Arlen Roth on How He Assembled a Team of Legendary Pickers for 'Tele Masters'

Featuring Johnny Hiland, Steve Cropper, Vince Gill, Albert Lee, Brent Mason and Brad Paisley, 'Tele Masters' can be used as an audio textbook for anyone who’s interested in learning how to use this timeless instrument to the utmost.
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In these days of countless instructional YouTube videos, the idea of having to buy or borrow a cassette or videotape to learn a particular guitar style might seem quaint. But back in the day, for a young player like Johnny Hiland, who lived in the remote reaches of Maine with limited access to music teachers or schools, those resources were a godsend. Arlen Roth produced some of the earliest examples of those instructional cassettes and videotapes for his company, Hot Licks, with Hiland being among the many current guitar heroes to reap the benefits.

Not just an educator, Roth has made his bones as a sideman to the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Janis Ian and enough others to assure him a place of high regard in the guitar world. His reputation helps him attract the cream of the crop when he sets out to create compilation records based on a theme. In 2015, Roth brought together stellar guitarists like Sonny Landreth, David Lindley, Rick Vito, Lee Roy Parnell, Greg Martin and Jack Pearson to show off the art of slide guitar in all its slippery glory on Slide Guitar Summit. We talked to him about that record at the time and recently reconvened to discuss his recent follow-up, Tele Masters (Aquinnah Records).

This release gathers a who’s who of legendary pickers like Hiland, Steve Cropper, Jerry Donahue, Vince Gill, Albert Lee, Brent Mason and Brad Paisley to showcase the first mass-produced electric guitar, the Fender Telecaster. The record amply demonstrates how Leo’s simple invention serves as a platform for a plethora of tones and styles. Tele Masters can also be used as an audio textbook for anyone who’s interested in learning how to use this timeless instrument to the utmost.

Roth with Cindy Cashdollar

Roth with Cindy Cashdollar

Though it is hard to argue with Roth’s choice of players (Joe Bonamassa, Bill Kirchen, Jack Pearson, Will Ray, Redd Volkaert and Steve Wariner also appear), the guitarist and educator admits that the selection process was not easy, and that one notable Tele picker is absent.

“It was a hard, because I could have picked at least another 30 or 40,” Roth explains. “I really wanted to get James Burton. He and I go way back. We’ve played together and he did a Hot Licks video for me. But there was just too much going on with his son’s health.” (Burton’s son, Jeffrey, died in April following a long illness.)

Roth’s deep respect in the Tele community, based on his own prowess and seminal instructional videos, came in handy when attempting to bring busy players onboard. “Steve Wariner was excited to be on it,” he says. “I didn’t realize his kids grew up watching my videos. They all came to the studio because they want to meet me. Joe Bonamassa had done a Hot Licks video for me for when he was 21. I signed Johnny Hiland to Hot Licks when he was just a kid.”

Though united by a single type of guitar, the players are stylistically different. Roth had to come up with the right tune for each of them, and ultimately selected 16 tracks. “It’s an instinct of mine,” he says. “When I did my Tooling Around album, I tried to write appropriate songs for Duane Eddy and Albert Lee. On this one, some were previously released songs that barely saw the light of day, but I thought they were still good picking songs. I didn’t want the album to be everybody just ‘Tele whacking,’ with the same licks you hear all the time. But at the same time, a lot of the people on this album are originally responsible for those licks.

“I had this difficult song called ‘Roadworthy’ that I figured would be great for Brent Mason, who likes a challenge. It took a little time, but he nailed it. Most of the stuff is first take. Johnny Hiland said, ‘Let’s pay tribute to Danny Gatton and do “Funky Mama.”’ Two minutes later, we were recording it.”

You might think Roth chose Link Wray’s “Rumble” for Will Ray due to the similarity of their names, but “that’s just a coincidence,” he says. “When I think about Will Ray, I think of dark, moody stuff, and since that’s the heaviest tune on the album, I figured I’d give it to him.”

As for Bonamassa, Roth says, “We cut a straight-ahead blues for Joe to play on, and he delivered a perfect tribute to Albert Collins. The record was also about paying homage to many of the Telemasters before us: Gatton, Roy Buchanan, Albert Collins, Jimmy Bryant — all the greats.”

