(April 14, 2008) © 2008
(originally published in Modern Guitars Magazine, on April 14, 2008)
Arlen Roth - Master of the Telecaster
“For me, the best thing about a Telecaster is how it feels to hold. It’ll fit on your knee perfectly. They got the design right the first time. They really did. It’s a perfectly designed tool for anything that you want to do, and it’s great for when you want to squeeze as much emotion out of the guitar as possible.” ~ Arlen Roth, expressing adoration for Fender Telecaster style guitars.
Known to many as “The Master of the Telecaster,” Arlen Roth recently released an album of classic rock songs and a couple of originals, entitled, “Toolin' Around Woodstock.” Along for the ride with the accomplished virtuoso were friends Levon Helm, Bill Kirchen, Sonny Landreth, daughters Lexie Roth and Amy Helm, and more. The special edition release includes a bonus DVD of studio views, conversations, and performances, filmed at Levon Helms’ studio in Woodstock, New York.
To the extent of overshadowing his touring and recording status, the Arlen Roth name has been associated with global guitar instruction for decades now. In addition to a long running, prominent column in Guitar Player Magazine (known as “Hot Guitar”) and numerous authoritative instructional books, he started one of the most successful guitar instruction enterprises of all time in the late seventies. With the idea in mind to generate some income when side jobs as a touring guitarist hit dry spells, his “Hot Licks” videos venture grew from a little advertisement in Guitar Player magazine into a full-blown, flourishing business. Consisting solely of Arlen’s video tutorials at first, the venture soon expanded to include instructional footage of many renowned musicians.
Although Arlen actually plays many different style guitars, electric and acoustic, the “Master of the Telecaster” label is accurate. A good portion of his electric music over the years has been played on that style instrument, proving that he truly has mastered it. To touch on a few marks of distinction, he was named one of “The Top One Hundred Influential Guitarists of the Century” in Vintage Guitar Magazine, where he also made the list for “The Top Ten Greatest Recorded Guitar Sounds.” He was commended in Rolling Stone for doing one of the “Top Ten All-Time Best Guitar Recordings,” an honor for his contribution to “Guitar Harvest,” a compilation created by world class guitar players. He's toured and/or recorded with the likes of Simon & Garfunkel, John Prine, Phoebe Snow, Rick Wakeman, Don McLean, Janis Ian, Pete Seeger, Jack Bruce, Duane Eddy, James Taylor, and many more. And in the late ‘80s, Arlen was mentor to actor Ralph Macchio’s guitar playing character in the movie “Crossroads,” an advisor to the production crew as well.
Contributions too numerous to list, his catalog of solo albums is quite impressive as well. Seasoned with brilliant acoustic and electric music, his offerings on the Telecaster have been the most prominent. Known for his note bends, volume swells, tone control manipulations, and behind-the-nut bends, it leaves no wonder that guitar builders everywhere are constantly presenting him with signature instruments, bearing his name coupled with theirs. It's a compliment for Arlen Roth to play a guitar built by any corporation or guitar luthier, attesting to the instrument's unquestionable quality and perfection.
Though Arlen’s involvement in the instructional aspect of guitar was coerced along by the fact that he possessed the knowledge and the capacity to do so, the more practical reason at the time was to be close to home. He was a dedicated father, and life on the road as a touring musician meant months at a time away from his family. As a result, running a home base business was a convenience he welcomed. That said, one can only imagine the heartache and devastation he suffered in the late nineties, when his wife, Deborah, and daughter, Gillian, were killed in a tragic car accident. Certainly the most crushing scenario any person could possibly be forced to endure, life as a touring musician, of course, was sidelined again.
Arlen states that his most recent albums have been elements of the healing process. He gets into some beautiful instrumental music amid brilliant acoustic picking and slide on “Drive It Home,” released in 2001 as a tribute to Deborah and Gillian. “Landscape” was released around the same time, in which guitar playing aptitude is displayed in multiple areas. His daughter Lexie presents a hauntingly beautiful voice amid remarkable instrumentation in her debut release, “One Long Blink." For 2008, Arlen takes another direction in “Toolin' Around Woodstock,” with Levon Helm and friends. The group performs inspired renditions of twelve classics and two Roth originals.
Below is my recent conversation with Arlen Roth, a true virtuoso of the electric and acoustic guitar.
Brian D. Holland) I’ve listened the new album [“Toolin’ Around Woodstock”] a few times, Arlen, and I’ve found that it really grows on you. I like it a lot.
