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Sittin' in with Students

There can be almost no greater validation for a student than when you can sit in and play with them in a live performing situation. This is true for many reasons…first, you are telling them that you have a true respect for how they play, and also you are acknowledging that they have achieved a level of musicianship that you feel can match, of perhaps even surpass, yours. It’s also good just to show some good old support!

Well, tonight I have a unique set of circumstances in which I am taking a new, very young and brilliant student, John Filbrick, from Virginia, over to a club to see me sit in with another  brilliant student and player, Mike Kerr, who I taught in the recent past as well! It’s great, because I feel kind of like a “bridge” between the two of them, hopefully helping to forge a new relationship for them, as well as showing my true respect and support for them both! I am going to play on one song, perhaps more, with my old student, but at the same time, I’d love to have my new student come up and sit in himself, for a new and lasting musical experience!

I do know and remember, that at that age, even little step, positive or otherwise, always had a lasting, indelible impression and effect on me. Perhaps this is why I so enjoy doing this for others…what some may simply call “making memories”! Tonight will certainly tell the story, and I am fully in anticipation of how it all plays out, and what this experience will mean for us all! One thing I do know…it sure feels like a great thing to do!

Posted: 7/31/2009 9:54:42 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Interpretation Versus Just "Playing"

I suppose that I have long been associated with, and appreciated for my “interpretations” of older songs, usually in instrumental format. This has been a longtime love of mine, and many songs I have always been crazy about have managed to fall into my hands for many years. Tunes such as “When a Man Loves a Woman”, “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Whiter Shade of Pale” and several others have all gotten the treatment from me.

The question that always seems to arise is the fact of what really makes this “interpretation machine” roll, and what are really the internal musical and other factors that make me do what I do?

I say this because I always contend that very little thought goes into this process for me. It’s so much more a “feeling” thing, and is more based on how I “process” these songs than anything else. For example, on my “Landscape’ album, I did a version of “House of the Rising Sun” that is more an overall tribute to the many parts of that record, and how I have always heard it internally, in myself. What then comes out is not only an emotional onslaught of bending and expressive melodic interpretation, but also subtle little things tat for me, complete the picture.

This means that I am taking into account the great organ “fills” that graced this recording, even though I now play them on the guitar. There are many times this occurs when I interpret a piece, because I am taking into account ALL that I heard when I had a lasting impression made on me by any given song.

In tunes like “When a Man Loves a Woman”, I am actually playing the role of lead singer (instrumentally), a guitarist playing fills between the vocals, and even the rest of the band, in terms of how I deal with the chord work and sustaining ideas and themes that surround the original crators of the melody.

This is an important overall lesson for any of you interested in pursuing being an overall great instrumentalist…….you must really let, as I do, the entire record, song or whatever it might be, totally “come through you”, because this is the only way to really stay true to yourself, and your impressions of the very song you are playing. No matter what, it just can’t HELP but come out sounding like an original take on something you love that was originally created by someone else!

Posted: 7/29/2009 10:44:47 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Learning to Follow the Changes

Ear training is, in the long run, the most important thing you’ll ever learn or have to use throughout your musical life. I have reached a point where basically everything I hear, I hear as music. I mean, if a song is playing in my home, and a plane flies overhead, or somebody even drops a dish, I can hear and identify, immediately, just what that tone is! This is a great test to use on yourself throughout your daily life, and for me it was put to an amazing and thoroughly enjoyable use last night!

I was invited by some friends to a dinner party where a wonderful classical Quintet from The Curtis Music Institute was going to play. It was an amazing treat, as these were a great combination of true veteran players, as well as newcomers who were so tight, every chord sounded as if it were played by one giant stringed instrument! So, as I sat there, listening to what was largely a program of music by Brahms, I found myself playing a mental game of trying to, on the fly, identify each and every musical change I could, as those notes and chords went flying by!

This is a great challenge, as Classical music usually goes through a huge gamut of changes, emotions, time signature changes, as well as key changes. There’s no doubt that this makes Classical more of a challenge to play than some other forms of music, and also means that it can sometimes really lend itself to the “cerebral”, in addition to the emotional side of listening.

