Web Exclusive! Arlen Roth Talks about Learning to Play

Although Arlen Roth is one of the most famous guitar teachers of all time, counting among his students Paul Simon and decades of GP readers, he's always been an avid student of the instrument as well. Here he talks about getting started.

 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