Al Di Meola is a highly evolved, technical guitarist in addition to being a soulful composer. Since the mid ’70s, his work on the instrument – acoustic and electric – has been staggering; with nearly 30 albums to his credit, he has penned spellbinding compositions employing the rich diversity of jazz, rock, flamenco, romanticism, and the soul of Argentina.
Di Meola’s most recent album, Elysium, seamlessly integrates electric and acoustic textures. Carrying with him new gear and a new band, his Gypsy Meets Romantic Warrior Tour draws from a discography that extends to the golden age of rock fusion, revisiting the successful Elegant Gypsy, and Return To Forever’s Romantic Warrior.
In the prime of life and with the recent birth of a baby girl, Di Meola is at the top of his game.
Your current touring band is absolutely killin’.
Everybody has a good attitude, great ability, and a newly invigorated excitement. It surprised me because I didn’t think I’d go back to electric (guitar). I have this tinnitus problem – ringing of the ears. Any kind of volume is not an attractive thing to me, which is why I was doing so much acoustic music in Europe. It developed early on – in the late ’70s and early ’80s, primarily with The Guitar Trio with John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia – but the acoustic thing was good enough to play over there constantly.
Then, I got the bug. I came back to my house and, while doing pre-production for Elysium, a friend came over with a pedalboard he’d been bragging about; I was interested to see what he made.
I said, “Let me try,” and I started playing through the different devices – probably 20 of them… all of which I now have (laughs); I have a duplicate board I use live. Anyway, I started playing some of the new music and I said, “Wow!” The bug got me again.
There was an electric tour already planned to do some of those classic pieces, and I thought it would be the last. But it was so enjoyable I said, “Okay, I guess this is not the last tour.” So, here we are again.
You have the luxury of planning a tour based on specific periods of your catalog. Certain fans want to hear Casino, others love “Mediterranean Sundance,” and some, your Astor Piazzolla tribute. You can choose the audience.
I try to mix it a little bit. We have an acoustic set, although I have to add “Mediterranean Sundance.” A lot of people come just to hear “Race With The Devil On Spanish Highway,” but I wound up not playing it on the last tour because people seemed to be very happy with what we gave them – I felt like they were fulfilled after “Egyptian Danza,” so we never got around to “Race With The Devil.” Those are my two most popular pieces.
Trying to fit it all in is a problem when you have close to 30 records. That whole middle period –World Sinfonia, Soaring Through A Dream, Tirami Su – has a whole different sound.
Your Argentinian-influenced fusion is vastly underrated.
I did a lot of that between the late ’70s up until recent times. Doing this, I had to put the emphasis in the title of what we were doing – Elegant Gypsy and Romantic Warrior. Fans of the electric records know what they’re going to get. We mix it up, of course, with songs from Kiss My Axe and new Elysium pieces.
You use a lot of plexiglas shielding onstage. Does that help your tinnitus?
It helps deflect ambient sound. It doesn’t absorb, but throws it back another way. My speakers are turned backward, which I’ve always done, but there’s still volume. In order to get a good electric guitar sound, you gotta crank, there’s no two ways about it.
I use little pieces of wax, like in-ears or Sonar ears. You mold them, which is a little better than custom-made noise cancellation of 30-decibel cuts. Sometimes, that’s a little too much and you can’t hear very well. It’s okay for going to a concert, but if you’re playing, you need to hear a bit. There’s still a little risk, and I still get affected.
You’re very much a conductor onstage.
We rehearse every day. Sound checks are a combination of check and rehearsal. There’s always something to get better. Most musicians don’t like to rehearse. It’s hard work. If you have guys who are open minded, agreeable, and have a good attitude, I can work out things that are instinctive to me, to play them in a unique and unorthodox way.
A lot of times, even with the guys with good attitudes, you’ll get a little bit of, “What!?” But I say, “Try it. Trust me. I’m hearing the whole picture. You’re hearing just your part.” They’ll find it difficult, weird, or unorthodox, but when you get all the parts in sync and everyone is playing their separate part, like an orchestra, it can be mindblowingly good compared to when someone plays based only on what they feel.
I’m not in the camp of allowing a guy to do what seems natural. What seems “natural” could be very boring. We’ve heard it before. A good example is a lot of easy-listening jazz… smooth jazz. It’s very predictable. With this kind of music, you want elements of surprise and uniqueness.
You take dynamics to a whole new level.
Dynamics are key. Smooth jazz has no dynamics. It’s all one level. On the other hand, a lot of fusion starts loud and stays loud. If I don’t demand dramatic volume shifts, I’ll fatigue the listener. Same goes for a lot of rock music, too; the first minute or two is great, but if it keeps going too long, you get fatigued.
You have to create peaks and valleys and different colors – create more drama for the listener. So when you go back up, it’s like, “Wow!” But if you fatigue the listener, you don’t have that ability.
