By any measure, Arlen Roth’s recent spate of creativity would be impressive. It began with his solo acoustic CD, Drive It Home, in 2001, and was followed by an eclectic collection of ensemble instrumentals (2005’s Landscape), daughter Lexie Roth’s debut, One Long Blink, which he co-produced and played on that same year, and the just-released Toolin’ Around Woodstock CD/DVD – the latter three on his own Aquinnah label. And he has two more CDs already in the can – acoustic instrumental tributes to two acts he has worked with, Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel, tentatively titled Take Two.
But taken in the context of the life-altering events that befell Roth in 1998, his prolific burst is an amazing testament to the human spirit. Indeed, it’s a wonder he’s able to just get out of bed every day and put one foot in front of the other.
That year, Roth lost his wife and business partner, Deborah, and their 14-year-old daughter, Gillian, in a car accident. What Arlen refers to as simply “the tragedy” happened just two days after Gillie had recorded the theme song for a Nickelodeon show about an all-girl rock band, in which she acted, sang, and played guitar.
Arlen shut down. The name and face familiar to anyone who has ever opened a guitar magazine – thanks to his solo albums; sideman stints with John Prine, Eric Anderson, Duane Eddy, Janis Ian, Don McLean, and the icons mentioned above; and the extensive catalog of instructional tapes and videos (by Arlen as well as players like Buddy Guy, Danny Gatton, John Entwistle, Tal Farlow, Eric Johnson, Steve Morse, James Burton, and others) of his family-owned Hot Licks company – was gone.
Initially, the original songs of his younger daughter, Lexie, but ultimately the guitar and music itself pulled Arlen through, as he details below.
Lexie is also featured on the Woodstock project, along with Sonny Landreth, Bill Kirchen, the Band’s Levon Helm, and his daughter, Amy Helm, of Ollabelle. A followup to 1993’s Toolin’ Around – which teamed Arlen with Gatton, Eddy, Jerry Douglas, Brian Setzer, Duke Robillard, and Albert Lee – it is Roth’s strongest effort to date. As dazzling as the first Toolin’ was, the Woodstock sessions, recorded at Helm’s studio, are more relaxed yet more focused. And with Arlen handling some of the vocal chores, more personal.
The album’s centerpiece is Arlen’s searing instrumental tour de force on “Unchained Melody,” reminiscent of his interpretation of “When A Man Loves A Woman,” from his 1980 album, Hot Pickups. But with rocking versions of old standbys “Matchbox,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and “Just One Look,” and duets on “Games People Play” (with Kirchen) and “Deep Feeling” (with Landreth), it illustrates that life not only goes on but that you can have a good time – especially with the help of music.
Roth’s interview for VG in 1997 covered his background (growing up in the Bronx, attending Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art, his artist/cartoonist father and uncles), the founding of Hot Licks, his relationship with the late Danny Gatton, and the first Toolin’ Around album. This intimate, often emotional interview picks up with his return to active duty. And in the accompanying sidebar, Arlen shares some of the gems in his guitar collection and the stories behind them.
There are certain styles and techniques that are associated with certain guitars. And even though a Tele, for instance, can be a country guitar or a blues guitar or a rock guitar…
Or a jazz guitar!
People think of it mainly as either a chicken-pickin’ country guitar or in terms of the piercing tone and bends of Roy Buchanan or Danny Gatton or Albert Collins.
Yeah, that’s actually a very limited way of looking at that guitar. Just what Danny would do with it – it’s an everything guitar. I’ve got a picture of me with Joe Pass at the ESP booth at NAMM, playing an ESP. I remember him saying, “I want this.” Nothing made more sense in the world than sitting there listening to Joe Pass play that guitar.
People also think of you as a “Tele player.” Do you think that’s fair?
Hmm… yeah. It’s nice to have something that you’re remembered for. I think with the Tele it’s because of my string-bending. But when I was listening to and being influenced by that type of playing, I wasn’t thinking, “Gee, if only I had a Tele.” I was doing it on a ’52 Les Paul.
