LAGQ’s Matthew Greif Tells His First Guitar Story

Matthew Greif of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet – My First Guitar Interview

[Note to readers:  The last incarnation of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (LAGQ) is featured in My First Guitar and the interviews were collected before Andrew York announced his solo career.  I am thrilled to present Matt Greif’s story as an update to the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet collection in the book.  Matt studied guitar at U.S.C. and is well-versed in classical, jazz and improv styles.  He has been performing with the Grammy-winning Los Angeles Guitar Quartet for the past eight years and the quartet is gearing up at this moment for their summer tour, in addition to recording their next album.]

Matthew Greif, age 3, with his sister in the background. Photo courtesy of Matthew Greif.
Matthew Greif, age 3, with his sister in the background. Photo courtesy of Matthew Greif.

“I was three years old in this photo and making noise on my dad’s guitar while my mom was playing violin.  I didn’t start to really learn to play until I was 6 years old.  We had many guitars lying around the house but my first guitar, the one that was given to me, was an acoustic Buck Owens model that was red, white and blue.  My mom was performing with Buck Owens at the time.  He was a big country star during the ‘60s and ‘70s.  The Owens guitar was a birthday present for me when I turned 8 years old.

“But really, the first guitar that got me excited about playing was an electric guitar that I got when I was 12 years old: a Fender Lead II.  They haven’t made those for a long time.  Basically, it was a poor man’s Stratocaster.  This was the first guitar I spent hours upon, learning a ton and playing in bands.  It was my first super-fun, exciting experience with a guitar.

“I learned to play violin early on from my mother and it was my main musical instrument from when I was about 6 years old until when I was 14.  I played the drums, piano and the saxophone, too.  These instruments lead me to the guitar because what I discovered one day, when I was about 11 or 12 years old, was that I could figure out how to play music by ear on the guitar.   I could do that because of what I knew from violin and all the other instruments I’d learned to play.  I would think to myself, “Oh, this is kind of like the violin but tuned a little differently.”  Being familiar with these other instruments helped me figure out what I was hearing on recordings and that totally got me excited.

“I remember learning the opening guitar lick from ‘Day Tripper’ by The Beatles pretty quickly and thinking, ‘Wow!  That wasn’t too hard.  I ought to be doing more of this!’  The next thing I chose to learn was a lot more difficult—the solo from ‘Purple Haze’ by Jimi Hendrix.  But I kind of got that under my fingers, too, so I thought, ‘Man, this is awesome!’ I listened to all kinds of music when growing up and I liked a lot of it but to be able to figure out how to play it on my own, on the guitar, was special.   I was listening mostly to rock n’ roll at the time, stuff like Van Halen, Jeff Beck, Rush, The Beatles and basically anything that was on the radio during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

“My mom was pretty surprised by my interest in the guitar because, by that time, although I had done okay on violin and in fiddle contests, I never really showed a great enthusiasm for it.  And, in fact, by age 11, I was showing some resistance toward lessons.  She told me later that when she bought this Fender Lead II for me at the pawnshop, she’d thought it was going to wind up under my bed as another passing interest. But I played it for hours, much to her surprise.  She wasn’t surprised that I was interested in music.  What surprised her is that I was playing it on my own with such intensity.

“I love music in general.  I think my early exposure to other instruments primed me for this bigger interest in harmony and rhythm and the puzzle of figuring it all out. These things, along with the actual sound of the guitar, are what drive me to play to this day.

“The reason I came to play classical guitar is because of that early priming, too–my exposure to classical music and its repertoire.  I switched to classical when I was about 13 or 14 years old.  I sought a teacher for the reason of hoping to become a better rock guitar player.  I thought, ‘This could make my technique better!  This is what Randy Rhoads is doing!  I’m going to do this for a while and get better at my technique.’  It was really fun.  Unexpectedly, I fell in love with the whole style of music as well as the instrument.

“My first classical guitar was the passed down, beat up piece of junk you see in the photo where I am three years old.  I played that guitar for my first lessons.  It wasn’t a terrible guitar.  It was a cheap, made-in-Spain guitar and my mom still has it in a closet somewhere.  I sold my Fender Lead II electric guitar because I’d moved on to a Stratocaster after that.  I do know who still has my old Lead II guitar, though—a friend of mine in France.  Maybe I’ll get it back from her someday!  It was a great guitar.

“For my first lessons, I took to the guitar like a fish to water because I was so ready to go, at least with the basics.  I do remember fingernail shaping being a big mystery and it took me about two or three years to figure out the best nail shape for playing classical guitar.  That was my first technical hurdle.  And then when I got to college, I encountered many different schools of technique and, of course, I was asked to play more challenging repertoire.  It was in college that I really started to have to work pretty hard at the guitar and went through some frustrating times on how best to proceed.

