Elmhurst College’s Unique Musical Endeavor
Ensembles of various descriptions are a staple of music education programs at colleges and universities across the country. Most tend to be based on stylistic or ethnic themes, such as big band ensembles, classical string ensembles, Latin jazz ensembles, etc. But the music program at Elmhurst College in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst, Illinois boasts an ensemble based on a rather unusual instrumental grouping. This is the Gretsch Electric Guitar Ensemble.
While virtually all other ensemble opportunities for electric guitarists have only one guitar chair, the GEGE features five electric guitarists, a bass guitarist, and a drummer. This provides a unique opportunity for guitarists to learn to play with each other, emphasizing blend, balance, phrasing, dynamics, and articulation.
There are actually two electric guitar ensembles at Elmhurst, and they date back to 1992. Through an audition process at the start of each academic year, the top five guitarists are placed in the Gretsch Electric Guitar Ensemble—so named in 1993 to honor the support and contributions of Gretsch Company president (and Elmhurst College alum) Fred W. Gretsch. Since the early 1990s the Gretsch Family has generously funded student scholarships in music and music business, as well as the development of the Gretsch Recording Studio at the college.
The GEGE has had four directors since its founding. Current director Mike Pinto has led the group since 2007. The Ensemble is part of the jazz department, and while the repertoire certainly includes jazz, it also includes fusion, rock, blues, and pop. Says Pinto, “I feel that electric guitar students studying jazz here at the college need to be versatile and learn to apply jazz skills to other electric guitar-oriented styles. We play only arrangements written specifically for five guitars, bass, and drums. Charts of this type are available for sale, but there aren’t a ton of them. So I write many arrangements for the group, and students are encouraged to write arrangements as well. We’ve performed many student charts over the years that I’ve directed the group.”
Students register for the Ensemble as a class, and it is an educational experience for them. But with an eye to “the real world,” Mike Pinto teaches and directs the group within the context of preparing for professional performances. To support this approach the Ensemble performs three to five times per semester, both on- and off-campus.
After the Ensemble was named in his honor, Fred Gretsch donated a Gretsch Country Gentleman Junior guitar to the group. Mike Pinto is now entrusted with that guitar, and he uses it to teach with. It’s also occasionally played by students in the Ensemble.
Speaking of students, the current roster of the GEGE includes five very talented young guitarists, along with equally talented gentlemen on bass and drums. Most are seniors who are concluding their tenure in the group…and at the college. Individually, they are:
Andrew Ecklund (guitar). A senior music business and jazz studies major at Elmhurst, Andrew has been a member of the Gretsch Electric Guitar Ensemble, the Elmhurst College Jazz Band, and jazz combo. His talent and dedication earned him the Gretsch music scholarship for the 2011/2012 school year. Andrew is also active in the Chicago music scene, playing with numerous rock bands and big bands. He appreciates the opportunities that music gives him to share and teach, and he does so as a member of the GRAMMY Foundation team.
Peter Jump (guitar). Peter holds a Bachelor of Arts in Music degree and a Performance Certificate from Elmhurst College. He’s a composer and arranger of a number of works for solo guitar, guitar quartet, and various types of ensembles. He has composed music for several student films and video games, which is his primary career interest. Some significant influences to his guitar playing are David Gilmour, Buckethead, and Greg Howe.
Matt Richter (guitar) Matt is a senior who’ll be graduating with a degree in Music Business. His involvement in music includes playing classical and jazz guitar, as well teaching students of various skill levels at a local music store. Matt plans to go on to graduate school to obtain his masters degree in classical guitar performance.
Dan Weiss (guitar). Dan is an exercise science major (with minors in music and business administration) who played his first two years at Elmhurst in another one of Mike Pinto’s electric guitar ensembles, and the most recent two in the Gretsch Ensemble. Dan is also passionate about drums and percussion, as well as tinkering with any kind of instrument he can get his hands on.
Richard Stancato (bass). Richard is a senior Music Business major. He’s been playing bass with the Gretsch Guitar Ensemble for one semester. He cites his main influences on the bass as including Jaco Pastorius, Les Claypool, and Stanley Clarke.
Joel Baer (drums). A senior and a jazz studies major, Joel began playing and learning drums from his father Jeff. He alater became interested in jazz while studying with Jack Brand. Joel works regularly around Chicago, playing with bluesman Pistol Pete, progressive rock guitarist Clark Colborn, and several jazz groups.
To document the talents of the current edition of the Gretsch Electric Guitar Ensemble, the group has produced a professional recording of one of their unique arrangements.
Click below to check out the video and enjoy the sounds of this exceptional musical group.