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GOING ACOUSTIC (AT LEAST SOMETIMES!)

Obviously, most of you who know music and my guitar playing, know that I always lean toward electric guitar, and usually played with a band. But this time, especially in the interest of displaying what I can do in other guitar genres, I have decided to simultaneously release 2 new all-acoustic cds. Not that this is my first…I also released my all-acoustic “Drive it Home” back in 2003, which was a very personal album dedicated to my late wife and daughter. This is the cd many folks herald because of my acoustic solo instrumental of “Layla”, that they all seem to like so much!

 
These new cds, though almost as personal as that previous one, are a bit more commercial in nature, as they focus on the music of Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan. On the heels of my all-electric “Toolin’ Around Woodstock”, with Levon Helm, it just seemed to make sense to go the acoustic route this time around. I also love to perform in a solo acoustic vein, so it also helps support those kinds of performances.
 
I guess what I’m really getting at here is that for you, I recommend trying to hone you skills as an acoustic player as much as electric. This will not only broaden your scope as a player overall, but it will also maintain and build up your true “chops”. I know, for example, if I go away and travel with only an acoustic for an extended period of time, when I get back to an electric guitar, I am stronger, my string bending’s easier, and it just improves my playing overall. I always tell folks that they should start on both electric and acoustic. This is especially true for those early years when a child may be only attracted to the relative “coolness” of playing electric as opposed to acoustic. It’s important that they develop an equal amount of respect for both forms of guitar, as the way you play them and get music out of them are two very different approaches. They will also make you play differently, as I learned in my early days of electric playing, when I sort of “laid off” from my acoustic playing. When I came back to the acoustic, I found that I immediately seemed to create a new style that was a real blend of both acoustic as well as electric techniques. As a result, I ended up with an acoustic approach that was a lot stronger, with more emphasis on string bending than most all-acoustic players would have.
 
So, in the end, even though you may want to play the heck out of an electric guitar, please make sure to cultivate the other side of the coin, and “go acoustic”, as much as you possibly can! You’ll really be so glad you did!
 
Arlen Roth
 

Posted: 5/4/2010 11:27:52 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

How Many Instruments to Use?

There have been many times where I needed to invoke the use of a pretty vast number of instruments for either a live gig or a recording session. It seems to never fail though, that I always bring too many instruments, but I feel it’s always better to be over-prepared than under! After all, the worst thing is to be unable to produce be certain sound that you’re looking for, and my way is always the “real” way, by using the right instrument, as opposed to an “effect” that simulates an instrument.

In coming weeks for example, I’ll be finishing up a new instrumental album I am working on with Michael Garvin, and I want to truly be prepared for all kinds of overdubs. This means, I will likely bring a 6-string acoustic, a 12-string acoustic, a resonator guitar, lap steel, a baritone guitar, a mandolin, and a 12-string electric as well! It’s a lot of stuff to bring, but I will have a certain sense of security that all the sounds I may need to call upon will be right there at my disposal. It also opens up so many possibilities, because just having all those guitars there will make me think more creatively, and it will help spawn new ideas that I can try, due to the fact that I have my “arsenal” on hand!

Usually, when doing a recording date for someone else, I try to feel them out as far as what kind of material it is we’ll be playing, so I can make the right choices as far as which instruments to take with me. I usually “over-bring”, but it’s the worst feeling in the world when you don’t have quite the right guitar there for a given approach that’s needed. This is usually because I take the word of the producer or someone else truly to heart when they happen to improperly describe what the music is going to be like. That’s another reason it’s always better to “over-bring” too many guitars and other instruments to a given recording session!

On the other hand, I used to make the mistake of wanting too many guitars onstage, and therefore, ending up changing them too often during a show, which only serves to break the rhythm and the flow of a good set. So because of this, over the years I have really been cutting back on how many instruments I need to really have on the stage to do all I really want to do. These days it’s basically come down to one electric guitar, and another set up for slide. There may be an acoustic thrown in if I want to play certain specific pieces during the set that call for it, but otherwise it’s really just 2 guitars onstage. Oh yes, always a backup in case a string breaks, but I’ve been very lucky in that regard, and have literally never broken a string at a live show, even with all the bending I do!

So just remember, for the studio, bring as much as you can for as many sounds as possible, and for the stage, try to always boil it down to as few instruments as possible, so you can concentrate more on the flow of the show, instead of showing off how many guitars you have! Happy gigging and recording!


