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Outdoor Versus Indoor Gigs

There is always a great deal of discussion as to what musicians prefer when it comes to playing outdoors or indoors, and there are really so many variables to consider. I can recall one very funny moment when I had just been to the Woodstock Festival, and while going to summer school session in Philadelphia, I ran into Garth Hudson and Rick Danko of The Band in a restaurant. It cracked me up that at my mention of the Woodstock Festival, all Rick could really focus on was how they (The Band) didn’t really like outdoor concerts!

What was so funny about this was the fact that here we have one of the most monumental musical and cultural events in the history of mankind, and it basically boiled down to a discussion of outdoor vs. indoor shows! What this pointed out to me was also what perfectionists the Band truly were, and it was certainly reflected in their music. This is music that is extremely pointed, and which speaks very personally to you, and I can imagine that it also kind of got “lost in the sauce” with such a huge outdoor event. But certain groups that really had shows that were “larger than life” such as Ten Years After (with Alvin Lee), Santana and Sly and the Family Stone certainly stole the event!

What I have found is that when I was doing a lot of large outdoor events, it was always a challenge for the show to remain focused, and at the same time for the audience to also remain as focused as possible. With the outdoor gig vibe there no doubt comes a certain “distraction” factor for the crowd, and there’s no question that a nighttime outdoor show helps folks focus much more on the acts than a daytime concert. The lights, and the lack of distraction really helps everyone focus, and there are times when doing shows like this where I felt like the simple wave of my hand would shift everything, and it was true!

I can recall with Simon and Garfunkel how we did these back-up accapella “doo-wop moves while singing “One Summer Night” and because we were also on that giant screen, everyone in the crowd had an immediate reaction to whatever it was we did! What a feeling…sure also makes you more conscious of what you might do that would be private to you, but greatly magnified by the focusing of everyone on that giant screen! There will be more on this subject in future installments of my Blogs, but until them, I hope you enjoy all your gigs, whether outdoor or indoor!


Posted: 9/1/2011 12:01:00 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Nightmare Recording Dates!

Well, I seem to never run out of “nightmare” stories, especially when it comes to some recording dates, but luckily they are still in the minority compared to most of the others I’ve done! Still, it always seems that the stories we like to tell are the bad ones…sort of like the “News” on TV…it’s mostly the bad, or traumatic stuff we hear about, and also remember most of all!

In any event, most of my earliest recording date “traumas” always seemed to be as a direct result of not being able to read music. This certainly held me back in a lot of ways when it came to that particular “end” of the business, but simply being able to read all the time, and do a lot of what we players called “hack” work was not really what I felt I was cut out to be doing.

Anyway, on this one particular date, I thought I really had all my ducks in a row, and was truly prepared enough so as to avoid the “nightmare” that was still, unavoidably about to unfold! There was a time in NYC that I was known as one of the few, if not only Hawaiian steel guitar, as well as pedal steel guitar specialists. As a result of this dubious honor, I was getting a lot of steel guitar gigs thrown my way by top studio guitarists who couldn’t do any of that kind of stuff. In fact many times I had to “sub” for Eric Weissberg of “Dueling Banjos” fame, from Deliverance. In any event, I get called for this Hawaiian guitar part in an Alan Arkin film called “Simon.” Apparantly, there’s a scene in the film where he says something like, “and if I am elected President, I will ban Hawaiian Muzak in elevators! So I’m told by the music contractor that I will be playing Hawaiian music, which for me, evoked tropical breezes and nice slow and easy stuff to play. So, looking ahead, I actually able to procure the incredibly length sheet music the day before, and stayed up all night, actually translating it all into tablature. By checking out the melody, which was very typically Hawaiian, I felt so sure that this was a slow, easy-going trio type piece that I was literally overflowing with confidence!