Of course, Tele is my guitar of choice, but it doesn’t mean I won’t be just as prone to pick up a Strat or a Gretsch for a certain part. And now I’m playing the Warren, which can do Strat sounds as well and even Les Paul-type tones. I think it’s the feel of the Tele that I like the most. I love those thick maple necks and the way the Telecaster body sits on your knee without sliding away like a Stratocaster. It’s the most user-friendly instrument out there. I think they really got it right the first time. It’s ridiculous what an amazing design it is. It’s a total work of art.
For me, there’ll be nothing like my ’53 Tele, but I really enjoy playing the Warren because it’s a one-piece, light, ash body, and it’s got all the right elements that make me feel at home. If I don’t feel at home on the instrument, I can get off doing that – like having a blast playing the Mosrite – but I know that I’m doing that.
Another big side of me is the acoustic, which is why I feel very strongly about the OM Pre-War Santa Cruz. To me, the OOO Martin has always been like the ’53 Tele of acoustics; that’s where my comfort zone is. Anything else is kind of adjunctive to that.
There are guitarists who are also collectors, but there are examples of legendary guitarists, like Lonnie Mack or Buddy Holly, who only played one model of guitar. Did the collecting grow out of just being a guitar fanatic?
Yeah, and I think also because I wanted different sounds. I wanted to emulate certain players and capture a little bit of what they had. But mainly it was just because I thought they were cool. I first wanted a black-pickguard Tele because I saw those pictures of Jeff Beck with his Esquire. When I was getting into Teles, like when Bloomfield was on the first Butterfield album, it was always white-on-white, and they looked boring.
And there’s just an aesthetic beauty about them, the same as with vintage cars. And I do come from a family of collectors. My father [Al Ross] is an art collector and a painter and New Yorker cartoonist – he’s 96 now, still doing it. I’m nuts with that stuff. I get as passionate about collecting vintage decals as I do guitars. It’s the coolness factor. Like, when I see Carl Perkins with the ES-5 Switchmaster, I go, “Man, I wish I had one of those!” And they’re related to old memories. I always wanted a 355, just because that’s what B.B. plays, but it’s not something I’ve got to have.
I’m also not a big fan of the idea that guitars have to be mint. I think that’s a terrible thing. When you find a guitar that’s never been played and has no soul to it, it feels that way. I don’t care how old or how flawless it is, the guitar gets better with being played, broken in. I don’t hesitate to fall in love with guitars that are totally beat up. It’s what they sound like and what they play like that makes me happy.
How would you contrast the two Toolin’ albums? Was there a different objective this time?
I think the original objective was probably the same, and then they both evolved. On the new one, once I got involved with Levon Helm, and he really became like my partner in the album, it became much more of a personal record from the standpoint of, “We’re going to explore a bunch of tunes here and go into some sessions not even knowing what songs we’ll be recording.” When I started that day with Bill Kirchen, we didn’t know we were going to do “Games People Play.” Or what the hell, let’s do “Deep Feeling.” Sonny and I just decided to do it and found that groove. I needed to keep that spontaneity factor. The great thing about the first Toolin’ was that it was a guitar extravaganza, but this album I wanted to be, first of all, more vocals. I like playing off vocals, and I was very encouraged by singing with Levon and with Bill Kirchen, who is a very fine singer. It’s also more focused. It wasn’t about quantity; it was about quality. Getting Sonny on there, we had our own special thing that’s just him and me. But we didn’t know Levon was going to sing. I went to the bathroom during one session, and I came out and there was my girlfriend, Maria – who’s now my wife – and she’s singing “Cryin’ Time” with Levon, snapping their fingers like it’s a doo-wop thing. Next thing you know, Levon’s like, “Let’s roll tape. Let’s do it.” And he was real excited about singing “Sweet Little Sixteen.” He was like a little kid. This guy has not lost his innocence one iota. He may be embittered by the music business like all of us are, but the minute that tape is rolling we all remember why we did it in the first place. He was just a joy.
