Arlen Roth at the Hot Tin Roof in the summer of 2005. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Arlen Roth (left) at the Hot Tin Roof in the summer of 2005. Photo by Ralph Stewart

Finding the spark

By Julian Wise - August 24, 2006

To hear Arlen Roth play guitar is to witness a master craftsman expressing his skill. Whether it's a soulful blues lick, a blazing electric solo, a hushed acoustic whisper, or a jazz vamp, Mr. Roth imbues the instrument with a formidable blend of precision and feeling. This mastery has earned him accolades from the national press as an authentic living legend of the instrument.

Last year, Mr. Roth began offering guitar lessons on Martha's Vineyard. For those unfamiliar with his work, this is the musical equivalent of a historical writing workshop with David McCullough or a broadcast journalism lesson with Walter Cronkite. In addition to being an accomplished composer and session musician, Mr. Roth is the founder of the Hot Licks video series, the premier instructional video company for guitar players. In addition to producing 26 of Mr. Roth's instructional videos, Hot Licks has released videos by George Benson, Joe Pass, Danny Gatton, Eric Johnson, Duke Robillard, and other greats. Mr. Roth's Island students have had the opportunity to have a one-on-one session with the man Vintage Guitar magazine calls "One of the most influential guitarists of the century."

Arlen Roth: Landscape

In a spacious studio room in Aquinnah perched above a garage that houses his collection of vintage automobiles, Mr. Roth reclines in a chair and details his decades-long musical journey. It's a story that begins in a Bronx apartment when the young Arlen began listening to his family's flamenco records. His father, the renowned New Yorker cartoonist Al Roth, encouraged his son to pursue music at an early age. Mr. Roth took a few classical lessons but quickly switched to electric guitar.

"I thought it was the coolest thing going," he recalls.

He attended the High School of Music and Art, a progressive school in Manhattan, before moving on to the Philadelphia College of Art at 16. In college he started his first band, Steel. Weekdays would find him scouting the pawn shops of Philadelphia for vintage guitars while weekends were spent in Woodstock, N.Y., playing at the Sled Hill Cafe. At 18 he left school to make his mark on the Woodstock musical scene. Before long he was being noticed by Paul Butterfield, John Sebastian, Happy and Arty Traum, Rick Danko, Harvey Brooks, and John Simon, producer of The Band. When John Simon called Mr. Roth to offer session work, Mr. Roth was "on cloud nine. I was actually meeting and touching the people that make records."

He received a mere $9 for his first session with Happy and Arty Traum, barely enough to cover the bus fare to the session. More important than the money was the reality of breaking into the ranks of professional musicians. In the years that followed, Mr. Roth toured and played with John Prine, Phoebe Snow, Don McLean, Eric Andersen, Tony Bird, Janis Ian, Pete Seeger, Jack Bruce, Duane Eddy, and gospel great Marion Williams.

During these years Mr. Roth also developed his teaching technique through lessons, books, and tapes. In 1974 Mr. Roth authored "Slide Guitar," still considered the gold standard of slide guitar instruction. The following year he published "How to Play Blues Guitar." The concept of Hot Licks was born when a student who was in the process of moving far away asked for lessons on audio tape. In 1979 Mr. Roth recorded 48 lessons on tape in the blues, R+B, lead, and rock guitar styles. In 1984 the company branched into video and began developing a large roster of guest artists. For ten years he penned the popular column "Hot Guitar" in Guitar Player magazine.

As a result of his musical and instructional prowess, Mr. Roth became an in-demand figure in the guitar world, being flown to Asia and Europe to do promotional clinics for Peavey and Yamaha gear. His reputation as a premier guitar instructor was boosted when he was brought onto the set of the Ralph Macchio film "Crossroads" to teach Mr. Macchio to play for the film. Mr. Roth also served as musical consultant for the motion picture, playing on the legendary guitar duel with Steve Vai at the end of the film. The Warren Guitar company created a signature Arlen Roth guitar that has received raves from the guitar press for its crisp, rich tone.

Mr. Roth is quick to point out that teaching is a vital part of the income stream for most professional guitarists.

"Musicians have to do some teaching to supplement their income, no matter how big they become. Maybe Keith Richards doesn't have to teach guitar, but most other musicians who become well known as players do."

A self-taught musician, Mr. Roth says his earliest books forced him to dissect his eclectic technique. "Arlen Roth's Complete Electric Guitar," written while touring with Simon and Garfunkel, gave him the opportunity to explore his methods and articulate them for a wider audience.

He enjoys one-on-one lessons for the rapport that develops between student and teacher.

"The most enjoyable thing is when I realize I have in front of me someone who is so promising that if I were not there to create that chemistry, maybe it would be like a tree falling in the woods. Maybe that person never would have had that button pushed, that spark."

His teaching technique is both spontaneous and specific.

"I shoot from the hip," he says. "When I see a student, I can read them like a book. I custom tailor what's right for them as we go along. I create a comfortable, comforting, and understanding place."

Currently, Mr. Roth is in the midst of several projects. He's sold Hot Licks to the Music Sales Corporation, yet still serves as a consultant and producer. He's currently overseeing the transfer of nearly 160 titles from VHS to DVD. He plans to release "Toolin' Around 2," a sequel to his legendary album "Toolin' Around." which featured sizzling duets with Brian Setzer, Duke Robillard, Albert Lee, Duane Eddy, and other guitar legends. The new disc will showcase duets with Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Lonnie Mack, Buddy Guy, and other guitar titans. He's also mulling penning an autobiography to chronicle his musical journey.

Mr. Roth came to Martha's Vineyard in 1982 at the invitation of his friend Kate Taylor. "I've always loved it here," he says.

While he enjoys the natural beauty and warm community of the island, he's considering a musical sojourn to Nashville for an extended period of time. "It's a real musical center," he says. "It's not such a big town that you have to deal with too much else. Music is king there. Still, the Vineyard is home. I would never change that."

In 1998, Mr. Roth endured an unfathomable tragedy when his wife Deborah and oldest daughter Gillian were killed in an automobile accident. His daughter Lexie Roth, a college student and talented musician in her own right, has just released a CD "One Long Blink." In the liner notes, Ms. Roth writes, "This record is for my big sister, Gillian, and my mom, Deborah, for I sing for them and know they're listening."

She also writes, "I would like to dedicate this record to many people. First and foremost; my best friend, my teacher, the one I live for, my dad. Thank you for taking me seriously, for pointing me in the right direction, and thank you for being you."

Ms. Roth has told her father she wishes to perform and record with him in the future, something Mr. Roth regards as a beautiful testament to their familial bond.

"For me, what it's all about is the communication between father and daughter, that life, that spark, that energy. That rapport is a godsend. It's the greatest expression of our love for each other."

Julian Wise is a frequent contributor to The Times, specializing in music, film, and the performing arts.