Oud Master John Bilezikjian (1948-2015)

Some of the most profound FJ moments come when two world class musicians sit down for us and talk at length, with no journalists in sight. David Lindley’s 2010 interview with oud master John Bilezikjian for our nineteenth issue is one such interview. For several hours, these two fretted instrument visionaries swapped stories, talked instruments and, of course, played music. Sadly, Bilezikjian passed away on January 19, 2015 after a long struggle with kidney disease. We decided to repost the interview from that issue here in its entirety. Huge thanks to Lindley for suggesting we cover Bilezikjian and to Gary Newkirk for taking the photos. -Jason Verlinde

Johnny B. Oud: The mastery of John Bilezikjian

By David Lindley

I first heard about John Bilezikjian in the mid-‘60s, mostly from people who had seen and heard him play. And what they said was usually accompanied by words like “scary” or “cosmic,” or by a raising of both eyebrows–in fear, amazement or both. He was known for being an incredible technician and a soulful player, but what intrigued me the most was his adventurousness. For example, he would do things such as variations on “Louie, Louie”; to be exact, it would be a taxim on “Louie, Louie,” a taxim being a serious classical form in Middle Eastern music. For me, it was the beginning of the legend of Johnny B. Oud.

When I finally met John and saw him play, I was in no way prepared for what happened. The style of oud that John uses is not an easy instrument to play, let alone master, having no frets and a relatively short neck. Its 11 stings are arranged into six courses, five double strings and one single string on the bottom, tuned, from lowest to highest, EABEAD.

To get “that sound,” it is necessary to use the traditional plectrum, which is most often made of semi-soft/hard nylon or Teflon a quarter of an inch wide, five or six inches long, tapered and rounded at both ends. They used to use an eagle feather, and some players used to use ibex/sheep/goat horn thinned way down, about like a Fender Thin. It is held, very gently, in the right hand with the little and ring fingers and fine-tuned by the thumb and index finger. No other stringed instrument I know of is as sensitive to what the pick is made of or how and where it is applied.

John has refined this approach as far as it can be refined. He plays very softly, it appears, but the sound that comes from the instrument is huge. How he does this we’re not sure. This alone is scary enough. But when you see him play five-finger (thumb included), closed chords up on the body of the instrument, perfectly in tune, that’s when the real fear begins–fear of the work that will be involved to get to that point.

As I watched him play, I just sat there and smiled, closed my eyes and shook my head. “He who plays what can’t be played” is the term that came to mind. And it’s not smoke and mirrors, it’s from hard work; it’s the real kung fu. Those of us Kind of Cans or Would Like Tos see and hear him play and go home and practice. And this is the mark of a great teacher: someone who is able to inspire, not intimidate, someone who can change the air in the room. As Jeff Goldblum’s girlfriend said in The Fly, “Be afraid… be very afraid!”

The Beginning

David Lindley: How old were you when you first started playing?

John Bilezikjian: My earliest recollection was at 4 years of age. There was a community children’s orchestra that my mother and father were supporting. This was in Los Angeles, at Victoria Avenue and Venice, where we used to live. At a very early age, like, 2 years old, I was moving to beats, rhythms and the old Packard Bell phonograph 78 recordings of the folk music of our people, Armenian-Turkish music. I would sway to the music.

I showed some sort of interest in music, so my mother told this man–he was the director of this little community orchestra, and this little orchestra consisted of ukulele players, guitar players, drummers, and they were all children, and we would play for hospitals, for patients. This man would take us, with the parents driving us to the various hospitals in the area, and us kids would play for patients, trying to cheer them up.

So the director gave me a ukulele, and it was a little brown thing, I remember, and he said, “My dog has fleas,” and I, of course, never knew what that meant at all. And I never read music, but they would teach us by rote. They would have each child imitate what they’re told to play by the director. I showed a very high aptitude, so I first became a ukulelist, and that lasted for about a year.

DL: At 4 years old?

JB: So, in the course of this time, I was hearing my father play violin–classical violin. I said, “You know, Mom, I want to play like Daddy. I want to play that violin.” The next day, I had a violin in my hand. It cost my dad $75, and I started being taught by my father, classical music. My father was very old country, and so was my mother, but my dad did not play Middle Eastern music on the violin.

DL: He didn’t?

JB: He was very staunch Jascha Heifetz school. I consider Heifetz my mentor, and my father my teacher. And I wanted to play like Daddy, so my father started me on scales. By the time I was 10, I was playing Paganini; I was playing the 24 caprices. They had called me a child prodigy, and I was on my way to becoming what I had hoped one day would be a second Heifetz, if you will.

