Spotlight: Teddy Kumpel

Most loopers who do time based loops tend to work alone. If they use bass and drums as part of their act, they layer the instruments themselves. Rarer are loop-based performers who work with a live bassist and drummer. Teddy Kumpel  has perfected the art of looping with a rhythm section through his steady gig at the Rockwood Music Hall in New York City. It helps that his locale offers him a menu of the best rhythm sections in the world to work with. Kumpel was kind enough to explain how he keeps the sections in sync, before leaving on tour as guitarist for Joe Jackson.

What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?

I don’t remember when I became proficient; it was so gradual and slow. Today everything happens so fast; people probably get better way faster than I did.

I started at three or four years old on baritone ukulele—as soon as I could pick something up with my hands. The guitar has always been there; it’s my oldest friend, part of the family, part of my soul. My mom is a very good classical pianist and church organist, so there was always music in the house. My dad was a mathematician and I think I got some of his science genes. He got me to tinker with electronic noisemaker kits from Radio Shack, so there were weird noises going on early.

In Third Grade, I tried all the band instruments and settled on saxophone. I never got very good at it but it got me reading, and understanding music from a different perspective; that kind of blending in an ensemble is an important skill most guitar players never get to experience.

When I was 12, I started a rock band with my friends in the neighborhood. We played everything: the Eagles, the Stones, Hendrix, Rush, Southern Rock, etc. We even wrote our own songs.

I started taking guitar lessons with a guy named Carl who decided he wasn’t good enough to teach me and referred me to his cousin, Richard Rabatin. Richard was a composition major at Berklee and knew so much. I was very lucky to meet him because he set the tone for many aspects of my musical understanding. He taught me finger picking through Fleetwood Mac and Elizabeth Cotton. He taught me the blues through BB King. He taught me soul-jazz through Kenny Burrell.

He opened the magical pathway of “New York Super Jazz,” as I like to call it: Dave Liebman, John Scofield, and Richie Beirach. These guys and the records they were making in the late ’70s were so adventurous harmonically. Richard’s excitement transferred to me. Atonal ear training, modes, scales, chords of all shapes and sizes, and transcribing all started to make sense and come together for me. When I got into the All-State Jazz Band my junior year in high school, I realized the hard work had paid off and I was actually proficient. That would change in college; being surrounded by other people who played the guitar better than me was a huge kick in the ass.

At University of Miami I roomed with Andy Timmons. He is so gifted. We became great friends. There were so many amazing players there who taught me more than some of the teachers just by osmosis. It was a really great place to be in the ’80s. I learned a lot from Ron Miller, Whit Sidener and Gary Lindsay. I got tapped to be in the top big band, the CJB, and we played with all kinds of great people, like Toots Thielmans, Will Lee, Paquito DiRivera, and Bob Mintzer.

Also, there were tons of top 40 gigs in Miami, so I did six sets a night, six nights a week for years. It was a great way to build stamina and put in hours with the “fiddle” on your back. The whole time I was there I was messing around with effects and developing some techniques I still use.

I took a year off to study with the great Steve Khan in NYC and go on tour with a band called Rare Silk. We opened for Miles Davis at the Jacksonville Jazz Fest in 1986. This was in the middle of college.

Many of the people I still work with today are from that time in the University Music program. The lesson is: be nice to everyone, because at some point you will work for him or her. I still play on a lot of movies with my good friend Alex Wurman, a film composer whom I met at UM.

Whose music inspires you? Past and Present.

I like the iconoclasts like Zappa, Miles, Prince, Hendrix, Herbie, Sly, Bootsy, Trane, Spike Jones, James Brown, The Beatles, Nirvana, and Weezer. Guitar-wise it would be Adrian Belew, Jeff Beck, Scofield, Frisell, and Metheny in the early years, and Jaco (who I think was one of the best guitar players ever). On the country side it would be Jerry Byrd, Buddy Emmons, Danny Gatton. Other influences would be Leonard Bernstein, Bach, Mahalia Jackson, Sarah Vaughn, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, and Rickie Lee Jones. I like a lot of things.

What led you to looping?

I’ve been looping since way back when I first had a delay pedal that could freeze the note or phrase—I think it was a Digitech in the early ’90s.

I tried to start a band in the mid 2000s with other guitar players, where one guitarist would play James Brown like rhythm while the other guy soloed. I couldn’t find anyone who would be happy doing the same thing over and over, so I got a looping pedal. That was when the Boss RC-50 came out and it had everything I needed at the time. It took a lot of experimenting to find the best way to loop with a band.

How did you get better at your current style? Especially, how did you get so good at rhythmic loops?

I subscribe to what Dave Liebman says. You start as an imitator, imitating your heroes. Some people only do that. Some people graduate to stylist. They find a voice on the instrument that is unique and recognizable and develop that. Rarely, an innovator comes along and invents new ways of playing the instrument. I think of Alan Holdsworth, Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Michael Hedges in that category.

I’m not an innovator by any means. I started out imitating my heroes. Through absorbing a lot of different kinds of music my playing naturally graduated into something I can call mine. It all meshes together and turns into something—at least that was my process. I think your sound grows as you grow as a person. I know a lot of people who are way more deliberate about it. I’ve always been a working musician looking to put food on the table, so it never occurred to me to pick something I wanted to be and do that; I thought I had to be good at most everything.

Rhythmically (and thank you for saying that, i really appreciate it), I practiced a lot with a metronome in the ’80s. Someone told me in college that my time was bad. One summer between my freshman and sophomore years I spent eight hours every day with the metronome learning to make it feel good, learning to love it, playing behind, playing ahead, gaining that control where you can be free but never lose the beat. I also spent a lot of time playing along with James Brown records, so when loopers came into the picture I had a handle on what I wanted to do with them rhythmically. I also love ambient looping and do a lot of it, but my music is funk oriented, so the ambient aspect is often overlooked. I like to use one looper locked to a click and one totally free for ambient stuff.

