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Doing Radio to Promote, and to Not Promote!

Radio has unquestionably been the most enduring of all mediums when it comes to the spoken word as well as music, and it seems that no matter how much technology has tried to dwarf the giants of the past, radio just keeps on rolling along. There is just something about not only the spoken word and the music, but also the sheer mystique of wondering who that voice on the other side of the radio really is, and what they look like. I can remember always being dumbfounded whenever I finally got to see a picture of one of the DJs I grew up listening to. Back in those days, they seemed to understand the importance of remaining anonymous and mysterious to the listeners, and it kept the people who were listening focused more on the thing that really mattered; the music!

I have of course done a lot of radio in my life, and the other day, NPR aired an interview that I did only a month ago, and it turned into a really nice hour-long piece they did on me that was almost a mini-biography, and also a retrospective of my musical career. What I enjoyed about how they put it together was the fact that it was not something to obviously promote anything….rather it was to educate the listeners about me and music in general. This “lack” of obvious promotion is probably the strongest suit that this radio interview had, and therefore, it actually served as a huge piece of promotion, which in the end helped promote my albums, my instruction, my career and Gibson too, since there was a great emphasis on Gibson guitars throughout the interview.

A wonderful thing they did was to surprise me in the studio with a guitar, on the air, that I had never seen before. This was a way of them getting some very off the cuff, honest “takes” on an instrument you meet for the first time, and to see and hear my reactions! As it turned out, the mystery guitar in the mystery case was a wonderful old Gibson J-45 acoustic that was all original, and that played like a dream! By that point, already being such a lover and supporter of Gibson acoustic guitars, I just could not hold back my enthusiasm for this wonderful guitar, and even though I said I was not going to play on the show, I ended up playing for an eternity with this wonderful instrument! The interviewer was excellent, and he knew just how to push the right buttons in me to get me to talk about many subjects (but that’s never really too much of a problem!), and as you’ll see, it was an hour well spent. I also really like how they edited in certain interesting things, such as a clip of Buddy Guy from one of the Hot Licks videos I did, as well as musical moments and segues from many of my albums! So pull up your chair and relax as we take a trip through radio-land! Hope you enjoy it!

http://www.wgbh.org/wcai/cl.cfm


Posted: 2/28/2012 4:04:26 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Zany "On the Road" Antics!

There have been a lot of crazy, nutty things I have lived through on the road, but this one has to be at or certainly near the top of the list, for sure! It happened during my 1975 tour with John Prine (many crazy stories came from this tour!), and it happened after we had been on the road already for around 4 months straight, all residing in the same tour bus. It turned out that Prine’s manager had leased the bus for the tour from  a man named “Sam Sermons”, kind of a strange name considering he toured around with this bus doing Gospel shows throughout the country……guess it was sort of a religious “stage” name, perhaps?

Anyway, we were in the midst of the tour and were in Austin, Texas. We were about to play that night in a downtown theater, but the weather was so brutal that hail had actually crashed through the roof of the place, rendering the place un-inhabitable for a concert. But, on top of all this nightmare, our manager gets a call first thing in the morning with a voice on the other line saying “look out your window, AL….your bus is gone! We’re 100 miles outside of Austin, and if you want your personal belongings, you’d better meet us here to get them!” Well, to us players, it simply meant our bus had been stolen, and that we needed to get our “stuff” back from it! What we had no idea of was that Al had apparently not been paying Sermons for the leasing of the bus, and the owner decided simply to take it back and hold it hostage! As it turned out, we got our things back, but never the bus. I suppose they could not reach a settlement of this dispute, and Al probably just told them to get lost, and to take their bus with them!

So after that, we had to get a much lesser quality Winnebago “motor home” that wasn’t nearly as fun to tour with, nor as safe, and certainly not as roomy. But we somehow managed, and just kept rolling along, singing a song, and playing wherever and whenever we could. The upshot of the story is really something from “The Twilight Zone”, and to this day, none of the other band members, who were sleeping will ever believe; Being a night owl, I often used to ride “shotgun” next to the bus driver at night, and we used to just have a great time telling stories, and basically just enjoying each other’s company. One evening, when everyone else was fast asleep, me and Donny, the bus driver, were looking out the windshield as we were driving due south from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky. As we were talking, there was oncoming traffic on the other side of the highway. All of a sudden, Donny yells out, “Sam….Sermons…..there it goes…THE BUS!!!!”And sure enough, we had witnessed our “stolen” bus, months later, simply passing us in the dark of night, in the middle of the country!!! It was like seeing ole “Phantom 409”, or some mysterious apparition like that! Of course, and literally to this day the other band members, and Al himself do not believe the story, but it’s as true as true can be, and was one of the craziest road experiences I have ever had, for sure! Sure had to be in the right place at the right time for that one!!!!


