Down Home with Cal Collins  August 2008


Welcome to Jazz Guitar Hardball! This week we are putting the spotlight on Cal Collins (b.1933 - d. 2001), a relatively obscure – and under-celebrated –  jazz guitarist who has been one of my favorites for decades. Cal was well-known for his tours with Benny Goodman in the 70’s, for his combo recordings on the Concord label, and as a fixture on the Cincinnati jazz scene between the 70’s – 90’s.


In our modern era of studying jazz in the university, we run the risk of having many newer players sound quite the same in technique, in tone, in application of the traditional principles of jazz. Listen to FM jazz stations and it is often difficult to distinguish between many current jazz guitarists. Hale the likes of Cal Collins! Here is a self-taught player who learned on the street (and in his early days, on the farm!), by ear, without books, and disdained trying to read music…and the result was a unique, personal style that is instantly recognizeable to anyone who has listened to him one time. Cal was a down home guy, that liked to smoke, showed up at gigs rumpled, and overlooked the many cracks in his Gibson archtop as long as it sounded good; (he preferred the es-350 and L-7 style guitars and Gretsch archtops). He reached that goal we all strive for: an individual and highly evolved style that comes from inside, devoid of the pedantic influence of studying jazz in a formal setting.


I became aware ofCal’s lack of academic influence when I heard him speak in a clinic in the late 80’s. Cal had little academic ability to explain how he played or to discuss his application of jazz theory….and for his performance acumen this was a plus! He was not a schooled player and he stumbled over theoretic questions. His final answer to many questions often had to do with the earth-shattering revelation that he would use particular chords, lines, and ideas “if they sounded good to him”. His method of practicing involved a kind of ‘going fishing’ wherein he would substitute chords under melody notes until he found combinations that sounded good to him. One might ponder that his performance style actually benefited by a life undiluted by scholastic influence.


Cal was not voluminous in the recording studio, but what he did is of very high quality and always very swinging traditional combo jazz. His personal improvisatory vocabulary, while relying on the traditional bebop language, of which he was adept, also was heavily colored with Texas Swing and blues influences. These influences may be due to his early start (5 years old) performing Bluegrass music on the mandolin and growing up on the Indiana farm where country music was the norm. Anyone who thinks jazz players can’t bend strings should listen to Cal, whose lines are imbued with a rolling Texas country twang. Aside from well-crafted single line soloing, Cal is well known for his mastery of improvising in lines of chords in the midst of his solos. (He is featured for this technique in my book Chordal Bebop Lines, for Guitar, Volumes 1 through 3). Applying this very pianistic approach to the fretboard, Cal could be a powerful dynamo in combo settings in which there was no piano player; (Ohio Style is a CD that illustrates this role). It took an unusual mind to work out these harmonic improvisations solely by ear! The By Myself LP is a masterful work of heart-felt and unrehearsed chord melodies that raises the bar in the realm of solo jazz guitar.*



Aside from simply enjoying his music, here’s the most important lesson we can learn from the self-taught-unschooled-play-from-the-heartCal Collins: If you’re in – or entering – a college jazz program -or if you are already a serious student of jazz guitar- it is important to realize that the technical aspects of the style (scales, patterns, chords, exercises) are valuable in laying a foundation of technique, but they are of secondary importance in the development of a unique individual style!  Studying those technical aspects normally will not increase one’s intuition, ones ear-to-hand skills (being able to recreate on the guitar what is first heard in one’s head), and in general one’s capacity to hear and recreate stirring music. Like many players from that era, Cal had the added advantage of growing up in the decades which created the ‘standard’ tunes that later became jazz vehicles, so the melodies were ‘in his head’ already. The best we can hope to do in this era, is to become steeped in that music through active intentional listening. A combination of listening, performing a variety of ear training activities (such as singing intervals, singing anything we practice on the guitar, sight-singing of many kinds of songs and solos), memorizing the repertoire, singing the solos of earlier masters which we learn from the recordings, all have much more to do with the developing of a unique intuitive style. It is through developing our capacity to hear - in combination with spending years of absorbing music through intentional listening - that one can hope to evolve into a unique and intuitive player. Cal’s honest playing-from-the-guts style reminds us that it’s so.

*Many of his best recordings are out of print but can still be found on vinyl:  Cincinnati to L.A.(Concord Jazz), In San Francisco (Concord Jazz), Blues on My Mind (Concord Jazz), By Myself (Concord Jazz), Cross Country (Concord Jazz), Crack'd Rib (Mo Pro). On CD although possibly out of print: Ohio Style (Concord Jazz)


For a very good interview with Cal:


Click here for the published version of this article in Premier Guitar Magazine:
Cal Collins
Cal Collins
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