The Guitar: On Aging, Mortality, & Respect


The Reverend Gary Davis said to me, “I am not now what I once have been”. He was probably in his early 70s.

The Reverend, with one of the six J200 he owned over the years.

The Reverend, with one of the six J200 he owned over the years.

Little by little, I’m catching up, and, over time, I’m coming to see what he meant. There are a lot of things that I can’t do on the guitar anymore…and the things I can do seem to happen slower than they used to.  So my motto is becoming “Nothing Flashy”. The bad news is that it’s a limitation, and that it’s humbling to face this inevitable effect of aging. The good news is that I’m much less tempted to show off, or to make flashy choices. This has made me strive to maximize the musicality and emotional content in my playing. Maybe that motto should be a mantra: “Say No To Flash, Say Yes To Taste”. It’s one I’ve been trying to live up to. Recognizing that many of our most celebrated guitarists have both flash AND taste, it’s an emotional struggle at times.

At one time, I studied T’ai Chi Ch’uan with a famous Chinese master called Dr. Tao. He was in his 80s and as slender as a twig (he refused to tell us his weight…), but I never saw anyone best him. He told us that HIS teacher, realizing how weak Tao was, had said, “Everyone else will have two methods: Power and elusiveness. You will have to make do with just one method.”


Now, more and more, I feel like Dr. Tao on the guitar; “No Flash…Just Taste”. And so it goes.


On the other hand, I’m alive, which can’t be said for many of my heroes. Some, like Rev. Davis, Lenny Breau, Clarence White, Jack McGann, and George Van Eps, have been gone for many years, or decades. But now I’m of an age where my idols seem to be passing away with great regularity. I was inspired by so many players, in so many styles. In the past 3 or 4 years, we’ve lost Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, Doc Watson, and Steve Mann, among others; all early heroes and huge influences to me. Dave Van Ronk was just a few years before.

Dave Van Ronk

Dave Van Ronk



Rolly with Steve Mann in Berkeley CA, January 2006.

Rolly with Steve Mann in Berkeley CA, January 2006.

And now Phil Everly has passed away. I look back on my life, and my serial obsessions. When I was 7 or 8, I was totally consumed with the Everly Brothers. I didn’t even own a guitar, but I WANTED one so badly because I idolized these young gods of rock-n-roll and country. I finally started playing guitar when I was 15, and, within a couple years, I’d become obsessed with fingerstyle guitar, and especially the playing of Bert Jansch, Dave Van Ronk, and Davy Graham. Another year or two, and it was Rev. Gary Davis and Doc Watson. A few years later, in my mid-twenties, I moved to San Francisco and heard the tapes and legends associated with Steve Mann. Until I got serious about jazz, about ten years later, I ate, slept, and drank all of that music, struggling to comprehend these musical giants through 20 years of daily practice…

Of course, some of my heroes from that time are still alive: John Renbourn, David Bromberg, Pierre Bensusan, Guy Van Duser…the mishmosh of all of their styles helped me forge what has become my own style, and inspired my own creativity as a musician…. But here’s a point: The ones who are gone; I find that, more and more, I want to play their tunes, just the way they played them. It’s an almost irresistible tendency to homage. I do it partly to honor them, but mostly because their music was so good that it makes me feel good to reproduce it fairly faithfully.


This desire to play Davy Graham’s “Tristano“, Steve Mann’s “Amazing Gospel Tune“, or Rev. Gary Davis’s “Buckdance“, note-for-note, more or less, is a sign of genuine respect for the players who paved the way for the guitar players of today and of tomorrow…I’m a big proponent of teaching students how to think and arrange for themselves, and a large percentage of tunes I play were either written or arranged by me, but I recognize the value, and the sheer pleasure, of standing on the shoulders of those who came before by learning their masterpieces….and, who knows…maybe someday, someone will be learning an arrangement of mine, and I’ll get to pay it forward…


The J200: the rest of the story

So, a couple weeks ago, I wrote about my long love affair with Gibson J200 guitars, ending with the admission that I’d purchased an L200, the diminutive Emmylou Harris version of the classic Gibson icon. Subsequently, the eBay seller informed me that the guitar had been lost or stolen, and returned my funds. I was, of course, crestfallen, but quickly recovered and fell back on Plan B: Bernunzio Music in Rochester NY had a ’91 “J200 junior”. Some perspective: A regular J200 has a 17″ lower bout, the Emmylou L200 had a 15″ lower bout, and the J200 junior has a 16″ lower bout. This means that it was essentially a J185 in a J200’s clothing.

