Joe Pisapia arrived in Nashville in the early ’90s along with his brother, drummer, Marc Pisapia. Their band, Joe, Marc’s Brother, showcased their love of harmony and adventurous pop as only siblings can play and sing it, while introducing the Nashville community to Pisapia’s songwriting and guitar playing.
These days, Pisapia is a sought after producer, engineer and arranger. Recent productions include Sing It Loud, the new record by k.d. lang and the Siss Boom Bang, which also features his songwriting, as well as the most recent Ben Folds Five record.
But for Pisapia, it all starts with the guitar. “There are so many things to love about guitar, the way the pick feels against the strings, the way the strings feel under your fingers,” says Pisapia. “You can take it anywhere. It’s a portable box of fun.
“Growing up, my brother and I shared a room. We had a stereo in there, and we would play Legos or Matchbox cars on the rug in front of the speakers,” he remembers. “I was 9 years old when I got my first guitar — a Yamaha acoustic. There were kids in the neighborhood into guitars. We would show each other songs like ‘Smoke On The Water’ and ‘Iron Man.’ Stuff you could play on one string, it was like the oral tradition of riff in the neighborhood.”
Pisapia’s love of guitar began as a kid growing up in Rahway, NJ. “I remember listening to WPLJ one night, and this song came on. What I was hearing was blowing my mind. I was transfixed. It was like, ‘Put the toys down, what’s that?’” he laughs. By age nine the outro from Derek and The Dominoes “Layla” had become a favorite. “I remember thinking, ‘how do I do something that sounds like that?’ I taped it off the radio and listened to it over and over.”
That Lego-dropping moment provided the inspiration to go from one-string songs to those that used all six. Pisapia soon began lessons with a local teacher, but that didn’t go so well. “He was burnt out and bitter and would belittle me because I couldn’t play ‘Rondo’ out of the Mel Bay book.”
His next teacher was a much better fit. A chain-smoking wedding band guitar player with great tone and jazz chops who introduced Pisapia to a broader musical spectrum. “He would teach me the songs he had to learn for his wedding band, the pop hits of the day — stuff like Stephen Bishop, Hall & Oates, Christopher Cross. Those songs had composition. They weren’t just simple pieces. I loved those chords, the way they sounded,” recalls Pisapia.
“All my friends wanted to play Zeppelin and stuff, which I liked, but I remember thinking, ‘Why would you just want the Crayola 8 pack when you can have the 64 pack with the built in sharpener?’” Which is when he decided he needed an electric guitar.
“I had to have a Gibson Les Paul. That was the guitar,” he says. “I convinced my dad over a period of 6 or 8 months that I needed this guitar. He wanted to make sure that if I got an electric guitar that I would stick with it, not like the skateboard in the back of the garage. I remember saying, ‘no, I’m really into it,’ and how I would be able to get all these other sounds that I couldn’t get from the acoustic.
“I convinced him,” says Pisapia. “I remember the salesman trying to sell me a lesser model. I said, ‘No. It has to be a Les Paul.’”
Thirteen-year-old Joe Pisapia became the proud owner of a Cherry Sunburst Les Paul Custom that day.
“It’s the heaviest guitar I’ve ever played, I was this tiny little kid with this big guitar. I remember taking it out of the case, the strap, the coil cord, the picks. I walked all around the house with it, stood in front of the mirror, the whole bit. It was a big day,” he remembers.
“I was never one to just sit and practice,” he says. “I had gotten a few pedals, a distortion, an analog delay and a flanger. I would sit in front of the amp for hours, plugging things in and out, trying different combinations, making different sounds. It was really meditative, kind of a release for me. Just like it is today.
“I never wanted to follow the rules, I was kind of a punk-ass about it really,” he laughs. “I wanted to see what I could do, what I could make with the guitar. I love bluegrass but it has a lot of rules, and I love jazz, too, but there are a lot of rules. That’s what I love about pop, it’s the mutt of music. It’s where everything ends up. I like to mix it all up and see what I come out with.”
“Some of my favorite musical moments were at Joe, Marc’s Brother shows where we would get into these long improvised jams, where we were creating something spontaneously, the sum was greater than the parts. Band and audience being taken for a ride in the moment.”
“When I’m producing, I always start by learning the songs on the acoustic. That gives me an understanding of the basic road map,” Pisapia says. “If I’m arranging harmonies around a chord, I’m picking the notes out on the acoustic.”
“I really think of guitars as their own string section, the baritone guitar is the cello, the bass is the bass. The acoustic guitars and the high string are the violins and violas and the banjo is like the ugly cousin or something,” he laughs.
Pisapia will often be called upon to play an overdub while producing. “I don’t play lap steel like David Lindley or pedal steel like Paul Franklin. I’ll never be as good as Paul Franklin. But at the very least, I know I’m trying to be creative and honest. You can never be bored with a guitar, if you get stuck in a rut, just change the tuning and you have all these new sounds and chords to come up with new ideas,” he says. “You could sit for an hour and just play different intervals and listen and feel something different.”
It is a portable box of fun, after all.