Like, I was arrogant enough to think that anyone could be a Heifetz, because I studied him and my father. My dad would wrap me up in blankets and take me to the Hollywood Bowl. My dad would take me to the Wilshire Ebell Theater, where we lived just a mile away, and we would watch Heifetz on Saturday.

This brings us up to about 1958; I’m 10. And during that time, my mother and father had a beautiful, big home in Los Angeles. And we would always have house parties with our family over, always on Sunday after church. We would go to St. James Armenian Church on Arlington, near Crenshaw, that was our church. . . . By definition, to be Armenian you have to be Christian, so my mother and father were very religious and taught my brother and I and my sister the teachings of God. Every Sunday, we would have Sunday school, and we would go to church.

So I studied and studied, and we’d have these house parties, and my grandfather was an amateur oud player. Mom brought my grandpa’s oud down to me, and he never saw it again, ‘cause I took it and started imitating what I thought I heard, the same way with the ukulele. And in some respects, although my father taught me how to read, obviously, for violin, a lot of it was hearing the pitch, because there’s no frets; a non-fretted instrument wasn’t a chore for me.

DL: Because of the violin?

JB: It was simple. As a matter of fact, the ukulele was a hassle. It hurt my finger, because of the metal frets. Without the frets, God, I could go up and down. The oud had no frets, so it felt wonderful, and I could hear the pitch. Thank God I was gifted with having a good ear.

That period went on for probably two or three years, living at home and imitating those songs and those rhythms and the music that I would hear. Then I started a band, the Halehs; I was 11 years old. It was me and Michael Tolegian–I played oud and violin, and Michael played doumbek. This is 1959. We won first place in a talent contest, and that went on. At the time, the Armenian bands had five guys, so we couldn’t go without having five guys, too, as a bunch of kids.

DL: Clarinet, too?

JB: That’s what evolved. Eventually, we needed a clarinet player. We recruited my brother, Eddy. See, he was two years younger than I. We all wanted to play like the big guys, you know? We were a bunch of little kids. We couldn’t even drive; our parents had to take us to the jobs. That’s when I bought, in ’59, my first Tweed: a Fender Tweed Deluxe amp, with the two inputs. We got it for $50 from Studio City Music. I put a DeArmond pickup on the oud, a ukulele 750-C pickup. . . .

I was very disciplined. I wanted it–like I told you, the sponge, the water on the table–I yearned for it. My mother never said, “Johnny, go practice,” like the adage where your mother says, “You gotta go practice your piano now.” My mom would say, “Johnny, your fingers are bleeding. Don’t you think maybe you should stop for a while?” Not the other way around!

Studio Scene

DL: When were you starting to do sessions?

JB: So the story about the sessions started this way: I finished school, I got my B.A., I said to myself, “I’m going to call Paramount Studios, and I’m going to ask if I can come down and audition with my oud.”

I brought Middle Eastern compositions, symphonic work that I’d written down, songs, all in notation. I’m not going to say, “Hey, buddy, come and listen to me.” I didn’t do that. I came across as very legitimate, because I knew I had to. I put on a suit.

DL: How old were you?

JB: In 1970, I was 20–still a kid. I had my oud, I walked into the office, secretary says, “Sit down for a minute.” They beeped me in, and there’s Leith Stevens and Julian Davidson sitting side by side, having an apple.

DL: Really?

JB: Yeah. “Young man, what can we do for you?” I said, “My name is John Bilezikjian, and I’m here on my own; no one told me to come. I’m here to ask if you might be interested in hearing something that I think is unusual, and I’d like to show you my writing. I’d like to become a film composer and a background recording-session player. This is what I’ve studied to be. I play many instruments, am a classical violinist, but my love is this oud. And it’s unique and it’s very unusual, and I think it might be of interest to you.”

DL: Yeah!

JB: He said, “Well, let’s have a look at this.” So I sat down, I played “Malagueña” and then I played a taxim. I got halfway through the taxim; he says, “Hold on. You ever heard of Lalo Schifrin?” I said, “No.” “We’re piloting a new television series called Mission: Impossible. I think what you have to offer him would be of value to him. Would you like to meet him and maybe see if he’s interested in you?”