This was fine by me, since I’m not that big a guy, and, like many of my contemporaries, I’ve been heading away from large-bodied guitars. In addition, this “junior” was a rosewood model, and I’ve always liked the rosewood J200s over the maple ones.j200-12-19-13

So, it arrived in short order, and, lo and behold, it had the best aspects of that J200 sound, without what I consider to be the worst aspects. Now, in my book, a guitar built in 1991 is almost new…old guitars were built in the ’50s or before. I feel that way because I’m really gettin’ old. The fact of the matter is that a 22 year old guitar has had some time to mature, and this baby fits the bill. Here’s a Rev. Gary Davis tune for demonstration purposes:

So, all’s well that ends well, and I may finally have the sunburst J200 I’ve craved all these years! It joins my Proulxs, Ken Miller, Rockbridge, and Myers in my gallery of great guitars…

Merry Xmas, and I hope all of YOUR guitar dreams came true today as well!

Personal Mythology, Personal Pathology, and the Gibson J200

When I was 8 years old, I was obsessed with the Everly Brothers. (This is how bad it got: I had two little monkey hand puppets with pompadours. I named them Don and Phil.) I mention this because it was the subconscious beginning of my obsession with the Gibson J-200.

A few words here about the J200. It is, beyond a doubt, the most beautiful, most iconic acoustic guitar of the 20th century. An American classic; big, flashy, striking, and unmistakeable.

The classic sunburst J200 look

The classic sunburst J200 look

The first time I remember being struck with the J200 was when I saw this picture on Eric Andersen’s album, “‘Bout Changes And Things”.BoutChangesNThingsSoon, I noted fotos of Dave Van Ronk, the great fingerstyle blues artist, playing a J200:Dave Van Ronk Performing In NYI developed a great urge to own one of these guitars, especially if it was a sunburst. When I became enthralled with the masterful guitar playing of the Rev. Gary Davis, and subsequently found that his signature instrument was the J200, the mythological importance of this guitar grew in my mind.

The Reverend, with one of the six J200 he owned over the years.

The Reverend, with one of the six J200s he owned over the years.

It was the winter of 1970 when I finally wangled a deal, through a friend’s father, to purchase my first J200 at a big discount. We drove from Ohio to Long Island, NY, and took delivery of a brand new ’69 J200N (the N meaning “natural”…no sunburst…)

It was, indeed, a beautiful thing, and I was enthralled, but I soon realized that this guitar, built during one of Gibson’s worst eras, was a victory of form over function: It looked great, but did NOT sound great. I kept it for several years, and eventually sold it, opting for a smaller but better sounding Gurian guitar. And yet….the obsession never totally disappeared. Friends would give me Elvis memorabilia, thinking I was an Elvis fan, but, actually, I just coveted Elvis’s J200!

ELVIS PRESLEYWhenever I’d see a foto of someone with a J200, I’d feel a little pang.

Emmylou Harris w/ her "Rose" J200

Emmylou Harris w/ her “Rose” J200

In the early ’90s, I traded my handmade Hoffman guitar to my old friend Chris Reitz for his ’50 J200…Still no sunburst…  8^(

Now THIS was, if not Gibson’s golden age, still a very good era for Gibson guitars. Surely, this one would meet my expectations. It was a thing of beauty, with the classic outlined pick guard and cut-out bridge:

1950 J200

1950 J200


I played this guitar for a few years. Never totally taken with the sound, but it just LOOKED so good!! Asked to do a radio interview about Martin Guitars, I played a student’s old small bodied Martin and compared it to my J200. When I heard the interview on the radio, I was appalled to hear that my big Gibson sounded like a cigar box compared to the rich, warm sounding tiny Martin. I ordered a Martin MC-28 and sold the Gibson. But the obsession never really went away. I discovered part of the reason when Jan and I rented a VHS tape (remember “VHS”?) on the Everly Brothers from a video store (remember “video stores”?) . This was the first image I saw:Everly-Brothers-bw_thumb1

So, every 10 years or so, I get a serious jones for a J200. In fact, I was pathologically surfing the internet for the past couple days, looking at various models on eBay, when I came across a reference to a pocket-size J200 built for Emmylou Harris, and dubbed an L200.


Emmylou and the L200, both looking gorgeous.

