While filming a promotional video for his new album, Opus [Red Distribution], Al Di Meola made an offhand comment that it was the first record he made in a state of sustained personal happiness. Since then, he feels that the press has made far too much of it. (Full disclosure: It was the first thing we asked him about, as well.)
“It’s the first thing anybody asks me,” he says. “I mean, yeah, it’s an incredibly happy time in my life. I’m remarried, and I have a two-year old now, and it feels like a new start. The fact is, I’ve gone through periods when things weren’t so great, but I still made music that I’m quite proud of. Even so, I was a little worried when I started the new record. Could I write good music being happy? That was something I grappled with for a bit.”
The resulting album underscores that his fears were unfounded, as it contains some of the fusion-guitar master’s most beguiling and beautiful—and, in some cases, darkly haunting—songs ever. Featuring sparse touches by Cuban pianist Kemuel Roig and Moroccan percussionist Rhani Krija, the 11-song disc moves elegantly from the nuevo tango-inspired “Escapado,” to the pensive jazz of “Insieme,” to the rugged, Zeppelin-like rock of “Notorious.” While there are splashes of fleet-fingered electric lines, the album might disappoint listeners still thirsting for flashbacks of the Return to Forever-era shred that put Di Meola on the map in the early ‘70s, as the bulk of the album is dominated by nylon-string acoustic rhythms and leads.
“More and more, I love playing acoustic guitar,” he says. “The acoustic separates the men from the boys, because you can’t get away with a lot of stuff. With an electric, you might do a sweep with a pick, or do a hammer-on, and the audience thinks you’re playing 20 notes, but you’re not. On an acoustic, your right-hand technique is out in the open. You can’t have sloppy technique, so you have to get your articulation down. Developing that type of thing has been a big challenge.”
You envisioned your last album, Elysium, as all acoustic, but you added electrics later. Is that how you approached recording Opus?
Not really. Elysium was acoustic. The electrics were an afterthought. A friend of mine—my ex-guitar tech—brought over this incredible pedalboard he was working on. I was never into pedals, but I thought I’d expand my horizons and give it a try. So he brought over his Les Paul and the pedalboard, hooked everything up, and I liked it. The music I had been working on was acoustic, but I thought, “Okay, some of this could work on electric.”
On this record, there were songs like “Broken Heart” that I was already thinking about using an electric on. The melody was something I had done on a record called Soaring Through a Dream—it was airy, spacey and acoustic. So, this time, I added a very specific acoustic groove to the electric melody. I always heard that melody as a very singable, legato-type of line that could be better expressed with an electric guitar. The arpeggios are always acoustic, because you get more punch on an acoustic than on electric.
Why do you think that you get more satisfaction or comfort from playing the acoustic these days?
It just might be natural evolution. I was very fortunate to listen to my conscience when I was in my early 20s. We had those little acoustic solo spots within Return to Forever, and I saw that people really liked them. I always kept that as part of my shows. It became a tradition. And then,s in 1980, when I did the guitar trio record with Paco de Lucía and John McLaughlin, it just exploded. We sold close to eight million albums. People were so accepting of that sound, so I kind of saw my future.
Which guitars did you use for recording Opus?
The main guitar was a full-body Conde Hermanos nylon-string guitar. It was made in 1982, so it has aged beautifully. I had never used it in the studio before, but after I recorded the album, I realized that I got the best sound ever. For electric, I used a PRS that Paul Reed Smith made himself. It’s a black one that resembles my Les Paul. It’s a great sound. I went through a custom-made pedalboard, and I used a Fuchs amp.
Although you play the acoustic more these days, do you go through periods when you pick up the electric?
It varies. Since I opened myself up to the electric again, I just get my head into it. When I’m on an acoustic tour like the one I just did in Europe, I’m pretty much set. I don’t switch to the electric in the middle of the tour or anything. In June, we’ll have an electric reunion in the Northeast, so I’ll get my head into that. At home in the studio, I might switch a little between acoustic and electric for fun, but I generally don’t. I probably pick up the acoustic more because it’s harder to play. And nylon is ten times harder to play than a steel-string acoustic. Graduating from the Ovation steel-string to the nylon was a really big hump I had to get over. I’m still trying to get over the hump, because you’re not going to get the velocity quite the same, but I also don’t care. It’s not the thing that rattles my rocks. Some people still want to hear me play five million miles an hour, but I’m more into the depth of the composition than the fireworks that were a big part of the early fusion days. That kind of thing bores me now.
Is it frustrating when you encounter certain fans who are stuck on your early shred period?
It gets a little frustrating. I understand it, so I don’t get offended, and I actually think I’m giving people both sides now. But I do wonder how long I can do that, because the volume of the fusion thing took a physical toll. I’m sure that anybody who played electric music is half deaf. You get hearing loss, or the ringing in the ears. Unfortunately, I was predisposed genetically to have tinnitus, and it’s at a catastrophic level now. When I play electric, I have to stuff my ears with tons of wax. If you want to get a good guitar sound, you’ve got to turn the amp up. I’ve got the speakers aimed backwards. I like to hear the ambient sound of the stage. I like to hear everybody from their position, so I don’t add other people into my monitor. I work it so that there’s a balance, and I’m hearing ambient sound, and that helps.
When you sit down to play on your own, what do you practice?
Oh, all kinds of things. You can’t let a long time go without picking up your guitar. I constantly have to practice difficult parts of all the songs that I’m doing live. I want to own it, you know?
The song “Ava’s Dream Sequence Lullaby” is ten minutes long with many moods and textures. Was that a series of guitar pieces you put together?
It just came and evolved. Just when you think it’s over and the intro starts again, it goes into the main body of the piece, which is suite-like. It’s like a series, you could say, of different sections. That piece goes over very well live. People love the aspect of sentimentality in music—which was a major part of what was missing in the early days of fusion. Fusion was all rock ‘em, sock ‘em, super-fast velocity. It got so dissonant and esoteric, and further away from what I loved about music in the first place. I had to go back and look at the aspects of what I loved, and then I went back to the Beatles. You gotta get back to those melodies, man.
Speaking of the Fab Four, several years ago you released a Beatles tribute album, All Your Life. I understand you’re thinking about doing a sequel.
Oh, I have to do another one. I have to, because it was so much pleasure doing that one—especially at Abbey Road. I was like a boy going to an amusement park [laughs]. There was no greater thrill. The studio was in the same condition it was when the Beatles made all of those records—the same floor, same walls, the same microphones. Man, I was so inspired doing that record. Making another one is definitely on the books.
It’s interesting. You’re a very schooled musician. You know the rules. Yet the Beatles were self-taught players. I’m not sure if they even knew all the chords they were playing.
But they invented their own rules. First of all, they were born with this talent. They weren’t schooled, but they just had this unbelievable natural talent. When they melded their voices on the earlier records, it created this beautiful sound. For quite a few years there, you had this healthy competition between John and Paul. They pushed each other. One guy wrote a killer piece, and it would make the other guy do something amazing.
It’s funny. Some years ago, I got to meet George Martin. The BBC was presenting Return to Forever with Lifetime Achievement Awards, and he was the presenter. He actually knew my name, which blew my mind. We wound up talking about the Beatles, and he asked me, “Who do you think the best guitar player in the Beatles was?” I said, “Well, George Harrison.” I mean, everybody would think it was George, right? But he said, “No, no, it was Paul McCartney.” I was like, “Wow. George Martin is telling me this.” It was pretty cool.