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Performance Dos and Don'ts!

Many times, when you see a group, or even an individual performer onstage, you can often “see right through” their persona, and really see their true level of professionalism. I guess I’d liken it to what I can do when a student comes to me for the first time, and I feel like I can read them like “the back of my hand!”

There are several things you can learn about and adhere to as a performer which will truly make a difference in your stage presence, as well as your overall impact as a performer. The first thing I always try to tell bands and they find the hardest habit to break is the stare, glare or sudden look they give a member who’s made a mistake! This is one of the most unprofessional moves a performer could ever do onstage, and can serve as a major embarrassment to not only the poor player you’re staring at, but also to the rest of you, as it glaringly exposes your lack of experience. Yet, it often happens so fast, we don’t have a moment to think and to consider our actions, so sometimes, even the best of us will suddenly shoot a stare at someone who’s hit a “clam”, just because we’re shocked by it!

I have witnessed many very slick moments of getting through tough times onstage, such as tuning problems, lyrics forgotten and many others, and one must certainly be the coolest and funniest certainly that I’ve been a part of! It was when I was touring with the singer/songwriter John Prine. I had developed a habit, which I still have today, of being very able to tell just what string or strings are out of tune within a chord.So when we’d be onstage, Prine would always be fiddling, often unsuccessfully, with his tuning. Sometimes I’d walk up behind him and very subtly whisper something like “your B string is flat”. After a while of this going on, John simply said to me, “Arlen, I don’t know what you’re talking about, so just feel free to tune it while I’m playing!” Well, that’s exactly what we did! As he would be playing and singing, I would sneak up behind him, and tweak the strings till they were as in tune as I could make them under the circumstances. It also became literally a “part of the act”, as the audience would find it funny, and totally enjoyed seeing this! To Prine’s credit, it’s also cool that he never felt his musicianship “insulted” by the fact that I obviously was completely needed to keep him in tune! Well, after all, this was a guy who used to say to me, “Arlen, could you teach me another chord, so I could write another song?!” Absolutely hysterical!

Make sure you look cool onstage, and mostly, look like you know what the heck you’re doing up there (even if you don’t!) Best of luck to you!


Posted: 7/7/2011 5:13:39 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Thanking Those Who Helped!

I don’t care what profession you end up choosing, at a certain point, nothing will really ever more forward for you without some key help from certain folks at just the right time! This was certainly my case, even though there seemed at times to be just as many people who wanted to hurt me, and hold me back. Still, there were key moments when just the right amount of help was “just what the doctor ordered!”

I suppose the biggest legacy of those who helped me is the simple fact of how naturally I want to help others who are in the shoes I can picture myself once in. I can go all the way back to incidences that some people would never even remember, but which were moments that loomed very large in my life at the time. For example, I’ll never forget the time I took a solo in my 4th grade orchestra on violin, which I was very good at, and my teacher, whom the kids all made fun of me having a crush on, said “and where did you get that lovely vibrato?!” Well, needless to say, my heart melted, and most of all, it was so incredibly encouraging to hear how she, a teacher I loved and respected, really heard the subtlety in what I was playing! This was a true moment of encouragement that really kept me afloat for quite some time!

When I first started playing in the clubs in Woodstock when I was 16 and just started college in Philadelphia, I was quickly getting discovered up there, and one night, outside the Sled Hill Café, where I got to first “sit in” with my band Steel between Buzzy Feiten’s set, and was then actually gigging, a bassist named Tony Brown walked up to me and asked me if I knew Happy and Artie Traum. Well, even though they were fairly obscure at that time, I did know who they were, and was duly impressed that Tony played bass with them. Of course, at that time I was impressed by meeting anyone who actually made real records, because that was still a million miles away from my world! Well, before long, after that meeting with Brown, we formed our own 5-piece band, which I moved to Woodstock to be a part of, and soon after started touring and recording with Happy and Artie themselves! Both of them were truly encouraging of my guitar playing, which was bringing down the house everywhere we played, and I must admit, I really consider that period my true professional start!

It goes on and on, and you’ll never know just when one of those positive contacts you made 30 years ago may come around “full circle” and yet help you again! It’s a natural human trait to want to help someone whom you helped way back when; almost a reassurance that we’re all still here, and that we can still make a difference for each other, and still “feel our oats!”

