Ben Monder has been a New York based guitarist for over 35 years, and has played with such varied artists as Paul Motian, David Bowie, Lee Konitz, Jandek, Jack McDuff and Maria Schneider. He has appeared on over 200 recordings as a sideman and to this date has released 7 albums as a leader. His music is the result of a lifetime of assimilating a variety of influences and exploring the harmonic, technical, and textural possibilities of the guitar.
Ben is also a longtime associate of Audeze impresario David Breskin. Here's our conversation with Ben:
Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?
Hydra and Oceana are probably the ones I feel best about.
How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on?
As a sideman, which has been most of my professional work, my role is to find the balance between helping the leader manifest his or her vision and maintaining my own identity. I don’t think any leader wants anyone to sacrifice that. As a leader my responsibility is to get as close to the ideal of each project as I can. This often means (at least in my case) taking a sometimes inordinately long time bringing a piece to fruition. Also finding the right team (other instrumentalists, engineer, producer etc.) and making sure the music is adequately prepared.
How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?
My first exposure to music was my father’s classical music collection, but what really excited me as a little kid was The Monkees, who I would see on their TV show. Also, we had Abbey Road and some other Beatles albums, which I would listen to repeatedly. This was my first memory of the experience of really being blown away by something, like not being able to fathom how humans could create something so great. This is an important feeling to keep and continually reignite, I think. Around the same time (age 7 or so?) I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey (Audeze's naming inspiration!) and became enamored of the score, particularly the Ligeti, so that became another early imprint. After a teenage detour that included Kiss and some progressive rock, I accidentally stumbled upon jazz when I decided to get a guitar teacher, who happened to be a jazz guitarist. For a while I listened to and played jazz exclusively as a way of immersing myself in the language, but pretty soon started allowing all the other influences back in. As a listener I still split my time pretty evenly between jazz, metal, and contemporary classical music.
Anyway, I started on violin at a young age but switched to guitar when I found one in my parents’ closet that no one was using, and realized it was both less painful to play and that I could play music I actually liked on it. I may even have continued on violin as well but when my teacher discovered my infidelity he fired me in a fit of jealous rage. By the way, I recently unearthed a tape of myself playing violin at age 10 or so and it was pretty awful. No natural talent.
Can you name any factors you feel majorly influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?
Some pivotal moments: Hearing “A Love Supreme” for the first time, in high school. Listening to Jim Hall, especially “Live!” and “Alone Together”. Listening to Paul Motian’s “It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago” (with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano of course!) on endless loop as I criss-crossed the country in Jack McDuff’s truck in the winter of 1987. Hearing Bartok’s Concerto For Orchestra on mushrooms. Seeing Joe Henderson at the Village Vanguard and feeling the room levitate. Walking into my first guitar lesson with John Stowell and seeing him play chords that I never could have conceived of with my tiny adolescent brain. Seeing Lorn Leber at Berklee in the summer of 1978, redefining what I thought the guitar was capable of with his insane lines and full, woody tone.
I also had a couple of great early teachers, among them the guitarist Chuck Wayne and the composer Irwin Stahl, who advocated for a kind of musical purity and did not tolerate BS, or “note spinning” as he called it.
Another important memory is when I took an elementary theory course in high school and they had us write some rudimentary four part chorales. The first time I heard the teacher play what I had written (an entirely formulaic progression, of course) on the piano felt like magic.
Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?
I meet and have met frustration on a regular basis, as I always seem to try to do just a little more than I am qualified for. To overcome it requires patience, tenacity, and faith that an answer will be forthcoming. The most persistent obstacles these days seem to be physical limitations. I used to be able to practice my way through most things, but that’s not always the case anymore, as my body seems to be pretty adamant about what it will and won’t do. Another continual source of frustration is my seeming inability to perform my own music up to my standards. Or anyone’s standards, probably.
On a different note, I remember sending my first demo tape to approximately 70 labels in the hopes of getting a deal and meeting with either rejection (1/3) or silence (2/3) in every case. So that was frustrating. I don’t remember how I got my first contract with Songlines Recordings, but thanks Tony Reif!
Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?
I’ve played the same guitar (an Ibanez AS-50) for 37 years, so that’s a constant. I also have a 1936 Martin O-18 that I love, mostly for recording (and strumming around the campfire). My pedal setup is relatively simple and includes a Keeley-modded RAT and an Audio Upgrades-modded Lexicon LXP-1 reverb. I also have a few old Fender amps, of which my favorites are a Concert and a blackface Deluxe amp.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?
Work hard and don’t compromise. Make sure you really love something before releasing it into the world. You have a responsibility not to contribute to noise pollution! This is subjective of course, but do your best… Also, keep a low overhead so you can spend as many hours on your craft as necessary.
This may sound paradoxical, but I also tried to be as stylistically versatile as possible so I could fit into most musical situations. This helped professionally, as I always preferred to make money with the guitar than without it. As you get older you will have the option of defining yourself more clearly and hopefully be able to be more discerning about what work to take. But starting out I felt I could learn something valuable from just about any gig. Anyway, I don’t know if those are words of wisdom but that’s all I got.
Do you have any stories to share about your work with David Bowie on Blackstar? What was that experience like?
As a fan from the age of about 12, it was pretty surreal to have been part of this record. Definitely one of the top weeks of my life (I joined for just one out of the three weeks they recorded), and I’m very grateful to Donny McCaslin for having invited me! David and Tony were open to everyone’s input, so the environment was very relaxed and conducive to creativity, and of course Donny and his band are some of the best musicians in the world. As for David himself, he was super nice and supportive, and extremely funny. I hadn’t a clue at the time that this would be his last record.
One thing I appreciated was that as far as I remember, he was in the live room with us while we were tracking, singing his part. I think this really helped the vitality of the performances. Another thing I remember is I had a really noisy pedal chain for some reason on the day I came in to do overdubs, which was the source of some consternation. But they actually ended up finding a creative use for it, as you can hear at the very end of “Sue.” I thought that was kind of amusing when I finally heard the finished product.
How have your Audeze headphones affected your work?
I had high expectations in anticipation of receiving these headphones, but they were completely blown away upon hearing the first note. I don’t want to take them off. I’m hearing dimensions in the music I didn’t know existed; a level of clarity and warmth I’ve never experienced. I will be doing a ton more listening in the time to come, which is an activity I’ve let slide of late and have missed. I also have a solo guitar recording coming up which these will certainly accompany me to. Thank you for the experience!