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My Days with Danny Gatton

Danny Gatton, the incredible player who has become such a legend, and who took his own life in 1994, was someone who at the time of his death, was truly my best friend.

We had shared many great times together, both musically as well as personally, and though it was not an easy friendship to maintain, due to distance and Danny’s constant “disappearing” it was still incredibly rewarding. He used to get me gigs up in NY even before I knew him, or had even heard him play. One time, I got a call from a producer who was doing a “Kentucky Fried Chicken” –type jingle, and hey wanted some hot chicken pickin’ for it. He said that he had called Danny for it, and Danny said “why send all that way for me, when you’ve got Arlen Roth up there in NY!” This was a wonderful gesture on his part, and must have been almost 10 years before we ever even met!

We finally did start to correspond with each other around 1988, and in ’89, when he was featured on the cover of Guitar Player magazine, holding that half-mask, being touted as the “world’s greatest unknown guitarist”, we finally got together in NY. He had a gig planned at the Riverside Memorial Church in NYC, and he and I had been talking a lot before that gig about our mutual love and passion for old cars and Hot Rods. Sure enough, when he heard that I had a ’53 and a ’54 Buick Skylark, he said he had a set of the rare wire wheels for them, and he’d bring them up to the show!

So, there we were, sitting in the back of his pickup truck, in a snowstorm, mind you, outside of the gig, negotiating the price for the wire wheels! Once we arrived at the price, which was extremely fair, by the way, he then changed his focus and started thinking about the gig at hand! Even once we got inside and were hanging out in the dressing room with Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassidy, who were also on the gig that night, we all ended up talking about cars!

Danny was an amazing player, but an even better person, and the days with him were so precious but few. He and I accomplished a lot together in those few years…..2 landmark Hot Licks videos, working on my Toolin’ Around album together, appearing on Conan O’Brien and so much more, but there was a lot more that could’ve been accomplished if the tragedy of losing him had not taken place.

I will always cherish those days with him, and in the future, I will be writing more about this deeply personal subject.

Posted: 3/26/2009 2:56:47 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More On Self-Teaching

As I’ve mentioned before, we all really, in the end, teach ourselves, and it’s largely the experiences along the way that really lend themselves to this process. Having never really read music, I always had to rely on my ear, and gaining knowledge wherever I could along the way.

Putting yourself into a band-oriented situation is so critically important, as I can recall great players who I knew when I was also a developing player, who were extremely talented, but for one reason or another, never really saw the light of day, career-wise!

This can be very sad, because I firmly believe that it you really think you’ve got “it”, you must make yourself be heard. Of course, these days, one can do this through many mediums, including the internet, etc., but there is still nothing that can beat the live interaction between real musicians.

Many players these days, both old and young, love to go to “open mike nights”, and pre-planned “jams” that are solely designed to get folks playing together. If you can get past many of the overblown egos that seem to reside at these events, and overcome your own level of shyness or intimidation, you can really gain a great deal from these kinds of experiences.

Most of all, it’s always a question of confidence, and never forget that sometimes, it just may be a question of whether or not you “gel” with the other players either from a musical, or personality viewpoint.

I know that back in those days when I would thrust myself into many musical situations at a very young age, I was extremely nervous sometimes, but always quickly channeled that nervousness into positivity.

The saddest thing of all is when students come to me stating that they just don’t want to be intimidated or feel somehow inadequate at these gatherings. It’s sad, because that should not be their focus at all, and it obviously reflects on some negative past experience they may have run into at some jam, or open mike night. Whatever it might be, please keep YOURself in control of what you feel capable of, but most of all, remain as confident as you possibly can be, especially within the confines of your own abilities. If you do this, you’ll always be able to make MORE out of LESS!!

Posted: 3/26/2009 2:49:10 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Teaching Yourself, Where Does It Come From?

Save for a couple of introductory classical guitar lessons when I was 10 years old, all I’ve ever learned on the guitar has been self-taught. In the end, if you think about it, we all really DO teach ourselves, but it’s from people like me and other mentors that you can gain guidance, tips, inspiration and ideas. But after all is said and done, it’s really going to be up to you!

