Guitarist Ken Karsh is known to sometimes play a stunted-looking instrument that is tuned a fourth up from the traditional guitar, and that gives it a bright, magical sound: the guitalele. Whatever is in his hands, though, Ken makes it sing.
The consummate guitar player, he is also versatile on the ukulele and mandolin; received his early musical training on piano and violin; and he teaches at three different colleges. He is a driving force in Pittsburgh’s theater scene and among student ensembles throughout his region.
At what age did you know you were destined for music?
I was 9 years old. My late sister Harriet taught me my first chords on guitar and I went from there.
I remember seeing the Beatles on TV when I was 6 years old and thought the electric guitars were cool. But I was more impressed with Ringo and even fashioned a pretend drum kit from an old purple hat box, pie tins and wooden stools.
What was your first instrument?
My first instruments were piano and violin. My violin teacher told my mother that I had no musical ability. She later heard me play guitar in an 8th grade spring school concert and changed her mind; she said I had developed into a wonderful guitarist. So I forgave her earlier assessment.
Do you play other instruments?
I still play some piano and wish I had time to get better. I also play a little bit of tuned mandolin and ukulele.
Your flourishes are reminiscent of Spanish music- is there an influence?
Absolutely! I am a big fan of flamenco guitar although I don’t play legit flamenco.
Also- gypsy jazz, any element of that in your repertoire?
I am a huge fan of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, so yes!
What is the Pittsburgh jazz scene like?
I am proud to say that I’m truly influenced by a lot of great local Pittsburgh jazz musicians, notably saxophonist Eric Kloss, bassist Ron Fudoli, pianists Frank Cunimondo, Bobby Negri, Johnny Costa, Bobby Cardillo (whom I studied with), drummer Spider Rondinelli (who mentored me), organist Gene Ludwig and guitarist Joe Negri.
The Pittsburgh jazz scene is still thriving, but working occasional one-nighters and weekends are the norm now because there are a lot of great players and not as many venues that feature jazz steadily.
What was the most important thing you learned at Berklee?
It was from a conversation with the late William Leavitt, who told me (a naive 18-year-old jazz purist) to find my niche and fill it, and encouraged versatility. It’s because of this, I’m able to be the guitarist at the Benedum Center for the CLO (Civic Light Opera) summer musical season and to play for various musicals with other local production companies.
I also got to play in the student ensemble led by composer Michael Gibbs, which was a dream come true. This group combined many elements of musical genres and I met a lot of amazing musicians in this group.
Where do you teach and what are the students most curious about with jazz?
I actually teach at three universities. At Duquesne, I teach private instruction in jazz guitar and direct the student jazz guitar ensemble.
I also teach a course called “Discovering Music with Guitar” for non-music majors, which is fun and challenging.
At California University of PA, I teach guitar and direct the student guitar ensemble.
And I just started teaching guitar at Slippery Rock University (PA).
Most of the students are interested in the improvisational techniques, which some find baffling and challenging.
But everyone is different, as there are mostly Music Technology and Audio Recording majors that fill the student ranks.
Talk about learning the unique demands of the guitalele?
The guitalele is smaller, but the tuning intervals of the strings are the same as a guitar, just starting a fourth higher. So it’s nice to have a soprano range. I actually have two of these types of instruments, a guitalele that really is a miniature guitar/ukulele combo, and a mini-guitar tuned the same way as the guitalele, but a little bigger with the width of the fingerboard more like a regular guitar and with a richer sound.
Are there different strings, different tunings, etc. from the trad guitar?
I use regular nylon classical guitar strings. Córdoba (who makes the mini) has special strings, but I prefer the regular guitar strings.
Do you have a band or play solo?
I don’t have a steady band, but I will try to get people I love playing with to work with me. And I do solo gigs, which lately feature some of my adventures with looper pedals and looper software.
What types of gigs are your favorite?
Jazz and musical theater work, but actually any gig with creative and committed people is fun for me. I am also planning on more looper type performances both by myself and with others.
Where have you played (cities, countries)?
Wow!! Big question!! I toured with the late organist Jimmy McGriff and we went from New Jersey to California and back. I have recently performed in Cincinnati, Ohio and Columbus, Ohio with incredible jazz musicians there. I went to Bulgaria with members of our Duquesne jazz guitar and bass faculty to do a performance and master class.
Where would you like to perform that you have not yet?
London, Australia, Paris, Italy and Israel.
What inspired 2012’s CD “Conversations” and do you still perform with those musicians?
“Conversations” was a look back at my musical past as well as my musical present. Three of the songs were written when I was very young. “Song For GC” was written when I was 15 years old and slightly changed with a drop of “maturity” for the recording.
“In the Corner” was written when I was 17 after my sister Harriet had a hysterectomy at age 21 for treatment for cervical cancer, which eventually took her at age 58. I used to play this tune when I gigged at (the now long-gone) Sonny Daye’s Stage Door and the Encore in Shadyside with Spider Rondinelli and Eric Kloss.
“Spring Forward, Fall Back” was my children’s song written in 1979 or 1980.
“Polkaboppin’” was written as an assignment in grad school at Duquesne while studying jazz composition.
“Conversations” is my song for my two children (who are now married adults). The CD is dedicated to the memory of my sister Harriet and to the memory of my father-in-law Frank Inesso.
I perform with all of the musicians from the CD whenever I can.
Where do you go in your head when you play?
It’s hard to say. It’s more of a very aware trance.
What inspires you when you compose?
Anything from a chord progression to the sound of the guitar; or effects like reverb and modulation to a drum groove to feeling happy or sad. I’ve been using loopers to compose lately and that has been very inspiring.
“Feelin’ Groovy” was just superb. Did you arrange that for your instrument?
Thank you! And yes, I did. It was a one-take, in-the-moment performance! I am shocked that it got a lot of hits!!
Plans for performances through year-end?
Currently playing in “Mary Poppins” for the student musical at Lincoln Park High School for the Performing Arts. On November 11, 2017, I will be performing at James Street and on November 18, 2017, I will be doing a concert at the South Hills JCC with Max Leake, Paul Thompson and Tom Wendt.
Where would you like to play in 2018?
Anywhere that I can!!!
Can jazz transcend politics, and can it be used to bridge the divides we’re experiencing?
I would like to think so, but no jazz has been at the White House since President Obama left office.
Musicians can transcend politics because music is a universal language. I feel that the music made by Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli was a loving and positive vibe in the horrible time that it took root. That would be World War II.
Someone once asked me what I thought of Keith Richards. I told that person I loved Keith Richards. This friend of mine then said, “But you play circles around him.” I thanked him for the compliment, but I then played him the licks from The Rolling Stones songs that Keith co-wrote and said, “But Keith did that. He’s the best Keith Richards I know.”
I love and find value in a lot of different musical genres! Debbie, thank you so much for interviewing me!!
Photos courtesy of and with permission by the subject and are (c) Rick Finkelstein
(c) Debbie Burke 2017