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Theory Versus Ear Training?

The question of these two approaches to music learning and which is better has long baffled students and teachers alike, and let’s face it; we are always students and teachers anyway! The way we learn is in my opinion, really based on who we are, and what makes us tick, and that can be a million different permutations, for sure! I know that this also may simply be a “right brain/left brain” kind of thing, and we are usually predisposed to learning and reasoning music learning in one of these two distinct approaches.

I guess the main thing with music is that without an ear there’s certainly no kind of learning that could ever really “take hold” with any player or student, but there’s also no doubt that this is something that can be further developed and helped throughout the learning process. I know from my own experience that when I drive this idea home long enough with students, they eventually and finally understand the sound and note relationships, otherwise known as intervals. Theory is of course what all music is really made of, and a very good way of understanding what it is you are hearing, or what you want to play, but it’s certainly something that is always left up to debate among musicians, and is in no way truly “etched in stone.” Rather, as many sciences are, it’s a constantly evolving discussion that continues to in a way, re-define itself.  It’s a little hard to explain, but it’s akin to the way we can take a group of two or even three notes, and still have a discussion over which chord these notes really are defining! In a similar way, people who are into theory can always be found discussing just what key a song is really in! This has happened to me many times, and I can honestly say I’ve been able to even convince composers that their songs were in a different key than they originally thought! This kind of thing is a direct result of combining theory knowledge with ear knowledge and recognition.

So really the bottom line to me is that both theory and ear training are “joined at the hip” and you can’t have one without the other. Music is a language, and the vocabulary of this “language” has developed and changed and continued to evolve over the centuries. People simply always made music, and one day, someone figured out that creating written music would be a good way of “recording” and taking down this information in a translatable form, so others could learn to play or sing it. At some point during this period, I believe the whole “theory” idea started to take shape, as the combination of having it written as well as being heard made the discussion of theory a reality.

Regardless of your leaning on this subject, or your opinions, it’s clear that we can’t avoid theory in music…..the only thing that makes it all possible however, is ear training, and simply developing the best instinctual approach to actually hearing what is going on theoretically within the music you are either playing or listening to! It’s the ultimate musical journey, so go along with it, and enjoy the ride!


Posted: 5/1/2012 3:22:38 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More on Learning Improvisation

Once again, I must reiterate that actually teaching someone how to improvise is nearly an impossible task. Yet, there is something that I consider to be “the knowledge” when it comes to music, and if you have this “knowledge”, you’ll certainly be on your way to becoming a great improviser.

The knowledge I speak of is having the true ability to not only hear the note relationships, but to also acquire the understanding of hearing these relationships and intervals in advance. This is the thing you’ll need to be able to “think on your feet”, and to be able to hear entire passages in your head even milliseconds before actually playing them. That “thought process” that goes on when you are improvising is truly critical, and when you do have an understanding of the sound relationships of the notes, their emotional impact can even more be taken into account, and to heart.

And it is a matter of the heart, as this is what people are really hearing coming from you when you play. The act of improvisation is the ability to really “speak” with your instrument, and the learning process is like life itself, and what you learn as you go through life. There will be many mistakes along the way, and lots of “trial and error” as you begin to discover just what it is that will make your improve ideas really work, and also develop their own sound as well.

I know that since I had to learn on my own, and also learned from great improvisers, I was able to almost immediately acquire the kind of approach that was a “natural” one when it came to coming up with new ideas. Maybe it’s the fact that these players who inspired me so much were great improvisers as well was what “fed” my desire and ability to do so much improve on my own…I’ll never be totally sure, but when I was just starting out, I was so excited about the guitar, that I literally used to “dream” up licks on the way from school for example, that I just couldn’t wait to get home and try! It’s still basically that way with me, only the guitar has now become a “complete language” with which I can express myself, and I no longer feel or hear any boundaries at all between my feelings and what my fingers end up expressing for me.

So, as my students, and as my fellow guitarists, I certainly hope these points hit “home” for you, and that you always will try to achieve new and different things when you need to come up with fresh ideas on the guitar. It’s the only way you’ll ever truly develop your own style, especially one that is absolutely recognizable as the one and only you! Good luck!


