Fareed Haque Interview: The Best of Both Worlds

By: Brad Conroy

Very few musicians will be able to accomplish and achieve as much success and acclaim as guitarist Fareed Haque. His career is still in full force with many endeavors yet to come, but so far he’s worked with an incredible number of diverse artists that range from Sting, Paquito D’Rivera, Joe Zawinul, Vieaux Faraka Toure, Dave Holland, Larry Coryell, Kurt Elling, Zakir Hussein, and the list just keeps going and growing.

Haque has the kind of career that most serious musicians dream about. He’s toured the world with his own bands, has been a sideman numerous times, performed all of the major classical guitar concertos with various orchestras around the world, extensive recording, has his own PBS special, and he is professor of jazz and classical guitar studies at Northern Illinois University.

Haque moves effortlessly between the classical guitar, which is the instrument he studied most during his collegiate days, to the jazz and fusion styles he plays on electric guitar. Being so well versed in so many styles has helped earn him much acclaim. Guitar Player Magazine voted Haque “Best World Guitarist” in 2009 and was voted “Most Valuable Player” at the 2002 High Sierra Music Festival.

With Haque, the sky’s the limit, and currently Haque is pushing the envelope with his newest groups on the scene MathGames, featuring the talented guitarist on MOOG guitar, and the really cool Hindustani folk-funk band, The Flat Earth Ensemble.

There is a lot to look forward to, and recently Haque sat down with Guitar International to talk about how he got started with the guitar, classical vs. jazz, his current endeavors and what the future might hold.

Fareed Haque Guitar

Fareed Haque


Brad Conroy: How did you get started playing the guitar?

Fareed Haque: I started playing guitar when I was 11. According to Spinal Tap fans, this is a very auspicious age to begin playing guitar. I also started on piano when I was 8 and string bass when I was 9.

Brad: Who were some of your early influences?

Fareed Haque: Early on I loved my parents’ record collection. Classical guitar by Jose Rey de la Torre, Flamenco, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, Hindi movie songs, Classical music, Ella Fitzgerald singing the Cole Porter and Gershwin Songbooks. Later, my mom got me some guitar records like Pat Martino‘s Joyous Lake, Pat Metheny’s Bright Size Life, Al DiMeola’s Elegant Gypsy. What a hip mom! Those are the records that led me to explore jazz.

Brad: What made you go to school to study classical guitar?

Fareed Haque: Well, I had a jazz guitar scholarship at North Texas State University, thanks to my band director Merlin Escott. What a blessing to have “Mr. E” as my High School Music director. Merlin Escott had played string bass with San Antonio Symphony and many others, as well as touring with Glen Miller’s orchestra. He was the real deal.

He set up an audition for me with Rich Matteson, and they accepted me. I’ll never forget the bear hug I got from Rich when I arrived on NTSU campus. He lifted me off my feet. What a musician and what a huge heart. I got to study with the legendary Jack Peterson and started classical guitar studies with Tom Johnson.

I had always loved classical music, but had no formal classical guitar training. As much as I loved NTSU, I had completed much of the jazz program by the time my freshman year was ending and had a scholarship offer to Northwestern in Evanston IL. So I transferred. I figured I could gig in Chicago and study classical guitar there, so it worked out well.

Brad: Can you describe your experience in school?

Fareed Haque: I had fun, but I was a serious practicer, not much of a partier. I played lots of gigs too, went to many jam sessions, especially Von Freeman’s sessions on the South Side. I like to learn and read, so college was a blast. By my senior year I was gigging a lot, on tour with Paquito D’Rivera, though most of my NU professors we’re very understanding. But I worked my butt off. I skipped all music history classes by taking the study guides home and studying on my own, and then just taking the final exams. I did the same with Jazz Theory at NTSU thanks to Dan Hearle. I was hungry that’s for sure.

Brad: What are some of the benefits of earning a college music degree?

Fareed Haque: I think it’s way more important now, but had I not had the degree then, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to get on faculty at NIU. That being said, with no degree I might’ve been forced to gig and tour more. So I don’t have simple answer. I don’t think college is for everyone. But for me, I love books and learning so it was a great experience.

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Brad: How has classical guitar helped your jazz guitar playing and playing in general?

