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Getting to Work with my Heros!

Arlen with Buddy GuyA lot of what was truly most exciting about my days as Producer/Creator of Hot Licks video was the pure excitement of working with many of my heroes on their instructional tapes. Hot Licks was always a natural extension of my love for teaching and for music in general, but it’s the folks BEHIND the music that really makes it tick!

This is why we had so many fans, and sold some 2.5 million videos worldwide, because we had the real folks, doing the real deal, and presenting it in such a natural learning environment. In many cases, such as when I did videos with people like James Burton, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Brian Setzer, John Entwistle, Lonnie Mack, Mick Taylor and countless others, it was the first time these people had EVER sat down and explained what it was they were all about!

Myself a self-taught player, I have always understood the beauty behind the self-discovery that comes from these kinds of teaching experiences. I mean, I had never had to so dissect my style and technique as when I had to sit in front of a camera to do it, yet it always felt totally natural and relaxed for me to do. This in turn, helped me to get many of these other artists, some of them my REAL heroes as well as peers, through the experience, which a lot of them found rather daunting.

I had to always bear in mind that while it may be simple and the most natural thing for me to do, a lot of them were totally petrified to be in front of the camera! It was as if they were worried that some deep, dark secret was about to be exposed, or even worse, that they wre going to be exposed as the “fraud” they feared they might really be!

Meanwhile, I was always in seventh heaven to be working with these folks! I mean, Buddy Guy was easily one of my greatest guitar heroes of all time, and to have him there saying to me, “you tell me what to do, Arlen, you’re the boss!”, or to be backing up Junior Wells, and to play grooves to try to coax him out of his dressing room, or to have Mick Taylor, of The Stones, tell me, “man, that was the toughest gig of my life!” (Mick…you were in the Stones when you were 22, and this instructional tape was the toughest gig EVER?!) These are the kinds of incredible memories that are made in such a wonderful environment as having these folks teach on video! And like I said, it always felt so natural, and was such a pleasure to create for all the world to see! Lots more to come….!

Arlen Roth

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Posted: 2/23/2009 11:15:55 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

You Learn from Teaching

Arlen with Hot Licks studentThere’s no question that one of the great joys of my years of teaching is simply what I learn from it! When a student has certain needs that must be addressed, it can at times, make me really have to “dig deep” for what I need. This process really helps me learn more about what makes ME tick, as well as even creating some new ideas I didn’t even know existed!

My second guitar player in my current band, Matt Rae, has been studying with me for over ten years. Over the course of this time, he has become so good and so fast at absorbing what I have to offer, there is a constant challenge to come up with new material for him. This is so demanding, that many times it has helped me create entirely new pieces of music while in the teaching process! The title track off my “Landscape” album for example, from 2005 was actually the direct result of a lesson I was giving Matt in hammer-on notes from great distances. Before I knew it, I was telling him to be sure to record this piece (he records all his lessons), so I wouldn’t lose my new composition idea!

It’s always been this way for me…even when I had to write my first book, “Slide Guitar”, I had no idea how I was getting all that dampening accomplished, or how I was isolating the notes, but Lord knows I had to reach an understanding about my own playing, even at the age of 21, which is how old I was when I wrote it!

Needless to say, this all led to making teaching an even more rewarding experience for me, and has become an invaluable tool in my creative process as well! More next time!

Arlen Roth

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Posted: 2/23/2009 4:00:05 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Playing it by Ear Again!

Of course, for me, and my life in general, the term “play it by ear” has more meaning than usual. This rally is a good way to describe my overall approach, which oddly enough may actually be a direct result of my approach to music.

The musical part for me, began so early that it seems as if I never DIDN’T play music! This is of course important when dealing with learning for all of us, and out offspring as well. I can’t emphasize strongly enough the importance of learning at an early age. This impressionable time is so important when learning any language, and after all, this is what music is…another language…one that comes from deep, deep down in out hearts.