Arlen Roth) I’m very pumped up and excited about it. And yeah, I think it definitely does grow on you. It was a longtime in the making. We recorded it over a period of a year, and it took another year for it to finally come out. You know how it is; as an artist you put yourself way ahead of that. You start to look forward. I‘ve got two more acoustic albums I’ll be releasing soon. We’ll also be rereleasing the old “Toolin’ Around.” If you wanted to give that one a place, it would be toolin’ around Washington, Nashville, and New York. But it was released as just ‘Toolin’ Around” [Blue Plate Records 1994].
BH) Will a DVD accompany it as well?
AR) It’s got a very long DVD, about two hours. It’s historic stuff with my dear friend Danny Gatton, lots of great footage. Originally, it was a VHS video through Hot Licks. Companies around the world, like Yamaha in Japan, packaged it with the CD, but generally speaking it was only available through Hot Licks. Most people don’t even know about it. It’s been a long time since it was out there, but now is a great opportunity to release it again.
BH) What were the circumstances involved in making the new one, getting together with Levon Helm, Bill Kirchen, Sonny Landreth, and the rest?
AR) The [“Toolin’ Around Woodstock”] project was originally discussed between myself and my co-producer, Jon Gershen. Jon had a lot to do with helping me with the projects on this new label [Aquinnah]. Our connection goes way back to my early days in Woodstock, like in 1970, ’71, when I went to live there and started playing with all of the Woodstock artists. It was a very peak time for Woodstock. It was my formative years, when I first became a professional musician. I had moved up there when I turned 18, after leaving college. I had a band and then I started getting a lot of work with singer/songwriters, people like Happy and Artie Traum and Eric Andersen, and then I got the John Prine tour and things like that. That was when I really started making a name for myself as a sideman, though I had already been fronting my own band. But getting back to the album now, we were going to do a “Toolin’ Around” that was going to be largely a Nashville album. But then I realized that my last “Toolin’ Around” was pretty much that already. The sessions I did with Duane Eddy, Albert Lee, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, and all of those people were done in Nashville. So I figured, let’s go for something different. John had the idea to get a hold of Levon [Helm], and we just took it from there. Bill Kirchen is an old friend of mine, and I always wanted to record with him. I felt the same about Sonny Landreth. I’m also a known slide player, and I wanted to focus on my slide side a little bit. Sonny was a natural for that. It was very cool, and the sessions were a joy. Everybody had the right sensibility, or the right feeling. It was recorded at Levon’s studio, at his barn where he has his midnight rambles. He has concerts there on the weekends sometimes.
BH) I got the impression it was a very informal atmosphere and a lot of fun. It was similar to a bunch of friends in a garage band getting together.
AR) Yeah. That’s the spirit in which it was done. Even when I went in that day to do “Games People Play” with Bill Kirchen, we didn’t even know we were going to do that song. It was something that had been percolating inside of me for many years, and I thought that maybe I’d get around to doing it one day. All of a sudden, it seemed like a natural thing for us to do it. We just whipped right into it.
BH) I like the way it came out. It has uniqueness to it. You made it your own, as it doesn’t attach itself to the original version too much. It’s a great old song.
AR) It is a great old song. In fact, the original version, by Joe South, was never really a good sounding record, but there was something about the song itself. The song made it a hit. But the record was a little strange sounding.
BH) In mentioning the atmosphere and the shared enthusiasm, on the DVD there’s a part where all of you are sitting around listening to a playback of the finished recording of “Matchbox.” It presented itself as one of those magical and truly gratifying experiences. The finished product was enjoyed by all.
AR) Yeah. Well, you know what it is, when you play with someone like Levon Helm, who’s such an amazing drummer and world-class individual, you realize you’re in the room with one of the great rock musicians of all time.
BH) Even his voice, I mean, he’s no Paul McCartney or Elton John, but as soon as your hear Levon’s voice, the memories just pop into your head.
AR) Exactly. He’s got that unmistakable voice. So, when you’re playing a song like “Matchbox” with Levon, you’re playing it with a guy who had heard it when it first came out. He was probably already playing when “Matchbox” happened.
BH) To tell you the truth, the Beatles cover of it, with Ringo on vocals, was the first version of it that I had ever heard.
