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Remembering My Late Daughter, Gillian

She was only 14 when she was in a car accident with her mother, Deborah, who I also lost that day, and the despair, shock and trauma will never leave me. I can remember every single moment of that day and the days that led up to it, and I’ll never forget the eerie and deep pain I had in my very soul during the time that the accident had occurred, even without me knowing yet what had happened. 2 days prior to the tragedy, Gillie had recorded the theme for her new Nickelodeon TV show that was based on a young all-girls band, very similar to The Monkees. Gillian already had a real budding acting career, and we always knew that if she was to get a role that combined her acting talent as well as her guitar playing, it would be just the ticket for her! It finally came her way, and she was getting ready to shoot 27 episodes of her show. She was so proud two days before the accident, because on that day, she had recorded the theme for the show, and got to sing and play lead guitar on it too. The other girls were just actresses who did not really play their instruments, but of course, Gillie did!

We loved to perform together whenever we could, and I had her do many shows with me, as well as when she would perform with her own band of schoolmates, The “Ripptides”.  Those shows were a blast, and I always coached the band, as well as often times being the bass player “behind the curtain”, as I called out one song after another! She was a real pro, and she loved to perform onstage, as well as on the baseball field, where she was an absolute star. There are many sports awards here named for her, and her poster still hangs in many a child’s room who grew up with her.

She was everyone’s hero, and the center of everyone’s world who knew her. The world is a cold and empty place without her, and for me, time has frozen since that accident in 1998. This kind of trauma has that kind of effect on time and space, and it never really ever goes away. I am so glad that her younger sister Lexie has also pursued her music, but it also scares me, as I know what it is to have them walk out the door one day, and never to come home. So here’s to her memory, and to holding onto the ones we love as long as possible. It’s really all we have in the end, and for me, I had to go on for my Lexie, who I raised on my own, and who has turned out to be a magnificent young woman. We both know that her mother and her sister are with us every moment.


Posted: 1/3/2012 4:14:57 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

BETTER TO START YOUNG!

The guitar and music in general, is absolutely a language. It’s no secret that when we are just little kids, even babies, we start to absorb literally everything as quickly as possible. This means for example, if a child is raised in a household where there happens to be 3 languages spoken, they’re pretty likely to actually learn those three languages all at the same time! This is also true of the language of music, and I believe we start to learn it way before we can even play it! If I think back to my childhood memories, I can clearly recall certain key moments when I remember some sonic revelations that really stayed with me to this day. Never a problem hearing things, loving music, and also understanding pitch relationships, which is perhaps the most important thing of all.

Even as we learn to speak, we start to immediately learn that things such as inflection, volume, tone and pitch are all critical to the art of putting language together. These tones we speak in are all musical as well, and in fact all tones in life are truly musical in nature! So, when we are growing up, and haven’t even touched a guitar string yet, odds are that we’re already using our innate ability to discern tones as a language. Trouble is, there really has to become a point at which we are physically “ready” to actually play the instrument, and that of course is when we can really put all this great knowledge to actual use.

It seems to vary a bit with the child, but usually I don’t recommend anyone starting before the age of 8 or 9 for the guitar. As the hands grow, so does the knowledge, and so does especially the ability to play correctly. It all seems to go hand in hand, and there’s no question that with some players, starting them too early can be a detriment.  On the other hand, starting very young can be good in terms of musical knowledge, and training of the ear too, but often times, the child’s physical abilities just haven’t “caught up” to their ears yet! There is no question though, that starting younger is always better, and those first critical days, months and years of their development are essential to success in the future.

Today I saw a very gifted young blues player who is now 14. His ability was so great, yet I was able to “head him off at the pass” when it came t certain bad habits he had already obtained. Because of his very young age, it was easy to make these corrections stick, as he is still developing, and absorbing new knowledge like a sponge! This showed me so clearly how it’s much better to start truly young, and his dedication and enthusiasm was so real it made for a truly inspiring lesson for both student and teacher. It was also good that his father was here with just the right kind of encouragement to help him in the right direction, without him pressuring him or being too much of a disciplinarian. Instead, he just let us do our mutual musical thing, as he glowed with pride over him very talented and young son!