Posted: 2/23/2012 3:45:06 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Doing Clinics!

Doing live clinic shows for me, is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my long career. It combines all the elements I so love, such as the teaching, the performing, the story-telling and of course, the playing! Not to mention that I get to meet so many of you out there who are not only fans, but who are really keen on learning as much as you can from me, in person! It’s a true joy for sure, and I have literally done these clinics all over the world at one time or another. Lately I am starting on doing them again, mostly locally…..and I hope to continue to do them all over the US as well as the rest of the world!

It’s one of the most rewarding things an artist can do for sure, since it enable you to “reach out” to those who maybe would never get a chance to really meet you face to face in person. Many of these folks tend to know me from many different sources, such as my videos, my Gibson lessons, my columns in Guitar Player, or the artists I have played and recorded with. It seems that if they know me from watching any of my lessons, whether it be from Hot Licks Video or Gibson, they always seem to feel a little closer to me, and like to speak of it as if the “already know me.” This makes it all come back home for me, because I really get the chance to meet these wonderful folks who have already supported me in my career and in my work, and who I can feel like I’ve helped touch in some way.

As I embark on doing some more clinics, which I have not done in some time, I can really look back and reflect on those past experiences, and understand how it will in many ways be like that once again, and also have the chance to reach out and make new friends of the newer generation of guitarists.

This is one thing I really do hope to accomplish with this, is to reach a bigger audience, and to help capitalize on the exposure that Gibson and Hot Licks have given me over the years. So, if you hear that I’m coming to your town, and that I’m going to do a gig or a clinic, please come down, and make sure we meet and talk a little bit…believe me, it’s as rewarding for me as it is for you!


Posted: 2/21/2012 3:41:53 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Reflections on the Grammys

The Grammy Awards are often a rather sad event for me, because I have felt that many times I should’ve been there, but wasn’t! It also seems like a strange way of “marking time” as my life passes, and in a musician’s life, that can be particularly poignant.

I also have a tinge of optimism regarding the Grammys, because next year, I will be on at least 3 to 4 projects that will at least be nominated for a Grammy, and it would be such a blast and a career boost to have something like that happen! Of course, they for some reason eliminated the Rock Instrumental category, which I’ll never understand, and of course, it’s literally “my” category for sure, but maybe they can find another place for those kinds of instrumentals to be!

In general, I was surprised  at the quality of the performances and presentations at the Grammys last night, especially since the deep sadness of the loss of Whitney Houston hung over the whole proceedings. Paul McCartney was as incredible as ever, a true monument that nobody can ever topple, especially when you realize that literally nothing in music will ever have the sheer power and dominating impact that the Beatles and their music had, and of course, continue to have to this day! Taylor Swift had an amazing Country tune, looked great, and had a wild show full of tons of players and just overall great spirit, and it brought down the house too!

There was a noticeable drop in performances that had over “auto-tuned” voices, and too much “lip-synching”, but the annoying factor of these kinds of songs still bothered me, not to mention the very plain and simple fact that literally 90% of all the songs written in what seems like the last 22 years or so, HAVE HAD THE SAME FOUR CHORDS!!!! This has been driving me crazy, and it amazes me that somehow the powers that be in this business don’t seem to see this lack of originality just staring right at them! I swear if I hear those 4 chords one more time, and I don’t care in what configuration, I may just throw the radio out the window!

But other than that it was a nice awards ceremony, and something that actually made one feel good to be a musician once again, and to have some optimism for where music is going, and of course, for where it’s been too! I hope you make lots of great music in your life, and one day end up at the Grammys, and most of all, that this and other performances like it, will continue to inspire you to go on and be as creative and innovative as possible!


Posted: 2/14/2012 3:01:20 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Learn to Make the Most of "The Road"

I can remember in the years when I was really heavily into being on the road for various gigs, it was important for me to always be aware of really making the most of the experience. This means not only to take in all that the gig itself has to offer, which can be a lot, but also what the town, the travel, the hotel, the Museums etc., all have to offer as well.