Fareed Haque: I’m more with Wynton on this one. I think jazz playing helped my classical playing, more than the other way around. But I love clarity, and precise articulation anyway, whether it’s jazz or classical music. Classical music has taught me a lot about music in general. But, in terms of technique, I think jazz and classical guitar are two different instruments.

There are similarities in terms of the left hand, but in general classical guitar is a tradition, as is jazz guitar. So you don’t just study classical guitar, you need to learn about classical style, and baroque style and romantic style and Spanish style and flamenco and South American music. In jazz you’ve got to play the blues, and rhythm changes, and ballads and modern tunes. Once you embrace the traditions of each instrument they become pretty different from each other.

Brad: Obviously it has paid off that you are able to play classical guitar and electric guitar at such a high level. Can you talk about how this has helped you shape your playing and career?

Fareed Haque: Certainly being able to play classical guitar made me a better reader, and there are many gigs that I’ve gotten simply because I was the only cat who could read the book. In addition, playing classical was a great help in playing Brazilian jazz styles, and that was what I think initially caught the attention of Paquito and many others. I want to be clear. I didn’t study classical guitar to be well rounded or as any sort of career move. I played classical guitar because I love it. It’s the same with jazz.

Brad: Can you tell us about some of the music projects and groups you have going on?

Fareed Haque: It’s a busy time. I’ve just left Garaj Mahal. It’s been 10 years and it’s now time for new things. I’m in the middle of completing three new CDs. A Jazz Trio recording featuring Billy Hart on Drums and George Mraz on Bass, another recording featuring my MOOG guitar based trio MathGames with Greg Fundis on Electric and Acoustic drums, Alex Austin on upright and electric bass.

And Bing, Bang, Boing a follow-up to Flat Planet, with my Hindustani folk-funk band The Flat Earth Ensemble featuring some of the greatest musicians: Subrata Bhattacharya and Salar Nader on Tabla, Indrajit Banerjee on sitar and Nirmalya Roy singing as well as incredible piano virtuoso WiIlerm Delisfort, Jason Smart on drums and the anchor Alex Austin on bass.

I am also just putting the finishing touches on 2 Three-hour courses for Truefire. One course is on my approach to pentatonics in jazz rock, the other my approach to teaching jazz comping. Both courses are distilled from my years teaching at NIU, so I’m very excited to finally get these out.

You get three plus hours of me on film, playing and explaining as well as everything transcribed in tab and notation, play-along tracks and written text and graphics. So this is much hipper and way better than a book. I feel strongly that with a few exceptions, guitar pedagogy stinks, especially at the pre-college level. I hope these courses will be a first step at introducing some standards to the guitar world. We are way overdue.

And of course I’m touring. I just got back from Oman, heading to the Java Jazz Festival, permanently Jetlagged.

Brad: You’ve worked with so many different types of musicians from diverse genres, can you tell us what are some of the elements that you think make a great musician?

Fareed Haque: Time, rhythm, openness and creativity. Egolessness. That’s important to explain. Egoless doesn’t mean without Ego. I know some cats that I’ve played with have a hard time being in the spotlight, so they assume everything is about being in it, or not being in it. Frankly, I don’t give a shit. I’m just as happily play for 50 people as I am 50,000. For me playing is a party. It’s not about me, or you, or the audience. It’s about us. So if I’m blowing and someone feels it and yells during my solo I think that’s great. Other musicians feel it’s insulting. To them I say, “Get over yourself!”

Brad: Can you tell us a little about what it’s like being professor of guitar at NIU and what you’ve learned from your students?

Fareed Haque: I try not to treat my students like children. They’re college students, so I treat them like adults. No special rules. Academic environments try to create an “alternate” reality from the work-a-day world. In the long run that’s a formula for extinction and obsolescence. I always learn from my students because I don’t try to create an environment where I’m a Guru.

I’m a student like them, maybe a bit further down the path than some. I’ll always try to make honest mistakes and errors in front of my students, try to be real for my students. Those that are just playing at being professionals soon drop out. The real ones get the real deal. That’s why such a high percentage of my graduating students go on to careers in music. Also, I like new music, and often students are more into what’s new and hip than other faculty. So yes, I learn a lot from them.