AR) Right, the Beatles. And from what I understand, Carl Perkins actually played on the track. George Harrison once said that. They had run into Carl Perkins in England at a party or something, and they brought him into the studio. I was always a big Carl Perkins fan, and that’s one of his edgier songs. It’s got kind of a real hard hitting thing to it. So, when I was recording it with Levon, I said, well, this is the way this thing has got to sound. The right kind of drummer and all; we just nailed it. It was a lot of fun. We didn’t know, at first, that Levon was going to sing on the album. It was something that kind of evolved. He started singing in the studio with my wife, Maria. The two of them started kidding around in the studio, singing “Crying Time” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Next thing you know he’s all geared up to do it. And it worked out great. And my daughter Lexie, singing with his daughter Amy, that was a lot of fun, too.
BH) Yes. They added a nice touch, a whole new dimension to the songs.
BH) Another one on the DVD that I really like is “Gas Station Frustration,” with you and Bill Kirchen.
AR) Yeah. [Laughing] He’s Diesel Billy. He’s got a hotrod Lincoln and all. I was going to sing it. Believe it or not, I had actually written that song when I was sixteen, in 1969. But when he had heard it, he said, “Arlen, this is my kind of thing. I want to sing it. I’m going to give it new life.” I told him to take that ball and run with it. Go right ahead. I was happy to let the duet part of it be the both of us on guitar. Plus I added a little harmony. People really like that song. It’s already been through three gas crisis’s. [Laughing] Eventually it has got to hit somewhere.
BH) About the girls on vocals again, “Crying Time” and “Just One Look” came out very nice.
AR) Yes, thanks. Lexie has a great album of her own [One Long Blink - 2005]. It’s really terrific stuff, and she’s getting ready to go into the studio now to do a second album. That album was actually done over a period spreading between the age of fifteen and eighteen. She’s now twenty. It goes back to my album “Landscape.” We thought she’d do one song, “Angry River,” on my album, which was an old song of mine, going back to my pre-Woodstock days. Before you knew it she had like eight or nine other songs written. So I told her, “Lexie, we’ll go into the studio and make a whole album for you, because you deserve it.” She was writing so prolifically, and she was playing so well. She was really emerging as her own artist. Now she’s going to do a new album, which she also wants to self produce as well. She’s getting into some different areas, a little bit more experimental. It was very inspiring for her to hang out and meet Amy [Helm]. She has been working with a lot of other really good female artists, like Alice Ripley. Alice was on her last album. She’s the Broadway star, and she’s married to my longtime drummer, Shannon Ford. Shannon played a lot on the last two albums. I get a chance to put Lexie up there with great musicians, and then something rubs off. Her experiences are growing.
BH) Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” is a killer instrumental.
AR) Thanks. That was a natural choice, particularly if you’re looking for something emotional and very Telecaster oriented, a nice minor key thing. What I liked about it was that we cut it live. I just played the lead with Levon in the room. It was one take. We had to punch in the bridge because we didn’t remember it. We had to find it. There’s one part in the DVD where Levon says, “We’re lacking a bridge.” So, we kind of punched that part in. The rest of it was all live.
BH) “Tumblin’,” the slide track with Sonny Landreth, is really very nice, very earthy and dreamy.
AR) It was actually inspired by a version of another song I did years ago, “Slow Down” by the Beatles. But instead of playing the old “Slow Down” riff, I played that riff. I wanted to do it with Sonny, but in a whole new way. Again, it was just one of those improvised moments.
BH) It’d be great if you and Sonny Landreth would do a whole album together.
AR) I know. It would be great. Believe me, we were talking about it. Just in rehearsing that song alone, we came up with about twelve new ideas. His slide style is much different than mine, but we compliment each other pretty well. I love his whole percussive right hand thing. It always excites me to play with someone who’s taking the instrument in a whole different direction. And what a great guy he is, too. He had me sit in with him at a club. I didn’t know he was going to do it, as I was just sitting in the audience, but he asked me to come up. [This can be found on you.tube] My friend Rich, the guy who filmed it, had his guitar in the car. It wasn’t the best guitar for slide because it had low action, but I made it work.
BH) “Unchained Melody” is a beautiful song. It’s my favorite instrumental to listen to at the moment.
AR) Thank you. That’s my classic approach, like when I did “When A Man Loves A Woman,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.” I actually recorded that on an album before. It was so obscure that nobody even knew about it. But this is a tribute to Danny Gatton, because Danny and I had always planned to rerecord this song together, in this way. I finally decided to put it on this album as kind of a tribute to him.
