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"Trusting" Your Band

I have always believed that it’s so important to play with a bunch of musicians whom you can really trust when it comes to making musical decisions. It’s become a true necessity for me these days, since I barely get time to actually rehearse with them and go over songs or even new material. We happen to have a very important gig tomorrow night, and I am absolutely trusting them to be able not only to remember material we’ve done in the past, but to be able to know what tunes I may simply just decide to play!

This can be a little scary for me, the band leader, but in truth, it’s the best way to really work with your fellow players. It’s also a great way, if you’re just starting out, to find out what other musicians really know or don’t know. If you get some players together, would recommend going over some specific songs for sure, but try to use a lot of them as “backbones” upon which to improvise and come up with new ideas. This, and only this, will really give you clues as to what’s making the musicians tick! It’s also a great way to learn each other’s “moves” so that in the future, you can really think together and be able to anticipate things, musically speaking

I know that when I do “trust” my players, it gives all of us a great deal of joy that results from that special kind of freedom that only comes with musical trust. If I call out a certain tune for example, basically all I need, even if we’ve never played it before, is to tell them what key I want to play it in. This is the kind of working relationship everyone should strive for, and is a rare and wonderful thing when it can really be “the real thing.”

So, tomorrow night will be a great test for this musical “trust,” as I will be laying about 20 songs we have actually played together before, and about another 20 or so that we’ve never played together before! Wish me luck….and I certainly wish you luck in your musical relationships and endeavors!


Posted: 8/20/2010 3:45:56 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Acoustic or Electric?

When people are first starting out to play the guitar, or if a parent is thinking they want to get their child started with guitar, I always get the same question; should they start on acoustic or electric, and wouldn’t it be better to start with a cheap acoustic first, to see if they really like the guitar? Well, the first thing is that you should never think “cheap” when getting someone their first guitar ... staying within a budget, yes, but to compromise too much on quality would do a great disservice to the person who wants to learn, and may actually do more to discourage them than anything else! Imagine if you were just starting out as a guitarist, and you had an instrument that was “fighting” you all the way! You’d probably forever associate the guitar with pain! Hardly the way to start off on the right foot!

The other part, about whether or not someone should start on acoustic or electric is also a big “old wife’s tale.” After all, most of us were attracted to the guitar by the “sexiness” and appeal of the electric guitar. That’s not to say the acoustic is not attractive or sexy, because it surely is, and may actually be what is more attracting you at this juncture. But one thing is for sure, I actually believe in, if your budget can take it, learning on both the acoustic and electric guitars together. There is no doubt that the combination will instantly make you a more well-rounded player from the get-go, and the two different styles and techniques of playing can much more become “one” if you start out with them together.

Now, I started on classical, which is very disciplined and gives you a great respect for the guitar at a very early age, and then quickly moved on to electric guitar. It wasn’t until a good 11 years later that I got a wonderful steel-string acoustic guitar, and it was a real eye-opener! What then happened was that my already well-established electric style was blending with my new acoustic playing to form a kind of unique acoustic/electric “hybrid!” I was bending more than one normally does, using vibrato more too, and just generally applying a much more “electric” approach to the acoustic. I has truly served me well, since to this day, I feel like I really “wrench” a lot out of that acoustic guitar compared to many other players I know of.

In any event, I really feel you should try to do as much of both as possible, and really let the techniques flow into one another. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll come up with!


Posted: 8/13/2010 3:04:49 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

When Less is Definitely More!



The “less is more” adage is certainly a bit overused when it comes to many things, but I think the first use of it was in the context of music. Guitar players sometimes will take forever to learn the fact that less is really more, since so many of them start by learning to simply “overplay” all the time! I like to say that young players today love to go “from zero to 60” in too short a time, or that they start out driving a Corvette, when they should really be just starting on a heavy 1956 Buick! It’s so much more important to savor the notes you play, and not overload yourself with too many fretboard pyrotechnics right from the get-go. Of course it’s very nice to be able to play fast, and to especially know all your positions on the fingerboard, but it’s how you get to that knowledge that really concerns me. I got all my fretboard knowledge from playing with feeling, learning in front of audiences, playing by ear and most of all, simply fighting for survival with the guitar in my hands! The act of being a “real” artist always stems from the true need to create, as opposed to what you think makes you cool, or accepted or whatever it might be.