“Please,” I said, hoping that, of course, it would happen. I had no bitterness from years of knowing this business, where people make promises, and it’s idle promises. So I had that belief–the innocence–that I was going to be called. Lo and behold, the next week I was called by Leith Stevens’ office and I was asked to go see Lalo Schifrin at his home in Beverly Hills. I took my oud, and he showed me this thing–buh, dah, dum, bum, bum, dah, dah–he wrote it on the piano. He said, “What can you do with this, young man? Mr. Stevens told me that maybe you have some ideas.”

DL: What can you do with this?

JB: So I started playing, you know, reading his chart and then adding my “jalapeños,” I call them, my little things. I said, “You know where it goes to the four–dum, bum, bah, dah, dum, dum, duh, duh–to the D?” I said, “Maybe put a little oud in there where it goes into the D, because that minor modal sound might have a little different impact.” The TV then, well, that was a brand new idea, 5/4; this is something new. And the sound of this thing–he became very interested. So I gave him these ideas; I even wrote out a few ideas, stupidly.

“You know what? I’m going to give you BMI credit,” he said. “What is that?” I said. I didn’t belong to BMI yet. “Well, that’s a broadcast music company that monitors original work, so that you’ll get residuals down the road. Would you like that?” I said, “Of course I would, sir.”

DL: Yes, sir, right away, sir.

JB: Absolutely! He promised me however many points–and I can’t remember exactly how many–but he promised me recording rights for these little motifs that I gave him. Never got a penny.

DL: You didn’t?

JB: Never even put my name on anything.

So, anyway, the following week I get called to come and record–100-piece orchestra, Paramount Studio A. I was not out of school. I was with my wife, and I came in and sat down, and he had written out an oud part. I told him to write treble clef–it sounds an octave lower, write it out like a violin line.

“But let me do the embellishment the way that I feel, because it is an oral tradition, Mr. Schifrin,” I said. “You have to let the player improvise. Not that you should write out all the embellishments, it would be ludicrous to do that.” I said, “You just write out a simple line–duh, dah, dah, duh. You let me go dun, duh, duh, dah, yah, dah, duh.” He followed that line of thinking. He writes me out.

I said, “Give the orchestra a concert A, OK; for transposing my instrument for the strings, put the cello down an octave lower.” I told him what notes to write, because I was in school–I could write symphonic music–but I didn’t want to appear to be too bold with this very famous person.

DL: Wow!

JB: So I was trying to be cool, but he was asking me. I felt because he didn’t know my instrument, I would help out. Anyway, the whole orchestra held out this concert A, and it was a church steeple that was being moved on the visual. I played this top C; I blew everybody away. When he finally finished, it was a two-minute top C I played, with the whole orchestra holding out this–dah–this concert A.

Tommy Tedesco’s in the booth next to me; I never had met him before. The whole orchestra stopped, Schifrin goes, “Huh.” Everybody starts standing up clapping for me, ‘cause here I am 20 years old . . .

DL: Yeah, 20 years old, my God!

JB: . . . playing this thing that nobody had heard. “What is an oud? What is this?” Even though Tommy was playing oud. “This don’t sound like Tommy Tedesco’s oud.”

DL: No, of course it doesn’t.

JB: So Tommy came over to me, introduced himself. Dennis Budimir, Emil Richards came over, Larry Bunker, Kenny Watson, Chuck Domanico. That’s when Tommy and I met. There was the coffee break where you’d go and get donuts, you know, at the corner.

DL: The coffee in the Styrofoam cups with the creamer in it?

JB: That’s right, exactly.

DL: Studio coffee.

JB: Everybody was getting theirs, so Tommy took me under his wing and told me the ins and outs, and said, “What’s your name?” I said who I was, and he said, “I’m Tommy Tedesco.” I said, “How very nice to meet you.” And he said, “You’re gonna be mine.” He goes, “I want you to be my protégé.” So he introduced me to composers. He said, “Can you play other instruments?” I said, “Yes, I’m actually a classical violinist.” I got work as a violinist, I played viola, I played mandolin, balalaika, tamburitza, dombra, bouzouki–all because of Tommy introducing me to that scene.

I’ve done 80 films and televisions shows. That’s what it’s come down to, and I owe it all to Tommy. He was an incredible musician–clean, fast, articulate. You know, it’s him playing the Bonanza thing, he told me. Duh, duh, duh, duh–that’s him. I listened to that over and over again.

During this time, I also got approached by Irving Bush from the L.A. Philharmonic. So concurrently with the film and motion-picture life, I was doing belly dancing in the evening…

DL: Right.