What you end up doing with all this information is really how you start to develop your own “voice” on the guitar, and here is some good news….you almost can’t HELP but have your own voice on the instrument, once you really start to play. Every player I’ve ever heard seems to have their own approach to bending, vibrato and whatever “vocal” qualities exist on the instrument. Even when teaching, and when a student tries to capture the subtlety of my half-step bends, for example, they STILL end up sounding like themselves, even when they think they have copied me exactly!

This is an amazing phenomenum, because it tells you that your voice on the guitar is literally as unique as your speaking or singing voice also is! I always said that when I picked up the guitar each day, I wanted to play something new, and that I’d want to break into new, unchartered territory. It’s a good rule to follow, as each day, and each time you pick up your instrument, you should really get into the habit of trying some new ideas. This is why I like to give you so many ideas on the Gibson lessons I do, so they can “spark” new concepts for you, and in your own playing.

Never forget that when you are soloing, or creating a backup part while doing some accompaniment (which is an almost lost art!) that you are literally “composing” as you are going along. This will be a big step in the process of your own development, and how you end up further teaching yourself! More on this great and favorite subject of mine in the future…….Till then, stay creative!

Posted: 3/18/2009 9:46:40 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

In the Right Place at the Right Time

In many ways I’ve had the good fortune to often be ‘in the right place at the right time' when it comes to performances and gigs in general. I feel that this has always been an important fact to consider when choosing gigs, or deciding if a certain night may be the right time to “sit in” at a cool gathering of folks or not.

Of course, it is also just a chance thing, and we can never really know when it is really the magic time or not, but we must put ourselves “out there’ so we at least give it a chance to happen. As I’ve always said, in my early days as an up and coming player, I always noticed that one good thing always seemed to lead to another. If I sat in with a bunch of great players up in Woodstock for example, such as Paul Butterfield or The Band, the next thing I’d know was that I’d get an “out of the blue” call from someone related to that night, needing me to play on an album, or to do a show.

I can recall that the call I’m referring to actually came on an average day, right after I had just torn my ankle playing basketball in a NYC schoolyard. John Simon, the producer of The Band, who was playing keyboards one of those great nights in Woodstock, suddenly called me to play on a Rachel Faro album, and to fill in for the great R&B guitarist, Cornell Dupree. Well, I was not going to let anything deter me from making this, my first session EVER on a real album, so I made it, even though I literally had to be carried around by all the other players from chair to chair…or even to go to the bathroom!!

Even on one fateful night, Eric Andersen, the folk singer who I’d been working with off and on for many years, told me there was a gig going on down at Gerde’s Folk City, where Dylan was possibly going to show up, and that the “survivors of the ‘70s” was to be decided!! Well, it all sounded kind of far-fetched o me, but I went down anyway, threw a Pignose amp up onstage, watched as film crews, to my surprise  started putting mics in front of it, and before you knew it, not only was Dylan there with Joan Baez, using it as a kind of “kick off” night of their “Rolling Thunder” tour, but it was being made into a film called “Renaldo and Clara”! By the end of the night, I had ended up playing with the likes of not only Dylan and Baez, but also Phil Ochs (his last ever appearance), Patti Smith, Roger McGuinn, Bette Midler, and even Ramblin’ Jack Elliot! It was a legendary night that ended up in many books, and it was certainly a thrill to be a part of! By the way, the only other time I played in that club, I ended up in another movie; a documentary about the Hell’s Angels!!! More sagas next time….till then…….

Arlen Roth


Posted: 3/17/2009 3:09:26 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More on the Club Scene of New York

There were many cool clubs to play at in the general NY area back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and Long Island also had its fair share. Most notable to me, was the great club in the quiet town of Roslyn, NY known as “My Father’s Place”. This was club of very huge capacity, (I believe it was once a bowling alley), and you could see any act imaginable there in those days. I used to play there quite often with Happy and Artie Traum, as well as other folks…and I could always see friend there when they were passing through, such as Ry Cooder and others.