Roth with Steve Wariner

Roth with Steve Wariner

Given the schedules of this stellar cast, some, like Gill, Kirchen, Lee and Volkaert, were sent tracks created by Roth, featuring himself, producer/drummer Tom Hambridge, Cindy Cashdollar on lap-steel guitar, bassist Tommy MacDonald, and acoustic guitar masters Billy Panda and Bryan Sutton. Still, a surprising number were able to play their parts and solos live in the studio with Roth and the rhythm section. Wariner, Pearson, Mason, Donahue and Hiland all went toe-to-toe with Roth, trading blazing licks back and forth in real time.

The guitarist brought a number of axes to the sessions but largely relied on one. “I used my main performing guitar for the last 10 years, the Nachocaster, built by Nacho Banos,” Roth says. “I happen to have the very first — serial number one. It has loud pickups, the neck is very similar to my ’53, and it’s light.”

His guitar is strung with a set of .010–.046 D’Addario strings, and he alternates between using just his fingers and, for faster runs, a heavy pick. “When I’m trying to do fast Telecaster picking, using my fingers doesn’t work for me,” he explains. “I get a little envious when these guys come into my sessions one after another and wail away with a thumb pick and three fingers.”

Some country pickers use artificial nails, but Roth goes relatively au naturel. “Sometimes I’ll have them done,” he says. “John Sebastian turned me on to a guy that strengthens my nails. If I break a nail, it’s not much fun. I like to be able to go onstage and feel like I can count on them.”

For most of the record, Roth uses the classic, clean, country twang tone, but on “Rumble” he rocks out. “I was using an Ampeg Jet II cranked,” he reveals. “It’s got such a sweet, natural overdrive sound. I usually come into the studio with three to five amps for different sounds. A lot of the overdubs I did with a brown ’61 Princeton. I also have a ’68 Princeton Reverb, as well as a ’64 Princeton Blackface and my ’66 Deluxe Reverb.”

Roth with Steve

Roth with Steve Cropper

As someone who has played the Telecaster for close to half a century and taught its use for nearly that long, Roth seems the ideal person to comment on the playing styles of the players he brought together. “Jerry Donahue has a special group of gauges that make it easy for him to bend behind the nut,” Roth says. “He bends the low E up toward A, and he’ll bend the A string up to a C. On ‘Promised Land,’ I do all my bending in C, and then I went down to A for him, to accommodate his bending.

“Brad Paisley’s very fast, lyrical, and he’s got complete control of the instrument. On ‘Bunky,’ he used his B- and G-Benders for all these jazz chords. It almost sounded avant-garde. He was taking it to another level.”

Johnny Hiland is another player who mixes styles. “He’s got a lot of Danny Gatton in him, but he’s also a bit of a shredder-type guy,” Roth explains. “He’s got eight million pedals! His style is conducive to me playing off of him and him playing off of me.”

As for Redd Volkaert, “he leans toward the jazz side of things,” Roth says. “I wanted somebody on the album like that. I would say, ‘Let’s play that A minor thing,’ so I called the song, ‘A Minor Thing.’”

A logical follow-up to Tele Masters might be an album called Strat Masters, as Roth is equally adept on that instrument. But he doesn’t expect it will happen. “If I ever did a follow-up, I’d probably just do a part two, because there are so many people who deserved to be on this record,” he says. “There were all these guys people talk to me about, like Guthrie Trapp, Forrest Lee and a friend and former student of mine, Jim Oblon. Also, Jimmy Weider, Duke Levine and Jim Campilongo, who I tried to get on this one. As it is, when part one is released on vinyl it will take up two discs.”

Roth can already be proud that he has created a compendium of classic Telecaster sounds and techniques demonstrated by some of the world’s best pickers. As he said, if any major Telemaster’s playing is absent it is James Burton who, with luck, will be on the follow-up record. Burton doesn’t go entirely unrepresented, however. Says Roth, “I put James’ name in the credits as one or the players that the record is dedicated to, along with Clarence White, Mike Bloomfield, all the people that influenced me, and so many other guitarists who have played Teles.”