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Arlen Roth

Arlen Roth

Article from Music UK, December 1983

Roth's Revelations.... Arlen Roth talks to Gary Cooper

Session Guitarist Extraordinaire — Author of the Hot Licks tape series — Wit — Raconteur — All-time Great Guitar Player, Arlen Roth talks to Gary Cooper.

During the past year, guitarist Arlen Roth's star has been very much in the ascendent in this country. Previously, just about the only people over here who were aware of him were followers of his regular tuitional series in Guitar Player magazine, record buyers who'd happened to chance upon one of his albums, or a few British guitarists who'd come across him while in the States — players like Albert Lee and Mark Knopfler, to name just two. In recent years Arlen has become one of New York's top session players, worked with artists of the stature of Art Garfunkel and Phoebe Snow, written several books on playing and recorded a tuitional guitar system — Hot Licks Tapes, revealing him to be a tremendously versatile player, an outstanding guitarist, and a first rate teacher. Since then, countless British guitarists learned that for themselves, and the Hot-Licks series have become best-sellers over here.

Arlen was in the country recently for a short trip (following his having played to one and a half million people as featured guitarist on the just completed Simon & Garfunkel world tour). While over here, he undertook several gigs-come-clinics to promote the Hot Licks tapes, events where he must have impressed hundreds of players lucky enough to see him working live. Arlen and I met-up a couple of days after his gig at the Guitar Weekend exhibition at the Festival Hall, where he'd worked his magic, yet again, to a large audience.

Arlen's a great talker - maybe not quite as great as he is a guitarist (that would be hard) but he managed to both entertain and educate for enough tape-time for me to have had problems trying to decide what I dared leave out. I'll do my best, though.

His background as a guitarist, at least in its earliest phase, wasn't that unusual — but it changed rapidly, once he turned professional (at the ripe old age of 17). Still, back to the roots, Mr. Roth?

'I was originally playing violin and getting on with it quite well. My brother had left a guitar lying around the house and I couldn't resist picking it up — even though it had just two strings. I'd have made a hell of a mandolin player, I tell you! Anyway, my father, fortunately, is very encouraging to the arts generally (if you didn't want to become an artist or a musician in my family, you were in trouble!) and he's a big fan of Flamenco and classical guitar. So I started taking classical lessons but I'd been listening to so many records by people like Manitas de Plata and Segovia and trying hard to play what they were playing that, when I went to my teacher, she was amazed. It seems I'd picked up a lot of things just by ear.

'Then the Beatles happened and right that next day I went out and combed my hair forward, bought a four pickup guitar — my classical teacher banished me!

'At twelve I went into retirement and didn't come back again until I was sixteen. During all that time I couldn't find anybody who lived within a fifty mile radius who wanted to play what I wanted to play — what everyone was into then was copying other people's songs and I didn't want to be in a copy band.'

Arlen worked hard at his playing until he went to college, when he felt ready to get out on stage and perform in public. While at college he developed his playing in a power trio called Steel.

'I learned a lot while I was with them. Then I moved to Philadelphia and the band came with me.' (despite the fact that he was still at college).

'We'd play Saturdays, Sundays and then I'd get back, just in time to get to my drawing class the next day. Well, not always I wouldn't. Sometimes it seemed like a better idea to go round the local pawn shops and try and find a guitar!'

One of Arlen's most intriguing abilities is that he appears to be able to play in almost any style. He attributes some of this to when he appeared with a number of U.S. folk artists; work which taught him a lot about playing other types of music than Rock and Roll. But even more valuable experience was to come.

At the age of seventeen Arlen decided it was time to pack his spotted handkerchief, pick up his guitar and take to the life of a travelling professional musician. Fortunately his family were understanding — his father is 'Roth', the world-famous American cartoonist (you'll have laughed with his work in Punch while you were waiting to see the dentist, although he's mainly associated with the New Yorker magazine). His father, having first come to the U.S.A, as a European soccer player knew about these odd urges, and so was able to handle young Arlen's need to get out there and work at his guitar playing.

'The artists I was touring with at the start had already been stars, most of them were on the downslide by then and hardly used to bother rehearsing. I'd find myself up there on the stage in front of two thousand people, hardly knowing what was coming. But I'd just listen for a chorus or a verse and I'd have it. I found I could do what I was being asked to do.'

The work got better, though, bringing an initial stint with Art Garfunkel in 1978 and his first trip to London, playing with Phoebe Snow, in '79.

In the meantime Arlen had begun to develop a tremendous reputation as a session player and had begun his tuition experience, teaching many players — some of whom, he found, were trying to maintain their lessons even when they moved across the country — there was even one who was a prisoner in a Colorado gaol! Communication by cassette tapes seemed a sensible idea, and that tied-in with a series he had recorded in 1974 when his first book (on slide playing) had appeared. The tapes had been a success and when he was asked to do a whole series for the company he decided that, maybe, it was time he did a little better out of their success than just picking up royalties. Hot Licks tapes were born.

Response to the tapes was enough to convince Arlen that he was really onto something here — even if recording them had occasionally meant getting home from a recording session at 4 a.m. and then getting up to his own work.