So try to help those you can along your (and their) way, and always be reminded of those who came before you, and helped you at certain key moments of your career. As you can see from my example of my 4th grade teacher, even something such as that incident can loom ever so large in the life of an aspiring musician! Hope you have many such positive moments!


Posted: 7/5/2011 9:12:22 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Stay True to Your Roots!

Whatever you may end up learning in the course of developing your guitar-playing “roots”, there will be, in addition, something that you will have to refer to as your true roots! By this I mean the kinds of things that may have brought you to love guitar and music in the first place. I mean, I developed very early on, true Blues and Country roots, but I actually had started on classical guitar, and was listening to non-stop guitar-driven Flamenco records played all the time by my Dad in the apartment!

There’s no doubt that a lot of these younger guitar players these days who call themselves Blues-roots players, probably first came to love the guitar via hi-powered metal players, such as Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai. It’s important to remember these true heroes of yours, because they also had roots, which led to their particular styles. Even back in the day when I was starting to develop as a player, there were guys such as Clapton, Bloomfield, Page, Beck , George Harrison and Keith making us all aware of the players that they listened to as young players first falling in love with the guitar; many players and artists Americans had so quickly forgotten such as Chuck Berry, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Lightning Hopkins and more, as well as new, up and coming Blues players such as Buddy Guy and Otis Rush, who were truly current at that time. But I always tried to go deeper and deeper into the roots, and before long, was loving the Blues of Son House and Robert Johnson, and on the Country side getting into Jimmie Rodgers, The Delmore Bros., Merle Travis and Bill Monroe!

But while all this was happening, I was staying true to the early fingerstyle techniques I had learned as a 10 year-old Classical guitarist, which eventually made me a better lead player, fingerpicker and slide player, for sure!

This can have interesting “cross-over” effects in terms of technique for you. For example, if you grew up listening to many heavy metal “shredders” who played with nothing but extreme distortion, you should now try to apply some of that technique into the less “forgiving” cleaner sounds of natural Blues and lead guitar playing, without the dependence on effects pedals that so many of your heroes had! I like to stay away from effects pedals, or “stomp boxes” as many call them, because I prefer getting my overdrive from the amp itself, and not have anything along the line that might get in the way of my “natural” tone. If you were used to playing superfast with lots of distortion, try playing it “clean” now, and you’ll see that your picking technique will be thanking you for sure! Stay true to your roots, and develop new roots as you go along! The combo of the two just can’t be beat, and you’ll see that you’ll always develop a style that is truly all your own!


Posted: 6/30/2011 10:46:32 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Covering "All the Bases"

As someone who really wants to make it as a musician and as a guitarist, it really is critical to be able to start to learn the many other aspects of the business. I know that it took me a long time to finally get a grasp on many of the things that were really happening here, since I started professionally so young. One fact that started to really come to mind was that since it was a regular thing for me to count on the phone to ring for tours, sessions, etc., it was important to develop other sides of my musical spectrum. For example, the idea for Hot Licks tapes came to me as early as back in 1973, when I was encouraging my students to always tape their lessons with me, but I finally started the business in 1979, when my wife-to-be, Deborah and I realized we were almost out of money, and with the phone not ringing for any work!

I also, at a very early age began to write books that had a very positive reaction from the public. My first book deal was for three books with Music Sales, or Oak Publications at the time; Slide Guitar, Nashville Guitar and How to Play Blues Guitar. This happened in 1973, when I was just 21 years old, and was not only an incredible confidence-booster, but helped establish me as an author and helped me gain a new and different form of income!

I never felt that my cultivating my “teaching” side ever usurped my performing/recording side, as I felt that it would do a good job of helping my reputation as a player spread as well, and of course, it did do that. You should never hesitate to develop other aspects of your career, because if you stay true to your music and playing, all the other things will truly help to in the end, spread your reputation. Not only that, it’s really essential that you protect yourself from the obvious pitfalls of the business and its “up and down” nature. More than ever these days, the music business is spread thin, but at the same time, “independence” has become the norm, and artists are all self-publishing, and forming their own labels. Truthfully, it’s entirely possible to keep on releasing material these days without ever even creating a cd at all. It can all be downloads, and there are many great sites where you can do this with great ease and success.

Cultivating the song-writing side of yourself is also very important, as this can end up being the best-paying, and most recognition-garnering part of the business. There are so many song ideas you may have that will be much more suited to someone else’s voice or instrumental prowess, and it can in turn, make folks check you out as a solo artist, or band in your own right.