I became glassy-eyed and decided I was fated to own an L200. After all, I’d actually gotten to MEET Emmylou when we adopted Suki the Cattle Dog/Demon Dog from her wonderful rescue, Bonaparte’s Retreat.

Suki the Dog w/Emmylou, her saviour.

Suki the Dog w/Emmylou, her saviour.

AND, reviews said that the L200 LOOKED like a little J200, but had its own distinctive sound!! In a trance, I scoured the internet, and located an eBay link with only 30 minutes till expiration! I had to act FAST!!!! And it was a SUNBURST!!! How could I not buy it???

Coming soon!!! L200!

Coming soon!!! L200!

So, what happened next??? Could this little guitar finally meet my expectations? Well, I’ll report back when the package arrives. Life is short. If the fates want you to have a sunburst J200 (or maybe an L200), it’s pointless to resist. Stay tuned!!

Disclaimer: I own several fantastic sounding guitars, built by brilliant luthiers Mario Proulx, Ken & Virginia Miller, Rockbridge Guitars, and Chris Myers…but none of them look like a J200….this is my sickness, my personal pathology. I’m already holding a winning hand. I just WANT A GUITAR THAT LOOKS LIKE A J200, and maybe sounds half decent in the bargain….

NEWSFLASH UPDATE on December 9, ’13: Well, the L200 fell through…after ordering it, paying for it, even getting a tracking number, the seller wrote and confessed that the guitar was missing, either lost or stolen from his warehouse…I really don’t know what that was about, but he apologized profusely and refunded my payment immediately, so I’m thinkin’ it was an honest mistake.

Undaunted, I fell back on my second option, a ’91 J200 Junior:

j200jrThis may end up being serendipity…it’s a “small jumbo”; halfway between the full size version and the Emmylou version, and it’s got rosewood back and sides, which I greatly prefer to maple…It’s supposed to arrive tomorrow, so we’ll just see what’s what then…stay tuned!!

Guitar Workshop in Philly Area

Hi, folks,

I’ll be doing a workshop in Huntingdon Valley, PA, just north of Philly, on the evening of Nov. 10, from 6 till 9 p.m.!

This should be fun:

  • one hour on playing solo Blues Guitar
  • one hour on “how to jam”, also known as “beginning improvisation”
  • one hour for questions and answers. If no one has any questions, I’ll still have lots of answers! :^)

That last hour could cover info on jazz, blues, ragtime, flatpicking, fingerpicking, composition…you name it!

Registration at:

Rolly’s instruction hits the big time! :^)

In 2006, I had some spare time one day and thought, “Hey, maybe I’ll make a little video and put it on Youtube. I called it “240 chords in 6 minutes”, and, while its 100,000+ hits don’t match the view numbers of talking dog videos or Andy McKee’s “Driftin'”, it reached exponentially more people than I’d reached in my previous 37 years of guitar teaching. In the video, I mentioned that there would eventually be a full length DVD covering the material in more depth. That day has finally come, with the help of Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop. We embarked on a series of five DVD’s, and the first two are now available at Stefan’s website.

The introductory material is now posted on Youtube for the first two videos. One is “A Nuts And Bolts Approach To Chords”.

The other is “A Nuts And Bolts Approach To Melody”. These videos have allowed me to go into much greater depth, and I’ve been able to teach many easy little tricks for improving your playing!

Stefan has also posted an extended interview with some performance. Hope you enjoy watching it.

Still in the pipeline: DVD’s on the Nuts and Bolts Approach to improvisation, solo flatpicking, and “owning” a jazz standard. Stay tuned and enjoy!

Pat Martino thinks WAY outside the box…

Here’s a quote from Martino’s “Quantum Guitar” DVD. It shatters some myths about the importance of “music theory” in soloing…whaddya think?

Martino is talking about fingering patterns on the neck: “I refer to these fingerings as spacial fingerings, because they came from spacial positions in this structure (demonstrates fingering), and were applied mechanically to this [other] structure (demonstrates again) with no melodic concern whatsoever…in doing so, I would then advise you to take fingerings of the things that you are playing, the patterns that you already have absorbed, and begin to spread them into different various areas of the guitar, with your ears neutral in the process, so that your ears are not judgementally governing your choice of possibilities for improvisation, which has to be neutral at all times”.