Just getting to know what it’s like to play with him as a drummer – my God. “This is the most world-class drumming!” You can stop the CD and go back to the beginning of the song, and he’s not using any click tracks, and the tempo is absolutely spot-on perfect. There’s so much feeling in every hit – like when he hits the snare. And he took a lot of care with the sessions. He was very often the one who was least satisfied, who wanted to do another take. I felt like he wasn’t treating it like just another session, that it really meant something to him.
I think it’s got more personal depth to it than the first Toolin’ Around. This was a little more of an artist’s record, I think.
Did you know Bill Kirchen and Sonny Landreth before you got together to record?
Bill, yes; Sonny, no. Sonny I felt I knew just from the way he played; it so intrigued me. Bill I had played with at a couple of Danny Gatton benefits, and I always thought he was incredibly likeable – just a funny, cool guy. We had a blast working together. And Sonny and I – that’s what professional musicians do. You can get together and right away you just become one with each other and one with the music. In fact, the other day he played at a club here and had me come up and sit in – which I didn’t expect at all; I didn’t even bring a guitar. He’s such a gentleman.
You talk about the collective experience in the room sometimes; it’s like hundreds of years of musical experience all thrown together.
The first Toolin’ album was amazing, memorable experiences, but this time we allowed the sessions to go on longer, and there was more interaction with the artists. On some songs, we were just doing tracks. When I did “Burnt Child,” which is just me on acoustic, that was actually a sketch I was doing for Lee Roy Parnell. We were going to do a duet, but Lee Roy came down with a case of double pneumonia and couldn’t do the session. I decided I liked the song the way it was. Lee Roy and I will pick up on another record. He’s another great player and has that great vibe.
How do you include so many distinctive personalities, with an eclectic repertoire, and have the result be a cohesive whole instead of a patchwork quilt?
Well, unlike the first Toolin’, I wanted to do most of it in the same studio, and I really fell in love with the sound of Levon’s studio. Very live sounding room. So we kept the consistency from the sound factor first, then we kept the consistency from the band members. Levon played on nine out of 11 drum tracks. Then when other people came in, they were already becoming a part of the bigger picture. And the album evolved. I decided at one point that Sonny and I could take a left turn and do something that was just us, with no band.
I also did sessions up at Levon’s for this acoustic Dylan album I’m doing. Obviously, he played on one electric Dylan track for this album, “Ballad Of A Thin Man.” Which is kind of historic, and he just tore into it.
I was hoping to have written more songs, like I did with the first Toolin’ CD, but we ended up attacking some of our favorite old songs. What the heck – it was fun doing it this way. I’m a big believer in spontaneity. I can’t stand being overly prepared for something. I like to go in with a bunch of musicians you trust, and try to get the best out of Sonny or Bill or Levon – and that’s going to be when they’re not confined. The unhappiest times for me as a musician are when you think you’re getting called to do something because they love the way you play, and then they just tell you what to do. “Could you play that solo more like Eric Clapton?” “Well, why did you call me?” I’d rather let people have their creative freedom.
You’ve been in the position of being someone’s hired gun, as an accompanist. So how do you strike a balance between being enough of a chameleon to fit into another artist’s identity but still have it come out with your stamp?
If you go all the way back to the beginning of it, I think it was always Arlen Roth, but I had to do gigs to make a living. There were definitely times when I felt like my music wasn’t going anywhere, playing “Scarborough Fair” for the 59th time in a row, with no room for improvisation, when I was not getting off on it. But at the same time I was always thinking of myself as a solo artist, working on that side of my career. My first solo album came out in ’78, but I recorded it in ’76. I was always hell bent on being about my own style, and I think the people who afforded me the most flexibility and learning with that were a lot of the acoustic artists I toured with. For many years I played with Eric Anderson – just him on guitar – and he gave me a broad, open canvas on which to paint. Tony Byrd, a South African artist, was another interesting musician I played with. When Paul Simon heard what we were doing, he kind of borrowed that for his whole African period. That taught me a lot about being a sideman, but at the same time learning to paint with somebody else’s song. I’m very relaxed when I don’t have to sing and can back up someone, like Lexie; that taps another whole side of me.
