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Be True To Your Own Style!

In the long run, it will be your establishment of your “own” sound and style on the instrument that will really speak for you and your musical reputation. I was always careful, and found it basically unavoidable to develop my own style and technique, most of all “sticking to my guns” in terms of keeping my own identity on the guitar. What this meant to me, and continues to mean is that the outside influences, although extremely important, must have an effect on your style in such a way that you are “borrowing” from, and being inspired by the styles and techniques of the players you admire. I guess this might even be part of what is philosophically behind the fact that I have taught my licks to the entire world. I somehow always knew that I’d never actually create “another Arlen Roth”. It was clear to me that the fact that just as I “borrowed” from my favorite players, so would other players do that by borrowing from me.

Granted, it can bother me when there is someone I hear who puts none of their own spin on things, and just sounds like they’re copying me…I hear my influence on hit records played by other people all the time! But that to me, comes off as a compliment. I generally tend to stay away from guitarists who sound way too “derivative”, and whose influences can so obviously be heard. There are a lot of these players around, some who sound just like all the licks they’ve ever heard, but with very little originality thrown in. This can be very frustrating, because when I hear another player or a student, I want to hear their originality shine through! That’s why many of Gibson homework assignments (which I hope you’re doing!) ask for a broad sense of creativity from you, so I can hear what really makes you tick. I want to see how my lessons, and other “outside” influences have been assimilated and digested by you, the students, but more so, I want to hear how you are truly developing a style that really represents your own personal take on the guitar!

Any way you look at it, you really can’t help but come up with your own sound on the guitar. With that in mind, you’re so much better off always trying to stay true to yourself, and your own style. In the long run, and even the “short” run, it will always pay off, and the sooner you develop your own identity on the instrument and as an artist, the better off you will always be. So, with that said, stay inspired!!

Arlen Roth
 


Posted: 4/7/2011 4:26:47 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Making the Guitar "Fit" You

There are many folks who have always been associated with certain guitars that really and literally become part of their identity. I mean can you imagine B.B. King without his “Lucille” ES 355, or the Allmans without Les Pauls? Highly unlikely… but this is also because these artists really found the instruments that truly “speak” for them. Your search should be an ongoing story that can involve many guitars along the way, and certainly, I have nothing against you becoming a collector, but the guitar or guitars that are really you, will become the most important to you!

It’s actually quite a fun adventure to embark on, and who knows how long it will take you, but it’s a trip certainly worth taking. I have enjoyed the process over the years, and I have been associated with many different guitars that were strongly identified with me. I find that it keeps changing, especially when it comes to what guitars really feel like they “fit” me. Lately, for example, it’s been of all things, a ’64 Gibson ES 330. That’s the hollow body that is similar to the famous 335, but with the P-90 pickups, and the shorter scale. It has a kind of warmth of tone that I love, and it plays just wonderfully! Still, it’s been a long time since I was able to feel that “at home” with a tailpiece guitar, yet it suddenly seemed to feel and sound like what I’m currently into!

As you try out different instruments, of course, the first consideration should be how it fits you sonically as well as how it physically feels in many ways. The second thing to find the guitar that is “you” is believe it or not, something as seemingly self-indulgent as how it looks! This is really true, and the guitar must have not only visual appeal, but it must look really cool with you! And this doesn’t mean it has to be as unique as the old National map-shaped guitar I was known for years ago. It can even be as simple as it being an SG in an unusual color, or a mahogany Les Paul. Whatever it is, you’ll certainly know it when you and your axe really “click”!

So, through your playing and collecting, I certainly hope that you do eventually strike the right “chord” within your guitar identity…an identity that will always be personally important, as well as publicly!


Posted: 3/29/2011 9:24:30 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

To Overdub or Record Live?

Now that I’m about to embark on a new, full-ledged solo album, I am faced with many of the usual decisions that one has to make. The way in which we record really ahs so much to do with the final outcome that it really must be paid very close attention to. For example, if you are a lead guitarist, such as I am, it’s important to go for the most spontaneous and “real” performances as possible. You can certainly just cut rhythm tracks and then overdub the leads over them later; always a popular option, but if you want the most out of your other “players” on the tracks, such as the bassist and drummer, you should plan to have them record to your lead playing or singing, at least as a “reference”. This will bring the best out of them, and they will give you the most supportive backing possible. So, if done in this manner, the track will have the proper emotional content you’ll need to play over at a later time, OR in fact, you may really have the take you want from your lead or vocal on the reference itself!

