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Working with "Raw" Talent

Sometimes I have the pleasure of coming across a student who simply has “the goods” right from the get-go. This rarely occurs, but it’s one of those things that you just know when you hear and see it. As a teacher, it becomes so important to properly nurture this talent, and to not “over-teach” or hit the student over the head with too much meaningless work. If you see that a student is already gifted, you must be able to keep feeding that gift, and to be able to give them material that will be inspiration, as opposed to just “perspiration!”

When a player is gifted, and already on their own unique path within the guitar, I love being the one who helps nudge them in the right other directions that will help inspire them onto greater creative heights. This is important, because the perception of music as a creative art form by the player is what truly defines just how advanced, and how “ready” they are to become full-fledged artists. It’s not how much you know, because we can never know “it all”, but more how well we can apply what we already know that defines us as an artist. I can recall when I was touring and recording with singer/songwriter John Prine, he’d come to me and say “Arlen, can you teach me a new chord so I can write a new song?!” Besides being funny, this spoke volumes to me about how well he knew himself as an artist, and how he could take his “limitations” and turn them into new ideas and creative concepts. After all, with just a few chords at his disposal, Prine was and still is, a terrific songwriter!

When I am teaching a gifted player, which is always a true blessing, I love to help them along further on their path of self-learning. I mean, let’s face it, in the end, we all really teach ourselves, and it’s up to our teachers to help guide us and inspire us onto greater things when it comes to our own self-improvement. This is what I always strive for, and what you, as players and students must always aim for as well! Good luck, and see you out there again on future blogs!

Posted: 09/02/2011 19:56:08 with Comentarios | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Practicing/Playing Routines

There are so many ways of looking at “practice,” probably hundreds of ways, and as you know, I always promote the “play, don’t practice” philosophy as a way of really making music. Of course, we must really keep playing regardless of what we want to call it, so I find that it’s most of all, important to honor this need we have to improve our playing at all times.

I find that these days, my sheer love for playing is what drives me to “practice,” but I like actually setting musical goals for myself when I do play. Of course, this is a time when my schedule is filled with many recording responsibilities, FIVE album’s worth, as a matter of fact! But what this means for me is that I have actual specific pieces of music to work on, and each project is different. There are all-acoustic finger-style recordings, flat-pick acoustic, full band, overdubs, duets, you name it, and all of it stretches me in various directions. This is really good for me, and what I especially love is the challenge it means as well.

So as a result of all this enormous “need” I am now practicing more than ever, and really loving it. You’ll find this to be true too, as you try to grab any free time you may have from your daily toils and troubles so can truly enjoy playing the guitar! I like to “push” myself, always into newer and newer musical territory, and of course, you just never know what may actually come along that you will have to adjust to. This means anything from new musicians you have to work with to a broken fingernail! It all means adjusting to a new situation, which will undoubtedly mean a “shift” in how you are approaching that given piece of music.

There are times when one can actually “over-prepare” for something, and this can be very counter-productive, as we never really know how it’s all going to go down once we hit either the studio or the stage. I feel that it’s better to know the music well enough so you leave yourself open to freedom and creativity when it comes time to “shine.” The energy level, the interaction with others, the overall sound and vibe are all things that are likely to change your approach once it’s really time to perform or record, and I like to leave myself comfortably open for when such challenges actually present themselves.

So remember, play and practice as much as you can, but leave yourself totally open to whatever may come along. If you are prepared enough, you’ll be sure to always turn these new circumstances into positive musical experiences! Play on!!

Posted: 03/02/2011 17:27:51 with Comentarios | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Getting Ready for a Big Session!


It’s always a challenge when you know that you have a big recording date coming up, and the one I have soon is certainly no exception! I’ve been invited to play with many luminaries on a wonderful Les Paul Tribute album, with Lou Pallo and the Les Paul Trio. Some of the other folks mentioned to be on this album will be players such as Keith Richards, Steve Miller, Johnny A., Jeff Beck and many more, so it’s quite an important album to be included on, and a real honor to be asked!

I’ll be doing my version of “Mr. Sandman”, which I once recorded on my “Landscape” album, and which Lou felt was a fitting tribute to Les, as this was the kind of song he loved to play, and it would be reminiscent of his kind of music. It’s hard to find anything that could ever compare to the kind of music Les Paul would actually make, and to even begin to properly pay tribute to him, but I knew Les, and he would be most happy just to know that we’re all playing, and playing for him!