There was a great radio station on Long Island at the time called WLIR-FM, and they were really starting to play the heck out of my second album for Rounder Records, called “Hot Pickups”. This album had many “radio hits” around the world, and in the NY area, WLIR and the legendary WNEW really had me as a big part of their rotation at the time.

My Father’s PlaceAs it turned out, WLIR would broadcast live concerts from My Father’s Place every week, and they would garner great listening audiences, especially if they were artists whose records got played quite a bit on the station. My record was huge on there, and sure enough, one day they called us to do a live radio broadcast concert there.

I can recall trying to get all my relatives to come, so I could fill up the place, always thinking that maybe the crowd wouldn’t be so big.

Well, as it turned out, we were driving out there for the gig, and as we were listening to WLIR on the radio, they announced “all tickets for the Arlen Roth show are already sold out, so if you don’t have tickets, turn around and go home!” When I heard this, I nearly jumped through the roof of the car, ad I can still hear my bass player, Tony Brown telling me to “calm down and take it easy!” Well, needless to say, it was tough to really calm down, and when I hit that stage, and heard that thunder of support from the 800 plus sold out fans, I was a little nervous, but still channeled that nervous energy into a very powerful show. The reaction was nothing short of stupendous, and we did three encores, and of course, the dynamic of all this being captured on the radio was even more exciting. Recently a fan from somewhere in the US sent me a cd of this show, which was great since I had long since lost the tape I had of it that had been made off the air, back in 1979.

It was definitely one of my most exciting nights ever performing, and because it was so huge, they immediately wanted me back the following week, to share the bill with a band called “Thrills” whom I had never heard of. Apparently neither had the crowd, which this time numbered maybe 50, and of course, no one thought I’d be back in only a week……… all those folks at the first “sold out” concert had no idea I’d be back so soon! Something like that should only happen once or twice a year, tops!

In any event, those were great times, great memories and great music! An era when live music was still “king”, even though Disco was taking a big chunk out of it!

Arlen Roth


Posted: 3/13/2009 10:25:23 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The New York Club Scene

When I first really started to play out in earnest, early in my career, it was the early “70s, and my local club scene playing was mostly confined to the Manhattan landscape as well as the upstate NY Woodstock clubs. There were many positive “growing” experiences to be had during this time, yet some of the negatives were absolutely incredible, as well as mind-boggling to say the least!

At this time, I was also involved in touring with artists all over the Country as well as the world, so sometimes it was rather jarring to be getting the “royal treatment” in foreign territories such as Japan, where they really know how to “roll out the red carpet” for you, only to come home to play a club in Greenwich Village that may not even have a dressing room! Still, the combination of all these kinds of venues and levels of treatment was certainly eye-opening as far as the sheer breadth of what rally was “out there”, and what it all meant to me.

Tony Bird - The Village VoiceThe New York club scene in particular, had its own dynamic, and it existed on several levels. There was the “Cabaret” scene, where I played clubs such as Reno Sweeney, which one night I can even recall Cissy Houston bringing her little Whitney Houston up onstage to wow the audience with her young set of pipes! Or, the lower Manhattan “West Village” scene where I’d be playing with a band that Patty Smith was opening for, only to find, upon my arrival, that her band and my band had already been involved in a backstage fistfight with each other! Never quite got the real story of what THAT one was all about!