The “ear” part is really the most crucial, and I think that those who say they’ll never have an ear are simply holding themselves back. I believe that all of us, as human beings have an innate, built-in ability to acquire this “ear”, which is rally just an ability to learn and recognize the new language of music. Sure, some of us are better at it than others, but I still feel that it can be cultivated and most of all, encouraged at a very early age.

I was playing the violin from the age of 8, and doing very well at it, but it lacked excitement for me, and the training involved became too regimented for me. So, along comes my Dad, the New Yorker cartoonist, Al Ross, who’s a master at all he does, and who taught himself everything about art, and he says to me, “play the guitar, Arlen,,,I just can SEE you playing the guitar!” I still literally get chills when I think of his words, because not only were they so right on the money and prophetic, but they had so much love and understanding and perceptiveness to them!

He would love to listen to Flamenco guitar records around the apartment in the Bronx, and I was already absorbing all this wonderful guitar, probably from before I can even remember! This was all drummed into my soul, and therefore my ear as well, and before you knew it, I was playing slide guitar with my Mom’s lipstick holders on a guitar we had that only had 2 strings! Once I got my hands on the real thing however, all bets were off, and I knew that from the minute I held her in my arms, the guitar was to become a lifetime love for me!

Arlen Roth

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Posted: 2/18/2009 6:13:51 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Playing it Strictly by Ear

Arlen and Buddy GuyThe fact that I am completely self-taught, and that I never really learned to read music played a great role in how I developed as a player. I always in a way, had to "stick to my guns"as a way of staying true to my roots and to the process by which I developed my style.

For example, for a long time, even though I played with total "jazz-like" abandon, I never really had that "jazz"sound to my playing. I always knew that if I threw myself into studying it, which would have been a definite "fast track," I would have sacrificed my own true identity as a player, and would end up with that "stamped out"carbon-copy"" type sound that plagues so many players who for examplke, end up at a place like Berklee!! Instead, I made a concious decision to let the jazz sound assimilate its way into my playing, just the way the blues and country did. It's kind of like the way jazz really happened in the real world ... it developed over time, in an ëvolutionary way ... rooted in the blues, and developed as listener's ears and player's ears became more sophisticated over time.

I mean, there are many types of players, obviously. Some may be totally happy with the overly-schooled "Berklee"type approach, and who merely want to be a musician as a vocation, while there are the players like me, who have always had a point of view, and as artists, had something definate to say!

The self-taught and hard-earned way of playing, I believe, can actually be heard in the finished product of someone who has gone through this self-learning process. Of course, we are ALL self-taught in the end, but we will always also be the sum total of everything we've ever heard, been shown or simply learned by ear and heart. This is what gives us all our unique "fingerprint," something we can't HELP but have! More next time, as we continue on this all-important subject!

Arlen Roth

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Posted: 2/17/2009 5:55:29 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More Rough Touring: Hitting the Road with Prine

John PrineAfter the debacle of what could have been a life-changing recording session for me, and a missed opportunity, I was still slated to keep on rehearsing for the John Prine tour, which had the misfortune of being in Canada for the winter, and the deep south for the summer! It’s not usually planned that way, but the tour got postponed by six months, so we ended up with a “flipped” schedule!

We had our own Silver Eagle tour bus, which was nicely appointed, and had been leased apparently, from a touring Gospel group from Georgia, with a leader by the name of “Sam Sermons”! It quickly became our home away from home, and many times it was, because the gigs were often far apart, and we couldn’t get motel accommodations. The bus was often a real zoo scene, between the kidding around, the girls on the road, the fun we’d have with our driver, and on and on.

But still, I felt that when we hit the stage, it was incredibly lacking. The band that had been assembled was in my opinion, marginal at best, and certainly, not the right group of players for John Prine’s music. I could also see that Prine’s naivete’ when it comes to things like a band also was a factor, because he had no idea how to express himself about whether or not the band was really “making it” or not! I can tell you for sure, that from my perspective, I was the only one truly fit for that band! I was much more of a folk, country and blues-rooted player who played for the song, while the rest of the band were a bunch of “funk” players who couldn’t play the stuff “straight”. Instead, everything had way too much syncopation, and was too herky-jerky for John’s nice country melodies and rhythms.

