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Grab Those Gigs While You Can!

These days, as anyone can tell you, it’s getting harder and harder to actually secure some real and consistent work as a musician. This means work on the road, or in the studio has gotten really spare, and places to play have really been drying up. The economy has a lot to do with it, but so does the current state of entertainment in general.

I can tell you that more than ever, it is important to keep an open mind regarding what kinds of gigs and sessions you’d be willing to do, because I certainly have had to, and this has been a gradually evolving pattern I’ve noticed over the last bunch of years. Today, for instance, a friend asked me to record a track with him so he can take it over to Italy and have a track to sing over when he performs there. Now, this piece of music will also end up on an entire cd that we will make together later on, but for now, he will be taking this track, along with the other album I already made for him overseas so he can sing a various gigs to these backing tracks.

Now, years ago, I first of all, would never have even been ASKED to play on such a thing, let alone actually have done it, but the combination these days of loads of talented people and loads of them making self-published cds means you’ve got to be really creative to make sure your music gets “out there”, and that you can find some niche to fill.

So, as a session player, in addition to being a solo artist in my own right, I have to really be able to experience a myriad of gigs. Hey, I’ve been doing this now since the mid-sixties, and one thing you learn is that you never know what may end up being offered to you, and what impact it will have. The whole thing about being “really careful” about how you are perceived as an artist by the kinds of gigs you may take is far overstated. I believe it’s also great to be known as a true professional, or a “trooper”, who’s really willing to do whatever it takes to put food on the table, and to experience new musical ideas and concepts, no matter how “unacceptable” they may seem to you at the time. Remember, “just when you really think you’ve paid your dues, you get another bill”!

Posted: 6/12/2009 4:55:40 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Getting to Play for the President!

What an incredible thrill it was, back in ’96, to play for President Bill Clinton on Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts! The occasion and reason behind it was that it was actors Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen’s wedding, and they wanted me, James Taylor and his sister, Kate to play while they walked down the aisle, and during their actual ceremony as well. We played “Some Enchanted Evening” while they strolled down the aisle, on a rainy afternoon, and then “Fields of Gold”, the Sting song, when they exchanged vows.

It was really amazing, because every time I even touched my amp, which was about 20 feet away from the President and his wife, the Secret Service agents were right on it….after awhile, I was just saying to them, “hey, feel free to turn me up or down, I swear I won’t touch it again!”. You start to feel like you’re so “being watched” that you’d rather not even make a move, and you even start to doubt your own movements as possibly looking too suspicious!

Well, once James, Kate and I finished playing, it was very interesting to see how everyone moved in one direction, while the President simply walked over to us and said “now this is the most EXPENSIVE backup band I ever saw!” Truly funny, and very perceptive of him, as well. He was just as regular a guy as anyone could ever imagine a President to be, and was warm and friendly. I know it’s a cliché, but when you talk to him, and we spoke a lot, you really are made to feel like you’re the only one in the world he has his mind on at that moment. We spoke about the environment, vintage cars, over-population and music. I even presented him with a Saxophone instructional video I had made for Hot Licks with the great Steve Douglas, someone I played with on the Duane Eddy tour. The President later sent me wonderful and warm “thank you” letters, along with several great photos from the 2-day affair.

I even got to perform some solo pieces for them, and Ted and Mary had their first dance with me playing “When a Man Loves a Woman”. Then even later that night, at the ball, I got to sit in and play with the great Blues and R&B artist, Charles Brown, who was in rare form!

All in all, it was a real honor and a thrill, especially to play for a President who is musically so in tune with what our generation was all about! I mean, he gave me a “thumbs up” every time I played a pedal steel bend on the guitar! Talk about a unique guitar moment!