As I found and fought my way through a myriad of gigs, both live and recorded, I noticed that even though there may have been a million ideas floating around in my head, it was usually the one with the most minimalistic approach that seemed to please everyone the most. Sure, I love to build up a solo or a part and really let it become explosive at times, but this is only if it is called for, and is appropriate for the music you are playing at the time. You can still decide to be “acrobatic” at certain times, even if it is not called for, but beware of landing on your feet, and being able to pull off such an outrageous move! You must always, within the framework of what you are playing, be able to justify your chancy moves, and finish off your musical statements!

In the end, you’ll see that in situations where you are called upon to be creative and inventive, such as recording and performing, the “less is more” statement will really ring true for you. I know it surely did for me, and even though it took awhile to reign in this “unbridled” guitar player, once I was under control, it was really all worth it. I hope it will one day be for you, too!


Posted: 8/11/2010 3:38:39 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

When a Student Shows Real Promise

This past week I have had the pleasure of teaching a wonderfully gifted young guitar player who I had the pleasure of teaching last summer for the first time. I have to say, that one of the great pleasures for me is seeing a guitarist who has such promise grow and mature into an even better player step by step. Of course, since I have had a year lay-off since seeing him last, it feel more like “leaps and bounds” rather than “step by step”, but I can still feel and hear the “process” that has brought him to this point of virtuosity. There is obviously a lot of hard work behind this evolutionary development I am witnessing, but I can see that because his ear is so strong and finely tuned, his own particular learning has been a smooth development.

It also reminds me and echoes to me about my own development as a player, and I can clearly recall how my own “evolution” was so natural, as well as rewarding. Of course, some folks showed me things along the way, but as I can see in my student’s playing, it was really his ear and keen sense of experimentation that brought him t this place in his abilities. A very disciplined practice regimen and just a pure joy for the act of playing and learning together make an all-powerful combination….one that is hard to deny when it comes to really making one improve. I can surely say that if you feel you have this kind of promise, that you take it seriously, and always dedicate as much time as possible to improving your craft. The more fun you have doing it, the better you will truly become, and please never lose sight of the fact that it must be fun!

Another fact that I have discovered from teaching a gifted student is that I can learn as much as he or she is learning from me too! After all, we all have our own unique “take” on things, and it still amazes me how many varied approaches there can be on the guitar. This student for example, has a very classical “over the top” approach to the fretboard which is totally the opposite of my angled, “blues/rock” approach. My style is more developed for bending and vibrato, with the thumb often curled over the top of the fingerboard, while in his approach, you almost never see the thumb. The thing is though; I just can’t see how he is so able to also do my techniques using his approach! But somehow, with his hand strength and dexterity, he’s able to make it work, and can apply it to his library of unique knowledge!

So I guess what I’m really trying to say is that you must respect your own unique abilities, and remember that you are your own best student, especially when it comes to watching and respecting your own unique development. If one day, such as I do, you start to teach others, you will truly be happy to see and encourage this same kind of positive development in your students! Best of luck!


Posted: 8/6/2010 8:57:32 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More Early Guitar Buying Experiences



This one particular experience was quite something, and had a profound effect on the rest of my life, for sure! In 1967, I had become obsessed with buying a new Gibson Byrdland guitar, and had to “special order” it at Manny’s Music on 48th Street in NYC. I still have that luscious green-covered catalog in my possession to this day, and kept longingly staring at it, anticipating that day when I would finally get my guitar. I had ordered it in natural blond, and left a $200 deposit for it with my dad. They said it would take about six months for it to come, and if I recall, the price in those days at Manny’s was about $750 altogether.

Well, sure enough, the big day finally came, and we were told that the guitar was in, and ready for me to pick up. I went down with my dad, who was ready to pay the remainder of the balance for me, and I was so excited I could barely contain myself! In those days, as often was the case, Manny’s was a bustling, crowded, and often very intimidating place to be in. This was especially true for a young 15 year-old player with his father, waiting for them to bring out my new guitar! They were busy berating the lead guitarist from The Blues Magoos for buying too many old Les Pauls, yelling at him to save his money, and to stop blowing it all! If I recall, he was trying to buy a sunburst ’59 that day for like $400 or close to it!

