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Deciding What Original Material to Play

My previous blog dealt with the issues arising from choosing the proper “cover” material to play. This blog today will deal with the more sensitive and artistically challenging aspects of coming up with and creating original material.

Now, of course, original material can literally be anything, and this is where the problems can lie. I know that I sometimes have my own tendency to “spread myself too thin” when it comes to the genres I like to work in, even in the sense of original material. I mean, most of the time you can “tell” an Arlen Roth original, or even an Arlen Roth cover song, but it’s often hard for me to keep from jumping all over the place in terms of genres! Artistically, this is a very important juncture for anyone, and it becomes very wise to not become too diversified. It’s a real temptation, this thing of trying to show how multi-faceted we are as musical artists, but it’s much better to try to let a body of work become a true representation of who we are and what we like doing at a certain time in our lives. I know that when I plan an album, as I’m doing right now, I am faced with the same dilemma; do I keep my choices broad, or do I let the album speak for me right now artistically?

This also can be very hard as a song writer, since I can span literally decades of material until I finally decide to commit it to being recorded, so the span of time that is represented can be incredibly wide. The key for you is to long for a sense of continuity within the material, and to let many things help determine that. Sticking with the same, consistent group of musicians is one thing that can help, but most of all it is a “point of view” you want to project from an original album of songs. I have nothing against keeping the playing diversified, but the songs should definitely have a point of view, and approach and a sense of the time in which they were created, so the listener can feel that very thing. If you look back on some of the great albums by top artists, this has always been the case. It’s almost akin to visual artists like Picasso, for example, who went through a blue period, a grey period, etc., in a way that undoubtedly showed a particular bent to his work at that time. It’s also true of folks like the Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Band, who were the kinds of artists we grew to expect new and refreshing things from every time they released a new project.

I certainly hope that in the future, you too will be able to develop your own “voice”, as well as a consistency that you can really hang onto for each and every project you tackle. Best of luck!


Posted: 12/7/2010 3:09:46 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Choosing the Right "Cover" Material to Play

This is always certainly a dilemma for me, as I tend to like songs and music of all genres. The key is to find a piece of music that works best for your own “voice” on the instrument, as well as your own regular voice, should you be singing! The funny thing is that even though I am known for what most people would call “interpretations” of songs I love, such as my versions of “When a Man Loves a Woman” or “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, I really don’t feel that I am an interpreter, rather, I feel that these songs are being processed by me, and this is how the original song I heard comes through me, in more of a “translation” as opposed to an “interpretation.” Sure, there are times one really wants to take a true departure from how a song was originally done, and totally make it “their own”, such as an artist like Ry Cooder, who has a great knack for that ability. Just witness his versions of songs such as “Little Sister”, or “Smack Dab in the Middle” and you’ll see what I mean. It’s as it he totally changes the melody, even the chord changes, and also plays them in a different genre.

On the other hand, I am trying to “capture” the original emotional content of the piece the way it first hit me years ago. This is true of many very emotional songs I do, usually strong ballad-like tunes, such as the afore-mentioned “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, as well as pieces like “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Unchained Melody”, “Ballad of a Thin Man” and even “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” These are all, to me, extremely evocative pieces of music that make incredible instrumentals. It’s as if the played note can say far more than the sung word. The word “locks you in” on a certain meaning, where the notes speak right to the heart, and can mean far beyond what words can convey!

Again, it’s rally up to you, but it’s great to experiment with what you can do with songs you love. I feel it’s very important to give the proper respect to the original version, or the original artist as well. For example, a few years back, I was asked to play 2 songs by Jimi Hendrix as a tribute to him for 2 different Hendrix-tribute cds….I ended up being the only one did them as instrumentals, which really surprised me. I mean, after all, we all were guitarists on these recordings, paying tribute to him as a guitarist, not as a singer, yet everyone else was also singing! Who wants to hear a bunch of mediocre singers trying to sing Hendrix songs?! I simply went for the guitar approach, honoring his style, as well as adding my own flair to “Villanova Junction” and ‘Wind Cries Mary.” Keep searching for the right material, and be sure to have some fun with it; you’ll never know what “gem” you may come across that’ll be just right for you!


