Posted January, 2012
In my feeble mind, there are three kinds of professional guitarists. There are the straight, by-the-numbers rock and rollers who play some memorable rock and roll (or its various and sundry cousins). Then there’s the kind that are “all hat and no cattle” as they say here in Texas. They’re the kind who, while infinitely more proficient than I’d ever hope to be on the guitar, they’re primarily flash and show without a lot of real expertise involved with their craft.
The third category of professional guitar slingers is where those who are so proficient and so knowledgeable at and of their craft as to be almost otherworldly. Well known players who I believe fall into this category are guitar blazers like Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, Andy Timmons, Tommy Emmanuel and Steve Lukather esily come to mind. These are the kind of players who, when heard by other players, provoke feelings of giving up and selling their gear because these guys are in another universe all together as far as their guitar playing abilities are concerned.
While the names I just rattled off are by no means all-inclusive, there is one name that I wish to add to that list: Rob Balducci.
I feel like a musical dunce in that I’ve only recently discovered Balducci’s work. Rob is on Steve Vai’s label, Favored Nations Entertainment, which is no small accomplishment. Vai does not suffer “musical fools” and only invites to his label those who command his respect musically. Listen to Balducci’s last album, Violet Horizon, and you’ll see why Mr. Vai has him on his label.
I recently spoke with Rob about his work, where he’s been and where he’s going. I have to be honest (as I usually am): I kind of expected a solemn, brooding, hard-to-talk-to musician. What I experienced was the polar opposite. Balducci is a warm, friendly and engaging conversationalist with whom I quite enjoyed chatting with.
When Rob called me from his New York digs, I hated to, but I started off by asking the very basic question of who his musical influences were and are.
“It depends on when and where. So, if you’re talking about when I first started out, it goes back to having three older sisters who were into all types of music. That’s what really turned me on to music. So, right away at an early age I was turned on to the Rolling Stones and Keith Richards. Sympathy For The Devil was one of the first solos that I learned - and, of course, Jimmy Page. It was really that first record, you know what I mean? Good Times Bad Times, I love the solo in that song! And Communication Breakdown – there’s so many things to like! Oh, and Angus Young! I remember borrowing my sisters Powerage album. All the songs on that record – he’s amazing, know what I mean?
“Then it changed to some other stuff that I liked. As a kid, even before I started playing guitar, I was into Chuck Berry. I remember seeing Chuck Berry doing that duck walk and playing Johnny B. Goode while watching TV with my mother. I remember the first album that I bought – I think I was ten years old – was one of those TV records that you buy. I still have it. It’s like a double record of all these hits. My mother ordered it for me. So that’s really what turned me on to music and the guitar. Other players, of course, at that time – KISS was kind of big so I was into Ace Frehley. So, that’s that era. Then you start changing and you start listening to other stuff. I was turned on to Jeff Beck by my sisters. The Wired record was one of my favorite records.
“I started taking lessons and my instructor turned me on to the Thunder and Lightning record by Thin Lizzy. I heard John Sykes and I started listening to other guitar players in the band like Gary Moore. So that was my early foundation. Of course, Eddie Van Halen was in there and stuff like that.
“Then, as you move and your ears grow, you start to gravitate towards other stuff. I think that’s the same way now. After all of that, you have the Steve Vai’s and the Joe Satriani’s. I was always into him but recently in the last couple of years I had some opportunities to do some shows with a guitar player by the name of Richie Kotzen. He started influencing me more around the last couple of years. So, it all depends.”
From a listener’s perspective, when I listen to instrumental music, my feeble mind tends to create it’s own mental/video accompaniment to the music – almost as if it’s part of a movie soundtrack, TV show or commercial. I asked Rob what he envisioned in his mind as he writes his music.
“What I try and do with my music as far as writing songs – this is how I see it: I see it as my music being a little bit more – even though there’s guitar playing and instrumentals and there might be some crazy stuff, if you’ll notice that the song structures are somewhat like how a vocalist would be singing so it is very melodic. There’s a melody and there’s another section and there’s a solo break. So, when I’m writing I tend to think more in the sense that the guitar is the vocal. It’s singing but it’s playing the melody.
