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Having Fun with a Good "Ear"!

Arlen Roth

The other night I was playing a show with my daughter Lexie, and one of the acts who were playing before us suddenly became aware that I was there in the audience. She right away was having tuning problems, and called out to me saying” you’re the one with the genius ears, can you help me tune?!” This was so funny, and I actually had her tune up right from my seat, as she then told a story about being backstage at a show many years ago, and how everyone had to pass me their guitars so I could tune them for them!

The thing about how I tune a guitar is that I understand the “non-tempered” nature of how a guitar is tuned. (Unlike a piano, which is truly tempered with several strings representing each note.) With a guitar, as I’m sure you’ve experienced, you’ll notice that if it’s in tune for E, it’ll sound “out” when you play a C chord, and other fairly disconcerting and annoying tuning problems! I have learned to sort of “split the difference” when it comes to these tuning problems, but more than this, I also concentrate on tuning for whatever the particular positions are that I’m about to play in. This is really the key to doing it right, because if you know that certain positions are going to be more prevalent than others in a given song, you might as well take that into account when tuning!

This wonderful singer/songwriter, Jemima James, was meanwhile, telling this “Arlen tuning story” from the stage, and then all of a sudden I went off on my own story about how I used to reach around John Prine’s back onstage, and tune and tweak his guitar while he was doing his uncontrollable strumming! I used to whisper to John when he was just about to launch into a song things like “your B string is flat”, to which he’d respond, “I have no idea what that means!” He then said, “hey Arlen, please feel free to just tune me while I play”, so it actually became a real “part of the show” that I would come up behind him and keep on tuning his guitar, while he continued to play in a total cloud of cigarette smoke!

Certainly some funny stories come out of this, but I can honestly say there’s nothing like not only having a great and accurate ear, but knowing that others love to put their trust in that “ear”! Stay in tune, and if not, please listen to those strings, and really try to isolate the problems, as opposed to continuing to tune the wrong notes to the wrong strings…sometimes it can get out of hand, to say the least!! Good luck!

Posted: 8/1/2012 4:00:39 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Your Musical Influences

As time goes by, especially during your most formative years, who your key influences are start to really take shape, and become of great importance. It’s hard for me to imagine my playing as being influenced by anyone else, but I guess it’s sort of like imagining being raised by different parents…pretty much impossible! I do know that if I had been influenced by different players, it would’ve meant that my “tastes” would’ve also been completely different, and my choices in music would be wildly radical from what I chose to do after all.

Again, the taste you have in music I believe, is sometimes even pre-determined, and is certainly decided by a lot of what kind of music you were exposed to at a very early age, for sure. Today, for example, my daughter had to fill out a form for her upcoming audition for that TV show “The Voice.” Many questions were asked about influences on her singing and on her music in general, and also about her family. With us and our backgrounds, it’s obviously easy to come up with tons of major influences, but it’s harder to really narrow things down to a few, as they want it. Of course, it can be done, but it takes a lot of thought, especially when your influences and musical upbringing has been so eclectic, as hers has been.

It’s the same thing with me, her father, but when many people ask me about my influences sometimes it’s just easier to say “everything I’ve ever heard!” This also is very true, as all I have ever heard has gone into what I process through me, and what comes out! It’s kind of the way I describe how I come up with my instrumental versions of songs that normally have lyrics. It’s not like I sit around saying “darn, how will I ever come up with a new version of that song….” rather, it’s simply the way that song that I once heard before now comes through me, and how it is literally “translated” by me onto the guitar.

This takes a lot of experience to have a good handle on, but again, everything I’ve ever heard, and all that I ever heard in that song’s original version somehow manages to find its way into the final version that I put forth.

So when you are making your musical choices, be sure to always be aware of the true musical influences you have, and how they have affected you over time. There’s nothing like being able to cite major influences, while at the same time being able to completely sound like yourself!

Posted: 8/1/2012 3:46:39 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More on the Incredible Benefits of Teaching!