To me, being on the road afforded me opportunities I just would never had had otherwise, and to be able to be in those special places at those times were really priceless opportunities. I can recall being with far too many musicians who felt that the road was just a never-ending “grind”, where all the places were the same, and the only excitement was how many girls they could find to party with, how much drinking or other recreational substances they could do, or anything equally typical and destructive. I never really subscribed to that kind of “road” lifestyle, and preferred to “take in” as much as I could possibly see and discover while in any given area. It’s my belief that good people are found everywhere, and the beauty is finding how these folks differ from region to region. This was also one of the reasons I liked doing clinics so much, because a clinic to me, felt like being on the “campaign trail”; Shaking hands, talking to the fans, getting their reactions and questions, and basically creating a memory for them that we all will equally remember. It’s funny, because now so many years later, true to form, I literally have a perfect recollection of all these different experiences, and as I set off to write a book about my life’s journey, all these memories come rushing back in.

I can recall one time when I was playing in Pittsburgh with Phoebe Snow, and how I had to make a journey, in the middle of a blizzard to see a certain painting at the Carnegie Museum that my father had always wanted us to see. On a road trip we as a family took to Chicago in 1960, we went to that same museum o see that painting only to find out it was on loan to Seattle, to which my Dad replied, “which turnpike do we take!?” So this time, I was hell bent on seeing Georges Roulalt’s “Old King” in person. This was a painting we saw all the time as the result of having a reproduction hanging in our house. My Dad, a cartoonist and a painter of incredible ability, had always been influenced by Rouault’s work and longed to see this painting in person. I remember I saw it, reported to my father about it, and was able to make it back to the gig literally 5 minutes before we were to go on!! The gig’s promoter was so impressed that I went and did this “Pittsburgh-only” cultural thing that he said he’d never seen another musician he had play there do such a thing before!

Needless to say, that statement certainly shocked me, because I thought everyone was as interested in their new surroundings as I was! But anyway, to sum up, it’s so important to see the good in everywhere you go….when you are playing music in a new town, you are afforded a glimpse into that place that you otherwise would’ve never had. Be sure to make the most of it, and always “take in” as much as you can! You’ll never know when that memory might come back to pay you a visit!


Posted: 2/8/2012 8:25:08 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Bit By the Guitar Collecting "Bug"?

I have been a guitar player/collector for as long as I can recall, and it wasn’t always as strong as it is now, but my passion for it certainly ebbs and flows. One thing is for sure, I must always at least be semi-ready for when a particular collectible guitar opportunity “knocks”, because you just never know when these gems may present themselves.



In my earliest years as a guitar player, collecting was the last thing on my mind. And if you are just starting out, it should also be on the back burner, because the foremost thing you should be conscious of is your playing, and getting as good at it as possible. Once you’ve established that you are really going to stick with this thing, and that you want to have many sounds as a guitarist, then is the best time for a “collecting bug” to take hold of you! For me, it was always “get a guitar, then trade up o a better guitar” for a while, but then it really dawned on me that there was an entire world of various instruments out there that could fill many bills for me. Of course, I became attracted to what I thought were the most beautiful ones, but also, they had to really play nice for me to even consider them at all!

There’s nothing worse than having a collection of guitars that just sit in their cases, that don’t make music any more. The instruments that I never really touched over the years always turned out to be the ones I ended up getting rid of, usually for something I would play much more, or that had a particular sound or tone I needed and was missing. It’s not unusual for me to show up at some recording sessions (especially my own!) with 7 or 8 guitars, just in case I may be inspired to need any one of those at any given moment! A guitar is much more attractive and beautiful when it is played, and as you develop your own collection, make sure they are pieces you really want to play, and that bring enjoyment to you.

I know I am often tempted to want to purchase guitars that though attractive and rare, will most likely just gather dust and take up space in the long run for me, without any really redeeming qualities other than being cool to occasionally look at. Unfortunately, there are a lot of collectors who thrive on this, and who only like the guitars even as “investments” while they can barely actually play these things with any of the heart and soul they deserve to be played with!

So, if you do get bit by that “collecting bug”, try to always be on the lookout for the best finds, try to stay within a sensible budget, but most of all, “collect” what you really need to play! Therein lies the true beauty of the instrument for you anyway!


