By Alison Richter
Frank Vignola is recognized as a preeminent jazz guitarist, which says a lot about his talent but omits much of his repertoire and experience.
Vignola, the author of 18 instructional books and six educational DVDs, has recorded and performed with a vast selection of artists, from Tommy Emmanuel to Ringo Starr.
That’s in addition to world tours, master classes and the time he spends on the road with guitarist Vinny Raniolo, with whom he just released a new album, Melody Magic. Like their performances, the disc is an unusual collection of music ranging from classics to contemporary, again defying the labels and stereotypes that one might associate with the term “jazz guitarist.”
Vignola lives and breathes his instrument, as is evidenced in his work ethic and the enthusiasm with which he discusses performance and technique.
GUITAR AFICIONADO: Early in your career, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced as a player, and how did you overcome them?
Number one, getting work. That was always very important to me, obviously, because I needed to make a living and I didn’t want to do anything else. So I spent a lot of time getting work, knocking on doors. Back then it was sending out press kits and CDs in the mail. Now it’s all Internet, which is brilliant. As far as playing, I would always practice and learn the songs that people I was working with wanted me to learn. I was always researching new records. I had a thousand records at one point. I would go into a used record store and buy all the records of the people I didn’t know, the people I’d heard of but never listened to, just for research purposes.
I continued to study in my 20s with different teachers. I would take a lesson or two from one or two special teachers. It’s never-ending. I see guys like Bucky Pizzarelli at age 87 and Les Paul up to 91 — he would still practice every day. Those guys are so dedicated to the guitar and to music. I think that’s what keeps people going at that age. They appreciate so much about what the guitar has done for them in life, all the places it’s brought them, all the people they meet, all the great memories, and they keep it going, which is fabulous. I have something to look forward to! Sitting on my porch at the age of 87 and practicing — how cool would that be? My porch might have to be in the south of France, though. That’s the only thing!
Do you practice daily?
I do practice daily.
What does that consist of?
I have four kids at home, so when I am off the road, I dedicate time to them and the house and the marriage, but I still pick up the guitar. On some days it might just be playing a few of the songs that we do, for ten or fifteen minutes, or practicing something new, at least playing the guitar.
When we’re on the road it’s a different story because we’ll practice for an hour or two at our soundcheck, we’ll practice in the dressing room, if we have the afternoon or morning off before we travel we’ll take out the guitars and warm up for 10 or 15 minutes. It’s a lot more hands-on active, but you have to play every day, because if you miss a week, it will take a week to get back your hands, loosen them up again, if you will. Also, the guitar is wood, so if it doesn’t vibrate every day, it’s going to stiffen up. You need to play the guitar a lot. So my practice consists of the material that we play and trying to add new songs every month to the repertoire.
Although you have a set list that you work with every night, do you sometimes feel that you’re rediscovering the instrument when you record or perform?
Absolutely! Every day I rediscover the instrument, and it’s a fascinating instrument, because on the guitar, like no other instrument, you have many choices of where to play the same note. On a piano, if you want Middle C, there’s one way. On the guitar, if you want Middle C, there are three or four ways that you can play it on the fingerboard. What fascinates me the most about the guitar is the complexity of the fingerboard.
The more I teach, the more I learn, and I know that sounds cliché, but it really is true. Today, a guy wanted to learn “Moon River,” which is one of my favorite songs. I wrote out the lead sheet and then I went over the chords. Usually I just play the melody, and I realized how beautiful this song is, with the melody that goes all through the song, and it has a note in the chord that makes it an alteration, which usually doesn’t work in beautiful melodies like that. This is used so wonderfully in the composition, so it made me realize again how beautiful the song is because of this alteration that you don’t usually find in pop songs like “Moon River.” So it’s a discovery every day, absolutely.
— Alison Richter
Alison Richter interviews artists, producers, engineers and other music industry professionals for print and online publications. Read more of her interviews right here.