Lenny Breau Bio
"Lenny remains the Pacific Ocean of fingerstyle jazz guitar inspiration. Unmatched technique, stylistic diversity beyond belief and that musical wistful intelligence that I doubt we'll ever see again. It's great to have a musical hero you can still be amazed at after 40 years of study." - Kent Hillman
Painting by John Froehlich
The late Lenny Breau was a guitarist with staggering technique and a mind for innovation; he played with an evocative style that effortlessly jumped between genres. Beyond Breau’s breath-taking skill, he was equally known for his gentle nature and warm smile.
Born August 5, 1941, in Auburn, Maine, Breau came into a musical family; his parents, Harold “Hal Lone Pine” Breau and Betty Cody (Coté), were professional country singers who enjoyed a good measure of success in the northeastern U.S.A. Lenny Breau began playing guitar at 8, and by 14 was picking lead, billed as “Lone Pine Junior”, in his parents’ band.
The family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1957, where they continued performing and recording, and had their own radio show. When he lived there, Breau taught guitar; one promising student was future Guess Who and BTO guitarist, Randy Bachman, who regards Breau’s lessons as “life-changing”.
The stuff of legend, Breau was reprimanded by his father for improvising during a live performance, and he left the family band to seek out jazz musicians who would give him the freedom to explore the sounds in his head, to improvise all he wanted to.
Soon Breau was playing the prestigious Village Vanguard in New York City and appearing on network television shows like Jackie Gleason and Joey Bishop. When he returned to Canada he served as a session guitarist for CBC Radio and Television.
Breau started out in country, but was drawn to jazz, developing a unique style that literally and figuratively had one foot in New York and the other in Nashville. Flamenco, Middle Eastern influences and other styles were evident in his playing. He pioneered concepts using techniques such as artificial harmonics, seemingly on a mission to expand the boundaries and so-called limits of the guitar.
Along the way Chet Atkins caught wind of Breau and a life-long friendship began. Breau’s major-label debut, “Guitar Sounds of Lenny Breau”, was released on RCA in 1968, overseen by his mentor, Atkins. “The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau” was recorded live in 1969 at the famed Shelly’s Manne-hole in Hollywood. His chord/melody work was an epiphany for generations of guitarists from all genres.
A transient life came with the territory; Breau lived in Canada and the United States, spending time in Nashville and Maine, teaching master classes and writing for Guitar Player magazine.
Although Breau had a long history of drug issues, he seemed to have moved beyond that when on August 12, 1984, his body was found in a Los Angeles swimming pool. The circumstances of his death were mysterious; his wife, Jewel, was suspected but never charged, and the case remains unsolved to this day.
A documentary film, “The Genius of Lenny Breau” was released in 1999, produced by his daughter, Emily Hughes. CBC Radio made two documentaries on Breau’s life, including, “On the Trail of Lenny Breau”.
Although he has been gone for decades, Breau’s legacy lives on in the countless guitar players he inspired and the joy he brought to his many fans. When it comes to Lenny Breau’s guitar playing, the best said that he was better, and his peers said he has none…