Arlen Roth


Posted: 12/28/2011 2:55:31 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Building Your Student's Confidence

Today I began lessons with an experienced player, but he’s someone who lacks confidence, and it got me thinking. Really, it’s the “confidence” factor that seems to be something can largely dominate our ability to be a true player or not, and I guess since I exuded so much confidence in my early days, it has always seemed like a natural thing for me to have. Of course, confidence builds as you get better and better, and sometimes your personal confidence may exceed that of your musical confidence, and we all know about “those” people, whose sheer gall and “chutzpah” outweigh their real musical abilities. They may go far in the biz, but in the end, their lack of real ability will sell themselves short!

You’re much better off if you can have the “real” confidence in your playing, and even if you may be shy or find it hard to “put yourself out there”, it’s still far better to be really well-off,  musically speaking! One thing I noticed in my student today was how much he actually was missing on the fretboard. This immediately told me that his lack of confidence was, as I suspected, directly connected to his lack of musical ability. There are far too many players who like to call themselves “advanced”, when really all it is that they’ve play a long time, not that they’ve musically grown a long time! This is the key…I mean, I’ve known players who have only played 4 years who know more and are more confident that him, and he’s played for 30 years!

It’s so important to start young…..because even though he’s played for thirty years, that means he was 30 when he started! Well, you should never not start because of age, but by starting at age 30, he lost the most important “formative” years of his learning abilities, and instead he acquired many bad and old habits that are now extra hard for him to break! I was amazed for example, which he played only with his thumb. Well, unless you’re Wes Montgomery, that’s not going to get you very far, and it’s going to limit your playing. So, of course, I right away tried to get him to use that thumb independently of the other fingers, and tried to get him to learn to play only the bass notes with the thumb, while playing lead with the other 3 fingers!

Again, all this will eventually help build his confidence, as he’ll have many more techniques on which he can “hang his hat”, and upon which he can build more and more knowledge, and therefore, confidence. Remember, in the end, we all really teach ourselves, and without confidence and creativity, that learning process will not go very far! Good luck, and be sure of yourselves as you move forward!

Posted: 12/15/2011 3:20:16 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

"Tuning In" to Your Student

If you do a lot of teaching as I do, it’s such an important thing to be able to “tune in” to what your student happens to be all about. This is easier said than done in many ways, since we can have so many pupils, and they can vary so much in their “makeup.” This also means that the ways in which they happen to learn can vary greatly, too. Some players, even though they are quite advanced, may learn in very “roundabout” ways, that can tend to “trip up” the teacher. They may have too much of a process of learning that involves needing to almost “over-analyze” what you are telling them, as opposed to immediately “getting it!” It’s okay, because the eventually do learn it, but they had to come about it from a whole different direction than you did. This is only normal, since they also must learn to “tune in” to YOU, as their teacher, and that give and take between you both is so important!

This ability to “read” a student is very much like our need to “read” another player in a band or group playing situation. The signs we must look for, in communication, as well as with our ears are very subtle, and of course, are different with each human being we encounter. I know that from my own experience, I enjoy trying to pace myself a lot more with students these days, even if someone is a very fast-paced learner. The mistake I can make is to be too “caught up” in their tempo of learning, and end up literally “breathless” as I try to keep up with them in their lightning fast absorption of what I need to show them. Invariably, when this sort of thing occurs, there can be many subtle, small points that can be missed, and these points are really critical to the success, musically of what we are teaching.

That’s why I also try to look for the correct subtleties in what a student has, such as his or her proper intonation, bending intonation, vibrato expression, and so much more. It’[s those little things that are “tip offs” to me as to what that student really can or can’t hear, and what they may need to work on. So, be sure, as a student or as a teacher to always know what to zero in on with your teacher or student, and the entire experience will be just that much more rewarding, and you’ll both want to come back for more!


Posted: 12/13/2011 4:30:40 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Learning to Experiment

The idea of “experimenting” with your instrument and your musical ideas is something of crucial importance. In the end, no matter how much direction or lessons we may have, we really all do actually teach ourselves, and this is important to always keep in mind. The art of this “experimenting” may not come too easily at first for some of you, as you may feel afraid or restricted somehow in a way that doesn’t allow you to “think outside the box”, but that is precisely what you need to start doing.

