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Very Rewarding Teaching!

It’s so far been a great summer of teaching for me, and there is no shortage of great talent out there these days to appreciate. I have been working with a great player named John Philbrick, who has also been studying this past year at Berklee. He is one of those students who brings so much natural ability to the table that it makes teaching so much more rewarding for me! Of course, it’s the kind of “give and take” that helps me, the teacher, also learn a lot. The act of teaching someone this good also helps re-define the very notion of teaching for me as well, because it changes the “balance” of how the lesson goes, and how the information is gotten out. For example, as he starts to play, and he plays beautifully, the ideas of what he may or may not need automatically come to me as I hear and watch him. This is important to me as a teacher, because I have a very “customized” approach towards teaching, which means that I absolutely tailor the lessons to that student’s specific needs.

I would say, certainly, that if you are already teaching guitar, you must always endeavor to keep the lessons focused towards that particular student. Each player’s needs are so varied that they all create their own unique teaching challenges for you to address. There are some for example, who need absolute structure to their learning process, with all that comes with it: strict practice schedule, distinct goals, etc., while others can be much freer with how they learn, and can take the real “natural” approach, as I did. That’s why I love having a gifted student, because I can then pass along the “real” stuff to them with very little effort, but with maximum effect.

John is this kind of student and player. He can immediately “get” what I’m talking about, and can truly plug in whatever it is I’m showing him directly into his own unique approach. To be influenced by another player, you need only grab “snapshots” of their style and technique to really capture what they’re about, as opposed to feeling like you must “immerse” yourself in their style before you can move on to any other material. His was always the case with me…no need to learn someone’s playing note-for-note, but certainly a need to understand what it is that really makes them “tick”, and to utilize it right away in my own style and learning curve.

So, here’s to those great and rewarding students out there like John Philbrick! Hope you may even be one like him, or at least get to teach someone like him one day…you’ll learn as much he will!

Posted: 8/10/2010 3:29:23 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Keeping Up with Your Equipment (or Trying to, Anyway!)

As real guitar-loving, gearhead geeks, we of course love to discuss equipment and enjoy the act of constantly changing and improving our rigs. When you’re talking about me, you are definitely talking about one of the most “low tech” guys around. That being said, I still enjoy keeping my equipment in good shape, ad always being ready for whatever may present itself for me, musically speaking. Most of the time, I’m so lazy that the guitar I grab is simply the one with the newest strings, but I love having choices, and of course, what amp I am choosing is also extremely important.

I believe you should certainly try to get as many sounds and as much service out of as little equipment as possible…after all, these are tough times that demand frugality and efficiency, but still, it’s fun to seek out and find what really works best for you among all the great choices out there these days. It’s also really critical to have a good amp tech who can work on your stuff, because amps will always present the most problems for you in terms of breaking down. I have had many disappointing amplifier repair encounters, and I have found that the search for a good amp person just keeps going on and on. You certainly want to get some amps that are real “workhorses” that you can depend on both in the studio and on gigs. There’s nothing worse than amps breaking down just when you need them the most, and I’ve sometimes had to switch amps 4 times during one show, when there was something that kept going wrong! Talk about an onstage “nightmare!”

As far as your guitar or guitars are concerned, a good repair person is also very important, but I also feel that you should learn to do as much “tweaking” on your own as possible. It’s great to learn how to set your intonation, fix a warped neck, and do a little soldering here and there, you know, things like that. Most of the time, when you bring it to your local music store, the so-called “expert” there for repairs may not really be much of an expert at all! So it’s good to practice some “preventative” repair stuff by knowing how to keep the condition of your guitar up, and hopefully avoiding too many unnecessary visits to the repair shop!

But like with anything else, remember this is a constantly changing and evolving process, and the search for the right equipment and what will hold up best for you should be a fun process. Remember, for example, if there’s that guitar that simply won’t keep low action for you, it may be time to turn it into your main slide guitar! There’s always a good reason to hang onto something that sounds good, even if the actual physical characteristics of the guitar itself may be giving you trouble….try to make it work for you…some of the cheapest equipment can end up being the best-sounding! And anyway, we can always justify needing more guitars! Most of all make sure the whole process is fun! Good luck!

