He’s been playing guitar for over 45 years, making all kinds of music in nearly all types of settings. Sometimes as a teacher at the Blue Guitar, doing other work in recording studios, quite often playing live music that can vary from big band to rock, from country to Django Reinhardt-style Gypsy swing jazz. Steve Nichols has made a living picking and fretting six-stringed guitars, and has done so for decades–a professional musician, and he sums it up his approach:
“Most every gig is a learning experience, acquiring something to take to the next gig as an improvement.” He especially enjoys the freedom and challenges presented by jazz–as well as the zone that it puts him in.
“Guitar soloing is probably my favorite thing to do, because it’s that creative spontaneity in real time. There is a Zen about it, a healing process. And as I see it, when I go play a jazz gig and am done playing two or three songs, I take a deep breath and go wow, and I have this sense, I feel like I’m getting these endorphins. My end game is that whatever I’m thinking in my mind, I want it to go to my fingers to the guitar and to the people, without any bars.”
It was no surprise that Nichols discovered his affinity for the six-string when he was young, as his family relocated to the East County and El Cajon when he was a year old, including a dad and grandfather who were multi-instrumentalists. Grandfather taught college strings classes, and Steve started trumpet in third grade. By junior high he was in rock bands.
“I joined a rock group in need of a vocalist for the school talent contest. A day later the group lost its rhythm guitarist and I was asked to fill that position.” The crash course he got from the other guitarist was the start of a lifelong relationship and was soon being paid to sing and play Monkees and Association songs at dances for kids in his own age group. At El Cajon Valley High School when the Cajon Valley was a hotbed for guitar rockers, he made contacts with “Cactus” Soldi and his son Jim at Valley Music, and took private lessons from Marty Stewart. Nichols decided after high school to major in music at Grossmont Community College, where the emphasis led to a decision.
“I got to the point with the classical guitar over the intermediate level where I had to make a choice: do I want to keep playing classical, or do I want to go with the popular, commercial music? And I decided I want to make a living with guitar and worked on the jazz and improvisational skills.” He was also taking lessons from Bill Coleman at Blue Guitar at the time, helping him pick up skills in single line and bebop playing. In about 1976, that relationship led to a job opportunity, as Coleman left a spot as guitarist in a show band for an entertainer named CC Jones and asked Nichols if he’d like to replace him.
“CC was an entertainer, he was a comedian, a singer and dancer. That was my first big gig; we played Las Vegas, Reno, and Lake Tahoe. I toured all through the western states–if we weren’t doing the Vegas circuit, which took about three months, he’d spend a month in each city, and in between he would put us in cities throughout the western states and Canada. I had an old ’64 Dodge van and I drove, most of the time one of the other musicians would ride with me. Our rooms were paid for, and we had some expenses paid. I had to join the union to do that job, but it was wonderful.” After a year of great experience, Nichols left, landing a five-night-a-week local gig with a club house band. His plans to finish his school degree went on hold again, but he was making money and forming friendships and contacts that would help his career in future years.
“After about 10 years, the steady gig I had with the rock band ended. Almost my last day, somebody walks in the club and says, ‘Hey, down the street there’s a country western band that needs a guitar player.’ And I’m going, ‘I don’t know any country.’ Well, my dad was a country musician, so I had it in my blood; I’ve listened to it all of my life. So, I’m playing with these musicians, and they knew I didn’t know any of the material. I learned all of the songs on the spot.”
Nichols kept busy, and his singing ability didn’t hurt, as he would sing as many as 20 songs a night. “That went on and that was my living, and I guess I did okay, because I would always have work. People would call me, and would come into the club and get to know who I was.” Around 1980, he had a good gig with a New Wave band called Illusion, and he also played a lot with the Bill Green Orchestra, Barry Joyce Quintet, and did showcasing in LA, including playing at the Troubadour. Then, leaner times soon meant fewer gigs for many musicians, as club owners tightened up on bookings.
“First, everybody was doing five nights a week, then the economy slowly got worse, so the owners said, ‘Let’s do four nights a week.’ Over time, through the years it just went down, to three nights, then to two nights a week–and that was pretty constant for quite a few clubs. So, around the late ’80s, all of the band leaders had to step up and knock on doors to keep the bookings coming in.”
