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Al Di Meola: ‘Never Idle, Always Stretching’

Jazzed Magazine • November/December 2018Spotlight • December 20, 2018

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Witnessing jazz legend Al Di Meola teach a class of young guitarists, then perform an acoustic show to a packed house, is a rare treat. The 64 year-old virtuoso appeared for a day at John Petrucci’s Guitar Universe school this past August at the Mansion at Glen Cove on Long Island. A four day-event in its second summer, it was founded by the Dream Theater guitarist for budding six-stringers to learn about the art and craft of playing from iconic players and watch some all-star jam sessions. It was heartening to see a room full of rockers listening intently to Di Meola’s songs as well as his stories, including a fun one about unwittingly renting a house next to Paul McCartney and getting to interact with him (Di Meola adores the Beatles).

When he sits down to chat with JAZZed a couple of weeks later for a 75-minute phoner, the revered axeman says he enjoyed the Guitar Universe experience and loves doing events like that. He also appeared at Steve Vai’s Vai Academy 3.0 in January 2017. While Di Meola usually plays in an ensemble setting, it was difficult to assemble his bandmates for Guitar Universe, thus he came solo. Behind his group class and well-received set in the evening, the guitarist would have loved to have conducted some private lessons, but there was just not enough time.

Although Di Meola likes working in a group setting, his latest album Opus he recorded “virtually by myself,” he tells JAZZed. “I played a lot of the bass parts and played about 90 percent of the percussion. What would’ve been the keyboard parts I played on the guitar, so you have guitar on guitar quite often, and sometimes electric on acoustic. It was really just to get everything that I wrote down exactly right. It’s a risk, when you’re playing with other players, that you’re going to get it the way you want it. Sometimes they inflect their own thing which gives you a plus or a minus. There’s also the consideration of time and budget, much more so now than it was in the ‘70s and the ‘80s when the budgets were about 100 times bigger.”

As I learned while observing him in Glen Cove, when Di Meola is teaching in a solo setting he starts off by playing, then gradually lets students ask questions about what he is doing or make other queries related to the guitar. He does not believe that sitting and lecturing for a half hour or more is enough. He is essentially practicing while teaching and offering a musical springboard for inquisitive disciples.

“I use it as a little opportunity to break in some things that are challenging, and it might be something I’ve been playing for a long time and it’s still challenging to me,” he remarks. “It might be a rendition of the Beatles, and the way that I changed it is still a challenge to play in that particular fashion with that kind of syncopation. When I’m off the stage and dealing with organizations of tours and things of that nature, and I’m not recording or rehearsing, I’m not playing so much, so this gives me an opportunity.”

His master classes employ a different strategy. “Maybe we’ll talk more about exactly how I do what I do,” he explains, “and certain things that are related to picking technique and chords I use and scales and where I come from.”

Di Meola has not given private lessons since he was a teenager. He had students his age and younger, but once he jumped on board with Chick Corea and Return To Forever at age 19, he never looked back. He had no desire to teach for extra money or become a well-known session player. “I didn’t want to be on everybody’s record,” he asserts. “I wanted to be special, [do] my records, and it took all that time to develop sounds and songs, my own writing and technique. I had enough to work on.”

Over the course of the next four and a half decades, Di Meola has fashioned a career that is incredibly diverse and influential. A rock-ish album such as 1982’s Electric Rendezvous is likely one of the releases that enthralled aspiring young rock virtuosos. His studio and live albums with fellow icon John McLaughlin and the late virtuoso Paco de Lucia were brimming with incendiary Spanish guitar playing. He has recorded the music of tango composer and innovator, the late Astor Piazzolla, who he became friends with when he was younger, and released an instrumental Beatles covers album entitled All Your Life. His 1995 collaboration with bassist Stanley Clarke and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, Rite of Strings, is effervescent and magical.