This is a very important option, as I’ve said before, since the first take, or spontaneous approach really often times, yields something that is intangibly magic, and may be just what you’re really needing!

If you are playing the lead as a reference for the entire band, you better make sure the amp is completely isolated, so as not to have any “bleeding” of the guitar part into the other mics. In the same way, if you’re playing an acoustic, or singing, you must be isolated so the rest of the band is not being bled into the mic you happen to be using! If you’re singing, you may just get a little “headphone leakage,” especially if you like to take off one earphone as many singers do. I know that I made a slight mistake with this “leakage” problem with my lead guitar on the “Toolin’ Around Woodstock” project I just did with Levon Helm, since I was so excited to be cutting the tracks with everyone, they had my amp in the open room of Levon’s barn studio, all live with everyone else! They put goboes around my amp to isolate it, but at the levels I was cranking those notes out, it was still creating a fairly large amount of leakage! What this resulted in was a fairly unfortunate situation of having to deal with “ghost” notes that were there in Levon’s drum microphones, or the upright bass, which were also in the big, open room.

You can only isolate instruments from each other so much, and after all, we were also going for that very “live” big-room kind of sound, as opposed to the close-mic’d very dry “studio” sound. I t all really depends on what you’re after, but I feel that it’s important to get the drums as “big” as possible, with as little leakage into the drum’s mics as possible. If you’re playing a lead guitar reference part or a reference lead vocal, make sure you give it your all, since you never know…the “magic” may be right there from the “get-go”, and you surely don’t want to miss that opportunity! If you want to step back from the music a bit, and later get the best performances possible, you can always overdub in such a way that you don’t have any accidental “ghost notes” making your job even harder! Best of luck to you, and wish me luck too!


Posted: 3/23/2011 10:54:33 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The Courage to Use Your "Ear"

As I continue to see a lifetime’s worth of students, I notice how there are really are basically two categories; those who can trust their ears and those who can’t! It really boils down to be literally as simple as that, and you never know at what point in your development this “ear” part will really take hold. The important thing to know is that you must begin to truly “recognize” tones and tonal relationships. These “intervals” will become key in developing what is called perfect relative pitch. Relative pitch enables us to learn as we go, on the “fly”, as it were, and we get these sonic relationships literally “etched” into us by hearing these things over and over again.

I have had some students who will come in to see me with a plethora of technical and theoretical knowledge, but who don’t have a clue as to how to apply all this theory in day-to-day playing and listening. When they say they are “tone deaf”, I say “how can you say that? Don’t you love music? Doesn’t it affect you? Well, those are tones and tonal relationships you are responding to!” Therefor whether or not you really know it, you are NOT tone deaf, and definitely have a means by which you do recognize, and are affected by, certain intervals.

At a certain point, the technique and theory part must really give way to the emotional and artistic part of you, which depends far more on what you are internally “hearing” as opposed to what you are externally “knowing!” I simply learned to play just by ear, and by experience. I never knew what a “scale” was, until I realized all these phrases and musical statements I was playing actually did come from certain scales and shapes that I could recognize and therefore, teach. Teaching, and having to “take apart” what it is I do really helps me to further learn for myself.

The “courage” to use that “ear” of yours is really what separates the men from the boys, since you must be willing to step out on a limb and even make mistakes if you have to. Believe me, when you make mistakes at certain critical junctures, you never will do them again…..at least almost never! Take those bold steps, and you’ll be opening so many new musical doors….play what you are NOT comfortable with, play “outside” your normal comfort range! So many players complain of being in a rut, or being tired of the “same old thing”; well, I try to tell them that they haven’t even begun to realize what the full potential of those positions they are so bored with can yield! I have never run out of ideas, and you should never, too! Keep stretching out, and reaching…believe me, you will make strides, and always, always, strive to use that “ear” and learn most of all, to trust it! Best of luck!


Posted: 3/23/2011 10:49:24 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More on Handling Rejection

Well, as I said in my last Blog, I certainly am acutely aware of the importance of being able to handle rejection as part of being an artist/musician. I guess one of the main ingredients in this situation is the fact that we are in a business that is so huge, and so diversified, and yet deals with such creative and sensitive people. This dichotomy really presents challenges for us all, because so much of our dreams and aspirations are based and reliant upon how others view and judge us. It’s one of the reasons I don’t like this whole American Idol kind of trend, in which everything seems to become a competition! There shouldn’t be any decisions about who’s better than the other, as far as I am concerned, and certainly, the music business itself is competitive enough as it is!

