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Finding Your Inspiration!

Eventually, as you move through your career as an artist, the inspiration you must find to push you onward will have to come from many different sources. In your early days, and sometimes much later on, it can come from your teacher or even your fellow players. In my case, so much of this inspiration came from artists and guitarists whom I truly admired, and whose sound turn my head around and made me really adjust my style so I could absorb what they were all about. For me, I was listening to, and inspired by many players of different styles at the same time, so it made for a great mixture of techniques and sounds that eventually added up to giving me a style, technique and sound that is all mu own!

In those days, I was so amazed by players such as Mike Bloomfield, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Zal Yanovsky, Clarence White, Son House, Elmore James, Otis Rush, Merle Travis and many more. I was so consumed by this pursuit that I couldn’t help but want to dig deeper and deeper within all the styles, always trying to get to the source and the roots of these particular players and genres.

I have seen that these days, many players, often folks who are “coming back” to the guitar after many years, look to me and my lessons to give them that new “spark” they are looking for to help ignite some new ideas and new inspirations within their own playing. It always amazes me how much there is to learn and to be inspired by on a continuous basis, and I find this also a time of inspirational new sources for me! I now get turned on by the sounds of Jazz players such as Wes Montgomery, Pat Metheney, Charlie Christian, Tal Farlow, George Benson and more, always looking for something that can be a new addition to my playing arsenal, and a new “spark” for myself. Sometimes it’s just a simple lick or phrase that you can “hang your hat on” that can really help you get re-inspired, and that can have a very profound effect on your playing and approach towards music in general!

I love being a source of inspiration at any time for other players, and barely a day goes by where I don’t get thanked by someone for what I have contributed to either their playing, or to the guitar in general. I hope I can continue to inspire you, my friends and students, and that someday you’ll be playing something so new and fresh that it will inspire others as well, forging your own new territory within the world of the guitar! Best of everything to you!


Posted: 11/17/2011 3:25:46 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Early Songwriting Ideas

Even though you may be in the earlier stages of your musical career and development, you may be finding yourself coming up with some rather original ideas for songs. The beauty you’ll find in this, is simply how these ideas can seemingly come from thin air, or certainly, at least from all kinds of unexpected places. This really is the beauty of this kind of creativity, since it seems to disregard how much knowledge you may or may not have. Rather, it simply uses what is at your musical disposal, whether conscious or sub-conscious, to conjure up all kinds of new aural concepts!

I can remember being an extremely young band member back in 1964, and at the age of 11, being very experimental with my music and sounds, while simultaneously becoming a better writer in a standard musical way, as well. This burst of creativity for me seemed to come “out of nowhere”, but in actuality it was from being part of such a creative family, and also being a part of very creative times. Remember, this was when The Beatles first took over the world, and writers such as Bob Dylan were also re-defining all that we would hear coming over the airwaves. As a result, I simply couldn’t help but start coming up with new ideas the minute I knew anything! I suppose this is really the key; to start to really utilize whatever is at your disposal at any time so you can start to come up with some original ideas of your own.

Certainly, this is one of the true joys you will discover as you start along this long musical journey of yours, and you must learn to be “open” to the process, because whether you even intend it to happen or not, it will, and songs and new sounds will certainly come to you for sure! Be ready for this; be ready to take it down, record it, and document it in any way you can, because it can always fade away, like waking up from a dream, if you don’t get it down on paper or tape or disc before it vanishes! I know that even now, and every day since my beginnings, I always come up with new ideas the minute I pick up the guitar in a very casual, natural way. But most song writing seems to come during a much more “structured” situation, almost like you’re punching the clock, as in the old days of “Tin Pan Alley”. I have nothing against this, and believe me, some of the greatest and most enduring tunes of all time were written in this manner.  I do love deadlines, and focused reasons for writing songs. It forces me to pay closer attention to what I am writing and to listen more closely to that “inner voice” that is really my muse. Even The Beatles, who were masters at this, were able to come up with genius-laden songs sometimes overnight, when they were “under the gun” to have to come up with new ideas for their films, etc., such as “Hard Day’s Night” which needed to be written because they changed the title of the film. Somehow, Lennon and McCartney were able to, at the drop of a hat, summon that creative “muse” within them, and really make it count at a very young age. Where did it all come from? They had the ear and were certainly not afraid to use it. In fact, they embraced it, and as you can tell from a lot of their writing, the songs sound almost as if they wrote themselves!