This “outside” stuff I’m referring to is literally that: Think outside the normal positions you’re comfortable with on the guitar! You mustn’t fear any diversion from the norm, since this is really the only way we can broaden our horizons and come up with new ideas. Improvisation is the key to all music, even if we are thinking about composition, since those ideas must also be truly original! Yes, we all borrow from each other, and yes, “it’s all been done before”, but it’s up to you to truly break out of the typical modes and branch out into new, uncharted territory.

To start with, I would say use some trial and error. You can only tune your ear properly with hearing some “wrong” notes along the way, and once you’ve actually made those mistakes, you’re far less likely to even make them again. One thing is for sure, you never want to become the kind of player who somehow keeps on memorizing their mistakes, which believe it or not, I have encountered quite a bit in my lifetime! This can be especially frustrating when a bassist is somehow doing this, and they manage to keep on falling into the same mistakes...usually because they are “predicting” changes, as opposed to really and solidly learning them.

A good way for you to also break the creative ice is to experiment with chromatic runs. A chromatic run, where you are not skipping any frets, can almost never be wrong, as long as you don’t lose sight of the notes you are shooting for. For example, if you’re running chromatically from B to A, you never want to get too hung up on the A#, as that would be far too dissonant, and would simply not make any sense.  Remember, when we listen to a guitarist improvise and experiment with new ideas, we are literally hearing their thought process, and when that train of thought is broken, the listener no longer wants to tune in to what you’re doing!

So, experiment, elaborate and discover....and hopefully, along the way you’ll be able to tune that ear of yours to know what works and what doesn’t! It’s a lifelong quest, so better get going!


Posted: 12/8/2011 3:43:57 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Nothing Like a New Guitar!

Today my new Gibson ES 335 arrived, and I surely couldn’t be happier! It brings back many of those special moments, particularly from my earlier life, when there was that exuberance of having a new instrument in my possession! I can even recall that certain “new guitar smell” from those days, and nothing brings it back like opening this guitar case! In fact, it brings back the various smells of the few times when I did in fact get a chance to open a case for the first time for a new guitar, a rarity since most of what I’ve ever owned and played have been more used or vintage pieces.

I was also truly impressed, as I knew I would be, at the quality of build, fit and finish with this guitar. More and more these days, I find myself totally loving the newer instruments, instead of always being married to the idea of having “vintage only.” After all, vintage simply becomes vintage at a certain age point, as opposed to being something of necessarily better quality than what you can buy new. All guitars had to be new at some point, and the thing to consider is “what was the quality of that guitar when it was new?” In the pre-Beatles days, guitars were never needed to be manufactured at the alarming rate they are these days, in what I call still the “post-Beatles boom.” Instead, the guitar was something of medium popularity, and the craftsmen of the time could take their time with their work, and therefore the guitars were better from the standpoint of their “handmade” quality. You look and feel those old instruments and you get a sense that there was a real person behind each one of those who really cared about the guitar’s playability as well as its appearance, as opposed to the “assembly line” kinds of approaches that guitar companies had to take once so many more thousands of people were demanding new guitars. Back in those days, they couldn’t keep up with the demand, so quality took a backseat to delivery time!

Nowadays however, as I look at and hold and play this fine guitar, I can see that we are clearly in a renaissance of guitar building, and not only are all the rogue “boutique” luthiers responsible, but so are the fine companies such as Gibson, who can make such a fine and pleasing instrument like this ES 335 right out of the box! I’m proud to be a new Gibson owner, and I hope many of you will join those ranks too! Now on to my next lesson...


Posted: 12/6/2011 5:02:47 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Touring in the Early Days

When I used to tour in my early days, I surely learned an awful lot that has probably not really changed too much since those times. Of course, I was always experiencing touring on many levels; I mean, when I walked into the Red Creek Inn in Rochester, NY, I was touring with my band, and basically sleeping on the floor of the van we had. But to show a complete contrast, I was handed a note as I walked into the club, saying I had to call Paul Simon, which turned out to be the Simon and Garfunkel tour asking me if I’d play lead guitar! Needless to say, that tour offered slightly better accommodations! Still though, there was something sad about the fact thatit always seemed to be just when my own solo career and band was taking off, I’d get a call from a much bigger and established touring act, asking me to do yet another big time road trip!

