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More Time for Cars and Guitars!



This has been a beautiful September here in the Northeast, and it’s been certainly well-earned after a brutally cold and rainy majority of the summer! This season also brings out the car shows I love to go to, and makes me think of all my “car and guitar” buddies I’ve gotten to know over the years. Of course, the late, great Danny Gatton and I had a true love of old cars that we shared, and he got me to more appreciate the Kustoms and hot rods I’ve been into for some time now, and I, in turn, got him to be more interested in original cars. I can recall the first time I met him in New York, where he was playing a concert at the Riverside Memorial Church, and he drove up in a pickup truck that had a set of wire wheels in the back for my Buick Skylark! We even did some haggling over the price and did the deal, out in the falling snow before he even went inside to play! But that’s the way we knew each other ... great respect for each other’s musical abilities, but that was already a “given”. What we really wanted to relate to each other with was our love for family, antiques, cars and other more “fun” things than just music, which of course, we made a lot of together during our short friendship before he passed away.

Other friends who are great appreciators of old cars and guitars are folks like Jeff Beck,  Jimmie Vaughan and many more ... I have a ’38 Buick street rod that Beck told me he wanted when he came here to pay his condolences after I had lost my wife and daughter. He was really just joking, as he knew I was never going to part with it, but being the gentleman he is, it was his way of complimenting me on the car!

So it’s on to the Fall, and the “big” shows like Carlisle and Hershey that attract millions of those car AND guitar appreciators! Long may they run…..


Posted: 9/24/2009 8:20:46 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Writing Instrumentals



As a longtime instrumentalist, I find that writing instrumental tunes comes more naturally to me than writing songs with lyrics and music. This means, sometimes even in a kind of funny way, that if I have a song I really intend to write lyrics for, the musical part of it may lie around for years, quite contentedly, before I finally make the last-minute decision to finally put words to it. I mean, songs come to us in many ways, and it’s really dependant on how we are made up, and what strikes us the most first when we start to write a tune.

Perhaps the greatest “muse” moment is when lyrics and music all fall together at once, but it’s my suspicion that when band-oriented players want to write songs, and great ones, such as The Beatles or The Stones, the musical riff and idea comes way before any lyrics are even begun to be thought of! I mean, can you imagine “Day Tripper’s” lyrics coming before that great guitar lick? I don’t think so….

But when we are really thinking “instrumental only”, we must let it all fall together; the melody, an evocative group of chord changes, the “feel” and most importantly, the structure. Often, when I do this kind of writing, the structure becomes the last thing I am concerned with, as the melody and the parts become the first step. And even then, it may be awhile before I decide what can develop as the bridge, verses being the chorus, verses what may be the verse. Sometimes, when working instrumentally, we may not even need to be so structured. We may feel better making it an entire “composition” or “piece” of music, that exists in a more orchestral manner, that then may even have its own unique guitar or other instrument’s solo built into the structure itself.

No matter what, you’ll always find writing instrumentals to be their own unique brand of challenge, and the fact now that we are using only notes, and are eliminating words, we are actually opening up more creative passageways for our sonic explorations!


Posted: 9/18/2009 10:08:37 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

My Father's True Encouragement to Play!



There are many people over the years that I owe my guitar development to, but none so much as my father, who truly instilled in me the love of paying, and especially the encouragement! He is a great visual artist, now 97 years young, who made his own way in the world, strictly with nothing more than his talents and his belief in himself to lead him on. He became a hugely successful and respected cartoonist for the famed New Yorker Magazine, and is one of four Roth brothers, ALL of whom became cartoonists! Because of this, they all couldn’t be named “Roth” professionally, so my Dad took the pen name of “Al Ross.”

But even though I came from a long line of visual artists, as my older brother also became a painter, my Dad always listened to Flamenco music in the apartment in the Bronx, and this heavily guitar-laden music was always permeating the air. Combine this with the timing of the Beatles hitting the States, and the fact I was already playing some guitar, and it became a musical explosion for me! But as I sat there, whether it was playing lap slide guitar with my mom’s lipstick cover on a guitar that had two strings, or starting to imitate and emulate the Flamenco and Classical I was hearing, it was my father who always said, “Arlen, even though I know you are playing the violin, I just can SEE you playing the guitar….play the guitar!”

