Vintage Guitar - June 2018 - open - 33
Phil deGruy: Bob Barry.
hil deGruy is the rare jazz artist who's
also a bona fide entertainer - and a funny
one, at that. His flashy, inventive playing is
complemented by amusing asides and lyric
parody. In fact, his observations on modern life
could qualify for any stand-up comedy stage.
His unorthodox instruments attract the
musicians in every crowd, but his overall mojo is
the result of years entertaining at the grassroots
level. Based in New Orleans, deGruy's search
for career nirvana included stops in Los Angeles
and Nashville. Moreover, he studied with Ted
Greene and Lenny Breau, the latter of whom
once insisted deGruy (pronounced "degree")
give an ad hoc performance for Chet Atkins.
"I was living in L.A. when I heard Lenny
was teaching in Nashville," said deGruy. "So
I made the drive. We hung out for about week,
and I studied with him. Unfortunately, that
was a dark time for him because he was a serious abuser. But, four years later I was going
through Nashville again and heard Lenny was
in town. We got together and played, then he
said, 'Chet's got to hear you.' And while we
were at Chet's place, Les Paul called. So I was
immersed in all that."
Even though his abilities can surprise all
except regular fans, deGruy is modest enough
to know he's onstage to entertain. He's perhaps
New Orleans' best-kept entertainment secret.
In addition to stage presence, he discloses
chops nurtured by Ted and Lenny, both integral parts of his backstory. And of course there
were thousands of hours in the woodshed.
deGruy can hold his own with anyone
from Tommy Emmanuel to Pat Metheny,
but it's not his style to challenge all comers.
He's an affable, astute guy who Greene said,
"has chops for days." And he presents a show
that furthers his stature as one of today's few
true bon vivant players - one who'll grab the
attention of any musician within a hundred
city blocks. His work is steeped in tradition,
but edges the needle toward the red.
deGruy believes talent develops more naturally when it's nurtured early, preferably from
a musical family.
"I was 11 when I was forbidden to play our
family's guitar," he laughs, remembering
how his older brothers eventually tired of the
instrument while he quickly grew to love the
attention gained by playing it at school. "The
Beatles and Clapton were the match, Chet was
the fuse, and Lenny was the bomb."
Many of today's prominent players profess
amazement and admiration for deGruy's magic.
His under-the-radar brilliance has impressed
many heavies who've invited him to share the
bill at their concerts. For instance, he recently
contacted Steve Vai with a guest-list request
for the rocker's New Orleans concert. Instead,
deGruy found himself opening the show and
enjoying a killer jam at the sound check.
"Phil sounds like John Coltrane meets Mel
Brooks at a party for Salvador Dali," Vai told
photographer Bob Barry in his new book, John
Pisano's Guitar Night, which documents two
decades at the annual event considered a rite
of passage for those in the Los Angeles jazzguitar community.
He's also shared bills with Andy Summers,
Todd Rundgren, Stanley Jordan, Michael
Hedges, Eric Johnson, Steps Ahead, Tuck and
Patti, and Charlie Hunter, who turned deGruy
on to using a fanned-fret instrument.
deGruy's guitars are obviously unique and
he went through a series of seven-stringed
instruments. His first was from New Orleans
guitar maker Jimmy Foster, but now he plays
one made by Ralph Novak, inventor of the
"Ralph really created the ergonomics I
needed," he said. "I have a longer bass string,
yet a shorter treble string because of the high
A that I need to tune up to pitch. I've also incorporated complementary strings in various
intervals from Ab to Ab where the pickguard
would normally be.
"It's what Pythagoras would build if he were
alive," deGruy laughs.
In addition, deGruy played Pierre Bensusan's
guitar festival in France, where he was featured
along with Tommy Emmanuel. deGruy also
modestly mentions a phone call from Steely
Dan a few years back, expressing interest in
auditioning him, but "...I just couldn't go back
to the six-string," he said.
The Becker/Fagen connection is hardly
superficial; Jay Graydon, who created the
solo for Steely Dan's hit "Peg," is producing
deGruy's next album.
Other extraordinary names in deGruy's
life include Emily Remler and Larry Coryell.
Both are now sadly gone, but Coryell, who
loved unconventional talent, was enamored
enough to hang out whenever possible and
invite deGruy to sit in at a performance in
When someone approaches deGruy to express awe in his ability, his stock response is,
"Don't confuse talent with someone who has
a lot of time on his hands!" - Jim Carlton