I just can’t say enough about how much I really love the entire teaching process. There are the very young, the very old and everyone in between! It just always seems to have a rewarding side to it…regardless of the age or the ability of the given student. I know that lately I have been able to come back to teaching the very young, innocent and extremely impressionable students I love to teach so much. After the death of my first daughter at 14, it was a very long time, many years in fact, before I could even look at another child, let alone teach them guitar, or have them do anything that Gillian so excelled at. So it’s a very big step for me to even be doing this kind of teaching again in the first place.

I find that the right kind of lesson really helps both me as well as the student. It should be rewarding for all parties involved, and as is the case with many of my younger students, even their parents get involved, and before you know it I’m getting Christmas gifts, thank you notes, little bonus checks and all other kinds of perks that come from a great lesson experience. When the parents see the kinds of results and happiness it gives both them as well as their kids, it’s just gigantically rewarding on all levels!

I also find it so rewarding to teach those who at an older age, have decided that they want to “come back” to the guitar after either years of non-playing, or years of basic indifference or discouragement. I love being able to be a part of the “re-igniting” of their love for the guitar as well as their skills, and they also are forever grateful and happy that they decided to take me on! My hat’s off to them period, since as someone who’s never put the guitar down since I was 10 years old, it’s hard for me to even imagine giving up an instrument such as the guitar, and then “coming back” to it so many years later!

It just shows that regardless of the “path” one takes, it’s really never too early nor too late to actually embrace the guitar and all of its rewards. As a player and as a teacher, the entire process does nothing but make me feel good, and there’s nothing like really making that “difference” to someone who really needs it! On that note, I salute YOU………all the students in the world!

Posted: 7/25/2012 3:50:41 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The "Need" to Play!

We must never lose sight of just what it is that drives us to play guitar, and to make music in general. In my home, as I was growing up, I had a father who was an artist, and a 10 year older brother who was also an artist. There was an enormous emphasis placed on the arts in a household such as this, but never any pressure. It was just as important to be a “normal” kid, and to do things such as play baseball, collect stamps and coins and baseball cards too, but all seemed to be done with a certain deeper aesthetic appreciation of what any of it was really about.

Arlen RothTherefore, when I went into the actual playing and creation of music, it just seemed like a natural path to have taken, and there was a deeper kind of “drive” and “need” that I seemed to have to get better on the instrument. It wasn’t about competition, or anything like that, in fact there really weren’t any other players around at all…..I was a sort of “island” when it came to my music, and folks barely knew what I was even doing. All they knew was that suddenly “Arlen wasn’t out playing ball with us, where is he, and what is he up to?” So, in all my pride and joy at the headway I was making on the guitar, I literally used to put my amp into the window of my 5th story apartment (like an air conditioner), and blast my playing out into the street. This would garner applause, and I always felt as if my “reclusive” image had been justified with all my friends!

This “need to play” is a very serious matter however, and if you have this kind of primal urge within you, it must always not only be fulfilled, but you must never lose track of its importance to you and your well-being. All the other stuff, such as being a “rock star”, “making it” and all the other trappings of “success” really should have nothing to do with any of it. If you are a real artist, the only caring you should actually have is satisfying that “need to play” and the need to make your music say more for you, and for what you’re really all about!

If you start to form bands and have other people to play with, be sure to always look for those who share in your brand of passion for the music, and who share similar work ethics and who most of all, also have that sheer “need” to play that you have!! Good luck in that search, as it can be really kind of hard to find those “needles in the haystack!” Whatever it ends up being, make sure you stay true to you, and to what drives you to keep improving your own music and playing!

Posted: 7/19/2012 10:51:15 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

You Don't Always Have to Get Paid!

Arlen Roth

Certainly, it’s always great to get paid for doing live gigs and recordings, but there are actually times when it really “pays” for you to do gigs and not get paid! Yes, some people would call this “paying your dues”, which of course, we all have to do, and I certainly did, but my most effective way of describing what can take place in a career is “just when you think you’ve paid your dues, you get another bill!”

