Getting to talk with a musician whose work you totally admire can be a tricky business. What if they are nothing like as appealing in person as they are on record?
With Frank Vignola, it’s never going to be a problem. Chatting in his home in upstate New York, Frank is every bit as warm and welcoming as his stunning guitar work onstage and on record. He gives expansive answers delivered with a sense of humour and style, and is always keen to ensure that those around him get some of the credit for his success – including Ryan Thorell, who built the main guitar in Frank’s collection.
Frank believes that Ryan is a future master luthier and explains how he came to enjoy his current guitar of choice. ‘I’ve known Ryan Thorell for along time, and he sent me a guitar which he was working on. It has a carved top and it’s like a hybrid between a Gypsy guitar and an archtop. It’s all mahogany, apart from the top which is Adirondack spruce, which is the spruce that the old Gibson guitars are made from, before they switched to European spruces. It has a really warm sound, and I tried it out and within two minutes I fell in love with it, and I told Ryan I would be delighted to endorse this guitar. This guitar travels really well, and I travel a lot, so when I take it out of its case, nothing is too far out of tune. It’s a guitar that will stand up to the travelling I do, and being played every day. Every guitar player should play every day, even if it’s just strumming a few chords, or walking past the guitar on its stand and just hitting the strings; you should play every day.’
All master guitarists have a favourite guitar that is their default choice, but they all have other instruments that deserve regular attention, and Frank is no exception to that rule, as he confirms. ‘I have three archtops. One is a 7-string which Bucky Pizzarelli gave to me; it’s the original one that he started out on. I have a Benedetto signature model, and I have the Thorell. I also have an old Martin Flat Top 00-17. That’s really nice, and I have a classical guitar made by Gary Zimnicki from Michigan, and I have a Bacon and Day tenor banjo which I love. I’ve had a lot of guitars in my life, and in retrospect I wish I had held on to all of them, but I do have what I need. Ryan is making me two new flat-tops; one is going to be constructed entirely out of mahogany, like the old Martin 00-17s, and he is making another one out of American Douglas fir, which he says gives a wonderful warm sound. I love the flat-top sound and I am looking forward to putting that sound into my shows.’
When advised that his technical style is intimidatingly clever and complex, Frank laughs loudly with pleasure, and has a comprehensive response to the question of whether he was born with his outstanding talent or developed it over years of dedicated practice and experience. ‘Both,’ he declares firmly. ‘When I was growing up, my dad played in a tenor banjo band, and he used to play loads of singalong songs, like “Four leaf Clover” and “Baby Face”, hundreds of songs like that. So my dad bought me a guitar and taught me a few chords. He bought me my first album, which was a Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli album, one of their early recordings, and I would play along with the records. By the time I was around 11, my ear had developed and I was picking up songs from listening. So I went to music school as part of my high-school education, and when I graduated from high school I went on the road, got myself a little place over a laundromat in Manhattan, and started knocking on doors asking for work. I was lucky to be able to pick up eight or ten slots a week in Dixie jazz bands because I could play rhythm guitar. So I have worked at my craft as I have gone along. I have met and worked with a lot of guitar players and taught a lot of guitar players, and what I have found out is that the ones who do it for a living never thought twice about it, they just went out and did it. The people who think about it and worry that it’s not a secure job with a steady income are the ones who finish up playing for a hobby, and there is nothing at all wrong with that because music should be enjoyed by everyone, and playing an instrument at any level is very good for you.
‘The hard work, as far as I am concerned, is actually getting the gigs and keeping the gigs, and getting enough work to support my family playing the music that I love. You have to get out there and build your audience and your fan base, as I have started to do in England. I came over with Tommy Emmanuel, and his agent liked what I did and offered to book me a tour, and I played maybe 30 people one night, 40 another; 60 was a good night. Then we came back last year and the numbers were going up – 80, sometimes 100 – and that is how you build up your audience in our line of the business. I remember Les Paul telling me that when he had his first record out he drove all over the country visiting every radio station he could find, and he introduced himself and his music to people that way. It is the only way to be a touring musician, unless you want to be a studio player, or a home player for your own enjoyment. If you want to make it your profession there are no short cuts; you get out there and play as often as you can in as many places as you can.’
