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Looking for Inspiration



As an aspiring or beginning guitar player there’s no doubt that you already have a good deal that has inspired you to get to this point. The truth is however, that we all need some more to inspire us from time to time, and this can be at any time of our guitar playing careers! I, for example, was very inspired to play the guitar in my early years by Flamenco and Classical guitarists, but when the Beatles and the British invasion happened, the inspiration for me to play a lot more guitar was certainly kicked into high gear! This also was especially true in terms of going from strictly acoustic playing to more electric guitar.

We all love to emulate our guitar heroes, and this has always proved to be a great training ground. I know that for myself, even though there were times when I wanted to sound like B.B., or Chuck, or Buddy or Clarence, I would focus on them for added inspiration. The only thing was, I always made sure to keep my “inspirers” spread out, and therefore, my influences would be of a broader nature.

This is something to really keep in mind as you develop into a more complete player; the fact that you should be widely and deeply influenced by many guitar heroes. I know for example, when I found out all about The Beatles and Stones, or Jimi Hendrix, Mike Bloomfield or Eric Clapton in the early days, I right away wanted to be inspired by those who inspired them. So, almost immediately, listening Stones meant I was listening to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, which in turn meant I was suddenly listening Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker and even earlier players. Son House and Robert Johnson were suddenly the real inspirations for me as the result of listening to some Elmore James!

As I was also falling in love with Country guitar playing thanks to Country rockers such as Zal Yanovsky of The Lovin’ Spoonful and Clarence White of The Byrds, so too was I loving their influences, such as Doc Watson, Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. So, be sure, as I did, to always go for the inspiration that keeps going further and further back in time, as you keep searching for the true roots of what is inspiring you! There is really no end to what might suddenly deeply affect your particular style and makeup as a musician, and this is the true beauty of how we can shape our own guitar-playing destiny!


Posted: 5/14/2010 11:00:00 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Playing Wherever You Can!

In the early days of your “playing out”, as folks like to call it, you may find that you’ll be happy to play just about anywhere people will be willing to hear you play! The earliest gigs these days seem often to be school-oriented, and they may include things such as “Battle of the Bands”, or similar types of slightly competitive, but fun events. It’s hard when you’re very young to play in bars due to the booze being served and certain laws prohibiting you from playing there, but there are times you can “sit in” in situations like that.

It’s so important that you gain the experience wherever you can of performing in front of people. I mean, I have really played literally everywhere! From outdoors in front of bar-b-que restaurants, to mental wards of hospitals, to swimming pools during the Asbury Park riots and way beyond…I have see it all! Some of it was not rewarding at all, but it all depends at what point of your career these things happen. Regardless, the experience does make you a better player, and like I have always said, one good thing usually does tend to lead to another in this business. Above all else, you truly want to be heard, and nothing beats the “live” experience you gain when playing in front of the public!

Sometimes, even when you think you’ve seen it all, another strange gig will suddenly appear, and make you feel like “what am I doing here?!” The ones like that which occur for me these days are like when someone wants me to play during some cocktail period at an event or something, and I realize I am only “background music” at that point! But I simply grin and bear it, realize it’s for the money (which is hopefully good enough), and just accept the fact that these folks don’t know I am world-respected guitarist. Usually, in those kinds of situations I can win people over, and actually turn it into a rally fun gig for all of us! The important catalyst is usually if these is at least one person really “tuning in” to what I do….that always makes me play better, and become far more happy and outgoing as I go along.

This will be important for you in your early years too, as I’m sure that when you play you’re going to have your initial group of friends, fans and family to help be there to support you. People love to do this, especially when they know just how much of a difference they can make to you and your performance, and most of all, to your happiness!

So, keep on playing wherever you can, and above all, make sure that no matter what the venue, you really make it count. In the end, it all does!


