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Playing Live on the Radio!

This past Friday, I got the chance to be on one of New York’s top morning radio shows, Boomer and Carlton with Boomer Esiason and Craig Carlton. I had to play ten songs that they were going to randomly throw at me with well-known guitar licks, and see how fast I knew them. This was because I wanted to play in a celebrity softball game they were having at Yankee Stadium this summer. Well, it was quite an experience, and rather nerve-racking as well, but I still did great, and it was really fun because it turned into quite a long interview. We talked about my days in Woodstock, my Gibson lessons online, and my career in general, playing with Simon and Garfunkel, Dylan and many others, and they even tried to play some guitar with me, even though neither of them knows a single chord!

It always amazes me how many folks who are in other parts of “the biz” are still so in awe of us guitar players, who they perceive of as “rock stars”. I mean, after all, we are just professionals like them. I was as in “awe” of them by them being great radio stars, as that’s something I have always wanted to be, plus the fact that Boomer was a great quarterback with the New York Jets and Cincinnati Bengals, and even played in a Super Bowl. I also have great admiration for him, and all the work he does for Cystic Fibrosis, which his son Gunner, is afflicted with. He’s also one of the busiest guys and hardest workers in this business, as I see him all over TV, as well as being on the radio every morning!

It was a great experience in all, and we had a great time, and I can’t say enough about how gracious they were toward me. Oh yes, the result of the little “challenge” they gave me was that I got 8 of the 10 songs right, and I get to perform the National Anthem at this game at Yankee Stadium, and I also get to play IN the game with all the other celebs!! All because I called them up and dared them to challenge me! Just shows you, you never know what’ll happen, and how it’s so important to put yourself out there for whatever challenge may lay ahead for you! Can’t wait to play the “Star Spangled Banner” at Yankee Stadium….wow!! Think I’ll play slide!

Posted: 3/26/2010 2:27:20 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Channel that Nervous Energy!

If there is one thing I have learned, and really learned the hard way, it’s about channeling your nervous energy before any musical event into positive energy! When I first started out, even though I possessed a world of confidence about my playing, I found that live performing and studio playing really would give me the jitters! Well, over a long period of time, or seemingly overnight, it seemed to finally fall into a manageable place where I could deal with it, and turn it into just more “output” and positive energy onstage and on tape!

Even the many years of doing my videos for Hot Licks and others really helped also build my confidence in terms of being relaxed in front of the camera. There were many times when it took only an hour to do an hour-long video, and the “flow” became what it was always all about. Even the many Gibson lesson videos you see by me are all “first take” types of situations, where it’s the spontaneity that I was going for. This gives them a more natural flow, and a stronger sense that you are really taking a lesson together with me, on a one-to-one basis.

When it comes to concerts, I don’t think anything can compare, nervousness-wise to the collective feeling we all had before hitting the stage on the first night of the Simon and Garfunkel stadium tour. It felt so electric back stage; some of us were jumping up and down, some sleeping, some pacing and some just sweating it out. It almost felt like it must be before a prize fight! After all, we were all just rehearsing in a big room on a stage for months, with no audience at all, and now, were those 50,000 people in Akron, Ohio really going to like us? Were they really out there? Were we any good, or was this all something we somehow dreamed up?! Once we started playing however, and people were not only digging it, but some even running onstage, we realized that this was all a certain kind of performer/audience relationship that can only happen on this level, and that we then got excited in our own way, and channeled it all into doing the best show we could possibly do for that crowd, for Paul and Artie, and of course for ourselves!

I find that this aspect of performing, and nervous energy transformation only gets better as I get older, and it has made me an infinitely better performer as well as feeling much more confident and “true” in the studio. Hope this all helps, and that you’ve had similar feelings and experiences!

Posted: 3/22/2010 8:53:18 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

"Rules of Thumb" When Getting Started

There are so many “natural” ways one must navigate the choppy waters of a musical career that it is hard to really come up with any specific “rules of thumb” when it comes to getting a foothold in the business. Still, even though it’s not anything like climbing up the typical “corporate ladder”, there are still many words to the wise that I can give you based on my extensive experience in the music business. And this goes for me as a multi-faceted person, as not only a guitar player, but as a solo artist, author, entrepreneur, columnist and on and on. I can safely say that I have truly “seen it all” when it comes to all sides of the industry; a very tough industry, to say the least.