So when the ideas hit you, be sure to go with them, and embrace them. You never know, one great little melody may make your entire future! Good luck in your songwriting endeavors!


Posted: 11/14/2011 9:17:39 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Getting Whatever Gigs You Can!

I can recall from my early days as a player developing a balance of sorts, between getting any gig I could, and making sure I got the gigs I wanted! This is a fine line, and certainly when you are first starting out, you must be sure to not come off as someone who is necessarily “playing hard to get!” Of course, a healthy amount of seeming “special” and a bit hard to get is okay, because after all, we always want what’s a little harder to attain, but still we must be careful. That “balance” between the need we feel to get those gigs and the need to seem a bit “hard to get” is hard to achieve, but it’s a well-honed skill.

I know that when I started out, I certainly wanted any chance I could to play, to be heard, to record or whatever it took, but very soon I developed a way of looking at the whole landscape with a finer eye and ear, and became a bit more selective about which gigs I did and did not say “yes” to! I’d say that in the current economic conditions, you must be sure to do as many gigs as possible, almost regardless of their quality, or lack thereof. The reason for this is the one I used way back when I began; no matter how bad the gig may be, you’ll never know who may be listening. Not only that, the lack of quality of the other players may even make you “shine” more, especially if you make the most of the music, as distasteful though you may find it!

I remember one very dark musical period for me, soon after I had first moved to Woodstock in 1971. The band I moved there to help form, quickly disbanded, and after less than a year, I had to join an average “cover” band that was doing gigs in bungalow colonies, next to swimming pools, and on handball courts, for something like $10 per day for me, 6 days a week! I hated playing a lot of the music they did, but I still was so far beyond that music that I truly shined and made a reputation for myself as a great player even with a lousy band lie that. Not only that, and even more importantly, this enabled me to play 2 or 3 of my original tunes each show with this band. This helped even spread my reputation farther, and of course, it built up a lot of respect from the listening audience. It made them see me also as a creator of my own original music. It sort of made me a “hometown favorite” with these people. Therefore, even though I had tasted the “real thing” while living in Woodstock when I was only 18, these gigs helped win me new fans, and most of all, helped me hone my performing and playing skills!

So be selective, but be sure to choose the right gigs for yourself, and sometimes take whatever gig you can…you just never know where it may lead you!


Posted: 11/3/2011 2:28:16 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Don't Get Too Mode Crazy!

A lot of players and students alike are always asking me about the “modes” when it comes to learning, and while it is of course, a legit way to acquire musical knowledge, I have certain bones to pick with the whole concept as well as approach.

First of all, the idea of a “mode” already over-intellectualizes music in general, and is one of those things that are better off learned after one has already gotten a good foundation in playing, and in how things should really sound! What this means to me is that if you are literally “overloaded” with this kind of knowledge too early on in your development you will often have to “think too much” before even setting your fingers to a string, and that just is not right. One must first really be able to “hear” what the concept of a “mode” is all about as well as what it creates from a musical standpoint before actually taking the mode concept apart. Only with that foundation of knowledge would you ever be able to make the modes truly apply to your style.

In my many years of producing instructional tapes for my company Hot Licks, I recorded many Jazz titans of the guitar, such as Joe Pass, Emily Remler and Jimmy Bruno, and none of them ever mentioned the modes as a means of improvisation. For those of us who are largely self-taught and who play by ear and by heart, the mode approach represents the ultimate in a cold, dry and emotionless approach to music that we truly find un-appealing.

I prefer the natural approach to hearing and improvising, which involves a great deal of seeing the neck in various shapes, and being able to truly hear the effect that any mode-like addition of a note actually means to the solo or song you are playing. If you can then wrap your head around the concept and that special sound you are creating, you can then “translate” that to a “mode” way of hearing and understanding. I often like the idea of working within the pentatonic approach, both minor and major, and then adding some of the key “passing” as well as “outside” notes that can be real “ear twisters” that give birth to thousands of new improvising ideas. It’s so important to practice this way, and to try to find the new notes and ideas on your own. If you learn this stuff the hard way, as I did, it certainly “sticks” to you much more, since the learning was done in a way where you had to find the licks, the notes and the ideas on your own. In the end, no matter how much you may learn from others, you are still the final judge, and the one who really teaches themselves! Keep that important fact in mind, and then one day the “modes” will mean that much more to you, and you’ll be a far more complete player!