Posted: 2/1/2012 8:08:01 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

When a Promising Student Leaves

It’s always a sad day when a student who I see as being truly promising and talented decides (or his parents decide) that the lessons must end. It never seems to make any sense to me, since I am of the self-taught school, and can never imagine giving the guitar anything less than 110 percent! That being said, it’s especially sad when a student is very talented and no one seems to notice it in his immediate sphere except me! In cases like this I always say the student is “like a tree falling in the woods” if I wasn’t there, and it’s really true. There are so many parents these days who either have too many false expectations to make their kids “rock stars”, or who refuse to, or simply can’t perceive the actual talent their son/daughter might have!

Far too many times this great kind of talent gets unrecognized, and it’s such a crime. I mean if my Dad had not said to me “Arlen, quit the violin…I can just picture you playing the guitar, all of this simply would not have happened, and my particular talent would not have been as cultivated as it was. And that was just sheer “encouragement”, perhaps the most important thing of all. Today for example, I got a call from a Dad who wanted to cancel his kid’s lessons, and this kid was just a smokin’ electric blues player! He claims that his son was not “practicing”, but I can certainly tell from his playing each week that he was definitely playing as much as he could. I think it was more a financial issue, which many folks are never willing to admit, and it was a heart-breaker, since I really worry now that this incredible 14 year-old talent will never be realized! Of course, if he really was meant to play, he’ll probably pursue his playing later on, or simply continue at his own pace, but regardless, it’s sad to see him have to part ways with me, since I held the highest hopes and regard for his playing!

My love of mentoring kids like this is long-known, and since I can remember so clearly being in that same boat at that age, I see them literally as me all over again. Most importantly, I see my late daughter, Gillian, who I lost at the age of only 14, and my daughter Lexie who is now 24, both of whom I literally lived to share the guitar and life with, and who mean more to me than all the stars in the sky. I certainly hope no more parents make the mistake of misguiding their kids when it comes to the guitar…we all need the best fighting chance we can get!!


Posted: 1/25/2012 10:58:30 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The Importance of the Right, or Picking Hand

These days, and in many days past, too many guitar players have gotten all caught up in a “speed contest”. That’s all fine a good, and of course, we’d all love to be faster players, but I feel that the true “unsung hero” in your guitar playing will always be the right, or “picking” hand. This hand is always the true “vehicle” that gets you where you want to go, and even though we can learn all the notes we could ever dream of on the fret board, it still takes a dexterous right hand to make all those guitar dreams come true!

There’s no question that guitarists such as myself and other “advanced” players are usually most impressed by a player’s right hand. The ones I am most envious of are pickers like Scotty Anderson and Tommy Emmanuel, who use the thumb pick and finger combination to its absolute fullest extent. Not only do they have the most amazing fingerstyle approach, but at the drop of a hat, they can switch it over to a wonderful “flatpick” style by simply holding the thumb pick in a flat pick manner. Folks who can blazingly flat pick, like Bluegrass greats such as Doc Watson and Tony Rice, are equally impressive, and the precision with which they can pick is truly an amazing thing to behold. I have adapted myself to basically three right-hand approaches that serve me well; The all-flatpick “bluegrass” style, the semi-Classical thumb and three-finger approach, and the pick and finger “hybrid” style. The “hybrid” style is terrific, but it does force one to sacrifice the index finger so it can also hold the pick, as opposed to using the thumb and three-fingered approach, which really gives you the most freedom, and in many ways, the best tone.

A lot of major Rock-style players have also given in to the fingerstyle approach almost totally exclusively, such as Jeff Beck who now only plays with his fingers, as well as Mark Knopfler, who you can tell was a one-time “Folkie” who turned into a lead electric player, and who also has a wonderful right-hand technique. There are many others too, but I feel that most players, even whether they know it or not, utilize the “hybrid” style quite often. When you start to develop your technique to include more double-stops, triple-stops, constant basses, and split-string licks, you’ll see that the pick and finger approach will almost fall into place naturally for you. The main thing then is to concentrate more and more on getting it to be more of a “discipline” and a true pattern-oriented approach as opposed to just an occasional technique that you “throw in” now and then. It takes real dedication and desire to achieve the right sound for you to make this rather advanced technique really happen for you! Many of my Gibson lessons deal with this right hand issue, and hopefully you can go back and watch them, and try to absorb what is really going on with that hand. Remember, “it’s all in the fingers” as they say! Good luck!


Posted: 1/17/2012 3:48:45 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Be Careful with Guitar Repairs!

