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This article was originally published in issue #20
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Words like 'legendary' and 'inspirational' are ten a penny in music - but one guitarist who more than deserves both accolades is the superlative Al Di Meola. Stuart Bull met the great man for an in-depth interview. Levi Clay has a career overview.
The pages of Guitar Interactive have featured some of the best known and respected Rock guitarists of the last 30 years, but from time to time someone really special comes along whose influence on the guitar has been so monumental that it transcended genres as he continues to carve out something soulful and unique while on a never ending search of expression. And when I add that this man is openly cited as one of the biggest influences on players as diverse as both Zakk Wylde and John Petrucci, I can only be talking about the incredible Al Di Meola.
Born in New Jersey in 1954, Di Meola picked up the guitar at the tender age of eight, under the tutelage of New Jersey instructor Bob Aslanian. As we will see later, Di Meola was soon heavily into the Beatles (he even credits the band as being the reason he took up the guitar in the first place) but Aslanian drilled him intensely on Jazz, theory and reading, making him a well rounded musician at a very young age. The pair would eventually release the handbook, A Guide to Chords, Scales and Arpeggios which gives you a great insight into the material Al had grown up on.
These early years would have a profound impact on the direction Di Meola would eventually take, with the blend of Pop and Rock of the day along with the Jazz music of players like Tal Farlow and Kenny Burrell that Aslanian was exposing him to. He would also discover Latin music, travelling into the city on his own to hear Salsa music, he recalled: “I felt a real strong connection to it that I couldn't understand why.” He also found Larry Coryell around this time, whom he described as “The Godfather of Fusion” and wherever Larry was playing, Al was there. His passions in music were all consuming and the only logical next step was to head to the world renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, so in 1971 he left New Jersey to continue his studies.
In 1974 Al was picked as the new guitarist for Chick Corea's seminal fusion band, Return to Forever, filling in the shoes for the incredible Bill Connors who was heard on the group's 1973 album, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy. Di Meola brought a new, more aggressive, edge to the group with his furious percussive alternate picking (which was a huge departure from Connors' smooth legato sound) and while “Where Have I Known You Before” and “No Mystery” are great Jazz fusion records, 1976's “Romantic Warrior” would be considered absolutely genre defining.
1976 also marked the start of Di Meola's solo career, with the release of Land of the Midnight Sun, which was followed in '77 with Elegant Gypsy, featuring classic tracks such as Mediterranean Sundance and Race with Devil, on Spanish Highway. Al Di Meola had landed, and further releases like '78s Casino and '80s Splendido Hotel would result in regular coverage from the press of the day.
While tunes like Race With Devil were showcasing Al's electric fusion edge, Mediterranean Sundance shows a softer acoustic side to his writing. This would be a direction he would continue to explore, forming the guitar trio with John McLaughlin and Paco De Lucia who released “Friday Night In San Francisco” in 1981, a live album which some claim is the most influential of all acoustic guitar albums. This is an essential listen, and the group went on to record two more albums in the studio, both of which are fantastic examples of acoustic Jazz.
Di Meola would continue to release solo albums throughout the '80s, five while touring the world to tremendous critical acclaim. There's some great footage from the Live at Montreux series from this era, both as a solo act and with the super guitar trio, featuring Larry Coryell and the French Gypsy Bireli Lagrene, which is very well worth hunting down!
It's hard to talk about the Al Di Meola sound without considering his incredible command of alternate picking and percussive sound, often achieved by palm muting on the high strings. When you really look at the patterns he tends to play, you'll see the three note per string style associated with players like John Petrucci and Paul Gilbert. But put that in a chronological context and you realise that he was actually one of the fathers of this technique. He discusses his technique at length in his book Al Di Meola's Picking Techniques. But, technique aside, it's clearly the note choice and rhythm that creates his vocabulary, use of the lydian scale one major chords and the phrygian dominant scale (mode V of the harmonic minor scale) on dominant chords to highlight the #5 and b9 sounds which are common in his playing, along with chromatic encircling of chord tones.
Gearwise, in the very early days Di Meola's guitar of choice was often a Gibson Les Paul but at around the age of 19 he met a young Paul Reed Smith who showed him some guitars backstage at a gig Return to Forever were playing with Carlos Santana. Al was amazed with the quality and has played PRS guitars ever since, being one of the very first endorsers of the brand (even before Santana himself).
If you are after the classic Al Di Meola sound and can afford nothing but the best, PRS offers Al's signature Prism Model, which features two humbuckers and Al's prism finish (like a rainbow). If you're looking to get something similar, any Les Paul style humbucker equipped guitar should get you close. When it comes to amps Al has moved from Marshall to Mesa Boogie, so a high quality amp with good tube overdrive should do the trick. Add a bit of reverb and delay and you're going to be on the right path. Al also has a signature Ovation acoustic and also favours high quality nylon strings like Godin (with various MIDI effects) and Conde Hermanos guitars.
Between 1990 and 2012 Di Meola recorded 13 solo albums, a collection of live albums, made several guest appearances and even reunited with Return To Forever in 2009 after a 32 year hiatus to release the live album Returns, which was captured on DVD also. Highlights include the three World Sinfonia albums and Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody.
This year came another major achievement, when he released All Your Life, a tribute album to the Beatles, recorded in the world famous Abbey Road Studios in London, where the Beatles recorded the original songs. Featuring acoustic arrangements of classics such as Eleanor Rigby, And I Love Her and Penny Lane, this album ticks boxes for fans of Al, The Beatles, and just beautiful Latin tinged guitar. A visit to his website to find out more is strongly advised!
Al Di Meola is currently touring Europe (where we caught up with him at the wonderful Ronnie Scott's in London) in support of this album, wowing fans in packed out venues everywhere he stops.