Posted: 12/1/2010 3:21:14 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Choosing the Right "Cover" Material to Play

This is always certainly a dilemma for me, as I tend to like songs and music of all genres. The key is to find a piece of music that works best for your own “voice” on the instrument, as well as your own regular voice, should you be singing! The funny thing is that even though I am known for what most people would call “interpretations” of songs I love, such as my versions of “When a Man Loves a Woman” or “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, I really don’t feel that I am an interpreter, rather, I feel that these songs are being processed by me, and this is how the original song I heard comes through me, in more of a “translation” as opposed to an “interpretation.” Sure, there are times one really wants to take a true departure from how a song was originally done, and totally make it “their own”, such as an artist like Ry Cooder, who has a great knack for that ability. Just witness his versions of songs such as “Little Sister”, or “Smack Dab in the Middle” and you’ll see what I mean. It’s as it he totally changes the melody, even the chord changes, and also plays them in a different genre.

On the other hand, I am trying to “capture” the original emotional content of the piece the way it first hit me years ago. This is true of many very emotional songs I do, usually strong ballad-like tunes, such as the afore-mentioned “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, as well as pieces like “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Unchained Melody”, “Ballad of a Thin Man” and even “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” These are all, to me, extremely evocative pieces of music that make incredible instrumentals. It’s as if the played note can say far more than the sung word. The word “locks you in” on a certain meaning, where the notes speak right to the heart, and can mean far beyond what words can convey!

Again, it’s rally up to you, but it’s great to experiment with what you can do with songs you love. I feel it’s very important to give the proper respect to the original version, or the original artist as well. For example, a few years back, I was asked to play 2 songs by Jimi Hendrix as a tribute to him for 2 different Hendrix-tribute cds….I ended up being the only one did them as instrumentals, which really surprised me. I mean, after all, we all were guitarists on these recordings, paying tribute to him as a guitarist, not as a singer, yet everyone else was also singing! Who wants to hear a bunch of mediocre singers trying to sing Hendrix songs?! I simply went for the guitar approach, honoring his style, as well as adding my own flair to “Villanova Junction” and ‘Wind Cries Mary.” Keep searching for the right material, and be sure to have some fun with it; you’ll never know what “gem” you may come across that’ll be just right for you!


Posted: 12/1/2010 3:21:14 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

When You Can Tell a Student Really "Has It"

Lately I’ve had the pleasure of adding a few new students to my stable of pickers who are really promising. This is always a great and uplifting experience as a teacher, for many obvious reasons, but I always feel so good when this happens…I feel like if these pupils had not come to me at this particular time, it would be like they were a “tree falling in the woods” that no one would ever be hearing! This has even been the case with certain parents, who bringing their children to me for lessons, aren’t even aware of how truly talented they may be! It can be a scary thought, all that lost and unrecognized talent that would not have been recognized if not for me, but it sure is rewarding when it all comes together.

It doesn’t take much for an experienced teacher/player such as myself to really see this talent, or even potential, because my “read” on a player begins the minute they even walk in the door. How they carry themselves, how they hold the instrument and relate to it; these are all things that play into my evaluation of them even before a single note is played. Many times, then the first thing I may do, is to play a little rhythm part to get them going, so I can accompany them and hear how they might approach some improvising. This, hopefully, helps reduce some of the “jitters” they may be feeling upon our first meeting, and of course, helps me on the way towards understanding just what they may need as players. Lately, I’ve been so fortunate to really get some great new players. Some were quite experienced in the past, and now need some inspiration and want to “kick start” their playing prowess again, while some of the others are new players who are simply showing a great ear and natural technique right out of the gate!

These two situations represent the kinds of players that make my job so much easier and more pleasurable, and really represent a guitar teacher’s “dream come true!” It’s so important too, that we as teachers really learn to pay proper attention to this, and learn to do a good job recognizing real talent when it’s sitting right there across from us in that other chair! I was discussing this last night at a gathering with a woman who was a vocal coach, and we were sort of comparing notes on these kinds of experiences. I found that even having a discussion such as that was educational to me, and helped me to further crystallize my thought on this subject.