Another interesting aspect of these recordings is that we are going strictly analog with this…no digital stuff. It’ll be just like the way records were always made, and thanks to Les once again, using the kind of multi-tracking he so brilliantly pioneered. I feel like he’ll be watching over us as these sessions unfold, and I couldn’t think of a more exciting project to be a part of.

I also just found out that Gibson has created a Lou Pallo signature Les Paul, which is a wonderful and fitting tribute to this man who had stood by Les Paul for so many years as his backup guitar player, and band leader. I really look forward to recording with Lou also, who is just terrific. I’ll also be overdubbing on a version of “Vaya Con Dios”, one of the biggest hits Les Paul and Mary Ford ever had, and that will also be a true honor.

The bottom line is that these are the kinds of moments, we, as musicians live for. Never in my wildest dreams did I think way back in 1967, when I was first buying my 1952 Les Paul goldtop, that I’d one day be invited to play on a tribute record to the man himself! I’ll be keeping you all posted on the progress of the album as it unfolds, but this certainly promises to be real milestone for me in my life, for sure!

Posted: 25/01/2011 23:24:54 with Comentarios | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Demos Versus Masters

When you have to “demo” something, meaning it’s as a preparation for a master, or something to work out ideas, it’s always a good idea to know where you really stand with its quality and approach. By this I mean that some demos are much better off being simply “raw” and free-spirited approaches to a given song, as an attempt to be more like a “master” in the first place.

For example, today I had to give 2 demos of 2 songs for a couple of projects I’m recording on, and I realized that the “freer” I approached the pieces, the more the listeners would appreciate the spirit in which I see these songs. Now, these are solo acoustic pieces, which can only get “so” wild anyway, but they each had totally different approaches. One was quiet and romantic in nature, while the other one had to be raucous and quite uninhibited, to say the least! After many takes, and many different keys, I found what were the most natural ways in which I could approach them. Sure enough, the recipient loved the recordings, and now I know that I was justified in feeling that these approaches were the truly “natural” way for me to go.

It’s always a great feeling of accomplishment when the music reaches full cycle. I have always loved “interpreting” songs, but in a way that they really flow through me, and come out as almost my translation of them. In this way, it’s really the most “honest” approach, and that almost always speaks very clearly and directly to the eventual listener. And just as happened today with these pieces of music, my true feeling of validation was only felt once the process was completed, and the songs were approved. As good as any of us may be as players, we sometimes have a hard time being able to “step back” and really hear ourselves as others hear us. Lord knows I can sometimes have that problem myself, and the best way to handle it today was to simply record fast, send it fast and get their immediate response, which was so reassuring and positive!

This “natural” approach also works for me when it comes to “masters”, and in the case of these songs, the final “keepers” which I will cut in a studio will probably not be too unlike what I recorded today. Sometimes we may want to be quite a bit more “under the microscope” when it comes to taking apart and dissecting just what it is we want to present as a performance, but we must always be careful. We can many times, over-analyze things until we get to what we call the “point of diminishing returns.” This happens when musicians simply cannot “step back” and hear themselves objectively, and end up “nit-picking” way beyond anything that is normal. This can turn into a nightmare, and believe me, I’ve actually worked with producers who couldn’t make a solid decision, rendering the entire process impossible, and meaning that we, the players, had to cover all the angles for him, even though we knew it was “overkill” to do what he wanted.

So in the end, you have to really learn to trust your own decisions, and let that process become what really helps you to properly develop a good sense of what is a “demo” and what is a “master” recording. Sometimes, in fact, many times, the demo sure enough, is what will end up being your master after all, and it’ll illustrate that you were right the first time! Good luck in your recording endeavors! Arlen Roth

Posted: 21/01/2011 22:52:32 with Comentarios | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Writing Tools

The moment you come up with a great new idea for a song is really quite special, and it’s something you really want to seize. I know that I have a habit, which must’ve been acquired very early on, of starting to write and create the moment I pick up any guitar. I used to always tell myself that I had to learn something new each time I picked up my guitar in my formative years, so I suppose this has now carried over to wanting to write something new whenever I play also! There are many great tools to help you in this process, and of course, it’s so critical to be able to record these new ideas while they are fresh.