The guitarist’s influences range from the Beatles and Piazzolla to jazz guitarist George Benson and bluegrass picker Doc Watson. He credits really good training when he started playing at nine years old at the local music store in New Jersey. “They just assigned me this guy who is still my friend today,” recalls Di Meola. “His name is Bob Aslanian. He lives down in Forked River, New Jersey and he still teaches. He comes from the Barney Kessel/Howard Roberts school. He was a great teacher in the sense that he was teaching different chord forms, different types of scales, reading in all positions, and learning the standards that I had not a tremendous interest in. But I had to learn them. At the same time, he recognized the beauty and the aesthetics of groups like the Beatles. He would write out the chart for ‘Yesterday’ or ‘Michelle’. There is a good amount of harmony in those songs. I had the best of both worlds. I was given a rounded beginning and approach to music, which was very beneficial.”

In light of that statement, he recommends that young players find a good teacher who will instruct them more in a jazz tradition. “You could stay liking what you like, but your world expands when you have knowledge of scales and reading in every position of the guitar,” explains Di Meola. “So if you give me something written in a low register, I can read that just as easily above the 12th fret. That’s a big plus. You want to be able to look at the music and read it, especially complicated music.”

That is the first step. Di Meola then suggests trying to copy one’s favorite players and to emulate what they are doing. “You’re never going to do exactly what they’re doing, but in the process you learn a lot and eventually develop your own voice,” he says.

When he was a young adult, Di Meola would attend as many shows possible in New York City. “Not only absorbing the great shows at the Fillmore East and the Village, but I would go to jazz clubs on occasion,” he recalls. “I would go to flamenco clubs on occasion. I still don’t know why, but I would go by myself to 86th Street uptown to the Corso, which was a Latin salsa club. As a teenager, I was going up there by myself, up the stairs into this giant ballroom listening to a big band. I was just enthralled with Latin music and absorbed it all.”

Al Di Meola performing at Glen Cover Mansion (Glen Cove, New York) in the summer of 2018

After commencing his studies at the Berklee School of Music in Boston in the early ‘70s, Di Meola practiced relentlessly. About two years into his tenure there – during which he spent a few months back in NYC working with the Barry Miles Quartet – he received a phone call that changed his life. After hearing Di Meola’s playing with the Quartet as recorded by a mutual friend, Chick Corea asked the young prodigy to audition for Return to Forever, who with their next studio album, 1974’s Where Have I Known You Before, would hit the Billboard Top 40 albums and help cement the mainstream reputation of this influential fusion group. RTF also happened to be Di Meola’s favorite group at the time, and he appreciated that their music was highly inflected with classical elements and offered “really cool lines to play.” He auditioned and landed the gig. The guitarist says the music required a high level of technical ability, and given that he was now playing with musicians that were legends to him, it was either sink or swim.

“God passed me the football, and man, I had to maneuver through a lot of Scientology crap that was thrown at me from those guys,” reveals Di Meola. “But I knew that was really going to get me to another level. By the way, I didn’t know what that level was, but while I was in Return To Forever we had achieved such a level of popularity that we were able to have our own solo contracts at the same time we had a group contract. I think it was the first group ever to have that. I was really fortunate, but I was thrown into the world of writing and I didn’t know if I could do it.”

As the group’s commercial peak hit with the gold-selling Romantic Warrior in 1976 (internal friction led to their dissolution after one more studio album), Di Meola embarked on his own career with his first solo album, Land Of The Midnight Sun. “I was still shocked that I got that far,” he recalls. “With Elegant Gypsy, my second one, is when I realized that I had something that I could call my own. I had a stamp of some kind.”

While his ability to move between acoustic and electric guitar and play fluidly and rapidly on both instruments has impressed many, Di Meola does not consider himself a shredder. “I’m not even a fan of shred, but I think a lot of shred fans are fans of mine,” he observes. “It is because the emphasis of what they do is a kind of shred, and the kind of shred I’m talking about is the kind that you just can’t get away with on acoustic guitar. You can pick a note and hammer-on a million [notes] or do that sweep thing that so many guys do, but you’re just not going to be able to get away with it on an acoustic guitar. You have to man up.”

Given the era he grew up in, the guitar virtuoso loves the music of the ‘60s and feels it still holds up today because of its “damn good quality – great harmony, great melody, great production.” But he also points out that that music – and this could apply to any modern music that stands the test of time – is a result of the intense focus of the players themselves.

