December 7, 1998
George Van Eps, 85, Musician Who Popularized 7-String Guitar
By Peter Watrous, NY Times
George Van Eps, a guitarist who played with some of the biggest names in jazz and pioneered the seven-string guitar, died on Nov. 29 at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 85 and lived in Huntington Beach, Calif.
His family said the cause was pneumonia.
The seven-string guitar, which Mr. Van Eps helped popularize, allowed him to use his harmonic imagination. The seventh string, added in the bass, gave him the ability to play more orchestrally, adding bass lines below the chord, and making the guitar a more convincing solo instrument. Mr. Van Eps referred to the guitar as his lap piano.
Though his career started early in jazz history, his quiet sophistication never received the attention received by the guitarists Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and their followers. But he did have several important students, including the guitarists Ron Eschete, from Louisiana, and Howard Alden and Bucky Pizzarelli, from New York.
Mr. Van Eps came from a musical family, with his mother, father and brothers all playing; George Gershwin was a regular guest in the house. He began professionally at the age of 11 in New Jersey and he performed for six months with an early idol, the guitarist Eddie Lang, in the Smith Ballew band.
During the 1930’s, Mr. Van Eps worked with Freddy Martin, Benny Goodman and Ray Noble.
In 1938 Mr. Van Eps, who had recently moved to California, went to the Epiphone guitar company to broaden the palette of his instrument, adding the seventh string.
He then spent much of the next several decades working in recording studios, in part for the 1950’s film and television series ”Pete Kelly’s Blues.”
He recorded occasionally for Capitol Records during the 1960’s; in the 1970’s an illness, and an accident that injured his hand, took him off the music scene for a while.
But in the 1990’s he surfaced with a series of fine records for Concord Jazz, recording with Mr. Alden, and an album with the guitarist Johnny Smith.
He is survived by a daughter, Kay Van Eps of Huntington Beach.