I find that I come up with many ideas while teaching, and some of these songs have found there way onto my albums, such as “Landscape” which was a specific technique I was teaching one day to a star student of mine. Luckily for me, he was, like many of my students, taping the lesson, so I was able to tell him to be sure to capture the song idea on his tape player. Now I have a recorder so I don’t miss a thing, and so I can even post YouTube videos of my playing, etc. I used to write all kinds of silly-sounding “clues” to my new ideas, such as “groove similar to Buddy Holly’s rhythm guitar”, or “melody in chorus similar to Get off My Cloud”…things like that, which sometimes can do a good job of helping me remember just what it was I was dreaming up. And “dreaming” it is, as sometimes a new song idea can fizzle out just as quickly as that dream you swear you’ll remember in the morning, which immediately fades away!

If you can write music, or even if you just write tablature, I would also recommend trying to take down some of your ideas on paper, so the actual positions you are writing for are documented. Let’s face it, for most of us, what really “nails” a song when we are in the creative mode is a great guitar riff, a “hooky” chord change, or even something as subtle as a voicing on a particular chord or lick that just strikes the right emotional feeling. It’s important that you document, as quickly as possible, this unique little thing that for you makes all the difference in the world.

You just never know where or when the inspiration for writing music will come to you, so you must be prepared, and know how to instantly “critique” your ideas as soon as possible. It’s also important to not just “shelve away” a real spark of an idea, so as to render it fairly “useless” when and if you ever get back to it. It’s important to maintain the “spark” it originally had, so you can continue the inspiration you will need to carry on with it in the proper spirit. So, tune in carefully to your “muse” and know when the creative juices are really flowing. I hope this helps!

Posted: 18/01/2011 22:51:58 with Comentarios | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Tuning Your Ear with "Jamming"

I have noticed that even after many years of playing, it can be fun to get together with some folks for a more “free-form” style of jamming than most of us do nowadays. I like to do this with some of my “developing” students, so they can hear just what I do over their playing, and to see if some of that “good stuff” rubs off a little, and they get to train and tune their “ear” more. Jamming should be purely experimental and improvisational anyway, and it’s such a good way to create “structure” out of what is really unstructured. It also helps to “ground” a player who may be just a little too “free form” within their playing, and who needs a better sense of structure and “song-like” situations to handle.

But even once you’ve gotten a lot of your style, technique and experience, it’s still nice to go back and visit the very concept of “jamming” so as to keep given yourself new and fresh ideas, and to literally stretch your abilities even more. I know that when I find myself in a jam I naturally find myself gravitating to either totally new territory, or at least long ago familiar territory that I haven’t used in a long time! This is so refreshing, and it makes you realize sometimes just how much you’ve somewhat forgotten along the way. Years and years of very rigid studio work can make for a musician who may even be losing interest little by little, and there’s nothing like a good jam, with good players, to really spark some new life and ideas into one’s playing. This evidenced in many areas of the industry, where it’s so crucial that players keep up their “chops.” Perhaps nowhere is it more apparent these days than the musical hotbed of Nashville, where all those great pickers who may be doing studio work in the daytime, then let loose in the night, honing their jazz chops when they may have been playing country licks all day, or just simply further stretching and refining their playing in general.

It’s always a thrill to see players of this kind of caliber “stretching out” with their improvisations and you can literally watch them grow before your eyes! This is something I readily encourage all my students to do as well, and I always do some real nice personal jamming with them as a part of their lessons. Of course, I wait till the student is ready for this kind of thing, which can be rather intimidating to them, and then and only then, will the jamming aspect of the lesson really take hold and have adequate meaning to them. Still, I might suddenly “throw” something at them just to keep them on their toes, and to basically “test” where their ear and abilities are at that moment in time.

So, I certainly would recommend seeking out good jams wherever you can find them, and please try to always take away something positive from them……the “good” side of a jam is always there for the taking! So experiment, explore and create, you can’t help but get better!