So the next day rolls around, and I go to the studio carrying my little tweed Epiphone Hawaiian guitar case along with my little tweed amp, and I notice that there are about 25 other Philharmonic classically-trained musicians there waiting for me to plug in! I then said hello, put on my earphones, put my new “tablature” on the music stand, and noticed that there was an extremely fast “clicking” going on in my headphones. I asked if anybody else had this problem, and then I heard in the “talk-back” system someone saying “Those are quarter-notes!” Well, what that actually meant was they intended to have me play this Hawaiian piece even faster than the “Looney Tunes” theme. Needless to say, I was intent on muscling through this dilemma, and even though a lap steel guitar can literally not be played that fast, I was surely ready to give it a try! Surprisingly enough, I was able to always nail the initial theme, which occurred during the first 2 or 3 measures, and then it was off to the races with endless measures of other playing, which was all written out, and impossible to play at that breakneck speed!

So, after about the third “cut” tanks to my inability to play this part, the director/producer, or whatever he was, came out and said “what’s the problem?” I right away told him this was an impossible piece to play on this instrument at this speed. He then snapped back at me “Did you bring the WRONG instrument!!?” And I said, “when was the last time you wrote anything for steel guitar?” A little bit confrontational, but at this point I was like a lone gunman facing an entire cavalry of soldiers!

Just then, when I felt like it was all over, and my nerves couldn’t take any more, out of the blue came some other “producer” guy who said, “don’t worry Arlen…all that riffing you’re doing when it keeps falling apart is perfect. We just never thought we would ever find an actual steel guitar player who’d know what he was doing! As long as you state that original theme, we’ll be fine!” I swear, it was as if I’d been given my life back….the rest of the session was a breeze, the song worked out, and when I took my parents to see the movie with me and to hear my part, it was literally a 2-second “punch line” at the very end of the movie! That was all that was needed, and when I finally saw the film, it was so amazing to think of all the torment that went into that one little moment that made everyone laugh in the theatre! Now if I can only get back the 10 years of my life that I felt like I’d lost at that session!


Posted: 8/24/2011 3:41:06 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Choosing Material for a Recording

The act of choosing your material for a recording you’re about to make is a critical, as well as truly fun project. I have many times gone for material that I’ve never played before going into the studio, and also recorded material that I have long played “live” and then took into the studio after the fact. In both cases, the material is really bound to change once you enter the recording studio with it, and that is certainly a healthy thing. After all, when we are recording we are definitely looking at the music through new eyes and ears, and committing it to something as “final” as the act of recording certainly merits a closer look, for sure.

One really good barometer to use is how the other musicians are reacting to the changes in the songs, or even their own contributions when it comes to the arrangements and compositions themselves.  I always keep an open mind to everyone’s suggestions while recording, and have worked with many other artists who also kept an open mind, in fact, many who literally needed to get a consensus of opinion from the musicians, as well as the engineer and also the Producer. Working with Paul Simon was certainly like this, and his “organic” way of working in the studio was terrific, because we all felt like we were also doing the writing, as well as the arranging. Once everything felt in order, and we were all satisfied and fired up and ready, only then would we start to do some “takes.” Of course, the final word was Paul Simon’s, but really everyone’s opinion was important, and we all were very important sounding boards for him during the process.

There were also artists I’ve been in the studio with who completely depended on either my input, or the input of me as well as the other players. These are the kinds of musicians who really do need a “Producer”, because they literally do need to be told what’s right and what’s wrong. The first time I really encountered this was in 1975 with John Prine in the studio in L.A. I couldn’t believe the lack of input he, as the artist, had! The Eagles were there, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and a whole slew of other “stars”, and John seemed so completely removed from the process, I could scarcely believe it. As someone who’s used to having a very strong opinion about what I like or don’t like, it was almost comical to see how much of his music was handed over to the Producer, Steve Cropper, and all the other folks. The part that ended up being really upsetting was the fact that there I was, sitting outside the studio with my guitar, totally ready to do the overdub they were going for, and even Prine, who could tell I was ready, had no power to make that decision. I mean, this was HIS music, not anyone else’s! So, instead, Glenn Frey of The Eagles tried and tried for several hours to get this short little solo right, which it never was, and then he and Cropper bet the session pay on the Superbowl!

