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Caring for Your Acoustic Guitar!

Arlen Roth

This is not just your typical “guitar maintenance” blog, rather, it’s some of my reall hard-earned knowledge from some real-life experiences for me! After all, out acoustic guitars usually mean a fairly sizable investment, and they can be touchy and rather tempermental at times, especially due to climate variations such as temperature and especially humidity.

The first thing which I have certainly learned the hard way, is to keep my acoustics tuned down at least a half-step, to Eb. Number one, it makes it so much easier to play, and for a string-bender such as I, really helps put the guitar in a slightly more “electric” feeling mode for bending. Secondly, it really relaxes some of that tension that is and can be so damaging to the top of the guitar, and to the bridge. I have had many bridges pull up on me, which actually is supposed to happen if the tension becomes the kind that would lift the top. So the bridge in a way, “sacrifices” itself to save the top! I once had the misfortune of having a very old vintage 1939 acoustic flat-top totally lose its top due to the fact that someone a long time ago actually using epoxy to glue down the bridge! This meant that it was impossible to separate the bridge from the top, and all it did was take that poor top along with it! I can remember my luthier having to do “emergency” surgery on it while it was lifting, and he actually had to create a make-shift “iron” of sorts to go under the bridge to try to heat up and loosen up the epoxy glue! Like an expectant father, I kept calling him every few minutes to see if my prized guitar was going to “make it” out of surgery successfully!! This time it did, but the second time was too much, and there was too great a loss of wood to salvage the top! Oh well, it did last me 25 years, but it was so painful to let go of that baby!

There was another time when a very elderly gentleman in NYC literally gave me, as a surprise, 2 acoustics that were so old that they dated from 1888 and 1908 respectively. I was so excited, took them home on the subway to my downtown NY loft (just 2 blocks north of the World Trade Center!) and literally as soon as I entered my heavily dried out and steam-heated space, I heard the top on the 1908 crack with a resounding shock!! I knew what it was the second I heard it!! So sad, because here was a guitar that lasted since 1908 without a problem, and the second I bring it home, it cracked! It was almost like when a plant goes into “shock” from being in a new environment!

I have learned to kind of let my acoustic guitars ebb and flow with the change of seasons, and I always keep a close watch on them. I try to keep them out of the drying sun, away from any heat sources, and in their cases as often as I can. There will still always be problems that I can’t avoid, but these are the chances we must take if we expect to keep our acoustic guitars and ourselves, happy and strummin’!

Posted: 8/1/2012 3:50:25 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The International Spirit of Music!

There certainly is nothing fake about the statement that “music is the universal language” and it’s amazing how some of these international “encounters” can really stay with you, and always mean a lot to you as your life goes on. These experiences have always stayed with me, even many years later. I suppose it’s because it’s such an incredibly “moving “experience…I mean think of it, going to a strange and foreign land, and you encounter people who may not even speak your language, but the minute you all strap on those guitars you’re not only speaking the same new language, but your communication is complete and immediate, and you are immediately “linked” by your mutual love of what you’re doing, which is making the music you love!

I had these experiences in England, Finland, Japan, Australia and many other places…it’s such an amazing feeling, especially when some of these musicians want to please you so badly, that they many times even out-do your own band! That was certainly the case for me, as I went from doing a live concert video in the UK with my “home” band, and then went on to Finland to play with a bunch of guys who learned my stuff “cold” and who were literally ready for me to just jump on the stage, and who certainly “out did” my own band from the USA!

The same was true in Japan, and the joy that is mutually experienced when you can jam together and really make good things happen is a truly unique musical “life” experience you’ll never forget. The greatest is when you see the smiles on the faces of those foreign folks as they realize that you and them are really connecting! They are getting an experience, thanks to you coming all that way, and making that “travel” sacrifice so you all could play music together! It’s something that almost can’t be described!

Another thing is when many of you are all “brought together” for a mutual experience from many different places. I can recall doing a series of concerts and clinics in Finland, the “Hot Guitars” festival, where me and many other playing luminaries all met there to teach together and to play together. It was amazing, and the fact that I was sharing such a powerful mutual experience with other legendary folks such as Joe Pass, Barney Kessel and others just made it that much more exciting and lasting for all concerned!

