"i never put what i do into words" says Jeff Healey, the 22-year-old Canadian guitarist currently causing a storm with his extraordinary playing style. "It's just something that I do naturally, without analysing or thinking about it."
Considering that most of the Jeff Healey Band's material consists of straight-down-the-line rock/blues - not, let's face it, currently the most fashionable of styles - their debut album 'See The Light' has been getting plenty of airplay. But listening closely to the mixture of self-penned songs and well-chosen covers, you realise that no average picker or jaded session hack could possibly come up with guitar-playing as inspired as this.
Jeff Healey has been blind since the age of one, and continues the long line of blues musicians who prove that when it comes to music, a visual handicap is no handicap at all. "I've had the question asked of me 'How do you play when you can't see?' Even by other musicians! My question is - how do you play when you can?"
Jeff's blazing, off-the-wall lead style could be the very thing blues needs to bring it away from the backwaters. For despite sideways references to the blues in modern pop songs like Texas' 'I Don't Want A Lover', this music still suffers under the reputation of being something that's lost its old power to excite, thanks mainly to overexposure at the hands of countless pub bands.
Yet the vaguely unreal sight of Jeff Healey seated at the front of the stage, his Squier Strat held flat on his lap and all five fingers splayed across the top of the fingerboard, actually led the great B B King to shake his head in disbelief and exclaim: "I've never heard or seen anything quite like it!" And sure enough, Jeff Healey's last gig at the Marquee Club in London was a performance guaranteed to make the most hardened cynic's jaw drop wide open. How did all this start?
"I got my first guitar when I was three years old", recalls Jeff, "but I never looked upon it as a serious thing. The guitar was just something in addition to all the other things around the house, like harmonicas, little horns and toy pianos. So while music in general has always been a part of my life, I've never thought of myself as being a guitarist - more just a musician."
At the age of 11, Jeff obtained an electric guitar and started playing in groups whose styles covered the entire musical spectrum - from folk and country to jazz.
"I grew up with jazz all around me", he says, "because that's what my father listened to. My parents gave me a certain degree of encouragement, but they were never the sort to overdo it by throwing all sorts of praise around because that kind of thing never does you any real good - it just makes you start believing that you're better than you really are."
Getting out to clubs in Toronto and jumping at any chance to play with other people paid dividends when Jeff took part in a jam session with celebrated Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan.
"MY PARENTS WERE NEVER THE SORT TO THROW ALL SORTS OF PRAISE AROUND - THAT JUST MAKES YOU START BELIEVING YOU'RE BETTER THAN YOU REALLY ARE."
"Doing that jam got my name out and about in Toronto", he remembers, "and when club owners started calling me I realised that I'd better get a permanent band together!"
Everything clicked when Jeff met bass player Joe Rockman and drummer Tom Stephen, again through Toronto's jamming network. "The three of us got together and played a few things that we all knew, and it was magical. It just developed by itself and sounded well, amazing! I've never had that happen before, and it really is something when it does."
It's hard not to draw comparisons between the quality of Jeff's playing and that of certain all-time guitar greats, but he's quick to point out the dangers of hero-worship.
"I've listened to a lot of Eric Clapton around the Cream period, but I've really tried not to dwell on any one style or any one player in particular. I can remember hearing a tape of Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival when I was 13 and not being all that impressed; he seemed to be one of those people that you really had to see playing live to fully appreciate. A few years later I sat down and listened to the 'Are You Experienced?' album and I liked that quite a bit. I also started listening to blues, stuff like B B King, Buddy Guy and Elmore James, and coming from a jazz background it all made a lot of sense to me because not only is it all about improvisation, it's about feeling as well".
Today Jeff possesses a massive record collection of over 10,000 albums, mostly vintage jazz from the golden age between the 1920s and '30s. But there's a lot of blues there, too; did he ever go through a period of learning other people's solos note-for-note?
"Sitting in your bedroom playing someone else's solo does help you get the feel of the guitar neck", he comments. "And while I wouldn't recommend playing solos like that in public, it's certainly good practice. I do think, though, that guitarists shouldn't limit themselves to listening to other guitarists. Listen to keyboard players, sax players or any other instrumentalists, because by doing that you learn so much more music, and that's the way that the playing of different instruments evolves."
Is this a new guitar legend in the making? Too early to say. Probably.
Interview by Rick Batey
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