First and foremost, you must be true to yourself, and have a deep belief in yourself and your abilities as a guitarist. You must treat others fairly and with respect, even though your competitive drive is what is really pushing you forward. You should always be complimentary of your fellow musicians, because regardless of what you may think of their abilities as opposed to yours, they will always have something good to contribute! Keep a good list of all your “contacts”, because you’ll never know when these people may come in handy for you personally, or for your career. Always show up early or on time for gigs…this will relieve both your stress level, as well as the others around you. I can recall one time when I had to do the Dick Cavett show with Art Garfunkel, and I was stuck in Manhattan traffic, and literally walked into the show the second we were to begin taping, as opposed to about a half hour early, which was what I was shooting for! I ran into the studio in a near-state of panic, and to my surprise, there was Art, with a totally serene look on his face, as if he had never really ever doubted that I would get there on time. It was a true testament to his level of professionalism that he treated me that way, because I’m sure he was aware of what I must’ve been going through, trying to get there on time! I was instantly relaxed by his demeanor, and sure enough, we pulled of a flawless, as well as “relaxed” performance that day on the Cavett show.

So, in general, it’s this level of professionalism one must always strive for, and I find that players are learning this at a younger and younger age all the time. The competition is just too great out there for any of us to take the chance of ruining a good situation by being less than cordial, professional or helpful, and we must always keep these things in mind.

I’ll be talking more about this very important subject in upcoming blog installments, so please stay tuned for more “words to the wise!”

Posted: 3/17/2010 2:34:09 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Something New Every Day!

When I pick up the guitar, I always try to find something new on it every time. This has been true since the very early days of wanting to play, and since I was always self-taught, I felt it was critical to pick up something new on the instrument each time I played it. This is also just due to my naturally creative nature, and the fact that any instrument to me becomes something to instantly “create” with, not just to learn how to play. The creativity is the learning process, and vice versa. I can recall traveling home from school on the bus, and just “dreaming’ up licks that I was imagining on the guitar. I couldn’t wait to get home, and to try them out and see if they worked as well as I was hoping they would!

This is also a critical part of the writing process, as many of our best new song ideas simply come from “thin air” as we pick up and start playing our instruments. Be aware of this process, as you certainly never want to miss out on any wonderful ideas that may suddenly come to you, as the result of playing spontaneously. I also find that these days, since I teach so much, many of my most creative ideas may come about during the lesson itself, as I may have to dig deeper and deeper to satisfy a very accomplished and advanced student. The birth of a great guitar lick is very often the birth of a great song. Never forget how many great tunes are based around truly “hooky” guitar riffs that no doubt, occurred during the initial moments of creating the song in the first place!

So, please keep this in mind as you move forward in your development. Learn something new every day, and be especially on the lookout for anything that really stirs the creative juices for you, and that acts as a true “spark” that may lead to better playing, or a new tune. You never know where these things come from, but they sure get a “head start” when that wonderful thing known as a guitar is in your hands!

Posted: 3/15/2010 4:30:25 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Breaking in as an Author

In my early years, I was very fortunate to find out that I was able to get published as an author, and not only that, but was also quite a good one, too! It’s a great feeling of accomplishment when you finally hold that finished work in your hands, and it’s so rewarding, because it feels like you’ve really done something that has a long life to it.

I can remember when I wrote my first book, Slide Guitar, I was initially called up for it because it was supposed to be a third of a three-part book about Pedal Steel, Dobro and Slide guitar. Well, the first thing I realized I should tell them was that those should result in three separate books, as opposed to an all-in-one book. I went in to meet the editor, and I told her that first “these should all be individual book projects.” She understood me right away, and agreed. The other two parts to the 3-part book were already spoken for, but they needed me to write the Slide Guitar part. Well, I also charmed them by toting my National Steel guitar up to their offices, and proceeded to give them a kind of “performance” of the sorts of things I’d cover in the book. They, as a company, were floored, and it seemed that I could do no wrong in their eyes! I kept on talking, and showing them what I could do, and before you knew it, on that day I walked out of there with a three-book deal, for myself under my belt!

I had signed on for the Slide book, as well as my Nashville Guitar and how to Play Blues Guitar books too! What a feeling! There I was, only 20 years old, and ready to create 3 books on subjects that were so near and dear to my heart. I can still remember, after they were published, how I went to their annual “sales meeting”, and not only talked about the content of my book, but also put on a terrific show once again for them, but this time for the salesmen, many of whom had come from far and wide. I can tell you that they never forgot this, and it made a huge impression on them. So much so, that the book broke all of their company’s records for sales in the first 6-month period. Wow, did that feel great, and that first check was huge! It was funny, because my actual “advance” for writing the book was around $250! I’ll never forget the editor asking me “what are you going to do with the money?”, like I was a little boy, which must be how they perceived me. I was wondering if I should answer, “put it in my piggy bank, of course!”