In any event, my guitar finally came out, and with the salesman STILL complaining about me handing a “thousand dollar axe”, even though it was technically mine, they finally opened the case. My heart sank, as it was in that very stark “black to yellow” sunburst, not at all the blond I had ordered! Now, Gibson has of course always been a fine brand, but this was at the time when a lot of folks were starting to feel that the “new” guitars were not made nearly as well as the older ones, and the vintage guitar “boom” was starting to really take hold. In any event, I picked it up, bent the G string to start a lick, and the nut of the guitar promptly broke right off the neck!! We were all shock, and of course, I was deeply disappointed. I guess if it had actually been a blond one, I would’ve forgiven this little problem, let them fix it, and still would’ve bought the guitar, but I was tired of waiting, for sure! So, they refunded our $200, and discouraged, me and my dad walked out. We looked all over 48th Street for another comparable instrument to no avail, and then turned the corner to go onto 49th Street, where there was an upstairs guitar shop called “Eddie Bell.” I had never really been there before, so I took a quick look around, and saw nothing. But just as we were ready to head down the stairs, the salesman said, “have you seen out 1952 Les Paul yet?” Well, not only had I not seen their Les Paul, but I’d never even held one up to that point. So he opened the glass case where it was hanging, handed it to me, plugged me in, and proceeded to change my world! What an incredible instrument. I now knew what it was like to play a truly great guitar, and I understood what all the fuss had been about when everyone was talking about “old Les Pauls” to me!!! Oh yes, it was only $500, a good $250 less than the poor broken new Byrdland I had so lusted after!

So, anyway, there’s my story of how I got that first great Les Paul! Would buy another 100 of them right now if I could!


Posted: 8/4/2010 4:27:35 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Looking for that First Guitar!

I know I’ve touched on this subject before, but I sometimes feel I need to re-visit a topic that is so broad, as this is. Of course, we’ve all had good and bad experiences while guitar shopping, and I’m sure anyone could give you some advice in the subject, but I have some unique perspectives on it.

I certainly also have had some exciting times when looking for guitars, such as the first time I bought an electric guitar! I went down to the fabled “Beatle boulevard”, otherwise known as west 48th St. in Manhattan, and stopped into a little shop called “Ben’s Music” with my Dad. Not sure why I chose this store, but it was way less intimidating than Manny’s and the other more “professional” type of shops on that street at the time. It had a kind of “local” charm to it, and although it was small, it was just packed with cool guitars! I can recall that the window always had some of the coolest-looking instruments in it, to help attract you and to draw you into the store.

This time, when I went in, I was checking out a 4-pickup mostly-chrome Japanese solidbody guitar. It was something that only attracted me for its coolness factor, as I barely knew what made a guitar tick in those days! Well, sure enough, in the store, there stood Charlie Watts, drummer for the Rolling Stones, and he was buying some sticks, and I was the only kid in the store who recognized him. That night, the Stones were making their New York debut at the Academy of Music on 14th St., and seeing as I already had their latest album, I recognized him right away! I asked him for his autograph, and he politely obliged, writing on it, “Charlie Watts, of The Rolling Stones!” He seemed so nice and was totally happy to be recognized!

Fast forward over 20 years later, and I was on a radio show in London, on the BBC called “Echoes” with Stuart Colman, and was telling this story over the airwaves. Well, sure enough, the phone at the radio station rang, and it was the guy who was with Charlie Watts that day in the music store, and they actually remembered me! He said, “we thought you were the most charming boy, and Charlie was so flattered that you recognized him!” Wow, that blew me away, especially that after all this time and fame and travel and life in general, that particular moment stayed with Charlie as much as it did with me! He was out of town at the time, but that fellow who was with Charlie came down to my gig that night in London, and we had a blast!

Well, I know I didn’t help you that much with buying your first guitar, but I can sure tell you that it was a great experience buying mine, thanks to meeting Charlie Watts! And oh yes, after visiting England, and seeing the music stores there, I could understand why Charlie chose Ben’s Music like me; it definitely had the “charm” of those quaint little English shops! More on this topic later!