BH) I think it’s your daughter, Lexie, who comes in with the amazing, dreamy vocal in the end.
AR) Yes. She comes in at the end. That was my idea. It has that haunting touch, because basically, you’re hearing that in your head anyway. I wanted to create kind of a subliminal message there, where people start wondering if they’re really hearing it.
BH) That’s you singing on “Don’t Lie To Me.” Correct? It has kind of a Keith Richards vibe, the vocal and the music.
AR) Yes. That’s me on vocal. Well, there’s something about the sound of that crunch guitar, going through that Silvertone amp. It does have kind of a Keith Richards-esque Rolling Stones feel. It was unintended and just came out that way.
BH) Lexie’s lead vocal on “Nightlife” is very pleasing. The blues solo you get into is very nice as well.
AR) Thank you. The guitar on that was inspired by the great Buddy Emmons. That was the steel part that he played on Ray Price’s version of “Nightlife.” Ray Price was the first to ever release it, and it was a big hit for him. Buddy Emmons had this mind blowing steel guitar part where he makes the steel sound like a guitar player. So on that, I’m actually imitating the steel guitar trying to sound like a guitar. It was a nice idea to throw in the string section because there’s nothing like playing a guitar on a blues song with a string section. It makes me think of “The Thrill Is Gone” or something like that. It gives you a really nice pad to work with.
BH) “Deep Feeling” is the perfect album closer.
AR) I’ve always wanted the vehicle in which to do that song. It made perfect sense to do it with Sonny Landreth, and it was all with Levon’s blessings. He was saying, “Arlen that’s for you. You’ve got to do that.”
BH) It’s one of those lesser known Chuck Berry tunes.
AR) Exactly. But for guitar players it has always been a classic. Danny Gatton always did it live. Each song for me is a little tip of the hat and a tribute to certain things that I loved during my formative years as a guitar player.
BH) What is it about the Telecaster that really does it for you?
AR) There was something about the Telecaster the moment it fell into my hands. It always felt right with me. It was more along the lines of the sound I was going for. Some of my early guitar heroes, like Clarence White, I didn’t think of him as a Tele guy. I just knew he played a Telecaster. But It didn’t matter to me so much. I was playing a ’54 Strat during that period in time, a ’52 Les Paul then the ’54 Strat. The ’54 Strat was very Tele like. It was the swamp ash with the big, round maple neck. But for me, the best thing about a Telecaster is how it feels to hold. It’ll fit on your knee perfectly. They got the design right the first time. They really did. It’s a perfectly designed tool for anything that you want to do, and it’s great for when you want to squeeze as much emotion out of the guitar as possible. The controls are at a good spot. I love to do my volume swells, and I love to do the tone control, you know, like a wah-wah; also, the behind the nut bending. And there’s something about a one-piece maple neck attached to an ash body that just resonates.
I remember when I bought my ’53 Tele. I bought it acoustically. I didn’t even plug it into an amp. I got it from a guy in Boston. He drove down to my house with about ten guitars in his car, ten Telecasters. I wish I bought all of them now, but I could only afford one at the time. This was in 1975. I just remember picking through them all down on the street. I liked the sound of my ’53 best of all, just acoustically. You could mic that guitar without an amp and it would sound good. It’s that resonant. I think the design is beautifully and masterfully crafted. It’s simple, but it’s to the point. The Telecaster is magic; there’s just something about it. I love all guitars. They all have different sounds. But if I only had one, it’s the Tele. I love my Warren model. It’s got all of the tonal possibilities. I can get all of the Strat sounds, even the Les Paul tones out of it. Ninety percent of what you hear on that record [“Toolin’ Around Woodstock”] is the Warren guitar.
BH) That ‘s the flamed top one?
AR) Yeah, there’s one that has flames and another that has like a copper finish. They’re both pretty much the same guitar. He made two of them for me. But my original flamed guitar, which I still have, was created by a combination of Zion and Warmoth. They both kind of threw it together for me. It’s one of those NAMM show creations. I had my Hot Licks booth standing there for years and years, and Zion was to my right and Warmoth was to my left. So we all converged, and they made me this beautiful flamed guitar. Now I can’t avoid it. When anyone thinks of me, they think of the flamed guitar. Everyone makes one for me. I’m like, enough flames already! [Laughing] Even James Burton puts out his new James Burton model, on Fender, and it’s got flames. I’m like, “What is that, James?” you know. [Laughing]
BH) Which theory is correct? Were you influenced by Danny Gatton, or was he influenced by you?