“Back then, [working on] a great record you’d be thinking about the next three months to six months to a year,” he explains. “And then it remained great your whole lifetime because there was such focus from the whole band, whatever that band may have been. Everybody, after they did a basic track, went in to listen to that basic track, not out in the hallway on their phones or on their computers, which everyone does now.”

Don’t mistake these comments for the clichéd griping of an older musician. Di Meola feels that are more talented players than ever before, and many of them are searching for new ways to do things, such as taking hammer-ons and sweep picking to another level. “It’s all kind of gimmicky and interesting,” he says. “Some of them do it well, and I don’t knock it. It’s a whole different way of expressing yourself.”

That being said, he is not sure if many or any of these newer players can read music, and he thinks that is a mistake. Even a good pop tune is “extremely aesthetic” and requires more than just a basic understanding of music. The Beatles are a great example.

“When you really analyze and play [their music], instrumentally you realize this music’s got stuff, but it doesn’t have to go on for 10 minutes like my songs,” he assesses. “I’m playing a different kind of music. I don’t have a voice like them. So when I tell a story, I have to tell it with notes. If you have a long 12-page chart – those guys that are doing that kind of heavy metal, sweep, hammer-on stuff, it sometimes appears gimmicky to me. They better learn how to read, and I don’t mean tab.”

Di Meola’s picking technique is important to take note of. He has explained that he does not move his right arm as he picks really fast. Instead, he frees up his wrist to get the speed and dexterity he needs. “If you lock your wrist and try to pick some kind of velocity it usually sounds as bad as it looks, which is stiff,” he elaborates. “I consciously try to rotate my wrist. It’s quite natural. Looking at other players and trying to evaluate what it is that just doesn’t sound right, I noticed that they’ve got their wrist locked and they’re picking from their elbow. That really does not work.”

An important aspect of Di Meola’s career is the fact that he has spanned numerous genres and blended them together in exciting ways. A great example is the highly rhythmic “Gumbiero” from his 2011 album Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody, which fluidly mixes jazz, tango, African music, and a little flamenco. It begs the question as to how he finds the different connections between genres to be able to create that kind of music.

“Everything is based on the sensibility of have feeling the clave, which is how to syncopate against the time,” he notes of such a blend. “It’s the only thing you cannot learn in music. You can learn harmony and every other aspect of things that are related to scales, but not when it comes to rhythm. Most guitar players in particular think they have great rhythm, but when it comes to syncopating, if you were to divide [out] the lower half of your body, your foot would be tapping the time and your upper body would be playing accents against the time. If your foot goes off and out of time because of the influence of your upper body rhythm, then you’re off clave. That’s not good. And there are guys that just cannot ever get it because they don’t have it in them.”

However, Di Meola adds that if one discovers that they have the ability to play any kind of off-rhythms against the time, he encourages students, as he does at clinics, to always tap their foot. “It’s very, very important to tap when you’re playing, so you’re not playing rubato all the time,” urges the guitarist. “Or guys think they’re playing in time when they’re not. You have to be really aware of the foot. Chick was a good demonstrator of that tremendous ability to play against the time. Or Steve Gadd – killer, one of the best of what I’m talking about. And then almost every Latin guy from Cuba. It’s in the blood. It’s in the genes, man. I don’t know how to help. I’m not from Cuba, but I totally felt this ability very early on.”

Another area of Latin music that has captivated Di Meola is tango, specifically the work of the late Argentine composer and bandoneon player Astor Piazzolla. “The tango thing is a whole different world than what we were just talking about,” says Di Meola. “They have none of what I just talked about in their music. Piazzolla blended a love of European classical music into what was a traditional tango form, so he’s really considered the father of the Nuevo Tango. For me, he’s the most important tango figure and writer who ever lived.”

Di Meola says that the most influential period of his life was when he met Piazzolla in the 1980s and became friends with him, and the composer expressed his love of the guitarist’s music. He confesses that at the time he knew little about Piazzolla’s music and was a little embarrassed to admit so, but the Argentinian innovator wrote a score for him that he hoped to hear him play someday.