“What I do is – I really don’t think in the musical context of saying, ‘I’m going to write a song and I want it to be this way or I want it to be in this key signature or I want it to be a crazy, odd time meter” or stuff like that. I tend to throw away all of my musical knowledge as far as – I don’t use musical knowledge to write. I think writing should come from within – from your heart and from some sort of emotion or feeling. That’s really what I go with. I’ll come up with an inspiration first of what I want the song to be about and I’ll try to come up with a title first. This way it gives me some sort of picture of what the song would be about. And, then, I come up with a melody and a lot of times I’m not even using a guitar. It would be just trying to come up with what it’s sounding like in my brain and humming it and then putting it onto the instrument. So, that’s sort of the process. In the beginning it took awhile. But as you keep doing that kind of thing, it sort of became my process.”
As to whether his music has been used in movies or TV, Balducci says that, “It’s something I really want to get into. I recently got hooked up with a catalog agency that uses stuff for that. I’m hoping something like that works out. I just recently hooked up with the Lowry agency and we created a partnership together so that is probably some of the things that David (Lowry) will try and work on, as well. So I don’t think it’s explored enough and I agree with you, I think it would be something that would be really good to do.”
Some artists prefer just recording and releasing music, others prefer performing in front of a live audience and still others get off on doing both. What are Rob’s preferences?
“I like doing it all, you know what I mean? I really like the recording process and seeing what you write and seeing the result of what it’s going to sound like. I do love performing. With the way the music industry is, it is getting harder to do but, as much as I can I get out there and perform.”
When I mentioned about the YouTube video I saw of his performance at the Granada Theater here in Dallas, Rob’s reaction was genuinely enthusiastic.
“Oh, yeah, that was great! I would like to come back. To tell you the truth, that was probably one of my favorite places to play – the Granada Theater. We did a night there with Andy Timmons. I opened up for him and it was really cool. I would love to maybe to try to do something with him again or, if not with him, I would love to get out there. It’s definitely a possibility!”
Because of Balbucci’s reputation as a top shelf guitar talent and the space he shares with other great guitarists at Favored Nations Entertainment, I was curious as to who all he had jammed with and who he hopes to jam with at some time in the future.
“I played with Andy Timmons (check out a video of that jam here). We did a jam together. I did some shows with Richie Kotzen and we ended up jamming together, which was fun. That was in the UK. I did open up for Peter Frampton at one point and I would’ve loved to have jammed with him but I wasn’t able to. So that’s one on my that I would like to jam with. Two of guitar players did a guest spots on this record (Violet Horizon). One of them is Dave Weiner. He and I jammed together. Dave is the second guitar player in Steve Vai’s band and he’s also a solo artist. That was a lot of fun. Me and Dave became really good friends and we try and tour together. I’ve also played with Guthrie Govan (Asia, GPS, and the Young Punx). He did a guest spot on my CD – a new guitar player that’s been out. He’s quite a musician and that was a lot of fun.
“People that I would love to jam with if possible? I would love to do something, of course, with Eddie Van Halen. I met him one time and I would love to be able to able to jam with him!” Then, putting his thoughts into concise perspective, he adds, “You know, it really would be all of my guitar players that I like so much. I would love to do something with Jeff Beck. I really like Jeff Beck. I think a really good paring and it hasn’t happened yet - and I’m on Steve’s label – I would love to do an opening spot for Steve and Joe Satriani. So there are a lot of things that I would like to do and to try and do. Whether they happen or not is in the stars, I guess” Rob concludes with a laugh.
I’m always interested to hear what was the first guitar owned by highly talented players like Balducci so I asked him what his was and if he still owned it.
“The first guitar that I played actually used to be my sisters acoustic guitar and I think I still have that. I think it was a Sokovia or something like that. Then, the first electric guitar I ever received was actually bought for me by my godmother and it was a Gibson guitar. It’s a guitar called ‘The Paul’ which is like a tamed down version of a Les Paul. It was made out of walnut wood. It had no crazy finish on it. It was just natural wood, ebony neck and I still have that guitar. I think that they stopped making it so it’s pretty cool.”
Most guitar slingers have quite an arsenal of guitars that they lean on while honing their craft. I asked Rob how many he owns. I also was curious if there was what he considered to be the “holy grail” of guitars and does he own it.
“I know guys who have been playin’ like me and they have friggin’ hundreds – 150. I have about twenty guitars. The first one is that Gibson and, after that, basically, it was Ibanez guitars. I’m fortunate enough to be endorsed by Ibanez Guitars. I think it’s been something like twenty years now. So a lot of my guitars are Ibanez guitars. I have some old vintage ones that they made. They originally made copies of Strats and Les Pauls so I have one of each of those. They basically do a custom guitar for me. It’s not sold in stores but they do a custom model that they do for me and I have a couple of them and that’s really what I use all the time.