So take it from me, the ability to “cover all the bases” will no doubt enter into the equation for you at some point in your career, so the earlier you start to develop all of you musical facets, the better off you’ll be!


Posted: 6/27/2011 4:19:04 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The International Guitar Experience

Over the years I have been very fortunate to have had some terrific “international” guitar happenings. It’s simply amazing how easily being a musician crosses all borders, and how music being the” universal language” is so true! Every time I’ve gone to another country, in fact the more foreign, the better, I have always been given the “red carpet” treatment by those musicians and their fellow countrymen.

There was one time that really stuck with me, when I first came to Finland. I had been playing with my own band, including a big performance we did in England, and then we had to part ways. The band went home to the U.S., and I went on to Finland, where some gigs had been set up for me, and a band was already there waiting for me, having learned my material. Well, to my utter shock, these guys were better than my own personal group, right from letter “A”! It was such a freeing experience, which completely took away any musical fears or trepidation about the performances in Finland, and I was instantly able to put on the kinds of shows I like to do!

Needless to say, I was actually able to return to Finland 2 more times, and each time the music I would play with this band got even better and better! I’ve had similar musical times in Japan with bands that are of the highest musical ability and quality, but who most of all, took my music seriously and who always went out of their way to make me feel comfortable and “at home” in their country, and in their band! This has proven true also in other far-flung parts of my own country, where it seems like there are some players that are just as proud as they can be to play with me, and who take the gig so seriously! I guess maybe the secret is that sometimes it’s just better to have a “fresh” bunch of players, as opposed to the same folks you always play with. That “freshness” can also find its way into the recording studio too, as any true professional can make the experience sound “fresh” regardless of how many hundreds of sessions, or how “jaded” some of the players may be; you always have to keep it new and exciting, and there’s definitely an art to doing that properly.

So, this is certainly something I hope, if it hasn’t happened already, happens to you. There is absolutely nothing that can compare with the experience of an “international” musical encounter, and it’s something that will teach you, and stay with you forever!


Posted: 6/22/2011 5:07:44 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Helping Students with Their Band Experiences

Sooner or later, if you are a dedicated teacher as I am, you want to really help your students grow in other ways besides just being better guitar players. Most are truly aching to get into either a good band situation, or at least to be able to competently as well as confidently, play with other people! This is such a big part of being a great musician, perhaps the biggest, and it’s really where the “men get separated from the boys!”

I have always enjoyed taking them the next step, and have taken many students of mine into the studio to record their material, or helped them with their band practice, auditions or performances, such as a “Battle of the Bands.” It’s important to realize that these things, to a young fledgling player, are of the utmost importance, and the gravity they feel when stepping into this “band” world is very real and very heavy indeed.

I mean, there is a certain degree of very wonderful innocence to this whole time in a player’s life, and we as teachers must never forget that. Over-pressuring somebody just isn’t cool, especially when they are already feeling some fears and insecurity about the new situation to begin with.

There are many types of players who see things in many different ways, and who approach this whole thing uniquely, and even though it may seem strange to you or I, it may be just perfect for them, and how they’d like to go about it. For example, a student of mine was just telling me about a senior project I’ve been helping his band with; in which they are supposed to end up with a recording. What he told me truly surprised me; He said they are recording all of their instruments separately and then putting it all together. They also said they wanted to use this as a recording they could present to people so they could get live performing work. Of course, I told him I didn’t really think this was such a good idea, especially if they expect to get live work from it. I’m sure the recordings are going to come out great, since there is a band member who fancies himself as an engineer, and wants to do this his way, and get very analytical about it all, but I’m afraid they’ll lose any “live” quality that could’ve been committed to the recording process.  I suggested that they also record themselves totally “raw”, so they can hear what they truly sound like, and to then try fooling around with the “track by track” approach.

He agreed, and I think he also realized that perhaps they were diluting their raw, “live” excitement by being too stiff in their recording approach. But of course, this is the way of the world, and lots of kids with bands can sometimes get more wrapped up in the recording process than in the musical content of their band itself.

So keep all this in mind as you are mentoring your young player/students into the world of recording and playing in bands. Their confidence will surely grow, and they will forever be grateful to you for your educated input!


Posted: 6/20/2011 3:22:49 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Finding Work as a Guitarist!