Here’s how I hear this: We probably all agree that the ear is the final arbiter. Whatever we normally play is organized by some kind of logical construct: Maybe it’s chords in progression, maybe it’s a scale or series of scales, maybe it’s a series of arpeggios…and we know what it’ll sound like before we play it; that’s the hallmark of you playing the guitar, rather than the guitar playing you. Then, from these logical constructs, we choose what we like. What Martino is suggesting is an organized way of enlarging the menu of available sounds by also using physical constructs (fingering patterns) which may have worked for you logically, but which you now take out of their context and sort of randomly insert them elsewhere, so they no longer “make sense” musically. This would lead to new sounds from which to choose. He doesn’t say that you should not be judgemental in creating the final product, just that “your ears are not judgementally governing your choice of possibilities”.

In the video, he then demonstrates various ways of applying these ideas in his usual mindblowingly fluid playing style.

I’m gonna chew on this for a year or two, and just felt compelled to share…

Comin’ Right Up

It’s busy times these days in Rollyworld! Check the “gigs, etc.” link for fall events. Mark Cosgrove and I are producing our 19th annual Bucks County Guitar Summit. Our guests this year are Tim & Myles Thompson. Tim is the ’08 Int’l Fingerstyle Guitar Champion from Winfield. He’s just a monstrous player in many styles. His 17 year old son Myles is a killer violin/fiddle virtuoso. Mark is one of the world’s great flatpicking guitarists, a former Nat’l Flatpicking Champion, currently playing in the band of legendary guitarist David Bromberg. It’ll be a great day, with a 3 hour afternoon workshop from 1 till 4 pm, and an 8 pm evening concert. Check this video of Tim’s killer arrangement of the Flintstones theme: If you’re interested or nearby, info is here.

Essential Tones

Lenny Breau, the brilliant Canadian jazz guitarist, was a great admirer of jazz piano master Bill Evans. One of the things he found in Evans’s playing was the use of sparse chord backing, which allowed a kind of “less is more” approach to arranging. Lenny moved it onto the guitar in his own unique way.

Here’s how it works:  “7th” chords are made up of 4 notes: 1-3-5-7. They are commonly Major (1-3-5-7), Minor (1-b3-5-b7), or Dominant (1-3-5-b7). Note that the 1 and 5 remain the same in all 3 families. The 3 and the 7 denote the “color” of the chord (major, minor, or dominant), and are often referred to as the “color tones”, or “essential tones”. These three primary chord families often represent the larger ideas of motion (minor), tension (dominant), and resolution (major). The model for this idea is the “ii-V-I” progression. In the key of G, the “ii chord” is the Am7, the “V chord” is the D7, and the “I chord” is the Gmaj7. Played in that order, they cycle through motion, tension, and on to resolution.

The 3 and 7 often occur on adjacent strings, commonly on the D and G strings. They can occur in either order: “3-7”, or “7-3”. In cases where the 7 is on the bottom, the chords tend to have a darker, more ominous sound, and this facilitated the dark pallette on which Breau painted his impressionistic masterpieces. The video below shows some examples.

Steve Mann lives….AGAIN!!

Those of you who know me have heard me tell tales of Steve Mann, the elusive West Coast guitarist who influenced the likes of Jorma Kaukaunen, Stefan Grossman, Paul Geremia, Barry Melton, etc., then went off the rails, diagnosed as schizophrenic,  and disappeared for decades, re-emerging in Berkeley in 2003, where he lived and held court until his death until 2009.

Steve in Berkeley w/ Margot St. James

During those missing decades, many of us listened to old tapes and a couple albums, and tried to learn Steve’s complex jazzy blues guitar licks. While the older Steve was still a great guitarist, his degenerating health and medications clouded the brilliance of his youthful playing. Recently, guitarist Joe Mackessy, one of Steve’s good friends during his last years, wrote and alerted me to this previously unknown live concert recording from 1966. It gives ample example of the jawdropping musicianship and comprehension of the blues coming from a young SoCal suburban kid.

The young Steve Mann

Click below to go to “Wolfgang’s Vault” and here this rediscovered concert from one of the great guitarists of our era.

For more info on Steve, or to order the released CD’s of his earlier recordings, go to Janet Smith’s website for Steve, here:

Janet was instrumental in looking after Steve and getting his recordings re-released in the later years.

To read about my experiences when visiting Steve in 2006:

Rolly with Steve Mann in Berkeley CA, January 2006.

To see some video of Steve from 2008

Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?

A great old tune from the previous Great Depression! A tip of the hat to the late Steve Mann for the high-powered 8va ending! Played on the old Gibson L-0.