Joe Mapp

Jazz guitarists Joe Mapp.

A little more than four years ago, I found myself on this strip of sand we call the Outer Banks, thousands of miles from my Southern Californian birthplace and what I now refer to as “back home.” Geographically and culturally they’re about as far away as one can get. But musically, not so much. There are world-class players everywhere, many are right here on our sandbar, and I found that out pretty quickly.

One of my first stops was Art’s Place, which I was told has some of the best burgers in North Carolina and hosts one of the finest jazz guitarists around: Joe Mapp.

I’ve been trying to write about Mapp since I started my column, and he eventually acquiesced to an interview by email. His answers were succinct -- he doesn’t brag or self-promote -- and in some cases revealed a wry sense of humor. My standard opening query is, “What brought you to the Outer Banks?” Mapp’s answer? “My car.”

Mapp hails from the Annandale, Virginia, area. In his early 20s, he moved to New York City. It was there that his musician brother-in-law connected him to people that became his friends and teachers and where he informally studied under Mike Stern, a one-time member of Miles Davis’ band.

Mapp worked as a bicycle messenger and played in, of all things, a mariachi band. He eventually relocated to Boston and studied at the Berklee College of Music. I asked him if he graduated. “No,” he told me. “I didn’t complete the math and English requirements.”

After leaving Boston, he lived in Washington, D.C., at a time when guitar legends such as Roy Buchanan and Danny Gatton were fixtures in local clubs. His car may have brought him to the Outer Banks where his father had built a house, but his motivation was discovering a dead body on the steps of his D.C. condo one morning.

“I just wanted out of there,” Mapp said.

In his time here, he’s played with the best of the Outer Banks’ musical immigrants and locals in a variety of bands, cranking out country, rock, blues and finally settling in on what he describes as “twangy jazz.”

It’s his approach to jazz guitar that most impresses. His lines can be blazingly fast, yet it’s more than just speed. He makes musical statements and, at the drop of a hat, he’s able to bend and extend notes that wrench feelings out of his instrument and the listener.

Local drummer Dan Martier, Mapp’s bandmate and himself a musician and teacher of some renown, said Mapp’s tone makes him special.

“It’s a beautiful tone,” Martier said. “A lot of people compare him with Danny Gatton, but Joe’s sound has a certain lushness. A big sound. He has speed and chops, but he has musicality. His dynamics, his ideas, his phrasing are really unique. He has his own voice.”

I’ve seen Mapp work his guitar magic many times at various locations on the beach. Not only in his natural jazz habitat, but crossing into genres like country, rock, rockabilly and the blues. He does so with aplomb.

I’ve witnessed what Mapp has accomplished as a guitar teacher, most notably through Matt Wentz, one of the exceptional members of the Outer Banks-based rock band Zack Mexico, and Ed Tupper, one of our most in-demand local musicians.

“He’s changed the level of musicianship here by sharing his musical knowledge,” Martier said of Mapp. “It’s a gift to the culture here, bringing the same material and processes he learned at Berklee. A whole crop of musicians. He’s turned all these amazing kids on and they are becoming artists in their own right, crossing over into different styles using the knowledge they got from Joe Mapp.”

I’m not a “schooled” player. I learned just enough about the guitar to accompany myself. Just the basics. When I see Mapp play, I hear the infinite possibilities that are inherent on the fretboard.

I wonder if I’m too old to take lessons?

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