I think James Burton is the quintessential sideman, but he’d have no trouble doing a great solo album. Even his old solo stuff sounds terrific. All I can say is, I kept it in perspective.
What’s your focus when you’re playing behind a singer?
I’m responding to them like they’re another instrument, on an absolute, one-to-one, millisecond-behind thing. Very often I don’t even need to go over a song. A guy can just go onstage and say, “It’s in C,” and I’ll say, “Don’t worry about it. Don’t tell me anything about the song; just play.” I can usually fall in within the first two or three lines, because I pick up on the whole overall sound. A lot of our favorite records we remember from when we were kids, we don’t remember particularly the lyrics or the music, we just like the overall sound of it. When I heard the Byrds doing “Mr. Tambourine Man,” I didn’t really care what they were singing, because I couldn’t understand half the words anyway. But just the tone of the 12-string and the voices and the jingle-jangle – it was just perfect.
I try to keep the stuff not derivative. Unfortunately, a lot of singers want to hear things they’re comfortable with, that they heard somewhere else. But it’s been a long time since I’ve been doing sideman, backup work.
But when you’re playing with Lexie, you’re backing her up.
For Lexie I’ll do anything [laughs].
Sometimes I lament not doing more sideman work. I’d love to have some good gigs, but at the same time I’m being given the breathing room right now to really be the solo artist I always felt I was and that I want to be. That needs time to nurture and develop and kind of take hold. In the old days, it seemed like every time that got rolling, a phone call would come to do a Simon & Garfunkel tour or something. And I’d have to do it, because it was a good thing for my career, and it was good for monetary reasons. There’s not much money most of the time in trying to do your own thing.
Is the eclectic bent a result of growing up in a creative family?
I guess so. I never really thought of myself as being that eclectic. I try to always stay true to keeping things my style. That’s why some people have a hard time categorizing me. They’ll hear a country lick and call me country, then hear a blues lick and call me blues – or think of me as folk because of some of the artists I’ve played with. It took a long time for me to acquire a jazz appreciation within my own playing, but I deliberately kept it something that I would evolve into. I always let my playing evolve, instead of going, “Gee, now I’m going to go to two years of Berkeley School of Music” – which would totally destroy me. I just wanted to let it evolve, and by listening to some of my favorite players – grab a little here, a little there – but I never wanted to actually emulate somebody note-for-note. I’d just grab little snippets. I’ll hear some beautiful thing Scotty Anderson does and think, “Wow, I’d love to be able to do a little something of that.” Or certain things that influenced me tremendously without even knowing it, almost subliminally. Bobby Fuller’s solo on “I Fought The Law” has affected me since I was a little kid. I go into this block-chord melody thing that I do – it can be on “When A Man Loves A Woman” or “I Can’t Stop Loving You” – but the root of that is something I heard a long time ago on “I Fought The Law.”
I think the eclectic thing was just because I appreciated all American musical styles. I love the sound of the steel guitar, so around ’68 or ’69 I started playing steel guitar. Then I got sick of lugging that thing around, and I realized I could make the guitar sound like a steel. I preferred taking that thought process and applying it to the guitar. Like “Night Life.” There’s Buddy Emmons blowing your mind with his steel playing, but he’s a steel guitarist who sounds like a guitarist. So when I’m playing the guitar there, I’m playing like a steel player trying to sound like a guitar player.
I never think that I’m playing any particular style at all. In fact, I hate being boxed in. If I sit in with a country band, and they just want me to play country licks, I quickly get bored. It’s got to be an eclectic palette. If you listen to people like Danny or Roy, it’s the same kind of thing; it’s all combined together – everything they ever heard. For me, it’s like everything I’ve ever heard; it’s there when I play. I just think of it as my style.
