Steve Trovato Interview - part 1
By Jim Walk

Appeared in the AFG Sound Hole - Issue 14 (Spring 2002 - editor: Bob Felten)

"It's the mood you're creating; that's the thing! "

Aptly nicknamed "The Great Chameleon," Steve is able to change colors musically in much the same way his namesake does so physically. He is a master of styles ranging from blues, to country, to jazz, to rock. And, like the chameleon adapts to survive in various environments, Steve is equally adept at playing and teaching. His in-concert performances include stints with Albert Collins, Scott Henderson, Albert Lee, Robben Ford, and Jeff Berlin. As a teacher, Steve has several books and videos distributed by Hal Leonard and Warner Brothers, and he has written numerous articles for major publications such as Guitar Player Magazine, Guitar One, and Guitar for the Practicing Musician. Steve held a position at Hollywood's famed Musicians Institute during its heyday, and he currently teaches at the University of Southern California.

We caught up with Steve to ask him about his career, the fondness for Chet Atkins he mutually holds with the other members of AFG, his thoughts on playing and teaching, and his stellar new solo CD About Time...

Members who want to learn more about Steve should visit his website at stevetrovato.com. Besides providing access to his CD and teaching materials, the website features a lick of the month, tips on tone and equipment, and a forum for discussing various guitar-related subjects.

Steve Trovato, David Oakes, and Simon Watkins performaing at an AFG Convention

Let's start at the beginning. When did you first start playing?

I played piano for about six years. I got to the point where I could play the "Blue Danube Waltz" as a recital piece. Then, when I was twelve or thirteen, I saw George Harrison and the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. And I said, "Well, that's it. I'm a guitar player now."

What was your first guitar?

It was an Epiphone; a 335 copy called an E230TBV. Later, I bought a '65 Fender Bandmaster.

How did you go about learning?

I'm the type of person who gets obsessed when I see someone play something on a guitar. I decide I'm gonna learn how to play it myself note-for-note or die trying. I buried myself under a set of headphones and just learned hundreds of songs. I started with all The Ventures' songs. Nokie Edwards was my hero [points to autographed Nokie Edwards picture hanging on the wall]. Then I got a record by Chet Atkins called "Guitar Genius." I thought, "Whoa!! How does that happen? You mean all those bass and melody parts are being played by him at the same time?" So, I bought myself a thumbpick and thought, "I have to figure out how he's doing this." There were no books back then or anybody teaching you how to do that. You just had to sit down with the records and figure it out.

Did you study with a teacher?

Yeah, when I got into jazz. I started playing in bands when I was fifteen, and they wanted me to play jazz songs like "The Girl from Ipanema." I didn't know any of those songs, so I started studying jazz with Tal Farlow. Then I went to Philadelphia and studied with Pat Martino and Dennis Sandole, who was Pat Martino's teacher. Then I studied with Chuck Wayne and Harry Leahey; those guys were legends in Long Island.

Did you continue to copy off records?

I started copying Joe Pass, Pat Martino, and George Benson note for note. Then the next day, I would copy Ritchie Blackmore and Jeff Beck. In 1975, I heard a record by Larry Carlton called "Room 335." That was it for me. There wasn't one note I didn't touch on that album. I transcribed every song, every melody, every solo note for note.

When did you come to LA?

I went to GIT [the guitar program at the Musicians Institute] in 1981. I was about twenty years old. I studied there for a year and graduated number one in the class. I don't know how that happened [laughs]. I got the Gibson award (points to a plaque hanging on the wall) and a Howard Roberts fusion guitar. It was there that I heard a record called "Country Boy."

By Albert Lee?

Yeah, I 'd never heard of him before. I heard that song and thought, "Wow! How is he doing that?" I learned it without a digital delay [note: Albert Lee plays the "Country Boy" solo with a delay set to play a beat a half later, resulting in a much more complex line, melodically and rhythmically]. I didn't know he was using a delay, and I could never quite get it right. No one had ever beaten me before; I even transcribed Al DiMeola. But Albert Lee beat me. I was so frustrated because I couldn't figure out how he did it...Next thing I know I'm playin' with the guy [laughs].

At what point did you start becoming an educator?

After I graduated from GIT, the school hired me to be the premier country guitar teacher. I come from a jazz background; I'd never played any country. But I thought, 'Wow, I've got a chance to teach at GIT, these guys must think I'm pretty good.' And I remember [studio guitar great] Tommy Tedesco always told me, "Anytime someone asks you to do something, just say yes, and figure out how to do it then."

So I put the country guitar curriculum together. I had to learn it really fast and really well to keep up with the best guitarists in the world, because they were all teaching at GIT. I faked them all out. I got in as a teacher knowing three country songs. I was teaching a class of about a hundred guys in a school I had graduated from three weeks earlier. Boy, was I in over my head. I was there for about eighteen years. The last ten years of that, I also taught at the University of Southern California. I finally left GIT and now teach full time at the University of Southern California.

That's surprising to hear you say you were never a country player. Whenever I read articles by you or about you in magazines, it seemed to be about country guitar. So I just assumed that was always your main focus.

No, I was a jazz fusion musician until I heard Albert Lee. I was never a country guitar player until they hired me at GIT.

You know a lot of songs by Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed. Did you learn those songs for the purpose of creating the curriculum at GIT?

No, I already had a lot of that stuff transcribed. I hadn't played it in years, but I had it all. I think I ended up becoming so fascinated by country guitar because, of all the people I transcribed, secretly I thought Chet was the guy whose playing I loved the best. To me, it was so heartfelt. It was much easier for me to transcribe than, say, Pat Martino or George Benson. So, that made me think I must have an ability to do this.