No truer words can be spoken, as it really is a fact that it takes longer, and is harder to make it than anyone can really imagine. I can remember my early days of doing gigs and recordings in Woodstock, and having to actually remind the people who were hiring me to play on their albums to pay me the bus fare of 9 dollars, because that was actually all they were paying me for playing on an entire record. But as far as I was concerned, I was just so happy to be on any recording, (and they knew it, too!) that I was still thinking I was being paid what was to be expected! After all, I was just a kid of 19 years of age, and was still so “green” as to not even realize how much I was being “used” by these folks.

The same thing happened to me on some very far-off and very far-fetched gigs too, such as the several Bluegrass festivals I played back then, where I can even remember one where I was paid the sum total of $30 for 3 days of performing down in real Hillbilly country in West Virginia! Not only that, but right after I was finally paid the $30, the artist then asked me if he could borrow it!! Believe it or not, not until I ran into him walking in Greenwich Village about 10 years later, the first thing he said was “Arlen! I owe you thirty dollars!!” And then he paid me back right on the spot….talk about weird!

The real message I am trying to get at here, despite my ramblings, is the fact that you will find that there simply are times when it’s all about the gig, the exposure and the music, and the fact that any money would be involved would be strictly icing on the cake. I just had a gig like this recently, and even though I had to crowd it into a very busy schedule, it was as rewarding as can be. It was a tribute to my old friend and musical compadre, Levon Helm and also Rick Danko of The Band, and it was an evening of simply incredible music, with an all-star band! Much to my surprise, even though I had no expectations of any money, especially since all proceeds were to go to the American Cancer Society, I still sold many, many of my own cds after the show, and I was paid some travel expense money by the club!

Regardless of the money, if you can take away from any gig the kind of rewards I took away from that night, you are definitely doing the right thing. I will continue to do the right gigs at the right time, and most of all, for the right reasons, and the audiences will never forget you for it…and needless to say, you will never forget those incredibly rewarding moments! Keep up the good work, and make sure that when you don’t get any money, you get rewarded in other ways! It’ll stay with you forever!

Posted: 7/9/2012 2:34:37 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Going Archtop!

Even though the popularity of solid-body electric guitars is as big, if not bigger than ever, more and more players have been seen using hollow-bodied electric guitars in many circumstances. I know that I recently have become very attracted to them for their kind of sound, playability and really the sheer challenge of playing such an instrument.

These kinds of guitars have always been more challenging than their solid-bodied cousins, and of course, it’s the reason in the first place that folks such as Les Paul, Paul Bigsby and Leo Fender started to design sold-bodies in the ‘40s. One thing is for sure, that if you want to play them loud, or even semi-loud, they will present you with feedback problems. I happen to really like the artistic challenge of playing with that feedback, and using it to my advantage. I used a hollow-body ES 330 on my latest album “All Tricked Out”, and, it really sang like a bird with that sweet “on the verge” kind of feedback that is so much fun to control, and to “play” with! I wasn’t playing super loud, but it was already feeding back a lot….I have NO idea how Ted Nugent manages to play at the volumes he does using a Gibson Byrdland, which is a purely all-hollow bodied guitar!

If you’re in the mood for getting into a more “personal” kind of sound, and doing solo guitar gigs that involve things such as fingerstyle and even solo Jazz guitar, then I would certainly recommend taking a look at the hollow-bodies. Gibson and Epiphone have always led the way with their beautiful hollow-bodied instruments, and the two I have pictured here are certainly no exception! The clarity, quality of construction and overall dependability of these guitars has always been the thing of legends, and I certainly recommend them as highly as possible!

In terms of my own personal approach these days, these kinds of instruments have been my guitars of choice, especially in quieter types of gigs. I have been doing some of them strictly solo, which has its own rewards, and also as a duet with my daughter, Lexie Roth, who has a new album out, and who loves to play acoustic and electric hollow-bodies as well. It certainly brings out the best in me, as far as my old days as an accompanist, or “hired gun” as many call it, and of course, those were also great years of learning for me, as well!

So in no way am I asking for you to put down that beloved solid-body baby of yours, but I highly recommend that you give the poor and sometimes “lonely” hollow-bodied electric a try. You really may just find a new “friend”, and a whole new array of sounds and textures at your more “resonant” fingertips! Enjoy…..

Posted: 7/5/2012 12:01:00 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Learning to Really Hear Changes!