JB: …and, on occasion, I was asked to be a soloist with the L.A. Phil. When I donned my tuxedo–my Prince Edward tuxedo–and walked onstage, I’d play a number of these instruments. So that lasted for 25 years, my association with the L.A. Phil, until Irving Bush passed away.

On Leonard Cohen

DL: When did you meet Leonard Cohen?

JB: In ’78. [Composer/performer] Stuart Brotman had a hand in that. He, I guess, got a call from Leonard’s agency, Stranger Music, and Stuart told him about this Armenian oud player named John Bilezikjian. So [Leonard] called me on the phone and said, “Could I interview you? I’m looking for an oud player for a different sound for my band.”

I said OK. I never knew who he was. And that was like that analogy of not knowing the Beatles, not knowing Simon & Garfunkel, when it was around all over the world. But your world is so narrow–I’m talking about me–I’m saying my perception of music was Heifetz and Turkish-Armenian music. . . .

Leonard invited me, and I went to a practice session, and the group was Passenger, the jazz band from Texas. He ultimately hired me as a soloist–on violin, mandolin and oud. Logically, I couldn’t do it all for the songs that he wanted; Leonard had the vision of having an oud and mandolin with a violin, so he hired an Armenian violin player, Raffi Hakopian.

Our first tour was in 1979, it lasted nine months, and I’d send the money to [my wife], Helen, and Helen would take my mom out. I sent Helen $60,000; that’s a lot of money in ’79. I saved another $27,000 in $100 bills from the per diem, and I would eat the mystery meats backstage.

Anyway, so my association with Leonard really ended, although we still talk, in 1988. That was the second tour for me, and that lasted seven months. My father died in December of ’87, and I was debating whether to go or not, because it was January of ’88 when the tour started. And I said to myself, after really finding myself about it, “What would my dad want?” He would have wanted me to play.

DL: Tell me the story about the solo you did–I think it was in a soccer stadium–was that in Spain or Italy?

JB: Leonard was always very cautious of me, because he felt I was a “talent,” as he would call it. We’d have a lot of talks together, having French onion soup at different countries, and talking about the show and how can we make it better. And he confided in me, because I was one of the guys that didn’t smoke and drink.

I was sitting in my hotel room, practicing my Tchaikovsky and Bach and things. In Madrid, Spain, the show started at midnight and ended at 5 o’clock in the morning. You know, everyone’s half asleep anyway–I mean, that’s my bedtime, 12 o’clock, when the show started. It was a bullring; there was 40,000 people there. And Leonard said, for some strange reason–we’re all ready to go on–“John, go out there and play the oud.”

“Leonard, are you sure?”

So I walked out, I sat down and I started playing the taxim, Arabic style–dah, dah, dah, duh, duh, duh, duh–and I was going up and down the neck and doing my John Bilezikjianisms and jalapeños and all those things.

DL: All the jalapeños!

JB: They start clapping like they want more of me–more and more, you know? When I started getting very soft and I started doing double-picking–this thing that I’m known for, the çift mizrab, in Turkish it’s called–they held up candles to the lilting sound of my oud. I started crying. This is all onstage.

DL: How amazing!

JB: Forty thousand people! So I finished that, they all stood up and gave me a standing ovation, all these people. I stood up and I bowed and I walked offstage. They wouldn’t let Leonard back on. He said, “OK, go back out and do another number.” And I played another number–I think I played “Malagueña.” That wiped them out; they went nuts. I finished that, I stood up and took my bow; they gave me another standing ovation. I walked off. They wouldn’t let Leonard back on. “Juanito, Juanito, a la oud, la oud!”

So then, after the second one, [Leonard] said, “You know, John, this is why I can’t let you out.” That was his words–exactly what he said to me.

Yeah, I liked Leonard very much. We had a very nice relationship together. He always sends us dates at Christmastime.

DL: Does he really?

JB: Yeah, and Jackson Browne sends me . . .

DL: The cookies.

JB: You get those, too?

DL: Yes.

JB: The ginger?

DL: In fact, we called him up again and said, “Send more.” So good–really, really good.

Father of the Guitar

DL: Would you say the oud is the grandfather of the guitar?

JB: The oud is the grandfather of the lute and the father of the guitar. It’s a Persian instrument. It dates back 2,500 years. It’s played with an eagle’s feather, which we call a mizrab, in Turkish, or risha, in Arabic. It originally had four double strings. The four double strings were tuned in fourths, because fourths were the perfect symbol for one’s life, their soul, they believed.