Posted: 12/01/2011 22:00:50 with Comentarios | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Gearing Lessons Towards a Particular Student

When I teach privately, there is a great deal of work that goes into making sure that the lessons I am giving are really just right for that particular student. I can usually read a student like the “back of my hand” once he/she sits down in front of me, and regardless of how good they make think they are, I can always spot the weaknesses. It’s important to get them properly grounded in the fundamentals, but at the same time, we must be careful to watch and listen for the particular “clues” they give us that can help unlock the doors we need to open for them as learners.

Everyone learns at their own pace, and it’s important not to rush the process, especially if they’re not the quickest learners. I mean I have had the full gamut from players who could never play a G chord, even after months of trying, to players who can’t learn fast enough from me! The latter kind are the ones who make my teaching fun, but also very rewarding, since it’s such a “bang-bang” kind of interplay between us!

There are other students who are very set in their ways, and who rarely can accelerate their learning process. It’s these people who I must be most patient with, because my tendency is to rush a bit, and to assume that a student may be “getting it” at least as fast as when I was first learning. Problem is, not everyone really had that kind of ear, but they can be encouraged to improve their ear, and to slowly learn to recognize tones, pitches and note relationships. Just be patient with them, and be able to recognize when there are moments of revelation for them, because these are the moments when you can really help the student to get over some critical hurdles.

Again, if you teach, you must always try to aim the lesson towards that student’s particular needs. It’s very helpful certainly, when a student actually has a very specific request of what they’d like to learn from me…I can always then take that request and turn it into a real lesson, that shows them “why” they are into that particular sound, song, riff or whatever it might be. This is an extremely important moment for both student and teacher, for it’s where you truly meet on common ground. Still, you may feel that his or her request may be a little too “left field” compared to what they really need to learn, but you can still make the lesson work for them, and give true meaning to what they may want to learn, regardless of how superficial it may seem.

So, always be sure to take a student’s requests to heart, but at the same time “tune in” as closely as you can to what can really help them to become better players. The combination of those elements can truly make for the perfect lesson, as well as the ideal student/teacher rapport. Good luck in your continued teaching and learning!

Posted: 05/01/2011 15:40:45 with Comentarios | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Holiday Guitar!

There’s no question that the Holiday season is really warmed in our hearts by the great music that has always shown up right around the holidays year after year. Increasingly, solo guitarists have been creating instrumental Christmas music albums as an almost essential part of their catalogs! I haven’t quite taken that step yet, but over the years have created some guitar music with this season in mind. I guess I’ve been trying to “stick to my guns” when it comes to creating my own Holiday songs, without feeling like I have to cover the already well-worn classics.

Still, it’s a good time to reflect on the music of this time of year. First of all, mainly because it’s basically unavoidable, and also since so much of it is in instrumental form, it simply has to evoke and awake the guitarist in us. Many of the songs of Christmas bring to mind open and altered tunings, since we really want to create as full a sound on the guitar as we can. This is always helped by open tunings, unless the song of course, is really aided by using standard tuning. Drop D is very good when you want a kind of “bass drone” for hypnotic tunes such as “Little Drummer Boy” and “Silent Night”, and really might be fun to try, either on your own, or when playing for a special Holiday gathering!

My new, upcoming album will have some solo acoustic pieces peppered throughout mostly electric “band” tunes, and one in particular has a definite “Holiday Season” kind of vibe to it that I’ve wanted to record for years that if released properly, I believe could even become a new Holiday classic! Of course, all of us who write music would love to hit that Christmas “jackpot” with a great Holiday song, but we must be realists and understand that it’s very much up to “chance”, as literally thousands of probably very good Christmas songs have been written that have never even been heard!

As far as covering Holiday songs, there have been some truly masterful versions done over the years, both purely instrumental, as well as vocal, and I would certainly recommend you check out as much of this wonderful music this Holiday season. It’s good for the spirit, while at the same time being very inspiring for us as players. Give it a listen, and even try to play some…it’ll be a good thing for you and others all season long! Enjoy your Holidays, and your Holiday music!

