PICTURED: Jazz, flamenco and classical guitarist Tony Ybarra. Photo submitted

by Mike Nelson

The ability to create “something delicious” isn’t exactly new to Tony Ybarra, who for nearly 20 years has concocted an abundance of delectable classical, flamenco and jazz music on his guitar, performed throughout the U.S., Europe and Hong Kong.

But when COVID-19 stifled his ability to play live concerts, the Santa Barbara-based guitarist took his creative powers into the kitchen, preparing culinary delights much as he prepares an enticing menu of music. 

“I can’t say everything I cook comes out the way I want it to,” chuckles Ybarra. “But cooking exercises a different part of the creative spirit, and I appreciate being able to do that.”

Ybarra’s creative spirit is evident in his music, performed on six albums, at numerous local venues and in concert with (among others) Michael McDonald, Josh Groban, jazz composer Maria Schneider and flamenco guitar virtuoso Adam Del Monte.

Currently, Ybarra serves as director of jazz improvisation and guitar studies at Santa Barbara City College. He has also taught at Westmont College and USC, after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in guitar performance from USC’s Thornton School of Music.

“I feel very fortunate to make a living as a full-time guitarist,” he says. “It’s allowed me to travel the world and play with some amazing artists. And I’m blessed to be able to teach and to share knowledge with students in a way that others have shared with me.”

Latin beat

Born and raised in Santa Barbara, Ybarra grew up “with music always in the house, from big band to rock.” At age nine, he began playing trombone, thanks to top-notch music programs in local schools. “It really makes a difference in your education when schools support the arts.” 

At age 12, he saw the movie La Bamba — “and that changed my life. I identified with Richie Valens as a Mexican-American musician, since I grew up in a similar environment, and that music just resonated with me. I decided, that’s what I want to do. So I took up guitar, and the first thing I learned to play was ‘La Bamba.’” 

At Santa Barbara High School, Ybarra played in band and orchestra; outside school he played in rock bands. “But I saw I couldn’t really make a living playing rock and roll.”

Then at Santa Barbara City College, he met music professor Robert Drake, who became his first “formal” guitar teacher. “He played a style of guitar that included jazz, Latin jazz and flamenco, which I’d never heard but which I was drawn to . . . And at USC, because I had both a jazz and orchestral background, I could fuse it all together as one voice. With the support of an amazing faculty there, I could flourish and find direction as an artist and composer.” 

Finding flamenco

His creative compass eventually led him to flamenco.

“It’s such a profound art form,” says Ybarra, who has studied flamenco in Spain. “The discipline and demand is exceptionally high, so I feel a great responsibility to pay respect to this music . . . there are many levels to this music — emotionally, stylistically, culturally. And it gives me great satisfaction to be able to play it.” 

“A benefit of this pandemic-mandated ‘down period’ is to take a break from the rigorous schedule of performing and learn something new,” he continues. “There’s music I’ve wanted to learn for years, and it’s fulfilling to do that. It’s also an opportunity to compose more and to re-imagine some pieces I’ve done before, and how I can do them differently.”

“The world will need music and art”

“It’s been challenging financially with no gigs to play,” admits Ybarra, who also lost two friends to COVID-19. “But I think of the Great Depression, how music still thrived, how people craved it as a release from their troubles. And when COVID ends, the world will need music and art just to heal the soul. Music gives release to those who listen.”

Ybarra is grateful to have established “a great music relationship” with Rock and Roll Hall of Famer (and fellow Santa Barbara resident) McDonald, with whom he is finishing an acoustic guitar album. He also plans to perform livestream concerts via Facebook.

“There is a wonderful symbiotic relationship between audience and musicians,” he says, “and I look forward to enjoying that once again.”


Follow Tony Ybarra online at tonyybarra.com or visit him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TonyYbarraGuitarist/.