These early days we all have to put in when we are “learning the ropes” as they say, are truly critical to later success, and especially to your ability to really see what kind of “stuff” you’re made of when it comes to touring. Tours really do take their toll, and my hat is really off to anyone who has done it for many years, especially those who have literally given their lives to the music, and who have toured forever. Those are the kind of people who have learned that the touring world is an entire universe unto itself, and the life that you lead on the road has a rhythm all its own. This started to happen to me, when I started seeing that I was playing over and over again in places I’d been before, but seemingly each time with a different act! It felt as if I had a kind of mental “map” in my head that preserved all the places I’d been, and all the stories I had to tell about them! I am working on a book about my life, and I promise it will chock full of incredible road stories, among many others as well!

Young bands have to be truly resilient to handle the road and all it can throw at you, and it’s always important to have either a road manager who handles all the details, or at least one band member who is willing to take on those extra responsibilities for the rest of you. Of course, when I did the really big tours, there were countless folks working for us, and you can get real spoiled when you never have to lift an amp or a guitar until you actually have to play it! I can remember on that S&G tour how at least 7 guitars just kept flying to me and from me all the time thanks to my trusty roadie/guitar tech!

As I see young students and their bands, and as I see my daughter Lexie making her way through her early days of the music business, I see it all through the misty eyes of someone who has seen it all, feels it all and most of all, wants the best for everyone. I know it’s a hard biz these days, but there’s nothing like “cutting your teeth” on the real experiences of the road, which will sure help shape you as a musician and as a person as you go along! So, best of luck to you all in your touring endeavors!


Posted: 12/1/2011 4:28:32 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Help in Finding the Right Guitar

As many of us know, or will soon find out, the search for the right guitar is an arduous, but many times, a fun thing to do. The choices are so endless these days as to make your head spin, and I have always taken a great deal of pride in helping my students to really find what is just right for them and for their particular needs.

For you, assuming you are the student who is in need of a guitar, you must face up to certain realities that will help you decide which is the right guitar for you. Even though most of us are first attracted to the sexiest guitars possible, our decision will really depend on more down to earth matters such as how the neck fits our hands, how the body of the guitar feels to hold, the weight of the instrument, and of course, the sound and the tone of the guitar! During these early days of guitar buying and playing, sometimes it’s hard for a beginner to grasp all of these aspects, and we basically just want to go with the guitar that looks the coolest, or even better still, is played by one or more of our guitar heroes!

This is all well and good, but sometimes you’ll need the kind of guidance only an experienced player or teacher can provide when it comes to steering you in the right direction. This can be true of the salesman in the store, too, who is usually an experienced player, too, but you must beware of the fact that their number one priority is to sell you a guitar, period! You’ll always be much better off having a trusted friend, teacher or player there with you to give you the proper support about the instrument, while at the same time someone who is educating you about what to look for in a guitar for you.

I have always relished the opportunity to help someone find “just the right guitar” for themselves, so they could really feel at home with their instrument, and be able and comfortable to go on with their studies with me. I also love doing this for friends, and there’s a certain vicarious pleasure that one can derive from doing this for someone else, for sure!

I suppose the first thing to do is to at least “narrow down” your selection to a few guitars that really appeal to you, regardless of the reason, and then begin to look into what makes them tick, and why that particular model may be right for you. This is important, as I’ve talked to many people over the years who have committed themselves to very expensive instruments that they really regretted buying. I guess we can chalk that up many times to simply buying with our hearts and eyes, rather than with our ears and our heads! Either way, there is definitely a kind of learning experience that goes on here, and no matter what guitar you eventually choose, you’ll walk away from the experience knowing a heck of a lot more than when you started off. So good luck finding that guitar of your dreams, but never lose sight of the fact that it must be bought with your playing in mind, not just as “eye candy” that will look good hanging on your wall, or hanging off your shoulder! Good luck!