Since those days the Hot Licks tape series has taken off in the U.K. too, so much so that, long after it should have happened, Arlen has begun to get notice over here as a guitar player in his own right too. Another album should be out before too long, and there will be more books. Needless to say, we'll tell you when they are published. Currently, he is planning further tapes in the Hot Licks series, including Rock Piano (to be recorded with John Jarvis, who's worked with Leo Sayer, Rod Stewart and many others) and probably a synth. tape too.


In addition, a new concept, called Master Series, is also being planned. This will capture 'greats' and get their ideas and styles down on tuition tapes (although they'll, obviously, have enormous archive value in years to come, as well). To date names lined-up include Tai Farlow, Albert Lee and Steve Morse, with more to come.

Arlen's own playing is already well documented on the Hot Licks tapes, but what about his attitudes to equipment? Come to mention it, does he think that equipment is very important? Does he, I wondered, feel that what guitar you use affects your playing?

'Yes, it does. The first guitar I started on, which I used for a long while, was a '52' Les Paul Gold top with P90 single coil pickups. From there I sort of evolved onto a Strat and from that to my main guitar, which is a '53' Telecaster.

'A different guitar will make you play very differently. I'll sometimes deliberately write a song on the Strat, or maybe a six string bass, just because the ideas come out in a different way depending on what I'm playing.

'My main guitars today are the '53' Telecaster, a turquoise '58' Strat (I got that in the very heart of New York City this year for just about £40!) and a '57' red Strat, but I paid dearly for that one. Live I'm now using a Les Paul, made for me by the Japanese ESP people — they've been making some fine guitars, by the way — and I've also got a Phil Kubicki Telecaster. He's making some really fine guitars now, like the Telecaster he made for Albert Lee. 'Anyway, to get back to the question, take the Les Paul as an example. I'd gone as far as I could with that guitar. String bending, for instance; the neck was just too wide and too flat for me to get what I wanted out of it, and the sound was really too muddy for me. Also I was beginning to work in more demanding situations where I'd need more sounds than I could get — which is how I came to end-up with the Telecaster.' In fact Arlen had set his heart on a black scratch plate early vintage Tele after seeing a photo of Jeff Beck (Yardbirds' vintage) with one.

'That was the first personal cheque I ever wrote, for that guitar — I'm glad it cleared all right! This guy had showed-up at my house with a car trunk full of vintage guitars. The Telecaster was in there, just lying there without a case — I picked it up, played it (without an amp, even) and told him that this was the one I wanted.

'Fender got it so right then, '53 being the best vintage of them all. It's a no-frills guitar, and it's got what I call a warm treble, and sustain, yes sustain, maybe that's it. You see I don't want to separate myself from my sound when I'm playing. I just want to be able to walk out there and have just my guitar and my amp. I like to keep it good and simple.'

This is advice that Arlen would give to any player thinking of buying a new guitar. 'Go for something simple, a no-frills guitar. Don't rely on all the electronics, because you'll end up leaning on them.

'It's like with my Tele. it's got a really broad range of tone within its volume range, so that I can play quietly, like on 'When a Man Loves a Woman'. Then I can scream out with those high harmonics. It's something to do with that very light ash body, it's so simple and yet it sustains so well. There's a clarity about the sound from a Telecaster.

Arlen is a great advocate of simple guitars for any player really looking to express himself, and points out how attention has been switching back to the Telecaster among top players in the States during the past couple of years.

Was there, I asked, any further advice he'd give to prospective guitar buyers?

'Yes, I'd say don't go for those gloppy polyurethane finishes. You really want to have as thin a finish as possible, preferably something that'll wear off. My own guitar has gone right through the finish and it's down to bare wood now. My frets are worn right down, too, and yet I don't have any problems with buzzing or anything like that.'

Possibly that may have something to do with Arlen having both an excellent technique, coupled with his use of a gauge of strings higher than the ultra-thin types some players are still using. His own preference is for 010" D'Addarios — but he treats them in a way which will not appeal to the world's string makers!

'I have a set on my guitar right now that have been there for eight months. From time to time, after about a month or so, I'll just take some alcohol and rub any residues off them and they'll come right back up again. I really don't like new strings — they're too brilliant.'

On the amp front what Arlen uses depends largely on what sort of work he's doing. In the studio he'll either use a 1964 Fender De Luxe Reverb or a 1963 vintage Vox AC30 (one of the types with the blue magnet housings). His stage amp, however, is a hand-built luxury job made by an engineer called Jim Kelly. It's an all-valve type, only available (so far) in the U.S.A. Arlen uses this with a Gauss speaker, although he also has extension cabs with Electro-Voices in some and Celestions in others.

As Arlen's empire rapidly grows (with books, albums, tuition tapes, his 'Master Series', solo albums and work for other artists) it seems certain that he'll be one of the next guitar superstars. The days when he was a name for fans of the esoteric over here are definitely numbered — and it couldn't happen to a nicer, or more worthy, player.

Previous Article in this issue

Gordon Smith 12 String Electric

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Yamaha Home Recording System

Publisher: Music UK - Folly Publications

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Music UK - Dec 1983

Interview by Gary Cooper

Previous article in this issue:

> Gordon Smith 12 String Elect...

Next article in this issue:

> Yamaha Home Recording System...

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