Frank Vignola – The Master, the Teacher, the Entertainer…
Intro by Bob Bakert, editor: Frank Vignola is a very favorite of mine. He uses his prodigious talent to make music not to impress. His chops and grasp music on the instrument is up there with the very best but he never leaves his audience behind or tries to go over their heads, he truly entertains with his art. He is a frequent guest of Tommy Emanual and a very welcome contributor on any stage.
I became aware of Frank Vignola in the early 2000s through a music store/venue in Roswell, GA owned and operated by Eddie Mathis called Dreamcatcher Guitars. At that time the early 2000s that Eddie brought guitarists like Frank Vignola, Jimmy Bruno, Corey Christiansen, Howard Alden, and Lawrence Juber in for workshops and concerts.
I personally attended three of Frank’s workshops and his ability to teach is second to none.
He broke things down into manageable bites which is probably why he has such a vast and popular catalog with TrueFire.com (check out our bonus videos below!)
It is our honor to present Frank Vignola to you…
JGT: The first time I heard you play was at the NAMM show probably 20 years ago… do you remember the music you were playing back then… how has your style evolved over the years…
I know it must have been straight-ahead standards, which I love so much. I think I may have edited myself over the years.
JGT: You are a great player and educator but also a great entertainer. I’ve seen you perform many times and the audience is treated to world-class music and musicianship but they are also entertained. Can you speak about the importance of the entertainment factor in your performances?
As an instrumental artist, I always felt it was important to play songs your audience will know. I also think communicating with the audience is extremely important. Tell a story about the song, the arrangement, etc… Working with Les Paul, Bucky Pizzarelli, Lionel Hampton and Tommy Emmanuel has been so valuable not only for the musical element but all of these guys know how to relate to an audience.
JGT: In addition to performing you have a strong educational/teaching background. You taught at a University, have hundreds of titles at TrueFire and continue to teach people online, Skype etc. I know you love both performing and teaching can you speak about your current balance and what is gratifying you at the moment.
I love to teach. I don’t do Skype lessons but have hundreds of enrolled students and we communicate through a video messaging platform designed by TrueFire.com. Since my accident two years ago, I have put almost 100% of my working time into my educational online jazz studio which now houses close to 600 unique videos, over 50 songs, 100’s of play along’s, chord melody arrangements, licks and a beginning section to help folks who are new to jazz guitar get started.
Frank Vignola Bonus Video
JGT: You have played with hundreds if not thousands of top musicians… Tommy Emmanual, Wynton Marsalis, David Grisman, Bucky Pizzarelli, but Les Paul really stands out to me… tell us about the relationship with Les?
Oh my God, Les was the best! I met him when I was 19 in the year 1985 when he first came out of retirement. He was playing a tiny little club in downtown NYC called Fat Tuesdays. He was very gracious, treated me to dinner and we had a great conversation. He then invited me up to sit in and sat me behind the trio who were all on stools. So, no one could see me.
Once he heard I could play a bit, he invited me up to a stool and invited Vic Jurris up and left the stage. So, Vic and I battled it out and the place went crazy. About 4:00 am after I returned home, the phone rings and it’s Les. We spoke for hours about picks, strings and guitars. We were dear friends ever since then.
I joined his band in the year 2000 and we performed every Monday night in NYC as well as a few big shows on the road. Talk about tone. Holy Crap, that guy had some serious tone. I sounded like a kazoo next to him in the first few years. I really was forced to concentrate on my tone.
JGT: Your playing a Ryan Thorell guitar and have an Eastman Frank Vignola model that is based on its design. It gives you a unique voice between a traditional archtop and a Gypsy guitar. Can you speak to the requirements and how you arrived at that “voice”
Ryan and I have known each other for a long time. When the Benedetto company was sold, I was dropped as an endorser. When word got out, I was contacted by a few different luthiers who wanted me to check guitars out. Ryan sent the one I play now and it was love at first sight. Now, Eastman has licensed the design and they are building spectacular versions of Ryan’s design. I have been doing a lot of traveling recently and the guitar holds up well on the road.
Frank Vignola Exclusive Guitar Story
JGT: What is your tone path? What amps, do you use a preamp or any effects?
Again, I just plug my Eastman FV model directly into my AER compact 60 amp and that’s it. I roll off most of the bass and mids and keep the treble flat. No reverb. Venue’s usually take an XLR output from the back of the amp to the house. This produces a consistently high-quality tone. And sound folks love us because we use no monitors and keep it really simple.