The beauty of his music was in its simplicity….I can remember one time, when in all seriousness, he actually said to me, “Arlen, can you teach me a new chord, so I can write a new song!” That blew my mind, but it sure showed me how he, as a songwriter, really epitomized the statement that “less is more”. There were so many wild moments, like the first chord of the tour, when john broke 5 strings with his first strum, and the roadie didn’t know how to put new strings on and tune them up! I would also always go up to him in the middle of a song and whisper in his ear something like “your B string is flat”……after that particular show, John told me that if I ever hear a tuning problem like that, which was basically all the time, I should just reach behind him and tune it myself while he kept grinding away at those chords! Needless to say, that actually became a funny part of the act! More Prine tour stuff next time……………

Arlen Roth


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Posted: 2/16/2009 5:52:02 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More on the Making of "Crossroads"

Arlen and Ralph Macchio - 1984

The experience of actually working on a film from even before the opening bell was quite a thrill. I had been told to go to Ralph Macchio’s house on Long Island, where he was still living with his parents, and I had to teach him 4 days a week, for 2 hours each day for the 2 months prior to shooting. This was a tall order, but lots of fun, as we had the script, and basically could interject whatever playing parts we wanted throughout the film.

His bedroom had basically turned into a little mini guitar collection, as we had my guitars strewn all over the place……..classical, electric, acoustic steel string and even resonator guitars were all employed in his learning process with me, and we’d have so much fun. He was like a kid (a KARATE kid!) in a candy store with all this stuff, and since he had never played anything before, except a little saxophone, I could really dictate what parameters we would be working within.

Of course, Ralph, with an actor’s ego, and plenty of drive to boot, was really expecting to walk on that set, wailing away on classical, blues and slide guitar, but even though I wanted that for him too, it was virtually impossible to make him a “real” guitar player in such a short amount of time. The best we could hope for was for him to be as believable as possible when “faking” to the parts that I played, and also some of the parts Ry Cooder ended up playing. It was like Ralph had to occupy a very unique place in his own world as a “partial” guitar player, and that having the knowledge he now possessed was enough for him to really be convincing as an actor who was playing the guitar.

Some things were really kind of funny, like he would go to gigs of mine, and study how I walked, held myself, how I carried the guitar case, things like that…. Anything that would give him the overall impression of how a guitarist really carried himself. We even went to what was Andre’ Segovia’s final NY concert a Lincoln Center so he could see how a classical player held himself, but that was in a way, quite funny, because at this point, Segovia was so elderly that he was all slumped in his chair while playing, and had the guitar so angled towards the ceiling it looked like he was ready to play lap steel! All Ralph could say was, “hey, it’s like he’s in his living room!”

So, needless to say, the Segovia concert showed Ralph more of how NOT to hold the guitar as a classical student/player! He needed the more upright rigidity and discipline that he was able to pick up from my advice, and from watching Bill Kanengiser, the man who played the classical guitar in the film, doing his thing! More next time..I love to write about this film, because it was such a rich experience, and something one rarely gets to do in this industry!

Arlen Roth

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Posted: 2/9/2009 10:40:13 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

At the "Crossroads"

Making the film “Crossroads” has been one of my major accomplishments to date in the music field, and it was an amazing adventure full of twists and turns!

Arlen and Ralph Macchio 

It was so wild to actually get a call from Director Walter Hill, telling me that Ry Cooder, who was the film’s musical director, said he “should get Arlen Roth, because he’s the only one on the east coast who can do this”. Ralph Macchio, the kid in the film, well-known as “The Karate Kid”, had to be taught from scratch on how to play the guitar, basically enough so he could “fake” the parts in the film. I was told at the time that I was to play his parts in the movie, which of course, made total sense since I was his teacher! Also, lucky for me, Ralph had never played guitar before, so I had a clean slate to work with, technique-wise. It meant that whatever I said was the “gospel” for Ralph, and he could therefore adhere to the things I was teaching him.