“From that moment, we always included some Piazzolla in the show and still do,” says Di Meola. “And sometimes Beatles too. They were two massively huge influences that are better suited for the acoustic group. Not that Chick wasn’t an influence, but those two superseded that whole RTF thing which was more related to electric, bombastic stuff.”

Given Di Meola’s affinity for Spanish guitar and his strong sense of rhythm, he got along extremely well with Paco de Lucia. “We both had an understanding of that clave natural ability to play against the time without having the time slammed down by a drummer or percussionist,” he explains. “So we could play off-rhythms for days, but the listener knows exactly what that time is because we’re locked in a certain kind of groove. Whenever we played rhythm together, it was magic. He could play and then a big space of time would go by, but I know whenever he would come back in he wouldn’t lose the time in between that big hole. And that’s the magic of when you’re tapping time, that you don’t lose your sense of time when there is an opening in the space. It’s so cool and it opens up a giant world of possibilities rhythmically. Just trying to convey what I’m talking about to a clinic class, you hope some of them are actually getting what I’m saying because it is kind of a hard thing to consume and have it register.”

At his Guitar Universe concert performance, Di Meola played a piece from his 2015 album Elysium dedicated to his wife, but he apologized to her because he said that while it came from the deepest sentiment it also became very complex. However, this stripped down acoustic version necessitated leaving out the other five counterpoints he had written. Some people have remarked that his latest album Opus is very complicated, and it is densely packed with many different ideas and numerous rhythmic shifts. It is certainly not as straightforward an album as Electric Rendezvous.

Opus is the kind of record where the more you listen to it, the more you really get it,” says Di Meola. He believes that while it may be too advanced for some people harmonically, “it’s just chock full of melodies. It’s not like a record that’s just complex for complex sake. There’s a lot of jazz, avant-garde jazz, bebop, and even fusion music that’s lacking in melody with an overemphasis on crazy lines, atonal lines, and tons of improvisation that is far harder to get into.”

By contrast, 1985’s Cielo e Terra, is “one of those guitar records for guitar players,” notes Di Meola. “It was never ever meant to the same kind of expanded audience that I think Opus could appeal to or even the Beatles All Your Life compilation. It wasn’t meant for that.” It was inspired by another influence, classical guitarist John Williams. The making of Cielo e Terra invokes another problem he sees with contemporary musicians and composers.

“Today I listen to it and wonder how I did what I did,” he muses. “But I know that I was in a period without cell phones and without computers and living alone. I called my parents and said I’m taking the phone off the hook for a month because I’m doing serious writing and don’t send the police up to the house. I’ll be fine. And you know what? You get so much more done. But who could do that today? I find it harder and harder to make a record because I’m more and more addicted to the modern devices that we have today. I think it is an epidemic and it’s part of the reason, not the whole reason, that our music industry is in total collapse. You can also blame it on all the free music you can get on your computer.”

Despite the difficulties that musicians face these days – not to mention the overwhelming competition from a deluge of new artists, plus all the tech devices competing for our time – Di Meola has found champions of his music in the world of hard rock and heavy metal. He was well received at John Petrucci’s Guitar Universe and Vai Academy 3.0. The guitarist is also friends with rockers like Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo and neoclassical shred master Yngwie Malmsteen. Back in 1990, American band Riot covered “Racing With The Devil On A Spanish Highway” from Elegant Gypsy on their album The Privilege of Power.

About that shred thing – while Di Meola is flattered by the attention from guitarists who love to rip across the frets, he does not embrace the term. He knows that a lot of his earlier music has a rock edge to it, more so than his newer material. “They probably like the fact that I wasn’t your guy that you could really put into a shredding category, although I was playing with some kind of velocity,” he notes. But the iconic musician feels that saying he shreds is a little bit of an insult (even if it is not being meant that way). “Shredding players mainly shred. You don’t remember the composition – the little bit that I’ve heard, I may be wrong. A lot of them are not coming from a compositional side. A lot of them are coming from ‘look what I can do.’ It’s kind of a masturbatory thing.”