Posted: 4/12/2012 8:07:08 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Gigging Wherever and Whenever You Can!

I feel that it’s important for you, as newcomers to the music world to realize how important it is to network and do gigs wherever you can. And by gigs I mean recording, sitting in, cover bands, original bands, solo gigs and whatever else can come your way. It’s all experience, and experience is the one commodity you just can’t put any kind of price tag on. It is what builds your chops, but also your character and your ability to handle many different kinds of situations. And believe me, I know from my experience that just about any kind of gig can and will come along!

I can recall doing some of the most outrageous things….playing with my band “Steel” outdoors in front of a “Chuck Wagon” restaurant in Philly, playing poolside during the Asbury Park riots in downtown Asbury Park, N.J., wearing Hawaiian leis and sitting and playing lap steel guitar in front of an opening of “South Pacific” in mid-town Manhattan, and on and on. Admittedly, some of these kinds of gigs can be a bit humiliating, but just remember that the alternative is most likely not gigging at all. At least you make some money (as long as someone doesn’t “stiff” you!), and if you do a good job, it usually tends to always lead to something else that is even better. And of course, never forget that it’s the experience of doing these gigs as a young fresh-faced rookie that later on turns into part of the resume’ of a wise old “veteran.”

I especially recall how when I moved to the town of Woodstock, NY, with its famous music scene I was sure to always do whatever gig I could possibly get called on to do, because I first of all knew that even in the smallest “dive” bar, I may get heard by someone who could really help me later on, and that this was a way that many of the finest musicians there would occasionally do gigs locally, just to do them! It seemed like many times people didn’t even realize what great musicians they were being treated to. To them it was just another night out in the local saloon, with a band of musicians onstage that came from “somewhere.” Of course, in the town of Woodstock itself there were several “hip” places to play where you really did get heard by the right people, and in many cases the audience was even fuller of musicians than the stage was! Another great thing about that scenario was that you’d never know who might show up and sit in with the band, and that person was very often me!

Many of these gigs were seemingly “fruitless”, but they would often prove later on to actually make a difference in my reputation. It’s amazing, but even to this day people will come up to me and actually recount some gig where they saw me play in which even I can’t recall until giving it real serious thought! But the fact is that to them, I made a difference and they remembered me and my guitar playing! Isn’t that all we can ever ask for as musicians…..to be remembered, and to connect with our audience!


Posted: 4/10/2012 8:22:07 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Learning from Other Players

There’s no doubt about the fact that we as a breed certainly seem to learn the most by watching what others do. In the fine art of anything musical, it becomes especially complex in terms of our human capabilities to hear what someone is doing, and to then decipher and essentially translate what it is we are hearing onto our own fret boards. This ability of course, comes with experience, and when we hear a bunch of licks and passages we can’t quite get a “handle” on, it’s so important to listen for something we do recognize that we can “hang our hats on”. This in turn, enables us to then at least understand where the player is coming from, and the vicinity of his/her notes will give us an idea as to which position on the guitar is being utilized.

I have used that technique forever, since I am a self-taught player and it’s a skill that anyone really must have if they expect to be a true musician with “open” ears! Watching what others do is so critical, because let’s face it, there are only so many positions and options on the guitar. The toughest and most flexible part of playing is the fact that many notes can be played in the same octave in many different places on the neck, even including harmonics.  This gives us an enormous amount of choices, and should also help us “fine tune” our ears to exactly which notes are being played, and which neighborhood on the neck they are being played in! I have seen too many students try what I call the “search and destroy” mission where even though I’m sitting right there in front of them playing it, they keep searching high and low and all over for the note I am plainly showing them! I think this must be something psychological about people, and maybe it’s also an ego thing that makes them a bit stubborn, but they are trying, often in a futile way to find a note that cuts them off from understanding the position they really need to find.