Posted: 5/12/2010 3:13:39 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

A Case of "The Nerves"

I’ve noticed that in my Tuesday Gibson chats, I often get questions about nervousness during performing or recording. Obviously, for many of you, especially the un-initiated, nerves can be a problem when first starting to perform live, or even when sometimes going into the recording studio.

I can recall many times in the beginning of my performing days when a bad case of nerves would take over, and really impede my performing abilities. What an awful feeling! Especially when I was young, and totally feeling sure and confident about my playing, it was really terrible to suddenly realize that some unexpected nervousness was taking me over.  I also recall the time when I was able to finally hit the stage and overcome the problem, and Artie Traum’s comment that I played so well, and that I was no longer “the same old nervous Arlen!” Well, that was quite a triumphant moment for me, as I felt that I had truly overcome the nerves that had so controlled me for what seemed like so long! I feel that there were several factors at play in terms of what was making me nervous. Number one, I was new to the role of being a “backup”, or “sideman” musician, and playing with folks who I viewed as much older, more experienced musicians than myself…..people who actually “made records!” Number two, I was still only 18 years old, and literally everything was new to me. I mean, I had been performing for 2 years prior to that, fronting my own bands in many situations, but I had more control of those situations, and only had to live up to my own expectations at that point. In this case, I was now thrust into the real “professional” world of playing in front of more sophisticated audiences, and playing with more sophisticated and experienced musicians who expected a lot of me.

Of course, I was only 18, and had now left school and moved to Woodstock, another first for me, even though I had lived in Philadelphia before that when I was at school, living with my band, Steel, and trying to play any kind of gig we could possibly get. But now, in a new, more established world and community such as Woodstock, I was now a part of a whole new musical community that had a different feel to it. Eventually, things totally evened out, and I was able to channel that nervous energy into totally positive performing energy, something I have maintained to this day!

It’s a very common situation, to be nervous and to have an “edge” before a show; it’s up to you to be able to learn to re-direct that energy into pure drive and power once you hit that stage! I guarantee that any very experienced, veteran professional will tell you that even to this day, they have the pre-performance jitters, and that they can re-channel that problem into pure positive energy when they hit that stage! Remember, no matter what you may go through, the stage can be a “refuge” from the reality of everyday life, and it can really start to feel like home, which is what it always should be if you want to be a real musician!


Posted: 5/7/2010 3:19:47 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Getting into Songwriting



Songwriting is really not for everyone, but I do believe there is a song in everyone, if they take the time to listen to their “inner” voice. I know that most of us have these ideas sort of “floating around” inside of us, and once in awhile they can come out in a coherent and fascinating way!

I found that in my early days, the minute I had enough chords to work with, which weren’t many, I instantly wanted to be able to write a song with them. I can even remember performing that song on the handball court of the bungalow colony we used to summer at in the Catskills when I was just 10 years old, singing and playing it for everybody. It’s a great thrill, and it’s never really too soon to start writing, if you have “it” in you.

Again, this is another example of what it’s like to “make the most of what you know”, and to put it to good use. Instrumentals are fine, and that’s basically how many of my songs stay, or at least stay a long time that way before I finally put lyrics to them! I find that lyrics usually tend to come all at once with the music many times if I really have something I want to verbally say, and this “immediacy” helps in the creation of a song. You may find that this “spontaneous” approach might take hold of you if you’re in the creative mood, or an instrumental riff may get stuck with you, and last a long time just like that, long before you end up writing lyrics to it. And hey, you may never write lyrics to it, and it might just end up being a great instrumental piece! Another thing to keep in mind is how many professional songwriters really “put in the time” every day to really work at their craft. I like doing it this way, too, especially when I know there is specific reason to finish the song, like there’s a recording session waiting or an artist who’s waiting for that specific piece to be delivered to them!

I have 2 new albums I’m working on now that will be largely instrumental, and of course, I am constantly re-interpreting other songs with lyrics into instrumentals, like I just did on my new all Simon and Garfunkel and all Dylan albums.