I guess one of the saddest things about that scene and some of the clubs, was the “pay to play” sort of mentality that was pervasive in the opulent record company era of that time, and which still exists even today. I can recall one club, uptown, called JP’s that you literally had to “pay to play” in, because, supposedly, it was THE place to be heard, since so many record exec types liked to hang out there, as well as bigtime musicians. (I once had to help the bouncer throw an extremely drunk Hamish Stuart, lead singer of The Average White Band, out of the place!). One time, I was playing there with Tony Bird, a wonderful South African singer I had been working with there, and not only did they ignore our set, but they talked loudly right through it….all of a sudden, Tony appeared on the back cover of The Village Voice, a very influential newspaper at the time, and we then played again at JP’s the next weekend. Well, as it turned out, all of a sudden, the audience was cheering, paying attention to every note we played, and just couldn’t get enough of us! I felt so lousy about it all, because this was really a blatant show of how “flighty” and easily swayed these key “opinion makers” really were, and that it was all just a bunch of people jumping on the bandwagon of our popularity, with absolutely no regard for the real music at hand! More on this saga in future blogging! Till next time…

Arlen Roth


Posted: 3/9/2009 6:50:48 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

You're Out of the Band - Part 2

John PrineThe subject of being in or out of the band, and the dynamics that can create this situation can be very sensitive, to say the least. I even know from my own experience that when I have been the recipient of this kind of bad news, especially when young, it can really hurt.

There was the time when I was on a really grueling tour with the John Prine Band, and all of a sudden, without warning, in the middle of somewhere in Idaho, on out tour bus, all the other members of the band ganged up on me and said they wanted me out. They used terms like, “you’re not one of us” to explain their decision, and man, I certainly WASN’T one of them, because in my opinion, they were marginal musicians at best, and they couldn’t have been a worse group of musicians for Prine, whereas I was really totally the correct kind of roots-oriented player he needed! They were just a bunch of awful fusion and funk-style players, who had never played Country of Folk before, and who never even really player true Rock before either!

In any event, the manager, who was also on the bus with us, took a meeting with us all, and soon got to the root of their issue, which was really, plain and simply, jealousy! The fact was, that at that time, while we were on the bus for long hours, I was busy writing my third book, entitled Nashville Guitar, a book that has become a Country classic over the years! But there I was, all of 22 years old, proudly working on my book, which I guess made them feel jealous because I actually “had something to do” with my life, besides sitting on a bus and acting like a bunch of jerks, which was what they were doing!

In the end, everything worked out, and I stayed in the band, but the “heart” was taken out of it for me, and the band itself never really lasted much longer after that…. Maybe 2 or 3 months, tops. In fact, even though that was the year 1975, John Prine has never had a band at all since then! Guess it was a bad choice in his mind no matter what!

Arlen Roth


Posted: 3/6/2009 9:21:36 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

You're Out of the Band

This is always a tricky and delicate subject, because when people get canned from a group, more often than not, it’s not their fault at all, and in fact, can be a blessing in disguise for the “cannee”. I’ve obviously had a lot of experience within bands and also back-up bands (which are still BANDS!), and many incidences of either having to get rid of a particular member, or defend myself from being kicked out!

A perfect early example was when I was playing in a group called “Janey and Dennis”, and we had just done a big-budget album for Captiol records. We were getting ready to tour, opening for the Bee Gees across Canada, and we had a drummer rehearsing with us named Max Weinberg. Well, at that time, the only gig Max had done of any real professional level was touring with the Peggy Fleming ice skating tour! It was kind of funny, because he had all these anvil road cases for his drums with “Peggy Fleming” stenciled on them! He also would drink an entire 6-pack of Dr. Pepper at each rehearsal, and even though I like Dr. Pepper now, it was inconceivable to see someone in New York, in 1974 consuming that much of that drink! But that is totally besides the point…

Well, as it turned out, I was getting extremely against his being in the band for many reasons, but the top one was simply that his style of drumming didn’t fit our music. The other members agreed, after a long deliberation, and so we fired him. I only found out years later from talking with him, how much this devastated him…..still, he literally owes me everything, because 5 days later, he got his famous gig with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band! It turns out that Bruce was recording in the same studio as us, and he needed a drummer at the time. The recording engineer, Larry Alexander, suggested Max to him, and the rest is history!