No question, this situation was one where Prine was strictly a bystander to the creation of his own record, while being mainly just the man who was contributing the songs and the vocals. I, as both an instrumentalist as well as a vocalist, love to pick from a wide variety of music, not all original, but some written by me, and I like to have a wider selection and come up with some fairly obscure choices sometime, which is also an art in and of itself! So, you should also stay tuned for that new album, and all of its eclecticism….they were choices that were all made for some very interesting reasons!


Posted: 8/22/2011 10:21:10 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Doing Guitar for Film!

Anytime your music is being used for any part of the film process, it always becomes truly exciting. I’ve been involved with it on many fronts, and it’s always been exciting for sure! Of course, most of you know how I did so much work on the movie “Crossroads”, which not only contained much of my music and my playing, but I also taught actor Ralph Macchio to be believable in his role and scenes as a guitarist, and helped direct, as well as oversee those scenes that involved guitar.

After that job, I was called by director Olive Stone to work with Frank Whaley, the actor who was playing Robbie Krieger in the Doors movie, but he refused to have to spend time learning the guitar for his role, so he was always shot from angles where his playing, or lack thereof, could be hidden!

I have also had my songs used in films per se, like one tune of mine from my album “Toolin’ Around” called Rollin’ Home, was used in a Charlie Sheen film awhile back, and I’ve gotten to play on many movie soundtracks, as well as TV soundtracks. It’s always so exciting to hear it when you’re watching the big screen, and it often feels like those first times you hear yourself on the radio; another totally amazing experience and memory!

Recently, I got to experience this with my daughter Lexie, as she had an original song from her new album in a Karen Black “independent” film that was at the TriBeCa Film Festival in NYC. It was so much fun to sit with her and feel her total excitement at hearing her music and singing on the big screen, as well as her seeing her prideful dad sitting there with her, completely savoring the moment! The kinds of unspoken things that are felt at times like that, especially with your child, cannot ever be put into words.

Of course, there are many deals to be made when you have a song in a film, and there are negotiating points, as well as credits and other very important aspects of the process to factor in to the deal. One thing for certain is that when there is a soundtrack “album” released, it really has nothing to do with whatever the initial deal was when it came to the music being in the film itself was concerned. Then even if there is airplay on the radio and/or TV of it, even that is a separate deal from the music’s initial appearance in the film itself. And don’t mind if this hasn’t been worked out yet; it’s never too late to continue to negotiate as these processes move along……each aspect is a totally unrelated part of the industry, and you may negotiate each one of these things as a separate deal!

In the case of Lexie’s music being in this film, her success in the future really totally rests on the success of the film. As of now, we’re not sure if it is being “picked up” for distribution by a major film distributor, because if it was, there would be an entire long list of media and media deals to discuss!

So, remember that while having your music in a film, TV show or anything else will definitely put your “head in the clouds”, it’s very important to remain with your “feet on the ground” when it comes to protecting the interest of your intellectual property, of which you are the creator! Good luck!


Posted: 8/16/2011 10:43:17 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Friendship Through Guitar!

It never ceases to amaze me how many people can be drawn to each other through their mutual love of the guitar. Whether it is the playing itself, or simply collecting, I always seem to make new friends as the result of what a truly popular instrument this is! Not only that, but it always in the end seems to bring folks together who may’ve known each other a long time ago, serving as a way to re-kindle a friendship.

I know that many of my older friends always shared a love of the guitar with me, and the music would always stay at the core of our relationship. Those days, way back when, were the formative years for all of us musically, and we never forget what our guitar “relationships” taught us both as players, and as people. The early band experiences, jamming and especially the period of when me and my friends were “discovering” great players and great music was such an incredible “memory maker” that to this day, it still warms the heart just to think back! Those were certainly innocent days for sure, and the learning process was so important. When I see new students, or meet new guitar friends these days, I instantly go back a bit to that more innocent time, and in a way, sort of “transfer” myself back to those days as I can see the “newness” of the situation settling in on my new acquaintance. It’s also a great thing to draw upon those old feelings and memories when meeting someone new, as it further enriches what we are both experiencing.