So, try your hand at writing, and see where it leads you…you just never know what may be inside of you, perhaps the next big hit!


Posted: 5/5/2010 2:39:29 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Your Practicing Routine

I always say it should never be practice, it should just be “playing”, but regardless of your feelings in this direction, it is certainly important that you start to establish a certain degree of regularity to your practicing, or playing, routine.

First, and certainly foremost, you must truly love to play. This is after all, why you are playing the guitar in the first place! If you just want a fast ticket into “Rockstardom” this is not the way to get there. Certainly, if you do want a degree of “stardom” you better get pretty good at the guitar, though that certainly has never been the only thing that gets you there! Plenty of folks who have the right look, sound and whatever else have made it as rock stars, perhaps only knowing three chords on the guitar, but if you really want to be recognized for your playing, you better play a lot!

I know that I have always possessed the will and the drive to be the best I can be on my instrument, and my passion for it has always pushed me onward. I never needed any “push” to play, but rather have taught myself, and always felt guilty if I let myself not play enough. I am always stopping into music stores to have a little guitar workout if I happen to be far away from home, and am not traveling with a guitar.

I used to love to play when I got home from school when I was first developing as a player, and my parents used to regularly find me asleep with my guitar in my hands, with the record I was playing to skipping at the end! I would come home from school on the bus, and literally be dreaming up licks and song ideas that I couldn’t wait to try when I got home! In high school, all of us players used to get into the habit of bringing our guitars to school and jam, and even have jam sessions after school at various friends’ houses. This was a great time of rapid-fire learning for me, and is a great way for you and your guitar-slinging buddies to improve on all fronts!

So, please try to be sure to play at least a little every day, and be sure to try and teach yourself something new, or at least exhaust the possibilities of what you already know as much as possible. If you intend to start doing a little teaching to others, that’s also a great way to improve your “chops”, because it’ll literally force you to play for X number of hours each week. I know that helps me tremendously!


Posted: 4/30/2010 5:54:15 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Dealing with Music Stores

For the un-initiated, going to and dealing with a music store can be a pretty intimidating experience. Many shops have attitudes that are of epic or legendary proportions, and they have literally become known for it! Many times, it’s really only meant as a joke, or in a lighthearted manner, but there are even stores that will have signs put up that say things like “no Stairway to Heaven allowed”, due to the fact that too many beginners sit down and play that as their first choice! I can recall sitting in a tiny Matt Umanov guitar shop on Bedford St. in Greenwich Village in the early ‘70s, and having them point to a sign for “no Anji” when I sat down and started playing that classic finger style piece! Talk about obscure!

Going into these shops, especially the hectic ones on 48th Street in NYC was a little intimidating for me in my early days, but I was always a lot better than my age, so I always knew that once I started playing, they’d show me some respect. In fact, I used to love to walk into a shop, grab a guitar, and then put on a show! Before you knew it, I’d have a ton of people listening to me. To this day, I love doing this, especially if I’m on the road somewhere and have no access to a guitar for some practice. I simply make sure to visit the local music store, and have a little picking session. Sometimes, it even results in a jam session with several other pickers!

The bottom line is to not be intimidated, and to go into a shop with a sense of purpose. This will make the salesman take real notice of you, and actually tend to your needs! I suppose they don’t really appreciate it if you just go in simply to play and not buy anything, but that’s the price they have to pay for having a music store; folks are going to come in, and they may simply end up playing as opposed to being a paying customer! In the end, you are always in charge, especially if you seem like you may want to buy something.

I remember being at the extremely intimidating and legendary Manny’s Music in Manhattan in 1967, and a guitar I had ordered and had a deposit on had finally arrived after 6 months. I came in, practically had to beg to play my own guitar, which by the way, came in the wrong color, bent a string, and the nut broke right out of the guitar! Needless to say, the nasty sales people suddenly gave me back the $200 hold I had put on it, and I went around the corner and found a wonderful 1952 Les Paul that was $250 less, and really introduced me to what a truly great guitar was!

