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What Is It About Those Old Gibsons, Anyway?!

Well, ever since I started falling in love with “vintage” guitars, way back in the ‘60s, Gibsons were unquestionably the first ones to grab my eyes. Of course, there are so many I love, and so many I have always longed for, but my first was my classic ’52 Les Paul gold top.

They all always held a special quality for me, including the many acoustics large and small, and lots of the hollowbody and semi-hollow electrics, such as the ES-355, the 330, the Super 400 and on and on!

I do know there is also a kind of “mystique” to the tone that really captures the ear, and it always tells you it’s a Gibson, no matter what the particular sub-grouping is.

For example, I used to have a reverse Firebird I had found in a NY pawnshop that was absolutely incredible (which I sorely miss!), and it possessed that unmistakeable “Firebird” tone, which can only be achieved with those fabulous mini humbuckers.

There is also something extremely sensual about the shapes and finishes of these guitars that I find extremely attractive. I guess it’s the fact that no matter what the actual shape ends up being, its origins as a true guitar seem to never be lost. For example, if I look at my beloved ES-330, it’s as much a true and traditional shape as I can see in my J-185, which most would think of as a “truer” guitar shape. I guess it’s because so many of Gibson’s designs have become such classics in their own rights that each stands alone as a “true” and definable, “complete” looking guitar!

Without trying to make all of this a shameless “plug,” I must admit, that now that I am teaching on Gibson.com, and able to play many more of the new models, it astounds me just how well these new guitars stand up against the old ones. It’s just a fabulous thing that one can count on a new guitar being every bit as good as its older counterpart and ancestor! Bottom line is, I enjoy the “new” ones as much as the old ones, and that’s the truth! Way back in the mid and late ‘60s when I first started collecting, I never, ever dreamed I would make THAT statement! So, take care of those old Gibsons, and certainly take care of your new ones, too, because they are already “born” classics, only to become even more classic and historic as time goes on!

Posted: 4/17/2009 11:12:32 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More Real Life "Music School"

When I was continuing to learn at a very rapid pace as a performer and a recording artist, it became more and more apparent that this was truly something I was really “on my own” with. Once I started getting calls from producers and bands who wanted my talents, it seemed that the more they wanted “me for me” they only really wanted just to tell me what to play!

This was a bitter pill to swallow, especially in the beginning, because I was such a raw, and in essence, unbridaled talent, that it was hard for me to accept any additional musical “pigeon holing”, which definitely insulted my fragile, and very young ego, and sense of what I felt was good guitar playing.

After all, all I ever wanted to really do was play MY way, not to just be a “hired gun” to simply be an adequate guitarist who can do whatever people tell me to do. Still, this is, no doubt, a big part of dealing with certain ends of the music industry, and if you really want to be a pro player, it’s part of learning the ropes.

It never made me falter, but I must admit, it many times was a rude awakening for sure! Of course, you have the “big shots” who want you to play what they want, and you BETTER listen and not have an attitude about it, while at the same time you have people like spoiled Long Island kids who have been given money by their parents so they can hire the best musicians and have them record in their basement! (a true occurance!) This was enormously frustrating, because you have to realize that you’re dealing with someone here who has NO idea even WHY you are so good as a player, only the fact that he wants you, and he wants you now!!! So, there I was, in this kid’s basement, playing with Rick Marotta on drums, and the great Tony Levin on bass, and we’re all looking at each other, as if to say, “what the hell are we all doing here?!”

But I guess that’s the problem….as musicians there are times when we feel like we must do anything and everything we can, first for a living, and secondly because it may be something that will further our careers ... or, as in this “not rare enough” case, for no good reason at all!!!

Beware of what gigs you take, especially when you don’t know all the details about them….they simply just may end up one day in a blog like this, with nothing else to show for it!! Still, I guess it was worth the story! See you again soon ...