AR) See, what happened with Danny was this; I used to hear of him, but never actually heard him. When I’d play up in New York, and I’d hang out with people like Cesar Diaz, we used to get together at John Peden’s place, the collector/photographer. Everybody was always talking about Danny. I’m like, well, okay that’s great. I had actually been influenced by Roy Buchanan. But I was right along with those guys, doing that stuff from the mid sixties. I was already playing that style for a long time. I think Danny got some of his pedal steel bends from me. Apparently, I’m very well known down in that DC area, where all those Tele players were. A big contingency of people were really into my playing. When I first heard Danny I was totally blown away. He was like the American landscape on guitar. I couldn’t believe it. When he played with me on “Toolin’ Around,” when we did “Tequila” together, I learned a lot from what he did on that song. I really did. I learned certain approaches that he used. And we did videos and a lot of things together. We were on Conan O’Brien together. His approach, in terms of chords and how he would voice certain things, was a definite influence on me. The way in which he sustained open strings while playing runs also influenced me. We had a good, natural interchange between us in terms of style. He could play any style. There was nothing he couldn’t do. He was phenomenal. It was inspiring just to know him as a friend, and just to play with him on any level. We were good friends way beyond the guitar. We had the love for our children and our families in common. That was a big connection between him and me. And the cars! The first time we met, he came up because he had a gig in New York. I think in about ’89, when he was on the cover of Guitar Player. He came up in a snow storm with four wire wheels for my Buick Skylark. That was how we had me. There he was, in the back of the truck, and we were negotiating for this set of wheels, and then he’s like, “Alright, let’s go play some music.” But first thing’s first, talking about wheels and cars and things like that. [Laughing]
BH) Vintage cars and vintage guitars are synonymous at times. [Laughing]
AR) Oh, they sure are. That’s what I’m into big time. But Danny, and it’s such a shame, because we had so many things planned, he had a tour planned. After the Conan O’Brien thing we were going to do a tour called “The Lost Highway Tour.” We were going to get an old bus and only take the old highways of America. We were never going to get on an interstate. We were going to look for old guitars and old cars, and just have fun. That was our plan. We were really looking forward to it. And the rest, well, we all know what happened. But Danny was a great, great man. He was a hard guy to get to know, a hard guy to reach. But I had no problem with that because he wanted me as a friend. But he could be a very distant, reclusive person when he wanted to be.
BH) I understand Roy Buchanan was like that, too.
AR) Oh, yeah. Well, it was written all over Roy. But Danny came off as a very affable, friendly guy. You wouldn’t think he had that other side. You know, we all need that, though, we all have it. We all need to revert a little bit.
BH) Like in the Beach Boys song, “In My Room,” that Danny once covered. We all have that in us, that place where you need to go every now and then, just to get away.
AR) That’s right. Sometimes I’ll be up at night just playing guitar to like three o’clock in the morning. I feel refreshed after that. Something deep down in my soul has been expressed. The most rewarding thing for me is when I’m feeling spent after finishing a concert. I know that I got to the deepest, innermost part of me. I got that out. I’m not happy with a show that goes only halfway there. It’s got to be all or nothing.
BH) Will you be touring with Levon Helm?
AR) I may do a few gigs with Levon. I don’t think we’ll actually be touring together. I’ve already got a good band put together. In fact, John Previti, who’s playing bass in my band, played with Danny Gatton for twenty years. I have a great drummer named El Toro Gamble. They’re both from the DC area. Matt Rae is my second guitar player. He started with me ten years ago. He was my student. He’s been my student this whole time, and of course he’s very influenced by me. It’s interesting because I know what he can play, and I can hope to get out of him what I expect, kind of like what I did with Ralph Macchio in the movie “Crossroads.” I’ll be doing some gigs with J. Geils and Gerry Beaudoin, too, kind of a clinic, lecture, concert series. It’s rewarding now because I feel like it’s a new beginning for me. It really is. And I’ve got two acoustic albums waiting in the wing.
BH) I really enjoy what you did with “Drive It Home.” There’s some fantastic acoustic music on that album.