So if you are a teacher, please be super cogent of what those new students bring to the table. You just may have the next guitar star sitting right there in front of you as a “diamond in the rough!” Don’t let those opportunities pass you, or them, by!


Posted: 11/18/2010 8:32:36 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The First Take is the Deepest!

I’d like to discuss some recording here today, particularly the kind I have been through! I know everyone’s recording experiences can be different, but one thing I have learned for sure is that you should never lose or miss a first take!

What this really means, is that the first take of any given solo, or “pass” at a song, is usually, for me anyway, the most “honest” reaction I could’ve ever had to that particular piece of music. The pure gut level response to the song, and the purity in which you are reacting to it, make a first take a “must” when it comes to the act and art of recording. In fact, there was a period where I let this fact almost “over”-govern my decisions, and I actually could’ve done much better takes if I’d only allowed myself to go beyond the first take to find out what I rally could accomplish!

Some of this was a reaction to my many, many sessions with other artists, where they would never even record me yet when I was doing my “first take”, thereby missing that golden opportunity, and then they would invariably, and ad nauseum have me do take after take, until it sucked all the life and creativity right out of me! So, as a reaction to all those incredibly poorly handled sessions, I’d try to take the complete opposite approach, and basically always be going for almost exclusively “first take” performances every time! In the case of this latest electric album I did, “Toolin’ Around Woodstock” with Levon Helm and others, I learned that even though many of my first takes were truly “keepers”, I finally allowed myself to explore more deeply what I could really do if I would just allow myself the freedom of exploration!

So, remember that the “first take is the deepest”, but it doesn’t always necessarily mean it’s the best! Give yourself the room to explore and investigate…get different sounds, try different approaches, but try to never lose that wonderful first take and all the pure innocence and creativity it has!


Posted: 11/10/2010 9:01:14 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Thinking of the Right (Picking) Hand!

I always like to say that it’s the right, or “picking” hand that really commands the guitar. After all, we can always learn the right notes to play with our fretting hand (with a lot of technique thrown in, too!), but the right hand being the rhythmic driving force behind what we finally do is what determines how far we really can go with our instrument. I guess another way of saying it would be to call it the “means by which we get there”. It also, for finger-pickers, becomes like the left and right hands of the piano player….the thumb can become the left hand, while the remaining fingers are like the right hand of the pianist. This means that as guitar players, our fretting hand is now the “third” hand, so to speak, and we now face the task of coordinating all of this intricate work.

I am a big proponent of using the fingers, but I equally love using the pick, or a pick and finger “hybrid” approach. Perhaps the guitarists I am most envious of are the ones who can really wail with a thumb pick plus 3 fingers! These monster players, such as Scotty Anderson and Tommy Emmanuel bounce back and forth all the time from straight finger-style to full flat pick-style without missing a beat. Scotty can actually fly across the strings with all four fingers, and then suddenly grab that thumb pick between the index finger and thumb, and use it within a blindingly fast flat-pick approach! As if that’s not enough, he even can play a double-stop harmony to that picked string with the nail of his index finger! It’s as if he’s holding two flatpicks, side by side, playing harmony! Just an awesome technique, that leaves all of us in awe for sure!

Now, I have innovated certain things that the fretting hand does, such as my “pedal steel” string bending licks, and my slide guitar stylings, but these would be nowhere without a strong approach by the right hand keeping everything in its proper place musically as well as rhythmically.

So, I highly recommend that besides my Gibson lessons, you also check out YouTube for some amazing right-hand technique to pick up from. Players I highly recommend are folks such as Tuck Andress, Scotty Anderson, Tommy Emmanuel, Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. These are the players who have both the left and right hands really well-coordinated together, and who seem to possess the most accurate, and style-driving right-hand picking technique. Compare them, see how they are similar and how they differ, and most of all, try to take away a little bit of learning for your own style from these true greats! Best of luck with it all!