Posted: 7/29/2010 8:57:12 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Fine-tuning Your Ear

As you continue on this great venture as a guitar player, you’re going to notice that inevitably, your ear will be improving. This comes from simply having to listen to, and play more music, and from really getting to recognize certain elements in music that tend to repeat themselves.

After all, it’s all really been played and written before in some form or another, and the “archetypes” that repeat themselves over and over start to really present themselves to you over time! Certainly, I know that once I really started to recognize phrases and other subtleties within guitar playing, it became a lot easier for me to understand what seemed like “unreachable” passages by certain players. The real trick is to begin to recognize things so well, that even though you may hear 100 notes mysteriously flying by, a certain grouping of 3 or 4 within the phrase will certainly become at least something you can “hang your hat on” from a recognition standpoint. This in turn, tells you where the guitarist might be on the fretboard, and will help you to define and find the other notes and phrases that are in the vicinity of what you can recognize.

This is a key element when it comes to “fine tuning” your ear, and as you can well imagine, this ability will only continue to improve as you mature as a player, and as your experience starts to really grow. Just as I always keep on saying, “one good thing always leads to another”, and this is so true of musical knowledge. I love to imagine that “big fingerboard in the sky” which has always become my true musical benchmark, and a reference point that I use to always come up with new ideas. The same should always be true for you, as you keep making your “ear” a more and more trustworthy partner to have!

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of all of this, especially since no matter the process you are learning by, the development of your ear will be the single most important development for you as you go through your musical life! My ear has never let me down, and it just seems to actually improve with age. I used to have perfect relative pitch…now I have perfect pitch altogether, as well as perfect relative pitch, which of course, is the foundation of learning to recognize anything musical!

So, learn as you go, and listen as you learn….it all comes together sooner or later, and when it does, it’s one of the great revelations for anyone who aspires to be a musician! Best of luck!


Posted: 7/28/2010 3:15:29 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The Rewards of Teaching!

Even though many of you who are reading this may still be on the “beginner” side of things, it’s never too early to think about teaching in your present or your future. After all, with me being a largely self-taught player, the art or teaching as well as writing books about the guitar really helped me to not only learn more, but als0o to understand what made me a good player to begin with. As you go on learning, which by the way, never really ends, you will find it a very fulfilling exercise to “pass on” any kind of knowledge you may have to others. I can recall that my earliest days of teaching were when I was just starting out as a player. I mean, what better way to “crystallize” what it is you know then by showing it to others? After all, there is always someone who knows less than you do, who is just dying for some information they can run with!

I can recall that my first guitar “hero” was just a young guy across the street from me in upstate NY who had a really cool guitar, and who could play well. I was just in awe of him, and used to absorb every little nuance of what he used to do on the guitar. One year later, I was already able to keep up with him, and had actually surpassed him as a player, even though I was just a kid! I had to get the same kind of guitar he had, and try to play the same tunes he knew. He never taught me formally, but I was able to observe him, and pick up tips just by watching him play.

Even when I had just started out, and knew 4 chords, I was already teaching them to other kids who thought I was so cool. This meant a lot to me, and as a teacher, I of course, when on to greater and greater things. The feeling of the “reward” has always stayed with me though, as it’s always been my playing that came first, with the art of “passing it on” always there waiting in the wings! I suppose the finest thing about teaching is simply how grateful everyone is to me for what I show them, and this has, and always will, make tons of fans in the process. The appreciation is very important to me, and even back in the days of my Hot Licks business, the letters of thanks I would get would sometimes be literally overwhelming! It’s clear that I have no intention of ever stopping this rewarding process, and I certainly hope that if you haven’t already, you also experience this tremendous “gift of giving!”


Posted: 7/23/2010 3:16:48 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Starting My Hot Licks Business!

Way back when I was first teaching the guitar privately, I had arrived at the idea of having my students audio tape my lessons. This was a great tool for them, as they not only were able to retain all the information that may’ve been lost in the course of the lesson, but it also showed them how it really should sound! But most of all, what this did was to plant the “seed” in me of what was to become a milestone idea.

