The versatile, Chicago-based musician reflects on his Elmhurst College days, and how the Gretsch Foundation helped him grow as a student, teacher, and professional musician.
By Ron Denny
Chris Siebold is one of the most versatile musicians working in the business today. Pick a genre–be it rock, jazz, swing, blues, or even bluegrass–and Chris can play it with authority on his guitar or any number of other stringed instruments: mandolin, mandocello, hammer dulcimer, banjo, or even lap steel. Oh, and he can also sing, produce, and is a highly gifted composer and arranger.
This versatility, along with his deep knowledge of music, especially Chicago jazz and blues, has kept this working musician very busy the past 20 years. Chris admits he has a lot of outlets for creativity: solo work, leading the group Psycles that he formed in 2010 with some of Chicago’s finest musicians, performing with legendary harmonica master Howard Levy, and playing with The Unknown New, an instrumental folk group or with Lennon’s Tuba, a new two-man guitar and bass duo he just recently formed.
Without a doubt, Chris’s biggest test of his musical chops and versatility has been as a member of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion radio show band the past two years. “It’s been a dream job, playing and traveling with a world-class band and creating music each week that is truly Americana in feel and texture,” Chris said. “That’s the music I absolutely adore. My heroes were Chet Atkins and Les Paul, and Charlie Christian on the jazz side of things. They were just fantastic pickers. And, Willie Nelson. I was also a huge Willie Nelson fan growing up.”
A HOME FILLED OF MUSIC
When asked to describe his home and childhood, Chris summed it up in two words: very musical.
“I owe all of my musical inspiration, identity, and ambition to my parents,” he said. “My mother was a piano player and my dad was a professional drummer at one point. He also played guitar. He was a folkie, but he was also a jazz drummer. I grew up with Buddy Rich and Chick Corea and Santana and the Beatles. Music was always on. Pretty much all the time.”
Thanks to his dad’s vast record collection, Chris admits to rifling through it on a regular basis; sneaking albums up to his bedroom for a closer listen and to read the liner notes. “Yes, I would steal my dad’s records. Chuck Mangione, Sinatra, Dave Brubeck, Joe Morello, Miles Davis, The Modern Jazz Quarter, and many big bands. I’ve had the big band sound in my head for a very long time,” Chris shared. “I think a lot of people rebel against the music their parents listen to, but I was all over it. I just thought it was wonderful.”
MEETING HIS MENTOR
When Chris was a high school senior, his band teacher invited Doug Beach from nearby Elmhurst College in for Career Day. Beach was the Director of the college’s Jazz Studies and its internationally-acclaimed Jazz Band, and was also well known for his work as a composer, arranger, and publisher of educational jazz music.
“I was familiar with Doug’s name. His specialty was writing material for student ensembles and big bands, and I had been playing his charts since the eighth grade,” Chris said. Although Chris had received a scholarship from Berklee College of Music in Boston, he decided to stay in the Chicago area and enrolled at Elmhurst. It was a decision he never regretted.
Chris auditioned for the Jazz Band his first year and made it. The following summer, the band participated in a tour of Europe playing the North Sea Festival, the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Umbria Jazz Festival, and more. Chris enthusiastically described his days in the Elmhurst College Jazz Band as a fantastic and amazing learning experience.
Elmhurst is also famous for their annual Jazz Festival, bringing in the best college bands in the country, along with legendary musicians, for three days of performances and education. “The school brought in these amazing artists to collaborate with the Jazz Band,” Chris said. “I was playing with pretty fantastic players like Clark Terry, Randy Brecker, Conte Candoli, and Pete Christlieb. It was just a remarkable experience. “
One of the many benefits of attending Elmhurst was the close friendship Chris formed with Doug Beach, who became not only his teacher, but a mentor and role model as well. “I learned from the absolute best,” Chris shared. “Doug established such a culture of excellence at Elmhurst and really led by example. He helped me after college, too, with all the connections and relationships he has established over the years. Looking back, I’m so glad Doug spoke at my high school’s Career Day. I’m also glad I wasn’t sick that day.”
THE GRETSCH ELECTRIC GUITAR ENSEMBLE
After graduating in the spring of 1998 with a degree in Music Performance, Chris was asked to join Elmhurst’s Music Department, where he taught jazz guitar and led both the guitar ensemble and the school’s jazz combo. “I was teaching mainly jazz improvisation. Teaching fret board theory and harmony and obviously chord/scale relationships, and learning tunes as well,” Chris said. “I also led the guitar ensemble; finding or writing charts or having the students write charts. I loved the ensemble. We did two recitals a year. I also ran a jazz combo which was a lot of fun too.”