Earlier you said you bought a thumbpick after hearing Chet Atkins. But now you actually use a flatpick and fingers technique often referred to as hybrid picking, don't you?

Yeah. I loved all the Pat Martino and George Benson I transcribed, but I couldn't play it with a thumbpick. I learned to play it with a flatpick, like they did. But I couldn't jump in and play Chet style when I was doing the George Benson stuff. And when I played Chet style with a thumbpick, I couldn't play any George Benson.

So I developed a style where I could do the Chet stuff and the George Benson stuff at the same time by holding a flatpick and fingerpicking with my middle, ring, and pinky fingers. It took me years to develop that because I didn't have anyone to learn it from. I thought I had come up with something no one else had ever done. Then, later I found out everybody plays like that. I didn't know Albert Lee, Steve Morse, or Jerry Donahue back then. Later, when I saw them do it I thought, "So, I'm not off on some weird thing. A lot of people play like that."

Do you have to make any concessions when using hybrid picking to play songs by Chet and Jerry?

Yes. When you play Chet style with a thumbpick, you have access to your index, middle, and ring fingers. Those are strong fingers and you usually have a lot of control when you use them. When you use hybrid picking, you eliminate the index finger because you use it with your thumb to hold the flatpick. So you have to fingerpick with your middle and ring fingers and your pinky. For me, the pinky is almost useless. When I'm using hybrid picking, it takes the place of what my ring finger does when playing with a thumbpick, but it's not as strong as my ring finger. So, I'm not quite as free with the Chet style using a pick as I am when I use a thumbpick.

To what extent did learning from Chet and Jerry's playing contribute to your own playing style?

I have a huge reservoir of open string licks in almost every key. It's one of the things I'm known for. Also, Chet is a melody guy. Through all his licks, you can always sense a melody. And Jerry Reed has all those fast banjo rolls and strange techniques, but you can still hear a melody through all those notes [hums "Jerry's Breakdown"]. That's the attraction for me. That's what I try to reflect in my own playing. Even if something I play has a lot of notes in it, I try to have a melody. Chet and Jerry are the most basic components I use for everything I approach.

I've heard you play note for note covers of "Jerry's Breakdown,""Yakety Axe," "Mainstreet Breakdown," and others. But, you don't sound like Chet Atkins or Jerry Reed. You sound like Steve Trovato. Do you have any advice for players trying to break away from sounding like their heroes and sounding like themselves?

Your mind is like a computer. If you only input Chet Atkins songs into a computer and ask it to come up with something different, how can the output be different from the input? In other words, you can't learn only Chet Atkins songs and expect to come up with a style that doesn't sound like him, because that's all you have to draw from.

I'm so attracted to different instruments and different styles. So, I might learn a Chet Atkins arrangement, a Billy Joel song, and a solo by [saxophonist] Sonny Stitt. Then I'll forget 90% of it, but it will all meld together. A lick I come up with might be one part Chet, two parts Billy Joel, one part Sonny Stitt, and so on.

But, for someone who has the desire to come up with their own style, I don't think it's something you can consciously search for. If it somehow does appear, I think the trick is that kind of melding of many different styles. It's a combination of all the things you know coming out as your own.

As a teacher, you must have helped a lot of people develop their own styles. Fellow AFG member, David Oakes, mentioned at the last picking party that you were once his teacher. It must be rewarding to see a player like David Oakes develop into such an outstanding talent and know that you had something to do with it.

Well, I don't think I had anything to do with it. I was also Frank Gambale's teacher and Paul Gilbert and Scott Henderson's teacher. Those guys are world-renowned, but I didn't give them anything other than to open up their eyes to the possibilities of what can be done. I can't give anybody talent or make anybody work. Hopefully, I can inspire somebody to do their own job, just as my teachers did for me. I didn't learn anything from Tal Farlow or Pat Martino. But I'd go over there and say, "Wow. This guy can do this. Maybe I can do it, too, someday.".

There's an old saying: if you can't play, then teach. You're living proof that isn't necessarily true. Anybody who hears you knows you can play, and you've also made a living as a teacher for nearly two decades. Still, the phrase brings up the point that playing and teaching are two different things. Doing one well doesn't guarantee the ability to do the other. Each requires a different set of skills.

Absolutely. I've seen a lot of great teachers who really can't play that well, and most of the great players I know probably wouldn't make the best teachers. God bless them all, but there is a definite distinction between being a guitarist and being a teacher.

I think the essence of a great player requires an intuitive mindset where you just disappear into the music. I've been onstage with Robben Ford watching him play, and all of a sudden, his eyelids start to flutter. And I just think, "Uh-oh, DUCK!!! Great, I've got to play a solo after him and he's got his eyelids fluttering!" He goes into another place, tuning everything out except the music; totally in the moment. Albert Lee does it too, and so did Stevie Ray Vaughan.

The difference between genius and mediocrity is concentration. They've got this concentration thing which is beyond anything I know about. I've finally gotten to the point where I can, sort of, get there. I've spent my entire life trying to be able to get there at will. You can't transmit that onto a student, though. It's not even a conscious thing.

The essence of a great teacher is, I think, searching and finding out what the student wants to learn, and being genuinely interested in helping the student get to the place they want to go. The mindset is to listen carefully to what a student is saying, assess their ability by what you see them being able to do, and help them get better at what they want to get better at.

I don't think great players who aren't very good teachers know how to do that. They think the student is studying with them because they're a great player. Well, maybe they are. But if you were studying with a superstar player, it might end up that all he or she gives you is licks that, since you didn't make up, you probably won't remember, anyway. I would want a teacher to teach me to fish, rather than give me a fish. A good teacher, I think, inspires someone to search their own soul for their own musicality

2002 - Association of Fingerstyle Guitarists