I suppose one of the advantages of being a guitarist/musician is that work can be found on many levels. It seems true that it’s even harder to find good work these days as a guitarist, but there are so many ways people enjoy music, that it seems that if one puts their mind to it, they can really make a living as a guitar player.

Lord knows that against all odds, I was certainly able to do it, and I stayed in guitar, and the music world in any way I could. For example, when I started Hot Licks, it was because the yearly touring I was used to doing had temporarily ceased, and suddenly there was no income! I started teaching guitar again to supplement my income (another good alternative for players!) and turned all those well-honed teaching “chops” into a series of taped lessons called Hot Licks that I had planned on doing since the early 1970s! My feeling about this in regards to my music was that it would still keep attention on me as a guitarist, not just as a teacher….that people would want to look deeper into what I had done, and was still doing, with my solo albums, etc. In this way, I still felt the “forward motion” of my career, and I was getting further attention, not only for my teaching, but for the uniqueness of what I taught, and how it pertained to me as an artist!

This was a critical decision to make, and actually, if I must say so myself, I was ahead of my time! Back then, many players had never done anything like this and there was still an “un-coolness” factor when it came to teaching. To me, it was all a very important part of the legacy I wanted to leave and pass on to others, and I wanted to document as many of the great players as possible! This also points to now why my newly planned Guitar Hall of Fame seems like such a logical step for someone like me, who’s been involved in “passing it on” for so many years!

So, the teaching aspect is really important as a form of “other” work and let’s face it, people love to hear music in many situations. There are restaurants to play, bars, outdoor gigs, weddings, birthdays, so many ways a guitar player can, solo or with a band, continue to hone his/her skills! If we were into acting, we’d be just waiting for that “break” to come…..you can’t just go to a restaurant and “act” in the corner while folks are eating, but they love to hear some quiet background guitar! There’s also the solo verses band factor, and I think it’s critical to be able to do both. It not only creates more work for you, but it will really “fine tune” your skills as an overall player!

So, never be discouraged. There are lots of ways for a guitarist to work, to find work and to just generally keep his or her name “out there.” The main thing is having the persistence and courage to do so. There’s no “corporate” ladder when it comes to moving up in the world of the guitar; it’s really all up to you! Best of luck!


Posted: 6/14/2011 9:30:15 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

What to do when a Student Really Just Doesn't Have "It?"

This question is a really tough call in general, because I am such a firm believer in the fact that everyone has music in them! Yet there are sometimes when I have to admit, I really feel like giving up hope on a student, simply because it just seems like they really, and absolutely don’t have “it!” Now, it’s a very tough thing to admit, but sometimes it’s just true. The problem is that often, these people, even though severely un-talented, may possess an incredible amount of drive and desire that really keeps them going, despite their lack of ability.

The biggest drawback, and the number one thing that can hamper a player is the lack or an ear. Having a good “ear”, and one that will improve is an absolute must of you expect to get better as a musician. Again, there are many who believe they have that “ear”, but are clueless as to how bad they may sound. After all, it takes an “ear” to know if you sound really bad too, right? Still many of these students and players go on and on, hoping they will one day hit that magic moment when it all comes together for them, ear-wise, and knowledge-wise. And of course, I am there, pulling like crazy for them, achingly going through the process of trying to get them to finally have that “magic” occur. Unfortunately, for me, this can make many frustrating sessions, some where I feel like I’ve gone through the wringer, just trying to get a point or a musical idea across to them! It can certainly be exhausting, and I must admit, it can try my patience at times…I must be careful not to get too frustrated with them. There are so many things I take so for granted about the guitar and music in general, that I can forget sometimes how truly hard it can be for some folks, even ones who are talented, and destined to become good players!

So, first and foremost, if you are a teacher of a seemingly “hopeless” student, you must give them all the benefit of the doubt they can possibly receive. It’s crucial that everyone be given the best of chances, since the guitar is so rewarding, even on some very rudimentary levels. If a player ends up only knowing a little bit, it really may be all they’ll need for a long time to make them happy! Never discourage, always encourage, and you’ll see that you as a teacher, as well as your “hopeless” student will see that the situation should never really be totally hopeless at all!!


Posted: 6/6/2011 5:15:56 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

A Great Gibson Night!