On the other hand, though, you’ve done Hot Licks lessons under many different specific styles.
Oh yeah. You have to categorize those. But at the same time, if you ever get into those videos, you see that it goes way beyond that. There’s always much more of a mixture of stylistic things. I can’t just stay focused on one little ditty. That’s why I’m proud of the new one that Music Sales released under the Hot Licks name – The Art Of Soloing. At first I was thinking what I wanted this DVD to do was teach the unteachable. Because you can’t really teach soloing; you can kind of inspire or spark it. I realized, “Teach anything.” Because it’s all going to be applicable. I went into that tape not even having an outline written. I just went for it. It’s such a broad subject, you can paint in broad strokes.
Like I say in the intro, “Why is it that, for me, every time I pick up the guitar, the first solo, the first impression I have of the song, is in my opinion the most successful?” It’s because that’s the way I learned the guitar. I learned the guitar from how music moved me and what it made me say inside, and then it actually came out one day in the fingers. To this day, I can still do that. Once you start over-analyzing and doing too many takes and picking it apart, then you’ve got to walk away from it and refresh yourself. There’s nothing like that first take.
On Drive It Home you said most of those were first takes.
Not only first takes but also very improvised.
In the current world of fingerstyle acoustic guitar, things seem very arranged.
Yeah, they spend a lot of time working stuff out – no question about it. When Solid Air first wanted me to do that album, they sent me a bunch of albums, and I said, “This sounds like a bunch of guys who finally said, ‘Okay, that’s the take.'” It sounded like a bunch of recordings with no mistakes. I wanted the complete opposite. I wanted it to be musical photography. I want a snapshot at that particular time. What am I really feeling? What am I trying to wrench out of the guitar?
That album was very emotional for me. A lot of it was about the loss of my wife and daughter, and I wanted to say it instrumentally – because I think notes say much more than words. I would sit there in my recording room and say, “Okay, I’m feeling it now; let’s go for it.” What I loved about it was that I approached the project just as alone as the feeling was. I stayed in some dark room in a hotel, and then I’d come into the studio like an actor keeping himself in character. I was just one man with one guitar, and the guitar was just an extension of my heart. Very little thought went into it. Sometimes I just knew the skeleton of what I wanted to do. And then I had an extra hour left, so, “Let’s do ‘Layla.'” And, of course, that’s the one everybody loved.
It also brought out a little of my early classical training. But I’m very proud of that album, and also the upcoming acoustic things I did – one Simon & Garfunkel and one Dylan. I approached it very much like that, from the heart. Maybe the arrangements aren’t quite right in spots, maybe I missed a bridge, but it’s how it comes out in me.
Like when I played “When A Man Loves A Woman,” that’s actually how I heard the song. That’s how it comes out of me, how it’s assimilated. It’s not like, “Gee, I’d love to do a new version.” It’s actually how it’s heard through my head and my hands.
Now there are so many guitar players who blow my mind – like Scotty Anderson and Tommy Emanuel. I’m starting to warm up to the sort of pre-arranged, thought-out things, because some of it you just have to do that. When I did “Mister Sandman,” on Landscape, that was one of the first examples of anything I’ve done like that – where I had to work it out. I still have a lot of improvisation in it; I kind of made up my solos as I went along and took the best takes. I think it’s fun to push yourself in that direction, because I’m getting much more into solo acoustic guitar, and people like to actually be able to hear songs. Something like Drive It Home was something I needed to get out of my system – which was very expressive, from the thought process and emotional process. There will always be a big part of me that does things that way.
Who were your main building blocks on guitar in terms of early influences?
Unquestionably, Mike Bloomfield. I can’t say enough about him, because it was not only his Paul Butterfield recordings but also what he did with Dylan. All that fiery stuff. Then very quickly after him, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Buddy Guy. I was very much into those little harmony licks Buddy Guy would play.
