If there was ever any proof that making it in the music business takes hard work, Steve Trovato is it. Trovato’s extensive record of accomplishments is longer and more boastful than most ever dream; he has established himself on stage as one of today’s greatest guitarists, and in the classroom as one of the greatest guitar teachers.
Having been recognized by Gibson for outstanding musical achievement and by Tune-Up with induction to the guitar Hall of Fame, Trovato’s career has not gone under the radar. With his unique blend of jazz and country music he has graced the stages of musical festivals around the world, successfully recorded two studio albums, and most recently headlined All Star Guitar Night at this year’s NAMM show.
We caught up with Steve to ask him about his distinguished playing styles, his life teaching at the University of Southern California’s prestigious studio guitar department, and his upcoming third album, Heartland.
Steve, you’ve said that your initial attraction toward the guitar came as a 10-year-old and watching girls scream for rock guitarists on The Ed Sullivan Show. As a young guitarist, did you ever imagine your relationship with the instrument evolving the way that it has; into not only a performer, but a teacher and author too?
That’s funny. I guess I did notice that the rock bands such as the Beatles, Stones and Led Zeppelin got quite a response from audiences. When I heard players such as Jeff Beck, Ritchie Blackmore, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page I realized that they were all playing the same instrument but all sounded different. I thought: here is an instrument that can reflect the personality and musical influences of the person playing it. I wanted to be able to do that. It was at that moment that I began playing guitar.
I never imagined I’d be a professional guitarist. I just loved the guitar so much. I practiced 8 or 10 hours a day for the first 5 years or so. I couldn’t get enough. I transcribed everything from Chet Atkins to George Benson. I played every chance that I could and got so much satisfaction from performing it was almost addicting.
I graduated number 1 in the class at the Musicians Institute in 1983 and they asked me to teach. I had never really taught but the opportunity was so good that I just said “Yes”.
I got better and better at it by doing it and by being around some of the best teachers the world has ever known. Next thing I know I was contacted by Warner Brothers to write an instruction book on Country Guitar.
Things have really just fallen into my lap. In the music business a musician needs to do the very best that he or she can and not cut any corners. It’s a lot of hard work. People began to trust me to do a good job and the word gets out. The work continues to come in if I continue to work hard. My philosophy is: Give them a dime for their nickel which means do a better job than they expect. Works every time.
There is really no substitute for endless hard work. There isn’t any traffic on the extra mile.
Apart from screaming females, what was in the guitar for you that the piano lacked? Did you find it more expressive? More fulfilling?
My first instrument was piano. I played for about 6 or 7 years. I love the instrument and it is very satisfying to play. I could play very complex classic compositions while learning how the composers conceived of and wrote the pieces. I feel that playing a visual instrument like the piano helped me to better understand and visualize how the musical alphabet was set up. It also helped me to understand chord voicings and music theory.
After a few years of playing the classical pieces on piano I realized that I was re-creating someone else’s talent. My contribution to the piece was merely interpretation. When I began to play guitar I found it more expressive. I felt I could better express my feeling through guitar through its uniqueness. I could play loud, soft, bend notes, use effects, and use different instruments all of which enable me to give the listener a snapshot into my soul. This expressiveness of a guitar gives it the personality of the musician playing it.
That’s why I think that there have never been any effective synthesized substitutes for the emotion of guitar playing.
You play and draw influence from so many different genres of music, so much so that you managed to carve a genre out of music that is very unique and distinctively your own. How does your playing mirror your personality? Does your openness to music come from openness in your life outside of music?
I have worked very hard for a long time trying to play as many styles as I could. I never really chose one style over another because I love it all. I love the guitar and the style of music that I play on it is incidental. I never really drew a line between styles.
Musicians are all expressing themselves whether it’s through jazz or bluegrass. As Ray Charles said: Notes is Notes. I think that because I use my guitar as a primary means of communicating my music and personality that the style of music that I happen to play is usually what I am feeling at the time. As I became more diverse I realized that it was becoming more difficult for listeners to recognize me as a player. My playing was becoming too diluted. I have now somewhat incorporated bits and pieces of all the styles that I enjoy and created somewhat recognizable style that helps me stand out in a crowd. I am looking to refine my style so when someone hears it they say: “Oh, that’s Steve.” I think if I would label it I would call it country jazz.
When it comes to performing, you’ve been known to stick to your Strat and Tele. How important is it for a guitarist to find the right guitar? Can the wrong guitar limit its player?
The choice of guitar is so personal. It’s been my experience that the guitar finds the player rather than the player finding the guitar. I believe each player is drawn to a style or sound which is usually represented by a certain guitar type.
I have studied so many styles and each one requires a different guitar in order to achieve the correct tone. The telecaster and strat have become my main instruments now. Telecasters are such versatile instruments and are now my guitar of choice.
I can get almost any tone that I want from them but primarily I play telecasters for brand recognition. I want my guitar to add to my name recognition. Players are not only recognized by their tone and playing style but also by the guitar type that they play. Stevie Ray Vaughan is synonymous with a Stratocaster. I am synonymous with a telecaster.
You’re definitely known to be a tone-hound, but your use of effects is generally scarce. How do view the roll of effects in guitar playing? Do they promote creativity?
I have had the opportunity to play with some of the world’s greatest players and they have taught me that the difference between a good tone and a great tone is about 3%. This was so important for me to learn.
The extra 3% comes from attention to details such as great cables, strings, True bypass effects, quiet pedal boards, good tubes, power transformers, and speakers. As my own musical voice emerges I tend to use only the effects that help me create my sound.
My board has only a few effects. I first go into my Keeley compressor then my Suhr KoKo boost. This is a very transparent front end boost pedal. Next I have a modified Boss Super Overdrive Pedal. The modification was done by Monty Alums. After that I use a distortion pedal that was custom made for me. It pretty much does everything. I can get a slight crunch to an over the top distortion. Lastly I use two delay pedals: A Line 6 Echo Park for, ambient reverb type delay, and a TC electronics Nova Delay.
The Nova delay has 9 presets. I typically use four or five delay settings and the TC allows me to step through them.
Do you encourage your students at USC to experiment with technology when it comes to their playing?
Absolutely! Young players should experiment with all of the technology available. I believe the idea is to eventually develop your own sound and in order to do that you need to experiment with as many gizmos as you can get your hands on. You’ll eventually discover what works for you. I have been hearing players using the delay looping pedals these days. It’s not a sound that I use but it an example of a new sound.
How has teaching influenced you as a guitarist? Have your students introduced you to a genre or style that you unaware of? What do you take away from teaching?
Teaching is the best way to really learn something. I can practice in my bedroom all day long but it’s not until I have to sit with a student and demonstrate something over and over again very slowly that I really learn it.
There is also a feeling of giving back. I have been so fortunate and want to give back to the students coming up. I think that a good teacher should not only inspire a student but also be a good example of how to conduct oneself in the music business. I am grateful that I see younger players at the University where I teach. They expose me to not only all of the new music but to how the guitar is used in today’s music. I hear music now that is not so much guitar driven like hard rock bands. The guitar seems to be used in a more ambient way to create textures.
You’re in the process of producing your third studio album, Heartland, which you’ve described as “acoustic Americana”. What can fans expect from Heartland? Where does your influence to record a new genre come from? Will it share the diversity of your first two albums?
I’ve always loved Americana music styles like bluegrass and folk. I can feel the emotion behind music from the heartland of America and the music from the Deep South. To me it suggests hope for a better future in a time of economic hardship for so many. Triumph over adversity in the truest spirit of America.
I recognize a similar but perhaps less severe situation happening in America currently with a recession and feel the desire to try and bring some hope with my music. I also love the sound of recorded acoustic instruments. I have been listening to great musicians like Jerry Douglas, Mark O’Conner, Bryan Sutton, Sam Bush and Bela Fleck lately and really appreciate the sound created when acoustic instruments are well recorded. When the playing is flawless and the music is well recorded nothing gets in the way of the experience of the music.
I have recorded a couple CD’s of raging guitar music and my fans know that I can do that. Now I’d like to record a more cohesive CD with a theme and a mood. A singleness of purpose.
You’ve earned some extraordinary achievements in your career. What would you still like to accomplish? Are there any guitarists you’d love to share a stage with?
Well I have shared the stage with three of my all time idols. Having been on stage with Robben Ford, Albert Collins and Albert Lee has really humbled me. Not only are they world-class players but first class gentlemen. I now have a guitar duo with the great Carl Verheyen.
I treat an experience with a great player as a guitar lesson rather than a competition. I have played with all of my idols and now appreciate the opportunity to perform with any accomplished player.
I recently headlined a prestigious virtuoso guitar show called Muriel Andersons All Star Guitar Night. The lineup included Lee Ritenour, Doyle Dykes, Martin Simpson, Rick Vito, Muriel Anderson, Andreas Oberg, and the list goes on. I got a lesson in both guitar and being a generous, giving human being. I couldn’t ask for more.
I have written over 35 guitar instructional products now and have achieved a reputation as a world-class educator. I have now switched tracks and am working on my playing career. I love playing live and have been performing all my life. Now with my own band I am headed out on the road. Whoo Hoo!
Be sure to check out Steve’s website at www.stevetrovato.com.
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