Last night I made a new friend who was also as fanatical about guitar collecting as I am, and it was really hysterical as everyone else was watching us trying to top each other with so many collecting stories our heads were spinning! The funniest, and sometimes saddest stuff, is when we start to get into the “big ones that got away” stories; the great finds that we either just missed, or the guitars we wish we had back! I can safely say that there probably isn’t a single guitar I’ve ever sold that I didn’t wish I had back now! After all, I had them all for a reason…I LIKED them, and some of the great collectibles were sold long before anyone could ever dream that they’d reach the kinds of prices we’ve seen recently. The amazing thing that developed as we told and compared our stories was just how many of the guitars we were discussing were literally the same instruments! If I was lamenting the selling of my 1951 SJ 200, he was lamenting the loss of his 1959 J 200!

The main thing was that we had a great time sharing in this “guitar story fest” and that in the process, we were making new memories with each moment, as we talked, played and laughed our way into a new “guitar friendship!” Hope you’re busy making those guitar memories, too, because there just isn’t anything quite like them! Best of luck to ya!


Posted: 8/11/2011 9:46:52 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Developing an Eye (and Ear) for Talent

Over the years, I have surely developed a finer eye and ear for recognizing talent, and of course, it truly means a lot when it comes to evaluating students. This process is highly trained and fine-tuned to especially notice talent early on, but it also has an ongoing meaning as your relationship with that student continues. I find that there are always surprises in store when it comes to what defines a student as time goes on, and I certainly have had many who “came of age” right before my eyes!

When and if, I do find someone with a terrific level of talent, it’s such a high point in life. This is because for someone to be at that kind of level is so rare, and so exciting for me, as a teacher and evaluator of talent I simply must “take care of” that newly discovered talent and promise, and to not let that promise down! After all, if I were to ignore the promise and future of a young player such as this, it would be as if they were a “tree falling in the woods”, with no one to actually ever hear them for real! I can recall telling certain parents of students of mine about their child’s talent, and them not even being aware of just how terrific their kid is! Of course, this is a larger problem these days, with parents so consumed with themselves and their problems that they simply don’t enjoy enough of this miracle of watching their child grow and learn! There was one little boy who would come to me, simply because his older sister was also learning with me. Well, the older sister had no talent at all, but the boy would walk in with a $12 guitar with no case, and proceed to replicate nearly everything I threw his way! And I think he was all of about 8 years old! Lo and behold, one day, his parents suddenly took him out of taking lessons with me, and all I can say is I hope he was allowed to continue, because these parents had no idea just how amazingly talented their little boy was! If not for me teaching him, who knows if he’d ever even be told just how good he really was!

In any event, it’s really important for us all to be able to evaluate talent for many reasons. One day, we’ll be called upon to do this when choosing musicians for bands we are forming, recordings we are making and even like myself, if we are auditioning students. In the end, this is all important for us as well as them, and the decisions made by you can have long lasting, and far-reaching effect within people’s lives. Certainly a skill that must be well-developed, and taken very seriously as well! Good luck in all your pursuits!


Posted: 8/11/2011 9:26:34 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Competitions

I have always found the idea of having any competitions, in a formal way when it comes to music or any art from, totally ridiculous. It’s not that competitiveness can’t be rewarding or fruitful in a way that can help you, but it just seems to go against all that real art actually stands for, and what it’s all about. I guess one of the strongest aversions I felt towards this was years ago when I was asked to judge a guitar player’s competition in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and saw just what an awful feeling it was to have to “judge” players, and to have to create winners and losers!

When I had first started working with Bill Kanengiser, the classical guitarist in the film Crossroads who played Ralph Macchio’s parts, I noticed that in his list of credits where an incredible amount of wins at competitions. This was something that was really unheard of to me, but then I realized that the classical world, on any instrument is judged by one’s interpretation of an already existing classical piece of music. Yes, that does seem to be more geared towards competition, but it still seems somehow cold and far too “calculated” to really have anything to do with the real creation of artful music. After all, one’s interpretation, and the judging of it, is so totally subjective, and based on a person’s opinion, that’s all! It is I suppose one of the true cruelties of life too, for after all, even if an umpire in baseball makes the wrong call, it still usually stands, and everyone has to accept the simple fact that he was just wrong.