Clarence White had a huge impact on me; I loved Roy Nichols’ playing with Merle Haggard; and Merle Travis. I’d have to say that Roy Buchanan influenced me, although at that time I was already kind of doing a similar thing like that, but I guess it gave me more incentive to keep going in that direction – when his first Polydor album came out, around 1970.
With what he was able to do, what Bobby Fuller accomplished in those songs was monumental – and the tone. Most unbelievable sounding guitar maybe ever recorded. And John Fogerty is not only a gigantic hero of mine, but also a big influence. Again, not only from the standpoint of what he played but how it was recorded and the kind of sound he got. From a country standpoint also Hank Garland, like on “Little Sister” by Elvis. Always gotta mention Zal Yanovsky – the Lovin’ Spoonful’s music was so great, and everything he did was beautiful country-rock guitar.
Son House had a big effect on me early on, as did Elmore James. Little Walter, just because of his harp playing; that had a big influence on my slide playing. Some of Ry Cooder’s early slide stuff influenced me, of course. Wonderful phrasing.
What do you use for a slide?
I like real heavy brass. It’s got a lot of sustain. I like when it gets kind of scratchy and funky. The truth is, the more weight you have on your slide, the less you have to press down; you just let the weight of the slide carry.
On Lexie’s CD you’re wearing two hats, in that you’re the producer and also guitarist, but actually you’re wearing three hats…
I’m her father [laughs].
Was it hard making critical decisions because of that?
Well, I think our situation was totally unique. Number one, I really hadn’t done that much “producing” before that, where a record came out saying “Produced by Arlen Roth,” unless it was my own. It was a totally organic situation, because all it was was an extension of our life. We took it from the house into the studio. Lexie had these songs that I saw as very pure things that I barely wanted to touch. The only thing I wanted to do was keep her guitar parts more consistent, so I started playing her guitar parts on the album. But those nylon-string parts you hear are pretty much just the way she intended them to be and how she wrote the songs. I decided to keep the fingerpicking parts central to the music, because there was such innocence to them.
It wasn’t like, “You’re my daughter; you’ve got to make an album.” It was like, “Wow, Lexie, you’ve really got some great songs here that deal with a very powerful subject that’s important to you and me, and I think this is an important step in our lives right now that we do this.” I only thought she was going to do “Angry River,” and that would be on my album. That was it. By the time we finally got around to recording that song, she’d written about seven or eight more songs. They really hit me. Of course, I’m her father and producer and guitar player, but the beautiful thing is I got to appreciate it on all three levels while at the same time understanding that I could step back far enough to say, “These are really good songs.”
She was 15 when she started it and 18 when she finished. She’s coming at music from a very different standpoint than me. She’ll create these guitar parts not quite knowing what they are yet. She’s so organic and natural, she’s teaching me little things as she goes along. It gave me an opportunity to feel that this would make us all kind of shine together. Imagine for a father and daughter – there was not one disagreement during the entire process. The whole thing was on a higher plane. It was about growth, about Gillian, about her mom. Father or not father, I was just proud to be a part of it. I was awestruck.
After Drive It Home, you entered a very prolific period – five albums, counting Lexie’s and the two acoustic CDs that have yet to come out. Anyone who’s experienced a loss like you did would naturally shut down for a period.
I guess in the long run the guitar and music – that was always my life stream from as far back as I can remember. So it became the only natural thing that I could cling onto and grab hold of again. The devastation was so great, I didn’t play for many, many months. The first time I picked up a guitar in four or five months was to do my Acoustic A To Z instructional thing – seven hours of instructional video. I had to do it because somebody else cancelled out. And that was kind of a healing thing as well.
It was also because of Lexie. She felt the same way. She said, “Dad, I can’t go on, because I was supposed to follow in Gillie’s footsteps.” The family was so geared towards Gillian’s career and the fact that she was going to be part of this female Monkees kind of TV show called the Gunk Girls. She was kind of the Mike Nesmith of the group; she was the only one who was going to actually play and sing.
