Jim Tisdall - a short musical biography

Jim Tisdall is a musician from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, now living in Baltimore, Maryland. He has played with such artists as Nico (of the Velvet Underground), jazz guitarist Chuck Anderson, the James Cotton Blues Band, David Bromberg, Tyrone Brown, the Berlin rockers 17 Hippies, and appeared solo. He is a recording and performing artist, a teacher, and a writer. Recently he has performed at the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia and Wilmington, the Delaware Chamber Music Festival, and at venues around Baltimore. He has recently finished construction on a small studio where he writes, teaches, and records.

Early years

Jim began the study of the violin and the piano at age six.

At age twelve he found an abandoned guitar and Mel Bay instruction book, discovered that he loved the instrument, and began taking lessons. Within a few months he was studying with Chuck Anderson, a Dennis Sandole student who was the staff guitarist at the Latin Casino, Valley Forge Music Fair, and Shubert and Forrest Theatres in Philadelphia. Within a year Jim was substitute teaching for Chuck, and began his own teaching schedule at Medley Music and at the Wayne Music school.

Pictures of Jim at age 13 with his first electric guitar, a red Fender Mustang.

As a teenager Jim fronted some successful rock bands in the Philadelphia area, the most memorable of which featured 5-part harmonies, drums, Hammond organ, bass, and two guitars, and performed concerts at many colleges and dances. Jim also had his first jobs as a studio musician during those years, and found work as a sideman.

Jim met the great blues guitarist Buddy Guy at his concerts, and one night had the thrill of having the Buddy Guy Blues Band over to his house for an all-night jam session. Over the next few years he saw Buddy occasionally, and Buddy showed him some of his guitar techniques, such as the B.B.King-like left-hand vibrato technique, and some of his signature riffs. Jim also met the great a cappella group The Persuasions and got to join them on stage for a couple of songs.

During those years Jim went to see many of the great musicians of the day, such as Jimi Hendrix, Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, John McClaughlin, Joe Pass, Herbie Ellis, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, the Band, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Pharoah Sanders, Andres Segovia, Julian Bream, Michael Bloomfield, Ron Carter, Alice Coltrane, Mose Allison, Larry Coryell, David Bromberg, Paco de Lucia, Lee Ritenour, McCoy Tyner, James Brown, Emmylou Harris, Elvin Jones, Ravi Shankar, Willie Nelson, the list goes on and on, and so does the inspiration.

At the age of sixteen Jim performed for three nights in Poland with a rock'n'roll'n'jazz band, and gave solo concerts for audiences of thousands in the Soviet Union while on tour with a college-sponsored group.

That same summer Jim first heard John Coltrane's music, which has been a life-long source of inspiration.

Jim also began studying classical guitar at age sixteen, beginning with Fernando Sor's studies as edited by Segovia, and some of the Bach lute music, especially Julian Bream's editions. Later, while living in New York, Jim performed classical guitar music exclusively for two years as the staff guitarist at Oenophilia. This interest in the classical guitar literature continues to this day.


At college in Massachusetts Jim kept performing solo, in bands, and teaching, and began the study of electronic music on one of the early Moog synthesizers. He also wrote his first book on the guitar, and studied jazz piano, flute, and composition.

LA, Tennessee and New York

After college Jim moved to Los Angeles, and afterwards to Tennessee and New York City, before eventually moving back to Philadelphia. In LA he performed, and gave music lessons in Beverly Hills and Westwood. In Tennessee he had a recording studio, played in a country band, learned traditional old-timey music, and wrote songs with his old teaching friend Scott Gould (now a traditional fiddler). He also got to play informally at the Carter Family's old one-room general store, when they would put chairs out on Saturday night and have a concert, and he met the Red Clay Ramblers and other artists.

During this time Jim spent a few months in Chicago, staying with his good friend Jim McNamara, who at that time managed three of the town's best music clubs, including the Quiet Knight. During these months Jim was invited to play with the great James Cotton Blues Band at the legendary South Side club, Teresa's, the home and "birthplace" of the Chicago blues style. Jim also played with several other Chicago blues groups, and one night had the great pleasure of helping run the club during an appearance by the incomparable Muddy Waters, who was joined on stage during his last set by the Rolling Stones. Jim also renewed his acquaintance with Buddy Guy, dropping in on the great guitarist at his Checkerboard Lounge.

Later Jim moved his small recording studio to 5th Avenue and 17th Street in Manhattan, where he recorded, taught, and performed. He began playing the elegant Gittler electric guitar (featured in Police videos, and in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art) and became friends with the designer/musician Allan Gittler. Jim also got one of the only three Gittler basses made. Jim played and recorded informally with Walter Becker of Steely Dan, and performed many times in New York (for instance at the Mudd Club) and on tour with Nico (formerly of the Velvet Underground.) His work with Nico was recently the subject of a chapter in the autobiography "Lüül" by Lutz Ulbrich. Lutz was Nico's accompanist before Jim, and Lutz and Jim had many great times together as young musicians in New York City. (Recently Jim got to play with Lutz's great new band "17 Hippies" at The Kitchen in New York.)