Posted: 6/9/2009 10:59:47 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

"Mentoring" Part 2

The idea of mentoring and truly “leading” someone from being a student to someone actually in the musical profession is a great honor, as well as a great responsibility. Matt Rae and Joe Dalton have been my biggest accomplishments personally, but I do know, from the letters and reactions I received over the years, I have had quite an influence over many players all over the world. This is a very humbling thing to be aware of, and I can literally see it on the faces of so many of the thousands of players I have performed for, or given clinics in front of all over the world.

Mentoring can be a subtle, reverse thing, too, as I felt that when I was in the presence of my late, great friend, Danny Gatton many times. For example, I know he had a ton of respect for me as a player, but there were times, especially when we were recording together, that I felt that I knew, and HE knew, that I was also learning some very subtle things from him. Let’s face it, the better most of us get, the more subtle and sophisticated what we can learn from others becomes. He and I also shared an interesting and rare kind of relationship, because we had a mutual respect for each other’s playing for YEARS before we even had the chance to finally meet each other, and really work together.

That session for “Tequila” which we did together on “Toolin’ Around” was a perfect example of reverse mentoring for me, as not only did I learn a great deal from him as a player, but the pride and diligence with which he worked for perfection that day was astounding! For example, when we were done recording, which took about 4 to 5 hours, he decided that he was not going to be satisfied until he knew that I was happy with the mix. So, instead of just hanging out, getting dinner together or whatever else we may have normally done after the session, he stayed well into the night, and worked alongside the engineer till we were both satisfied. It was as if he knew we had something special here that if he didn’t see right through to the end, it would never be as good as we remembered it. That day, he was really like a big brother to me, and I never felt like everything was so “under control” in a long time! “Mentoring” indeed! Danny was the greatest…both as a player and as a human being!

Posted: 6/5/2009 10:49:17 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Teaching Turning into Mentoring

The act and art of teaching the guitar has always been a very important thing in my life, and certain relationships with my private students have not only turned into great and long-term friendships, but many times, I have actually mentored some of these players, and helped them with their careers, their songs, and even recruited them to play second guitar with me in my bands!

The two most notable players who have played long-term with me are Joe Dalton and then Matt Rae. In the case of Joe Dalton, here was already a fine player with a lot of knowledge, who wanted a lot more of what I was about. As time when on, and we had maybe 3 years of lessons under our belts, Joe eventually became a member of my band for many years, and he was a truly accomplished guitarist to have around. We used to play many harmony parts, and I always like to defer to another player and let him solo, as well as doing nice trade-offs between each other during our soloing.

Then, enter Matt Rae, another young and upcoming player. He first heard me on a radio broadcast about 12 years ago where I was doing an interview and they were playing my music on a station in the NY area. He then wrote me a letter asking if I would ever be into doing private teaching, but he had no idea where I lived……when I looked at the return address of the letter he wrote to me via the radio station, I realized he was only 3 miles from my home!

Needless to say, the lessons began, and after about another 2 years, it was apparent that he would be the perfect next “fit” as second guitarist in my band, because he can handle literally any role or idea I throw at him with total professionalism. There are many times we even just do double guitar acoustic gigs together as well, with fantastic results! Of course, the more I think about this “mentoring” thing, I realize that I’m still continuing the teaching process, and passing on even more valuable “life” lessons that arise as the result of becoming a full-fledged professional player! So, always stay open to “mentoring’ and to someone who really wants to help you “move forward” in your career. It’s a help and a lesson that goes way beyond what any money can buy!

Posted: 6/3/2009 9:17:55 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

That First Record Date!

As many of us have found out over the years, the first time we ever get “the call” to play on a record, or make a record for the first time, it’s truly a milestone in a musician’s life! My first time was certainly no exception, but it certainly contained the kinds of difficulties that seemed to act as a “precursor” to events and other crazy sessions to come!

On that day, I happened to playing some schoolyard basketball in Queens, NY, where I had been rehearsing with a band that was getting ready to go out on the road with The Bee Gees, on their Canadian tour. Needless to say, I came down hard on the side of my ankle, not only spraining it badly, but actually tearing the muscle! I went to the doctor, and he said I had to keep it elevated at all times at 180 degrees, and that I must not let it dangle, because the pain was excrutiating!