Arlen Roth

Posted: 22/12/2010 15:53:41 with Comentarios | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Image and Endorsements

As I have progressed through my career, and as you shall do too, you must be as aware as possible of the image you are creating for yourself, and the kinds of product endorsements you may, or may not want to be a part of. Over the years, I have always been aware of the importance of spreading myself “thin”, in terms of how many various places I could be found in. For example, when I started Hot Licks, it was very important to me that once I started signing other artists, I was just another artist in the catalog. It was important to me and my image, and the image of hot Licks, that it not be billed as “Arlen Roth presents..”, but rather, that I would be paid the higher compliment and respect of simply being “one of the crowd” of respected players I was documenting. So if you’d see an ad with Steve Morse, John Entwistle, Tal Farlow and others, I’d be just one of them all, giving a proper balance to the entire image. I always figured that folks would find out soon enough about who really owned the company, and who was bringing this material to them, namely me, but I just didn’t want to rush it.
The same went for my writing career. I did my first three books for Music Sales when I was really just a kid, but after a long hiatus from writing books, I then published works on several different imprints such as Doubleday, MacMillan, Ballantine and Warner Brothers, thus giving more variety and depth to my career, as opposed to always being thought of as a “self-publisher”, or an entrepreneur. This has also been true of my recordings as well, and even the artists I have toured with, as I keep moving around in those quarters as well, though it’s not as advantageous to be “spread thin” in those areas!
The endorsement part can also be very tricky. It’s very tempting to get excited when people start throwing guitars and other equipment at you, but you’ll find after awhile, that you’ll really want to be associated with the instruments you are truly happy playing. These days, I only care about endorsing the products I feel good about, and whose image really helps me by association. If you get any ads with a company making guitars or whatever for you, also make sure that they mention your latest releases or other artistic endeavors by you in their ads. This “cross-promotion” is very important in terms of the kind of image you want to project, and most of all, who you wish to be associated with.
So, in the end, I know it’s hard at first, but try to be careful about the image you wish to project, and of course, the products you get associated with. These decisions can really have a long-range effect, and can last a long time in the memories of those out there who you may consider to be fans one day!

Posted: 15/12/2010 22:04:10 with Comentarios | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Cutting Rhythm Tracks

Since I am at least partially in the throes of doing a new album these days, I have things such as “cutting rhythm tracks” on my mind! The process often differs for various people, and it is certainly one of the most important stages of making a recording. I usually like to “run down” the material in a fresh way with my rhythm section once we get going in the studio, and this “freshness” is usually something that can be a kind of blessing, especially when working within a band context, and if you have players you can really trust. But in the long run, it would always be better to have worked the material through somehow before the session…usually through rehearsals or playing live, which really helps to make critical musical decisions ahead of time. Even regardless of all this, you’ll probably find that once you are “under the microscope” in the studio, changes seem to occur that only somehow happen while there in the studio! Maybe it’s the new surroundings, the “microscope” factor, or simply the fact that you know you’re finally committing the music to “tape” that really makes you care that much more!

When I was doing my last “band”-oriented album, with Levon Helm in Woodstock, I decided that the situation called for a more total spontaneous experience, in which I also cut much of my lead work “live” as we ran down the rhythm tracks. This is rarely done, and I took the chance of their being “leakage”, where my lead guitar would be bleeding into the other tracks, such as Levon’s drums, the bass, etc., and that would make it more difficult to “fix” leads later on, which was something I actually did end up doing. The mistake made in this recording was that the engineer failed to let me know just how much of this leakage was going on during the sessions, which certainly would’ve helped me later on. Lucky for me, a lot of the leads I did play were kept, and did not necessitate replacing, but it would’ve been a bit better to have had some more flexibility in the long run.

I would say that if you are a lead player, it might be good to play some leads while you are taking some rhythm tracks, especially if you are feeling creative and spontaneous, because you never know when that “magic” take may occur….it is also a good idea, so similar to a singer, you can check if the track is comfortable for you to play to after all. In the long run, the main thing you are going for are great grooves, the correct “feel”, and good separation between all the instruments, should you want to fix a note here and there later on. If the bass and drums are right, that’s the main thing you are at first, looking for. And anyway, since the bass is almost always recorded “direct”, it’ll always be possible for he or she to fix some errant notes.

So, wish me luck on my sessions, and I certainly wish you the best on yours, whether current or future. Regardless, make the most of recording, because it’s an incredibly rewarding process in which you simply can’t help but learn and grow!

Posted: 09/12/2010 17:19:11 with Comentarios | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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