I really feel that if we are confident enough in ourselves, we can always maintain our poise and composure during hard times of criticism, because after all, half the time, those critics are wrong, and we know it! As I’ve said before, it’s sometimes just the question of when your musical abilities finally reach the right ears. I can proudly say that I signed many a brilliant musician to Hot Licks who even though they may have been relatively unknown, still deserved to be heard and recognized for their work! For me, this was a nice way of silently getting back at all the folks who rejected me over the years, by seeing real talent that deserved to be recognized, and then to act on it!

You have to have the confidence it takes, and the talent to back it up. In these past weeks, my daughter Lexie and I got to play and sing on the new Les Paul Tribute album being made here using the Les Paul Trio, with the great Lou Pallo. It turned out that through discussions with them, I found out they needed a singer for “Vaya Con Dios,” the remake we were going to do of the great Les and Mary hit. Well, my daughter Lexie immediately came to mind, and I recommended her straight out! Did this with full confidence because I knew that even though I was primarily doing this because she’s my daughter and I want the best for her, I knew that she would blow them away with her voice! Not only that, but also the fact that she is already a true pro, and a singer with real credentials to go with her astounding voice. Knowing she has 2 solo albums, has a song in a film and also that she sang on my album with Levon Helm certainly didn’t hurt either, and they were whole-heartedly “open-armed” about her singing on the album. By the time she was half way through the song, there wasn’t a dry eye in the control room, and we all knew we had a winner on our hands!

On the way over, I also explained to her that I had played on tons of records that either never got released, or from which my cuts were removed, so I had prepared her for the eventuality that as good as it may sound, there may be a “rejection” that might even end up being beyond our control. But either way, musically, and for our souls it was a real triumph!


Posted: 3/15/2011 1:06:10 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Learning to Handle Rejection

This is a very important subject as it pertains to the music business and, of course, life itself, but it certainly can be a sensitive subject when dealing with any art form. Let’s face it, when we are artists, we always put a big part of what is really us into our music, and sometimes, even the slightest bit of rejection can be a bitter pill to swallow. It can occur early in your career especially, but if it occurs when you are an already established veteran such as myself, it has its own kind of bitterness to deal with.

I always try to tell people it’s kind of like baseball. In baseball, we’re considered a really great hitter, if we hit at least .300. Well, that means that to be considered great, we have to succeed 3 out of 10 times at the plate. This means that baseball, most of the time, is about losing, striking out, not making it to base. The same can be said of music and getting breaks in the business. It also proves just how important it really is to “seize the moment” if you’re really given an opportunity to shine…….otherwise known in the biz as “getting a shot.”

To this day, I personally cannot even get a booking agent to book me. Imagine that! Here I am, well-known, 12 albums, countless other tours, endless endorsements etc., and yet the booking agents don’t really seem to understand what I’m about, and how many people I can draw to my gigs! This rejection hurts in a special way, because it’s happening to someone who simply wants what is just after being a sideman as well as a solo artist for nearly 40 years! Still, it doesn’t matter….it’s still rejection, and it makes no sense.

When you’re trying to get your band signed for example, also remember that even The Beatles were turned down several times before they finally hit the right record label, and got their break! Sometimes you just have to meet the right set of ears, who really “get” what it is you’re all about! Still, many times, lurking in this sea of rejection, there can be many times when constructive criticism can help. I love the story Les Paul talked about of when he was playing on a track with Bing Crosby, and Bing stopped and said “aren’t we a bit busy?” This affected Les in a positive way I‘m sure, as he was already a deeply established artist in his own right, but who was playing a session with the biggest singer of his day! How can you not learn from that little moment of criticism? It’s something that only serves to make you a better player, and if you cop an attitude about it, you might as well forget about being in the music business altogether!

So, brace yourself for those rejections, as they sometime can come quite often, but many times, there are lessons to be learned from them, for sure! More on this subject next time, and until then, keep on taking those positive and creative steps forward, no matter what kind of rejection steps in your path!


