“Beyond Berkeley Guitar” Interview : Ava Mendoza

Oakland, California’s Ava Mendoza is a guitarist and composer who channels a broad range of influences, combining them into her own singular style.  Country-blues, western swing, free jazz and heavy rock all find their way into her unique and exciting playing, and she has shared the stage with many luminaries from the west coast improv scene.  We recently interviewed Ava about her appearance on Tompkins Square’s new showcase of Bay Area guitarists, Beyond Berkeley Guitar, which is out this week. Ava closes the collection with her composition “Redwood Regional Park Blues : Between Hay and Grass”.

W&W : Please describe the guitar you play on your track, how long you’ve owned it, where you got it.

I’m playing a Gibson ES 125. It’s a hollowbody with one P-90 pickup on it. I got it about 6 years ago off Ebay for about $600. They are cheap because they were and are not very popular guitars, not sure why… They’re not very versatile I guess, they kind of just have their one warm, fat sound, and they can get muddy through a dirty amp or effects if you’re not careful.  In any case, I love this one a lot and have used it for many different things.

W&W : What is the tuning on your track?

I’m in standard tuning.

W&W : How do you know Sean Smith?  How did you get involved in Beyond Berkeley Guitar?

I met Sean at a show I played at BlueSix in San Francisco. He’s a friend of a friend… I had heard his music before that and really enjoyed it. We were introduced and he told me about the compilation and suggested I do something for it.

W&W : Please describe the recording of your track.

It was recorded at Wally Sound in Berkeley by Wally himself. It’s a really simple recording– I think he put one mic on the amp and one on the guitar itself. He actually might not have mic’d the guitar even, I can’t remember now. Anyway, it suited the music fine.

W&W : The words “American Primitive” are thrown around a lot these days in reference to modern acoustic guitar music.  What, if anything, does “American Primitive” mean to you?

I don’t think about it much. I love John Fahey’s playing but I didn’t come across him until about 4 years ago. I play acoustic-ish sometimes-fingerstyle steel-string guitar but I got into it first through classical guitar and then through early country and blues music. I found out about about Fahey much later, and Robbie Basho and Steffen Basho-Junghans and other folks came after that. It was actually really weird for me when I found out there was a whole genre of more modern guitar players who were into country blues. I didn’t really know any other guitarists or many other human beings who listened to that music for a long time.

Initially it was more free jazz guitarists like Sonny Sharrock, Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell who gave me the idea that blues music and longer-form composition could work together. Captain Beefheart’s music did that too, though in a really different way.

W&W : Please discuss ways that you go about constructing a guitar instrumental, or alternately, what do you think makes a great guitar instrumental?

My process is so different every time it’s hard to generalize. I usually get a basic idea of what I want to do, what type of piece I want to write, and then I just start slogging away at it. I am a pretty slow writer, it takes me a long time before I’m happy with a piece. I rarely write stuff in sequence– I get a lot of isolated ideas for themes, and it ends up that one becomes theintroduction and one goes in the middle somewhere etc, but I don’t plan it that way. Without fail, when the tune is about halfway done I get the realization, “This is the worst idea I’ve ever had! I should stop immediately, what was I thinking?!” Then I go drink coffee or go for a bikeride and come back to it and keep going.

What makes a great guitar instrumental… oof! I guess I just like to hear someone start something and follow it through to its fullest, whatever that might mean for them. That’s with any music, not just solo guitar stuff.

W&W : Please tell us about your jazz influences…  you have a fantastic vocabulary of licks and runs, which players have you studied?

Well, I’m into some western swing or sort of folk-jazz players. Davy Graham is a big one. I like Jimmy Bryant. But I think a lot of the lines I play on that track come more from combining the influence of blues players like Reverend Gary Davis or Pink Anderson with totally different, more chromatic electric influences. I’m into a lot of free jazz and also a lot of heavy metal. I love Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman, and Sonny Sharrock… and I love a lot of really heavy metal guitar playing of different types… Slayer and Morbid Angel and Mayhem. It depends who you listen to but solos in both free jazz and some metal is atonal and based on rhythmic patterns a lot of the time– they’re not necessarily in any particular key or mode. I try to play some stuff like that even when I’m playing over a blues chord progression.

I am not really a jazz musician at all. If someone plunked a Charlie Parker tune or something in front of me and said “Go at it!” it would start to sound very bizarre very quickly! I play with other people who are jazz musicians, and I play music that swings sometimes, and I play music with a certain amount of harmonic complexity, but I wouldn’t call it “jazz”. The swing comes from my early country and blues influences, and the harmonic complexity comes from free jazz and classical music. It’s definitely not coming from bebop or anything, although I really like and admire a lot of that music.

W&W : Does your track on BBG have any defined key signature? There seems to be almost constant movement in both the backing chords and the leads, lots of twists and turns…

There are a lot of chord changes, but all the actual chords are really simple– 7th chords are as fancy as it gets. I guess my idea was to write a tune that used very simple chords, but to write a long, not-very-repetitive narrative using these simple chords… so it sounds friendly and familiar in a way, except that it becomes really unpredictable, it takes all these unexpected turns and breaks down and ends up turning on its head.

Anyway, it starts out in D Major. After a couple of passes it goes to D minor. Then it gets hairier and kind of changes key every few bars for the middle-late part of the piece. At the end the original melody gets played again, but reharmonized… the last chord is a B minor.

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