JGT: You seem to play clubs, theaters, festivals all over the world… can you speak a little to how that varies your show so that maybe others can get the feel of what it’s like as a true touring artist?
We play our show whether it’s for 40 people in an intimate club or 1000 people at a concert hall – Frank Vignola
The key for us is we never use monitors on stage. It’s just 2 guitars and a bass so we don’t need the monitors. We always have control of our sound, even at outdoor festivals. It’s easy to overplay, or play too loud when the adrenaline gets going. We have played thousands of shows together and that makes it easy to go into any circumstance and focus on a good sound instead of trying to remember arrangements.
JGT: You were playing some 250 or so dates a year… before the ATV accident that put you out for a year. I don’t want to dwell on that but you’re back and playing better than ever… how are you feeling? Did you have to make adaptions to your technique to get going again? Is there something that is new in your playing because of your experience?
It’s been almost two years and I am still working daily to feel good. It was a long, tough recovery. But, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world because I survived an accident I should not have survived without any long-lasting damage. I have altered my picking style quite a bit and it feels pretty good. The only thing new in my playing is a bit more of the blues.
JGT: What are the challenges of touring today particularly international, (do you use backline companies or carry your own?)
Internationally, I travel light, Bob, with one Eastman Guitar and a small suitcase, mainly to carry merchandise. When we travel from NY, it’s awesome because we can bring our small AER amps whether it’s a minivan or flight. Those Compact 60’s travel great. I have had mine for 10 years with not one issue. Overseas, Westside Distribution, based in Glasgow, usually supplies us with AER amps for a particular length tour.
JGT: You are at home playing many styles… Gypsy, Bluegrass, swing, rock, Bop, Boston Pops, Ringo Star, Madonna on and on…amazing versatility. Do you have a favorite style to play?
When I play Bluegrass it sounds more like crabgrass. The Rock stars who hired me were all involved in 1920’s and 30’s musical projects. So, for instance, there is a recording somewhere of Madonna and I playing I Surrender Dear somewhere. Since I was a “specialist” who at the time was one of the only people playing swing and rhythm guitar, I would get the calls for the swing guitar needs.
JGT: You have had a long relationship with Vinny Raniolo and Gary Mazzaroppi can you talk about how you and Vinny came to work together and the value of a strong rhythm player.
I met Gary in 1984 when he was playing with Les Paul upon Les’ return to performing and taking many years off. We worked together on many projects for many years. Ironically, Vinny took Gary’s place on the bass when I was involved in an electric project. When I heard Vinny play guitar, I almost fell off my chair. He is a guitar player who doubled on electric bass to get work. Very smart character.
In 2007, we formed the FV Trio and toured the world together. Gary and his wife had a baby so naturally Gary didn’t want to tour for a while. Realizing, it would be hard to replace Gary, Vinny and I went at it as a duo and played 5 years of shows spanning 17 countries and 2 PBS specials.
After my accident and taking 18 months off from touring, I asked Gary and Vinny to re-form the trio as the Hot Jazz Guitar Trio. They were both as excited as I was to get back at it. We have been touring pretty good so far since October 2018 and have trips planned to 3 countries already this year. Good fun with good friends.
Frank Vignola Bonus Video
JGT: Musically, what is your “new frontier”? Where are you headed, what gets you excited?
Collaborations get me excited. I am planning ta rip to visit my old buddy David Grisman to record a batch of his great tunes duet style. I always look forward to any playing with Tommy. As a matter of fact, a few months back he called me and said, I have a 5-hour layover at Newark airport tomorrow, come say hello. So, I went and met him at baggage claim. Within 15 minutes, the guitars were out and we played for 2 hours. One guy, who I assumed knew who we were, was watching every note for about 30 minutes and asked us, “Are you guys professionals?” The highlight of my year for sure!
JGT: What music do you listen to lately?
Lately, Jim Hall and Lee Konitz.
JGT: Some people want to make a living playing guitar, what advice do you have?
Learn how to get a gig. Really, learn how to get a gig. This is what a lot of younger players don’t learn. You have to knock on doors and just like practicing daily, you must knock on doors daily.
JGT: What advice do you have for players who want to transition and add jazz and gypsy language into their playing
Learn the repertoire. It’s all in the songs. If you learn 200 songs, you will have no problem improvising.
JGT: Any last advice?
Practice. You have to practice and practice and practice. It’s therapeutic.