One very gratifying part was that I knew that when I recorded the music for the film, I knew exactly what he could and couldn’t do. This way, I could come up with pieces that I knew already contained Ralph’s “vocabulary” on the guitar. I can recall one day, in the Mississippi Delta morning, we were about to shoot the scene that was actually “at the Crossroads”, and Ralph had a very specific piece of music in mind that he wanted to play there. It was a slide cut from my first album, called “Landslide”, and he felt, and I agreed, that it was perfect for the stark feeling of the scene. I went to record it, and as Ralph climbed into his trailer, he shouted, “don’t make it too tough, Arlen!”

So, there in the quiet, I plugged into a little battery-powered amplifier, and recorded “Landslide”, bullfrogs jumping in the background, and all. Didn’t expect that the whole crew would then erupt into applause after I did it! I guess they were getting pretty starved for entertainment, having been in those swamps and cotton fields for weeks already! Later that day, Walter Hill actually passed over his Director’s chair to me, and let me handle the directing that day! What a thrill!

Then, in an even more surrealistic “Hollywood” moment, we all sat down to a full sushi lunch that was flown in from L.A., just so we could sit in the middle of an arid cotton field, eating away, with crop dusters flying overhead! As I looked around, I noticed dozens of curious little kids with no shoes on, peering through the bushes at this strange sight. All I know, is that a few hours after that, Juke Logan, the harmonica coach and I, as usual, drove off into the Mississippi night in search of more barbeque!

More on “Crossroads” next time…till then, be cool!

Arlen Roth

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Posted: 2/6/2009 10:36:37 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More on the Big Tour(s)!

Doing a tour as huge as a worldwide Simon and Garfunkel tour really has its own set of demands and occurances, but it certainly is like no other form of touring! I had done many other tours before that, and each time, the treatment, the accommodations, the food, you name it, were totally different.

Arlen tours with the Bee GeesOne of the roughest I ever went on was actually a very fancy one…at least for the headliners! It was a Bee Gee tour of Canada, back when it was still, in my opinion, the “real” Bee Gees. This means it was prior to their Disco-era material, and it focused on those great early songs of theirs such as “To Love Somebody”, and “Lonely Days, Lonely Nights”! I was playing with the opening act, a duet called Janey and Dennis, young kids who were barely known, but we had just done a big-budget lp on Capitol, and were touring in anticipation of its release.

I guess we deduced that the Bee Gees themselves were somehow arriving at all these far-apart Canadian venues with their own Lear Jet, while we were relegated to the back of a freezing cold tour bus, with no heat and no working bathroom, which we also had to share with their 30-piece orchestra!!

Rough, to say the least! I can recall our “harshest” time being that we got off the stage, didn’t change, and then made it to the next gig, 24 hours later, just in time to walk onstage again……no place to sleep, change, eat, nothing. I got terribly sick on this tour, as I seemed to all the time, but this was really harsh. There were even some band members so elderly and sick they were lying on cots in the bus’ aisle!

One time, the crowd of 15000 screaming kids were all chanting “Bee Gees, Bee Gees!!” at the top of their lungs right through out slow and quiet blues number, so I figured I’d shut them up by starting my solo with the loudest, stinging guitar note they’ve ever heard. And boy, did it work…I think that note is still reverberating off the back wall somewhere in that hockey stadium!

Still, all in all, it was a rewarding experience…. the Bee Gees asked me to play pedal steel guitar on “Massachusetts” each night, and Janey ended up becoming my first serious girlfriend, but THAT’s for a whole different blog, at another time and place!! Oh, by the way, the album we were touring to promote ended up being shelved by Capitol Records, never to be seen again, effectively ending the young career of Janey and Dennis! Till then, please try to stay inspired, my guitar-picking friends!

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Posted: 2/4/2009 11:28:57 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Preparing for the Big Tours!

There is really nothing like getting ready for doing a monumental-sized tour. I experienced this many times, but nothing was quite of the scope as was the Simon and Garfunkel summer world tour of 1983.