Posted: 4/15/2009 4:22:33 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Music School Versus the School of Life

My last blog was about reading music versus not reading, and this installment will deal with that concept on an even larger scale; that of “music school versus the school of life”. Of course, in the end, it’s ALL about the “school of life”, even if music school is part of that equation…….but what I refer to here is how important the “real” learning experience is verses the one that is taught in schools.

I have always been a self-taught musician, but I also love to teach. But my way of teaching has always been to pass on the “real”, hard-earned “life learned” info that simply can’t really be passed on within a set format, as would be sometimes prescribed by a music school. I do know that in the past, when I did go to regular school, it was never so much what I learned that I remembered, but it was the teachers themselves that I remember most. This is because it is all about the teacher-student relationship that is built up over time, and there’s no question that it is the great TEACHERS that make LEARNING so valuable, and it is sometimes even one teacher alone that will make an entire school worthwhile to go to! I can clearly recall this when I applied to various schools for photography when I was going to go to college, and wanted to go to one school specifically, because two of my all-time favorite photographers were professors there. As it turned out, that was the only school out of four I applied to that turned me down, only further hastening my desire to go off into the real world of music!

Even while I did go to the Philadelphia College of Art, I was living with my band, “Steel” there, and we were playing anywhere we could in Philadelphia, and were making weekend journeys up to Woodstock, N.Y., so we could be heard by the right people. Little did I know that as I was getting heard in Woodstock by some of my idols, such as Paul Butterfield, and other folks who “actually made records”, they were really singling me out as a guitarist they could use for their own purposes, and were not so interested in my band.

So even at that time, when I was just seventeen years old, the tough training ground of playing block parties, school dances and impromptu jam sessions in Philly was already preparing me for the life of going out on my own as a “guitarist for hire” in Woodstock, where I ended up moving to the following Fall. This was already “chapter 3 or 4” in my life as a musician, even though for me, it felt like it was all just the beginning.

The “school of life” is the only school, and in the end, we are really all our own teachers. If you do go to a music school per se, remember to be sure to take away from it the most meaningful stuff for YOU, and where YOU see yourself heading as a musician. A lot of information is good, but can be pretty overwhelming for someone just starting out, and you certainly never want to be put into a position of feeling like you’re inadequate as a player, which is something these schools can make unnaturally happen to you! More next time….stay tuned!

Posted: 4/13/2009 8:18:25 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Reading Versus Not Reading

I’ve always said that I’ve regretted not learning to “truly” read music for the guitar. This happened because of a number of reasons, not least of which was the fact that I have such a good ear, that anything I can pretty much hear, I can also play. This was always the driving force behind my development as a player, but it wasn’t always without some trepidation.

Certainly recording sessions presented some major problems for me, as I was getting called for work where the producers, etc. totally expected me to be able to read notes and charts. The truth is, these pieces of paper make my eyes glaze over, and they present a real obstacle between me and my creative abilities when it come to the guitar. I have always done best when I “play for the song”, and this having to read often stands in the way of that delicate process.

I guess I also always have depended so much on my ear, that I wanted that to always remain as true to my own developmental process as possible. Even when I wrote my first book, Slide Guitar, when I was only 20 years old, I only knew where the “G” note was on the musical staff, so I simply deciphered and deduced where the other notes might be, simply from knowing where that good, old G was! And I certainly, when presented with a three-book deal, was not about to tell them I didn’t read or write music! Personally, I love the combination of music and tab, as the tablature truly tells you the positions of the notes, whereas a random note on the staff simply tells you a note that can be in about 6 different places on the neck, all in the same octave!

Truly, as a result of this problem, I had some nightmarish sessions, which I’m sure if you’ve had to move into professional playing, you’ve experienced too! But what we are really shooting for as players, is to be called for recording and performing dates where we are being called for our “own sound” and style, and where the reading turns into a minimal commitment. This is true of most guitarists, as we are perhaps the most self-taught bunch out there in the world of music, and it really makes a lot of what we must do in our life as guitarists more instinctual and creative! Still though…I WISH I COULD READ MUSIC!!!