“My first recital was something I did in anticipation of my junior recital at USC when I was 19.  My mom helped put it together in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she lives.  I would say the audience numbered about 75 people, and it was held inside an auditorium that was normally used for bank meetings.  I played parts of Bach’s Prelude, Fugue and Allegro.  I remember a fly buzzing around the room, and eventually my head.  It landed on my face and started crawling along my lip when I was in the middle of playing this 8-minute long Fugue.  That’s what I really remember about that recital.  I made it to the end of the piece, somehow.  Afterward, I got more comments about how I managed to cope with that fly more than anything else.  Everyone was feeling for me in that moment.

“One of first great guitars I owned is one that I bought from Scott Tennant in 1991.  I was in graduate school at the time and Scott and other people were telling me I should be playing a better guitar.  At one point, Scott owned two fantastic guitars.  He had a great Friedrich and a Paul Jacobson guitar that everybody was going bananas over.  Scott has an amazing ear for good guitars and a knack for discovering makers right before they get hot. Of course, his owning one of their guitars is one of the reasons they get popular.  “What’s Scott playing?” And it becomes the hot new thing.

“People were placing orders like crazy for guitars based on Scott’s Jacobson guitar.  Everyone wanted it.  He ended up selling it to me.  All of sudden, everyone was green with envy that I had Scott’s guitar.

“I left it at home one day, which was very unusual.  My apartment was broken into and the guitar was stolen. I’d owned it for all of two months.  I went my whole life without a great guitar, finally got one and it was stolen.  That was tragic. I visited all the pawnshops and posted fliers for it.  And it has never turned up, which is unusual because often they turn up and into the hands of some dealer.  It’s probably sitting inside someone’s garage and they have no idea what it is they have.

“I am currently playing a Toni Müller guitar, a German-made guitar that I bought in 2009.  I’ve been very happy with this guitar.  It’s a nice sounding double top.

“I had owned it for only about three or four months when it was broken by an airline after being gate-checked.  You wouldn’t think gate-checking it would be as bad as putting through the whole luggage system. When I opened the case, the top was badly cracked in a few places.  I posted photos of it on my Facebook page because it was just a spectacle.  [LAGQ member] John Dearman’s guitar was also broken in that flight.  We had a rough bunch of baggage handlers that day, I guess.

“I ended up playing 4 guitars in 5 concerts on that little tour. I played the Mueller in Chicago. Then it was broken on the way to Virginia. We called a local guitar maker, whose name is escaping me right at this moment, and he generously loaned me a guitar that I played that evening. The next night we went to New York City to perform and I’d had my wife overnight another guitar of mine through Fedex.  It, too, arrived broken!  So I found myself sitting in New York City with two broken guitars.  I shipped one of them to Germany for repairs and I had the other one repaired by a local repairman.   For the concert that evening, I borrowed Ben Verdery’s Smallman guitar.  It was crazy.  The following night, I played my repaired guitar in New Hampshire.  Hard to see your guitar broken, but it’s been years now so I’m over it.”

 * * *

Matthew Greif is a member of the Grammy-winning Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. Previously, he was a member of the Falla Guitar Trio.  In addition to his work with LAGQ, he also performs as soloist in an array of concert settings.  Past performances range from the L.A. Philharmonic Green Umbrella series at Disney Hall, to appearances with legends such as Dave Brubeck, Scott Henderson, and Chet Atkins. His critically-acclaimed debut recording, Permanent Transition, featured the world premieres of World Music/Classical solo compositions as well as duo improvisations with Andrew York and Dusan Bogdanovic.  El Encanto features favorites of the classical guitar repertoire.  His latest, Circle, is a modern jazz recording, featuring mostly original compositions.  Playing on the album with Matthew are Ric Fierabracci (Chick Corea) on bass, and drummers Walter Rodriguez and Cougar Estrada (Los Lobos).  Matthew also recorded a duet with Scott Tennant on Wild Mountain Thyme (Delos). Matthew currently teaches classical and jazz guitar at Cal State University – Dominguez Hills, El Camino College and Los Angeles Harbor College. Greif earned his Masters and Bachelors degrees from U.S.C., where he studied with William Kanengiser, Scott Tennant, and James Smith. Prior to his studies at U.S.C., Matthew studied with Ann Waller at Northwestern University and with Michael Fowler of the University of Tulsa.  He spent two summers studying in Spain with Jose Tomas and Pepe Romero. In addition he studied jazz with Joe Diorio, Frank Potenza and Mark Pratt.

* * *

Matt is 2nd from the left in the video below.