DL: What was your relationship with the oud maker Onnik Karibyan?

JB: Wonderful. I own 50 Karibyans.

DL: That’s where they all went!

JB: Of the 50, half of ‘em were given to me. I own 12 Manols; of the 12, half of them were given to me. So I bought the rest–or I came into contact with it by people offering it to me. I have never tried to solicit someone to get their instrument. They’ve come to me and asked, “Would you be interested in buying my instrument?” I just want to make that clear, because I don’t want people to think that I’m hoarding them. But it’s like a child to me, and I admit it: If it is offered to me, it’s pretty hard [to resist]. And it’s part of my legacy, David. This is, to me, as important.

A Stratocaster, if you found one–what, a ’66 is it, ’65?–of that vintage, would you turn it down?

DL: A ’64 is my favorite.

JB: A ’64–if it was offered to you, wouldn’t you get the money and buy it?

DL: Well, I already have . . .

JB: ‘Cause wouldn’t you think the next guy would abuse that instrument? At least with you, you’re going to nurture it, and it’s in a safe place.

DL: It’s really important.

JB: My ouds look like they were just made.

DL: And I’ve seen several of ‘em.

JB: And that’s why.

DL: Isn’t the lifespan of an oud . . .

JB: It’s very much shorter than a guitar and other instruments.

DL: And that’s the main reason that you back yourself up–you’ve got to do that, it really is important.

JB: That’s right.

DL: I found that acoustic guitars will change, and all of a sudden, they’re not the same anymore. Some of ‘em get better, and some of ‘em die.

Tell me about the “Manol of Destiny.”

JB: OK. When I was married to my first wife–this was 1970–we were living in an apartment, and I went into Westwood to look for some balalaika strings for a session that I was going to do. I was going to change the top A string on my balalaika. I walk in–Westwood Music on Westwood Boulevard, [owned by] Fred Walecki. I look up at the top, he had 30 instruments or so up there hanging on the wall, among other instruments that he had put away in the closets of his store. And I looked at this thing; it looked like an oud.

DL: This is when Hermann Walecki was there?

JB: Yes, but Fred was there, too. And I said, “Is that an oud? I think it looks like an oud. Can I see it please?” So he gets up on a ladder and climbs up and gets it. It was all black and it had the scroll. And I started shaking, you know? I saw the scroll, so I knew it was [special]. It looked like a Karibyan, it looked like a Manol, something like that. It didn’t look like an Arabic oud, and it didn’t look like it was junk.

So he pulled it down–it was all black on the face, from soot or whatever. I don’t know if it was smoke, but I had never seen something that dark. The center rosette was bone, it wasn’t the original one; the other two were mother-of-pearl, but broken. They weren’t in that good of shape. The pickguard was broken-up mother-of-pearl. It wasn’t abused, there were no cracks, but it looked like it hadn’t been cared for. The neck was just incredibly inlaid with teak wood, mother-of-pearl–absolutely gorgeous–and the original pegs were on it–incredible, with bushings in between the peg and the peg box, ivory bushings. And I looked inside, it said, “Adelphon Manol.” I read it in Greek.

I said, “Mr. Walecki, my name is John Bilezikjian.” “I know who you are,” he goes. “What can you tell me about this instrument?” He goes, “I was traveling in Germany and I found this in a store, and I decided to buy it to sell it here.” Now, mind you, the center rosette was broken; the two other rosettes were broken. The back was intact–no visible cracks–the action was a little high, but it was intact. He wanted $550 for it.

I didn’t have the money. I think I offered him $300. He said, “Get out of the store.” That’s what he said, ‘cause that’s what I had on me. This is 1970, David; I’m 20 years old, just married. It’s not like I had a career and I [wasn’t] a millionaire–I’m not now. So I had what I had, and it was broken anyway. And I said, “I’d like to have this.” He said, “Get out of the store.” So I left the store.

The next week, I had a lesson with one of my oud students who’s a very famous doctor, a urologist. His real name was Gerry Bajakian, but he changed his name to Gerry Balian. I said, “You know, Gerry, I found this Manol, it’s in Westwood.” He was living in Marina del Rey. I said, “He wants $550 for it.” I told him the story and I said, “I think you should go and get it. At least you keep it.” Not that he was going to be a player–he was learning to play, he was a doctor. He had an old Arabic oud that he was learning on.