Posted: 4/9/2009 3:25:16 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Being "Ready" for that Surprise Gig!

Well, Lord knows I’ve had my share of what we’d call “surprise gigs” in my time, and in a way, they are certainly the most fun and contain a great deal of wonder and excitement! They can, and do come at the craziest times though, and we must all be prepared for that eventuality!

For example, in the winter of 1978, I got an 8AM phone call from a Mr. Art Garfunkel, asking me if I’d come up to his apartment on Central Park, in the middle of a wicked blizzard, to audition for an upcoming tour he was about to do. I can recall joking with him, and saying, “is this a fake call? Because nobody involved in music makes calls this early in the morning!” He laughed, but he assured me that he was the real deal.

I was in a way, truly prepared for that call, just because of my sheer belief in myself and my playing, and also the fact that I had been playing a lot of that S&G music back when I was a very young and developing player. The gig was mine, and It was one of the most pleasurable experiences of my life! Within weeks, I was touring with other great players in the band, and doing the original Saturday Night Live, and playing in places like Carnegie Hall on a nearly nightly basis.

This kind of thing is what makes the world turn, in my opinion, and you never know what waits around the musical corner for you!

Fast forward to this past week, and I suddenly, out of the blue, get a call from my dear friend, Alan Menken, the brilliant songwriter behind so many Oscar and Grammy-winning soundtracks and songs for movies by Disney and many others. His office said it was to be a Maria Muldaur-ish “Midnight at the Oasis” kind of guitar part, but when I got there, it was obvious that the song was in a totally different kind of vibe, much closer to a Lovin’ Spoonful sound. Regardless, I was ready, mostly due to my background, and of course, Alan knew who to call when he wanted this certain kind of guitar part, and that choice was me! Of course, I was a little apprehensive at first, since it was a long time since I had done that kind of session, but one listen through, and I had it! In fact, the more I could dig into my bag of tricks, and simply sound like “me”, the happier they were. By the time I finished with my final E tuning slide solo, they were all applauding in the studio! It all happened so quickly that when I returned home, I wondered if it had all really happened or was it just a dream?

Be ready for those surprise sessions and gigs, because they can also be surprise “dreams” you may never want to completely wake up from!

Posted: 4/7/2009 3:10:09 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Playing Up to Your True Potential

This is a question that gets raised a lot, as many of us are often concerned, sometimes OVER concerned that we are not really playing guitar up to our true potential. I can recall periods where I definitely hit “slumps”, especially the kinds of slumps that resemble that of a ball player who for one reason or another, just can’t seem to get any hits over an extended period of time, with no real explanation for it!

I can recall perhaps the biggest slump being at the true beginning of my professional career, when I first moved to Woodstock. It seemed as if I couldn’t “buy” a good guitar solo if I tried, and that was during a time when my creative abilities seemed to actually be at a peak……everything just sort of stopped.

Upon reflection, looking back, of course, I was so very young, only 18, and was up against a whole new world, where the guitar was only a part of it. My concerns were many, and I was still dealing with this great change in my life that meant I had to now also cook, clean, work odd jobs, and live in a tiny apartment, in addition to simply playing the guitar.

I also must admit, that looking back, the music I was suddenly thrust into playing was just a little too “confining” for me at that time. A good lesson in real music, yes, but maybe something I wasn’t quite ready to handle just yet!

Now, I go through different kinds of slumps, which are much more in my head than anything else….I had a gig the other day, for example, where it had been so long since I’d performed that it felt like when I hit the stage, I’d feel out of touch, and literally detached from my instrument. Well, nothing could’ve EVER been further from the truth, as I ended up putting on a show that was such a revelation for me, that I felt as if I had literally “redefined” the instrument! And the whole sold-out crowd knew it, too….so it wasn’t just in my mind that this was happening.