So, like me, I hope you have some great inter-cultural and international music experiences like I have had! I look forward to more, as I actually will be touring Spain and Italy later this year for the first time. Can’t wait to report on this to you!!

Posted: 7/27/2012 9:44:41 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Your Pick and Fingernails are Your Best Amplifier!

Last night, my daughter Lexie and I had a truly “all-acoustic” gig, in which there was completely no sound reinforcement at all; no mics, no P.A., no amplifiers, nothing, and it still ending up sounding so nice that you could hear a whisper, and the most subtle of notes from my guitar. I guess this is what they try to achieve in those great concert halls from Arlen and Lexie Rotha sound perspective. I can recall playing at the Tyrone Guthrie theater in Minnesota with Eric Andersen in the ‘70s, and it was reputed to have this same kind of “you can hear a pin drop” kind of natural sound there, and in fact, we have even played there completely devoid of any amplification back then!

I suddenly realized last night that everything I was “projecting” was all due to having a great set of fingernails at the moment, and also using my flat pick judiciously. At one point I turned to Lexie and said “man, I am really having to play hard!”, but then realized later that the sound where we were projecting, under this kind of gazebo-like structure, was also allowed to be heard when we were whisper-quiet too! I was literally able to play some of the most subtle things possible on an acoustic guitar, and have them heard perfectly. Yes, we were aided by the fact that many of the listeners were very focused and quite, but we still did have a few crazily screaming children in the background as well. (Nothing you can do about that one!)

Still all in all, it sure made me thankful for those strong nails of mine, and for a good use of the old standby, the good old flat pick! I even found that the sound was so clear and nice that I was able sometimes to fall back on using just my nails like a flat pick, which is how I played for many years as a finger-style player, long before I allowed myself to hold that little foreign object in my hand!

So I suppose the moral of this story is that even though I was scared stiff about not having any amplification for an “acoustic” gig, it turned out that the sound was totally perfect (a rarity!) and whether they know it or not, the porch at the Harbor View Hotel has literally perfect acoustics! Amazing how these things can sometimes just work out perfectly! I even remember pointing out how the gazebo/rotunda over our heads was literally shaped just like a speaker cone! I guess that’s why it worked so well…would be a great place to record, too! Good luck on your acoustic journey!

Posted: 7/24/2012 4:15:29 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Handling Auditions

Whenever you have to audition for a gig, it can be a “loaded” situation to say the least. Every gig, every person, every audition is completely different from the next, and you really can never know what to expect when you show up! That is of course, unless you actually know the people involved, and that the deck is already “stacked” in you favor as you try out for the gig. Even then, though there will no doubt be some surprises waiting for you, as I believe everyone is looking for something “new” from you regardless of how much you think they “know” you. Perhaps it’s just because they like to feel that “power” they hold over you, or if they just like to mess with you, but in the end an audition seems to always “feel” like an audition!

The best way for you to approach it is to try to remain as calm as possible, and to remember why they called you for the gig in the first place, and therefore to put your “best foot” forward. I know that from my own experience, unless the given gig was totally inappropriate for me, I usually did a good job of impressing the parties involved, and usually turned opinion around, even if there were doubters of me to begin with as I walked in. I almost always walked out having impressed everyone, and in fact sometimes messing things up, because they thought they already had their minds made up, but I managed to change their minds!

It’s really one of the best feelings ever to do a great job at an audition, and you must remember not to “judge” how you did based on their ultimate decision. It should really depend on how you feel about how you performed, and whether or not they got to see the best you have to offer. That has always been my biggest regret when it comes to auditions; when I feel as if I never really got my best “chance” to do the best I could, and to really show what I can do. Unfortunately, it’s often feeling like a “victim of circumstance” that can negatively affect you, as often the music just isn’t really your cup of tea!

I remember passing the audition for The Billy Joel gig, but already being offered the tour with Art Garfunkel at the same time…..Billy was certainly nice enough, and they really wanted me, but I realized that there wasn’t a single guitar solo in the show at that time, and I was not about to “fade into the background” with a band at the age of 25! I wanted to be heard, and Art Garfunkel to me was a much more established artist at that point, and so much of the show was really just he and I, as I was playing Paul Simon’s parts, and had other opportunities during the show to showcase my creativity. Not to mention the fact that the gig was much easier, less touring, and yet, better money!

