Jesse Gress, the Todd Rundgren guitarist and longstanding contributor to Guitar Player, has died, aged 67. Gress died on February 21 at his home in Woodstock, New York, surrounded by his family who announced his passing on Facebook.
For over 30 years, he provided lessons that brought guitarists closer to the playing styles of our heroes. He had a gift for demystifying musical ideas and translating them into something digestible – to be learned, sure, but also to be used for something creative further down the line.
Guitar Player’s editor-in-chief Christopher Scapelliti described Gress as “an institution”.
“Jesse’s sweetness and good nature were magnetic,” said Scapelliti. “I remember meeting him for the first time in 1997 when I interviewed Todd Rundgren in San Raphael during rehearsals for his With a Twist tour. I was incredibly nervous – Rundgren has been an idol of mine since I was 10 – and Jesse put me at ease. There was an aura of calm about the man that just spread over you.”
When Gress joined Todd Rundgren’s band in 1991, he described it as “a dream come true”. It would work out just as well for Rundgren. To watch Gress play, even just to listen to him talking about the guitar, is to see someone wholly at ease with the instrument. That knowledge that translated so easily to the page, similarly worked out just fine for him onstage.
Inspired by Beck, he would create melodies out of harmonics during his performances, stealing the odd lick, too, because that is another great lesson, one any music educator worth their salt will tell you: you’ve got to steal from the best.
Like Beck, he often favored the Fender Stratocaster, leaning on the bar to accentuate where necessary. Gress recognized that the guitar was a generous instrument that afforded players many different avenues for self-expression.
“You’ve got a lot of different places to play the same notes,” he said. “On the piano, this F is one place on the piano, whereas on the guitar [there are] five places for the same note. The guitar is like having five keyboards sticking out in front of you, two octaves each, and they’re staggered by a fourth interval and you gotta decide where you play that note.
“Playing guitar becomes very much pattern-orientated, position playing orientated, or playing along the length of a string. There are just so many ways to get from one note to the next on the guitar.”
But don’t just learn the shapes, he would say. You’ve got to learn the intervals, the spaces between notes and what they sound like. His ear for and appreciation of intervals, his guitar vocabulary, made him a natural transcriber of other artist’s work.
Gress’s credits include tab and score books of the Beatles, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Guns N’ Roses and more, plus a formidable array of reference texts, such as The Guitar Cookbook – essential reading – and Blues Lick Factory, which is a great way to expand your blues guitar vocabulary.
Gress also played with the Tony Levin band, former Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty, and with fellow Rundgren alum John Ferenzik on his solo albums. In the fan-shot video above, from 2011, he jams with the Mahavishnu Orchestra on Jeff Beck's Scatterbrain.
In 2020, Gress took ill. Following double pneumonia, flu B strain, and sepsis, he was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, and required a lung transplant. A GoFundMe was launched and transplant was successful. Scapelliti said a Gress lesson was “like gold” to Guitar Player readers. Never a truer word spoken.
“Everyone at Guitar Player is saddened to learn of Jesse’s passing, as I know our readers are,” he said. “As far as his work goes, Jesse was an institution. His lessons were like gold to our readers, and everyone was a better player for the knowledge he shared with us. I was sorry that he left the magazine to focus on his music and writing, but we were all very lucky to have benefitted from his wisdom, insights and talents for so many years. God bless him.”
For an example of that gold, head over to Guitar Player for Gress’s lesson on Todd Rundgren’s unique chordal chemistry. Gress’s family has said they will be setting up a MusiCares charity page in his memory.