No two players process this kind of information alike, but there are definitely some who fall into similar categories with each other. The fun part is when you hear a player who no doubt has their true, own way of creating phrases on the finger board, and these players are the ones with very distinct approaches. Some of these players are the ones to really watch carefully, as the odds are, they are thinking and playing in places on the neck you may’ve not even thought of yet. It’s just like reading an author who likes to work with words in their own unique was…no two can ever be that much alike.

So you can rest assured that no matter what you learn and who you learn it from, the watching and listening is essential, and regardless, it’ll all still eventually come out sounding only like YOU! Happy learning!!


Posted: 4/5/2012 2:10:11 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Making the Most of What You Know!

The true key to success in music, in my opinion, is really the ability to make the most out of what you know at any given time. I have seen this occur so often; it almost seems sometimes that the less you may know, the better! Of course, what I am really saying here is that many have “made it” on the backs of not knowing really too much about music, but certainly on being able to utilize their talents and abilities, however limited, to the max!

This translated in real music terms means that it may take very little to create a hit record or song, or it may also take very little even to create a great or famous guitar riff that becomes a part of a hit record that really “makes it.” I mean, look at hit songs like “Wild Thing” or “You Really Got Me” for example; these songs are almost painful in their simplicity, yet it’s in that simplicity that their true success actually lies. A guitar riff such as “Pretty Woman” or “Rumble” or even James Burton’s “Suzie Q” lick are so catchy that they simply can’t help but stay with you! You must remember, the general record-buying public could really care less about whether or not you are technically great or not….many of these “simple” licks were created and then recorded by some players of great proficiency, and were more works of “minimalist” art by complex players who chose to play it “the right way” and who could come up with the correct “part” for the tune. “Pretty Woman” for example, was played by the great Grady Martin, who surprisingly also played those wonderful and complex acoustic fills throughout the famous recording of “El Paso” by Marty Robbins! The two treatments and performances couldn’t be more different, but it’s the same player, just doing his job!

So, in essence, sometimes you must make “less” of what you know, and as many folks have always said, “less is more!” John Prine even once said to me, “Arlen, could you teach me a new chord, so I can write a new song?!” This blew my mind when he asked this, but I immediately got how in touch and to the point John was about what he could or could not do with his talents. In another case, when I was teaching Paul Simon privately, each lesson would turn into a marathon of songwriting, where he would call upon me to have complex answers to many of the songwriting issues that were facing him. He needed my expertise at a very high level, and most of all, needed the “collaborative” ear I could lend to the situation. Sometimes, a write is “too inside” the song, for too long, and needs a fresh set of ears to help them get over certain new hurdles when it comes to the song or idea at hand.

So the bottom line here is that it always pays to know more on the guitar, but many times it’s the notes you choose not to play that really count! Less is more, more or less!!


Posted: 3/29/2012 4:05:39 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Doing Your Own Repairs

If you want to tackle doing any of your own repairs on your guitars or even amps, I would certainly recommend going slowly and simply at first. You certainly don’t want to do any un-called for damage to your instrument and its electronics, nor do you want to make a problem worse. You also have to be careful to not affect its originality, especially if it’s a guitar that merits being considered a collectible, either these days or in the future!

I am not one for trying anything remotely difficult on my guitars…I prefer them in the hands of competent luthiers, but I know that for many of you, it is a hard thing to find a good repair shop or person, and the whole thing can be a rather agonizing and anxiety-provoking process. The first time I saw my ’52 Les Paul apart and “naked” in Dan Armstrong’s repair shop in NYC I almost fainted! So, it may be a good idea to start with some really simple guitar, perhaps a cheap “Pawnshop Prize” that may need a little or A LOT of TLC, and just try out some basic procedures on it. It’s also a good idea to befriend a luthier who may be willing to take you under their wing to help show you some of the “tricks of the trade” too. Maybe you could even become a kind of apprentice who can really learn it as a trade that you can one day make money at! It’s also exciting to try to do some guitar building on your own. These days, there are many “kits” that are available so you can start learning how to assemble and set-up solid body electric guitars. The easiest by far are the bolt-on neck kind, but you can eventually move up to the hollow body kind, as well as acoustics and even the toughest of all; archtops!