So, sure enough, thanks to his encouragement, which was huge, I embarked on a self-taught journey that continues to this day. His words are what always echoed in my head as I showed my two daughters guitar playing, and as I see promising, young students all the time who unquestionably need further guidance and encouragement in their playing. The “formative years” are so critical, and if you don’t really seize the opportunity to push the right buttons in someone, they become like a “tree falling in the woods”! Keep this in mind as you move forward in your own playing or teaching!


Posted: 9/16/2009 8:13:09 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

"Day Dreaming" Guitar

I can recall in my early days of developing as a player, just how much the guitar had seemed to have completely taken me over, body and mind! I used to love to come up with something new every day on the instrument, since I was, after all, completely self-taught. But it was not a “discipline” that drove me on to keep learning and playing, but rather a real “need” and an artistic drive that seemed to simply keep feeding on itself.

I know that “day dreaming” the guitar, or as what I used to call the “big neck in the sky”, would always keep me imagining new ideas and concepts. I can recall being on a bus coming home from school, and having almost an entire new song written in my head, including new riffs and positions on the neck, that I couldn’t WAIT to try out as soon as I got home! Once I got home, the world belonged to me and my instrument, and it wasn’t uncommon to have my parents come home and find me asleep on the chair, guitar in hand, and often with the turntable at the end of the record, skipping over and over.

I still am a great believer in guitar “day dreaming”, as a means of keeping new ideas happening. It also, most of all, still shows if you have that “spark” that keeps your ideas and experimenting alive, because let’s face it, you must first be able to “hear” it, in addition to then being able to play what you are hearing inside!

I’ll bet this is what even made the great John Sebastian write one of his classics, “Daydream”. For all we know, he may have “day dreamed” that song all on its own, with not a piece of paper in sight to write on!


Posted: 9/15/2009 5:23:58 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

A Great Show for Dad and Daughter!



This past Sunday, my daughter Lexie and I had the final show of our summer gigs up here on Martha’s Vineyard, and it was just an incredible evening! We played at a place called “The Yard”, that normally features world-class dance acts and acting presentations, but has never had a musical act before.  It’s set in a large barn, with row seating, like a small theater, and it being the end of the summer, before Labor Day, we thought it was just going to be a light turnout, maybe 20 people or so, and that we’d just make it a quick and simple gig that was” just around the corner!”

Boy, were we pleasantly mistaken!! Turns out we had an extremely enthusiastic crowd of more than 200, that sounded more like 2000! There were even moments in the show where we had to ask the audience to stop cheering, so we could even continue with our set! It was astonishing! I was a bit nervous about the gig to begin with, as I usually am when I’m playing without a band, and relying upon just my guitar to carry everything, but it never seems to amaze me how much can be conveyed, and how much you can get the joint rockin’ with just one instrument!

I played an hour solo, then Lexie joined me for about 10 of her own wonderful songs, where she also played guitar and I accompanied her, then I did 4 more solo tunes, and then we ended together for four more songs! All in all, we played a whopping 2 and a half hours, and not a soul left the place! We will simply never forget what an amazing night that was, and what a powerful reaction we got from the audience.

It just shows, you must always be prepared, because sometimes the gig you expect to be just “a little nothing” may happen to turn out to be an amazing and surprising happening that you’ll remember for the rest of your life! Truly a rewarding experience for both father as well as daughter!


Posted: 9/10/2009 3:36:30 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

A Great Summer of Music!

His summer ended up being much more music-filled for me than I ever expected, as there were interesting shows for my band, as well as great events that I got to play with my daughter, Lexie. We did a big gig in Woodstock with Levon Helm at his “Ramble” which pretty much takes place every weekend. Levon played and sang on my latest “Toolin’ Around Woodstock” cd, ad it was so great to see him again and to play with him. Then Lexie and I got to play at a benefit for a Breast Cancer awareness group on Martha’s Vineyard, which actually ended up being quite a well-received gig, with over 250 listeners attendees.

