CD was the most authentic representation of where I’m at right now in my life. So rather than try to do a theme album of all Latin or all Brazilian or all straight ahead or all solo, I wanted to do a mixture of different things that really reflect where I am right now.

Guitar.com: Did you record the tracks as a live band?

Fox: Oh, yeah. We did everything live – no overdubs, except one on “Sosua.” At the very end of the piece, there’s a little vocal restrain and I overdubbed those. So we did add that in as an overdub. That’s one of the things I love about jazz. It’s very fresh and you can make it sound fresher by bringing that same approach, like when we’re playing a jazz club or a jazz festival. I wanted to try to bring that same quality into the studio, and the only way to do that is to record live. With jazz, because it’s so much of a language where you’re speaking and communicating with the other musicians. It’s not like you can fly in a keyboard player the next day and say, “Here are the parts I played. Now you hit me back with some stuff as if you were really there.” It just doesn’t work that way with jazz. It’s not like a pop project. So everything was live, but obviously, there were some different rooms that we were in while we were recording because we had to have separation with the drums and piano. But sometimes when I did my solo guitar stuff, I just sat in the control room with the engineer. I’d just plug right into the board, and sit there and play.

Guitar.com: What was your set up for the recording?

Fox: It was pretty simple. With the S3 guitar or the Heritage Sweet 16, I went into the DI box, then right into the board. It’s the easiest way to get a clean sound, and then you don’t have to deal with feedback with archtops or any of those other problems.

Guitar.com: Did you use any effects?

Fox: No, not me.

Guitar.com: How was making this record different from your other projects? What did you learn from the experience?

Fox: Pretty much, all the recordings I’ve always done have been live. Some have been live at shows, so there’s some ambient audience noise and clapping. But one thing that I will do next time, even though it’s more expensive, is to record direct to two-track with the reel-to-reel. This album was done with Pro Tools, and I have to say that I do think that tape has a little bit warmer sound. It’s a pain in the ass schlepping these big reels around, and it’s more money, but I have to say that I can really hear the difference. And for jazz, I think that’s a better way to go, at least for me. So that’s something I would do next time – go direct to two-track, as opposed to recording in Pro Tools again. Recording to tape is more problematic, more of a hassle, and a pain in the butt, but I think it sounds warmer. I know Pro Tools is so easy because everything is computerized and you can do all these cool things, but a lot of the things that are great about Pro Tools, are things I don’t really need anyway because I’m not going to need someone to chop off a note or punch in this or that. It’s just not how jazz is done. So a lot of the benefits, other than saving the cost of tape, don’t really work to my advantage. So that’s something that I learned from this project.

Over all, it was just a lot of fun making this record. Every album you do has a different feeling, and the guys that I work with are a great group of people. And again, I can’t speak highly enough of Steve Vai for being such a big supporter of my music and for basically giving me free reign to do what I wanted. That’s pretty much unheard of. When I was with Monarch Records, I did two recordings with them, and it’s a very different process to have the record company executives in the studio with you. They look very nice in their sweaters, just standing there and trying to be quiet, but it’s a little bit nerve-wracking having them there and knowing that they’re thinking about having to get a certain amount of sales There are so many elements that go into it, but with Steve, it was kind of like, “We love your music, we want to do this, have fun, call me when it’s done.” Like I said, to me, it felt like I was dreaming. This is not the way that a record company is supposed to operate according to common knowledge, and of course, to my own experience. I think that was a big part of the reason why the project was so laid back and so much fun. All the musicians had a great time and it was just easy.

Guitar.com: How does your live rig differ from the set up you used in the studio?

Fox: Not too much. Like I said, I’m pretty simple. In a lot of the great jazz clubs, they have great sound people and they know what they’re doing, so I’ll just go into the house DI and my sound will come to me through the monitors and the house sound system. I just use the house DI. Basically, being an acoustic player, I’m not that picky. I just want a nice warm sound and it’s pretty easy to get from most DIs. So the only difference is that most guitar players use their amp as their own monitor, and it’s behind them. In my case, the monitor’s in front of me, and that’s fine. As long as I can hear myself, and hear the rest of the band, it’s cool.