So, after all was said and done, I got to speak with the various members of the quintet after the show, and we had some great talks about music in general…sharing career stories, etc. I even gave one of the viola players my cd, and talked about how I can never play the same thing twice, and how I am only satisfied by playing something new all the time. To this, this wonderful and incredibly accomplished player said, “God, I wish I could improvise!!”

It never fails to astonish me…how such a great player can still be worlds apart from my way of making music. Put some sheet music with notes to read in front of me, and you have severed my creative process right at the neck! Next time you hear some great classical music, try what I tried to do, and create a nice challenge for yourself by trying to identify the changes in the music. You really may surprise yourself!

Posted: 7/29/2009 10:40:43 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Getting "Pigeonholed"

The fact that the music business has always needed and wanted to “pigeonhole” artists and players into neat little categories has long been a thorn in the side of many. It almost seems that if one is multi-talented, and can play in many genres, they are doomed because of an identity crisis that occurs with record companies, radio stations and the like. Even the public is in on this, as they start to feel that they have to give you a category, or else they can’t listen to you!

I know that personally, this has always been the story with me, and if I go into a random cd shop, I may find my cds under “Folk”, “Blues”, “Country” or “Rock” categories. When I wanted to search for the airplay and charting of my latest album, “Toolin’ Around Woodstock”, I found out that I had to look under the “Americana” category…one I had never even known existed! kind of a nice category, though, because it seemed to grow out of the very necessity I am talking about here, the fact that many of these artists can’t really fit into one easily defined category. Rather, an artist such as I, who carries influences from so many genres of music, can at least be called “Americana”…better than nothing!

It’s always been tricky….when does Blues become Rhythm and Blues? When does Country become Pop? When does ANYTHING become Pop?! What defines what is Pop? So much Rock, to me, is really Pop now, and so much of Country is really more Rock than anything else. It does get awfully confusing, and all I can say is that as you are developing, do not be afraid to cross genres….this will always serve to make you a better artist, and will always broaden your horizons. Take a look at some songwriters….there are many who write for all genres, easily, and who gladly accept the challenge of simply writing a great tune, whoever it may be for, and whatever genre they had in mind while writing it! Stay true to yourselves and you influences…no matter what you do, it’ll come out sounding like YOU…and that should always be your number 1 goal!

Posted: 7/28/2009 3:36:55 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Doing Guitar Clinics!

Some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my musical travels has been the act of doing guitar clinics around the world. Wherever you go, music is unquestionably a universal language, and when you are actually teaching it, everyone is certainly thankful as well as grateful to you.

It’s especially fun when the audience knows you’ve come a long way to be there speaking and playing for them, such as when I toured Australia , Japan and Europe. It’s also a real blast when they can supply a real live band to back you up, such as what I had in England, Finland and Japan. It seems that those players take their role extra seriously when they know you’re from a long ways away, and you need them to play well!

I swear, there was one time when I had finished playing my own tour in the U.K., and had to move on to Finland to play with a Finnish backup band, and they were better than my own group! They just seemed to take the music a bit more seriously, and still, we had an amazing and happy time….also made friends forever in the process!

At the same time, doing many clinic tours in the US and Canada also proved very rewarding, as I got to play in some pretty remote regions! Still, there always seemed to be enthusiastic crowds, no matter how remote the venue, and to tell you the truth, the more remote they were, the better the gigs were! Maybe it’s just the plain fact that when I was that remote, I was the biggest thing going on, so foks just had to come out and see me!

But, whatever the circumstances, there’s no doubt that doing guitar clinics the world over has always been one of my true loves. I know I now reach so many of you this way, online, and of course, through my endless videos and books, but there is still nothing like being on the road, seeing the real faces of all of you, and being on that “campaign trail!” Hopefully, I’ll get to see you all out there once again, on the road!

Posted: 7/23/2009 3:20:06 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The Encouraging of the Student

I for one, really understand the absolute necessity for the encouragement of a student. If it had not been for my father saying “play the guitar, I can just see you playing it”, it probably wouldn’t have happened for me at such an early age. My Dad did not possess a great musical ear, but he saw the potential in me, and how much I loved to play music, and with what ease I could pick things up by ear. He, is however, a great visual artist, and certainly understands art and talent when he sees it!