That’s kind of how I felt, because in that Baton Rouge competition, I was doubting myself, and in the end felt that I had also made a mistake, and chose the wrong guitarist as the winner.

“Battles of the Bands” are not really that bad, since it’s really more a way of players gaining more experience, and usually the bands are pretty supportive of each other. The classical world is very high-pressured, and this need to win competitions becomes a very big thing to the players. Another big deal are the country-style fiddle and guitar picking competitions that have grown out of Bluegrass music, which again, is a kind of music that seems to have its own set of rules and regulations and a certain kind of “precision” that must be adhered to. In that regard, I can see the “competition” approach working, as again it is more a form of interpretation and skill that is being judged than creative ability. It’s also got that “country fair” thing about it that seems to make the competition a little more down-home and fun, and also encourages young people to participate, and to gain public performance experience.

So all in all, I’m really mostly against the idea of musical competitions, but I certainly see some of the positive aspects of them in terms of precision and interpretation. It’s just a sad thing that when there are winners, there must also be losers too, and that’s a hard concept for anyone to wrap their heads around!


Posted: 8/8/2011 2:11:45 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

A Busy and Productive Musical Year!

This year was has certainly been one of the busiest and most rewardingly productive years in a long time for me, and also for my daughter, Lexie Roth! Besides the fact that we are both finishing up and mixing our individual solo albums, we also both got to be on a Les Paul Tribute album that Lou Pallo and the Les Paul Trio did. This was an exciting project that also included artists such as Jose Feliciano, Steve Miller, Keith Richards, Bucky Pizzarelli, Billy Gibbons and even Slash, among others! Lexie got to sing a remake of the wonderful Les Paul and Mary Ford hit, “Vaya Con Dios”, which truly evoked that early ‘50s vibe of that famous recording, and I got to play “Mr. Sandman” as a very “Les Paul-like” fingerpicked hot instrumental as only he could do! Keep your eyes and ears peeled for this masterpiece of an album, as it’s going to surely be one of this coming year’s “must have” recordings!

I was also asked to play solo acoustic versions of songs for both Burt Bacharach, and Lieber and Stoller tribute albums that feature many wonderful fingerstyle players, as well as flatpickers. I got to do one of my favorites, the old Dusty Springfield hit “Wishin’ and Hopin’” for the Bacharach album, and the Coasters’ “Charlie Brown” on the Lieber and Stoller recording. It would not surprise me at all if all three of these recordings at least end up as Grammy nominees.

My daughter Lexie was also fortunate in that one of the songs off of her new album was chosen to be in an independent film entitled “Maria, my Love”, starring the wonderful actress, Karen Black. What was terrific to see was how the director actually based the scene on her lyrics! The entire scene, and the pace of it, as well as the things she filmed all were tied-in directly with the lyrics of her song, and it was such a proud moment to sit with her there in the theatre, and to experience that as father and daughter!

Always great to share wonderful musical moments with your child. I was very glad I could make the Les Paul Tribute happen for her, and when I sent them the cuts she has sung in the past with me and Levon Helm, and other songs, plus the one from the film, they could really feel that they were using a young singer who already had experience, and what is called a “track record.” The actual act of recording for her was another great learning experience, as she got to sing live to tape, while Lou Pallo and I also cut the guitars live! What a thrill for us all, and what a great year musically! Years and times like this don’t come along all the time, so it’s very important to savor and learn from these experiences as much as possible. Hope they happen for you too!


Posted: 8/2/2011 12:01:00 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Pre-Show "Jitters"

I’m sure if you’re any kind or level of performer, you’ve definitely experienced some pre-show nervousness. I know that I used to have a terrible time with this, or especially nerves that would really manifest during the show. This was primarily in my earliest days of performing, since I was going from a very private form of guitar playing to a suddenly public situation, which really had me in a totally different perspective as far as almost anything was concerned! The worst part about it is how it so brings down the level of your playing, and makes it almost impossible to stay focused.