Posted: 11/29/2011 5:07:53 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Making the Most of Your Practice Time

Time is surely the most precious commodity we all have, and there is nothing more critical to your success as a player than utilizing your “practice” time effectively. I make sure that no matter how crazy my day may be, what with work, students, gigging and more, I must always try to take some time for some good and peaceful guitar playing! First of all, there is nothing more relaxing or stimulating for the soul than playing, and it simply can’t help but make one a better player, for sure! I’m sure that you’ve noticed that when you don’t play enough, there is an immediate negative effect on your playing, and a kind of “rustiness” that unfortunately settles in. This can be easily remedied by playing again, but your “re-entry” must be on the gentle side, as we don’t want to do too much playing, too soon. You can end up with sore tendons, or the bane of my existence, painful callouses!

I can remember when I was working with one of my all-time heroes, Buddy Guy, in Chicago for his Hot Licks video for me, and him telling me that he finds it refreshing to occasionally “get away from the guitar” for a while. I can definitely see this, especially for someone like him, who must perform a gig practically every night, and who like myself, plays real hard: lots of bending, vibrato, and just overall hard work. For a consummate pro such as Buddy Guy, I can definitely see this “break” being necessary. I also from time to time need a break, especially after doing many weeks or even months of hard teaching. The act of teaching actually can sometimes hurt more than regular performing. Both are very intense, but the “concentrated”  act of teaching, where one is always focusing on the repetitive nature of such things as bending, can really take a toll on my hands, and I really will need a break sooner or later.

All that being said, I feel that making sure you play with good purpose and creative drive will be an invaluable tool for yourselves, and it should be done as often as you can. If you are starting to teach, you should, as I do, also use that time as a period that also helps build your “chops “ as a player. I always feel good that when I am doing a lot of teaching, it helps me come up with new ideas, as well as simply building up my “chops” even without realizing it! This is one of the great benefits of guitar teaching, for sure, and you should take advantage of it! Don’t think of that time teaching as a kind of “throwaway” time, but more as an invaluable time of being able to also benefit yourself!

So whether you’re just starting out, intermediate or even teaching already, I recommend always utilizing these times as precious moments which you can truly benefit from as much as possible. Take full advantage of all that playing time!


Posted: 11/21/2011 4:13:59 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Experimenting with Pedals

The idea of using effects pedals, or “stomp boxes” as they’re so lovingly referred to, has always been a bit of a touchy subject for me. I have always been an extreme advocate of the “guitar cable is my main effect” approach to electric guitar playing, so much so that my approach to pedals has usually been one of disdain. When I used to see a player with an entire arsenal of effects in front of him on the floor, my usual reaction was one of mistrust, repugnance and disgust at the thought that someone would actually need “this much help” when it came to getting the sounds they needed.

But over time, my feelings on this subject have changed to one of more acceptance and understanding about just how much of a creative tool these pedals can be. I suppose my main dislike for them came from hearing guitarists whose sound ended up being way too “processed” as a result of these devices, and also the fact that these players seemed to so heavily rely upon them, as to never have a “natural” sound of their own! But of course, as is now the case with any electronic or digital form of sound reinforcement, it’s really based on what the artist has in mind as far as their own sound that really matters. In the end, it should be yet one more creative tool in the chain of command between guitarist and amp, and this should know no boundaries.

Studio players are perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of what these pedals can do, since they may be required to, at the drop of a hat, come up with many new sounds and ideas as required by the producer or artist of the recording. As a rule, those folks really don’t give a hoot as to where or how you got that sound, just that you did, in fact, get it! Of course there are the traditional ones we are all pretty familiar with, that are quite recognizable; The Wah-wah, fuzztone, overdrive or distortion, phase shifter, flanger, echo, chorus box and even the octave divider. I have always hit the stage with mainly a delay pedal of some kind, just so I could have 2 or 3 delay settings at my disposal for some “long” delays, as well as short “Rockabilly” Sun Records –like sounds. Other than that, it’s just good ole reverb and tremolo for me, both of which can be supplied by a nice vintage amp.

These days, it’s far more common to see the typical guitarist onstage with a pedal board, or also in the studio, and the selection is mind-boggling. There is even a very strong movement towards some of the older pedals, in a sort of “retro” effect pedal reincarnation!

Whatever approach you end up taking, effects-wise, you’ll surely find that it’s the “getting there” that is rally half the fun, and you should always keep your ears open to new and more and more intriguing sounds that await you! So good luck with it, and don’t be a “stomp box snob” like I was….feel free to have as much fun with them as possible…you’ll be glad you did!


Posted: 11/17/2011 3:39:19 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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