I cannot emphasize enough the true importance of ear-training and “hearing the changes” in a song. This is really the only way that you will know you are growing in a musical way, and even though some people obviously are keener at it than others I believe it’s an ability that we all possess!

Real ear-training is the kind of thing that must be honed and developed over time. Now that I have achieved the ability to hear any change, and the fact that I hear literally everything as a tonal and musical relationship, I can think back and see that even at a very young age, I was already displaying this ability, and using it internally for all kinds of games and ideas. And what I mean by “games” is that my young mind would always “play” with the sonic relationships that I heard and recognized. I still do this all the time….if someone drops a plate in a restaurant, and there’s music playing somewhere, I can immediately identify that plate’s note as a 7th, a 6th, a 9th, or whatever sonic relationship it has to the original “pad” of the song that is playing. Remember that everything has a note to it, and it just becomes your job to start to recognize just what that note is, and more importantly, its relative pitch in relation to other music you are hearing.

Recognizing portions of “riffs” and “licks” you already can play easily is another way of training your ear. Those note groupings and patterns can really become emblazoned in your ears, and portions of them should become instantly recognizable, anywhere in life. I have a student who for example, always gets a phone call on his landline while we have his lesson. I always imitate the phone’s ring on the guitar, as it’s actually a perfect E Blues “trill”, consisting of two notes. It always makes him laugh how I hear this, but more importantly, I am trying to convey this ear training process to him, and hoping he starts to do his own recognizing of tonalities and note relationships/intervals. I guess there’s a music lesson in just about anything we use our ears for, and the experiences we go through as musicians all leave their indelible mark on us as we continue to use memory as a part of our learning.

As you continue to move on through this process, you’ll see that it is actually a total joy to develop your ear, and the more you open yourself up to what you “hear”, the more you simply do hear! And then of course, the more you “hear”, it makes sense that the more you’ll be able to play, and that, ultimately, is what it’s really all about! Hope you enjoy the process…I certainly have, and continue to, more and more with each new day!

Posted: 7/2/2012 4:11:58 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Experimenting with New Sounds

Basically, it’s really “all been done before”, but maybe not by you. It’s important, even during your early years to experiment as much as possible with the new sounds you can either create with your guitar, or with “outside” influences, too! I can recall that it seemed that as early as I could play a guitar, I was immediately experimenting with all kinds of different sounds and various creative ideas. I remember experimenting with “mixed media”, such as using a tape recorder playing sounds to go along with our live playing, Theromins, radio playing and miked during our concerts and of course, a controlled use of feedback. I also used to, and still do, experiment with playing the guitar with various objects that percussively hit the strings.

Arlen Roth

Maybe it’s something that is inherently “built-in” for a real youngster who is first discovering the instrument, for I found that this extreme period of experimentation happened for me during ages 11 to 16, which was when I was still “finding” what the guitar was….after that, I was launched into being more of a true “player”, and a lot of the experimentation started to fall by the wayside in lieu of experimental “playing.” Regardless, it all really falls into the same creative category, as we must always be searching for what can be something “new” for us, and what can bring a new side to our playing. Just look at what Jimi Hendrix was able to accomplish with a simultaneous ground-breaking of new played sounds, as well as new sounds that came from sheer physical and emotional experimentation “outside” of the instrument. I always tell students, “remember, Hendrix had to have that guitar first under complete control before he could so let it loose!” That’s a good rule to always follow….make sure the instrument is under control before you let it seemingly go wild!

With all this in mind, you’ll find that there really is no time that is “too soon” when it comes to looking for new sounds and ideas to create with your instrument. It is all something that you may call upon later or will simply reject, at least for the time being, and may revisit sometimes even years later. I find that these ideas may suddenly resurface at any given point; but usually at some interesting recording session or at some live show, where I feel like I just need to stretch that instrument just a little farther than before!

So give it a try…there’s really nothing to lose, and everything to gain when it comes to trying out new ideas. Just like your licks and riffs, it should all come out just as unique as you really are! Happy hunting for new sounds!

Posted: 6/27/2012 3:21:24 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

When Song Ideas Strike!