So, as it turned out, without me knowing, he went and bought the oud. I assume he paid $550 for it, although I don’t know. He comes to the lesson the following week, with his oud in the case and a brown bag. And we had a screen door, and he knocked on the door, I opened it up, he came inside. “This is for you,” he goes–like that, teasing me, like, “This is for you.” And I slowly opened up the bag, and there’s the scroll of the black Manol. I could see it.

And I’m starting to shake, you know, and I started to cry. He said, “This is for you, because if anyone deserves it, you do.”

DL: Wow!

JB: That’s what he said. It was a gift. That’s the exact truth. And I’ve had it ever since. … They had it in the shop 12 years.

DL: I remember; I remember seeing that on the wall. Yeah, it was there for a long time. I remember going into Westwood Music that same period of time. This is when Fred and Hermann Walecki were both in the store at the same time, and I remember looking at it and said, “Can I see that?” And he took it down, and I thought about it. I said, “I don’t know what kind of oud this is, but, boy, is this good.” I said, “How much do you want for it?” “$600.” I had no money, none, so I went away. I tried to go and get the money. I came back with money, and it was gone. The oud was gone!

JB: Oh, you’re kidding! You mean Gerry got it?

DL: Right, like, a day or two before I came back.

My Village

DL: Did you listen to Udi Hrant?

JB: At these house parties, I kept asking my mother, “What was the sound of that instrument, Mom? What is that thing I’m hearing on those 78s?”  It turned out to be Udi Hrant, because my grandfather had bought Udi Hrant and Yorgo Bacanos and all of these players in that era–turn of the 20th century ‘til about 1930. And we had a thousand 78s. . . .

Udi Hrant, George Mgrdichian, Johnny Berberian, Yorgo Bacanos. Bacanos was a genius; he was 30 years before his time. He was Greek, living in Istanbul. He’s a contemporary of Udi Hrant–he lived in the same time period–but he had this mastery of where the notes came from. I mean, technically, he was far superior to Hrant, in my opinion. Brrr, brrr, brrr, brrr–like a machine gun.

But Hrant was more [influential], because he’s my–in Armenian, we say kughatzi, it means village. He is Armenian, he is from Turkey; he is part of my lineage. George Mgrdichian was a very big influence on me, because he was so classical. I love the way he played.

DL: That’s one of the first players I ever heard. I just loved that stuff.

JB: Amazing talent. Johnny Berberian was another very big influence on me.

DL: Me, too.

JB: Very alaturka, but not so classical.

DL: Always moving, unbelievable.

JB: He was a great player of taxims. Johnny was very, very good in that way, but also could play a hell of a dance oud, too.

DL: He had a drive to his playing that you could hear.

JB: Exactly.

DL: He sent me a CD, Ode to an Oud. He said, “You can’t get that here, I’ll make you a copy of it,” and he sent me a copy of it, because I wanted to learn . . .

JB: Ode to an Oud is two of his albums: Expressions East and The Oud Artistry of John Berberian.

DL: Oh, OK. There’s so many things I cannot figure out. I listened to them and I said, “Ah, I’ll be able to get it.” No, you can’t!

JB: There’s some certain things that are . . .  you have to be a player.

DL: The fingering that you showed me with the index finger and the ring finger . . .

JB: Yes.

DL: A variation I saw over the weekend was John Jorgenson, who plays the Django/gypsy jazz stuff. He’ll play stuff with just two fingers–the fastest stuff you could ever imagine–and then some of the stuff he plays with one finger. And then he’ll play with another two and then with another two. And I said, “I know that, I know that stuff!”

JB: Sure, of course. But let me be clear about this: The reason why it’s [first and third fingers] is ‘cause of tradition. It’s taboo to use a second finger.

DL: Is it really?

JB: Yes, you don’t use a second finger on the oud, unless it’s for chords that the great masters never played. Like, to play the G and the C, you gotta use the number two. To give the highway salute, you know, you’ve got to be able to do that. If you’re gonna get the bass, G and C, you gotta use a second finger; otherwise, you can just play it with one and three on the open strings on the oud. It’s taboo, I was told by Sarkis Avakian, the great master.

He was a mentor to me, so influential. We would call him, affectionately, Sarkis Aga, which means “Sarkis master.” I showed him my style, and he would always flip out and say, “Where did you get all the notes?” And he was saying this to me in Turkish. “How did you learn this?” He’d say, “My boy, it’s inside of you.” He knew what the answer was.

Photos: Gary Newkirk 


This article originally appeared in the Fretboard Journal #19.