Friday, April 14, 2017

GUITAR GODS: Alan Robinson

I first heard Alan play several years back when we were performing guests at a high school for a music clinic. Hearing Alan play, and then hearing him tell some of his story & answer questions from the students, was...well, it was a very special morning.

Alan clearly possesses immeasurable kowledge and skill, and just as clearly has immeasurable fun while playing! This is evidenced on his recordings as well as when you see him on stage (both of which I highly recommend).

Alan was a Sergeant Major (now retired) with the US Army and played in the 202nd Army Band as Principle Guitarist. He was also, in a break from his military career (after securing a Bachelor of Music from the famed Berklee School of Music in Boston, MA and a Masters of Music from EKU) an Assistant Professor of Music/ Director of Contemporary Music and Jazz Studies at Pikeville College and Director of Bands (South Floyd High School). He also attended the US Army School of Music. Now, post-military, he is returning to school (this time at University of KY, fall 2017) starting work for his Doctorate of Music.

He has attended workshops with the following: Mike Stern, John Scofield, Pat Martino, Chick Corea, John Patrucci, Vinnie Moore, and enjoyed private studies with recent "Guitar Gods" interviewee Jon Finn (see Jon's interview here) as well as Joe Stump (Rock/Metal), Norman Zocher (Fusion), Jim Kelly (Jazz/rock), Mark White (Jazz), and Mashi Hasu (Jazz/Rock).

As a performing artist, he has shared stages with everyone from The Winery Dogs (see Guitar Gods interview with Winery Dogs bassist Billy Sheehan here) to the Platters to Jay Flippin to Stryper, and many more, and has appeared on a half dozen recordings, including his brand new release: Alan Robinson "Contemplation" (see a review here).

He has also taught for years - private lessons as well as clinics - and currently writes the Breaking Out of the Box instructional series right here for Skinny Devil Magazine.

Learn more about Alan at his web-site, which has links to his album, his reverbnation page, and his youtube channel.

I had a chance to chat with Alan recently. Check it out!


1) What are your current projects?

I just recently released a new album called “Contemplation”. So, I’m really trying to promote that release and looking to start gigging. While that is going on I’m already starting two new recording projects, my next progressive rock album and a fusion album. Along with recording and performing I am developing four new educational courses that I plan on launching soon. I hope to offer a couple in a live format but am considering the path of online streaming. I think they have some great information and I love to share and teach!

2) How does this (do these) differ from your past work?

The progressive album is really going to step it up a bit this time around. The tunes are, in some cases, more difficult to play and perform than the current release. Several are in odd meters such as 7/8 and 5/8 that mix with more common meters. I really like experimenting with that type of feel. One of my favorite tracks I’m working is a tune called Tough Times. That tune is all over the place with time signature changes, and in one section the band goes through several meters superimposed over the drums 5/8 groove…fun!! I’m also having some guest artists record some solos on a couple of tracks. I’m keeping those names back for now but it’s going to fun and exciting!

A big difference will be that the album will be recorded in various locations. Several of the guest artists live in other locations such as Boston and L.A. so I’ll gather the tracks and import them for mixing and mastering. I guess that’s not really anything new for the industry over all but it’s new for me to work in that manner on this scale.

3) Do you have one project that you are most proud of as a guitarist?

I guess if I had to pick one specific project it would probably be the recording I did in 1994 (Alan Robinson: Psychedelic Rendezvous). Not that it was such a great recording, but I do think that it started defining who I was as a guitarist or at least who I was going to be. Luckily that recording and the full transcription that I did for the album helped me get a scholarship to Berklee and changed the course of my life. That was a lot of work because I hand transcribed the entire project, rulers, pencil then inked over…hours of work!

4) Can you give our readers a run-down of your basic gear (live and/or studio), and do you have a favorite piece of gear?

I play Ibanez guitars exclusively, not endorsed by them but would love to eventually seek that out. They are the most comfortable playing guitar I have found, for me at least. I typically play my JEM that I’ve had for about 16 years now. That is probably my favorite out of all my guitars although lately I have really become fond of my RG 3550MZ Prestige and an S Series I picked up a while back. Both are incredible instruments and I just seem to be gravitating towards them more. I use Marshall amps, a JCM 900 and a JCM 2000DSL with 1960 4x12 cabs. I can’t seem to find another amp I like as much as these, although I’d love to not move big cabs anymore. My pedal board is pretty basic: Morley Bad Horsie 2 wah, Tube Screamer and a Fulltone OCD for overdrives, MXR Phase 90, T.C. Electronics Flashback Delay, Corona Chorus and Polytune, and an SP Compressor. I’ve started playing around with a Roland GR-55 Guitar Synth that I’m working in now. I like tube amps although I decided to look into the modeling option. I wasn’t really ready to throw out the cash for the Fractal Axe Fx2 to start so I tried out the Line 6 POD HD ProX for now. I am pretty pleased with it for recording. I think that If you spend the time with modeling that you can get some great sounds, I just think I’m too lazy. I don’t really use it live but if I do it’s for delays, chorus and harmonizers.

5) Who would you cite as early influences, and who are you favorite new players?