Posted: 8/5/2010 7:50:28 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Always Looking for Inspiration!

It’s kind of a funny subject to discuss, since I believe inspiration can come from anywhere, but I have been thinking of this topic for quite awhile now. Of course, we all like to have great moments of being inspired, whether it be long-term, as we need for songwriting, or very short-term, as we may need for a burst of notes within a solo, but it may come from any number of sources, for sure.

I know for example that these days, many folks love to have a recording studio or at least a small recording setup, in their home. I think that’s great, but I have always felt that if I literally had to “fall out of bed” to do my musical work, I just might never get around to it! Therefore, I personally enjoy definitely going somewhere to work on my music when I am recording. It gives me a sense of “going to work”, and for me, actually heightens my level of being “inspired” musically. This is why I spent many years recording in Woodstock, even if I was no longer living there. I felt as if something different would “kick in” to my style whenever I was going there to record with Levon Helm, for example, and even when I did my first solo acoustic album, Drive it Home, I felt that I benefitted from going to Woodstock and essentially “transplanting” myself to do the work. Even the place I stayed and slept at seemed to have an interesting effect on my music. I don’t know, maybe it’s the old “touring musician” inside me that’s so used to having to be creative in new places that fuels this personal phenomenon!

I have discussed this with many other musicians too, and it surely is a lively conversation. We all look for that inspiration wherever and whenever it can be found, but we must also be able to “turn it on” sometimes when we really need to. This is also something I have been fascinated with as far as songwriters are concerned, as there always were the great “Tin Pan Alley” writers who could practically write songs at the drop of a hat on a daily basis. This is great, because it shows how you can really maintain a kind of “floating” and sustained inspiration that can be tapped when you need it; certainly a great human characteristic! You also, and most importantly, need to be able to recognize a great, and inspired moment when it comes to you, because it is truly a gift that you must take heed of!

So, it’s a subject that can go on and on, but I know it’s something that I always try to stay tuned into, and you should too! Here’s to many inspired moments for us all!

Posted: 8/3/2010 3:14:50 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

"Jamming" Etiquette!

The other night, I was invited to be a part of a really nice jam session at a friend’s house. It’s always a little daunting for me, because I have to deal with the fact that they “expect” a certain level of performance out of me, while at the same time, I must be able to defer to the other players who want to play and be heard as well. There was another fine guitarist there, who I’ve known for quite some time, but who I never actually played with, and there was also a (get ready) HARMONICA player! Well, when I see a harp player at any jam, I know there is the potential for problems, as they can often “step on” whatever anyone else is playing. Just as in guitar playing, they have to learn the discipline of backing up other players while they aren’t soloing and wailing on their own!

Well, it turned out that he was just fine at “restraint” with the harmonica, and had a nice Little Walter-esque mic and amp kind of sound. The other guitarist was fine, but he would lay down these ethereal, fairly meandering tunes and parts that were a bit too “dreamy” to jam too, even though, given time, I was starting to figure them out. But once I started laying down some real “straight ahead” tunes and jam parts, the jam session really started to fall into place. We were playing “Mystery Train”, “Treat Her Right”, “Ode to Billy Joe” and several other tunes that were easy to groove to, and to understand the chords, even it the other players didn’t know the songs from before!

The important thing was that everyone felt included…’s critical to do this! Each player, regardless of level or knowledge, should really be given the chance to musically speak and feel like they are truly a part of the jam. Believe me, they know if they are not really good enough, but they are there for the experience, and everyone needs that kind of experience if they ever expect to get better as a player.

So, in the end, it was an evening that everyone enjoyed, and nobody was making excuses for themselves, which can sometimes be heard after many a jam session. Rather, this time, everyone felt like they learned something, and most of all, like they were allowed to be heard and included! A great time was had by all…the way it should always be!

Posted: 7/27/2010 11:08:46 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

When the Guitarist Leaves Me Cold!