Was there something that triggered you coming back?
There’s no such thing as healing, but music became part of the process by which you understand that life goes on. Any art form – that’s the reason it shuts down when you have that great loss; the first thing you lose is the will to do that. My strongest will is embodied in my guitar playing. So when you lose that will to live, that’s the first thing to go. It was very important to see Lexie blossom and then say, “Hey, if it’s all right with her, it’s got to be all right with me.” It has to be. My job as her father is to go on, even if I’m broken. It’s now my job to raise her and do the best I can for her. God knows Gillian and her mom are looking down on her, saying, “You please do this. Please be all of this.” When I see how it gets very black for her, I have to be there to pull her through. That’s what the whole process of making the album was about and coming back as a guitar player. For me, I think it’s my most expressive period ever. Because when I play I don’t care about anything; I’m just playing. I think people know that. When you’re onstage and saying something with a note, you’re speaking right to someone else’s heart; they do pick up on that. Somehow. I don’t know what it is; I can’t define it. But I feel it’s happening on even a higher level now.
When you talk about becoming prolific, I think part of me realized that, let’s face it, we’re not here very long, and I want to be able to leave behind as much good work as I possibly can. One of the saddest things for me is knowing that when somebody passes away, what passes away with them is all their knowledge. It’s like the loss of a culture. In a way, each one of us is a civilization unto ourselves. I owe it to Lexie, and I owe it to the rest of the world, and mostly to myself, to leave behind as much good stuff as I possibly can. We all get to go up and play in front of people and move them, and they leave with a great feeling, but that music all goes out into space and it’s gone. I want to record and get as much of my heart and soul down on that canvas as possible.
Will you be touring?
I don’t know how much of the heavy road touring I’m going to be able to withstand like the old days, but I’m going to get out there as much as I can to support the records. A very freeing experience for me is the idea that I can do the solo guitar thing. In my shows now I open with seven or eight acoustic solo pieces, and then the band comes out and joins me. I want everybody to know the full spectrum – solo slide, solo fingerpicking, things from different albums. Because I don’t think the Telecaster/group thing paints the whole picture.
Also, Maria, my wife, has given me great reason to know that life can go on. That love can actually exist again – that didn’t seem possible. We got married last August. She’s been very deeply encouraging about my music. We love to sit and sing together; she does beautiful harmonies. She lets me know when it’s the real thing. So even if there are a thousand people out there, you know there’s one listening extra closely.
And with Lexie, who better to get through it than her and me? We’re the ones getting through it in real life. It’s the same thing getting through a song or a solo, whatever it might be. No matter what life ever throws at me again, it’ll never be as hard as what she and I have had to endure. In a way, that’s what makes me even more fearless, to go ahead and do the best you can musically.
Sometimes you’re the last one to know it, but eventually you realize that that is the healing process taking place. That’s why you have it in the first place. It did something to us when we were kids when we picked up the guitar. Then you owe it to yourself to be true to yourself and let that speak for you. For me, the act of making music is a deeply serious thing, but that means that you can be having fun doing it too.
How many Hot Licks lessons did you produce by other artists, and how many lessons were there with you as the artist/teacher?
All told, there were about 180 tapes by different artists and 30 by myself in the catalog. After all, this was a true passion for me, and the documenting of these great players is truly a timeless creation that will always have a large demand.
Can you explain what exactly happened with Hot Licks? Why did you sell it? Who owns it now? What’s your involvement with the company? What titles are in or out of print?
The business was always about me and Deborah and it being a family company. When I lost Deborah and Gillian, I really ceased to live or want to live for quite some time, and I relied heavily on the workers and helpers I had for Hot Licks, because Deb was really the one who ran the ship. I was the creative one, and my job was to create new tapes and get new artists. She ran the office, the business things, and also did all the artwork for Hot Licks. So from ’98 to 2005 I was in and out of many deals to sell the company.