I think the whole guitar dream started back in the 70’s with KISS. Once I heard them I was hooked. Then as I grew I started really taking notice of more technical players, Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, George Lynch, Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen. But it was Steve Vai that really caught my ear. I was a bassist starting off, because everyone wanted to play guitar so the bass was my way in. The band I was in covered many of the 80’s metal bands and I got hooked on Steve Harris from Iron Maiden and then I heard Billy Sheehan. But as I transcribed Billy’s lines for David Lee Roth’s Eat’em and Smile album I kept being drawn to the guitar lines more. It was the time to make the switch. Vai Is still my hero. Not just for his playing but he is a true complete musician, composer and arranger. Although those guys were my inspiration I have to give credit where credit is due, and that’s to the guys I studied with at Berklee: Jon Finn, Joe Stump and Norman Zocher. Joe worked my tail off when it came to technique and Norm was such a great guy and player in the fusion style and really helped me bridge the gap between rock and jazz. Then there was Jon, the man has an incredible way of making you think outside of the normal path. I don’t know if he considers himself an abstract teacher but that’s how I always thought of him. He truly helped me break down barriers and probably had a bigger influence on my teaching style and view of the guitar than any of my previously mentioned heroes. There were several others that I studied with but these three guys made the big impact. As a matter of fact, I still flip through old lessons I have boxed away from each of these guys.

6) Can you give a few tips to aspiring players?

-Practice…practice…practice. Not just doodling like we guitarist like to do but true uninterrupted practice. Even if it’s only 5-10 minutes, dedicate yourself to that moment in time. Stay focused and have a goal.

- Study as many styles as you can even if you don’t plan on playing in that genre because there is always something you can pull into your own playing. For me, jazz studies became a great approach. The skills required to improvise through changes flourish tenfold when transferred to rock solos.

-Technical exercises are great for muscle memory and fretboard organization. Reach beyond those exercises and shapes and truly listen to how the notes you play communicate with the harmony. Don’t restrict yourself to “rules” all of the time, break out of the box. Do so with conviction.

-The big one, for me, stay true to who you are and the music you love. I struggled with that all my life. I’ve played in R&B, country, swing, blues and pop bands because others said I needed to do so and at the end of the day, I was still an instrumental/progressive rock guitarist. It’s just who I am and where I am happy. I could pull the gigs off but it didn’t give me the same joy. When you play true to who you are you will learn, perform and entertain to the highest degree. You may not become famous but you’ll be satisfied with yourself. That’s a hard pill to swallow for an artist sometimes, I’ve choked on it several times. I’m not famous and probably never will be but I will always be a musician and someone will appreciate my music.

7) You've been a student, a teacher, a college professor, a player in the trenches (playing to no an empty room one day and thousands the next) on stages and studios. You've also played with both rock greats and jazz greats. Do you have a favorite environment in which to play?

Like I mentioned a moment ago, progressive rock is my comfort zone for straight performance. But the environment that I really like is the teaching environment, probably clinic/workshop settings most. I love to share what I know and love about the guitar and music with others. That’s where true fans are, not the “star stricken fan”, rather the admiration and respect fan. That guy or gal that may be so inspired that they bring music to their lives and others and keep the torch burning.

8) There is a common belief that knowledge can negatively impact emotional playing. But most of the great have fabulous technique, deep conceptual knowledge of music (and the fretboard), and very emotive playing. You are no exception to that trend. Can you speak a little about how you manage to play so soulfully in spite of your chops & knowledge?

Well, I think we all go through that “mechanical” phase, I slip into it all the time. Eventually you realize that that phase is extremely important. That’s where you develop the muscle memory and develop the ear for specific sounds and melodic/harmonic relationships. For me, I don’t really think about scales, shapes or music theory when I’m in the moment. Those elements are for my practice sessions. I feel the moment and really try to listen to the musician’s I’m playing with. Music is a form of communication and once you open up and listen sometimes you realize that you don’t need to speak as much. When it’s time to solo, I think of it as an opportunity to build the dialogue in a conversation. That may sound a little corny but it works like that for me. Think of it this way, when you meet someone for the first time you don’t go straight into the conversation with your life story. There’s an introduction, a period to get to know the other person a little better. This gives you a moment to detect how someone is reacting to you. I think music can work the same way. One of the greatest exercises in performance that I ever did was an assignment by Livingston Taylor for a performance class at Berklee. Great guy, but I thought that I he had lost his mind when he made us recite our ABC’s in a dramatic performance. He’s the only man I know that has brought a tear to my eye reciting the ABC’s. Man, he was good!! 

9) What are your future plans?

I’m going to just enjoy writing, performing and teaching as I can. I’ve recently retired from the U.S. Army, so in a way, the door is wide open. I do plan on going back to school myself this fall to complete my PhD/DMA simply because I want to learn more and expand all I can. I’ll play out supporting my current release and I’ll wrap up the next two recording projects over the next year. So, life is good!

10) Thanx for talking to us, Alan!

Thanks for having me! I truly appreciate the opportunity to share my story and my music. You do some great interviews with great guitarists and musicians and I’m honored and humbled that you asked me to be part of the group!

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