Still, I’d say the most important things are to work and build up slowly in terms of your guitar-repairing prowess, and you must really try to learn from some folks far more experienced than you. They will always be willing to show you how things are done the right way, and for sure, it’ll be a rewarding experience for you to begin to do some of your own repair work! Good luck!


Posted: 3/22/2012 3:41:08 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Pacing Yourself on the Road

There’s no secret that doing gigs and being on the road can really take its toll on an individual. It of course has its amazing rewards too, and that’s what we do it all for in the first place, but it’s so important to learn to “pace” ourselves in this lifestyle, so we can literally survive it!

I can recall that in my earliest days of touring I always seemed to immediately get sick the minute I hit any long stretches on the road. I really don’t know if this was from sheer fatigue wearing down my immune system, being in and out of strange hotels and motels, being “homesick” (which I was, very often!), or just not enough rest. Whatever it was, it was totally consistent, and it made things very difficult for me for a long time whenever I did tour. I suppose it was also the close quarters of always being on a bus with the bands, not to mention how we all know how sick we can get from that awful recycled air on planes! I can even remember refusing to move into certain motels if I couldn’t open a window in my room for some fresh air!! In one city (won’t name it!) they actually couldn’t find ONE hotel in the whole town where a window could be opened!!! So, I didn’t do the gig there!

There’s also a tendency to always want to “blow off steam” when you are on tour, because whether you know it or not, you’re going at a very frenetic pace on the road, even if you think you feel like it’s normal. It is most certainly not normal! As musicians we sacrifice an awful lot to be able to be out there and play our music for the people, and unfortunately, they think we are living some kind of lavish “easy street” life while playing out there….meanwhile, they have no idea, nor do they really care, just how tough it all is, and what we go through just to end up on that stage in front of them!

As time went on, I realized being on the road was not about all the “socializing”, the girls, the jamming after hours, and all the other stuff that comes with it. Instead, it was far more about pacing myself, getting the right amount of sleep, getting some exercise and eating right. And most of all, staying in touch with home as well, so as to feel a “connection” and a “balance” between my life “out there” and my life at home. So, take my advice on this, and while you’re still starting out, or very experienced, you can always benefit from these pointers and from pacing yourself on the road. No matter what, it’ll always take its toll on you, it’s just important that you make it as positive a toll as is humanly possible!
Happy trails!!!


Posted: 3/20/2012 3:06:15 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Becoming a Multi-Instrumentalist!

As guitarists, we certainly love to play things with strings! As someone who wanted to play several guitar-related instruments that I was falling in love with, I rapidly went towards the idea of becoming a “semi” multi-instrumentalist! The reason I say “semi” is because I feel that as long as I have something with strings on it, I see it as “guitar-related!” This includes Dobro, slide guitar (which to me, is a different instrument!), pedal steel guitar, lap steel guitar, Ukulele and mandolin. Now, I feel pretty proficient at all of them, but some more than others, of course. The main thing for you to think of when playing multiple instruments is the adjustment to how they are tuned differently. Many of the multi-instrument players of the old days, like Tommy Tedesco, for example, would play banjos, mandolins etc., but they’d always make them into something tuned like a guitar, so they’d be able to relate to the tuning, but while getting the authentic sound the producer wanted!

So, in this form of adjustment for example, a mandolin may be tuned E, B, G and D, as opposed to its traditional E, A, D and G. Same sound, different voicings. Most folks who are listening don’t really know the difference, and it’s usually on the player who knows the true story. I prefer to really know the new instrument, but it’s always in relation to what I know already on the guitar, and how this new tuning and instrument relates to what I know on the guitar. This is especially true with the other 6-string instruments such as Dobro and also the slide guitar tunings, as we now must adjust our playing to accommodate the new voicings and structures that are imposed on us by the new tunings! It’s actually a very fun process, and in a kind of “reverse” manner, we end up learning more about the guitar to begin with!