Arlen Roth Gibson L7

Just yesterday, I did what often happens to me…I picked up a different guitar, and instantly created a new riff and basis for a new song on the spot! It’s amazing how often this type of thing occurs with me. It’s almost as if my years and years of teaching myself and forcing myself to always have new ideas has also spawned a kind of “instant” creativity that just flows out of me, particularly when inspired by a certain tone. In this instance, I was enthralled with the kind of snarly and edgy distorted tone I was getting. Mix that with the kind of harmonic distortion and overtones I was hearing, and I had a perfect formula for the kinds of sounds I felt like making at the time!

Often, these ideas that “strike” us out of the blue can fizzle away almost just as quickly as they come…almost like when you wake from a seemingly “unforgettable” dream, so we must learn and have certain “devices” in place for remembering what we just spontaneously came up with! In the case of yesterday’s creativity, I created a situation where I made it into a song that I couldn’t get out of my head! By actually using this approach, one that sometimes can become annoying, I truly emblazoned my new song into my memory in such a way that I could never forget it! To back that up, I wrote it down on some tablature paper, so I’d remember the rhythm and groove of it, as well as the notes and positions.

It’s very important to remember these songs when the do hit you, because the moment is fleeting, and your ability to remember these is a different skill than actually coming up with them in the first place. We create them seemingly “out of the blue”, yet to remember them takes a whole other set of skills, and most of all, we just don’t want to lose these great, creative ideas!

I used to use the funniest ways to remember these ideas, and most of the time they’d work….saying things like “groove similar to Hot fun in the Summertime” and original melody like House of the Rising Sun”, etc.. It can actually get real entertaining coming up with these comparisons, but certainly you get the idea, I’m sure!

So whatever it takes, be sure to not forget your incredibly spontaneous ideas; you just never know what they can mean to you in the future, and you also may never know just how certain variations that will naturally occur later on will also take shape! Have fun in your search.

Posted: 6/25/2012 3:25:53 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Rediscovering the Great Bands of the Past!

The process by which we keep re-discovering and even re-defining the bands and the music of the past has always been an intriguing one to me, as it’s really a big part of how we all learn in the first place. Back in my early days of discovering the Blues, it became imperative to me to keep on delving deeper and deeper, back into the earliest vaults of Blues music and Blues artists until I felt I had the whole picture in front of me. After all, it basically took bands like The Beatles and The Stones to actually shine a spotlight on artists such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf for example, so we could even remember who these greats were; these people who only a few short years earlier had rocked the world with their music, and who now were largely forgotten by Americans.

It’s very important to constantly apply this to what you are learning as well as creating, because these musicians will always serve to give you a firm foundation upon which to work. After all, you could literally teach somebody all of music from investigating the Beatle’s catalog, and the gems and musical magic it contains! There are those who literally think the Blues began with Led Zeppelin, and sorry to say, they’re terribly misguided, but still, it’s a start, and maybe if they truly “re-discover” Led Zeppelin, they just may find that they also will want to dig deeper into the Blues, just as folks like Jimmy Page and Robert Plant did!

To be a musician is also to be a musicologist and it is so important to know just what is really “behind” the music you are falling in love with. Too many people only look into the shallows to find what they think they need, and hence end up with very little in the way of depth or roots to their playing. A group, who is collectively having a musical learning experience, should also try to find the depth in those bands that they most admire. I got all kinds of ideas and inspiration from many bands of the ‘60s, such as The Beatles, Byrds, Stones, Spoonful and more, and as I learned from them, I found myself falling in love with their influences, all from the early Blues, Country and Rockabilly genres. It was such an eye-opener, as each new band or solo artist seemed to open up new ideas for me. Butterfield led to B.B., B.B. led to Robert Johnson and Son House; while The Lovin’ Spoonful led to Merle Travis, which led to The Delmore Brothers, which led to Jimmie Rodgers! It’s a never-ending chain of music that connects us all, so be sure to always dig as deep as you can into the roots you need, and never hesitate to take a new and fresh look at a band or artist you may have once loved, but need to take a look at again!!

Posted: 6/13/2012 3:55:37 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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