Posted: 11/5/2010 8:55:51 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The Wonders of a Great Solo Gig!



Had the pleasure of doing a wonderful solo concert in upstate NY two nights ago, and it was a really rewarding and incredible experience. There were so many fans there, and many who wanted to stay after and talk and get autographs. A good number of folks there tune in to my Gibson lessons online, and of course, many knew of me through my albums and other exploits!

The show was unusual in the sense that I started it up with an all-acoustic solo set, took a break and then had an all-electric set with my friend John Previti joining me on bass. John is an incredible musician who I first met when he played with Danny Gatton, and when he then played on the cut “Tequila” that Danny and I did on my Toolin’Around cd. We also then played on Conan O’Brien together in 1994 when we played that same song….the clip of that is on YouTube, if you’d like to check it out!

I was afraid that the first set, the all-acoustic one went so well, that the second all-electric set would be a letdown. Well, this time, I was certainly proven wrong, as the electric set was incredibly successful. This was mainly due to the addition of John on bass, and the fact that the audience loved the interaction we had. The best part of that was that the interaction was so spontaneous we even surprised ourselves! I gave John lots of solos, and he did a great job with all of them, and of course, it sure challenged my sense of time, as I had to keep some really good time, occasionally throwing in a “jab” or two here and there, as he was taking his wonderful solos.

I guess what I took away most from this experience is just how important for me and the audience it is to have a good variety to the show. After all, we’d all like to show our best sides when we play, and sometimes we just happen to be multi-faceted, as I am. Even given all that, I still wasn’t able to show my true lead guitar side, as I didn’t have a full-band setup to work over. I sure missed my drummer and second guitarist, but what I learned by playing solo and with my bass player alone was something I’d never want to replace for anything!

So, I certainly would recommend for you to try this approach to live playing as much as possible in a solo or smaller group context. It’s so great to not have to rely on other players all the time, and it gives you an amazing new-found freedom when it comes to the sheer “space” you have to work with, both rhythmically and sonically. It’s also so wonderful to interact with another excellent musician such as I had the opportunity to do, and that’s a great way to rely on the compatibility of another great musician!


Posted: 11/2/2010 7:36:48 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Being a Mentor to Others

There is much I have said in the past about the importance, and the joy of mentoring others, but I feel there can never be enough said on the subject. Suppose this is because I am always mentoring new players all the time, and it seems that the more I become well-known, the more students and other players want and expect this of me!

I certainly love the role of mentor, as I am always encouraging players to get better and better all over the world, and it really doesn’t matter to me whether they are old, young or middle-aged; it’s always just as rewarding, every time! It’s also important to realize that when you are a mentor, you also are somewhat of a “role model” to your students and others, and it’s a role not to be taken too lightly. I find that I must be very cautious and tread lightly when making constructive criticisms, because these kinds of things can make a lasting impression, either positive or negative, and of course, you always want a positive impression to be left.

For example, there is a new friend I have just met who is only 19, and who has a band that he wants me to meet and hear. But most of all, he has asked me to give his band real, and to the point constructive criticism. I know I have no problem doing this, and that I am good at being critical without hurting anyone, but I know that his band looks at me with wide-eyed idealism, and I never want to burst any bubbles, for sure.

I have far too often seen other guitarists and teachers criticize in the wrong way, almost as if they intend to hurt who they are critiquing. I can only think that these are weak individuals who somehow “get off” on hurting others, while feeling like it makes them feel somehow bigger, more important and more talented than they really are! The act of real mentoring in one of total selflessness, and should reflect a true desire in you to help others. This will only help your own esteem, and will continue to always build the good parts of your reputation. This reputation building will only serve to help you in your career, and in how folks think of you. There can never be enough good things said about you, and in the music industry as in many other walks of life, you can see that one negative can sometimes wipe out 100 positives! Personally, I love the positives in a big way, and have always loved mentoring others, encouraging them, and even hiring some students of mine into my bands to play alongside their favorite teacher! Hope you get to experience this incredibly rewarding, enriching process for yourselves one day. If you do, I’d sure love to hear about it! Best of luck!