Posted: 4/29/2010 7:30:22 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Don't Burn Bridges!



One thing I have found, particularly in this business, is that no matter what you may go through that is negative, you really never want to make any enemies. I know I am well-quoted as always saying that “one good thing leads to another” in music, and it has always certainly been true for me. Yet, there have been many “downs” as well as “ups” for me, and I have always tried to stay on an even keel with those who in the past may have been less than honest in their dealing with me. I have always taken the stance that it’s better to end up in a neutral way with the folks who have hurt you, than to actually go on the offensive. This is because as big as the business may seem, it’s really not, and you never know who you may need down the line, and for what reason. In the end, I have found that everyone I’ve really ever known in the business has really turned into an asset for me, as long as I treat it that way.

A perfect example is how things ended up with me in the film Crossroads. This was a situation that for me, was so positive, musical and exciting that I was never going to let the negative “aftershocks” adversely affect me, nor my career. And there was plenty of “negative” to deal with, such as having my proper songwriting and performance credits removed from the film, and being removed from the soundtrack to start off with! Still, I never let it deter me from using the positive publicity I was getting from my involvement in this movie to help my career and reputation. I was, at the time, able to use the publicity to my benefit for my Hot Licks products, my Guitar Player Columns, and many other things such as appearing twice on Entertainment Tonight while making the film. In the long run, I have been always associated with that film, even though certain parties involved in it were busy screwing me…which by the way, has to this day, always continued to stir up controversy!

I know it may sound corny and overplayed, but it’s really critical that we always try to make “lemonade out of lemons” within this business. I have known too many very fine and talented musicians and songwriters who have let the rough stuff “get to them”, and take the wind out of their sails. If they had only persevered a bit more through the adversity, they would’ve really made incredible contributions, and lived with a lot less regret in their lifetime’s “resume’ ”!


Posted: 4/22/2010 9:02:38 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Amazin' Circumstances!

You never really know where the next gig or great adventure is going to come from, and that has certainly always been the case for me! It’s a wonderful thing, because when you put out the good stuff, it always seems to come back to you in the wildest ways, and sometimes the timing itself can seem downright mystical.

I’ve certainly learned over the years to have my ear to the ground just in case one of these occurrences happens, because this is what many times has really shaped my life in music, and otherwise. For example, one time I was walking down 57th Street in Manhattan, when I got called up to do a recording session upstairs! I had several times, while up in Woodstock the previous year, done some sessions and some informal rehearsals with the band, Looking Glass. They were basically “picking my brain” for ideas, something I learned folks have continued to do for my entire life, but then a few months later, there I am walking down the street in NYC, and this guy, I guess who may’ve been their manager, sees me and says, ‘Hey, you’re Arlen Roth, c’mon upstairs, the boys are recording now, and they can use you!” Well, next thing I know I’m in a recording session, and I end up playing on their hit song, “Brandy”, along with the B side, which I can’t remember the name of.

Other wild things have happened like that too, such as being in this studio called “Greene Street” in Manhattan, and cutting an all-Robert Johnson record called “Incarnation” that was slated to be the first

“Crossroads” before I did the actual fim by the same name 5 years later. That studio was at the time, where some of the first true “rap” records were being made, by an artist named Curtis Blow, who was sort of alternating sessions with us. Somehow, I met some players who were doing that recording there, and next thing I knew, I was working on a “parody” of a Rap record with them, along with the famous author George Plimpton, called “Doing the Preppy Step!”

Another crazy one at around the same time happened when I was up in Woodstock, rehearsing over at Eric Andersen’s house. Suddenly, a guy comes to the door and says, “hey, you fellahs wanna make a record for The New York Mets? We’re cutting a song for their pennant drive over at Bearsville Studios, and we need a band!” Well, number one, I’m a huge Mets fan, and was very excited, because this was their “Ya Gotta Believe” year 1973, thanks to their beloved pitcher, Tug McGraw (father of Tim McGraw) who coined the phrase, and number two, he was gonna sing it!! Well, when I showed up to the session, they were working it up as a Latin number, which made little sense to me, and I told them, “Hey, WHN is the Met’s station isn’t it, and it’s the only country station in NYC, so let’s play this song Country!” Well, we did, and it ended up becoming quite a sports collectible, thanks to the fact that the Mets lost the World Series to Oakland that fall, and Tug never did sing on it, instead it was Happy and Artie Traum! But if you want to look for it, it’s called “Ya Gotta Believe”, on Fun City Records, and we were called “The Amazins”! And by the way, when I showed up to record it, the song’s writer turned out to be a kid I had graduated High School with back in ’69, who never even seemed interested in music at the time!