“The holy grail of guitars? I think that I like the A Series of those Ibanez guitars. They had one called an ‘RG’ and they actually did a re-issue of them. They’re these yellow and road-flare red – I think they’re called the 550. I would like to own an original one of those which I definitely don’t have and it’s hard to find one that’s not beat to shreds for some reason. And I think just for the sense of the collectability factor, just to have an old Les Paul like a ’59 or something like that but they’re so expensive, it’s ridiculous!”
So, with the new born babe of 2012 still wrapped in swaddling clothes, I asked Balducci what does he have planned for the new year.
“What I have going on right now is, just recently – this past December – I came out with an instructional DVD. That’s through The Rockhouse Method and if you go to my website, RobBalducci.com, there’s some links on there on how you can purchase it. Some of the Guitar Centers carry it and Sam Ash’s. You can pick it up through Amazon and places like that.
“It’s geared towards intermediate to advance players. It’s a two disc set and I’m pretty excited about it. I didn’t want to do an instructional DVD where it’s like, ‘Here’s my little power riff and how fast I can play it’. There’s a lot of those out there. It covers warming up, it covers how you should hold the guitar, how you should hold the pick. So it starts out at that level and it goes up to songwriting and I talk about some of those things we were talking about before about having an inspiration and trying to get that into your music. There are some exercises to do that. I cover vibrato, which I think is important. When I teamed up with Rock House, I said, ‘Listen, I would love to do one but it has to be done a certain way and this is what I want to do’ and they were really excited about it and we worked it out. It’s pretty cool!
“I go in to start recording – I’m in a pre-production phase now – so I go in to start recording some basic tracks the end of January for a new CD, so I’m excited about that. In the mean time, while that’s happening, I’ll still be doing some shows. I’m going to be at NAMM, which is going to be January 19th through the 22nd. There’s a software company called ‘Studio Devil’ and I’ll be at that event, playing at their booth and demoing. There’s a couple of shows that I just recently started to book on the east coast. One is in Queens on February 17th at Dublin Pub and another one is May 18th on Long Island at a place called Morelli’s. I’m going to be working on some clinics involved around the DVD. I’m definitely going to be busy and out there. The best place for folks to keep in touch on those things would be to check out my website – you can see the updates, where I’ll be playing and what’s going on.”
Did he say he’s working on a new CD? I had to ask when he expected it to be out because I definitely what a copy.
“My plan is for later this year. I have five tunes basically done that I’m going to record with the trio that I’ve been playing with for a little bit. In the mean time, I’m writing the second half of the record which I think that I’m going to be doing with other players. It’s the first time that I’ve done that. It mixes things up and it’s a little interesting. I think it should be pretty cool.”
Many artists have an unspoken dream of producing an album of work that’s different from what they’re known for. I asked what he would produce if he didn’t have to think about the marketability of an album.
“That’s really what I’m doing now. I don’t know if you can say that there’s two types of musicians but people look at music in different ways. I see music and guitars as an art form and I’m doing this because I love it. This is what I want to do in the sense that I’m not following a trend. I’m doing instrumental guitar music which is not the way to go if you want to be a millionaire in any way, you know what I mean? If I was doing it for that, I think that I would have quit a long time ago.
“I’m doing what I want to do now. It’s not to say that I wouldn’t want to do something else. I wouldn’t mind getting a band together with a vocal project. If the right people come along – you need to surround yourself with good people – people who are positive. It depends. That could be in the future as well but right now this is what I want to do and I’m happy with what I release.”
While Rob can look forward to many more years of living, he’s lived enough life for me to ask him what he hopes his legacy will be after he’s no longer rockin’ and rollin’ on this planet.
“That’s a tough one, eh? I would say first of all that I would want to be remembered as a good songwriter; someone who was able to translate positive vibes out there with their music and that I was a good person. This business is full of people who are not genuine and I think that I’m a genuine guy and I think that that goes a long way. I don’t think it’s really the ‘nice guy finishes last’ type of thing . . . hopefully!”
I somehow know in my knower that this nice guy by the name of Rob Balducci is not going to finish last.
As was stated earlier in this piece, you can keep up with Rob and what all is going on with his music by visiting RobBalducci.com. If, like me, you’re a connoisseur of great guitar work, then order or download the CD’s listed on this page. If you’re a guitar player who is in the intermediate to advanced range in your abilities, then definitely order a copy of the DVD also shown on this page.
And, of course, somewhere out there on the violet horizon, you’ll definitely want to catch Rob in the act at one of his clinics or gigs. That is definitely in my plans. See you there!