How do you ensure bassists and drummers stay locked with your loops?

I send a click to the drummer and to myself, while bassists get nothing. Sometimes bass players want the click too. I never like it when they get it. I don’t know why—it fucks everything up.

There’s a real art to playing with a click and making it feel good. Some drummers are just really great at it—others not so much.

Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?

I exclusively use semi-hollow and hollow guitars. I have some solid bodies; I just don’t like them as much. Right now I’m using a Fret King Elise. I just got it and I really love it.

I use the new Supro Amps. I have three Tremo-Verbs. I run two for loops—not in stereo but in dual mono. I don’t like stereo effects; that seems too electronic to me. I like left/right mono loops.

I have a separate amp for lead guitar in the middle. I use a custom Ernie Ball pan pedal, modded so the switch (I forgot what it used to do) is now an A/B switch. When it’s on A the guitar goes out the stereo outs into the looper and I can pan between the inputs. When it’s on B the guitar goes to the lead amp and the pan pedal does nothing. I used to use an A/B switch to do it, but I like the pan pedal idea better because it takes up less room.

In front of the pan pedal I have a board with all my noisemakers. Sometimes I call that the “soundboard” because it makes sounds— what else would I call it?

On that board, the guitar goes into a Montreal Assembly Count To Five delay/sampler, to a an EHX SuperEgo, into one side of the Eventide H9, then into an EHX Pitch Fork, finally to the Boss ES-8 switching system.

In the loops of the Boss ES-8 I have mostly dirt pedals: Keeley Compressor, Pigtronix Philosopher’s Rock, Z-vex Fuzz factory, ’80s Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Octave Fuzz, Creation Audio Labs Holy Fire 48, Wright Sounds Fuzzstang, Pigtronix Quantum, and a Rockett Archer Ikon.

From the ES-8 the signal goes into the other side of the Eventide H9, then a Line 6 M9 and the pan pedal. From the pan pedal I go straight into the Pigtronix Infinity Looper in stereo, which has mute switches for left and right so I can mute a whole side. The effects after that in the chain that change daily: it might be an H9, a Pigtronix Echolution 2, or a Line 6 M5. I use a Keith McMillen Soft Step to send MIDI to the Infinity Looper to control its reverse and pitch settings for some more fun.

I use the Boss ES-8 to send midi commands to the H9 and M9. I can use it as an on the fly rig—choosing individual pedals, or a preset heavy rig for gigs that require that. There’s also a custom MIDI expression pedal that works magic on the M9 made by Disaster Area Designs. Don’t ask them to make you one. They won’t do it. I got lucky.

[More about Teddy’s gear w/pix here]

Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?

I have to pick? They’re both necessary and enjoyable!

Recording is fun because it so microcosmic. Performing is fun because it’s so macrocosmic. I can’t imagine one without the other.

How have you built up an audience for your music?

Just by playing a lot. I think having superstar sidemen on the gig has helped me gain much more of an audience than I would have otherwise.

With whom would you like to collaborate and why?

I like to collaborate with guitar players. I think that is a lost art. I put out a bunch of jams with some of my favorite guitar players, called Brooklyn Supersonic Duos, on Bandcamp. http://teddyjam.bandcamp.com/. There is also a song recording called The Man that is by my alter ego, Teddy But, with rock band songs on it. There’s a spoken word improv record by The Ongoing Wow called 7.12.99, which is a band with the great Timothy Speed Levitch and Jeremy Pollet and Marty Beller, the drummer for They Might Be Giants. Timothy is a genius wordsmith. It was completely improvised and it’s a band that listens really well. I played baritone guitar on it.

Anyway, back to the question: I would love to do something with Adrian Belew, or Gerry Leonard, he’s really great. I love David Torn. Basically, I want to work with any guitar player that played with Bowie, I guess that means I would love to play with Bowie. I would love to play with Tom Waits one day. Jan Garbarek would be fun to play with; his ECM albums with Frisell are some of the biggest influences on me. I would love to work with Prince, although I bet it wouldn’t be fun—but I would love to be a fly on the wall.

I’ve already worked with NIN, Rickie Lee Jones, and Tower of Power, so I can cross them off the list.

What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?

The latest project is touring with Joe Jackson, which will be ongoing for the next year. I’ve always loved Joe’s music so it’s a real treat for me to get to do that. He makes full use of my effects approach too—it’s always nice to get called to be yourself on a gig.

I just put out a LOOPestra record through cdbaby. It was recorded live in the studio and is a good sounding representation of what I do at Rockwood Music Hall at midnight on Mondays. It was recorded mixed and mastered by Grammy award winning producer Bob Stander. He did a bang up job. It features some of my favorite musician Shawn Pelton, Andy Hess, Tony Scherr, Josh Dion, Tony Mason and Clark Gayton.

Here is Kumpel creating string sounds with the the reverb of the Eventide H9

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2 thoughts on “Spotlight: Teddy Kumpel

  1. Very curious to know with what M. Kumpel is sending the audio “click”;
    I saw a tempode pedal n the picture, but this item doen’t send any audio click…
    Help !!!

    Cheers
    Gilles

    • This from Teddy: “Well, there are looper’s with built in guide tracks like the Boss RC300. Right now I use a Molten Voltage Tempode to send midi clock to everything and a Boss DB90 to generate the click sound. It’s ok. Not as tight as the Boss. I’m constantly looking for ways to make it better.”

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