Posted: 10/21/2010 8:03:46 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Guitar Revelations!

There are unquestionably certain moments in the course of one’s playing career where they reach real epiphanies when it comes to their playing. These moments are of real consequence, and can actually represent key times when your relationship to your instrument takes some real forward leaps!

I know that I have had some of these revelations at certain moments that have really had true meaning to me, and left lasting impressions. Keep in mind that this in no way means that you’ve mastered the instrument, but they are definitely times when your relationship to and with the guitar grows, and reaches a new level. I can remember one specific time when I was still very young and I was sitting around the house, playing my heart out as usual…well sure enough, it suddenly dawned on me that whatever I was feeling, I was able to play and express on the guitar, with little or no thought even involved!

I was still perhaps only 22 years old at the time, but it really dawned on me that the guitar and I had become “one”, and even though I still had a lot to learn (don’t we always?), I felt as if anything was now possible for me, and that the sky was truly the limit. I’m sure you too have had similar moments of realization, and it’s quite a feeling, isn’t it? It’s like you’re learning a new language and have finally reached a point with it where you can really communicate with it. Music is a unique language, and each instrument has its own special set of rules and ways of making that language work. The guitar is perhaps the most “vocal” of all the instruments since we can so manipulate it and mold it to what we are trying to say. Thanks to bending, vibrato, hammers, pulls, sliding and on and on, we are blessed with such an array of techniques that almost all other kinds of players can become extremely jealous! Keyboard players had to invent a “pitch wheel” to simulate our natural bending as well as vibrato, and wind instrument players can only dream of playing multiple notes together as we can. Again another severe case of “Guitar envy!”

In any event, I am sure to continue to have many guitar ”revelations” in the future, and I certainly hope you too can continue too. These moments are real steps that are always in the right direction, and represent true growth for you as a player, a musician and also as a person in general. Be sure to “listen in” closely, as these revelations are there for a reason. Make the most of them!


Posted: 10/20/2010 3:35:34 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Rockin' the House, Acoustic Style!

Last night was really one of the most incredible concert experiences of my life. I got to play a mostly solo acoustic show in front of at least 150 loyal fans who came out to see me play in a lovely old church in Woodbury, Ct. The first true excitement for me was the fact that I got to have that nice “churchy” sound in that place. It had such a “pure” acoustic tone and sound I felt like I could literally “play” the room and really work the spatial quality of the hall itself. The lovely high ceilings, the warmth of the crowd, it all came together, and the several standing ovations sure didn’t hurt, either!

It’s always a lovely experience when folks really appreciate music that comes from the heart, and it was one of those nights where you could really feel it bouncing back and forth between the audience and me. Even after, there was a special reception held, where I got to meet many of the fans, and then a special dinner was also held for me at an historic home in town. There was much lively music and otherwise discussion at the table, and the folks were really appreciating my wild stories of being in the music business. It was a great interchange, and there were fans there that drove hundreds of miles just for the show! I couldn’t believe the outpouring of appreciation. It made me think about how wonderful it would be to really be on the road again, and to do a solo tour playing these kinds of places. After all, most of the fans there didn’t know that it was really a “local” gig for me, so this could be going on just about anywhere!

It all comes back to what I’ve been talking about in other blogs about playing with feeling, and doing the best you can. I decided to do the gig solo acoustic, (part of the show was with my second guitarist, student and friend, Matt Rae) and a band would’ve been just way too much for that kind of venue anyway. But still, it’s a great option for you all to think about….that you can do solo acoustic (or electric) gigs, and not always have to depend on a band. You ARE the band when you can master the guitar enough to carry a whole show on your own two shoulders, and there’s nothing more satisfying than knowing you can accomplish this. The “space” you get to work within when playing this way is just amazing, and you really start to understand how it’s the time between the notes that really matters. After all, the mediums we work in as musical artists are sound, time and space, and the more of it we can have control of, the more rewarding it can become! Till next time, keep playing it from the heart!


Posted: 10/13/2010 4:31:56 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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