So as you can see, there are many, many things that can go into an audition and the eventual decision that either you or the others make, but as long as you feel that you gave it your best shot, you should never feel let down. There’s always something new and exciting around the corner for you…trust me!

Posted: 7/19/2012 4:11:22 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Going Vintage, Going New!

Epiphone and Gibson guitars

There’s nothing like being able to make some great “finds” when it comes to vintage guitars. I have been doing this since around 1966, and show no signs of letting up. One thing that certainly amazes me is how so many things that you’d think were totally gone, continue to “turn up”, even in some of the most unlikely places! Of course, also with economic times the way they are today, more and more cool and rare items are resurfacing everywhere, since folks simply need the money!

The truth is that of course, makers such as Gibson are building their new guitars with as much quality and even more consistency than guitars were built with back in the older days, but there still is just “something” about the patina and age and overall “mojo” that the old guitars seem to have! It’s still “hit or miss” though, as you can certainly old guitars that are “duds”; most likely instruments that were not very good even back on the day when they first left the factory.

Another very critical thing to look for with the older guitars is just how much restoration and repair work has been done on them. This can be usually detectable, even though the vintage boom has created many luthiers who can do very intricate and subtle repairs that are virtually un-detectable. These are the kinds of repairs you want to look for; fret jobs that end up looking original, replaced binding that matches the color and patina of the older, original binding, neck resets that are straight and that have no obvious “funkiness” to them, finish touchups that are perfectly “blended” into the older paint or finish, and on and on.

I do love the fact that many of the older guitars sometimes represent “one offs” that were either “special order”, ”prototypes” or simply experiments that the manufacturer simply wanted to try. After all, back in those pre-Beatle days, not that many people played guitar, and instruments were not needed at the incredibly alarming rate they are purchased now! These 2 instruments pictured here represent some rare birds indeed, and instruments I have always loved. The Gibson ES-295 really needs no introduction as one of the coolest 1950s pieces ever, and a true Rockabilly “classic”. The Epiphone is a Zephur Regent Deluxe (as maxxed out as can be!) with not only all-gold parts, but with 3 DeArmond pickups and a Bigsby! I really believe this guitar to be a “one-of-a-kind” that was either a custom-ordered piece back in 1962, or was an experiment by Epiphone to see what their classic 3-pickup model would sound like with these great, twangy pickups! Whatever their motives, they certainly hit a home run with this one, and it was one lucky guitar player who made this one his or hers 50 years ago!

The Epi must also be the hugest thing I have ever held in my arms….the lower bout must be even wider than a Super 400, and it literally dwarfs the ES 295 that is next to it! So, as I said before, always be on the lookout for these rare birds, and at the same time, pay close attention to the great new guitars that are being created. They offer great value, even greater consistency than the oldies, are are readily available. I believe we are in a “Renaissance” of sorts with the new guitars today, and they certainly will become some of the classics of the future!

Posted: 7/5/2012 3:16:25 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Another Incredible Night of Music!

We were playing a special tribute concert to the memory of Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and as a tribute to the music of The Band, in general. Each of us had pretty direct connections to Levon and the other Band members, and had either played with them or produced them or simply known them in one capacity or another. It was put together by an old friend of mine, “Professor Louie”, who has a band called the Crowmatix, and he is someone who actually worked as one of the main engineers on my first Toolin’ Around album project back in late ’89 and 1990, and who I had never actually heard none played with purely on a musical basis! I also was re-united with a friend of mine and fellow player, the violinist Larry Packer, who I think had last performed with me with Happy and Artie Traum back in the early ‘70s! It took all this time for us to be back together playing, and we “gelled”   as if not a single day had passed!

I got to sing several of my favorite Band tunes, as well as doing an instrumental version of “The Weight”, which of course, is one of the most famous Band songs of all time. The wonderful feeling was also knowing that I had just done an album with Levon Helm, called Toolin’ Around Woodstock, which was such a monumental experience for me, and to then be playing a tribute to him was almost too emotional to handle! I even got to sing “Sweet little 16” as an encore, because that was one of the “surprise” tunes Levon ending singing on my album, along with “Crying Time.”

