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Writing and Recording in the Studio

These days, the writing process and the recording process have become more and more closely related. So much so, that thanks to modern digital recording techniques, the possibilities and sheer flexibility of writing and recording in the studio has really become a revolution.

I have never particularly enjoyed the “over-convenience” of practically falling out of bed and being able to record something. Yes, it’s great for spontaneity , but I have always preferred to work in private for my writing, and then enjoyed the act of actually going to “a place of work”, such as a studio away from my home to actually lay down the tracks and do my overdubs. This has always been true, as it was this past year when I did my new album, “Toolin’ Around Woodstock” in Levon Helm’s studio. Yes, it was very relaxed and homey, and was attached to Levon’s house, but for me it was a nearly 2-hour drive that rewarded me with great and wondrous things once I got there! To me there’s just nothing like coming to a great studio, with a car full of guitars, and being able to collaborate with other folks, equally good at what they do, such as engineers and players I trust!

This coming week, I will be working with the great Nashville songwriter, Michael Garvin on a new instrumental guitar album we are writing and planning. Since we don’t get to work together that often, living 1000 miles apart, we must make the most, creatively, of our time together, and we will have to continue our particular way of working, which involves writing, as well as recording in the studio, literally as it’s all happening first hand! Certainly an exciting prospect, and I believe that the process will yield some very different and original material, hopefully truly worth hearing one day soon! Stay tuned…


Posted: 10/20/2009 3:40:49 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More Reflections on the Studio



Being a person who started studio work at a very young age, I went into it in a very natural, even naïve way. I quickly learned, however, that I must be prepared when I get to the studio for nearly any sound they’d want me to make. I was certainly never one for all the pedals, effects and “stomp boxes” that you typically see a studio musician show up to a gig with ... their “pedal board” as it were. That has never been a big deal with me, as I always wanted my tone to be natural, and as non-processed as possible. Still, if you really expect to be the kind of studio player who really “gets the call”, you must be prepared for whatever the producer of the session may require of you.

It was always my “collector” mentality that had me more apt to show up with 7 guitars for various sounds rather than a pedal board full of effects, and of course, when concerned with my own music in particular, I always am sure to have plenty of choices on hand. It’s not uncommon for me to show up to one of my own sessions with an acoustic, an electric, a baritone, a mandolin, a lap steel, a twelve-string and a steel resonator guitar! That’s pretty much my typical layout! Rarely do they all get used in one day, but they certainly make me feel better, and like I have more options, when they are around.

The worst kind of session, ad these still happen to me, is where the producer or whomever, says some very specific idea of the kind of music they think this session is about, and then I cater my instrument selection to his or her thoughts, always to be wrong in the end! It just happened to me recently when they said, “you know, this is something we want to sound like the Lovin’ Spoonful”. Well, me being a real Spoonful afficionado, brought just the right stuff for “that” eventuality, but it turned out the music had NOTHING to do with the Lovin’ Spoonful at all, and I had to scrounge around looking for some other instruments that may have been lying around there that would somehow “simulate” what they were actually looking for!

Of course, it ended up being very frustrating, and I felt totally ill-prepared in a situation I thought I was truly ready for. Don’t let in happen to you ... always be prepared, if not “over prepared” for any guitaristic sound that may be required of you ... you’ll be glad you did!


Posted: 10/19/2009 3:47:47 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

On the Road with Phoebe Snow



The day before I was ready to go on the road for a lengthy tour with singer Phoebe Snow, they suddenly announced to me that I was not only the lead guitarist, but I was in fact now the "musical director"! Of course, it was good in the sense that I received an unexpected raise right before the tour, but it was a sudden additional level of responsibility that was rather unexpected, and one that came with all kinds of craziness!