A lot of folks when they hear me talk about that night say,”darn, I wished I had come, but I’ll make the next one”……..and meanwhile I try to explain to them that as far as that night was concerned, there CAN’T be another one like it……it was just that special for me! Still, I do feel that I somehow set a “higher bar” that night, and it’s effects will stay with me, and probably will spur me on to become even a better player still. Hope you’ve had nights like that too……but remember, the “slumps” you may go through from time to time are only temporary, and MUCH better shows and playing lie ahead for you!


Posted: 4/3/2009 11:06:18 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More Guitar Collecting Adventures

I can recall years back, when visiting my late friend, John Entwistle, the bassist of the Who, we got into talking about guitar collecting. He had been a longtime well-known collector of fine vintage instruments, and even though we were not at his home with the endless collection, there were still a lot of guitars and basses around.

I recall being struck by how he loved to tell the stories of how cheaply he had found some, and the crazy circumstances under which their purchases occurred. I realized that here I was talking to a bona fide “rock star”, who I’m sure had tons of money, yet he was still thinking of how inexpensive certain finds were. This also told me that he was a TRUE collector…..one who realizes the hunt is as gratifying as the prize, and that the stories behind them are as priceless, if not more, than the piece itself!

I can recall the one time an elderly gentleman, nearly 100 years old, GAVE me two turn of the century guitars that I thought I was only just going to see! His nephew, a friend and fellow band member of mine said that I should go to his uncle’s house, and check out these 2 ancient guitars that I would definitely be interested in. One was from 1888, and the other from 1908. Well, this was around 1975, and he being 100 years old, he even told me he was the ORIGINAL owner!!! Imagine that…how many folks can ever say that they got two guitars which were at that point nearly 90 and 60 years old respectively, from the original owner!!

His wife was even there, looking like Katherine Hepburn, in a black straw hat, painting the bookcases, saying “my, aren’t those guitars happy, they have finally found a home”, as I sat and gave them a performance that I still had no idea was on the guitars I’d soon be owning!

He turned to me and said “young man, those guitars are now yours….you’re the first person to play them in 65 years!! I walked out with both cases under my arms, trembling as I took the subway back from Brooklyn Heights to my loft in lower Manhattan, just beneath the World Trade towers!

Turns out, he was a longtime, famous psychiatrist, and all he wanted me to do as a condition, was to play the next weekend for his patients up in Connecticut at a private party he was having….strange gig, indeed, but certainly well worth it!!!

Posted: 4/1/2009 10:11:20 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More on Guitar Collecting

Once the initial “bug” has got you when it comes to collecting guitars, it’s really hard to ever truly “shake” it off…….. although,  I must admit it does sometimes tend to come and go. This is especially true since I’ve done it for so long, but what happens with any collection, is that you start to develop “collections within collections”! For example, once you get the Les Paul bug, you may never be satisfied with just ONE Les Paul…oh no……you want a sunburst to go with the goldtop, to go with the P-90 Les Paul, which goes with the humbucker, etc.

The care and feeding of all these babies also becomes important, and if you start to accumulate acoustic guitars, which I sometimes go through phases of doing, you’ll immediately note that they are far more sensitive to temperature and humidity changes, and need a good deal more attention than say, solid body electrics.

The important thing for me has always been whether or not the guitars really meant something to me from the standpoint of being something I really wanted to PLAY. After all, this is the reason I fell in love with them in the first place, and with each new, developing style, came the desire for that particular guitar to fill that need. As I got into slide guitar, for example, I noticed that I just wasn’t going to get the sound of my heroes unless I went after a National steel guitar. But then, lo and behold, before I knew it, there were 3 National steels in my collection!

There does come a point, with really any kind of collecting, where you must stop and really take stock of what you are doing, and if you are getting carried away with it! I know that even though many of them were very special, I always ended up selling the pieces that I truly had no interest in playing. You know, those guitars that stay in their cases, and only come out once in a blue moon, when you want to show someone else what you’ve got! I find that tedious and boring, and lord knows, they can take up space!