AR) Thank you. It was a very introspective album. The two I’m doing now, one is all Simon & Garfunkel and one is all Dylan. But they’re done from a very personal point of view. Nobody has ever heard these songs done this way. With the Simon & Garfunkel, in particular, I had so much experience with them, playing with them solo and together. In kind of knowing the nuances of what we used to do with those songs, and how I always heard them as a kid, I kind of brought that out. I’m extremely proud of both albums; they’re very personal.
BH) Will they be released together?
AR) Well, they’ll be released separately but at the same time. It’s part of a new series I’m doing, covering different artists and different periods of time, with solo versions of their songs.
BH) Even though you’ve released some superb recordings, have been a member of some memorable tours in the past, and have garnered enough recognition to be hailed the “Master of the Telecaster,” you’re known in a lot of circles more for the educational and tutorial aspect of music than as a performer. Has that been rewarding enough for you?
AR) I had to make a living, is what it’s called. [Laughing] Before I started Hot Licks I had already toured for about ten years as a sideman. I did some really hard touring, like seven or eight months a year. At the same time, in ’78 and ’79, I released my first two solo albums, which actually did quite well. They were on Rounder Records. My second album went to number two in England. But what happened was, we were broke at the time. We just had a little money left to our name, so I thought, Hey, I’m going to do that instructional tape thing that I always thought I could do. I was already known for my books, my touring, and my playing. I had been covered a lot in Guitar Player. But the best thing about Hot Licks was that I’d be teaching, and it was an artist teaching. I’m a self taught musician. I never took any lessons. I made it a cool thing for the real people, like me, Danny Gatton, Joe Pass, and people like that to pass on information. I got very much into that and documenting that. I figured it was still a good way for people to appreciate me as a guitar player. I still kept my music out there. And we were having a family at the time as well. We had my daughter Gillian, who I lost along with my wife.
BH) I’m a father myself, of two teenagers, and just the thought of that is inconceivable. I can’t imagine the pain and sorrow you must have gone through, and are probably still experiencing, after losing both your wife and your daughter.
AR) Yes, it’s unimaginable. I had to live through utter Hell. But the thing is, I wanted to be a dedicated father back then. I didn’t want to be one of those guys who’d be on the road the rest of his life and never see his children grow up. So we made the choice to have the family business. I still got work, too. I did the Simon & Garfunkel tour in ‘83. I did the movie “Crossroads.” In ’85 I did the tour with Duane Eddy. So I was still touring. But if you go out on the road as a solo artist, particularly back at that time, you’re not going to make money. I had to support my family. We had a house up in the country we had to pay for. So, with a business with money essentially coming in, along with five employees helping to run it, I could pick and choose my gigs a little more carefully. But I always knew and always felt, during that time, that I wasn’t fulfilling what I needed to do as a solo artist. I had a lot to say as a solo artist. So it’s unfortunate that now a lot of tragic circumstances have led to the fact that I can be a solo artist. We would’ve been concentrating on my daughter Jillian’s career right now, as a guitar player, and she had a television show as well. All that stuff. And now Lexie is emerging as an artist. I’m working with her, too, so I’m still continuing the family tradition. She’ll be performing with me whenever I go out to do my thing. She’s with the band. People know me through my albums, and of course, many know me through Hot Licks. But at least they know me musically. Everywhere I play I get overflow crowds because the people haven’t seen me as a solo artist in those places. When I was doing clinic tours in the mid eighties and early nineties, I was getting sometimes 2500 people at each clinic. It was enormous. And I was onstage alone.
BH) That’s quite a success in itself.
AR) Very successful. I’ve been around and I’ve done a lot of stuff, but even now we’re finding it hard to get the right booking agency to get behind a real tour. But that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to hit the European circuit, and Australia, Japan, and even America. We really have to get out there to support this album. I also want to tour my solo acoustic stuff. That’s a big part of me. An audience can never deny you when you allow yourself to be that naked, that honest and truthful. One man and one instrument, and everything you’ll hear is the space I’m creating. It’s a great feeling doing that. A couple of months ago I did a show for 800 people, just me on guitar. I actually open my own show sometimes, and do a solo acoustic show first. Then I’ll take a break and the band will come out and we’ll do a full band thing. I like to show that side of me, and play some acoustic slide. Now I play cuts from the “Drive It Home” album, my new Simon & Garfunkel and Dylan cover albums as well. So it’s rewarding, but I guess I’m playing a little bit of catch up in terms of trying to get people to know me, on a much broader scale. This album [“Toolin’ Around Woodstock”] will get a lot of mileage. It’s almost like a pop album, and it crosses over into a lot of territory.
