Remembering John Finkbeiner, guitarist, audio engineer, and prized musical collaborator

John Walter Finkbeiner lent his distinctive voice to ensembles from raw garage rock to meticulous chamber music.

John Finkbeiner. Courtesy of friends and family

John Walter Finkbeiner, guitarist, audio engineer and beloved member of the San Francisco Bay Area music community, died on Saturday, Sept. 25, in Oakland, after a nine-month battle with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. A Berkeley resident since 2011, he was 47.

John is remembered by his friends, colleagues and collaborators as a gentle soul and ferocious player; a brilliant and attentive engineer in the recording studio; and a dedicated and humble student of the music who brought a fierce commitment and wry sense of humor to every musical situation he found himself in. He was a man of few words, but for those keen enough to tune in, John rewarded his closest friends with kindness, a dry wit, warmth and a deep intelligence that reflected his intense curiosity about the world.

“John was extremely self-deprecating, and yet always worked tirelessly on whatever music was put in front of him,” says his friend of 20 years, drummer Vijay Anderson. “He never took an easy approach in music, always striving for something interesting, not conventional.”

Born in Waukegan, Illinois, Finkbeiner moved with his family to El Cerrito as a child. He attended the Athenian School and San Francisco State University, and studied guitar with Morris Acevedo, Myles Boisen and Richard Festinger.

Boisen describes him as “a student who practiced tirelessly and left his teacher struggling to catch up.” Finkbeiner apprenticed with Boisen to learn audio engineering, and co-founded the recording studio New, Improved Recording in Oakland with Eli Crews in 2003. Now in operation for more than 18 years, the studio has been a vital hub for the Bay Area music community, and Finkbeiner was proud to have recorded and worked with artists such as ROVA saxophone quartet, Fred Frith, Crime, Tango No. 9, Aphrodesia, Edmund Welles, Jewlia Eisenberg, Rent Romus, Aaron Novik, Oluyemi Thomas, Smith Dobson V, Nathan Clevenger, Devin Hoff, and Greg Dale, among many others. With performance and engineering work sidelined during the pandemic, he devoted his engineering talents most recently to work on the audio opera The Electronic Lover.

“He was a very studious guy,” says saxophonist and collaborator Sheldon Brown. “Everything he got involved with he took very seriously, did lots of prep and nailed it every time. Always a positive, no-nonsense attitude.”

As a guitarist, Finkbeiner lent his distinctive and wildly creative voice to ensembles from raw garage rock to meticulous chamber music, adventurous original jazz, free improvisation, roots reggae, and hard swinging jazz standards. Longtime friend and collaborator Smith Dobson V says, “John’s contributions were always so thoughtful, so deep, so full of marvelous ideas and statements.”

FInkbeiner appears as a side person on dozens of recordings by the groups Franco Nero, Adam Lane’s Full Throttle Orchestra, Joseph’s Bones, the Smith Dobson V Quartet, Knights of the New Crusade, the Vijay Anderson Quartet, Darren Johnston’s United Brassworkers Front, Sheldon Brown’s Blood of the Air, Aaron Bennett’s Go-Go-Fightmaster, and several groups led by his partner in music and life, Lisa Mezzacappa. He also had long musical associations with Scott Larson, Graham Connah, John Schott, Michael Lucas, Charles Sharp, and Myles Boisen. Finkbeiner co-led the dub reggae band Guerrilla Hi-Fi with Eithan Fletcher, and the vintage Caribbean dance band Les Gwan Jupons with Mezzacappa.

John was a voracious reader who loved listening to baseball games on his beat-up transistor radio, ping-pong games with friends, and hikes at Tilden Park and Pt. Reyes National Seashore. He went to SF Giants games with his dad and enjoyed home improvement projects with his mom. He was an ardent fan of jazz deejay Phil Schapp’s radio programs, immersed himself in cinema at the Pacific Film Archive and on the Criterion Channel, and was a fantastic cook. John was also a sharp dresser, with a much-admired collection of classic hats and vintage cardigans.

He is survived by his parents, Janet and Walter Finkbeiner; his sister, Anne Espinoza, and brother-in-law, Andy Espinoza; his two nieces; and his partner of 11 years, Lisa Mezzacappa. Finkbeiner’s remains will be interred in a ceremony on Oct. 9  in Mountain View Cemetery, with a reception for friends and family to follow.

John Finkbeiner. Courtesy of friends and family