I saw an incredible show in NYC last night, one of my all-time favorite artists, Cyndi Lauper, doing her all-new Blues show. It was truly great to see her, and she was in amazing voice, actually better than ever! But I’ll tell ya, the guitar player, whose name I don’t recall (sorry) just didn’t make it! He was okay enough at the rhythm parts, but when it came to lead, my god, was he awful! Problem is, this is a “Blues” show, and it was so obvious that Cyndi needs a real player who can hold down the fort when it comes to playing really great blues solos! Talk about frustrating…at one point, she brought out her “slide” dulcimer, and said she had to do this because she couldn’t get a slide guitarist! At this moment, I almost screamed, and stormed the stage! I was ready to grab her slide, push the guitar player out of the way, and let it rip!

I have always not enjoyed a band if the guitar is bad. I don’t care how good the front singer or player might be, if the guitar isn’t making it, I can’t be bothered. I can recall many Top 40 records in the old days that used to have the same effect on me, where I just couldn’t get into the guitar playing, and in fact, where the solo may have actually ruined an otherwise great song for me. For example, take “Sundown”, a classic record by Gordon Lightfoot…it cruises along, in perfect taste and beauty, and all of a sudden, one of the worst and most incongruous guitar solos seems to drop out of the sky and ruin the song. And not only that, it has to get repeated at the end again…so bad!

Hate to say it, but there are just so many times when I have a much better ear and level of taste than the “producer” or artist of many sessions I have heard, or even played on over the years, and that’s just the way it goes. If this is your situation too, you just have to hope that in most creative situations your ideas will be heard and used, and that someday, you’ll be in a controlling position where you have a “larger” say in things, and can make a true difference in the music that’s being recorded or performed. These days, I certainly have more of that “control”, but man, I sure wish I had some of it last night with Cyndi Lauper!! She deserves it!

Posted: 7/22/2010 7:52:33 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Observing the Great Players

There is really no learning process quite like true observation of other great players, regardless of the instrument. Last night, for example, I was invited to a party over at a friend’s house to see a quartet of some of the greatest string players in the world, in a small, intimate setting. What a great experience! These were classical musicians of the highest possible order, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such musical precision in my life!

What was also very exciting to observe was how I could follow everything they were doing musically, down to the smallest, most subtle of techniques and riffs, and it’s so nice to see how string players “mix up” their technique, such as using plucking the strings, fast bowing, bowed harmonics and more. It’s really very similar to the guitar in many ways, and of course, as long as it’s got strings on it, it’s very easy for us guitarists to relate to.

I guess the thing that most impressed me was the respect for the compositions themselves that the performances held. The dialog was amazing between the players, and I remember remarking that it seemed like the most “team sport” approach to music I’d ever seen. It’s so fascinating when each player sort of takes the lead, then suddenly backs someone else up, then plays harmony, then plays unison and on and on. It’s a great study if you ever really want to know what it is to be a true “team player” in a band setting, and to be supportive of one another. The only difference is here was a situation where the music is specifically written with all of this in mind, and permanently “built in”, while us guitar/band players must do this kind of thing more “on the fly”, as we hear it and feel it. But not to belittle the string players I saw and heard, because their ability to shift their volume, tone and dynamics on a dime was really a thing of wonder to behold!

So, get out and try to see as much different kinds of music as possible, and really try to observe both musically and physically what is going on. The opportunity to see great players should always be inspiring, and if you’re watching a great player on another instrument other than guitar, you may be less likely to want to burn your guitar in frustration when you get home! (Just kidding, but you know what I mean!)

Arlen Roth
Arlen at Facebook

Posted: 7/20/2010 6:01:00 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Getting Noticed!

We may all be good guitar players, but sitting at home playing in our bedrooms forever just isn’t going to “cut it.” If you have real talent, you really deserve to be heard, and shouldn’t let anything really stand in your way! In my early days, I luckily had the courage and fortitude to match my talent, and was able to really get out and be heard wherever and whenever I could. This is not so easy for some people, and in fact, is never really easy at all! You should always keep in mind that it must first and foremost, be fun, and allow yourself to have this kind of fun, regardless of how scared you may be “inside.”