I’m sure you’ve got some crazy stories like this of your own, from your own careers too….cherish them and appreciate them for all they’re worth, because they are really worth a lot, forever! 


Posted: 4/19/2010 10:10:52 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The Nightmare Recording Session!

Being someone who has never read music, and being totally self-taught, I have run into some pretty sticky situations when it comes to recording sessions. Not that I wasn’t qualified mind you, but there were times when people heard me play, loved me, and then proceeded to book me on recording dates that I was not really “cut out” to do!

One of the most nightmarish ones I ever went through was a recording for a film called “Simon” starring Alan Arkin. They wanted me to play Hawaiian Lap Steel guitar on it (who in NY did that, except me?!), and there was about 2 arm’s lengths of music to be read and played for this piece of music! Well, I figured I’d be extra prepared by getting the endless music the day before, and spending a night with it, studying it and transferring it to tablature to help me out. When they handed me the music, they said, “you know, it’s gonna be some Hawaiian elevator Muzak, very simple!” So, taking that to heart, I confidently took the music home and worked on it. The initial melody was simple enough, (Lord knows I’ll never forget it!) and I figured on it being a slow, swaying kind of Hawaiian piece that drifted along at a nice, “tradewind” pace, played by like 3 or 4 musicians.  Well, I get to the studios the next day, carrying my little Gibson lap steel and a tweed amp, to see a room full of Philharmonic musicians, completing a strange take that involved the eerie sound of at least three bass fiddles together…..very interesting to witness.

Next up was “my” session, and I sit down, ready to record, and the first thing I notice is that there are going to be like 14 musicians following me, with me being of course, the lead instrument! I put on the headphones, and I heard this really fast tapping and clicking…I said, “does anybody hear that sound in their headphones?” And a voice from the control room says, “yes, those are quarter notes!” Well, much to my shock, this meant I was to be playing this piece at a breakneck pace that would’ve made the “Looney Tunes” theme seem like a dirge! I never heard such a fast tempo in my life! There was no way a Hawaiian guitar could actually be played this fast, even by an extreme expert! But anyway, not wanting to make too many “waves”, I started in on recording…take after agonizing take, I’d get the theme right, of course at break neck speed, but then would completely fall apart when I started in to play the bulk of the piece, which must’ve had another 300 measures to go! In an effort to continue, I would always start at least jamming and improvising there, so I wouldn’t just stop! So, we’d always have to “cut”, and I had all these “Philharmonic” musicians staring at me with sad, sympathetic faces. Finally, the “Producer” came out, and we discussed what was going wrong…..when I told him it was impossible to play this piece at that kind of speed, he angrily replied “what, you brought the wrong INSTRUMENT!?” And I must admit, at that time I snapped back at him, “when was the last time you wrote a part for Hawaiian guitar!?” At this point I really didn’t care, because the pressure had already taken 10 years off my life! Well, at this moment, out came running another big shot saying to me, “no, no, Arlen, it’s fine…we LOVE what you’re doing when you are improvising, we just thought no one could really play Lap Steel, so we figured we’d have to write everything out. What you’re playing is perfect!!” Well, needless to say, the relief was unreal at that moment, and then the session only took one take to get through.

As a footnote, when the film finally came out, I went to see it with my mom and dad, and the moment that all this agony was about was actually the funny punch line to the film, and the Hawaiian “Muzak” part I played lasted literally 3 seconds! Never have I suffered so much for so little actual music! Session musicians, beware!


Posted: 4/15/2010 9:09:41 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Instrumental or Lyrics?

I am currently in the middle of working on a new album that was to be all-instrumental guitar. Now, even though this is something I’ve long been used to, especially when re-interpreting songs that normally have lyrics, I find that I exist very happily within the all-instrumental medium. This also carries over into my writing, as I often intend to write songs that have words, and are sung, but I find that I remain very happy with them as instrumentals, which is often how they are born, and remain for quite some time! In fact, many times, they simply remain as instrumentals permanently! The way I look at it, it’s just like when I interpret songs with words, only NOW I am interpreting a song that may have had words, but simply doesn’t. It still is a kind of interpretation, and also a kind of musical evolution to get to this instrumental juncture, and to feel satisfied with it.