It’s kind of like the same thing in the early days of fusion, especially with Return To Forever. Chick Corea is a great writer. When it came time for solos, you’d be soloing over E minor and it would be all the same volume. There’s only so much you can do other than just play your ass off.
I was the one who went to Chick. “These songs are brilliant. Why don’t you put some changes in the solo section so you can better tell a story? Then it won’t force us to climax a solo with five million notes.” If you’re on one chord, there’s only so much you can do. The only way to really end it is with a climax of flurries. All these add to the richness of a music that I still think is vital. And there’s an audience who thinks it’s still vital, even though it’s not in its heyday.
You grew up in New Jersey. Did you seek out jazz, or did jazz find you?
I took lessons from an old school guy. Not intentionally. He was “given” to me. But it turned out to be a blessing because at the same time, I was learning to play what was popular, like The Ventures or the early Beatles. He said, “You also have to learn standards, chords, substitutions, scales, and alternate picking.”
Having that from the age of eight or nine, then growing up with both schools, paved the way for me being accepted to take the role in Return To Forever. You couldn’t play like a pentatonic rock player with that music. You needed to read in every position and have more skills than the standard rock guy.
In high school, where rock was popular, I could never be accepted because although I liked the sound of what they were doing, I was playing with scales. That didn’t fit into any of that rock stuff at all. I was kind of a strange player to people who had groups that I was hoping to be a part of. Then, bingo, two years after high school, I was with the top fusion band.
Which guitarists were you listening to?
It wasn’t in high school that I was into jazz. I was more into The Beatles. My friends and I were into the bands that played at The Fillmore East. We’d go see whatever was happening – Moby Grape, Grateful Dead, The Who. That was a serious part of my education. I saw the Allman Brothers; I was at that show where they recorded the live album.
All that stuff was cool and great. The energy of rock is exciting, but I had the training from a jazz guy. Right around the time I was checking out the Fillmore, I discovered Miles Davis and Bitches Brew. That opened my world – the first fusion record on a bigger scale. It opened me up to more straight-ahead jazz as well as other fusion guys, and led me to everything Larry Coryell was doing. He’s the grandfather of this whole fusion-guitar thing. That blending of styles was, to me, the most interesting thing.
You heard a lot of bop players, yet you’ve had your own style from the beginning. How does that happen?
My instincts were very sharp, very early on. I didn’t want to be another old-school jazz player. I could have very easily done that, but I knew that was the kiss of death. I got an early taste of what it was like to get the acceptance of a huge rock audience when I was 19, with Return To Forever. That solidified my theory to never go back to old-school jazz. I experienced the future, which is far more exciting. Why would I want to wind up in a tiny jazz club?
Did you make a conscious effort to be unique?
At the time, I was just developing; I never knew I had anything. It was more an accident that some of it happened. I used to mute the guitar a lot, which gave that popping sound effective when you’re playing in a low register with a lot of volume. I only did that because I didn’t want the neighbors hearing me. I’d mute with my palm, which became a part of my style. Doing that made me focus on accuracy. A lot of guys who don’t have that kind of picking get away with murder in terms of playing clean. They hide behind sustain, slurred notes, or hammer-ons. They do things you can’t get away with if you’re playing an acoustic, where your technique has to be spot-on.
I had the influence of players who had great articulation. I use to hang out in Latin clubs when I was a teenager. The rhythms I associated with were in my blood. Between that and players with great articulation, like Steve Gadd and Chick Corea… I wanted to do the same on guitar. That required a lot of alternate picking, exercises, and work.
I got a hell of a lot better because I was thrown into deep water. When I got that gig, I thought, “Whatever they think I have, I have to 20 times it fast if I want to keep the gig.”
Your sense of time is very “Southern Europe.”
If you look at musicians from the north of Europe, even Japan, there’s less sense of timing and rhythm. The farther south you go, it’s better. I don’t know why, genetically, that came to be, but it’s a fact. Cuban musicians are worlds above anything in Northern Europe in terms of rhythm and time. It’s just the way it is.
The musicians out there today have a terrible sense of timing. They can’t tap their foot while they’re playing. If you can’t tap your foot while you’re playing, there’s a disconnect with your inner clock. If you have a disconnect with your inner clock, when you’re playing by yourself, you’re playing out of time a lot. You have no inner sense of where the clave or the quarter note is stable, like a metronome.
Let’s say you get your foot to tap the time. You seem to be in time, then you begin to play. Your playing is on the top half of your body, your foot on the lower part. Say I ask you to play a counter rhythm against the time. Everybody’s foot goes off time. Now when I say everybody, I mean the majority – some guys totally get it and have a great sense of timing. Some guys don’t, but that doesn’t mean they can’t play music. They just require a good drummer.
When you throw out Latin off-rhythms or syncopated rhythms, and your sense of time is off-center, the listener loses their sense of the hypnotic. If you’re centered, then you can throw all kinds of syncopated rhythms against the time without the time moving. Then you’re in wonderland.
This article originally appeared in VG October 2016 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.