I can tell you that it’s very important to learn to “channel” whatever nerves you may have in regards to performing and jamming with others into a positive kind of energy that you can put back into your playing. We all need to be on that “higher level” when performing, and sometimes channeling that nervous energy, and tapping into it, is just what the doctor ordered.

Situations where there are endless amounts of loud guitar players can present a real problem for those who want to be heard, and just like in a conversation with many participants, you must find the right time and “voice” within the crowd to be properly set apart and heard! I can recall one amazing time, when we were wrapping up a two-day tribute to Danny Gatton at the Birchmere, a club in Alexandria, Virginia. Onstage was no less than at least a dozen guitarists, including myself, Brent Mason, Vince Gill, John Jorgensen, Ray Flacke, Joe Dalton, Rodney Crowell, Jerry Douglas and Steve Earle! Well, when we were setting up backstage and talking through what we were going to play, I said to Rodney Crowell, “why don’t we have a moment when we bring it down, and make t real quiet, instead of everyone being so loud?” Well, with that, Rodney points to me and says, “I’ll signal that, and it’ll be for you!” So, sure enough, when it came my time to solo during this wild, blasting jam, the entire stage came down to a hush, and every note I played was as if it were 100 times more focused and important that all the other players combined! Rodney had remembered, and it turned out to be a highlight, and a pivotal moment in the entire evening. Eventually, Brent Mason joined in on harmony with me, and we reached a crescendo that drove the whole place nuts!

Well, this is what I mean when I talk about “getting heard.” It was a situation where I didn’t even realize I was going to make that much of a difference, but thanks to Rodney Crowell’s professional focus and understanding it turned into something that got me heard more than I ever expected! Stay on your toes, be professional, and most of all, get out there and make a difference! Being “noticed” will only lead to better and better things!

Posted: 7/15/2010 9:10:08 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Learning Then Compared to Learning Now

Well, for me, when I talk about learning “then”, I mean the ‘60s, and it was a very different time to be learning anything “guitar-related” compared to the current times we are living in!

Of course, in the old days, I always had to “grab” info wherever I possibly could…for example, seeing B.B. King’s “butterfly” vibrato on TV totally cleared up my understanding his technique, or seeing a Flamenco guitarist’s tremolo picking with his right hand also clearing up that mystery for me. These “learning hurdles” were precious moments that loomed much larger sometimes than the actual information I was gaining from them. But overall, it made for a kind of approach towards learning for me that really made me get better and better at learning on my own, and being able to decipher what was really going on by ear!

These days, I must say, there’s almost too much info out there for you all to learn with, and lord knows, I am one of the main culprits in this matter, having started Hot Licks, the first company ever to offer video guitar lessons with the greats! The difference though, was that with Hot Licks, I was largely involved in having self-taught players being documented so they could help new players teach themselves. Many times, it was the only time some of these artists ever sat down to explain, if they could, what they were all about. I certainly know that at the time it was a first for Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and other true ‘natural players”, and it was certainly true of Lonnie Mack, Mick Taylor, and James Burton

did audio tapes for me, before we went to video. Nowadays, of course, I love doing my Gibson Lessons for you, and enjoy putting forth for you as much information as I possibly can! Meanwhile, there are a myriad of good, and not-so-good options for you today, with endless choices. I certainly would recommend staying as close to the source as possible when it comes to your instructor, especially to maintain a certain consistency in terms of how the knowledge is conveyed. The old saying of “it’s not what we learn but who we learn it from that we remember most” certainly holds true for my belief system, and this is very true when learning the guitar.

I would have adored having a real experienced instructor like myself back when I was starting out, but instead, after just a few foundational Classical guitar lessons, I was on my own by the age of 12, just trying to pick up whatever I could, from whomever was willing to share it! And of course, that translated to mainly just teaching myself back then, and still holds true for me today.