Posted: 10/25/2011 4:55:44 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Practicing Routines

There certainly has been an awful lot said over the years regarding a guitarist’s practicing “routine” and what is right and wrong about this. I have always been a big believer in practicing at least a little every day, and especially since I’m a self-taught guitarist, making sure I learn something new every day as a part of the same process. I believe this should hold true for other players as well, but everyone is different, and has different needs and disciplines.

I, for example, am a man of a very free style and free way of handling his life, and basically approach the guitar in the same way. Since I was a kid, I always played and learned really for the sheer love of it, and coming up with new ideas was never really an issue. The same holds true for me in current times, but I believe the teaching I do actually helps me get in that “practicing and playing” time, as well as the ability to come up with new ideas ad concepts. Let’s face it, when you have advanced students, sometimes one must dig pretty deep to come up with fresh ideas for them, and all of that can lead to many new and creative concepts, without even expecting it! It’s one of the great benefits I do love about teaching, and I’ve even come up with many new song ideas right there on the spot.

No matter what, your playing can truly suffer from not playing enough, and I believe you must find a way! It’s good to develop a routine in which you take a small (or large) part of every day so you can work on a new piece of music to learn. Not just scales and repetitious stuff, but really playing songs that you want to make a part of your repertoire. Then, the next important thing, and really a polar opposite, is to be able to work on your improvisation. This means really digging in, and trying out new ideas that can get you out of that “rut” you may sometimes feel yourself getting trapped in.

On my Gibson “Chat” yesterday, so many people were asking questions about this, and I was at least able to answer them with some quick advice that they could put into use immediately. Things such as using “passing notes” to come up with new ideas that take you out of the “pentatonic rut” and more are important, and to not always look at all of this as “scales.” This was one person’s problem, who even after I said “find passing notes, and play the notes you always avoid” thought I simply meant “practice chromatic scales.” Couldn’t be farther from the truth. Scales, and the like just tend to keep you in a rut…they help your technique, but seeing in “shapes” and other true visualizations are much more suited to helping your improvisational skills! Good luck to all!


Posted: 10/21/2011 3:18:34 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Breaking the "Stage Fright" Cycle

Stage fright can be a real paralyzing problem for performers of all types, and it sometimes, for some people, seems to literally spin out of control, rendering true performance almost impossible. I do know friends and other cases where this was truly an out of control problem, but for those of you starting out in this world of performing music there certainly is hope.

In some of my earliest days of becoming a professional musician and performing guitarist, I was often experiencing some pretty bad bouts of nervousness onstage. I wouldn’t absolutely call it “stage fright”, since I was able to get onstage, and certainly was not trying to avoid the act of performing. Still, once I was performing, and since I was so outclassed by the performers I was working with in terms of their age and experience, I would sometimes get overpowered by the nerves, and it would really cut into my ability to even play correctly and to play with the freedom and abandon I was so used to having.

This can be very disconcerting for a young player, and also very discouraging, especially if nothing is done about it quickly. The problem is the “fear and flight” problem that can develop within the human brain, wherein you actually start to always anticipate the symptoms of the fear, thereby rendering yourself incapacitated by the very fear of the symptoms of fear!

Well, if you expect to have any overcoming of this problem, you have to really stare it right in the face. The nervousness, which really most performers experience at some level or another, can actually learn to be “channeled” to make your performance even better and more intense than ever. Remember that when you are performing, you are always in a heightened state of emotional and even physical intensity; this can be further enhanced by taking that “natural nervousness” you’ve got and making sure that it gets to become an additional “friend” to the intensity you want to feel when playing. This is really the only way to overcome the “nerves”, and in fact can become a true ally to you, that you can start to even look forward to as you launch into your performance.

In the end, this is all really a very common experience for performers, and you must really make this a part of you becoming a better and more confident guitarist, who is willing to take his or her craft to a higher level, and to the public. At one point or another, we all must take this critical step, and go from the living room to the stage; make sure it’s a positive step in the right direction!


