Happy Birthday to a jazz giant

The Emperor of Jazz

This month we celebrate the great Joe Pass, Epiphone's premier modern jazz guitarist who was born January 13, 1929. The "President of Be Bop" was a gifted interpreter and improvisational artist with a full, muscular tone inspired by his heroes Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt (who performed with an Epiphone when he briefly went electric) and Wes Montgomery.

Pass was the last of his kind, inspired to the profession when electric guitar was still a new instrument. In his youth before a disastrous decade-long fight with heroin, Pass' sense of musicality was shaped and challenged by the most sophisticated players of his time including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Art Tatum. And when he returned to the scene in the early 60s, he quickly re-established his career with a style that combined dense chords and driving rhythm with a sort of musical "second sight," an intuitive feel for the inner soul of a composition. When playing in an ensemble, Pass showed extraordinary empathy and could make a group of musicians sound like a band. And when unaccompanied, as he often was on his now class recordings for Norman Granz's Pablo label in the 60s and 70s, Pass could make standards like "How High the Moon" or "All of Me" seem like new compositions.

When Epiphone re-emerged in the 90s, Pass was one of the first artists to sign on and his Joe Pass Emperor II sits easily with classic Epiphone electric archtops like the Broadway and the Zephyr Emperor Regent as a premier jazz guitars. Pass died in 1994 but his embrace of Epiphone was an acknowledgment of the House of Stathopoulo's place in the history of jazz and a confirmation that for jazz to survive, young players needed a professional instrument that was also affordable.

"Joe was an extraordinary musician," remembered Epiphone President Jim Rosenberg. "I had the pleasure of meeting Joe Pass back in 1992 when he performed at a trade show and dealer meeting. When he said he'd help design a signature model, we were thrilled. Jazz is a big part of Epiphone's history. And you can't get any more maverick than a jazz musician.

The Joe Pass Emperor II combines the classic lines of an archtop that any of Pass' heroes would have recognized.

The medium-sized maple body is easy to hold and the carved Spruce top has a full and nuanced tone acoustically, which makes it perfect for players who want to use the inherent tone of the Emperor with minimal amplification. If you're turning up the Emperor II, the Alnico Classic Humbuckers feature the same kind of pickup magnet found in the first generation of hand-wound humbuckers that have driven collectors mad with envy every since.

For the Emperor II, Joe requested a maple, SlimTaper "C" profile neck which makes it easy for any-sized hand to at least attempt some of Pass' favorite chord inversions. The floating rosewood bridge and vintage styled gold scroll tailpiece provided stable tuning and intonation along with Grover 18:1 ratio machine heads.

The Emperor of JazzBorn in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Joe Pass grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania and got his first guitar, a $17 Harmony, for his 9th birthday. He was inspired to play after watching film star Gene Autry, the singing cowboy. (It was Autry who commissioned and inspired both the dreadnought and J-200 Jumbo acoustic guitar so movie audiences could more easily see his guitar.)

Pass told Guitar Player that his first lessons were with his neighbor "who used to come over to our house Friday night to play cards, drink wine, and sing Italian songs. He taught me a few open chords... and I started playing with some of the other neighborhood guitarists." Pass quickly eclipsed older guitar players in his neighborhood. "He told my old man: 'Why don't you get your kid some lessons?'

Pass' father was a task master and put young Joe on a regiment of six hour-a day practices. Moving through the Nick Lucas Plectrum Guitar Method and Carcassi Classical Method Book, Pass was an impatient student who quickly grasped methods and styles and then began composing and improvising on his own. His first appearance both on the road and on record was with the Tony Pastor band which he joined at 18. Moving to New York the next year, Pass landed in the middle of the Be Bop scene, sitting in with Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, and Art Tatum. But like many young musicians working in Manhattan, Pass developed a heroin habit.

It would take him 12 years (including five in prison in Texas) before he entered the Synanon drug rehabilitation center in Santa Barbara, California and got back into music full time. By 1961 he had cleaned up and his first studio album, The Sounds of Synanon released in 1962, was warmly received by critics and musicians. Pass was given an ES-175 as a gift around the time of the album's release, and his signature Epiphone Emperor II was inspired by his trademark ES-175 which he played exclusively for the rest of his career.

When Pass returned to the jazz scene, he settled in Los Angeles just as LA was taking over as the new center of recording and show business. Rock and roll, jazz, and television kept studios and musicians busy--especially players like Pass who could read charts.