Just remember, it’s all available to you these days, and just be sure to take what you really need from instruction, and to not “overload” yourself when it comes to simply having too much information to swallow! Best of luck in your continued learning experience in the “modern” era!

Posted: 7/8/2010 3:06:17 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Making the Most Out of Practice Time

Lately, I’ve been a lot more diligent about putting aside time to be sure to practice my guitar work. It is so rewarding to be able to actually see your own playing improve as a direct result of more practice that it almost becomes addicting to play more and more! I like to tell people that if they’re prone to sit a lot in front of the TV, they should be sure to use that time wisely in guitar terms. Make sure you always have a guitar close by, and grab it every chance you get, especially when you can “mindlessly” practice while doing something else, like watching TV. Of course, it’s also great to try to play along to anything you may be enjoying listening to. This helps train your ear, and gives you some new ideas to shoot for as you try to play along with whatever comes your way. I personally like the “element of surprise” when it comes to playing along with other music, and I’ve been known to be seen jamming along with the Weather Channel, or even playing along with some “new age-y” acoustic guitar while on hold with a bank or mortgage company! One time, when the representative finally came back on, I told her I was tired of hearing the same guitar instrumental for what seemed like years! I suggested they change it to my music, and I actually sent her an acoustic cd of mine….nothing changed, but there’s someone somewhere with my cd and a funny story to go with it!

When practicing, I also like to set real goals for myself, and to aim at specific songs I want to learn, and really put my mind to teaching myself the changes and parts, no matter how challenging they might be. I recently did this with Mr. Sandman, Sweet Georgia Brown, Southern Nights and Stars and Stripes Forever. It’s a very rewarding thing to do, and it has really helped me develop a better repertoire for solo fingerstyle playing, which is one area I am trying to improve upon.

So, set some real goals for yourself when you are practicing, but no matter what you do with that extra guitar time, please make sure it’s quality guitar time! You’ll find that you’ll be improving in leaps and bounds, and that the guitar playing “addiction” will really get you good! Enjoy…

Posted: 7/1/2010 4:28:14 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Records that Never were to be!

In my many years of session work, it’s sometimes amazed me just how many sessions I thought were going to be released on a real recording never really came out. This obviously, can be quite frustrating, especially when you are trying to build up your list of credits and your resume, but in the long run, it’s really the experience that counts.

For example, many years back I got to play on an album with the great English soul singer, Dusty Springfield, who I always had a deep respect for. We did this album at a time and place where I was almost becoming the “house” guitarist for this great recording studio called “914” Studios in upstate New York. The music was going great with Dusty, but she seemed so sad and troubled, and was unfortunately, also drinking heavily. As it turned out, to this day, the record “Longing”, was never released, even though many people have hailed it as some of her best work ever. I certainly hold out hope that one day it shall be released for the world to hear. But for me, the bottom line is that I can still put on my resume that I did record with Dusty Springfield, because after all, I did, didn’t I?!While being the “house guitarist” for that studio, I also played on Janis Ian tracks that were never released, and a great album with a duo called Janey and Dennis, who did this very high-budget album for Capital Records that not only didn’t come out, but it was while we were touring with the Bee Gees to literally promote this record, that we got the devastating news that it was shelved! That was a blow that many of us had a hard time recovering from! Funny too, because we had Max Weinberg on drums for that band, and we let him go, largely at my recommendation, only to have him get his famous Springsteen gig just 5 days later! It seemed that Bruce was also recording his album in that same studio as us at that time, and when the engineer found out that we fired Max Weinberg, he gave Max a listen, and sure enough, hired him, totally changing Max’s life forever!

That is certainly another example of just how much “turns on a dime” when it comes to this quirky business of music. One minute, you can’t buy a gig, and the next minute you’re on top of the world! Or in my case, one minute you’re on a hot album to be released, and the next minute, it was just a dream. Still, all in all, it’s these incomparable experiences that add up to a lifetime’s worth of great memories and one of a kind stories, for sure!

Posted: 6/28/2010 7:59:30 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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