When Mimi Fox was eleven, she started teaching guitar lessons out of her house. That’s right – eleven years old. The fact that she could make more money teaching guitar than babysitting opened her eyes to what would become her future. (Hmm, changing poopy diapers or sharing some six-string savvy. Which would you choose?)
Fast forward…today this jazz guitarist has six consecutive Downbeat Magazine international critics polls wins under her belt. She’s performed or recorded with a roster of jazz greats including fellow guitarists Charlie Byrd, Stanley Jordan, Charlie Hunter and Mundell Lowe, Grammy-nominated saxophonists Branford Marsalis, David Sanchez, and Stevie Wonder, Diana Krall, Joey DeFrancesco, and so many more. Whew…so what we’re trying to say is, Mimi Fox has some serious jazz guitar cred.
Now touring in support of her latest DVD, Mimi Fox: Live at the Palladium, Fox took a minute to talk history, gear, and to share a bit of hard-earned advice.
You started out as a drummer but quickly switched. Why did you feel a connection to the guitar?
Ultimately, the reason I first started playing the guitar was because of the Monkees! I realized that drums are the rhythmic pulse of the music, but if you’re going to be a songwriter and a composer, which I am, you need a melodic and harmonic instrument to compose on. I would come home from school, do my homework, and then sit for hours playing and teaching myself things and that’s pretty much it. I would actually sleep with my guitar.
And you got good enough to teach others?
Absolutely. Actually from the moment I was eleven the older guys in the neighborhood – guys in their teenage years and even twenties – would come to get lessons from me. I would practice so much that I could just play almost anything I heard on the radio or records. Word got out, and I was pretty entrepreneurial. I think at first they were pretty embarrassed. But I had my shit figured out, and you know the minute I started playing, that was it.
Did you ever have to deal with any discrimination because you were a woman?
Yeah, I mean, I could write a book. There were a million things that have happened, and all kinds of that stuff. Going to jam sessions I’d get outright flagrant or sexist comments.
I always tell younger women not to personalize these comments. I realized two things: First, that this person was really just a jerk. It was about them, not me. Second, that the same guys that were assholes to me were also mean to other women and guys.
It’s really important to find mentors. Not only people that you wish to emulate musically, but also personally. I’ve had a lot of men notice how difficult it is being a woman in this industry and really bend over backwards to make my life easier.
I’ve been with a lot of different record companies and they have been owned and run by men who have really supported me. I think that a lot of it has to do with your outlook on life. The music culture is no more sophisticated than the culture at large is, even though it likes to pretend it is.
Let’s talk a bit about your gear. What are you currently using?
I am a Heritage Guitars endorser, which are custom-made guitars, handcrafted in the U.S. I’ve been with them since 1992 and absolutely love their guitars. My main axe is a Heritage 575. It’s held up remarkably well. I also have a Heritage Golden Eagle and a number of really high-end guitars that I don’t like to take out.
Plus, I have a custom archtop “Mimi Fox” model designed by a builder in California called S3 Ventures, and an old Guild F40 acoustic and several acoustics. When I am playing with the group I’ll use the Heritage, and when I’m solo or in a duo I use the archtop.
With my archtop I go direct, because it’s just the most beautiful sound. Then I’ll use two amps for my Heritage: a Fender Deluxe Reverb. I have an old one from 1979, and I just had some work done on it. And I like the Roland JC-120.
Do you use pedals?
Ha ha! No. Never. I am a jazz musician. I like to let my music speak for itself with my playing and not a bunch of other contraptions. I sound like a complete bozo with the other stuff. My dad bought me a few pedals when I was 13 after about three years of playing. I was really excited about it for about a day, and then I threw them in my closet and never used them again. So yeah, not for me. I like a real pure guitar sound.
Tell us about your new DVD, Mimi Fox: Live at the Palladium.
Yes! The new DVD just came out with Favored Nations. That’s Steve Vai’s label. I’ve just been touring in support of that. It was recorded at the Palladium in St. Petersburg, Florida with my trio.
I really can’t say enough great things about Steve Vai and the record company. All the artists on the label are really talented and I’m really proud to be a part of it. I just finished another lesson project for TrueFire, so I’ve been pretty busy between touring and recording. Not a dull moment!
You also teach, right?
I teach at the Jazz School at U.C. Berkeley in California. I am also an adjunct professor at NYU in New York. In addition, I do master workshops and special clinics all over the world. It’s a lot to manage with touring, recording, performing, and teaching.
When you’re performing, what do you want your audience to walk away with?
That’s a great question. I think for me its not so much thinking as feeling. There is only one reason to do music. Music is a deep language to share with people. My favorite is when I get guys who are not into jazz – you know, maybe rock or flamenco players – coming up to after a show saying they are really moved by what I do.
Maybe there’s a night when I don’t feel like I am at my best, but people come up to me and say they were really moved by my song. That’s what I care about. When the chips fall, the only thing that really matters is communicating with the audience.
Check out a bit of that Mimi Fox magic here, and keep up with Ms. Fox at mimifoxjazzguitar.com.
Laura B. Whitmore is a singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents 65amps, Acoustic Bass Amps, Agile Partners, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the lead singer for the rock band, Summer Music Project. More at mad-sun.com.