And "crazy" really defined that tour, as we had our share of bus nightmares, audience problems, logistical problems, and band members who really didn’t cut it! They fired the first musical director just one day before I became the "new" one, and since the musical director was the keyboard player, and a fine one at that, they stuck me with an awful keyboardist who they had heard in a Holiday Inn lounge! I wish I could’ve had a say in THAT decision, as it totally held the band back! Don’t get me wrong, the new guy was a wonderful person, but his chops were way down from what we needed! The band as a whole didn’t really gel, either, but the funniest thing about the tour was that since Phoebe never liked to go to the sound checks, we started to use those sound checks as fun jams and "clowning around" sessions that ended up becoming, unbeknownst to me, the rehearsals for most of my next solo album!

I ended up using the same rhythm section (minus the piano player!) and re-hired the old musical director and keyboardist, Dean Kraus, along with Ivan Elias on bass, and the wonderful Michael Braun on drums and percussion. It felt really good to go from the road to the studio with those guys, as we had now become fast friends, and had such a good musical rapport with each other! Not to metion, we had those 30 or so sound checks that Phoebe never came to, so we could polish up our tunes, and get them ready for the recording! Talk about making lemonade out of lemons!


Posted: 10/13/2009 4:27:55 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Choosing that New Guitar!



Getting a new instrument for yourself, whether it be used, vintage or brand new, is always an incredibly exciting thing! I know that I can still think back and remember the exact smell that I caught a whiff of whenever I opened the case of one of my guitars back in the old days. It’s funny, but those impressions were definitely more strongly made back when I was still a kid, but I guess if I really put my mind to it, I could find a smell that I remember for all my guitar cases since! And that’s a lot of cases!

Still, for many, the choosing of a new instrument can be a bit confusing and daunting, as there are so many choices we have these days, and so many instruments circulating all over the world! Certainly, one of the really good things about shopping these days as opposed to the early and mid-sixties, when I was first looking, is that the new guitars are once again being made with true integrity and workmanship, and an enormous amount of consistency, thanks to certain modern technology.

When the vintage boom first started, around 1966, it was because certain models, such as the Les Paul, were no longer being made, and the quality of new instruments seemed to have really dropped off. I basically chalk a lot of this up to the Beatle boom, and the fact that guitars were now needed at an incredibly accelerated rate which was hard for the manufacturers to keep up with! This is really so true, as if you look back on the years that are really considered the best vintage periods for old guitars, they were times when guitars were hardly played at all!

I know that whenever a student tells me that he or she wants to buy a guitar, I take a lot of pride in showing them around, and helping them shop or the right one for them. This such a critical time for the aspiring player, as you never want to sacrifice playability for saving some money, because a hard to play guitar, is going to make that student eventually give it up, and never want to pick it up again! It’s also fun, because I get to put myself for a moment, in their shoes, and live vicariously through them, and their exciting shopping experience!


Posted: 10/12/2009 8:02:01 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Watching the Growth of Your Students!



The growth and development of a student is something that still never ceases to amaze me. I guess this is partly because I see them in weekly, bi-weekly or even monthly segments, where I notice the change more dramatically than seeing them every day. Still, it has really come to me lately that as a student physically grows, so does his or her ability to play and execute musical tasks on the guitar. It’s really uncanny, because one would not think of this kind of physical growth as having anything to do with growing as a musician too, but it really does seem to make sense.

They say that the creative part of the brain actually always continues to develop as you get older, and I can also attest to that at least being partially true. Certainly, great visual artists have always remained productive into very old ages, as is true of many great musicians. I know that I find myself further and further “fine tuning” my ears as I get older, and it wasn’t even until about 3 years ago that I realized I had perfect pitch, when I had always been counting on having perfect “relative” pitch. Now, all of a sudden, I can pick the correct pitch seemingly “out of the air”.

I definitely have a handful of students who I have been lucky enough to watch this kind of development with, and it is so rewarding to see players suddenly take leaps and bounds when previously, they were moving forward more deliberately. This is very gratifying, because it also shows me as a teacher, that there are other forces at work that are also helping that particular student develop a better ear, as well as better technical and even artistic abilities! In other words, no matter how frustrating and slow the work may sometimes seem, it all really starts to pay off sooner or later!


