In the beginning, there was slide guitar.
Well, maybe not at the exact moment the guitar was invented, but definitely around the time when Arlen Roth initially picked up the instrument back in the late 1950s.
“Even before my true guitar-playing days,” recalls Roth, “there was a guitar lying around the house that had only two strings on it. It was old Stella that belonged to my older brother. I used to pick up my mother’s lipstick holder, and I put the guitar on my lap and played lap-slide.”
About two years later, when he was 10 years old, the Bronx, N.Y.-raised Roth began to play guitar seriously — and slide remained a constant throughout his development into a well-rounded player and continued into his work as a sideman and solo artist.
“Somehow I always had the right technique [for slide],” Roth says. “I had a few lessons in classical guitar when I was 10, and that gave me a very good respect for the [nonfretting] hand and for dampening and for muting strings — that’s essential for slide guitar. … You also gotta really let that slide become an extension of your hand: to only play what you really need to play.”
Roth’s biggest slide-related project to date is his new album, the appropriately titled Slide Guitar Summit, due Jan. 13 on Roth’s own Aquinnah Records imprint.
Asked why he made the album at this stage of his career, Roth said one of his goals was to “show all the voices that slide guitar can be” to listeners.
“Slide guitar is so everywhere now — every soundtrack, every movie, every reality show and every commercial,” he adds. “I think that probably the general public, the ones who don’t play guitar, they don’t understand that they’re actually hearing slide guitar, so [this album] is a bit of an educational thing, too. It’s really at a peak right now in terms of its creative output.”
Enter Johnny Winter
Produced by Tom Hambridge and recorded in Connecticut, New York and Tennessee, Slide Guitar Summit is a guest-filled collection. The first to sign on was Johnny Winter, who plays with Roth on a version of “Rocket 88.”
Roth remembers that his pitch to Winter “took all of about five minutes,” and once he agreed to be part of the project, “then it really gained speed because everybody else wanted to be on it with him. Most of the other people who played on the album knew me or they knew of me.”
Other notables include solo artist/occasional John Hiatt sideman Sonny Landreth (on the tune “Sonny Skies”), country singer-songwriter Lee Roy Parnell (“Dust My Broom”) and session player/onetime Fleetwood Mac member Rick Vito (“You Really Got a Hold on Me”).
Tackling that Smokey Robinson-penned Miracles song with Vito proved to be especially satisfying for Roth.
“The funny thing about that song is I almost thought it was jinxed because I tried it on two other albums beforehand,” he says. “One time it was so bad I just rejected it. The second time, the person who was going to do with me as a duet decided not to show up. Then I said, ‘Let’s give it one more shot, with Rick Vito.’ I think of Rick as a melodic-type player. I wanted to nail that groove and get a really nice flow with it. … It was maybe an attempt to get back to a soulful type of tune.”
Roth will mark the release of Slide Guitar Summit with a Jan. 20 concert at City Winery in Nashville, featuring such album guests as Parnell and Vito. Prior the performance, a making-of documentary containing roundtable talks with Winter and others about slide guitar will be shown. Additional CD release shows are expected to follow.
— By Chris M. Junior
Photo of Arlen Roth by Diana