Several years into his teaching career, Chris and one of the college’s Trustees arranged a meeting with Fred Gretsch, President of the Gretsch Company and an Elmhurst College alumni, at Fred’s office in Savannah, Georgia. Chris was eager to meet Fred because he had been a fan of Gretsch guitars since he was nine-years-old. He’d grown up admiring George Harrison, Neil Young, and especially Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats, who were all over MTV when Chris was growing up in the 1980s.
Chris shared that he and Fred really hit if off and the meeting went better than expected. “Fred agreed to fund the existing guitar ensemble,” Chris said. “Not only that, but he donated a guitar to the college and let me hand pick it from his studio guitar collection. I’d much rather Fred had donated it to me, because it’s a beautiful Gretsch Country Gentleman Jr., just a fantastic sounding guitar.”
With the donation, Elmhurst’s guitar ensemble was officially named the Gretsch Electric Guitar Ensemble, which Chris led for the next seven years. “Having the Gretsch name attached to the ensemble really helped to establish it and give it an identity,” Chris said. “The funding also helped publicize our concerts, which were two per semester, and get exposure and recognition. There wasn’t YouTube or social media around in those days.”
LIFE LESSONS LEARNED
In addition to learning what he called the “nuts and bolts” of music theory, Chris said his four years at Elmhurst and being around his mentor, Doug Beach, also prepared him for becoming a working musician. “The discipline of playing music to the best of your ability; playing in an ensemble, being a member of the team in a sense, and then feeling what it’s actually like to be a working musician,” Chris explained. “Doing gigs. Getting there on time. Having a good attitude. Making sure you’re prepared with the material you’re about to play. Making sure you’re professional. Making sure you do your fair share of lugging equipment afterwards. I did that for four years. It was a remarkable experience. One that I am so thankful for.”
Chris also realizes how much he and other music students have benefitted from Fred and Dinah Gretsch’s generosity to Elmhurst College. By leading the Gretsch Electric Guitar Ensemble, Chris knows it made him a better arranger; tackling complex, advanced works ranging from jazz standards to Mozart. And, Chris admits he also continued learning as he taught students the importance of listening, blending in, and knowing and finding your place within an ensemble of up to six guitars and a rhythm section. Not an easy skill to learn.
The Gretsch Foundation also funded the Sylvia and William Gretsch Memorial Recording Studio, named in memory of Fred’s parents. This state-of-the-art studio is considered a central element of Elmhurst’s music education program and played a critical role in Chris’s education. “When I was a student, I worked in the studio quite a bit for other people and on some of my own music,” Chris said. “And, when I was a teacher, I would sometimes have rehearsals in there or I would sit in and produce some sessions that students would do. I used it a lot. And, learned a lot about the art of recording.”
Chris is just one of hundreds of Elmhurst College alumni to be positively impacted by Fred and Dinah Gretsch’s goal of supporting music education and enriching lives through participation in music. When asked to reflect back on his years at Elmhurst, Chris said, “My Elmhurst College days, both as a student and a teacher for nine years, were quite an experience. It’s very much responsible for me being where I’m at today. It’s who I am. A lot of the culture that I participated in has really made me the musician that I am. Without a question.”
About The Gretsch Foundation and Elmhurst College
The Gretsch Foundation is the charitable arm of the Gretsch family, whose mission is enriching lives through participation in music. In addition to funding the Gretsch Electric Guitar Ensemble and Sylvia and William Gretsch Memorial Recording Studio, the Gretsch Foundation also funds scholarships for students of music and music business, provides Gretsch drums for all music department ensembles, and is a major supporter of the annual Elmhurst College High School Invitational Jazz Festival, which is a regular part of the nationally-acclaimed Elmhurst College Jazz Festival. In honor of his longtime commitment and generosity to his alma mater, Fred Gretsch received an honorary Doctor of Music degree at the school’s Spring 2016 Commencement Ceremony.
Chris performing his beautiful song “Amor Afastado (for Britt)” on A Prairie Home Companion.
Playing with The Renegades, a popular, entertaining Chicago-area jazz-fusion band. Give a listen to Chris’s blistering solo starting at 2:12.
Chris performing “Friday Night at the Cadillac Club” with Chicago’s David Polk Project, a blues, jazz and funk band. Check out Chris’s impressive solo starting at 3:25.