He was born in the United States, but Lenny Breau became a Canadian guitar icon venerated by musicians worldwide.
He was born in Auburn, Maine, on August 5, 1941. His parents were country singer Hal “Lone Pine” Breau and yodeler Betty Cody (Coté). The Acadian couple, who frequently performed in concert and on radio, moved their family to the Maritimes when Breau was seven-years-old.
It was around this time that their son took up the guitar, emulating Chet Atkins’ thumb-pick and finger-style technique. Such was Lenny’s facility with the instrument that he began performing with his parents at age 12 and became a star attraction in his own right by 15. His stage name was “Lone Pine Junior.”
Breau’s parents moved the family to Winnipeg in 1957 where they hosted a daily radio show called “Caravan” on station CKY. He continued to play with his parents, meeting a young Randy Bachman (The Guess Who, Bachman-Turner Overdrive) at one show and teaching him what he knew. Bachman would later claim Breau as a major influence on his own playing, and founded the independent label Guitarchives in order to reissue his mentor and friend’s music.
Breau’s artistic open-mindedness meant that he absorbed a variety of influences during his formative years, from jazz to country to classical to flamenco. In fact jazz pianist Bill Evans was one of Breau’s musical heroes, to the extent that Breau is often said to have played his guitar like a piano.
He moved to Toronto in 1961 and formed the trio Three with drummer Don Francks and bassist Ian Henstridge. They became the subject of a National Film Board documentary, recorded a live album at one New York club date, and performed on American network television.
Breau lived the typically peripatetic life of a musician, bouncing between Toronto and New York in the ‘60s before returning to Winnipeg to play on various CBC shows, including his own.
Breau finally met his idol Atkins in 1967. Atkins would record Breau’s debut album Guitar Sounds from Lenny Breau (1968) in Nashville. Breau recorded ten albums in his lifetime but found his greatest impact was on fellow guitarists as opposed to the general public.
As a sideman he performed with the likes of Anne Murray (on her 1973 album Danny’s Song), Beverly Glenn-Copeland, and Peter Appleyard, and he fronted several guitar/bass/drum trios. Breau also taught master classes to aspiring guitarists.
Breau was found murdered in the rooftop swimming pool of his Los Angeles apartment on August 12, 1984. No one was ever charged in the crime. He was posthumously inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1997.
Despite his short life, Lenny Breau’s legacy is significant. Atkins called him the greatest guitar player ever, and Pat Metheny has cited Breau as a major influence. His ability to play chords behind a picked melody line made it sound as if two guitarists were playing simultaneously, and his ability to improvise was legendary. Beyond his technical prowess, Breau was also able to convey an emotion and passion that made fans of many of his peers.
Featured in the National Film Board documentary Toronto Jazz
Chet Atkins produced Breau’s solo debut Guitar Sounds from Lenny Breau
Inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame