By Aman Khosla
Photography by Derek Brad
How does one start a conversation with a guitar player so legendary that they’ve been called a pioneer? Someone who has had a career spanning well over 40 years as a solo artist and part of the monumental supergroup Return To Forever, collaborating with the likes of Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Lenny White, John McLaughlin, and Paco de Lucia, amassing a catalog of nearly 40 albums and still going strong as an iconic guitar player and composer, reinventing the fusion wheel with each step? Well, I started with ‘Hi Al’, and that worked out pretty well for me…
Al di Meola, besides being the mind-bending guitar player and incredibly accomplished musician that he is also happens to be a great guy to talk to. He’s honest, sincere, and spirited about what he believes in – and he believes deeply in music. He’s that rare combination of a man who has achieved and experienced enough to be candid and genuine, all the while maintaining his love for and dedication towards what he does, and towards the art of making music. I had the pleasure of chatting with him about a year ago, just as his latest masterpiece ‘Opus’ had come out – so without further ado…
GC: Al, let me just start by saying that it’s a real honor to be able to talk to you. I’ve been following your music for a while and, actually growing up my dad would always show me your music and say ‘look at this guy, he sounds like he’s playing with a razor blade for a pick’—
GC: —Yeah, you were always a big hit at home. And now that I have you on the phone there are a thousand things I could ask you, but first I’d like to say that I’ve been listening to your new record ‘Opus’ for the last couple of days and it’s quite beautiful.
Al: Oh, thank you so much. Really, thank you.
GC: There’s a really strong thematic element that runs through it, and to me, it sounds like this is a -brand new Al- for lack of a better description…
Al: Yeah…I’ve been hearing a lot of that! People have been saying things along those lines, that it’s a new sound or a new beginning almost. And it kind of was in my personal life. Maybe it has some kind of connection. I’d like to think it’s all complimentary and I kind of like the fact that people are viewing it that way.
GC: I’m sure! How long was the process for this one?
Al: It wasn’t any longer than it has been for any other record. In terms of the length of time of writing, I would put it all within a month, though there were one or two pieces that I revamped from the past. One had never made it to a record because I had too much material at the time – ‘Escapado’, and then ‘Broken Heart’ was a piece with a different title that I had on a record in the early ‘80s. The original title was Broken Heart, but I’d changed it to ‘Ballad’, and it was done so differently that you wouldn’t recognize the tune, except for maybe the melody. It was a very rubato sounding piece originally, set to this very heavy rhythmic ostinato.
GC: Well speaking of rhythm, it’s always been such a major element of what you do in terms of complexity and nuance, but I feel this record takes it to an entirely new place, and rhythm is at the heart of it. What you’re talking about there, is that the type of thing you do often? There are so many cool grooves on here – do you write based on grooves or do you break it down into rhythmic pieces? How do the ideas come to you?
Al: Ok so it always starts, and by the way, this is true for just about all the records, with a three stave approach. By three staves I mean that I generally write everything out. I always start with the middle stave and this is the most important part because it’s essentially the arpeggiated, rhythmic pattern that sets the tone. Without that I have nothing to write a melody against, I have no harmony to write against – I have nothing. This part is usually a broken up harmonic pattern that is heavily rhythmatized, for lack of a better word, that moves and changes through different sections. A piece like ‘Ava’s Dream Sequence’ is an example of exactly that, it’s a bunch of sequences all connected by the fact that I have these arpeggiated rhythmic patterns going on. So now once this part is at a level that I think is cool, I write it out, and then it’s fairly easy to write the melody. Sometimes I could even sing the melody part as I’m playing the pattern. I think for any writer though, I don’t know how it’s possible to write a melody and then work the parts backward. It’s virtually impossible for something complex anyway. For simple pop or country stuff you can kind of hum a melody while you’re playing your simple G-D-Am, but if you break up the chord – and it could still be a simple harmonic sequence of chords – it becomes far more complex. I think that’s also what gives the music my stamp, whatever that is – it’s based on the fact that I’m really kind of a drummer-percussionist at heart. To me, rhythm is number one, it’s the most important thing. That’s what grabs the listener, and once you’ve got them the melody is the thing that gets to the heart.
GC: I couldn’t have put that better myself. And you’ll always hear that with people who aren’t musicians, by the way, they tend to resonate with rhythm first.
Al: Yes. And then not only do you have the rhythm itself, but you also have the complexity of counterpoint, you know what I mean? Like, if you have a drummer and a percussionist, you don’t want them playing your rhythm. Nor do you want the percussionist playing the drummer’s rhythm. So whether I’m doing all the parts or it’s a band that I’m conducting, when it comes to arranging I’m very, very specific about independent parts. If the drummer starts on 1, I might have the percussionist start on the and of 2 with a completely different rhythm. A lot of times that’s quite unorthodox for guys to play, and they’re very uncomfortable at first. I go through these periods whenever I first introduce what’s in my head or what I’ve written out and they look at me like oh my god…but then when you hear it back, no one is stepping on each others’ part and it’s great, especially when you’re using the stereo spectrum and panning while mixing.
GC: Yes!. There’s this great clarity to everything and it just punches through. That’s been entirely my experience too, and while your isolated part might be a little rhythmically challenging at first, once it fits in it’s like puzzle pieces coming together.
Al: Right. Well, it’s just very important not to clutter. Mixing is an important part of that, and the more complex the counterpoint and syncopation you have going on simultaneously with cross patterns and all that kind of stuff, the more attention you have to give it. If you don’t pan correctly you get everything kind of mixed together and it can become a mish-mash, even if it’s played perfectly. You know, everything that I’ve learned about that I’ve learned from the Beatles and George Martin. Even though their music was simplistic, their technique was highly effective in terms of how they generated their parts and where they placed them in a mix. You never had the reverb on one instrument carrying over to the left even though you had the instrument panned to the right – you had to have that reverb panned to the right as well. I remember when John Lennon’s voice came out of one speaker it was mind-blowing (laughs), and then the other voices were coming out of the other speaker — wow! (laughs) And of course, it sounded bigger than anything you get today because they were using just 4 to 8 tracks, which means you had a bigger bandwidth than any kind of digital thing. We did the best we could I guess (laughs)—
GC: It’s a little too easy to use all the digital stuff, and it’s so easy to get carried away because you just have it all there—
Al: Ah, I can’t stand it…but you know, I don’t involve myself with it. I know exactly what I like, but I don’t want to fix the car. I want to drive the car. I don’t want to be messing with anything to do with Pro Tools, at all. When I was in the studio with all the earlier albums I just loved to go over to the faders and move things around till everything was exactly as I heard it, but with Pro Tools, I’ve gotta ask the engineer to do everything, and so you’ve got to wait ten times longer to do a simple move. Ten times longer! It really should be called Slow Tools—
Al: But we really can’t go backwards, because with Pro Tools the advantages are so extreme! It’s like when you get a new car. It’s great, but there are five million buttons in this new car and you’re like what the hell is all this shit—
GC: (laughs) Yeah but there’s no turning back!
Al: There’s no turning back! (laughs) It’s like TV controls…I need three controls to do a couple of moves. What the hell! But hey, that’s just the way it is, and I have a great engineer who’s very fast and very intuitive, and that’s part of why I had a good experience especially on this last one. We worked fast and we got a lot done in just a day. I work with a Japanese engineer who’s quicker than hell on Pro Tools.
GC: Well that’s almost integral right? Have you been working with him for a while now?
Al: Yeah, yeah.
GC: And he sort of knows where you want to go with things—
Al: Well he’s very instinctual, yes. If there’s a normal kind of punch in it’s not like you have to explain, he just automatically knows and that’s great. That’s someone musical, and he’s also quite sharp – he’s like another musician.
A: Especially with something like Pro Tools being that capable, I think the person who is at the helm needs to be equally musically inclined actually, to be able to translate what’s happening.
Al: Well you’d be surprised how many are not! I’ve been in some torturous situations where you do a session with somebody and the engineer is slower than molasses, and once you have to explain an incredibly simple thing fifty times you start to lose your mind. It just drags everybody down. So when you get a great guy – and there are very few – you can tell. Well I’m sure there are many more than a few, but there are only a few that I know (laughs)
GC: I know exactly what you mean. And actually, I went to Berklee and I got out about 7 years ago. By this point, Berklee’s a very different beast and they, along with many other schools of that caliber have opened their gates up to a much larger audience. There are so many people I encountered, and so many more out there today who have access to all this knowledge and information, but that seems to have created a whole wave of kids coming through who maybe understand technique and have acquired some skills, but don’t know what to do with it all. Is that a trend that you see? How do you feel about where music is headed?
Al: Well the industry has taken a tremendous hit. We’ve transformed a very vibrant record industry to well, a pretty disastrous one (laughs). Technology moved towards computers and cellphones, and because the record companies couldn’t get together and agree on a format, Napster came along and all of a sudden music was being delved out for free. Record stores were getting annihilated by the fact that people didn’t like having to spend $10-15 for a record, and then they all went out of business – one after another. One chain is gone, then the next. And when you lose all the ‘Tower Records’ and all the ‘Virgins’ and all the ‘Sam Goodys’ and the rest of them, you can’t go out to look at records anymore. You have to buy them on Amazon, which is a bizarre process. It’s fast and easy, but it’s nothing like the thrill of going to a store and looking at the record, studying it, and maybe even hearing it played in the store. That was a beautiful thing, and now it’s gone. And then of course you have downloads, which are awful because you don’t get anything to hold in your hand. It’s terrible, but you know, it is what it is. I’m one of them too. I’m doing it too because I don’t have the choice to go to a store to buy it. However, In Europe, you do have a choice. They will not give up their stores.
GC: Do you think that’s Europe specifically, or other markets outside the US too, say all across Asia?
Al: Oh Japan too. I don’t know about the rest of Asia but perhaps, maybe excluding China because they’re way behind the times. They’ve got 10-15 years to catch up on, but I’m told Japan surprisingly still has ‘Tower Records’ all over the place, so they’re a holdout. And Europe, especially Germany, thank god still has amazing stores, and people within a certain age category will just not give up their CD buying. Or well, now it’s become vinyl—
GC: Yeah that’s become a novelty now almost.
Al: Well it’s gone from novelty to the next level up, whatever that is. Now when you make a CD the record company has to have vinyl available. If you sell 40-50 CDs at a show let’s say, you might sell 10-12 vinyl, and that’s something.
GC: Yeah absolutely. Well, I’m coming from a different school of thought – I just released a record a couple of years ago, and even printing it to CD was a question. I feel a little sad about that because I grew up being so excited by the whole experience, taking out that little booklet and peaking inside, reading all the liner notes and all that kind of stuff—
GC: Yeah it is, isn’t it? Do you think there’s going to be some kind of tipping point with this incidental and casual way people listen to and buy music now? Or is what we’re in just the new phase of how music is distributed and heard? Do you think the audience has anything to do with it?
Al: Well, I have mixed feelings of course. What I don’t like and am upset about is that they don’t even give you the option to listen to CDs anymore. Everything has to be on your phone. If you buy a new car, for instance, they no longer come with CD players. The way I view it, the audience that still buys CD’s is getting older and they’re not going to give up their old vinyl or the CD’s they’ve moved up to till they die, but what I’ve seen is that the majority of these people now just have to listen both ways. When they’re home they’ll listen to the hard copy, and in their cars, they’ll listen on the radio or plug in their phones. I don’t think my audience is going to shift, it’s the much younger audience that might not even know what a CD is…and for some reason some of them like vinyl – I don’t get it…
GC: (laughs) Yeah I don’t know where that flip happened…but that’s interesting because, for a musician like myself, that’s the challenge. I grew up buying a physical product, and now it’s almost like it’s uncharted territory how you release music and how people listen to it. But I guess as you said, it is what it is—
Al: Well I’m not happy about it! I don’t think this is a better time…this is by far not a better time, let’s make that clear. It was a better time when records and even cassettes were around. That was the glory period. It was phenomenal, there were record stores in every goddamn corner. It was fantastic. This business – this is something else. People argue about this all the time and some think it’s just way better now. What’re they talking about? It’s horrible! You’ve got Pandora and all of these streaming companies that came along and they’re just totally ripping musicians off. If a record company owns your record – because they put up the money for the record – they think they have the right – which they do not – because of the way the contract is constructed totally in their favor, to license out to a third party. But in the time that most of these records were made a third party did not mean streaming companies. So because the record companies that aren’t gone are hanging by a thread thanks to the record market being in the toilet, they just license out their whole catalog to Spotify or Pandora – and that too for millions of dollars. Now at the very least some of that money should be distributed to the musicians, but they don’t get a dime of it. It just doesn’t go. The RIAA has done a completely shit job protecting the writing musician when they could’ve stepped up. The Grammys could’ve made a big announcement that they’re going to fight this in Washington and everything, but it’s all moving at a turtle’s pace…and now we’re getting way off track, sorry!
GC: No not at all! The whole point was to have a conversation and this is important stuff – it’s where music is headed—
Al: Yeah! Ok, then you look at a place like Berklee like you said. Berklee has grown into a massive campus now, not only in Boston but in Spain too. And you’re looking at all these kids and the school is extremely happy to be getting this massive amount of tuition fees, but what’re they gonna do when they get out? The school’s not going to tell these hopeful young musicians ‘hey when you get out, well good luck’—
GC: No. They’re currently touting that it’s more lucrative than ever before.
Al: No. It’s the opposite. And that’s not to say that there won’t be any successful ones, and if your passion is so deep then you have no choice but to just go for it. But it’s tough out there. I don’t want to sound like a killjoy, but it’s like the internet stocks back in the day. There was a time when everyone was crazy about day trading and then Alan Greenspan went and said ‘well the vast majority of these people are going to fail’…and in this case the vast majority are going to have to get regular jobs because the industry sucks.
GC: Well to your point about Berklee, it’s unfortunate because they’re essentially cashing in on this thing instead of creating any sort of realistic expectations.
Al: They are cashing in on this thing – totally.
GC: Yeah when I got there around 10 years ago, you could separate the people who were good from the people who were just there to pay tuition. At that point, if you’d received some kind of scholarship it may be meant you were ok, but the vast majority hadn’t and still don’t. I’m generalizing I know, but it’s the sort of trend that’s indicative of where we’re at.
Al: Well the vast majority can’t handle the workload either, and when I went I saw a lot of them drop out. Of course, that’s when the tuition was a fraction of what it is now, and I’m sure if your passion is so deep that nobody can sway you whatsoever then that’s one thing, but whoever’s in charge needs to take a long, hard look at what they’re doing. I would tell Roger Brown – ‘you know what you’re doing’, (laughs). They know they’re taking money from all these kids, and they know that the future isn’t extremely bright. Look, I’m getting an honorary doctorate from Berklee in July—
GC: Well you certainly deserve that no matter what (laughs)—
Al: Well I deserved it 20 years ago, but for some reason, they forgot about me (laughs), though they used me in ads and everything! But I’m getting a little carried away here so look, there are going to be some great ones for sure, but as I said, it’s not a good time for it. People making records in their living rooms or their basements, what’re they going to do with them?
GC: Right. I guess that’s the big question and one that you don’t quite have to answer for yourself, but that’s the new fight.
Al: Yeah it’s hard. If you have a name, you’ve got it made and you’re ok. But if you don’t and you’re trying to get a record out there it’s a lot harder than it was. When record companies existed back in the day they would sign you in a second and then put money up to promote you. It wasn’t just the money to make the record, they’d spend a good amount of money to build your career and maybe even pay for a tour. That doesn’t happen anymore, that’s finished. That doesn’t happen even for the good ones coming up, and that’s what I’m talking about. It’s all changed.
GC: Well I guess we’ll just have to see where it goes because there will be those that are unmoved by it. I had a chat with Steve Vai about some of this stuff and, perhaps because he came up sort of independently in the ’80s and had some luck with it, he seemed to put his faith in someone coming up with someone new that would change the way the game is played.
Al: Yeah…who knows?
GC: Speaking of school by the way – your music is powerful and it’s meaningful, and it clearly comes from the heart, but you’re also very thorough with it on a theoretical level. You understand the nuances of what you’re doing and you can write it all out. But as I was saying earlier, there are so many kids out there these days that understand the technical aspects of what they’re doing but don’t quite end up translating that into a more emotive, musical thing, which I think should be at the heart of music. What’s your take on that? What’s your take on the more visceral artists? Do you ever listen to people like Bob Dylan or Tom Waits or anything like that?
Al: Yeah! The communicative level of the voice is number one, guitar just happens to be number two (laughs). And this is for a lot of reasons – as guitar players we can play chords, we can bend notes, we can glissando, you know what I mean? Things that you can’t do on a piano, things that you can’t do on a horn – we can do. There are things that you can’t even do as a singer – singers can’t play chords. The ability to bend notes, to shape and phrase them like us is unique to the guitar, but the voice can convey words and emotion – most of the time – even better than guitar. As a singer, you have words to tell a story that can get right to the middle of the heart to make one cry, and that’s harder for an instrumentalist to do for sure. All that is to say – I come from listening to all that vocal music. I grew up with AM radio that would play the Beatles, and then next they’d play something from Motown and then the Beach Boys and then Aretha and then Marvin Gaye – it was fantastic. And by the way, whatever I liked when I was a kid I love today! None of these kids today – none of them – will ever say the same for all that rap crap…when these kids are 50-60 years old there’s not one of them that’s going to be saying ‘yeah that Kanye West was great’. Oh no no no (laughs), they’re not going to be able to say that.
GC: (laughs) Well I grew up listening to some of that stuff you’re talking about, more or less – I grew up listening to my Dad’s music. So I understand that.
Al: Oh yeah, the kids that are out there listening to that rap shit or any of that EDM music – they might like it now but once they grow up much down the line they’re not going to be able to go, ‘man that was the greatest shit that we listened to’ – no-no (laughs). They’ll wake up. I mean, they have to! ‘It was awful’—
GC: Well it seems like a lot of what’s happening in the industry right now is that everything is kind of an -in the moment cash grab- and the focus is heavily on quick and easy entertainment.
Al: Well yeah, I mean the Grammys have been fashion shows for the longest time now.