Arlen with Art Garfunkel I had already done a wonderful national tour of 48 cities with Art Garfunkel as a solo artist in 1978, and had been giving Paul Simon guitar lessons in 1982 when they finally asked me to do the world tour. It was immediately a strange, as well as exhuberant experience. Strange because it was such a large band, about 13 pieces all told, and also because it was hard to believe that all this secretive, clandestine rehearsing was going to lead to playing this stuff in front of nearly 70,000 people each night! It was as if you develop a syndrome of being in an incubated environment, where there is no outside world to speak of. It made me think that perhaps this is what many of the large groups experience, such as The Stones, McCartney and the like. After all, it HAS to be relatively sheltered from the outside world for obvious reasons, but if you’ve noticed, many times, these kinds of groups have little “surprise” gigs they do before kicking off their big stadium tours. I think this is really for the band itself, to develop a sense of reality before it all gets so “unreal” again. Because no matter how you slice it, playing before crowds like that is totally surreal, and steps way beyond the bounds of normal musical interaction!

Well, after what seemed like months and months of rehearsals, with no reaction from anyone but ourselves, we were finally ready to embark on the tour, and to hit the big stadiums. I can rarely recall the kind of tension that was in the air as we all anticipated hitting the stage at the “Rubber Bowl”, in Akron, Ohio. We were even stuck in the traffic jam that was going to the stadium, just as the radio in the car said we were about to go on stage in 5 minutes!! Now way was THAT happening….we were at least a half-hour from playing, and were already the first in a long line of road manger-induced casualties!

I can recall some of the band members jumping up and down in place in the backstage area, like before a fight! Some just calmly sitting in a corner, tuning up…….I think I was maybe on the phone with my wife and then my parents, just telling them how full of anticipation I truly was at this incredible moment! The, we hit the stage, and you can never anticipate people running onstage to tear off your clothes when you’re playing something like “Scarborough Fair”, or “Mrs. Robinson”, but that’s what happened! Then, you think, “is this really what’s going to go on here?” It’s very distancing, because you realize you’re part of an “event”, or “happening”, as opposed to something where people really care about what you’re playing, or even more so, HOW you play!!! Strange indeed…more next time!

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Posted: 2/2/2009 10:51:27 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Conceptualizing Projects

Recording with Brian Setzer on Toolin'Around.As a recording artist, and one who comes from a family of visual artists, I have long been someone who often conceived the project on a larger scale, even before the individual parts were put together. This means some pretty extreme stuff, including even knowing what my album cover would look like before I had the songs! I know that this is quite a far out way to think ahead, but many times. It’s just my way.

I’m sure that most of you who are interested in being recording artists, or may already be, most likely work in the opposite direction of this, and make sure you have songs in order, etc.,before, for example, you know how your album cover will look! But still, I believe it’s important to find some happy “middle-ground” halfway between the inception and the conception of your projects.

For example, if you start to write songs for a new album, you may start to notice a “trend” in your themes, and you may find that you are writing from a group of experiences that represent a certain time in your life. It then becomes very important that you take notice of this, and be able to create a project that artistically truly represents you at this time and this place.

It is then and only then, that the piece of music or group of songs really begin to take shape as a whole, and that you can really feel that the work represents you, and can perhaps, even be called your “art”! Then is when you have a “concept”. You must remember, I come from the generation that started to see the advent of “concept” albums, such as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, or even more subtley, records like Rubber Soul or Beggars Banquet by The Stones. These records always had, whether intentional or not, a kind of theme that ran through them, and a “point of view”. This is for many reasons, not the least are things like the studio recorded in, the consistency of the Producer, the musicians used, and the times when you recorded and/or wrote the music. I know there have been times when I’ve had to literally re-create this continuity, or make it happen again even though the record was made over a much longer time than usual. I had this recently with the new cd I did with Levon Helm, which was done over an entire year. The saving graces were the mainly consistent use of the same musicians, and the same studio being used. Even with all this consistency, there were still many variances to have to deal with in the end.

So, in closing…be sure to stay consistent within your project, because you’ll be surprised how many variances can be discovered in the course of putting it together! More on this later…stay tuned!

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Posted: 1/29/2009 3:43:31 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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