So, in the end, be sure to collect what you think will really STAY in your collection….guitars that you will really play, and that really fill a need in the sounds you want to make. The problem with me, of course, is once I think I’ve got that all taken care of, another “must have” comes along, and the old collecting bug in me gets totally reawakened! Thanks, but now I must be excused so I can continue perusing the classifieds for a vintage ES 345!!

Posted: 3/30/2009 7:47:44 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Getting the Guitar Collecting Bug

Let’s face it, guitars have long been among the most collectible things on the planet, and it seems as if we are always finding some way to justify buying “yet another one”! In my life, these seeds were planted very early, and were even encouraged by my Dad, who has always been a collector of art, as well as being an artist, and a cartoonist for The New Yorker magazine.

I can still recall, back in 1967, when I bought my 1953 Les Paul with him, just how much we used to love to go to the shops and stare at, and appreciate the amazing guitars. This was the time when the concept that “vintage guitars are better than new guitars” was first starting to really take hold, and boy, was that ever true at that particular juncture! I can recall a time when he and I went to Dan Armstrong’s shop, upstairs on 48th Street in Manhattan, and we literally had to “step over” all the incredible gold, black and sunburst Les Pauls that were just lying around!

We then went across the street to Manny’s Music, only to see the owner yelling at the lead player from the Blues Magoos to stop his insane buying of instruments……..he must’ve bought 4 or 5 guitars a day, and they were getting mad at him. All I can say is he certainly knew what he was doing by falling in love with all those incredible vintage axes! It’s funny to think that most of them were only 10 to 15 years old at the time, but it was a certain quality they possessed that just wasn’t in the new instruments at that time.

Even when I got my ’52 Les Paul, which really was my first GREAT guitar, it was because another guitar, which I had on order, and which was new, had finally come into Manny’s, where I ordered it from. Well, as fate would have it, I picked it up, bent the G string, and the nut promptly went flying off the guitar!! It wasn’t even glued in! We stood up, got our $200 deposit back, and walked up to 49th Street, where there was a little upstairs shop called Eddie Bell’s, and there, waiting for me, was a gorgeous gold ’52 Les Paul that I simply fell in love with! It was $250 LESS thean the new guitar I left back at Manny’s, by the way! More on collecting later……..keep on hunting!

Posted: 3/27/2009 9:59:41 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More Days with Danny Gatton

My dear late, great friend was such an enigma. Sometimes he was the most jovial guy you could ever meet, and other times he was really down in the dumps, and severely depressed. He rarely let others see that side of him, but there were sometimes when I noticed it.

The truth was that many times, he was just plain sick of playing gigs. It must’ve all seemed like too much of an effort to him after awhile, especially seeing that he had already given the best playing years of his life to so many gigs he had lost count, and they were the kinds of gigs that basically “led to nowhere”. I personally have also experienced this feeling, such as the days when I used to sell out Kenny’s Castaways, a legendary club in NY for years it seemed, every weekend with lines around the block, but unable to ever get any influential music biz or record label people to come down and see me.

Developing that kind of “core audience” and having a ral stronghold you can count on is a great way for anyone to see you performing, because the folks there are your “true” fans, and would go night after night to support you.

Still, I at least had NYC as my backyard, while Danny was out in the boonies in the D.C. area. It’s an area resplendent with great guitar talent, and there are a preponderance of local clubs, old-time crab houses, roadhouses and juke joints that you almost never see in the north anymore, and where I don’t even think the clientele realizes what incredible talent they have to enjoy on an almost nightly basis!

I’ve had a chance to play in some of them down there, and it creates an audience/performer kind of rapport that is rarely seen in this day and age.

These are the kinds of places where Danny honed his fabulous skills, as well as players such as Roy Buchanan, Nils Lofgren and many of the other D.C area greats also.

My continued story with Danny will keep on going, so please continue to stay tuned!

Posted: 3/26/2009 9:48:31 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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