And, of course, what happens next? I get a call from producer John Simon, who had apparently heard me play in Woodstock one night, and was blown away by what he heard. He wants me to come down to RCA studios, that same day, in Manhattan, and to record on some tracks with a full band, as well as overdub some tracks over what Cornell Dupree had played. This was for an album, “Refugees”, by a new singer named Rachel Faro, and people like Harvey Brooks, the bass player, and other renowned players were also going to be on the date. Needless to say, the was NO WAY I was ever going to miss this session! This was a bona fide chance to really “break in” to the New York recording scene, and I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity.

So, they assured me I would be well-taken care of at the session, and me and my Dad, who drove me, went down to RCA studios on 6th Ave. What a great and warm feeling it was when I realized that all the musicians were so kind to me, helping me get around, keeping that foot up, etc.! It really was well-worth all I went through, even though they really didn’t know how to get a good guitar sound yet in NY it seemed, because even after giving them the best tone I could muster, it always sounding like a thin, little trebly “nothing” when I listened to the playback! Still, all in all, it just shows, don’t miss those dates when they come up, because they always lead to something more after that, and you never know who will be “tuning in” and listening to you, whether it be at a live gig, or in the studio!

Posted: 6/1/2009 11:27:43 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Old Amps!

I have never had a problem garnering excitement over vintage guitars, mainly because they have not only an appeal as playable entities, but also for their pure esthetics and good looks! In the case of amps, however, it’s always been hard for me to justify filling up my space with vintage amps, that get played through quite rarely, and are certainly not nearly as pleasurable to look at as guitars!

Still, there are certain ones that are great when they are displayed with the correct guitar to go with it, such as my ’52 Les Paul along with its ’52 counterpart in amp form, or some of those nice old Gibson and Fender “tweed” amps. But for me, it’s always been about the tone and sound I get through them that really matters.

I’ve been happy for many years with basically the same few amps at my disposal, and also knowing some real amp collecting “nuts”, I’m always able to borrow some choice pieces if I need to, such as I did on this latest “Toolin’ Around Woodstock” cd I did with Levon Helm. On that album, I employed about 4 different vintage amps overall.

For over 30 years, I had an original 1964 Vox AC-30 in my collection that I played and recorded through literally only ONCE! I felt that it colorated my sound too much, and didn’t really sound natural. It certainly sounded like a Vox, though, a very LOUD Vox at that, and it knocked a few pictures off my wall the last time I played through it!

I decided to make it as a partial trade item towards an acoustic guitar I had always wanted, and I found out that The Edge of U2 was ending up getting my amp! Well, that simultaneously made me feel good and bad, as I felt great that a player of his stature was going to enjoy it, but it also made me feel like I had never given this amp of mine the proper credit it deserved! Still, it was worth plenty of money in the trade, and I now have more room to move around in, and to fill up with more great guitars instead of amps!!! Quality, not quantity should be your guiding thought when you start cluttering up your place with these things. Be careful! Till next installment ...

Posted: 5/29/2009 10:01:21 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Who and What Influenced Me

Sometimes it’s really nice to think back and recall some of the key players and general sounds that helped influence me and my guitar playing in the early days. I’m sure many of you have these kinds of memories, or are busy making those memories as we speak!

I was fortunate to go to a great High school in NYC, called the High School of Music and Art, where you had music students and art students. I was actually an art student, and many of us were already playing the guitar for the sheer love of it, even though we were not music students. Many of the music students really didn’t even like music that much, as they felt that they were too “pushed” into it by their parents, and that they couldn’t wait to get out of it! I bet most of those kids never even continued playing music after High School was done!