Somehow, his words and guidance always seem to echo in my head when I am seeing a new student, or feel that I have found someone of exceptional gifts. The irony with some situations compared to mine, is that often it seems, the parents of soe of my students are the LAST to know how gifted their child might be! This disturbs me, because I often tell them, “if you had not brought he or she to me, they’d be like a tree falling in the woods…simply never heard, nor appreciated!” Even with that said, a couple of years back, a family brought their daughter and son to me to take separate lessons. You could tell that they really cared much more about the daughter’s lessons than the son’s, maybe because she was older, and “called the shots”, and it seemed like they thought the boy was just along for the ride. Well, as it turned out, this little boy, who would stroll in once a week, with his cheap little nylon string mini guitar with no case, was absolutely brilliant! It seemed as if anything I threw at him, he was able to play, just by observing! The daughter had a much harder time at it, and actually gave up fairly quickly.

Meanwhile, the sad part of the story is that even though I kept raving about the boy’s guitar prowress to his parents, they never seemed to get it, and sure enough, just when he was reaching a real “peak” with me, they shockingly took him out of lessons! He no longer was going to go to “guitar”……and they spoke it as if it were just another stop in his weekly ritual of being an over-booked suburban kid with too many other things to do, like soccer, little league, tutors, you name it!

Beware of this mistake, and also beware of the opposite, as well. This baby boomer generation has a little too much “rock star” in it, and I’ve seen far too many parents who “push” their kids to be into all this guitar stuff, when the kids don’t even care that much about it to begin with! But far and away, the saddest is when a real gift, as this child had, is ignored, or passed over. I only hope he is still playing on his own somewhere, and not letting himself become that “tree falling in the woods”!

Posted: 7/22/2009 3:41:24 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

NAMM Again!

I’m afraid I’m missing the Namm show this year, but it sure was a treat to go to last summer’s Namm in Nashville. This convention is really a world unto itself, and after doing 35 in a row from 1982 to around 1997 (two a year), I was not only burned out from them, but the tragedy of losing my wife and daughter in a car accident in 1998 was just too much for me to carry while dealing with such an onslaught of people, noise and general craziness. I also, was frankly too afraid that I was going to be standing there, telling person after person about the tragedy in my life, and it was going to be just too debilitating to go through.

That’s why when I finally did choose to return, I chose the rather benign Nashville Summer Namm, rather than the “larger than life” Anaheim show, which takes everything out of me!

Still, it can be a very rewarding experience, and I love connecting and re-connecting with folks all throughout the industry, and since I have worn so many “hats” over the course of my career, you just never know what subject or person I’ll be dealing with at any given moment!

At one instance I may be talking to a fan, then I turn around and someone wants me to play their amp, then at the next moment I may see someone I had signed to Hot Licks years ago. You just never know, and I guess that’s what makes it exciting!

So, to all those in attendance this summer, I say hi, and miss you, and hope you have a great show. I’ll be thinking of you all, and I’ll be hoping that you’re doing good business!

Posted: 7/20/2009 3:23:41 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

My Early Beatlemania Days!

As is the case with so many from my generation, The Beatles had such a profound effect that they literally changed my life almost immediately. So great was their impact, their charm, and of course, their music, that it was undeniable that without a doubt, the coolest thing in the world was to play the guitar!

Luckily, by the time they made their famous first appearance on The Ed Sullivan show, I was already playing classical as well as folk-style guitar, so I was truly “primed” to comb my hair down, get an electric guitar, and be off and running! I went out right away and bought a very inexpensive chromed-out Japanese 4-pickup guitar with a whammy bar that to this day, I’ve never seen another of……I formed a band in my Junior High School in the Bronx, (I was only 11 at the time), and we set out to play anywhere we could.

One of the first gigs we did was right at our school, for the “talent show”, and so intense was the Beatle craze at that time, that all me had to do was hit the stage, and all the kids started screaming and rushed the stage! We hadn’t even played a note yet, and all of a sudden, we were actually running in the pouring rain, down a Bronx street, followed by screaming kids! Oh yes, by the way, as I was running out, the teacher sitting in the wings of the stage told me “don’t worry, you won the talent show!”. That, I thought was truly hysterical, since we literally had not even played yet, but we were already the winners!