If you are involved in writing, or preparing music for a recording, you will often find yourself at this critical juncture of is “is it instrumental, or is it vocal?” I know that most people tend to think that something is not a “song” unless it has words, but that couldn’t be any further from the truth. Anything with a great melody, when played with the right feeling, can in many ways, say more than lyrics can. I feel that words “lock you in” to a specific meaning that is intended by the writer, while a note that is expressively played can say more than just mere words. It also leaves the interpretation of its meaning more up to the performer and the listener, and in fact, says something that lyrics can’t even begin to express! This is what pure emotion is about, and that is why we are so drawn to what this wonderful 6-stringed instrument can do, and how well all its nuances can serve us.

Still, after all is said and done, you may record an instrumental, and then feel that it still has too much potential as a vocal song with lyrics, which of course, in most worlds, is considered more “commercial”, and is likely to reach a larger audience. It’s really all up to you…..it’s important to always retain your artistic integrity, and to do what is right for you and your music as opposed to just thinking about what might be the most popular way to approach the song. Satisfy your musical needs first, and then you can really “step back” from the song, and decide whether or not it should be instrumental or vocal. Only you can ever really know!


Posted: 4/13/2010 7:22:52 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

On the Road with Phoebe Snow!

The one year I was on the road with Phoebe was quite a wild ride, to say the least! We had a very friendly band, and we certainly all liked each other, but musically, it was an incredibly “mixed bag”! The keyboard player had been suddenly assigned to me (I was made musical director on the same day!) one day before our tour was to begin. Her management had the old keyboard player (musical director) come in all the way on a 2-hour train ride, just to tell him he was fired. Next thing you know, they have a keyboard player who the manager “once” heard in a Holiday Inn lounge, and they’re thrusting him into this gig. So what happens? He parties so heavily the night before the tour, he falls down the stairs of his home and breaks his leg! So before you know it, there I am, carrying his luggage at the airport, he’s on crutches, and I’m highly aggravated! I mean, he turned out to be a great guy, and even a great friend, but he was no talent at all.

To make matters worse, Phoebe never, ever came to any sound checks, so we used to have that hour a day or so to just kid around! Not only did I kid around a lot with the band during those “checks”, but I also started singing and playing certain songs I loved, like “Treat Her Right”, and many more. This turned into marathon rehearsals for what then actually became my next album, “Hot Pickups”, which was my second release on Rounder.  All along, during those rehearsal/joking around sessions, the guys in the band would say to me, “Hey Arlen, you know it really sounds cool, you should do something with that material!” Well, sure enough, that band, minus the keyboard player, became the group I used on my album, and we had a great time, and it was actually a very successful record! You just never know where the inspiration is going to come from, and also you never know when the opportunity will present itself in which you can maximize things such as rehearsal and playing time! Thanks to Phoebe never coming to a sound check or rehearsal, I ended up with a whole new album, fully worked out and well-inspired beforehand! On a more serious and personal note, I know that Phoebe has recently had a stroke, and I send her all my best wishes for a speedy and full recovery!


Posted: 4/7/2010 10:50:54 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The Right Gigs at the Right Time!



Now, one cannot always be fortunate enough to always make their gigs truly “count”, but when a great opportunity knocks, you have to be able to make the most of it. To this point I am talking today about how I’ve been able to make some important gigs truly be at the “right time”. There are literally ways to make one gig seem as if it’s 100 gigs, and to be in the right place at the right time. In the early days of when I was starting to appear in Woodstock for example, I would jump up onstage and play with none other than Paul Butterfield, Harvey Brooks, Rick Danko, John Sebastian, John Simon and countless others. Also, there would be many luminaries in the audience who would hear me, and before I knew it the phone started really ringing, and the gigs were coming in!

Another example is to make the most of any radio or TV appearances you may get, because obviously, you are reaching a bigger audience, and folks have a way of never forgetting when they’ve really seen something that’s affected them. These days, with the advent of great things such as YouTube, you can also reach thousands, if not millions, with a great performance. You just never know where something like that will lead to, and the opportunities these days are tremendous, provided you use them in the proper way.

Sitting in at gigs is still a great way to be heard by many, and to “mix it up” with other players who may want to call you for other gigs and perhaps start to spread the word more about you and your playing. I was just asked on a big NYC radio show to play the National Anthem at Yankee Stadium this summer, which once again, is a perfect way to take one gig, and even just one song, and make it really count! Obviously, that will make a great YouTube clip, and who knows what that performance can lead to for me!