Anyway, that was a great time for me, as it was right at the beginning of a huge Blues boom (we’ve had many since!) where we’d listen to greats such as Mike Bloomfield and B.B. King right at that time. Bloomfield had a profound influence on me, and I found myself getting so deeply into the Blues, that I immediately started “going back” deeper and deeper into the blues roots, going from B.B. to Son House, to Robert Johnson etc.. It seemed as if I couldn’t feed my hunger for this medium fast enough, and had a true passion as both a fan and as a learning player!

Being a true “absorber” of these sounds, I found I was in love with “all things guitar”, and that the country players were simultaneously having just as profound an effect on me as the blues players. This was precisely when my “own style” began to develop, as I was as much in love with Clarence White of The Byrds, as I was Buddy Guy! At that time, my family had a house up in White Lake, NY, the location of the original Woodstock Festival, and one of my favorite things to do was to tune into some of the Country AM radio stations that were there in the close-by state of Pennsylvania, as well as some further away, such as WWVA, from Wheeling, West Virginia, where I would hear the weekly “WWVA Jamboree”, and hear those lovely steel guitars and other country sounds I just wasn’t as exposed to in NYC.

It was all about having those “open ears” to all those great guitar sounds, and then artistically applying them to how I really wanted to sound personally, and also to my songwriting, which I was soon putting to immediate use with my first serious band, Steel. More on those days in the future! Till then, see ya later!

Posted: 5/29/2009 3:41:47 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The Great Days of the Local Music Store!

Lately, it’s been harder and harder to come by the good old local music shops that I fondly remember as a kid, and that was a big part of my experience as a musician who was growing up in a very special era, when the music store became a very big deal indeed. In fact, the music shop had become among my first really great “performance” spots! It was not unusual, (and still isn’t!) to find me in the shop, working out bigtime on a guitar, and to be developing a nice little crowd of onlookers.

Even “back in the day”, this used to help develop my reputation as a player, as you simply would never know who might be listening….

These days, many stores have gained in size, and have by that fact alone, become a bit more impersonal. You also have to remember that growing up in NYC, I always used to go to 48th street, and check out all the stores there on “Beatle Boulevard”, as it used to be called.

On that one little street, one could find the entire breadth of music store types in one small area, You had the impersonal, chaotic, yet legendary, Manny’s Music, where you almost had to be a star to even feel free to ask to play something. There was the incredibly friendly Terminal Music…they used to have a slogan “We’re the nice Guys!”, which actually carried some real meaning behind it, especially if you’d already gotten the Manny’s treatment! Ben’s Music was a simple, old school, crowded, yet friendly place, where even when buying my first electric guitar there meant I would also meet Charlie Watts of The Stones, who later remembered me as “the first kid in America to recognize me!” when his friend called me up on British radio, when I was guest-deejaying, and telling that story some 25 years later! I noticed at that time, that the music stores in the U.K. had all resembled the closeness and laid-back quality of Ben’s Music, which now tells me why Charlie must’ve chosen to go there instead of the larger, more hectic stores.

There was also a great shop in the Bronx, where I was from, called Bronen’s Music, where I used to get off the school bus every day just to look, and seemingly left a deposit daily on yet another beautiful guitar I had fallen in love with. This of course, with full knowledge that my Dad, due to financial reasons, would have to say “no”. Still, I always tried. I still fantasize about going back there are trying to claim all the classics I had put $10 deposits on way back then in ’66! Especially a certain ES 355 I can’t get out of my mind! (I was also falling in love with B.B. at that time!)

So, to this day, I am still on a constant quest to seek out these great places of the past…and not only music shops with that great old character, but also old car dealerships, pawnshops, you name it! Till next time, wish me happy hunting!

Posted: 5/29/2009 3:31:46 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Cars and Guitars!

