Web Exclusive! Arlen Roth Talks about Learning to Play

April 12, 2009

 I grew up  in an apartment in the Bronx and my dad—who still lives in the same apt at 96—is a great artist. He’s a cartoonist for the New Yorker. One of his first loves was flamenco and we used to listen to those records all the time. I started playing the violin but around 1962 we had this guitar in the house and I started to play slide on it. It only had two strings. It was a Stella. I would take my mother’s lipstick holders and play slide on it. My dad saw me playing the guitar, and I took a couple of classical lessons. I was already starting to pick things up off records. I took a couple of lessons and I fell in love instantly with the guitar. I was playing very well and the teacher didn’t need to deal with any music because she said I picked up everything just by watching her. She gave up teaching and I was on my own from the age of 12 to teach myself. Then the Beatles hit and the Stones hit and the next day I bought this four-pickup Japanese guitar that was full of chrome and really cool and that was it. I was off and running. I was listening to the Beatles and the Stones and I was absolutely crazy about the Byrds andI loved the Lovin’ Spoonful. I loved Clarence White and Zal Yanovsky with the Lovin’ Spoonful. I loved Bobby Fuller—"I fought the Law" and those beautiful chord solos he would play. Simultaneously I got into the blues. There was a big blues boom. I got hugely into Mike Bloomfield. Paul Butterfield used to tell me that I was just like Bloomfield onstage, and I had never seen Mike play. Every time I would play with Butterfield in Woodstock he would  say that.  I got really into B.B. and Buddy Guy big time. But at the same time I was falling in love with Merle Travis and Clarence White, the sound of the pedal-steel guitar. I had this simultaneous love affair with blues and country and all roots music. I was just as likely to listen to Joe Maphis as I was to listen to B.B. King. I started playing Dobro in 1969. For a long time in New York city I was the only one playing Dobro, pedal-steel, or bending strings. I used to get a lot of country sessions. I filled a very strange niche. New York wasn’t a good place to grow up as a blues player or a country player in those days. They didn’t know how to record you. I always sounded so thin. I’d listen to the playback and say how come my Tele sounds so thin when I have this beautiful thick tone in the room? They were always more concerned with the horns or the strings. It was more of a jazz town. So some of that session work wasn’t very satisfying. —Matt Blackett

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