The Harbor Band, NYC, 1975

Many years later, I had an appearance on Conan O’Brien, along with Danny Gatton, who had just recorded with me on “Toolin’ Around”. I spoke to Max, he told me how hurt he was by my firing way back when, and not only that, he didn’t want Conan to even KNOW about it!! Later on, after the show, I told Conan the story, and he was just furious that he couldn’t use that little ditty on his show with me and Max!! Later on, Janey and Dennis became The Harbor Band with me still on lead guitar, but our record contract and record got dropped, and The Harbor Band was no more very quickly! All I know is Max owes me big time for being “out of the band!” More on this at a later date!!

Arlen Roth


Posted: 3/4/2009 8:27:25 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More on Songwriting

I think it’s very important to also discuss the art of songwriting as the instrumental verses the lyric-oriented song.

More on Songwriting with Arlen Roth

I know that being a true instrumentalist by nature, my tendency is to first see a song as a guitar part, literally, many times long before I have a lyric idea. In fact, I can get almost TOO comfortable with a piece of music for a little too long in its instrumental state, way too long before I ever put words to it! Conversely, there are songs that even though were more conceived as lyrics and music together, that I find much later I enjoy playing as pure instrumentals. This is a great feeling, because I feel as if I’m re-interpreting one of my own songs, and developing a new-found understanding and appreciation of them musically.

I mean, for me, it’s got to have the music be impressive to me before I can even begin to feel right about continuing with the creative process, and making it a full-blown song. Yet, along the way, when we are writing, we are constantly making good and bad decisions, accepting and rejecting, and of course, just always trying new ideas out!

Everyone ends up approaching songwriting differently, and collaboration is a great way to stimulate the old writing chops! I know this fro I am currently working on an exciting new collaboration project with a great and well-established Nashville-based writer. It’s fun because he lives for writing, whereas I live for playing, and the two different worlds coming together makes for a great hotplate of ideas! It’s an all-instrumental project, too, which makes it unusual for him and comfy for me! In fact, some of the ideas we are working on are good pieces of music I’ve had lying around forever…some for as long as 25 years or more! Just shows you…..a good song or piece of a song, is timeless, and can always come to life once again!!

Arlen Roth


Posted: 3/2/2009 10:31:06 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The Inspiration for Writing Music

Arlen Roth and his SJ-200One thing has always been true for me, especially being a totally self-taught player, and that is just how I end up writing songs.

In a way, I really don’t see that much difference between writing a song, or interpreting someone else’s, because I still have to “make it mine” in the end. One thing I have always done both consciously and unconsciously is to pick up the guitar and immediately start creating something new. This was a habit I started long ago when I was first developing as a player….I would be eating, thinking and dreaming guitar! Sometimes, as I can recall, I’d be on a school bus heading home, just dreaming of the licks, or song that I couldn’t get out of my head, and that I couldn’t wait to try when I got home!

On days like this, it was not uncommon for my parents to come home and find me asleep in a chair, with guitar still in hand, as I no doubt played my weary self to sleep with my new found experimentation! To this day, I still love to write in this way, and if I am not quick to write down my idea, no matter how abstract it might be, it can vanish or fade away just like a dream right after you wake up!

The spark usually comes from a particular guitar riff, or great set of chord changes that challenges me from a melodic perspective, and even from a playing perspective, too. After all, I need the challenges, and it’s not all about trying to write something catchy or hooky. It’s true that the hook, in a way, has to first work on YOU, the creator of it, but I think that the inspiration for it, and the creation of it comes in a much more spontaneous, purely “felt” realm. I find also, that one of the hardest things to remember after you’ve come up with the idea, is to remember the actual “groove”, or “feel” of the song. This part of it can become very elusive, and I sometimes write down the funniest clues to myself to remember the groove…such as: “slower than Proud Mary, with an upbeat into the 3rd measure”! Or, “same changes as ‘Green Onions”, with blues fill in chord form over IV chord”. These are not actual references I’ve used, but they sure reflect just how my mind has to work sometimes to preserve an idea, no matter how elusive or thin it may be! More on writing in the future…remember, we ALL have a song in us!

Arlen Roth



Posted: 2/28/2009 5:26:12 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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