So, the bottom line is always be on the lookout for the gigs you can do that would mean the most for you and your career. You never know when you may just be in the right place at the right time, and when playing for one person could turn into playing for thousands! Keep up the good work, and always be ready!


Posted: 4/5/2010 10:10:57 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

When Are You Ready for a Band?



I received a request about this very question the other day from a Gibson student, and I realized this was a perfect subject to go into with some more depth. I had answered his question as best as I could, but I realized that it’s really quite a broad subject, with many twists and turns.

 

The truth about being in a band, and when it is appropriate to do so, is that it’s ALWAYS a good time to start! There will be many bands, at many levels throughout your life, and the early days experiencing these kinds of things with other musicians are critical to your development as a player, and couldn’t happen soon enough, in my opinion. I know that I started very young, with my first band at the tender age of 11, but I was already the driving force behind the music at that point, even experimenting with many far out ideas in a creative vein. The truth is that all bands, at any level, need someone in the group who provides leadership and direction, both musically and emotionally, and this is something that all band members should embrace; provided that the “leader” is not just on an ego trip, but is someone who truly cares about the music most of all!

 

Kind of like in tennis, or other passions, it is often a good thing to join forces with players who are better than you. This helps you rise up to another level, and acts as a tremendous learning experience. I have done this with several students whom I’ve “mentored” into my band, who have turned out to be true professionals, once given that extra “push” one so needs in the early, formative days of one’s career. The biggest disappointment for me in my early days, was to have had a real “taste” of the real musical life, by playing with many of the great players in Woodstock, only to have to then play with a terrible local band from the Bronx that was so beneath me, it wasn’t funny! We would sometimes play 6 different gigs a week upstate New York, and walk away with $60 apiece for the entire week! Those were pretty dark days, and the only solace I could draw from that experience was that they at least let me play some of my original tunes from my earlier days with my all-original band, Steel, who played with me at the first Woodstock reunion in 1970! Of course, with the kind of band I was semi-forced to be in at that point, we were playing places that mostly demanded us to play “cover” tunes, something that I despised doing at that point in my career.

 

Still, all in all, sometimes you have to take “one step forward, two steps back” when you are in this developmental process, but in the end, it always moves forward in a positive manner. When are you really ready to be in the band? I’d say it’s whenever you find the right group of folks to “fall in” with who at least have a similar vision to yours, and who want to develop right along with you. It’s the best learning experience one can have in the course of one’s career, period! More on this subject in future blog posts!


Posted: 4/1/2010 4:13:31 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Chasing that Hit Song and Other Musical Myths!

One of the biggest mistakes people make in the music business is the act of always being on the “chase” of a hit song, or a hit album. I have always been a very strong proponent of “sticking to my guns” when it came to style, and when it came to changing in order to “chase” a hit sound. It’s really a very fine line we all must walk in this business; do we keep changing according to the times, or do we change the times!? I feel that if we have a strong belief in ourselves, and in our own music, we should always be true to our own path, and stick to our own goals when it comes to music, while at the same time, being “tuned in” to the changing times and tastes, and looking for good opportunities that may present themselves to us along the way. After all, no matter how “current” or how “retro” you may be, there will always be something out there that will be applicable to your playing, or to your writing and sound.

I am in the midst of doing a great new instrumental album with Michael Garvin, the Nashville songwriter, and we seem to generally agree that as long as we do what WE like on this record, we’ll be making sounds that others will like and be drawn to. It’s true that we feel the “time is right” for this kind of instrumental guitar album, but at the same time, we are not necessarily trying to “bend” the music to current tastes. I know that in my case, there are some pieces I’m bringing to this recording that I’ve had for decades, and they seem as valid now as they did way back then!

Another mistake is always chasing trends with your songwriting. Unless you are so “plugged in” to the business that you can write a song today, and have it recorded tomorrow, it’s more than likely that your songwriting will always be at least one step, or many more steps, behind what people are looking for. This is especially true if you’re a songwriter who is always trying to “tailor” your songs to particular artists, based on what that artist has done before. The truth is, that the artist has done that already, and is most likely ready to “move on” to other creative territory!

So, most of all, stay true to yourself. Keep aware of trends, but try to be a trend all your own. You’ll be amazed at what will start to come your way if you put yourself out there in the business, and if you continue to develop your own distinct style, with wide open eyes and ears! Best of luck to you all!


Posted: 3/29/2010 7:06:19 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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