After that, we and the band were asked to play at a huge private party here on Martha’s Vineyard at James Taylor’s home, where we must’ve played for over 4 hours, and had everyone dancing like crazy! Finally, this weekend, she and I will play an all-acoustic gig here at a performance center, known as The Yard, which normally features world class dancing performances, so it’s their first performance of this kind ever, and we’re really looking forward to it.

The summer certainly is fleeting, and even though it seemed to go by so fast this year, most likely due to all the bad weather, it was extremely rewarding and very rich musically. Nothing like those great summer memories when they’re mixed with musical memories as well, and when yu ca share them with your daughter and a great band, it just makes it that much more rewarding!


Posted: 9/8/2009 3:04:35 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Playing with the Late, Great Mindy Jostyn



Mindy Jostyn was a multi-instrumentalist and a true musical whiz who I first met when we started playing together in Kate Taylor’s band oh, about 15 years or so ago. It quickly became apparent that there was never another player whom I loved to electrify the stage with this much. When I hit that stage with Mindy, there was such a fire between us, and our years of “backup” player skills, as well as our “front man” skills would always take full control, and our instincts were always spot on! In fact, a real interesting occurance would always be when we would try to rehearse…it seemed we could never, ever re-create not only the electricity we had onstage, but the actual musical format itself, because it always took us both being at the musical “high” you get at that juncture to have the communication lines open, and have that energy and those ideas flowing so powerfully between us!

Mindy had a very successful career as a sideman, playing with the likes of John Mellencamp, The Hooters, Bruce Springsteen, Carly Simon and many more. She was also equally powerful on guitar, fiddle, harmonica and even accordion, and she played on my cd, “Landscape”, as well as my daughter Lexie’s album, “One Long Blink”. I had the privilege of having her as a band member in my group, but little did I know it was only to be one performance, because she knew she was dying, but none of us knew at all. It turned out that she had colon cancer, and her religious beliefs, which I knew nothing about, we very strong, and she believed in not intervening, even if she had a curable disease.

This was all a terrible shock to us, as she was not only still so young, but she also had two very young children. There will never be another like her, and sometimes I really feel the vacant spot she left there on the stage when I am playing and needing that extra special “something” that only she could provide musically and personally. My daughter Lexie Roth’s video for my song “Angry River” can be seen on YouTube, featuring just Mindy, Lexie and myself. Mindy was the best, and I’ll forever miss her magic, and that electrical energy we had between us when we hit that stage!


Posted: 9/2/2009 10:17:55 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Remembering Ted Kennedy and the Gig I Once Did with Him

Ted Kennedy was a man I truly admired, as I have all the Kennedys, but his resiliency and toughness through all the hard times and tragedies had always been truly admirable, and he was a great, great man, whose tireless work on behalf of so many of the lesser fortunate people really left a permanent mark on the laws of this land, and on his great state of Massachusetts.

I’ll never forget the performance I did in Martha’s Vineyard, circa summer, 1986, where we did a show to benefit and raise money for the preservation of the lighthouses of the island. As many are aware, Jackie Kennedy was always deeply into the cause of historic preservation, and this was one of her benefits for that kind of cause.

I was playing with Kate Taylor, sister of James, and it was just the two of us. I arrived early, walked into the dressing room, only to be startled by seeing Ted Kennedy there with not one, but two women! As I went running out, I heard him say, “no, no that’s alright, come on in!” Then I introduced myself, and he said in his inimitable Massachusetts accent, “so, Arlen, are we going to be good tonight, are we going to be alright?” And I assured him we would be……

So, then I got onstage with Kate, and the entire front row were Kennedys, including Ted’s sweet son, Ted Jr., who had recently lost a leg to cancer, and was so friendly and positive, as well as Caroline Kennedy. Once we got going into the music, my darling late daughter, Gillian, who was all of 2 years old, came to the side of the stage and said “Daddy, how you get up there?” I then showed her the steps, and she climbed up and started dancing while Kate and I played! The whole place was enthralled with her. Gillian knew she wanted to perform right from the beginning! Then at the end of the evening Ted Kennedy and Dennis Miller, the comedian, gave nice speeches, and each one of them were sure to mention Gillian’s adorable “additional” performance!