In the 60s, Pass toured with George Shearing and performed regularly in Los Angeles clubs and studios. Producer Norman Granz, one of the key figures in jazz as the founder of Verve Records, first heard Pass perform at Donte's in LA in 1970. Though Pass' career highlights are typically focused on his solo guitar work, Live at Donte's is a superb picture of Pass leading a small ensemble.

"Norman's done it all for me," Pass told Guitar Player. "He's the guy who put me together with people that I dreamed about as a kid." Granz also brought Pass into the studio on a regular basis and "changed my whole attitude about recording. He's strictly a one-take man. He'll put us in a studio, turn on the tape and say, "Play." Pass developed a full, driving The Emperor of Jazzsound that perfectly matched his ability to both play the melody and expand on it. "All guitar players play solo. You know, they sit around the house and play and so I think Norman Granz asked me to play solo," recalled Pass. "I said 'What do I play? Norman said 'just go out and play.' I just went out and started doing it and nobody got mad or threw anything so I continued to do it."

Though Pass was always open about telling students and interviewers about his approach including strings (flatwounds), pickups, and approaches to improvisation, he claimed throughout his life that "I still don't know 50% of the fretboard, maybe not even 5%. You learn to compensate for things you can't get to."

Pass' enthusiasm not only for melody but for a song's lyric played a big part in his ability to connect to listeners who didn't necessarily regard themselves as jazz fans. "You can't think and play. If you think about what you playing, the playing becomes stilted. Focus on the music and the playing will come out. It's like language. You have a whole collection of musical ideas and thoughts that you've accumulated through your musical history plus all of the musical history of the whole world. And it's all in your subconscious and you draw upon it when you play.

Throughout the late 60s and 70s, Pass recorded some of his best work for Granz's label Pablo ("I owe him an immeasurable amount--we had 15 great years together,") which gave him opportunities in the studio and on the road with Ella Fitzgerald, bassist Ray Brown, Duke Ellington, and Oscar Peterson. When Granz sold Pablo Records, Pass began a partnership with Tommy Gumina, forming Polytone Records. Pass' friendship with Gumina also lead to a new line of specially designed amplifiers for jazz guitarists.

"I persuaded him to manufacture a small, so-called 'Mini-Brute' guitar amplifier, because I'd become very tired of lugging those big amps around," Pass recalled. "I wanted something light and easy to carry, with a genuine jazz sound. Tommy managed to make one for me, and it became an important thing on the market; everybody started making small amps."

For an overview of Pass' work both solo and in an ensemble, check out Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass' Porgy and Bess, Portraits of Duke Ellington with Ray Brown on bass, and Easy Living with Ella Fitzgerald. Pass was an articulate and passionate teacher and there are numerous clips on You Tube that any guitarist would find inspiring and informative.

"I find the more experienced I get and the more I can play without trying to impress anyone, the more freedom I have," Pass told Guitar Player. "It's then I start finding things because it calls on everything I have inside me. That's when I get closest to playing music."

Find the Joe Pass Emperor II today at your favorite Authorized Epiphone dealer.



Epiphone Joe Pass Emperor II Gallery:

The Emperor of Jazz

The Emperor of Jazz

The Emperor of Jazz

The Emperor of Jazz

The Emperor of Jazz

Epiphone Joe Pass Emperor II Specifications:


Body Material: Laminated Maple
Top Material: Select Spruce
Neck Material: 3-Piece, Hard Maple
Neck Shape: SlimTaper™
Neck Joint: Glued-In, Set Neck
Scale Length: 24.75"
Fingerboard Material: Rosewood with Mother of Pearl "Block" Inlays
Fingerboard Radius: 12"
Binding: Multi-Headtock, Multi-Body, Multi-Neck
Nut Width: 1.68"
Hardware: Gold
Machine Heads: Grover®
Headstock: Large Clipped Ear with Mother of Pearl "Vine" Inlay
Neck Pickup: Alnico Classic™ Humbucker
Bridge Pickup: Alnico Classic™ Humbucker
Controls: 2-Volume, 2-Tone
Pickup Selector: 3-Way Toggle
Bridge: Floating Rosewood Base with "Tune-o-matic" Bridge
Tailpiece: Trapeze
Pickguard: Multi-Bound "Tortoise"
Warranty: Epiphone Limited Lifetime