Getting used to the different physical properties of the new axes of choice is really one of the biggest hurdles, as for example, with the mandolin, you have 8 strings that are doubled up, and you certainly now cannot barely bend a string at all…..that’s a HUGE difference for me!! Also, when dealing with open tunings, it’s important to learn to play your chords in all their new positions and voicings. It’s a little daunting, but certainly something worth learning! So good luck in becoming a multi-instrumentalist, and believe me, if it has strings, a guitarist should be able to do it!!!


Posted: 3/13/2012 4:30:15 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

How Far One's Influence Goes

Sometimes I am really the last one to know just how far and wide my influence has spread around this world, and it really at times makes me have to “take stock” of just what this all really means.

I know many of us have had similar experiences in terms of having a musical or otherwise influence on others, and there are many variations as well as “takes” on this process. I for one, having been someone who has spread his guitar knowledge all around the world, have never really been worried that I would create “another” Arlen Roth. Of course, it depends on the learner, the one I am influencing in terms of how far this influence goes, but most of the time for me it’s in the “safety” zone! There are times, however that I must admit it can get just a wee bit disturbing, especially when I feel that someone is again using my licks, sound or ideas to make substantial gains in the world of music. Then again, this dissemination of knowledge has been something I’ve long been committed to so I really have learned to take even the heaviest of imitators with a grain of salt. Some of the harder situations for me have been when I have privately taught someone for a long time, and then they show that they were really only in it for the licks and tricks, and then they go off and take some of the very gigs I would’ve loved to have had myself!

I hear my licks and influence all the time on the radio and on recordings, and I just hope that someday all these players will eventually “tip their hats” to me, and cite me as an influence. It seems to be happening certainly more and more these days, and for that I am surely grateful! The Gibson lessons have certainly helped, as well as all my books, columns and Hot Licks videos and DVDs, but the main influence I want to have is through my actual recorded and performed music. It’s in these realms that any musician would most prefer to have a widespread influence, for sure, but the act of “passing on” your knowledge is also something that your fans never forget, and are eternally grateful to you for!

This is something that I hope you will strive for in your life; to be the biggest and best influence you can be over others, especially in the musical and artistic departments. Somehow, it just always seems to mean the most to others when you really “touch” them, especially in their souls!


Posted: 3/8/2012 3:46:08 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Another Fantastic Night at the Iridium!

Well, we certainly had another great night and show at the famous Iridium Jazz Club in NYC! This is the famous club where Les Paul held court for so many years, fronting his wonderful Les Paul Trio, with Lou Pallo, who was at his side for so many years. You can’t help but feel the presence of the great Mr. Paul permeating from every inch of the place, and all the great music that has been, and continues to be played there truly makes it a guitar wonder, and a true mecca for guitarists everywhere!

For myself, it’s always an honor to take that stage, and this time I got to do it with my whole band, and to have my daughter Lexie on vocals. Another interesting thing about that club is the tradition of how many folks would travel from far and wide to see Les Paul. That seems to be continuing, as I had visitors from as far away as Boston, plus some people who even came down from Canada! There were people visiting NYC from France, Brazil and other countries as well, and I was signing autographs and shaking hands all night!

It’s so good that they have continued to pick up on the Les Paul legacy there, and keep on bringing the audiences great guitar playing…it’s such an honor to be a part of it, and they even had recorded albums of my set available by the end of the show, not to mention streaming the shows live on the internet, which can still be seen on Iridium Live! It’s hard doing 2 shows, and just in case people were staying for the 2nd set, I tried to not repeat any of the songs I did in the first set, which for me is always the “real” show! Very hard to muster up the energy for that 2nd show, even though we did hit our stride about mid-way through that show.

As always, it was the greatest joy of all to take the stage with my daughter Lexie and to have her sing a few numbers. She sounded and looked great, and her new album will be released in April! My new album, All Tricked Out! Will be available in May, and it will be released at a party there at the Iridium! I certainly recommend if any of you ever want to come to NYC to definitely stop in at the Iridium, and see the “real deal “as far as great musical experiences go!! It just doesn’t get any better than this!


Posted: 3/6/2012 4:13:09 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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