GC: Do you ever listen to anyone new? Or any guitar players that you’ve heard that you think are cool, newer guys that are doing something different perhaps? You’re a pioneer of fusion and bringing stuff together – is there anyone you think even vaguely resembles a torchbearer to carry it forward?
Al: There’s a guy out in France by the name of Antoine Boyer – you ever hear of this guy?
Al: Jeez, I mean he’s just unbelievable! There are so many great players out there today, more than ever before. I want to make that clear – there are so many guys out there that are just un-freaking-believable. But it’s so hard for them to get known on a bigger scale because of the state that the industry is in and what they consider to be ‘the big sell’ today. When we came out of the box with fusion, it was a pioneering era. We pioneered the merging of rock with jazz and classical elements, and it was really at that time of the early to mid-’70s that people were looking for something more. We couldn’t give them more because we didn’t have vocals, so it never reached the level of 20,000-30,000 people a night like some of the big rock bands—
GC: Are you talking about Return To Forever or—
Al: Well Return To Forever was one of the three pioneering fusion bands yeah. Mahavishnu was one, Weather Report was the other. I was a fan of all three, I just happened to be in one! But I was a big fan before I joined it. I mean it was my favorite group really.
GC: That’s pretty incredible.
Al: Yeah! I knew with Weather Report there was no possibility, not even a thought because they were cool to not have a guitar. And Mahavishnu had John, though a few years later John and I had the guitar trio—
GC: Which by the way, is some of the finest guitar work to have graced this planet, so I have to thank you for bringing that into the world! In any case, that’s quite incredible. How did you get the gig?
Al: Oh boy…that’s a beautiful, sort of melancholic story. The guy that brought the tape to Chick was like my big brother, and he passed away recently…After I’d started at Berklee, I left for a while to play with this great pianist, Barry Miles, for 6 to 9 months and then went back after. While I was out with him I met this amateur recording engineer, Michael Buikukas, and he became like my big brother. He was my sister’s friend at first but just loved what I did and recorded me playing one of the years with Barry. Right around that time it just so happened that Chick and his management were looking for a new guitar player because Bill Connors had left the band, and somehow, they went and got Earl Klugh…can you imagine? He’s a fine acoustic guy and everything but certainly not an electric RTF type player. So I went to see Return To Forever at the Orpheum Theater while I was back at Berklee, expecting Bill Connors, and instead, I see Earl Klugh up there in a Playboy shirt wearing one of those beanies with the little bean ball on the top (laughs). It just wasn’t the right fit. Everybody had a solo, and I remember he played ‘Shadow Of Your Smile’ like we were in a lounge or something (laughs). He also had to play the Les Paul on some of the other stuff and it was just totally out of character. So I called my friend, my big brother, and I said ‘Mike, I just saw Return To Forever, and would you believe they have Earl Klugh playing with them?’, Earl’s a great guy and everything but it just didn’t work in that setting. And that’s it. That’s all I said! I might have mentioned something in passing like ‘oh I would’ve loved to have that position’, but from there on he just took it upon himself, and I didn’t even know he was doing it! He went into New York City from New Jersey and somehow found Chick and his management. I think they shared an apartment together on the west side of Manhattan, but he showed up there and kind of bugged them about listening to that tape he’d made, ‘you’ve gotta hear this guy play’, and the boy, the timing was perfect. I was at my apartment in Boston and I get this call from Chick, and at first, I said ‘c’mon who is this who is this?’, and he goes ‘no this is really Chick Corea’…I could kind of tell that it was his voice and he goes ‘you know I just heard a tape that you buddy Mike gave us, and your playing man – we’d love for you to join the band’. And I said ‘WHAT?!’ He goes, ‘yeah man if you could please come down to New York we’re going to go into rehearsal the next couple of days’ (laughs). So I said ‘well oh j…absolutely!’
GC: Wow (laughs), you were at Berklee at the time?
Al: Yeah I’d gone back to Berklee, though I’d already left one time to go play with Barry and then I get this call to play with Chick just as I’d gone back…and the first show was just 3 days after the rehearsal, by the way, Carnegie Hall – sold out.
Al: Yeah, so he tells me on the phone while he’s inviting me to come down to New York and basically join the band – not even audition – that we’re going to play Carnegie Hall in 3 days. So now I’m going in shaking, ‘this is too much, what?!’…I’m 19 years old at the time so I wind up going home to my parents and I knock on the screen door. My mother comes up and says ‘what’re you doing home from school?’, and I said ‘I’m playing Carnegie Hall in a few days!’, and I could hear my father in the background, sitting on the kitchen table and grumbling, ‘get outta here you’re not playing Carnegie Hall!’. I said ‘Dad, I’m playing Carnegie Hall’ – they just could not believe it, it was an absolute fantasy dream come true.