Posted: 3/15/2011 1:03:46 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Early Days of "Breaking Into" the Business

No question about it, we will all have to “break into” the business in some form or another, and those early days that I experienced can certainly serve as a source for some good advice.

I was telling this story to a student of mine today who is quite gifted, and I was talking about how I was so sure of myself at the age of 17 that I was playing with my own band and going up to Woodstock to play a lot there. I was in college still, (with my band living with me), and we would go up on weekends to get discovered. Bands would sometimes even let us play “between” their 2 sets at a given club, so we could use any opportunity to help us be heard. Of course, for me, what was happening was I was getting to be seen and heard by some of my heroes. People like Paul Butterfield and John Sebastian as well as members of The Band would not be uncommon to have in the audience, perhaps sitting at the bar while I was performing. I can remember one time overhearing Butterfield say ‘hey, do you hear what that kid is playing up there?!” That blew my mind, because here was the man who had players like Mike Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop, Buzzy Feiten and Amos Garrett in his band at various times, and he was certainly one very important musician at that time to get the respect of!

I quickly knew that Woodstock was the place for me to be found, and I was getting gigs, like with Happy and Artie Traum and Eric Andersen, but I was still so young and inexperienced that I barely knew what I was doing, and I was doing it all! Still, the experiences really started to pile up rather quickly, and with every good thing that happened, it always seemed like another good thing would follow. Of course, back then, there wasn’t a great guitarist on every corner like there is now, but I still had to really put myself out there to really be heard, and to rise above the competition. Let’s face it, the competition is really stiff these days, but so many players, although technically good, may not have what it really takes to be a sideman, or even a good band member, for that matter. I was so willing to learn, that I easily went from band leader to sideman in an instance. This meant a lot more work for me, and most of all, very valuable “building blocks” of experience I needed so badly.

Don’t ever let that shift in priorities shake your confidence, because nothing feels better than playing on someone else’s gig, and truly shining. It enables you to share the spotlight, but since it’s not really your  show, you’re rather free and clear of any “deep”criticism. Not to mention, that you are gaining huge amounts of confidence and well-honed experience, both as a player, and as a person who’s interacting with others who are more deeply into the music business itself. Either way, it will all pay off in the end, and whether you become a sideman or leader of your own group, the foundational aspects of your early days will always have a lasting effect! Good luck!


Posted: 3/15/2011 12:59:46 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Solo Practicing, Playing and "Dreaming"

It’s so important to get as much playing as you can every day, and there are times when even if you can do it for just ten minutes, you’d make a world of difference in your playing. Since you are more likely a beginner or intermediate player who’s reading this, you probably are very enthusiastic about this new friend you have known as the guitar, and probably play a lot! At least I hope so, since this is such a wonderful time of self-discovery for you. It’s great just to sit down and pick up that guitar, acoustic or electric, and to make some new ideas happen. This is how I developed my playing skills, besides the fact that I also played thousands of gigs and sessions, which were all learning experiences as well. It’s just that there’s something about solo playing and practicing that brings out a special, deeper side of you that may not usually come to the surface.

I guess you could say it’s a little like “dreaming” in sound. I like this approach, as opposed to what many folks do, which is to work so hard and rigidly to play something fast or difficult that the love for the guitar almost gets lost in the process! You must remember that the guitar, given the right moment and mood, will literally speak to you regarding what it yearns to play! When this is happening, it’s really your “muse” and your soul that needs to be satisfied. Again, in my case, why is it that most of the time, it’s my “first take” I end up keeping? Or why do I always seem to come up with a totally new song or riff the second I pick up the guitar? I suppose it’s just something I am so used to by now, that it has long been simply my way! I hope this kind of natural playing ability and creativity occurs in you too, and that when you do play by yourself, you try to “tap into” that creative part of you that wants to “dream.”

I can remember once seeing an interview with the great Duke Ellington as he was sitting at the piano, and he said of his playing “you call this playing? No, it’s dreaming….” That one always stuck with me, and I have always very much related to that “dreaming” concept of real playing. After all, where does all this wonderful music we make come from? Stay focused, play a lot, and be sure to “dream” when you hold that guitar!


Posted: 3/9/2011 4:58:29 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Learning from the Blues!

I know it’s something that I and many others have always said, but starting with the roots and getting into the blues as a foundation to your playing is so important. Far too many young players these days want to immediately play complex and physically impressive guitar, that they speed right by what they really need to know in the first place. The majority of these players are even the kind of students I get from time to time, who realize they either need to “get back to” their blues roots, or need to get some blues roots to begin with!