Something that Di Meola does have more in common with some of those rock players is grappling with tinnitus, that often-permanent ringing in the ears that results from too much exposure to loud music or sounds, and the gradual onset of arthritis, which is problematic for musicians (and music writers). Tinnitus is tough for people who regularly can be exposed to high volume. Like this writer, Di Meola has invested in custom made earplugs, but at some shows they can still only do so much, as he encountered at a bass heavy Rolling Stones show.

“It’s tough sometimes for me as well,” he says when we discuss the topic. “At times you’ll find yourself so busy with some other stuff you’re not thinking about it. And that’s all there is. There is nothing on the face of the planet [to fix this], and I have investigated every country and been to a lot of laboratories. I have what is known as catastrophic tinnitus, and I would say almost all musicians that have lived through 20, 30, or 40 years of being a musician have some degree of [hearing] loss. Maybe one in 20 also have some ringing. So it is purely a genetic predisposition of the condition, just like diabetes might be for some people or certain types of cancer, God forbid. You’re predisposed to get certain things.”

As far as his own predisposition towards tinnitus, Di Meola suffered a fractured skull when he was seven years old after falling from a tree onto his driveway. “I was in the hospital for two months with little chance that I would live,” he says. “But I lived through it, and I think it kickstarted the ringing. I hate to say, but if you ever hit your head, God forbid on pavement, you will hear ringing. If you’re not predisposed there is a good likelihood that it’ll dissipate over time. In my case, [I am predisposed] as opposed to somebody like Carlos Santana who plays way louder and has no loss or very little loss and no tinnitus whatsoever. Then you have somebody like myself or [The Who guitarist] Pete Townshend, who I talked so long with about tinnitus that I don’t know if we ever talked about music.”

Another malady that Di Meola has been coping with is arthritis, which inevitably starts hitting many people in middle age. “I have it in the joint of my index finger on my left hand,” he says. “When I play a long, stretched out chord I feel the pain, and then when I wake up in the morning, I can’t bend the finger all the way and have to work with it a lot. I have it in the lower joint of my thumb that connects to the hand.” He points out that John McLaughlin has it as well, which seems to be the main reason he stopped touring. “I don’t know what you could do for it yet, but I am at the point where I’m scared because now I know I have it. It runs in the family.”

Watching Di Meola at the Guitar Universe show, one would be hard pressed to notice him struggling on stage. He still continues to play in both acoustic and electric formats, and he realizes that there are fewer people that excel at both than he thought. When he first played acoustically with McLaughlin and de Lucia back in Europe in 1980, he saw that the response was phenomenal. And he realized that that was his future.

“I said, when I’m a 70 or 80-year old guy and I want to still be in music, I do not want to be like Jeff Beck up there with a wall of amps killing myself with volume,” notes Di Meola. “That’s all he can do. He’ll never be accepted as an acoustic player. None of those kind of guys, none of them. Their image is so electric that they’re boxed in. I saw the acoustic guitar as the future in Europe. That’s why I’ve been doing mostly acoustic over there and most of my work is over there because they prefer it.”

While Di Meola reportedly swore off electric guitar a few years ago, he has resurrected it again, “but it’s a real gamble to not worsen the condition I have,” he says. “It’s ten times the work and ten times the money to run it. There are more downsides to it, unless of course you have an audience of 1,500 to 3,000 people. It’s not worth playing in front of 300 to 500 people when I can get the same amount of people for acoustic, if not more.”

Fusion groups may not be headlining arenas as they did back in the ‘70s, and jazz seems to be struggling more for visibility in America than Europe, but Di Meola keeps moving forward. He fortunately has a global audience and an established name, but there are plenty of eventual successors waiting in the wings. The question is, how will they rise up at a time when the music industry has been compromised by the influence of the internet and technology?

“If your passion is that strong, continue to do it,” advises Di Meola. “It’s rough today, but how can you stop passion? If that’s your passion, you’ve got to be 100 percent. If you’re in it 90 percent, 80 percent, go learn how to become a plastic surgeon. It’s a great future, and it’s fun. I’m kidding, but it’s rough out there. You’ve got to discover that you’ve got something special — [that] it’s really what you want to do, and you want to face all the odds and you’re going to make it. You have to have these blinders on and just go for it all the way. Not everybody has that.”

Thankfully for us, Di Meola is in the game for life.

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