Certainly the most rewarding part of it all was how the true die-hard fans really came out in big numbers, and it’s so great to see how there is such a wonderful and supportive group of people who still love to come out and hear this brand of incredible music. We had NO rehearsal, just a short “sound check”, and we all simply had the most incredible and spontaneous time together! This kind of onstage enjoyment really becomes something that the audience feels, and it sure was like that last night! I sold a ton of cds (especially the one with Levon, of course!) after the show, and met with the fans. There were also some old students of mine who surprised me by showing up, and they had a real lessons in watching me and others, and how we can just use our ears and our hearts to make a show really work. When it’s ”do or die” up there on that stage, that’s how you really learn, and THAT’S the “school” of music and life I really went to! What a night!!

Posted: 7/4/2012 12:01:00 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The Art of "Sitting In"

“Sitting in”, or doing a spontaneous kind of “jam” with someone else is a true art form, ad can really be used as a great learning tool. It can also make a real difference in terms of you being heard at “the right time and the right place” as far as getting more work is concerned, and as far as helping to spread your (hopefully good!) reputation! I know that for many, many years I used this kind of situation to my great advantage, especially when I was young and so needed to be heard, and so needed to spread the word about my playing abilities.

When I first started becoming a part of the Woodstock “scene” there was so much live music going on, with so many famous players. It seemed that on almost any given night, I could find myself sitting in with greats such as Paul Butterfield, Rick Danko, Happy and Artie Traum, Levon Helm and so many more. It simply behooved me to be there and make myself be seen and heard as much as possible! It always seemed to pay off, as there were many phone calls I got for live gigs, tours and of course, recording sessions all as a direct result of these appearances.

I have also found that now that I am a respected performer, and someone who a lot of people know, it has also become a wonderful time to “sit in” and help some of my friends, whether they be well-known or not with their shows, too! Also, thanks to social media such as YouTube and other entities these days, you can make one gig turn into thousands, as people get to watch it, and even comment on it. It’s a great new way to essentially “have a hit”, and it enables you to reach countless people. Let’s face it, there have been thousands of relative “unknowns” who have “made it” on YouTube, right from their living rooms!

This week, I’ll be doing two “sit in” kinds of gigs; one with my dear friend and fellow slide player Sonny Landreth, and another with a great bunch of old Woodstock cronies for a tribute to the late great Levon Helm and Rick Danko. The latter will be a slightly more rehearsed and polished situation, since an entire huge band will be involved, but both will be of equal importance and weight, to say the least! The bottom line is what a joy it is to be asked to play at these kinds of events, especially when I can think back to the times when I used to stand there, at the side of the stage, just wishing I’d be asked to join in!

So as far as you are concerned, please be sure to “sit in” wherever and whenever you can. It’ll teach you so much, and as long as you use restraint and don’t try to overpower the situation, you’ll find that it’ll always turn into something better for you later on in your career!!! Break a leg!

Posted: 6/29/2012 9:42:39 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The "Allure" of the Road

A lot of what is said about the allure and romance of being on “the road” is mostly hearsay, and a lot of it is over-romanticized, but then again, a lot of it is actually true! The reason I say this is of course because I speak from real experience, but also the fact is that many of us who spend a lot of time on the road start to wax poetic about it, and certainly have many feeling about the experience. When I spent a lot of time on the road, I was often amazed at how little it all meant to many of my fellow bandmates. Maybe they were just too busy living it to reflect on it, or perhaps they were just “blank” about it, and to them it was “just another gig.” Well, of course, there are many times something can feel like “just another gig”, but it is precisely then when we must really make the most of it all, and actually “reflect” on what it all means and where it is all going.

The kind of commitment it takes to really have a life “on the road” is one of great dedication and sacrifice. There are many long-term road performers who have a very difficult time maintaining any kind of real home-related family life, and it’s a killer when you have children and cannot watch them grow or “be there” for them the way you would like. It’s also extremely hard on relationships, and there needs to be a great deal of trust and commitment on the part of both partners in this regard, and there also must be the effort to spend as much time together as possible, even while on that road!