Posted: 10/6/2009 4:51:57 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Feeling Out a New Student



I have always felt that it’s extremely important to “feel out” a student, and evaluate just what might really be the correct approach for them, especially based on what they may or may not already know.

This perspective for me is especially important, having come from an exclusively self-taught background, because in the end, we really all teach ourselves, truly.

I have always believed in tailoring the lessons right towards the student’s immediate needs, which to me, become quite apparent the moment I see them play, or when I see how they respond to my teaching and ideas. Even how they respond to my playing is important, because I can then evaluate their tastes in guitar, and start to “bend” my teaching towards the direction of the genres and styles they prefer. This I critical anyway, because let’s face it…if we have a student we like teaching, we want that to continue, and for them to be really happy and “into” taking lessons with me!

The “student” certainly comes in all forms, and there are always those who come in with a certain degree of feeling “intimidated”, and those who WANT to intimidate! The latter is quite rare these days, as I get a great deal of respect from my pupils, regardless of their level of playing maturity, but I never seem to really understand the “former’…the ones who are so intimidated, and afraid to play in front of me! They always say, “I play great when I’m at home, but I fall apart here”, or something to that effect.

It becomes very important with people like that, that I make sure to make them feel as comfortable and as “at ease” as possible, so they can open up and be truly receptive to what I have to offer them. It’s also important, if you come across a student who has had far too much of a “regimented” and rigid previous learning experience to get them really into the other side of the coin, which is to relax, and to make it all music! So, whether you teach, or ARE being taught, make sure to tune in to the more “feeling” and emotional side of things when learning, and of course, keep it all about the music and expression. You’ll learn a lot more…as a teacher AND a student!


Posted: 10/5/2009 3:32:16 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Leaving Your Heart on the Stage!

Playing with all your heart and soul is really where it’s at, and is something one should strive for, regardless of whether you are in the studio, or performing live. I have found though, that for many people, even myself at certain moments in my career, the act of live performing can really tend to stifle one’s creativity and make you really “stiffen up”. Not to fear, because this is a natural reaction to having to play in front of people, as whether you know it or not, you are really baring your soul!

The trick is to be able to get yourself to that “place” one needs to be, to really feel like you are a performer who is truly “letting go”, and therefore, able to give it your all. And I mean your ALL! When I leave the stage on a typical night for example, I feel as if there is literally nothing left to be said. Maybe I should learn to pull back a bit on that approach for my own good, but I never really feel quite satisfied, nor complete, unless I really leave my heart “on the stage”.

This is the true act of being a real performer, and the audience knows right away when you’re not giving it your all, or if you’re nervous, or whatever the problem might be. The good part is also the flip side of this equation, because when you DO give it your all, that is something that no one in the joint can deny!

So whenever and wherever you may play, be sure to give it your all. It doesn’t mean you have to know every note or lick in the book…it simply means that with whatever you’ve got to give, be sure to give it all!! You and the audience will be truly blessed with all the rewards due you!


Posted: 10/5/2009 3:16:09 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Be Sure to "Play" Every Day!

There’s nothing more discouraging than me seeing a student who I can tell never played during the week of days between times with me. I always try to tell folks that it’s not “practicing” I want out of them, but it’s simply “playing”. Playing means you want to, and you need to ... just as when I was first developing in leaps and bounds as a very young player, I simply had to “play” every day, sometimes ALL day!

This kind of devotion came simply from a strong artistic desire and creative drive that was instilled in me, and that is always there, to this day. I know that every time I pick up the guitar, I want to play, or learn something different, and of course, I never want to get “rusty” with my playing. You need to maintain good calluses on your fretting fingers, so it never ends up hurting too much when you play. When players first start out, they forget that they need to develop this tougher skin on their fingers so they can bend and do other things with a minimum of pain, so they tend to leave too much time in between playing sessions, only resulting in more pain when they try to get back to the guitar!