Jim with the Gittler guitar in New York, taken by one of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine photographers.

Jim met many notable musicians and celebrities, such as Levon Helms, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Doc Pomus, Elizabeth Taylor, James Levine, Andy Warhol, the Police, Muddy Waters, David Johanssen of the New York Dolls (a.k.a. Buster Poindexter), the Clash, John Cale, Television, and so on. Jim played in several bands, including rock bands and a jazz fusion band, and worked at the typical working musician's jobs of dances, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and just plain bars. Jim also worked in cabaret, backing up various artists at Reno Sweeney's, where he doubled on harp, flute, and bass guitar. For two years he was the staff guitarist at Oenophilia in New York, where he performed classical guitar music on the electric Gittler guitar, and this led to performances at private parties, for instance for a small family-only dinner for actress Elizabeth Taylor. He performed "experimental" music as part of the "downtown music scene" with minimalist composers, free-jazz improvisers, and computer musicians. He did the music for a few plays, composing and performing for Shauna Kanter's What and for other shows in New York City and elsewhere.

Playing one night at a coffeehouse in Greenwich Village, Jim was delighted to find that some of his favorite musicians had come to see him play, including Tom Waits, Odetta, and the great songwriter Doc Pomus (of Elvis Presley fame.) Doc Pomus became a friend, and when The Band started their reunion tour in around 1983 Doc came by and took Jim and his girlfriend out to My Father's Place to hear the show. During intermission Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko came and joined the table. This was one of those great moments when suddenly you find yourself socializing with the heroes of your youth.

During his New York years Jim commuted back to Philadelphia to study for a few months with Dennis Sandole, the great jazz educator who had been his teacher's teacher (and who is best known as John Coltrane's theory teacher.) Having been trained in Sandole's approach, Jim passed the audition and commenced lessons. Sandole got him started on 13th arpeggios all over the neck, using his every finger, every string approach, and transcribing Coltrane solos. But the meat of his approach was to assign short musical figures that illustrated a particular concept, and to work on them from a variety of different angles. (His technical approach to guitar is summarized in his book Guitar Lore.)

While working as a musician in New York City Tisdall met Charles Dodge, the award-winning electronic music composer, and studied computer music with him at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. These studies of digital music (well before iPods or the internet or even CDs) led to a job working in digital sound and speech with the inventor of digital music, Max Mathews, at the legendary Bell Labs Acoustic Principles Research Laboratory. Most people have heard HAL the computer in the movie "2001: A Space Oddysey" singing "A Bicycle Built for Two" and this was one of Max's original digital sound creations. Max eventually retired from Bell Labs and became a professor of music at Stanford University. Jim ended up working at Bell Labs for 7 years, learning about computer sound, and earning a Master's degree in theoretical computer science at Columbia. While at Bell Labs, Jim published a paper that established a formal language for musical rhythm, which enabled one to measure the "rhythmic complexity" of a rhythm and to generate the most complex rhythms. Jim also took care of Mathews' music computers, helped him build his remarkable electric violins, and studied computer music composition.


Jim is now playing with some great musicians in the Jim Tisdall Band, which features bassist/guitarist/composer Jocko MacNelly, and the great percussionists Daoud Shaw (of Van Morrison, Jerry Garcia, SNL) and Quint Lange (performed and taught with Olatunji).

Jim also has been composing, and is presently recording new CDs. The great and eclectic musician David Bromberg was hosting regular acoustic and electric jams near his home in Wilmington, Delaware, and Jim began participating, meeting many wonderful musicians. Jim recorded a CD with Bromberg and with Tyrone Brown, the legendary jazz bassist; then a "volume two" the following year; and also a solo contemporary classical guitar suite (with a little assistance from Tyrone Brown).

Jim and Tyrone plan to release a duo jazz CD that will feature both of their compositions.

Jim at the Three Men In a Boat sessions


Jim worked as a teacher at Medley Music and at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, and also taught privately and at music schools in Los Angeles and New York City. At present Jim has a studio in the Roland Park section of Baltimore. His approach is rooted in that of Dennis Sandole, with whom he studied as a young man. (Sandole is best known as John Coltrane's theory teacher, and wrote the book Guitar Lore.)


In addition to producing Three Men In a Boat, Tisdall produced an American tour with Nico that sold out in all venues. Her work was just the subject of a special concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Arts, on January 16, 2013.
Copyright © 2010 JIM TISDALL MUSIC