But, regardless, it was such an exciting time, and it felt so good to have my ideas always approved so quickly. It sure made for a great feeling of accomplishment, and also to be recognized at such a young age for my abilities which were still so new and so fresh! After that, I took a bit of a break from writing, but began to write columns for Guitar Player and other magazines, and then started getting back into authoring more music books in and around 1982, when I began to write for some real major publishers. Writing is a great joy, and something I truly love to do…who knows, maybe there’s a budding author waiting inside of you?!

Posted: 3/15/2010 4:25:45 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Keeping Up Your "Chops"

From time to time, all of us have experienced highs and lows as players. Some of us even like to think of certain times during our playing life as “peaks”. I find this can be a little scary, and maybe not such a good thing to do, as we never really know when out true “peaks” are, or if they may just be once again around the corner. Certainly, we can have creative peaks and valleys, which is probably what most of us are really remembering. Keeping up your playing “chops” is a truly important thing for anyone to stay in touch with as a musician, and there are many ways of doing this.

I know that one of my favorite ways to keep my chops up is to actually teach students, and to be challenged by quite advanced ones. This helps me “dig deeper” as a player, often in search of more challenging things to teach, and therefore to play. This results in so much creativity that I have come up with totally new songs, as well as riff ideas that really build up my physical, as well as creative “chops.” Practicing is essential, though I always refer to it as more like just “playing!” I can scarcely remember a time in my life when I considered myself as “practicing”. It seems to have a negative, “I don’t want to do it” kind of connotation, and for me it was always just “playing” that really mattered to me. It was something I HAD to do, as a developing player, who truly felt all my guitar endeavors were an art form!

Playing with others is key as well; since we must let other musicians push us in the right direction, and let them give us more structure to work with. I can recall a time when I was performing live on a very regular basis, recording almost every day and also teaching several hours a day. This was a time when it seemed like I was literally eating, breathing and sleeping the guitar, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I was at one with my instrument, and so happy to be doing what I really loved to do, and excelled at for my living. All of this exposure to different musical forms and ideas was a constant stimulation to me, and it simply couldn’t help but raise my “chops” and general guitar ability to newer, and higher levels. I was always able to carry this feeling forward in my life, and in recent years, have continued a busy teaching schedule, as well as entering into a very prolific creative period. It seems as if I already am thinking three albums down the line when I’m finishing one, and always developing new ideas, song-wise and always looking for new material to interpret. This keeps my ideas fresh, and helps “push” my playing in new directions.

So, I must suggest to you that you try to achieve the same, and that you always play as much as possible, and in as many musical situations as possible, too. Challenge yourself, and certainly, please don’t feel too intimidated by new musical ideas and structures that are thrown at you. The fear factor will only serve to stifle your creativity, and you must really learn to feel “free” when it comes to opening yourself up to new ideas and concepts. Now, THAT will really build your chops in a “forever” way!

Posted: 3/12/2010 9:15:11 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Getting the Right Foundation in Your Playing

I can recall back in the days when I was first developing a love for Blues, Rock and Country music, how there never seemed to be any real division between these styles. After all, it’s all “American” music, isn’t it? It all seemed to come from a similar source, and my ears were always tuned to the connections that these wonderful musical forms all had to each other.

It quickly became obvious to me that I was developing a strong foundation to my playing, and that I was able to freely move “in and out” of these styles from one to the other, as my improvisational abilities continued to develop. As I moved on to actually playing gigs and touring with major artists, I had to immediately make sense of all this “foundational” work and knowledge, and put it to use in actual songs. This was a sensitive area, because now, I had to let the guitar playing simply “speak” to these songs, whether their influences were based on Blues, Country, Rock n’ Roll, Folk or Jazz. The idea of “genre” had to basically be thrown to the wind, and each song, and the improvised work I did with them, had to really begin to “stand on its own.”

This is critical knowledge if you expect to really go on and become a complete player….the idea that we must approach all music as if it’s a fresh and new open book, or even better, an open “canvas” on which to paint. Use ALL your influence when you play; and that means what you choose to leave out, as much as what you choose to put in. “Less is always more”, to quote an old expression, and we must use our taste and restraint as much as possible to really express what we need to say in the context of a song, a new composition or even a solo. And don’t forget, every time you are soloing, or simply coming up with a backup part to a song, you ARE “composing” as you go along, putting all that foundational knowledge to work. Good luck!

Posted: 3/8/2010 9:47:57 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The Wonderful "Unsung Hero" Gibson ES-330!

I have had a love affair with various makes and styles of guitars over the years, and lately I’ve been able to become more acquainted with the exceptional, yet simple, ES-330. It possesses a very “real” and woody tone, plays like a dream, and has graced many more top recordings than people realize. It was Amos Garrett’s choice for “Midnight at the Oasis,” as he borrowed a beautiful tobacco-burst one back in the ‘70s from David Nichtern, the song’s composer, for those classic licks on that recording. I personally had always thought it was played on the Epiphone Sheraton I had seen him play back in Woodstock during that time, but he later told me it was the 330, when we were playing a show together.