I know a lot of you out there fancy yourself as “tinkerers”, and many of you may actually be quite good at handling repair work to your own instruments, but I’ve always been more of the kind who loves to find a good repair person. Number one, if the repairer doesn’t do the right job, or there are problems with the work they did, they have to own up to it, and make sure it’s done right until you are fully satisfied. Then of course, if they are actually a selected and accredited repair person for a given guitar company, it’s even better to bring them the guitar, rather than trying to take matters into your own hands.

I have had some truly “nightmare” scenarios with repair people in my time, and you must beware of these folks who love to take your money, but who can totally botch a repair job on a nice guitar! It’s happened often enough to me to make me be very careful whenever I am “trying out” a new repair shop for guitar-related problems. Due to this, I often like to start with bringing them some relatively un-complicated guitar repair problems such as fret jobs and wiring problems, but even these have sometimes turned into nightmares. Today for example, I brought of all things, 3 Lap Steels and one semi-hollow guitar for repairs, but unfortunately the store’s repair guy was not there. We had a good communication though, and they made sure I wrote down the repairs I felt were needed, with a separate sheet for each instrument, and said that he’d be calling me with any questions regarding the guitars and their repairs before tearing into them!

And “tear” into them so like to do! My most recent “nightmare” was with such a simple thing as a fret “grind and polish” totally gone haywire! This particular repairman was nice enough, but broke so many things on my guitar just as a result of doing a fret job; he had it for another month after, and still could correct his mistakes! I final had to have the guitar literally “rescued” by the actual craftsman who made the guitar so it could finally be set straight again! It turned out that much as I had suspected, the repair guy wanted to see what made my guitar “tick”, so he unnecessarily tore it apart, but couldn’t properly put it back together again! He even broke 2 pickups by turning them too tightly as he lowered them!! Very costly errors, to be sure!

So, I certainly would advise you to go to a reputable repairman for your guitar work, but be sure to check them out first, and most of all, start slowly if you can with simpler repairs, until you actually build up the proper trust in them. Have fun, but beware of the guitar repairman!


Posted: 1/13/2012 12:01:00 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Keeping a Band Happy!

It’s a tall order when it comes to keeping your band together and happy, and I have had a wealth of these experiences to draw upon, to say the least! Certainly, there are many situations that can arise, under many different circumstances with bands, and it has so much to do with the actual situation at hand, and of course, above all, the people!

I can remember starting bands innocently enough with folks who all came from many different places, just to create a new musical entity, only to have it all ruined by one member, who really just wanted the band to be his and his alone. I’m certainly all for a group having a leader, they all do, but this was a band with 5 members, all of whom were very young, and all who had so much to contribute, yet it was all immediately squelched by this one greedy member. It certainly would’ve been better if he at least had let us know in advance about his intentions, so we wouldn’t all had to have changed our lives for this group that only lasted like 2 months! Needless to say, this situation resulted in a completely unhappy band scenario right from the get-go, and taught me what to be wary of right at the early stages of my career.

Still though, it really doesn’t matter, because each situation is so unique with bands that you just never know what you will end up with. After this initial quasi-“Democratic” approach to that band, I was thrust into the world of being a sideman with many artists, and being a sideman with a lot of my own very strong opinions about things. This of course meant I had to know when it was a good time to make my suggestions, and when it was not a good time. Each performer I worked with, and of course the other band members too, created a different chemistry with which to work with, and many times it was very sensitive, to say the least!

The problems and navigation of being a sideman is one thing, but to keep your own band happy when you are the front man as a “solo” act is a whole different story! These days, since the gig is really “mine”, and I like to keep that camaraderie and “band” feeling, it’s very important to make each member feel as if they are really contributing to the final outcome of the music. This is always critical, and was something that I learned a lot when being a sideman, as well as just in life in general. It’s so important to make all the band members feel as if what they say matters, and also, if they are so inclined, to give them room to play and to take solos, if necessary. It should never be at the cost of the final outcome of the music, but still they will really appreciate it always if you let them participate in solos and jams with you. I always make sure my rhythm players gets to trade off with me, as well as letting my bassist and drummer take solos, if they’d like to!

So the lesson is to really always be aware of each other, and each other’s needs in any band situation, and you can surely achieve the kind of harmony we all strive to attain as musicians in this crazy world. Maybe at least there can be peace and harmony in your band…it’s a good start!


Posted: 1/5/2012 4:13:50 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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