So don’t be afraid to walk into those music stores…it should always be a positive experience. And remember, they are there to serve you! Have fun in your shopping sprees!


Posted: 4/28/2010 11:00:00 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Sitting in at "Open Mic" and Jam Nights

Really a great way to acclimate yourself to performing as well as gaining very valuable semi-professional experience is to be open to going to some of the countless “jam” or “open mic” nights that are available.

Club owners have realized for a long time that this can be very lucrative for them, as they literally have a “captive” audience full of performers who want to get a “shot”, as well as many of their supporters, who may tag along as support.

These occasions can sometimes be quite daunting, as you never know the kinds of egos and other problems you might have to put up with, plus, it can be rather nerve-wracking for the un-initiated. I happen to like the “jam” format best, as it allows you to really shine if you are able to, while you can also just sort of “fade into the woodwork” if so desired, if you don’t feel ready to “step out” and really be heard in a forceful way yet. Regardless of which stance you take, it will always be a learning experience of some kind, and you should take something away from the evening that you can always remember that will help shape you. I can remember being so wide-eyed in my early days of sitting in and jamming. I was always very confident, even a bit cocky (which can’t hurt!), and my licks and style always managed to really “stick out” and be heard. There were, and still are of course, many funny situations that can arise from these “jams” and you just never know when and where they might occur.

I can remember one time being asked by my friend, Mick Taylor, the wonderful guitarist who’d been in The Rolling Stones, to be with him at a jam night at the Lonestar Café in NYC. As we sat there having some drinks at a back table, I can recall he and I watching a jam that was occurring before we hit the stage. Each guitar player took a turn with a solo, and Mick would say after each one, “he’s fine”, “he’s no problem”, “he’s okay”, until this one really loud and obnoxious guy played, and Mick said “HE’LL be a problem!” It was so hysterical, because it almost caused us to walk out. Imagine you’ve got me and a former member of the Stones sitting there, hoping to have some fun on a “jam” night, and we may not even play due to someone’s attitude onstage! Just shows you, your “stature” is really irrelevant when it comes to being able to handle a touchy situation such as an ego-filled “jam” or open mic night. It’s always best to first try to “size up” the situation, and then decide if it’s worth it for you to “dive in” or not. I have known many top musicians who for one reason or another, have “chickened out” of these kinds of situations simply because they were not up to handling the abuse! So be careful, these can be very productive learning experiences, but we never want them to be conter-productive!


Posted: 4/23/2010 11:00:00 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More on Being Satisfied with What You Know

As you continue to grow as a musician, it’s always critical to make the most of what you know at any given time. This will only serve to help you learn even more as you go along, and make you a better teacher too, if that is also part of your musical makeup. I feel that it is important to “exhaust” as many possibilities as possible from any given technique or style before you move on to the next higher level of whatever it is you are doing.

Sometimes, this happens right “in the moment”, as it often did for me. A good example would be like when I was doing some guitar solo overdubs for someone’s recording, and they would keep making me do more and more takes. This, although it can be a frustrating process, can also cause you to “hyper-exhaust” possibilities rather quickly, since you are trying many ideas over and over again, and usually as a response to another very specific request! You know, the old “hey, can you play that more like Clapton?, “ or “can you remember what you just did, and give it a more complex ending?” These kinds of things, although sometimes maddening, can also serve as a good training ground for the fledgling guitarist, and if you keep a positive attitude, as I always tried to do, it can’t help but make you a better player! I helps you “think on your feet”, which is the single most important tool for any aspiring player who really wants to be an improviser. The act of “thinking on your feet” again is something that can apply whether you have 20 years of experience, or 2 weeks of experience…it’s all up to you to maximize this as much as possible, and to please yourself, as well as the audience, the producer or whomever else you may be involving in your creative process.