Posted: 10/13/2011 4:50:19 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Making the Right "Connections"

Making the right connections, and using them wisely is a very important of anyone’s developing or even well-matured musical career. In the latter mode, I certainly have found it to be true for me, even though I am a seasoned pro. Let’s face it, some “old” connections can literally “dry up” or certainly be overused if we’re not careful. There is one artist who comes to mind for me, who I worked with for many years off and on, who had a bad habit of constantly using and I mean using, the same limited group of people over and over again, year after year. This created an awful professional “profile” for her, and started to paint a very undesirable picture of her, career-wise, for a long time, and for many observers. It’s certainly one thing to have the connections, but a whole other thing how you utilize them.

It’s funny how it works, and everyone has a totally different view of how much they can or should, be used. I have worked with incredibly powerful people who can help me enormously with the push of a button, but who show such disregard that it’s almost criminal. What I have noticed is that these folks seem to have a fear of being “used”, or a complex about people only wanting to use them, as opposed to actually liking them! It’s silly, but those of us who really need these connections must pick and choose when we use our contacts wisely.

I have some friends from the “old days” who I occasionally contact about needing help for a project, and because of their belief in me, and the fact that I don’t always “hound” them, they are always more than happy to be whatever help they can be. I guess mutual respect is what it’s really about, and if these “people of power” look at you with admiration and respect, the help should always follow easily. These are the kinds of friends that you should be cultivating…. not only professionally, but especially on a personal basis. The “personal” side of things will always speak more to the heart, and will always tend to make them that more generous and approachable.

Of course, many of you will be asking, “where and how do I make these connections that Arlen is talking about?” and the answer is really “anywhere and anytime.” As I have always said, “one good thing always leads to another” in the music business, and I, personally love to help anyone who really has talent, and who needs to be recognized. For goodness sake, I used to sign guitarists to Hot Licks Video, who nobody ever even heard of, but who I felt deserved to be recognized for their fine abilities. I know these people will forever be grateful to me for what I did, and clearly understand why I did it for them.

It’s a cyclical thing…the ones who always were helped in the proper way and for the right reasons, will always tend to be helpful to others. I hope this always proves to be true for you, as you make your way through this tough and rocky path we call the music business!


Posted: 10/11/2011 2:51:47 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Finding the Right Place to "Make It"

All of us are very affected by where we end up settling down, and where we have grown up, but one thing is for sure, that many musicians have had to be “nomadic”, to say the least! Sometimes, it’s very important to really pick yourself up and go to where you really should be.

Many players spend a long time being, or attaining to be, a “big fish in a small pond.” This can serve as being very satisfactory for a long time, and can also be a great learning experience, but sooner or later you have to really make the move that will be the one you need to really make it in the “big time.” For many this can mean coming to New York, or maybe Nashville or L.A., but regardless of where you go, sometimes it’s just the right stimulus you need to help “jump start” your career.

I know that when I first moved to Philadelphia to go to school, along with my band, we had an immediate incentive to drive forward with our career. Then I moved to Woodstock on my own, which gave me another strong incentive, although I was much more “alone” feeling, and was still cutting my teeth on the whole aspect of being a performing and session guitarist at a very young age. Finally, after that I came back to NYC to start a really much more “aggressive” career in the studios of New York, while also continuing to build my touring and solo career as well.

In every case, the act of “transplanting” myself always seemed to lead to a new and higher form of creativity within my own playing, as well as “stepping up” my career itself. I think if you do this one day, you’ll be amazed at how “turning over a new leaf” and changing location can really impact your career in a positive way. I have encouraged many old friends as well as students to finally get up and do this for themselves, and it has always paid off.

In my case there have also been some moves that even though they seemed “obvious” were moves I just couldn’t pull the trigger on. There were many places I considered, such as Nashville and Austin, because even though I’m NY born and raised, my Country and Blues roots were much stronger than many NY players had, and I thought my playing would be far more appreciated in these places where so much of my “sound” had originally come from.

So, I certainly do recommend that you bring yourself to a place where your playing and where your music would be most appreciated. But please remember to do this at the right time, and not too early.  This was the mistake I made with Woodstock, as the band I went there to form in 1971 at the age of 18 was to break up so soon, I couldn’t really establish myself there. The unusual outcome though, was that after I moved back to NY after the one year in Woodstock, all my work seemed to come via Woodstock after all, and everyone thought of me as coming from that “scene”, even though I no longer lived there! Hope your journeys all prove fruitful!