A funny example of this on a larger scale was when everyone got totally overdosed on speed metal and the hair bands of the ‘80s, how all of those metal guitarists were suddenly professing their allegiance to
“the blues” and were talking about how they were such blues-rooted players! Trouble is, most of these folks think blues began with Led Zeppelin, because that’s where they began listening to the guitar. If you ask the Jimmy Pages and Eric Claptons of the world who they listened to, then you’d get a real sense of who you should be listening to as well.

As I’ve pointed out before, my earliest beginnings as a guitarist were in classical guitar, which at the age of ten, gave me a healthy respect for the guitar and its physical difficulties and challenges. Then the Beatles came out, and I immediately got an electric guitar! After playing the popular music of the day for about 3 years, and also sticking with classical, I suddenly fell deeply in love with the blues and its players. Around this period of 1965-67, there was a bona fide blues “boom” going on, and bands like The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (with Mike Bloomfield), The Blues Project (with Danny Kalb) and many other groups were really starting to put a focus on “real” blues. I immediately starting going back and back, into not only early blues, but early Rockabilly and Country as well, desperately and hungrily devouring all the information I could. Friends of mine would get together with me after school, and the jamming and playing would seem to go on forever! It was a time of great learning!

This kind of learning from the blues and all early forms of American music continued right through college for me, and I took that momentum with me right into my true career, which really began in earnest when I moved to Woodstock. Armed with so much depth to my playing by that point, even at the age of 18 I seemed to have a world of musical experience there in my fingers!

So my advice to you is to really get into the earlier players, and immerse yourself in, and fall in love with the blues. If you love Eric Clapton, then you’re going to want to hear Skip James. If you are crazy about Jimmy Page, then listen to Otis Rush, and if you love Jack White, listen to Son House. Get back to those blues roots, and you’ll be so thankful that you did. The possibilities and the inspiration are literally endless!


Posted: 3/4/2011 10:48:16 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More on Collecting

Once you really have caught the collecting “bug,” you’ll see that it can also go hand in hand with your expansion and further development as a player. Sometimes, it was literally the discovery of another instrument itself that would help put me into another realm of playing! This has been true about steel guitars, dobros, baritone guitars, 12-strings, and on and on. Sometimes, it’s the guitar itself that will change your approach, whether you were aware of the new sound before or not. And the line can get even finer between one instrument and another, such as now, I have 2 baritone guitars; one that is a full octave below a normal guitar, and another that is a fifth below. It doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but it’s enormous when talking about baritones, for sure!

When I became really interested in various steel-string acoustics, for example, I also was amazed at the difference between 000 sized guitars compared to the larger and boomier “dreadnaught” guitars. I also became further aware of the sensitivity of the real small-bodied “parlor” type guitars, which offer an entirely different kind of sound and playability.

As you move on to the various electrics, you’ll be attracted to the many different kinds of sounds and instruments that are available to you! The line between them again, can be very subtle; such as a chambered Les Paul verses a traditional all-solid Les Paul. Also, if you compare a semi-hollow guitar such as an ES-335 with the all-hollow ES-330, the difference is so enormous it belies the fact that these guitars seem so similar at first impression. One will certainly feedback a lot more than the other, but most of all, the tone will simply be warmer on the all-hollow 330.

Playability is always a big factor, and an SG for example, offers unlimited access to all frets, as opposed to a Les Paul or other Gibson which will make reaching the highest notes quite a bit more difficult. This also makes the SG perfectly suited to slide playing, as that all-access approach really makes a big difference to the slide guitarist.

The same is true of acoustic guitars with the “cutaway or non-cutaway” issue….some say even though a cutaway gives you much better lead guitar high-note access, I feel that losing some of the top wood results in less overall volume and tone. Still, for many, it’s a necessary trade-off, and I don’t mind it, as I have a few cutaways at my disposal, even though I definitely prefer normal flat-top guitars with non-cutaway designs.

So of course in the end, it’s up to your own personal preferences, but I would definitely say that you should leave yourself “open” to as many types of instruments as possible. It will only help broaden your musical and guitarist horizons, for sure! Happy searching and discovering!


Posted: 3/2/2011 3:46:45 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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