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An Extra String To His BowCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Van Eps, GeorgeGeorge Van Eps is perhaps best known as the guitarist who pioneered the seven-string guitar which became his trademark, but his contribution to the art of jazz guitar was both important in itself, and one with a far reaching influence.
He grew up in a musical household. His mother played piano to a high standard, and accompanied his father, Fred Van Eps, a well-established concert banjo player. When she quit to concentrate on raising her children, her role on stage was taken by the young George Gershwin, and the famous composer and pianist became a regular guest at the Van Eps household, although George's lasting memory was of the sweets he brought with him, rather than any musical influence.
Three of his brothers also became professional musicians, but Van Eps proved to have abundant musical talent of his own. By the age of eleven he was performing professionally in New Jersey, initially in vaudeville and minstrel shows, where he played both banjo and guitar, and made his first recordings in 1927, aged fourteen.
Van Eps has described hearing the playing of guitarist Eddie Lang on the radio as a crucial formative influence in his own desire to play jazz guitar. In the late Twenties, he had the opportunity to work for a time alongside his early hero in the Smith Ballew Band.
Van Eps became a regular on the jazz and big band scene in the Thirties. His employers included band-leaders Benny Goodman, Ray Noble, Fats Waller and the Dorsey brothers, and he also played and recorded with small groups led by Adrian Rollini and Red Norvo. Much of his work, however, was done in the recording studios, firstly for radio in New York, and later in the film and recording studios of California, where he eventually settled in the late Thirties.
He had the Epiphone guitar company build his first seven-string guitar in 1938, adding an additional low 'A' string which permitted him to play extra bass lines below his chords, a development which greatly enhanced the solo possibilities of the guitar. The expanded range and richer textures of the instrument, which he referred to as his "lap piano", allowed him to make even more orchestral use of his subtle and inventive harmonic imagination.
Van Eps remained a player of great distinction, and was regarded with veneration by his fellow guitarists, but did not make as significant a reputation with the general public as he might have done had he not chosen to pursue the relative obscurity -- and security -- of the studio as his principal workplace, both as a player and as a recording engineer (he was fascinated by minature engineering as well, having studied watchmaking as a youngster).
He spent much of the ensuing decades working in that environment, but his direct influence was felt by a number of important younger practitioners of the instrument. Several of them became his pupils and adopted the seven-string guitar, including Ron Eschete, Howard Alden and Bucky Pizzarelli.
He surfaced at times to play intermittent gigs and make occasional records, including now rare and much sought after albums for Columbia and Capitol. He was off the scene for a time in the 1970s, a break brought about by illness and a hand injury. His jazz career enjoyed a late flourish in the 1990s when he made several albums for Concord Records in the company of Howard Alden, and also recorded an album with the guitarist Johnny Smith.
He continued to perform until shortly before his death from pneumonia. He is survived by his daughter, Kay Van Eps.