As the years and my level of experience went on however, I noticed that first of all, when it came to pre-show “jitters,” I was far from alone, and that a true professional always had some of this anticipatory nervousness, but was always able to “channel” it, and shift it into a positive level of nerves that ended up helping the performance, instead of hindering it. This is unquestionably a “learned” thing, but becomes second nature with time. Now, before I play, I’m like a caged animal, who needs to be “unleashed” on the public, and who needs to hit that stage “running!” Only then can you transfer that kind of energy and emotion the audience themselves, who will no doubt pick up on your “vibe.”

That being said, you must always stay as cool, calm and collected as possible, because the energy level you will eventually experience will simply take ahold of you, and regardless, you will certainly end up feeling sufficiently exalted before your performance! In the end you’ll see that a case of “nerves” is really nothing more than a natural reaction to the situation that you can channel for the good of your performance.

Of course, in working in a band performance, as opposed to solo, the nerves can at least be a bit of a “shared” experience with your band mates, but I think it can be just as nerve-wracking as solo performance. The only benefit I can see about the solo show is for me, anyway, the fact that it’s all on me, and I don’t have to worry about the other potentially nervous energy around me from the others. The solo show allows me to really get in a “zone” before I play that is deeply personal, and then when I hit the stage, I feel like I can really “be me”, and shine in my own, personal and unobstructed way!

So remember that those “pre-show jitters” can become a thing of the past, and that you must really learn to re-direct your energies as much as possible, right directly into your show! You can only benefit from it, that’s for sure!


Posted: 7/19/2011 12:01:00 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More on Final Mixes and Mastering!

It’s such a pleasure to be working on the final stages of an album, especially when it’s a project that feels like it’s “your baby!” This is certainly the case with my new album, and should always be the case with your prized recordings, as well! The subtle changes and touches that can occur in final mixes and masters can be so minute that they can barely be noticeable, yet are still majorly important to the final overall effect. It’s interesting how these projects require different sets of ears, till it finally reaches the ultimate ears; the unsuspecting customer! I feel that the artist is without question the most important set of ears in the project, but without my incredible engineer and his ears and his abilities, there is no question this would never see the proper “light of day!”

The process takes many steps, and I have already sat through what are referred to as “pre-mixes” at least 2 or 3 times per song. This is where I (you) make the true decisions in terms of what you want where, what you want to keep, what should be discarded, and just in general, the overall musical spectrum of the album. By the time you’re ready for the final and actual “mix”, all of those steps should have been decided already, even though, as I’m once again discovering, that’s never really the final story! There will always be something else that might be bothering you that you’ve been inadvertently living with, or some new parts you feel must be added in. Regardless, it’s important to leave yourself as “open” to new sounds and ideas as possible until the very, very end of the project. I can tell you, though it’s not advisable, I’ve worked on albums that had to have things changed even after the mastering was done! That’s really a stretch, but certainly there are times where, within reason, even that must occur!

Another critical component to watch for during this phase of your project is to not listen with tired ears. It’s important to from time to time, literally take a breather from it and “step back” a bit so as to listen once again, much more objectively, and with less of a “prejudice” in terms of what you are hearing. By doing this, you are almost putting yourself in the “consumer’s” listening chair, and treating it like you’re hearing it for the first time. I tried this the other day, where I had a lot of other things to do around the house, so I just put my new album on in the background, to see if it had any subliminal effects on me. My overall reaction totally positive, and most of all, I didn’t hear or feel any moments that really let me down musically.

These are the kinds of things you’ll need to look for in your own projects, and you’ll have to learn when “enough is enough” and when it’s really time to put a project to bed! We all can suffer from “overdoing” it, and from too much “nit-picking” for sure when it comes to how we treat our mixes, so please be aware, and learn to “step back” from it, and to keep it as fresh as possible. Guaranteed, you’ll hear all of that effort, even ten years from now, when you may listen again with your guard down!


Posted: 7/14/2011 9:58:30 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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