Posted: 9/30/2011 3:14:19 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Managing a Music-related Business

As many folks are aware, these days, and really all days that one is involved in the music industry, one has to from time to time, develop and manage a business that may be a little out of the ordinary when it comes to what that music -related thing is about. In my particular case, I had decided to turn the teaching I had always done into a much larger-scale operation by creating Hot Licks, back in 1979. I knew as early as 1973 that I wanted to do this, but I was still very involved in touring and recording, plus teaching, and was far too busy to think of having a real, bona fide business of my own.

This was an exciting and daunting task, starting my own company, but one thing was for sure, we had determination, and we simply learned every step of the way, right from the start. It of course, would never have been possible if I hadn’t had my incredible late then “wife to be” at my side, helping me all along the way. It amazed us how we started to take so much money in right away, and the need to get organized, and also to have employees started happening real fast, as well!

Hot Licks, of course grew and grew, and became a worldwide phenomenon that was the first company of its kind. My part in it was always the creative side; creating the initial lessons, and then signing other artists, many of whom I was working with and already knew from our mutual musical encounters. I also stayed deeply involved in the marketing, advertising, and other promotional aspects of what Hot Licks did all around the world.

These days, I have taken to starting up a new venture, The Guitar Hall of Fame, which will be in Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of fame, also! It’s once again going to be a labor of love, as I really see this as a lasting and necessary legacy for me to leave for the guitar and for guitarists everywhere. One thing is for sure, I’m going to need a really great staff and “team” to make this happen in the right way. Big names in the business are of course, important, but the real thing that will make the “wheels turn” will be dedicated staff members who also share my “vision” for The Guitar Hall of Fame.

It’s always been my experience that as long as your music-related business still keeps people focused on you, they will also be open to your artistry and music, and will always seek you out, and try to know as much about you as possible. So don’t worry if you get into a certain wing of the business that may not make you play or record every day…..it should still help keep the focus on what should always matter most to you…..your guitar playing, and your music!


Posted: 9/21/2011 12:01:00 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Recording "Live" in the Studio!

 Many of us are already familiar with the recording processes that take place in the studio; Cutting rhythm tracks first, overdubbing both instruments as well as vocals, mixing etc., but I’m sure many of you have never had the true experience of “cutting” live!

In some of the earliest days of my studio experiences, I would often walk into a session I was booked on to see that some 15 to 20 musicians were all there, ready to go, and ready to record all at the same time! This is, of course, how the majority of music had always been recorded, before Les Paul had invented multi-track recording, and in fact in the earliest days, only one or two mikes were used for the whole session! But it was not unusual for many of these sessions I did to have a whole group of “live” musicians all playing at once! And quite frankly, at that time, I was so “raw” as a player, I actually responded more favorably to that environment, as opposed to the more “artificial” act of layering parts, and recording the instruments separately.

In those kinds of sessions, there would actually be an eight-bar area on the sheet music saying simply “Guitar Solo” where I would have a chance to really show off my “live” chops, and blow everyone away with my instant creativity! Remember, a lot of these musicians were the traditional kind who would only play what was on the music stand in front of them, and who could never improvise! To them, a true improviser like me was somewhat of an anomaly and a rare treat for them, indeed! This also went for the “Producers” of these sessions, who were loving the fact that I could “make them look so good” with my sheer ability to “create” right on the spot!

This was a great time to be first getting into recording, since I was coming at it from such a live viewpoint, but once I had to do the “other” kind of recording, it became a much harder thing to adjust to, for sure! The last 4 albums or so that I have recorded, particularly the one with Levon Helm, “Toolin’ Around Woodstock” and my latest upcoming one, were done with a very specific “live” approach in mind. This all also includes getting the right kind or real “room” sound, which was particularly great in Levon’s barn, and even though we were trying separate the instruments, a certain blend that occurred from the “leakage” between them. It takes away from how you can later manipulate and isolate the instruments, but it adds a kind of dimension that is kind of hard to describe! In the end, I was glad I really “went for it” with these live recordings, because the “vibe” was unmistakable, but I also wished I had a little more flexibility when it came to the overdubbing and mixing process. Here’s to “live” recording! I hope you get to do some soon!


Posted: 9/14/2011 4:48:33 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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