Because of the skill exhibited by Frank Vignola on album and in concert, it’s easy to assume that he can turn his hand to any style of playing, but it will be of comfort to all of us that not all genres arrive by dropping in his lap like a birthday gift. ‘Playing bebop was quite confusing to me when I started to hear it and learn how to play it,’ Frank recalls. ‘Straightforward swing and jazz were fine because I grew up with those, but bebop was something else. Then I came across a guitar player called Gene Bertoncini, who is in his 70s now and is a real master of the guitar. He gave a clinic at a school I was teaching at. Gene taught this method of looking at the fingerboard horizontally, instead of vertically as most guitarists do. When they start, they learn the six positions for the scale and they think that’s it; meanwhile there are over 200 positions for playing a C scale on the guitar. Gene’s whole approach was about connecting your musical ear to your fingers. His concept was making you able to play your scales up and down on one string at a time, and I couldn’t do that, but after about a year, when I had mastered that, I found I was able to play bebop, because I was able to play what I could hear. With that extra fingerboard technique, I was able to get a line on translating what my ears heard into what my hands would play.’
During his career, Frank has played with many famous names in the world of guitars, but few are more famous than the late Les Paul. Frank enjoyed a professional relationship and personal friendship with the master, including a stint in Les’s band at his weekly residency at the Iridium in Manhattan. But typically, Frank’s favourite Les Paul story concerns another founding father of the modern guitar scene – Django Reinhardt. Frank elaborates: ‘Les knew Django and knew how talented he was and how American audiences would just adore him, so he intended to bring Django over to the States to tour with himself and Mary Ford, and they were big stars, so this would have been a huge break for Django. So Les came over to Europe to meet with Django, and he got to the apartment where Django was living in Paris, and it was up four flights of stairs, and there was nothing in the room but a guitar – that was it. All Django asked Les for was a record player, so Les went and bought him a record player. Les returned to the States and Django passed away before he could come over and do the tour. The Reinhardt family had no money, so Les contacted all the publishers of Django’s music, and he collected over $50,000 in royalties. Les paid for Django’s funeral and gave the rest of the money to the family, and in return, Django’s wife gave Les the Selmer guitar Django played, and I have played it myself, which was an awesome experience.’
As well as being a name in recording, Frank has a wealth of experience as a session musician, and he is more than happy to pass on some useful advice to those who would like a career as a studio player. ‘To be a session and studio musician, you must be able to read music, that is absolutely essential. The difficulty is, the guitar is the most difficult instrument to read for. There are six different ways to play each note; it’s not like a trumpet or piano, notes are set ready, so you have to be able to work through that. The easiest way to do that is to get a new piece of music every day and sight-read it. It doesn’t have to be a hard piece, it can be easy, but you need to work on one new piece every single day. Do that every day for a year and you will become an excellent sight-reader, which you need to be to be able to get studio sessions. Because of the increased use of programmes like Pro Tools, there are fewer good sight-readers out there. Years ago, session guitar players could do four different sessions a day, and they would read music off a score, not a tablature; so again, that is a good skill to have. The other skill that’s essential is a grasp of genres. The guys who play sessions these days can play any style – jazz, funk, rock – anything they need to do, it’s there in their toolbox. The final tip I would offer is: get the rhythm right first. Before you play anything, work out the rhythm by tapping it out. You can be so busy checking your fingering and so on that the rhythm of the piece can get away from you. It’s OK to miss a note here or there, but if you lose the rhythm, that’s it, game over.’
Frank has already been happy to confirm that his ability is not simply absorbed like sunlight, it has taken years of dedicated practice; and once again, he is happy to impart some wisdom. ‘When I started to learn, I set up a practice routine that took me 45 minutes a day, and I would work my way through that. It was the same time every day. I would turn off the phone and open my notebook with that day’s routine written out, and work through it, depending which aspect I was looking at working on, and the next day it would be something else so I didn’t get bored or frustrated with the same thing. The important aspect is the consistency, every day at the same time, so it’s a good habit to get into and you can feel the progress coming on as you go along.’
Does he look after his hands? ‘Funny you should mention that. Just recently I have been thinking that I must start to take better care of my hands than I have been. I have a big yard at home and I like to chop up wood and prune the bushes, that kind of thing; and after I do that kind of work my hands get stiff. I have been taking advice from a nutritionist, who told me that if I drink plenty of water and remain well hydrated I will never get arthritis. I don’t know if that is true, but sounds like a good way to live! I have thought about it more lately. I am 46 now and it’s time to notice and look after my hands – as well as the rest of me! When I first moved into my house I was banging in fence posts, and now and again I’d miss and smash my fingers, and carry on, and now I look back and wonder what on earth I was thinking!’
Interview by Andy Hughes