BH) Let me touch on the movie “Crossroads” for just a minute. It’s still a popular movie to this day, especially with guitarists. Did you work directly with Steve Vai and Ry Cooder on that?
AR) Of course. I worked six months on that movie.
BH) Was it Ralph Macchio’s position to sort of mirror your finger movements on the guitar?
AR) What happened was, I got called very early on from Walter Hill, the Director. Then I got a call from Ry Cooder, whom I had known for at least five years before that. They said that they were going to make this movie, and that they wanted Ralph Macchio to walk on the set a guitar player. They sent me the script and wanted me to start creating guitar parts for the movie. I’d be the one to play them. I was to give Ralph enough of a vocabulary on the guitar so that he could fake it. Then I could play the stuff, knowing what he could fake and what he couldn’t. For many of those scenes I actually sat in the director’s chair, and actually directed those scenes. During the scene with Steve Vai, or the scene at the crossroads, Walter Hill walked into his trailer. He said, “Arlen, take the director’s chair. I don’t know what the hell’s going on here.” He said, “This whole scene is about whether we’re selling the guitar playing or not.” We had all the camera angles set and all the shots right. It was really exciting to actually direct.
What I did was, I taught Ralph four days a week, two hours a day, for two months solid; even before the movie started. Cooder wasn’t really involved at all. He was busy doing the music to the movie “Brewster’s Millions,” with Richard Pryor, another one that Walter Hill directed. We then went down to Mississippi. Well, first we recorded a bit in L.A. We tried to get the end scene done first. They were working backwards at first. We tried to get the ending scene. I had the original thing on tape, which was me and Ry doing a slide dual. It was incredible. We had Jimmy Dickinson on piano, Jim Keltner on drums, and Benmont Tench from Tom Petty’s band on keyboards. Walter wasn’t happy enough, though, and said that he wanted it to be a boxing match. Of course, in the back of Walter’s mind, he was probably thinking, “I’ve got the Karate Kid here. This has to be like a Karate Kid ending.” So, Cooder was pissed because he was going to be the visual guy in the film. He was going to be the Jack Butler character. Cooder got involved about six weeks into the film. I was already recording all of the parts and everything. We were filming on location in the middle of this cotton field when Cooder came down to Mississippi. I saw him walk away from Walter Hill looking very upset. I didn’t know what went on, but I found out weeks later that that was when Walter gave him the word that they would not be using him on the end. They were going to try something else. At that time, we didn’t have Vai yet. We were talking about Stevie Ray Vaughan. In fact, I pushed for Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Cooder rejected it. I even got to talk to Stevie about that. He was like, “You guys are fighting. We’re going to fix this right now. I’m going to get Ry on the phone right now. I’m going to get you and Ry to make up.” He was really sweet.
BH) That’s Stevie. That’s the way he was.
AR) He was great. Then we tried to get Keith Richards. Cooder was pushing for that. But for some reason that didn’t happen. Shuggie Otis was in there. He did a tape for me for Hot Licks at that time. But then Shuggie got cut from the scene because they didn’t want to show a white guy beating a black guy. So, all the work that Shuggie did ended up on the cutting room floor. Then, all of a sudden, it was Steve Vai. I was dead set against it because I thought it would put it into this heavy metal bag, as opposed to being a blues movie. But Steve and I hit it off right away and had a great time together. We’ll be friends for the rest of our lives. He knows why I was against it. The Producer, Tim Zinnemann, said to me, “But Arlen, this is the mid eighties.” I said, “Tim, that’s the problem. You’re going to make the movie forever look like the mid eighties.” It had nothing to do with guys shredding. It was supposed to go from the blues into classical, and not all of this other mumbo-jumbo stuff. You have to understand, this is me coming at it from the inside out. I was the one hired to consult about the guitar scenes. The scene with Robert Johnson, when he was facing the corner, I stopped that scene because they had a Martin in the picture with brand new Grover tuning pegs. [Laughing]
BH) That’s funny. I suppose someone who didn’t know much about the guitar wouldn’t have given that a thought at all.
AR) Right. But I was hired to make this authentic. So I said, “Walter, we can’t shoot this scene with this guy holding a 1980 Martin guitar.” It cost them another whole day to shoot and redo that scene. But they [the tuning pegs] were gleaming chrome that didn’t exist back then.
