Arlen Roth is a master guitarist known for more stellar achievements than I could hope to list in this column. From his very first award-winning album, Arlen Roth: Guitarist (which won “Best Instrumental Album” at Montreux in 1978), to his days on stage and in the studio with greats such as Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Pete Seeger, Duane Eddy, all three Taylors (James, Livingston, and Kate), Janis Ian and many others, Roth has continued in the limelight and at the head of the regiment when it comes to guitar star discernibility.
His intuitive skill for teaching and film consultation resulted in his legendary guitar playing association with Steve Vai in the film Crossroads. While it seemed that Ralph Macchio was dueling the devil for his soul, in actuality that blistering speed work was done by Roth, who also taught Macchio other, shall we say, more manageable parts to perform on film while creating most of the guitar work that would end up being used for the ultimate version of the film.
As a player that has always had his pick of employment, it would have been easy for Roth to sit back and take it easy, but instead he forged ahead into the world of luthiers, collaborating with several developers to come up with not one, but at least three different Arlen Roth model guitars. Models include his Arlen Roth Archtop by Curtis Guitars, the innovative Terraplane steel-bodied resonator inspired by the Hudson Terraplane motorcar from Simon Guitars, and my personal pick, the swamp ash Arlen Roth Signature model developed by Warren Guitars.
But while a uniform Roth weaves tirelessly between award-winning projects and industry innovations, his real passion is that of instructor, and his various features, teacher manuals and videos are as famous as his compositional achievements and trademark guitars.
Roth and his late wife Deborah founded the highly influential Hot Licks back in 1979. Hot Licks is known around the globe by six-string aficionados, intermediates, and most importantly, first-time pickers looking to join the world of guitar playing with a leg up degree of ability and skill.
So many budding guitarists cut their fangs on Roth’s quintessential riffs, tips and licks, and he can still be observed online teaching players wondrous new pathways to new inspiration.
I recently heard that Arlen would be coming to Asbury Park to present his Guitar Museum and to be part of the Asbury Park Musical Heritage Foundation’s “Youth Music Initiative: Artists In Residence” program, and I just had to find out more about what he might be up to.
Arlen was charitable enough to take a few moments away from playing, writing and training to speak to me and tell me about what he hopes to impart on kids looking to soak up six-string awareness in the musically slanted “City By The Sea.”
As someone who grew up reading your features and teachings in various magazines such as Guitar Player or Vintage Guitar, I’m quite familiar with your global presence. What led to your association with Asbury Park and the Musical Heritage Foundation?
Some good friends knew I have been planning on creating a true “Guitar Hall Of Fame,” and thought Asbury Park would be a good location considering the town’s rich musical history. I met with the folks from the Musical Heritage Foundation, and they seemed very receptive to my idea of a Guitar Hall Of Fame Museum in Asbury. When the idea came up about me coming in and teaching the kids, I thought it was a great idea, and we were off and running!
How did you become an instructor in a world that’s essentially recorded and live performance-driven?
Many touring and recording musicians such as me have always had to augment their income by teaching, and I always took an interest in teaching almost as soon as I had anything to teach! Being self-taught, it always helped me to know more about what made me tick by teaching others, too.
The Musical Heritage Foundation cares about the neighborhood and the young people who might grasp the notion of creativity. Did you start out with any mentoring, or are you self-taught?
My father—the great New Yorker cartoonist Al Ross—was the one who encouraged me to play the guitar as he used to listen to wonderful recordings of flamenco and classical guitar in our apartment in the Bronx. I took a few classical lessons when I was 10, and then just started teaching myself, inspired by The Beatles and players such as Clarence White of The Byrds, Zal Yanovsky of The Lovin’ Spoonful, Mike Bloomfield, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Son House, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Merle Travis, Doc Watson and many others.
You’ve been chosen as one of the top 100 influential guitarists of the century by Vintage Guitar magazine. This agenda with APMHF seems to fly close to your mentoring spirit. What do you expect to convey to these youngsters?
I definitely want to inspire them and encourage them to stick with their guitar playing always. I want to tap inner creativity that they may not even know they have.
Which guitars are you playing these days?
I’m playing my signature Arlen Roth OM/AR model made by Santa Cruz Guitars, several old Gibsons and Martins for acoustic. For electric, I’m using a wonderful 1953 Telecaster takeoff made by Nacho Banos of Spain, Gibson Les Pauls, a Mark Simon [of New Jersey] Terraplane for slide, and Delaney Guitars is creating a new Arlen Roth signature series with me!
Your latest album, All Tricked Out, received four Grammy nominations that included “Best Instrumental Pop Record,” “Best Instrumental Composition” and “Best Arrangement.” Where would you like to take instrumental music next?
Well, I’m just about finished with my new Slide Guitar Summit album and documentary with many other guitar luminaries joining me, and I am planning an all-acoustic jazz album called Arlen And The Archtops. I’m also on the new Les Paul tribute album and documentary, Thank You Les, as well as tribute albums to Burt Bacharach and Leiber and Stoller.
Studio artist, sideman, songwriter, author, bandleader, film authority, producer and educator, it seems there isn’t any area you haven’t investigated. If you had one other field to dig into, what would it be?
I’m doing a few children’s books based on real stories from my life and stories I would tell my daughters, and I’d like to be doing a lot more touring and performing. And, of course, I am deeply committed to my new collaboration with the Asbury Musical Heritage Foundation and my Guitar Hall Of Fame And Museum.
Do you have a recorded history playing the Asbury Park circuit?
Sure do! My college roommate is a guy named Sandy Berman from Asbury. We started a very popular band in college called Steel, and we used to play many of the Asbury Park clubs during the 1969-1971 period. I remember when Bruce Springsteen was just a skinny kid who’d ask to play my guitar while sitting on the hood of his car in front of one of the clubs that I was playing! (Laughs)
For more acquired facts on Arlen Roth, please check out his wild website at arlenroth.com, and for more news on the “Youth Music Initiative: Artists In Residence,” head over to asburyparkmusiclives.org.