GC: Wow yeah. You certainly were the right guy for the gig but the way it all unfolded—
Al: Well I didn’t think I was the right guy for the gig! I was thrown into deep water with these guys who were legends to me, even then. So I was like ‘man, I don’t know if I can do this’, but Chick was convinced that I could. Even while I was touring, I gave him the option to oust me and I said ‘look Chick, if you don’t think I’m cutting it I understand’. He goes ‘No man, you’re doing great’. What I didn’t have was confidence, but what he liked about me was the fact that I had a good attitude towards it all. It wasn’t about the money or any of that, all I wanted to do was practice and rehearse and get things right while the other guys were going out and having a good time. So he liked that I took it very seriously, that my attitude was in check, and that I was very appreciative. That got me far, and I didn’t believe it when he said ‘look man, you’re doing great’, but that’s when I said to myself ‘ok you know what, next time he says it I want to believe it, so I’m going to work even harder’. I know he was saying that to make me feel good about myself, but now I wanted to make him proud so I worked hard at it. I never went out and I practiced a lot. ‘Let me spend my early years devoted to this and later on I can live life’.
GC: It was your dream gig, why wouldn’t you work your butt off?
Al: Well he was an inspiration. Everything he played was rhythmically so great, and his articulation – that was the thing for me. I’ve always gravitated towards liking musicians with really great articulation. None of this sweep shit, it doesn’t work for me. It’s bullshit. I mean some guys do it really well and everything, but why would you try to execute RTF type music in a sweep fashion when a lot of it is very punctual? It’s the way Chick plays, it’s the way he intended it. I’m not a fan of sweep with that fusion style, it can work for other types of music like metal but not for that. Chick was the inspiration. The way he played was very punctual and articulate, and that’s what I wanted to attain.
GC: Do you think that had an impact on what your style is now?
Al: Well sure, but it started with the way I was taught. When I was 9 years old my teacher taught me alternate style picking, and from there on it’s just about having the right influences, even if it’s a country player like Doc Watson, or then later Paco de Lucia and then Chick. You know, giving me an opportunity to do a solo spot in the RTF show back in 1974, that did something. I wasn’t really prepared to do a solo spot on the acoustic guitar, but because everybody was doing one and he wanted me to do it, I was kind of forced into not cheating. Every guitar player knows they can cheat when you can get all that help from the amp with all that sustain, knowing you can hide behind hammer-ons and sweeps but with the acoustic guitar – you can’t hide! It shows if you can’t play it. You didn’t see a lot of Alan Holdsworth acoustic guitar records (laughs). Of course, Alan was beautiful with what he did in his day, but because his style was such, it didn’t carry over to the acoustic guitar—
GC: Yeah of course. I tend to think of the acoustic guitar as a different beast almost—
Al: Yeah you just can’t get away with the same things on an acoustic as you can on an electric.
GC: I mean, just look at someone like Tommy Emmanuel—
Al: Oh Tommy, yeah he’s great, oh my god. And as a guy who’s not schooled at all, he’s just got the ear of God. He’s able to do all of what he does by ear, and his memory capacity is beyond anything. I’m kind of like a good mix of school and street, but he’s all by ear. Though I have to say, that’s good, it’s not optimal. I could throw any one of my pieces from any one of my records in front of him and he’d be able to play them, but it would take a lot of stress to learn them. So I am all for the schooled musician that can read – otherwise forget it, you know?
GC: You’ve been schooled from a young age, right? Well before Berklee?
Al: Yeah I had a great teacher, Bob Aslanian. He’s still teaching in Forked River, New Jersey.
GC: That’s incredible.
Al: Yeah, fantastic teacher.
GC: Well speaking of alternate picking and all that, have you ever hurt yourself or had any issues with—
C: No? That’s great. Not even when hunkering down for a big gig or anything?
Al: Well I’m starting to feel a little arthritis creeping in, and that’s a little scary. I still think I could play at the same velocity, but I don’t put as much attention on it as I do with composing these days. When I was just starting out, especially in fusion, velocity and good technique was paramount. I just set out to be the fastest guitar player in the world (laughs), but I was also influenced by composition and I’m glad for it. The guys that can only play fast, they can’t grasp or don’t have the ability to compose, and that’s not fulfilling at all.
GC: Certainly, and as a listener, that’s what allows the speed you can achieve to contribute to something truly impressive. That’s expression and communication. I mean you said you grew up on the Beatles, right? And even talking about your engineer earlier, what’s apparent on this recent record is a real attention to arrangement and composition. Not that your other records were lacking in that area, but ‘Opus’ really shines in this regard.