Getting to play onstage with Lou Pallo, hearing the new album we’re making on the Gibson bus, doing a clinic/performance at a great Gibson dealer, Alto Music; these are just some of what can really make for an extremely positive experience! I had actually never been on one of the Gibson buses before, and having made the tour bus circuit for a long time, I really appreciated all the comforts and fine surroundings for sure! I walked into the store, more like the size of an airplane hangar, and proceeded to really “rip it up” onstage with the great Lou Pallo and band! Lou, longtime sidekick and partner with Les Paul and the Les Paul Trio, now has his own wonderful Les Paul model, a wonderful tribute to such a terrific guy, and all-around great musician.

I brought along my own personal Les Paul Traditional, which sounded great, and we really had the house rockin’ with our twin Les Paul attack! These are the kinds of experiences that really can stay with you, and they are in many ways, the “payback” for spending so long in the music business. After all, the greatest respect and compliments you can get from anyone is from your peers; the other folks in your same profession who all share a common bond, and a common group of life experiences. It’s never more apparent than that moment when you all start to play, and immediately have a musical communication with each other. I suppose that’s the sign of a real “pro”; when you can all just fall together, barely knowing each other’s names, yet you become a real “team” once you hit that stage, or when you start “taking” in the studio!

This year for me has been full of a wealth of these kinds of experiences. My daughter Lexie, has just finished up her new album, with a song from it in a new Karen Black film, “Maria, My Love”, I got to finish my new album, while also appearing on 3 new potential Grammy winners, The Les Paul Tribute album, a Burt Bacharach acoustic tribute, as well as a Lieber and Stoller tribute album!

But the best thing of all, is being able to connect again, or to play for the first time with, other great players, all who have my deepest respect. This is really the finest reward of being a true musician; the experiences you share with others, and the kinds of music and bonds you can make with a wonderful player and man like the great Lou Pallo!


Posted: 5/31/2011 11:23:25 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Beware of the Repair Man!

Having your gear worked on can be a tricky matter, and something like finding the right doctor you can trust. In my experience this has certainly also went for car mechanics, too! Your guitar is a highly prized and special, delicate thing, that truly only you honestly know. Sometimes it can fall in the hands of a repair shop that is a little too “curious”, and they may start to bother with and fool around with your guitar, doing things they weren’t even asked originally to do!

This just happened to me, as I brought two of my prized instruments to a heretofore, unknown shop that was recommended to me by a close friend. The guitars were ONLY brought in for “grind and polish” jobs of their frets, and there was not a single electronic issue needed. Well today I get a call that one of the guitars, a three-pickup model, suddenly has 2 pickups not working at all! Now, how can this happen…? I was literally recording with it, using all combinations of pickups, just hours before it was brought to the shop, and all it needed was for the frets to be polished. Yet, I get a call from the guy who’s shop it is, saying the two pickups are not working! My first reaction, is of course, total rage, as I feel that this guy must’ve started fiddling around inside the guitar to see what made it tick, and somehow broke a wire or two! I always handle my guitars very carefully, and this model, a custom signature model bearing my name, has never given me a second of trouble in the 10-plus years I’ve owned it. Something must’ve happened….

There’s always something a little traumatic about bringing your guitar to a shop for repairs, because you never really know what will be uncovered. When I was just 15, I can still recall seeing my ’52 Les Paul totally taken apart in Dan Armstrong’s shop in NYC by Bill Lawrence. That was surely a shock, because I’d never seen an electric guitar stripped naked of its mechanical and electrical parts before, let alone my cherished Les Paul, which at the time was my only guitar! To see it like that was a scary proposition, but certainly a learning experience, to say the least!

I just know that even though I have 2 or 3 truly trusted luthiers I can feel okay with handling my guitars, it never fails that there is a time they look inside of the guitar, and say something like “what the heck did that guy do to it?! It’s so much like car mechanics, too…always noticing, (truthfully or not) that something unsavory had been done to the instrument or car, before it came to them! Sometimes I think these people do it to cover themselves in case something bad happens later, or it’s already a cover-up for something that’s gone wrong, but they won’t tell me about!

Either way, the fate of my beloved guitar is still in question, but all I can say to you is to be careful just who you let work on your instrument! And I’d especially be wary of when they start to criticize somebody’s “previous” work on the guitar! Make sure they show you, ad demonstrate to you, exactly what they mean! Good luck!


Posted: 5/26/2011 12:01:00 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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