So, it’s important to stay with it, even if it’s just a little bit each day, so as to keep your playing “chops” up. I know that even for me as a player and a teacher, I use the time I teach privately each week to also keep MY chops up. I’d never have that kind of discipline to simply play for that 15 to 20 hours a week, so the teaching forces me to! I also come up with great melodic ideas while teaching, and there are some songs of mine that were literally conceived of completely while giving a lesson!

Do, it may sound corny, but I mean it….be sure to “play” every day, and really don’t think of it as “practice”, which never really sounds that rewarding not that much fun to do. Keep it fun and interesting, and you’ll always come back to that best friend of yours ... the guitar!


Posted: 9/29/2009 7:48:22 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The Excitement of an Opening Night!

This week I had the opportunity to see the opening night of the previews for a musical on Broadway in NYC that I really think is going to be a major smash hit! Now I’m not your usual “play go-er,” in fact, most of the time, you’d have to drag me to go see a show, but I must admit, that most of the time I end up really enjoying myself. There’s just something about the connection between the real live audience and the real live performers that I always find incredibly moving. It must be similar to what I am so used to putting out there onstage in my own performances, and as we all know, there’s nothing like when that audience erupts!

Well, this certainly was no exception, as I was treated to the first-ever performance of a new show called “Memphis”. It has tons of great songs, the music and dancing is phenomenal, and even though I felt that some of the songs were derivative, as was the case with the excellent show and film, “Hairspray”, it still was a musically moving experience! In the case of Hairspray and Memphis, the songwriters use a trick where they “quote” a little bit of a song from that particular era, that you just KNOW you’ve heard before, but they end up changing it enough so you think you’re hearing another song, but you’re really not!

Well, this certainly was the case with this show, and also the fact that the New York Broadway “pit” band just couldn’t cut it when playing the blues or oldtime R&B for that matter! I wanted to just jump down there to the orchestra, and start playing some hot slide guitar, which this show REALLY needs!

Still, all in all, I was able to separate my highly critical ears from the rest of the event, and I was able to enjoy the show for what it was ... a delightful evening, and a very powerful performance by some truly gifted actors, singers and dancers! Memphis ... go see it!


Posted: 9/28/2009 7:29:11 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More Cars and Guitars!



Sometimes it just behooves me to talk about my favorite subjects, and when they are combined, such as cars AND guitars, you really just can’t beat it! I have recently gotten much more into Custom Cars, or “Kustoms” as it’s often spelled in the hobby, and the connection is so strong between the two. This ’56 Buick Kustom I just built for example, was definitely inspired by a guitar look and color when I decided to go bright copper and black with the paint job, in fact, there is a guitar I have that matches the copper color.

It’s not the first time for me when a guitar inspired a car, or vice versa….I once had a ’56 Buick Roadmaster convertible that was a coral pink over white, and I had a custom shop guitar made to match it, painted in that same lovely coral color. My famous “flame” painted guitars (folks keep on throwing them at me!) are also, of course, a car-related look, and when I had my company, Hot Licks, it also became the logo, as flames painted like that are also called “Hot Licks” by motorcycle folks as well as hot rodders.

I can recall that my great friend Danny Gatton, who was so into Hot Rods, would pinstripe his Telecasters and Les Pauls, giving them a unique “Von Dutch” kind of look. I loved that and really fell in love with the idea of going “car/guitar” with my guitar look. Even Brian Setzer has no reservations about fully “tattooing” his big hollowbodies with pin-striping and even wilder Hot Rod-style graphics!

It’s a lot of fun, and it embodies not just a car lifestyle, but a musical one as well, and the more we look into the Hot Rod and motorcycle culture of today, we see the obvious connections between the music and the vehicles that makes it just tons of fun. I suggest you try to go to some weekend car shows, and see just how close the expressive art form of the Hot Rod is to the creativity of the guitar builders and the players of today!


Posted: 9/24/2009 8:25:51 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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