So once again, hang in there, and be sure to fully utilize what you know, to the maximum of your creative abilities. It’ll always pay off in the long run!


Posted: 4/19/2010 5:12:39 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Be Happy with What You Know!

One of the things I truly try to stress to students is the fact that you should never try to know too much, too fast. Or a better way to put it is to say, “Be happy with what you already know!” I mean, I can remember maybe only knowing a few riffs or positions on the guitar, and being so overjoyed with that I could even describe it! Of course, I was also learning and developing a great ear at a rapid rate, but I believe in getting the most out of whatever you know at that particular time on the guitar. If you think about it, that’s a great way to keep “moving forward” in your learning process; to always nearly exhaust everything that’s possible within what you know, so you can then move on to the next level.

It’s amazing how simple some folks can stay, and how much they can derive success from it. One time, John Prine actually said to me, “Arlen, can you teach me a new chord so I can write another song?!” If that doesn’t say it all, nothing does! This also follows suit in terms of my ability to teach, because it seems that the minute I knew something on the guitar, I right away wanted to teach it to others! That process also only helps to improve your playing, as I’ve always learned more and more from the act of teaching!

So, in the truest sense of the word, really be happy with what you know. Make as much music as you can with as little need for complexity as possible, and you’ll always make good music. I can even remember instantly writing a song with the first 4-chord progression I knew, and loving it. It’s the creative process you always want to nurture, and training your ear that is the best outcome of any work you do. Always do the best you can, with as little or as much as you know….remember, it’s all in the “plus” column!


Posted: 4/16/2010 8:04:26 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The Early Passion for the Guitar



There’s a reason we all play this thing…and a reason you started to. The guitar itself is an extremely seductive and attractive instrument, and I found that very early on, I started to really fall in love with this beautiful creature! The shape, of course, is sensual, as is its sound and the way the sound can be coaxed out of it. No other instrument can be so bent, vibrated, squeezed and generally loved when it comes to making pure sound with it, and the types of guitars can vary as much as those sounds!

In my early days as a player, it was always about having that ONE special guitar. Collecting never really occurred to me until I started wanting to make other sounds out of the guitar, and that I noticed how certain types were associated with certain music. I also was simply falling in love with the sheer variety of lovely guitars that were available, and of course the more you see, the more you want. I started with a classical Favilla guitar, then a wild Ideal 4-pickup Japanese was my first electric, then I traded that in on a Guild Starfire III, and finally a 1952 Les Paul that changed my life. This was a guitar that for the first time showed me what a really great guitar should play and sound like, and I still have it and love it to this day. I got that guitar in 1967, when I was 15, and it was just when there was a serious blues “boom” taking place. I was in the High School of Music and Art in New York, where there were a lot of us fledgling guitarists at the time, and all I kept hearing about was “Les Pauls”. I barely ever saw one before the day I found the ’52 with my Dad, but he and I both at that time started to fall in love with not only the guitar’s sound, but we really loved their looks! We used to go and hang out at Dan Armstrong’s shop in NYC, and literally have to step over all the vintage Les Pauls lying around on the floor! There was something about the shape of them, as well as the overall look that was just so attractive and appealing. I also was falling in love with B.B. King’s music, and as a result, really wanted an ES-355. I can remember putting a deposit on one at Bronen’s Music in the Bronx, but being unable to continue to pay for it…wish I could find that old receipt for that 1966 beauty, but I sure doubt that it’s still on hold for me 40 years later!

So as you go along on your path as a guitarist, there is no doubt that many guitars will be vying for your attention….the question is whether you can really take the plunge into collecting or not. I would say that you should first be attracted to the guitars of your guitar heroes, and also keep in the extreme variety of types available to you out there. You’ll be able to make an awful lot of varied music with one good instrument, but sooner or later, more guitars will be calling your name! Have fun in your quest!


Posted: 4/13/2010 7:35:51 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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