Being open to multiple genres helped Nichols keep plenty of work during his touring years, but he had his favorite artists. “In the early days, when I played a lot, Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana were my big influences when I was totally into rock. But halfway through that era, I got good at it and I needed to go somewhere else with it, so it was jazz. Even Carlos Santana played with John McLaughlin, so when I started hearing jazz fusion, that was me. That was where I wanted to go because I always wanted to break the ice into this realm of creativity and spontaneity, and how far I could take it.” Other favorites include Wes Montgomery, and George Benson. “Danny Gatton in the country field has done stuff that is just incredible.”
Playing top 40 or classic rock has never bothered Nichols. “Through all of the years of playing music, I have had to follow where the dollar was; I’ve accepted how to do that and not been out on a gig and been in a bad mood. I can play a song over and over, every night, same song, and I try to make it better each time I play it. That’s my goal.” While he admits to always being a “frustrated jazz player,” he points to experiences like the motel room jams with the other members of the CC Jones band, cutting loose with jazz riffs.
He recorded an album of jazz and original pop with Ron Bell and other local veteran musicians in the band Crosswinds in 2005, titled Running Down. He also has had other opportunities to play the music he loves for corporate functions in recent years. He is very appreciative of booking agent Peggy Jewel of Innovative Entertainment, who has been important in booking him gigs on his own and with his Gypsy Swing Cats project for several years. The Gypsy Swing Cats are Nichols, fellow guitarist Guy Gonzalez, and standup bassist Evona Wascinski, often augmented by violinists like Chris Vitas. They recorded a 2013 CD, Opus, which is a delightful collection of Django Rhinehardt-style acoustic jazz, played on the big, loud Manouche-style guitars favored by the gypsy master; the album contains about half Rhinehardt originals and his vibe throughout.
“The gypsy swing music is very difficult to learn. I’ve gotten to the point where I can perform it live and it sounds like Gypsy swing. There are so many people in Europe that are such incredible players, they are way up in the clouds. My partner Guy Gonzalez has gone a little bit further than me I actually believe, as far as the actual style and the picking technique. He has really gotten good at that, especially the waltzes. And I have gotten good at the rhythm, backing him up–however, we always trade off soloing and improvising. I think I do about 40% where I do the melodies and he does the other 60% of the melodies. It’s been a wonderful relationship with Guy.”
Nichols is pleased with the Gypsy Swing Cats, which came together almost by accident and he now claims that it is the most lucrative of any gig he has ever done, playing music he loves. They are very active, with “contracts sitting at home right now.”
Another important recent development for Nichols is being selected to represent Eastman Guitars. He landed the endorsement and will be representing the company, playing their instruments throughout Southern California–with the first seminar to take place on his home turf at the Blue Guitar. He is effusive about the quality of the imported, handmade instruments in terms of the quality offered at the price. Nichols, the professional, has summed up his three-pronged approach to his career as such:
“That’s what I’ve always had to do, I’ve always done the three things together: retail, lessons, and performance. Those three things together have made a living for me; to get married, buy a house, have two children, and raise them.”
He used to work at Valley Music a few decades back and has marked 22 years working for founder Yuris Zeltins and owner DeForest Thornburgh at the Blue Guitar, where he now teaches five to ten students per week. “I used to teach a lot about 15 years ago. I had about 20 to 25 students a week. Lately, I perform more; I make most of my money when I perform and that is what I want to do, with the solo guitar and the Gypsy Swing Cats.”
Looking back, Nichols mentions career highlights: “I’ll never forget playing onstage with Lou Rawls. It was a New Year’s Eve event at the Hotel Del Coronado and the backing band was the Bill Green Orchestra. It was a dinner thing and I think it was $250 a plate to see that show. Anyway, Bill Green hired me to sing, and he had me do some songs I really didn’t sing all the time. So, here I had the lyrics in front of me. But I think I did okay, because he called me back to another gig after that.”
Future plans include recording a solo album that will be predominantly instrumental jazz, and another Gypsy Swing Cats album, which is in pre-production now.
“Nowadays, someone asks me, what’s your favorite kind of music? And I say, there are two kinds of music, there’s good and bad. You can go and play the simplest of music, and you can play it well or you can play it incorrectly. Every genre has a way that it should be played, where you play it with the correct notes. You play it with feeling, you play it with dynamics, all of those elements that make music what it should be, and I like all styles of music, I like everything.”
The professional perhaps puts everything in perspective this way. “Family was so important to me, I’ve always wanted to achieve goals that my grandfather and father did. My mom told me, ‘Believe in yourself and trust in God.’ That always kept me going.”