BH) And he [Robert Johnson] certainly wasn’t playing one even if they did exist.
AR) Exactly. So that was a thing we had to change. But I was teaching Ralph all of the styles and techniques. Of course, Ralph, being an actor, and being very egotistical about everything he wanted to do, was actually hoping to play the parts in the movie. But Lord knows you can’t teach a guy to be that good in just two months. He had never held a guitar before in his life.
BH) Does he actually play now?
AR) I assume he continued. We never stayed in touch after that. He had me come down once to a play he was doing with Robert Di Niro, and I ran into Di Niro the second day on the streets. Di Niro was like, “You taught him how to do that on the guitar [imitating Di Niro]. He began moving about like he was playing the guitar, saying, “You did that.” [Laughing] It was really funny. I got to hang out with Macchio and Di Niro and that was really cool. That was it; he never contacted me again. It’s a shame because we had such a close relationship while working on that movie. The best time was during the six weeks we were in Mississippi shooting live. That was mind boggling, doing that in the heart of blues country. The things I was doing while hanging out there started making their way into the script. The Ralph Macchio thing, when he comes marching into the club where no white guy has ever played, I did that while I was there. Ralph came with me that night, and said, “I want that in the movie. I want to do in the film exactly what Arlen just did.” They called him Lightning Boy, and that’s what they used to call me. There were a lot of things that I kind of put in there. The movie kind of developed as it went along.
It’s a shame the movie didn’t stay in the theaters long. It got pulled after two weeks because of the panning it took from the critics. Everyone said the music was good, but the movie got too much into, as they called it, mumbo-jumbo. It was too much into the devil and this and that, instead of just this kid and his love for the blues. They tried to get a little too out there with it. It was a great bunch of people to work with, though. Joe Seneca, the old guy who played the harmonica in the movie, was a beautiful guy to work with. Joe Morton also was fantastic. If you ever see my book, “Hot Guitar,” which is ten years of my columns with Guitar Player, there are pictures in there of me making “Crossroads” with all those guys.
BH) Let’s talk about your gear. We can start with the signature Warren guitar.
AR) The Warren is my main instrument right now. For acoustic I’m using the Santa Cruz OM Pre-War, which is a fabulous guitar. They’re making it an Arlen Roth signature model. We’re doing two signature models with Santa Cruz, and Mark Simon, of Simon Guitars, is making me these beautiful guitars, the Terraplane and the .44 Special. He just made one for Sonny Landreth, too. I helped him design those. So that’s going on. And Engel Guitars, a beautiful hollow body maker, just made me a green burst Arlen Roth model. This guy named Curtis Scoons made me a beautiful arched-top, for my daughter as well. Last but not least, a guy out in Arizona is making the Arlen Roth Roadmaster Caster, because of my love for Buicks. It’s also a Tele spinoff. It’s going to be made with exotic woods. It was kind of inspired by my Wildwood Telecaster, the one that Phil Kubicki made for me years ago.
BH) What about your amps?
AR) I’ve got a ’65 Deluxe that I love. I’ve owned it since about 1970. I’ve got a ’58 Tremolux that I love, not a piggyback but a regular small Tremolux. I used that a lot on this album. At Levon’s, they had this wonderful piggyback Sears/Silvertone that I used. I used it on a lot of the songs. They were used to getting the sounds they wanted out of that amp. I have a couple of Ampegs. I have a Reverbrocket, an old one. I use that a lot. I have a big Ampeg with a 15” speaker in it. I think it’s a ’68 or a ’69. I have a Vibrolux Reverb that I’ve been using. I’m still using my 4/10 Peavey Classic when playing live. There was a period there when I was endorsing Peavey, and I really like some of those amps. They’re very versatile amps.
The only effects I use are delay and tremolo. I use the Line-6 stuff, but unfortunately, I think someone stole them from a club where I was playing. I used one for various tremolos and one for various types of delay. But those were the only effects I ever used.
BH) Once again, congratulations on the success of “Toolin’ Around Woodstock.”
AR) It’s a very rewarding album. It has been a rewarding experience. I’m going to go on now, making as much music as I can. I’ve got a lot of good things going on. The album has been a big turnaround in my life. It means a lot. “Drive It Home” was the beginning of the turnaround, because it was the beginning of the healing process, at least expressing it. “Landscape” was another, but people didn’t really notice it, mainly because it was just an independent release. But it’ll get pulled along by this record for sure.
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