Cars and guitars…they go together like butter and toast, coast to coast! It’s getting to be springtime in full force here in the northeast, and here, like everywhere else in the country, the car bug is biting everyone again! I know it’s biting me, and the connection between vintage cars and cool guitars is really a universal one.
I know my buddies Jeff Beck and Danny Gatton have always been car nuts like me, as well as many other top guitar players such as Billy Gibbons, and I’m sure, many others.
The main thing that I find as the strongest connection between the 2 is the esthetic experience of both. I mean, driving an old classic can have the same rewarding esthetic as playing a classic ’59 Les Paul for me, and there’s just something about the age factor, the patina, the feel of the drive and even the sights and sounds and smells that reverberate to me just the way a vintage guitar does. For example, the true environment when you are driving the car is the interior, where the tactile experience is at its peak, and where the esthetic is just as warm and close to you as the playing of a supple instrument in your hands. The old, huge tube radios may as well be small guitar amps, and the combination of colors, metals, plastics and other elements always remind me of an old guitar.
The old cars, even their shapes, were more musical and creative in their sculptural nature, and design was never something that was compromised on. The freedom of expression was always paramount with these cars, just as these guitars, even today, are such a free-flowing expression of what the luthier wants to create, and what he or she wants to attract you with. These designs are purely sensual, and let’s face it, sensuality is the name of the game when it comes to the sultry curves of guitars and cars!
So, I’ll se you on the car circuit this Spring, Summer and Fall….and don’t be surprised if you see a guitar that matches the car thrown in the backseat!!

Posted: 5/20/2009 9:24:08 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

"Sittin' In" for a Worthy Cause

For this installment of my Blog for Gibson, I’m taking an even more “immediate and timely” stance in my writing, as I’m actually talking about something that occurred last night!

There was a huge benefit for a dear friend of the community where I sometimes reside in Massachusetts, who is dying of cancer, and the outpouring of love and food and just good wishes for this man whose life we were celebrating was truly an exceptional thing to witness. There was also a great outpouring of music, as there are many musicians who live here, and it has become very normal to hear some of these players at nearly every event, large or small.

There were some actual bands, as well as many folks who were just sitting in, as me and my daughter Lexie were doing. At one point, we came up to do one song, and Lexie really belted it out and had a great reaction from the gathering there. There was, however, just before we went on, some unknown guy who said to us “make it fast, no one told me about this!” The crowd was also touched by our father/daughter combination. Suddenly, at one point for reasons no one could explain, the lights that were only on the musicians were suddenly dimmed and then turned off! The rest of the place still had lights, but only the bands were not lit!

Nobody could figure out the problem, but meanwhile, we kept on playing, and everybody had a continued good musical time. I got to sit in yet again, this time with an all electric blues band, and they let me take over the show for awhile, and I really let it rip. It felt so good to be a part of a community where there was a sense of nothing but support. But I can tell you, this “sitting in” thing always seems to flare up some of the silliest nonsense and ego problems…the thing I can’t believe was that it would ever occur on a night such as this!!! A night dedicated to the spirit of a man who is dying, and who everyone is there to celebrate! Instead, it turned out the guy who turned off the lights was that same guy who told us to “make it fast”!! Seems he told a friend of mine that doing that would “shut up” the crowd!! Hey, buddy, this crowd, some 500 strong, was there to celebrate a man’s life, not to listen to music like they were in a club or something! To add icing to the cake, there was even a mean girl who is also a quasi-musician, who apparently was giving me some kind of grief about sitting in, when I didn’t know the man who we were there to celebrate! I couldn’t believe my own ears, as it was still too loud to really hear, but by the end of her ranting and raving, I realized she was thinking that with one song, I stole the show, even though I was not asked to play! Well, needless to say, I was asked to play, and everyone there EXPECTED me to play, and was pushing me up there! Totally amazing, how even at a solemn and heavy event like this, there would be some petty amateurs to really try to ruin it!

Well, it didn’t ruin it for me, because I felt I had done my part, played my heart out, and gave what the people and the man it was all about wanted. Beware of those silly and petty musical egos that can sometimes get in the way of a good night. It never ceases to amaze me how they always seem to crawl out of the woodwork!

Posted: 5/18/2009 8:37:41 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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