Meanwhile, some terrible things were going on – from some new workers for Hot Licks stealing enormous amounts of money behind my back to one of the “fulfillment” houses (a true contradiction in terms) really killing things. An extortionist lied to me about buying my company for a huge sum, and all he did was “capture” my entire business under one roof, take over the 800 number and website, cripple the business, and then try to take the company from me in my crippled, helpless state. He even tried to contact as many of the artists as possible behind my back. He’s on trial now for doing this same thing to many others.
In 2005, after another year-long negotiation, I sold Hot Licks to Music Sales Corp., the folks who published my books back in the early ’70s – like Slide Guitar, Nashville Guitar, and How To Play Blues Guitar – basically just for the debt it had accumulated. I always thought they’d be a great home for the catalog. I was signed on for a three-year production deal, with a possible second three-year extension. And I was going to see royalties for the videos, which were for the first time going to be reissued as DVDs. I also was supposed to create new DVDs for them.
As it turns out, they just dropped me from the production deal without renewing, and they only had me create two new tapes in the entire three-year period – The Art Of Soloing and Beginning Dobro, both tapes I’m very proud of. They’ve only released about one-fifth of the catalog so far, leaving a huge void in the marketplace, and barely releasing any of my tapes, which, of course, were the backbone of the business and are critical to me making royalties and a living! I know they will eventually all be released, but for some reason Music Sales has been rather slow in doing this, and the public has basically been left to wonder, “Whatever happened to Hot Licks?”
So that beautiful, one-of-a-kind catalog and 25 years of my life’s work still hangs in the balance, but I know eventually it will all be re-released, and the public will get what it’s been waiting for. I also plan on creating many new tapes of me and other artists in the near future, so stay tuned.
For more information, visit arlenroth.com and click the “Hot Licks” link.
The Arlen Roth collection
Like his playing, Arlen Roth’s guitar collection is eclectic and very personal. Although he’s an avid collector of not only guitars but also art and vintage Buicks, there’s a pragmatic side to his arsenal.
“With me, yes, I have a collection, but there aren’t many superfluous guitars,” he states. “I have the stuff that’s the most meaningful to me and that I’m really going to use. I never got much of a kick out of having guitars lying around where I’d open up the case once a year and say, ‘Oh, look what I own.’ I used to have a bunch of Gretsches, like a ’54 Silver Jet and a ’57 Duo Jet. They were nice, but I hardly ever used them. To me, it’s always been about necessity. I started getting vintage instruments in the ’60s, during the Blues Boom, because they were just the better guitars; they played and sounded better. You didn’t think about investment or money; it didn’t matter. They were just the right things to have. I’m still kind of that way. But I’m very happy with what I do have, and that, in terms of my arsenal, I feel like I can pretty much get any sound that I want that applies to me.”
In addition to his vintage instruments, Roth plays several newer and custom-made models, including two resophonics by Mark Simon. “He’s been my luthier since the mid ’70s,” he says. “I gave him the cue for a lot of interesting design things with those guitars – like having the stop tailpiece on top of the resonator, so you don’t get rattling. The chrome cutaway Terraplane model also has a pickup built into the resonator plate – all you see are the six screws – and a neck pickup you can raise or lower into the body. There’s a blend pot between the two pickups. The square-neck brass noncutaway model – one of the most amazing instruments I’ve ever played – has one pickup. Its neck is a big piece of Cuban mahogany. The two circular insets, where you’d normally see screens on a Dobro, are the cylinders of two six-guns. That’s why it’s called the 44 Special. He’s making a smaller version for Sonny Landreth, which he’s calling the Zydeco.”
His “new acoustic of choice” is a Santa Cruz that will be issued as an Arlen Roth signature model, and Curtis Guitars is making an Arlen Roth archtop.
Here, Arlen gives a guided tour of some of his instruments in his own words.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s April 2008 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.
The Arlen Roth Band – Georgia