One day, one of my longtime students who had moved away to Colorado wrote to me and said “I sure do miss those lessons on tape, Arlen!” Well, with this an immediate light went off in my head about what would one day be a thriving business; my Hot Licks taped instructional series! Now, this was 1973, and I was just really breaking out on my own as a player, and about to embark on many years of touring and recording, but I knew that one day, when the right time presented itself, I would create a business such as this.

Sure enough, in 1979, when I was starting to date my late wife, Deborah, I had suddenly not gotten any calls for any major tours, and was worried about our financial situation. I had just toured with Art Garfunkel for a year, and then Phoebe Snow, but the phone was not ringing, and work was slow. I was still teaching as much as I could, but I needed to make something bigger happen. We had $2000 left to our names at that point, and I decided that with that money, I was going to finally start that business I had thought of 6 years earlier. So, $1500 bought a half-page ad in Guitar Player Magazine, a magazine that at that time had absolutely no competitors in the guitar field, and $500 purchased a 2-track used Sony tape deck. I was teaching a lot then, so my teaching “chops” shall we say, were quite high, and after long session of being with my students, I’d go into my bedroom and start recording the lessons.

When I first jotted down the lessons I wanted to do, I decided that repeat customers were going to be my most important priority, so I actually conceived of 7 complete courses of 6 hour-long tapes each. There was Lead Guitar, Advanced Lead Guitar, Blues Guitar, Nashville Guitar, How to Play Guitar, R&B Guitar, and Acoustic Guitar. Needless to say, the mailbox started to overflow with responses to the ad in GP, and we were absolutely in business! What was so wild was that the orders were flowing in faster than I could even record the actual lessons, but that certainly was a good problem to have!

So, we were off and running, and it was immediately apparent that I should start signing other friends of mine who did tapes for me as well, so I could really start entrepreneuring and also broadening the catalog. And here I was, still 5 years away from even doing my first video lesson! More on this ongoing saga in future installments!


Posted: 7/21/2010 6:01:00 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Protect Those Hands!

More than anything as guitarists, we must develop a sixth sense when it comes to protecting our hands. I feel that since I started playing so young, it instilled in me a real sense of protecting my hands, even when I’m not aware of it. Since I started primarily on classical guitar, and had to grow my nails, the natural “over-protection” of those nails naturally led to always being careful with my hands and fingers, in general.

Sports and other activities that we love to do, can really wreck havoc with our hands, and put them really in harm’s way. I can remember dropping the idea of basketball playing in the playgrounds of New York once I saw how many times I was getting jammed fingers, and broken nails. If you want to play the guitar and protect yourself, I’d have to say that basketball should be out of the question! I also know that I can never go bowling unless all my finger-picking nails are broken, because bowling never fails to break them completely off.

Most people know that I love vintage cars, but working on them would put such a load on my hands, and put them in such danger, that I would never, ever want to risk that! I can recall Jeff Beck showing me how he had messed up his thumb while working on cars, and I also remember being in Danny Gatton’s garage when he yelled out that he had broken a nail! I said “Danny, how can you expect to ever have good guitar playing hands if you’re always gonna be underneath those cars of yours?!”

You must stat to get very selective about what you use your hands for, and you must develop an innate ability to recognize even the most casual of dangers to those precious hands of yours. Another thing to watch out for are those over-zealous “hand shakers” who just can’t wait to literally crush your hand with their manly “grips”. I always make sure they know just how much it hurts, and hope I make enough of an impression that they will never do it again! Don’t let your nails get too, too long, as they will then always run a greater risk of cracking and then breaking; and for me, if that happens, I may as well lose that finger, since I am so used to needing those nails!

And finally, even in the act of playing the guitar itself, one must be careful to not “over-strain” the hand or the wrist, because you can end up like me, with a bad case of carpal tunnel syndrome, where the hand can get painfully numb! Teaching takes its toll, also, as there is an enormous amount of repetition that takes place. Beware of over-stressing yourself especially when focusing too hard on techniques such as bending and barreing.

So, take care of those “babies”…they are so priceless it can never be put into words…only notes!


Posted: 7/16/2010 6:01:00 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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