Al: It’s just another step in my evolution that’s brought me to this. It’s an ever-evolving thing that has been slowly building, slowly building, slowly building. And if people are looking for the ‘Friday Night in San Fransisco’ fireworks speed thing, this is not that. Though the record that comes after is a live record of the electric band we did for the 40th anniversary of the ‘Elegant Gypsy’, and that sounds like a completely different thing. It is a completely different band of course, but there’s no similarity whatsoever to ‘Opus’ (laughs). It’s balls to the wall fusion with even more energy than when we did it back in the ’70s!
GC: Oh great! Well, will you be doing anything from Opus in a live setting then?
Al: Yeah the band has been clued in on that. They’ve got the music and are probably dying learning it right now (laugh). It’s brutally hard…sometimes it fees like everything I present to the guys is like rocket science—
GC: (laughs) Well it comes together beautifully but as a player, I can hear how hard—
Al: Oh hell yeah…as a listener it probably appears as if we’ve just got it, but to get it to that level…it’s so hard.
GC: Yeah I can imagine! You must have to be quite strict with the parts and how people are playing them?
Al: It’s pretty brutal. you’ve gotta have guys with totally great attitudes because it gets stressful. Especially with rhythm – I’m very strict with it. But in general, my natural instinct kicks in and it’s like another person comes out during the rehearsal. The music’s not going to get to an effective level for the audience unless it’s played right, so I’m not an easy-going guy in that sense. Even when it comes to doing a solo, if it happens to not be me, it’s like the kiss of death in fusion and jazz music when people solo too long, you know?
Al: Yeah! If it’s too long it just bores the shit out of the audience—
Al: That’s been the kiss of the death for…well I won’t name names because it’s been almost everybody. They just don’t get it. You should just make your statement and move on, get back into the composition. It’s the composition that holds the attention, not the solo. If you go on too long people forget about the composition, but often these soloist guys don’t give a shit about that. It’s like 2 minutes of the head, 15 minutes of the solo – now you got a bass solo, now you got a drum solo – oh shit!
GC: (laughs) I think even as a musician when you’re listening to stuff like that you get to a point where you start asking, well what is the point?
Al: It’s a jazz mentality, but I do think it’s the kiss of death. And I know there’s a lot of jazz guys out there that would fight with me on this, but I’m sorry – they’re wrong! I mean even Chick Corea, who was a tremendous influence growing up and then going through what I did with RTF…you go to see his band and he gives everybody a lot of space to solo, but it’s boring! And by the way, they’re great players! But it’s boring.
GC: Sure, yeah. And I think it comes down to something that I think you’ve been very effective at – being a great player is one thing, but being able to apply that skill and communicate with it, put it into composition is another thing.
Al: Well yeah. Look, when fusion came out it was the new thing so we had a big audience. Then it narrowed down to just musicians – and that is not enough. You can’t just narrow it down to the guitar players in the audience. No, no, no, no. You’re there because people like your compositions, but if you’re going to be soloing all night it’s kind of boring for the girl sitting next to you – they’re not going to like that kind of shit at all! In Europe, for instance, we’ve got more of the opposite sex in the audience than ever before, because we’re not slamming them over the head with everybody taking long-ass solos. There’s nothing worse than long bass solos or long drum solos, you know? (laughs)
GC: And I don’t think that’s a guitar player bias, that’s just a universal truth (laughs)
Al: But they all want a solo! All the drummers and all the bass players want a solo, but you have to be a strong leader and say ‘absolutely not’ to them (laughs). If it’s going to make them happy then yeah ok, but it’s got to be short. If you’re hardcore jazz or hardcore fusion it usually incorporates solos that are too long, and your audience just gets smaller and smaller and smaller. Great guys like Scott Henderson and Alan Holdsworth – tiny little audiences. Just the guitar freaks, and that’s it.
GC: That’s an interesting way to look at it, because I suppose as you’re pandering to that niche audience, over time it only gets smaller.
Al: That’s exactly what happened. It was getting smaller and smaller and smaller. And if they did tour Europe it was for a fraction of what it used to be, and you can’t survive really. In my case, I credit the right elements of influence that have lead to the way that I compose, allowing Piazzolla, the Beatles, Chick, Paco – all of these influences, to meld together. A lot of the way composition works though is that you’re just born with the ability, it’s not something you really learn. It’s like rhythm. You don’t learn good timing. If somebody has bad timing, they don’t all of a sudden have great timing later. A guy with bad timing has always got bad timing (laughs)
GC: (laughs) Well you can mask it sometimes but you just can’t fix it, can you? It’s like an internal clock – you’ve got a groove or you don’t.