Fast forward to the next evening, when there was a clambake on the beach for the same group of folks. Imagine sitting around the campfire, singing with Carly Simon, Caroline Kennedy and a host of other great folks. Caroline then reached over to Gillie, picked her up, hugged her and said “you were so cute the way you went up on that stage last night!” She then proceeded to tell me, “you know, I was looking around that stage last night for where all that music was coming from, and I realized it was all you!” A very musically observant thing for Caroline to say to me! Next thing I hear, “anyone wanna play some football?”, and sure enough there was John, Jr., who I got to toss the football around with for a good while. What memories, so many amazing people and so many gone. My daughter Gillian, my wife Deborah, John-John and now Teddy Kennedy. Thanks god at least Teddy got to live a full and productive life! He made a real difference in this world.


Posted: 9/1/2009 5:21:25 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More on the Recording Process



In my earlier years playing sessions in New York, I was always blown away by how terribly my guitar was always recorded. The engineers always seemed to never translate the great tone I was getting out in the recording room onto tape. I would always run into the sound room to listen back, only to hear a thin little nasal-sounding guitar whose notes could barely be discerned! It became quite obvious to me that New York was a “horn” and piano town, where guitar had long taken a back seat.

I then also realized that most of the great guitar sounds I had listened to while growing up, and that had influenced me so, were all recorded in places like Nashville and L.A., where obviously, the guitar was much more at the heart and center of the music!

When I was recording in Woodstock’s studios, there was no question that the guitar was more cared for and prominent in most of the sessions I did, and once I started doing my own solo recordings, which started up there in 1976, I really got to know about getting the right guitar sound in the studio.

The engineer you use and that you can trust really becomes a natural extension of your sound, and one can really become deeply attached to keeping a “winning combo” together. I can remember, when recording with Paul Simon in 2000 for his “Capeman” album, he was still using the great Roy Hallee as the engineer, who Simon had been using since the beginning of the Simon and Garfunkel days! I know that Paul is completely dependant on Halle as an engineer, and I certainly can understand why, as he seems to already have a sixth sense when it comes to creatively being a part of the final overall sound of the record.

It also seemed that as time went on in NYC, and as the music and engineers got hipper, the guitar sounds just seemed to improve. I don’t know, maybe it was even a part of earning my stripes, getting more respect…who knows? All I know is that you should never settle for less when going for a great recorded guitar sound, because that’s what will be set in stone forever!


Posted: 8/31/2009 3:54:24 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The "Comfort Factor" in Recording

When I first started breaking into the recording studios as a studio guitarist, it was a kind of rude awakening. I had for so long been a truly “raw” player who loved to play for the song, and who never played the same thing the same way twice! This is really what happens when you are a “raw” talent, and also when you don’t have quite enough experience yet. Well, when you get into the studio, of course also taking into account what kind of music you may be playing, the whole “raw” player idea kind of goes out the window!

I remember being so shocked when producers were telling me to play one monotonous part over and over for the entire song, or how they’d tell me to come up with a “part” that was essentially a “hook” that would be a memorable and melodic thing heard over and over in the song. This of course, all sounds like the art of “layering” and creating parts that will eventually fit together, but it was hard to envision at first, and it felt very confining to me.

Again, it never really affected my live approach, but after awhile I did develop a kind of “comfort factor” when it came to recording in the studio. Having an audience to play to had so much to do with how I developed as a player, and the transition to the studio really becomes an entity unto itself. More on this great topic in later installments!


Posted: 8/27/2009 3:26:12 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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