The road does definitely have a distinct kind of “allure” when it comes to us performers, and to me it was how I had begun to become so familiar with so many far-off places. It actually seemed that while I always welcomed discovering new towns, cities and open spaces, I also started to long for returning to those same places a few years, or sometimes even just a few months, later. It was intriguing to start to know some of the same people, revisit them, see how some of the restaurants and shops had maybe changed, or maybe stayed the same, and also to see how different my impressions would be upon coming back around a second or third time. The first time it seems, is always much more full of the “romance” of un-familiarity and discovery, whereas subsequent visits have a more real and tangible quality about them; often showing you just how wrong your impressions were when you first went there! Of course, there’s nothing like when you get to a truly friendly place, where they really know how to treat a weary traveler, and where they treat you like a “star”, regardless of your actual musical or artistic status in the world! These of course, are the places you will always want to return to, and where you will always feel as if it has a special place in your heart. So follow that musical dream, and that musical and asphalt road, after all, it’s just another perfect metaphor for life itself!

Posted: 6/21/2012 3:29:08 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Catch the Greats Before They're Gone!

In case you haven’t noticed lately, there has been an alarming “rash” of losses among many of our great musicians and performers lately. Some are even great ones I have teamed up with, such as Levon Helm, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Jerry Reed, Doug Dillard and many more…some quite elderly, and some way too young to die.

It all has to give everyone food for thought about making sure you see the greats before they pass on. There are so many great performers these days who are really getting up there. All you have to do is mention certain “elderly” greats such as Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dion, Pete Seeger,  B.B. King, Glen Campbell (who is sick), and even the older bands such as The Stones, etc.. Everyone is “getting up there”, and it certainly proves that Rock n’ Roll, even though a “young” medium, has also grown up along with many of its creators. The Blues artists have always grown quite old, and played deep into their lives, usually due to the fact that they were “rediscovered” so late in life. They simply had to come back to life, so that all those Blues fans of the 50s, 60s and onward could see these legendary heroes they had only heard about, or seen only in photographs!

Well, it never stops being true, as all our great rockers, Blues greats, Country legends and more are aging, we must get out and see them, and support them, and support the live music we so need to hear and to keep those traditions alive. In the end, we all may end up as elderly musicians, and one great and happy thing I have to report is that certainly from my standpoint, I have found that my creativity has done nothing but grow, the older I get! I think if someone comes out to see me now at the age of 59, they’d be getting a more interesting show than if they’d seen me when I was say, 22 years old. It just seems to work that way, and it’s definitely good news for us players who intend to stick around for awhile!

So, I certainly encourage you, one and all, to go out and see the “greats” before they are gone! It’s doing the right thing, and most of all, you will forever be enriched by the experience! It’s the best learning you can do!!

Posted: 6/21/2012 10:19:17 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Don't Let Your Guitar Hold You Back!

I have found that far too many people think that they must either start themselves or their kids on a really bad guitar, and will only “step up” to a better model if they show real interest or improvement in playing. Well, of course the problem with this is that we never want the instrument to actually “hold us back”, but very often it does…even by our own choosing! This is usually due to financial reasons, but truthfully, if that is a major concern, as it should be, you can still get many great guitars that will not discourage you from playing at all, and at an affordable price, too!

A perfect example is Gibson. Here we have a maker of truly fine instruments, yet able to keep a consistency of quality at many price points. This also includes the Epiphone line, which is decidedly lower-priced, and aimed at a wide audience of people who want good playability and quality at a truly affordable price. If you watch my Gibson online lessons, you’ll see that I am equally at home on the Gibsons as well as the Epiphones, and in fact, I simply loved all the guitars! It’s so smart when a guitar maker really makes the effort to keep a consistency amongst their products, so that a prospective or returning buyer really knows that they can expect good quality, regardless of price.

Sure, some guitars are always going to be more “luxurious” than others, and their prices will be adjusted accordingly, but I think the real test is when a maker can “bring in” an economy brand that still delivers the goods, and most of all, encourages you to pick it up and play it!  This is the true test of a good guitar builder, and in my opinion, there’s only one way to build them, and that’s with playability and great sound! This can be achieved at every price point level. After all, look at some of the vintage guitars that are so prized right now…..many of them were really the “economy” models of their day!

So, always choose your guitars wisely, never, ever let them hold you or anyone else back and always be sure to feel encouraged to play the one that’s in your hands! Sometimes you’ll see that it will just “call out” to you, just begging to be played!!

Posted: 6/20/2012 9:25:14 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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