Al: The internal clock is exactly right. A lot of musicians have a problem with their internal clock, and they either disagree that they do or they don’t even know it. If you can’t tap your foot in time and then play counter-rhythms against that time your foot is keeping, you’ve got a problem that usually doesn’t get better. You’re born with it, or you’re not. Look at a country like Cuba. In Cuba, a vast amount of people have great time, and they’re just born with it. You go to the north of Japan or the north of Europe on the other hand – forget it! You go to certain countries and you’ll see that people are just born with it, or they’re not. A lot of people might disagree with what I’m saying but this has been my experience entirely. I don’t know where the hell I got it from, but I’m fortunate to have the inner clock in sync. When I’m tapping my foot I can play against it and it doesn’t go out of sync. I give clinics sometimes and I can spend the whole duration of the clinic on just this one aspect. You’ve got to slow things down and find out whether you have that inner clock instinctually or not, and if you don’t you’re going to have to work with a metronome or a drummer for the rest of your life—
GC: And even then, it just doesn’t feel as good as someone who has it.
GC: Maybe it’s a cultural thing with certain countries? Generations of people who just grow up with it? I don’t know what it is but you’re certainly right about the fact that the inner clock is what keeps it all together.
Al: It’s the inner clock. I can name some of the musicians that I think are so good with that, and you’ll just hear the difference. Chick is one of them, Steve Gadd is another. Steve Gadd’s inner clock is ridiculously good. Here’s a drummer that doesn’t need a click track – what drummer doesn’t need a click track? They all need a click track (laughs). Steve Gadd does not need a click track, he’s so good. And believe it or not, although their music was a lot simpler, in the Beatles days I don’t think Ringo had a click track and he played goddamn well on time.
GC: Yeah you know, I’ve heard all these stories about him and that’s the defining factor isn’t it? For me, a drummer isn’t defined by how much noodling they can do – it’s the time feel that they bring to the table.
GC: That must have been quite a prevalent factor for you all along given all the Latin influence you have in your stuff? That’s all time.
Al: Right, it’s all time, and the ability to feel a beat without your foot which is holding the downbeat going out of sync, to feel that upbeat thing. In rock music, everything is felt down – down down down. In Latin music, it’s all about the upbeat (taps and sings upbeat grooves). If this is your quarter note (taps), and all that upbeat stuff throws it off, you’re fucked! Some people just have a hard time with it, and that’s when rehearsals become really brutal (laughs)—
GC: There’s a piece on ‘Opus’ isn’t there, that has this really nice play in that area – I think it’s ‘Notorious’? There’s some really cool up stuff, almost like you’re moving around from one upbeat to the next—
Al: Ah I know what you mean. I betcha it’s the F# part you’re thinking about, yeah…yeah!
GC: (Laughs) Listening to that I was like ‘that’s going to take some work to play’!
Al: Oh like I said, I think the guys are sitting as we speak, a combination of pissed off and bewildered. I’m calling the tour ‘Notorious Tour’ (laughs)
GC: (laughs) That’s great!
Al: It’s even a challenge for me, I’ve never played it live so I’ve got to get up to speed on all of this stuff. It’s going to be hard. I’m not getting calls from any of the guys, which means they’re all a combination of upset and scared (laughs)
GC: (Laughs) Are these guys you’ve played with for a while?
Al: Well they did the last couple of tours – the keyboard player only did one tour but he’s very good and everything. It’s all hard though, and it all takes a lot of time. They’ve already put a lot of time into the other music, but it’s not like we’re getting together only to play the stuff they know. There’s music from ‘Opus’ that I want to introduce, and if it was up to me I’d two, three, even four pieces. I’m hoping for at least two (laughs)
GC: It’s complicated stuff! Is there any particular reason you called the record ‘Opus’?
Al: Well ‘Opus’ is a very appropriate title I think. The definition of the word is more or less ‘compositions’, and that’s what the focus is.
GC: Yeah, though it has also come to be known as the sort of ‘magnificent, large piece of work’ that defines an artist.
Al: Well you could think of it as one large piece yes, or a series of pieces that work together, but it was the appropriate title, and I think the emphasis on composition is evident. The amount of improvisation is just. It’s perfect. There isn’t this over-emphasis on showing off one’s ability, technically – not that my intention ever was that, but I think with this one I’ve evolved to this degree in composition. ‘Opus’ felt like the right, simple title to describe this complex process that has been unfolding over the years.
GC: Indeed, truly fitting. Well, Al, it’s been fantastic to listen to, and it’s been fantastic to get lost in conversation with you and learn a little bit about how the internal clock ticks within your mind. Good luck to your band for all the upcoming rehearsals, and – thanks for your time, pun intended!
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