The P-90 pickups have a darkness, but also a clarity to them. And as a blues guitar, it seems to “break up” at just the right volume. The shorter scale neck makes it an easier guitar to bend with, especially when compared with a similarly equipped “tailpiece” model of the more popular ES-335. The fact that it is all hollow-bodied also gives it a Jazzy kind of warmth that we normally associate with bigger-bodied archtop guitars, usually with one or no cutaways.

In any event, it’s an axe well worth checking out, and I find that once I pick it up, it is so comfortable I never want to put it down. It was first produced in 1959, I believe, and at the time, had a “dot marker” fretboard, and a fairly thick ’59 kind of profile to the neck. This was pretty much the story for 1960 as well, and after that, the neck continued to get thinner, bit by bit, until around the ’67 model year, when it seemed to reach its thinnest profile. Gibson still makes this guitar today, with a tremendous amount of consistency in quality.

So, if you’re looking to check out a true classic Gibson that is a kind of “unsung hero” in the guitar world, I strongly suggest that you get your hands on an ES 330…you’ll truly be glad you did!

Posted: 3/5/2010 9:03:01 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Progressing as a Player

There is so much involved with your progress as a player over the course of your life, but one thing is for sure: it never ends. There is no question that we have peaks and valleys along the way, as I have too, but overall, we never really get worse, only better. I also feel that in your early days of development and learning, it’s so important to do the best with what you’ve got. This means you must not be frustrated, rather, you must try to make as much music with what you know at the time, no matter how limited you may think it is!

I always point to certain “landmark” recordings to make this point to students, such as “Born on the Bayou” by John Fogerty and Creedence. Yes, it is pure simplicity turned into musical genius, but I feel the real genius behind this piece of music and his solos is that Fogerty really didn’t know too much on the guitar at that time anyway, but he was able play something so pure, funky and to the point. It surely was him maximizing what he knew at the time. On the other hand, it’s a bad thing to hear a guitarist who isn’t up to the task trying to play too much, or trying to throw in too many ideas that haven’t been well-formulated yet.

The ideal thing to happen, as you develop, is to create a real “foundation” within your playing and musical knowledge that becomes an almost bottomless well of information and inspiration to draw upon. I know that my own vast experience as a player and as a teacher has helped give me an ever-growing base of knowledge that I can draw upon, and it helps me with my spontaneous improvisation, as well as when I really want to sit down and truly work a piece out. You’ll also find that, as in my case, the technique followed the “need” to play what I was hearing inside of me. So even though many folks may say “he’s a great technical guitarist,” I never ever thought about getting a better and better technique…it simply became part of my vocabulary as I had more and more to say with the guitar. Necessity was TRULY the mother of invention in my case, and in the end, as you continue to develop as a guitar player, it will hopefully be true for you, too!

Posted: 2/12/2010 10:36:17 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The Intimacy Factor in Performing

There are so many different venues I have played and known, and there is literally no end to the variety of places one can play. In the end, the real factor that plays into which place you end up liking or not is usually the feeling you had either connecting, or not connecting with the audience. This “intimacy” factor is critical, and a lot of it has to do with how you, as a performing artist, reach the people and communicate with them.

Your audience has to “be with you” to begin with, and if they’re not, it’s hard to win them over, but not impossible. I have, many times, walked into a place and already could feel that the crowd was “mine.” But sometimes, it was truly clear that they’d have to be “won over.” And “won over” is really what they want, because they do want to be entertained, and they do want to have a good time and appreciate you. If you are the opening act, you are already walking in with two strikes against you, but it’s in your power to eliminate that third strike, and get the crowd to like you and to come over to your side!

When this happens, intimacy becomes something that you have with each and every member of that crowd, regardless of the size of the place. The communication is straight to the heart, no matter who is watching or how many folks are watching you. Sometimes, I find it easier to be in front of 1000 people than to be in front of 10, because they become a solid entity unto themselves, as opposed to a handful of people whose eyes can all be seen and felt!

Regardless of the size of the crowd, you’ll always find it to be a challenge to win them over and to develop that intimacy we all so strive for. Of course, your own confidence level is very crucial to this process, and the kind of confidence you either do or don’t exude is critical. No matter what, never let any of these experiences bring you down, because every performance in front of a crowd is a true learning experience, and in the long run will truly shape just who you are as a performer and as a musician.

I learned in front of audiences, and the process taught me well……hope you have similar experiences, and that you can always “win them over!”

Posted: 2/11/2010 3:52:02 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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