The next few days were like a re-birth for me, as I went from being barely on anyone’s radar to being the coolest kid in school. Before that, I was only known for being the first kid to show up with slip-on loafers! Now, I was the rock n’ roll kid, and was getting quite familiar with being a “big deal”. I can remember two weeks after the talent show, walking around the corner from my apartment building in the Bronx, and suddenly hearing a girl yell, “there goes one of them now!”, as she and a group of her friends started to chase me down my own street! Yes, I must admit, something was truly telling me to stick with the guitar at that point, and it has never changed, not for a single day. Here’s to those great and wonderful memories of out “formative” years!

Posted: 7/17/2009 7:07:52 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Levon's "Midnight Ramble" Was Great!

Well, this past Saturday my band, along with my daughter Lexie, all performed at Levon Helm’s legendary “Midnight Ramble” up in Woodstock, NY. As you may know, Levon sang and played on my latest cd, “Toolin’ Around Woodstock”, which has been a great success, and playing with him has simply been phenomenal!

The gig was a complete sell-out, and talk about a captive audience that hung on every note…it was amazing! I was getting cheers, sometimes it seemed, like one note at a time! I never was in such a comfortable situation from the standpoint of sound, monitors, and just plain “communication” between me and the audience. We only got to do about a one-hour set, as opposed to my usual 2-hour plus extravaganza, but we got to say an awful lot during that time!

Levon’s band was phenomenal, and he had a great horn section as well as fabulous singers, including his daughter, Amy, who also sang on our album, as well as during our set, along with my daughter, Lexie! I also had John Previti on bass, Shannon Ford on drums and Matt Rae on second guitar…an all-star band, to say the least! We’re also very proud, because Shannon’s wife, Alice Riply, just won the Tony Award for best Actress in a musical for her show, “Next to Normal”! She’s fantastic, and also sang on my daughter Lexie’s new cd!

The musicianship all night was terrific, and if you ever get a chance to come to Woodstock, you’ll never experience such an intimate musical treat! I know I, for one, can’t wait to get back up there for another dose of it, it sure was good for the soul!

It’s good in this day and age, to be a part of something that was so musically “real”, with the kind of dedicated audience that is really as deeply into the music as they were………it was encouraging as well as refreshing, and the players and the audience really seemed to feed off of one another’s energy!

So, here’s to more great gigs like that one! It’s the kind of experience that stays with you forever!

Posted: 7/14/2009 3:43:40 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More on Collecting: A One of a Kind?

I must admit, I really never seem to lose the collecting “bug”, especially when it comes to guitars! I wanted to share with you this incredible Gibson find, that has to be a “one of a kind!”

Several years ago, I came across this guitar quite unexpectedly, and when I wasn’t really looking for an old Gibson archtop guitar at all! I noticed that it had a headstock I had never, ever seen before on a Gibson, except on a Gibson banjo! Someone told me this inlay and headstock is based on the Gibson “Bella Voce” style, which was used on banjos only. The inlay is incredible, and it all has the same “weight” of the Gibson logo, so sometimes, the logo seems to get “lost” in it all! The inlays on the neck, those double triangles, reflect the mid-thirties era inlays you’d see on Roy Smeck models as well as being similar to the renowned “Advanced Jumbo” style inlay.

The body, I am told, resembles that of an L-7 model of the same era, and I would place it somewhere in the mid-thirties, like 1934. I apologize for the not very good quality of the pics, since I had to use a webcam to take the shots, but you can get an idea.

I’m very excited to know any more info about this wonderful Gibson, so if anyone out there reading this blog can help me know more, please write a comment or drop me a line. It’s truly a great feeling when you can find something this rare, and I must tell you, it sounds and plays like a dream!

It also possesses that great Big Band “chunk, chunk” kind of nice and even “comping” tone, yet really sings when it’s time for some single note playing. It also has some unique, and original multi-colored tuning buttons that are also something I’ve never seen before. It’s my guess that this was a custom-ordered instrument, and Gibson made this person exactly what he or she wanted way back when! A real testament to quality, workmanship and originality!

Posted: 7/13/2009 3:07:25 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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