I do use amps for some live gigs, like for festivals, where the DI wouldn’t be appropriate. Then I’ll either use my Fender Deluxe Reverb which I got at the same time I got the ES-175, so it was probably from around 1975, or a Roland Jazz Chorus JC-120.

Guitar.com: How are your guitars set up?

Fox: My strings are Thomastik Bebop sets, usually .012 or .013s, and I keep the action set pretty low, but not too low. I like to dig in sometimes and play with a pretty hard attack. So I’ve had to sort of balance it and I’ll adjust it slightly sometimes. But I’d say it’s pretty low action.

Guitar.com: Do you maintain a regular practice routine?

Fox: I wish I could! For nearly 15 years, I practiced six hours a day. But now, between traveling and being on the road, I just don’t have time. When I’m home, I play and practice a lot, and I also gig a lot. But I will say that in the course of a week, there will be four or five days of the week where I’ll practice at least three hours. I try to get in at least three hours, not counting my gig time. So I don’t practice as much as I used to, but I also feel that I make better use of my practice time now.

Guitar.com: What do you work on when you practice?

Fox: A lot of what I do is play and record myself, and then listen back and critique myself to make improvements and corrections. But I’m always learning new tunes or working on new ideas, and I still spend a lot of time transcribing solos. When I’m home, I teach a transcription class at the jazz school at Berkeley, and I feel that I’ve got to constantly inspire the students that I have. So I’m always working on new transcriptions and writing out things for people. Then I have to practice what I preach. When I was younger, I would take the time to transcribe a whole solo – every last little note. But now, instead of taking 20 choruses from one person’s solo, I might just get one or two, and just get the choruses that are really important.

Guitar.com: What advice can you offer to another player on developing their own sound and style?

Fox: I’d say that the most important thing is don’t get bogged down in technique. I mean, obviously, listen to the people that you really enjoy, but don’t get bogged down in technique. Instead, live your life, and your life experiences will help you become your own player. That’s what needs to happen. It’s finding your own voice, and that can only happen through living. It doesn’t happen from just copying everyone’s lick over and over again. There’s a period of time where we all sort of do that, but then you have to move on, and I think the only way to do that is just to live.

Guitar.com: What tips would you offer on becoming a better songwriter?

Fox: I’d say the best thing is to listen to all the great composers and songwriters, and learning from them – hearing how people navigate a bridge or how they’ll come back to another “A” section and change something slightly to give it a little variation. Again, I think you have to listen to the people that are really doing some wonderful stuff that you enjoy, and try to learn from them. And also, write all the time. Some people like to make writing a part of their daily practice regime. Maybe if you don’t have any great inspiration for something new and original of your own, you’ll take a standard, and you’ll re-harmonize it, put new chords to it, or take chords to a popular tune and write a new melody. That’s a common technique that a lot of people use. I don’t usually do that because I just seem to keep generating new things and I’m fortunate enough to have new experiences that inspire me to write, so I don’t need to do that. But I think that technique seems to help some people to grow.

Guitar.com: What do you listen to for enjoyment?

Fox: Just about everything! I’ll tell you what’s on my turntable right now and what’s on my CD player I’ve got Cedar Walton doing solo piano, that just happens to be on right now, and I had the Temptations on when I was doing my dishes, and I had Booker T. & The MG’s on for that same reason! Great dish washing music! Then I have a Mozart clarinet concerto, and I have the Yardbirds’ Birdland, which Steve Vai sent me. I have Joe Pass Virtuoso No. 4, a classic collection of solo guitar stuff. So that’s what I’ve had on most recently. I’m eclectic. I listen to everything.

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