Tony MacAlpine is an accomplished lead guitarist, trained classically in music from an early age and blessed with great improvisational and compositional skill. He released his first solo album in 1986, but his career has seen him work in many areas of music, playing as a sideman, writing commercial music and record producing, being a member of fusion act CAB and leading his own group. We spoke to Tony MacAlpine ahead of his show at Band on the Wall in October, to discuss his time in music, the importance of tuition on his style of playing and his time lining up alongside jazz fusion greats.
Throughout your career you’ve been involved in so many musical projects and taken on different roles in each, be it as a producer, arranger or player. Do you need this diversity to keep the experience fresh and exciting?
Yes perhaps I do in one way or another, and then again I’m not quite sure if one might find himself going down a particular path in life due merely in part to circumstance. I am aware that when I was a piano student at the Springfield Conservatory of Music in Massachusetts, I never thought for a moment that I might become a Guitar player. It was not until I was presented with the opportunity of taking a few lessons with my older brother that I thought “wow this instrument is really cool.” And only then after the initial shock from being able to improvise and not feel guilty about it wore off, I pursued that ambition quite seriously.
On the other hand I would say the natural desire to produce records came from my interaction with many musicians growing up. For instance, when you play chamber music one is usually in charge of the trio or quartet and it was usually me. So it was very second nature for me to want to work with other musicians on the creation and direction of their own music recordings. You have got to somehow become transparent yet insistent about your opinion in the hope that it will be vital to the finished product in a positive way.
Do you think it’s important for guitarists to cut their teeth in groups under bandleaders before they become leaders themselves? The example of Steve Vai beginning with Frank Zappa springs to mind, what are your thoughts?
Well I am not quite sure about that either way, but I do think that we all as people are predisposed to act or at the very least conduct ourselves in a certain way toward others regardless of whether that is beneficial or not. Many of us learn by example, and merely applying the techniques and ideas to others because that was their life experience really does not make them a leader, on the other hand it makes you a follower. I have worked with both more than once in my life. Being the leader of anything in life is always wrought with loneliness and second thoughts, not surprisingly because it’s usually that way at the top. True leaders encourage and bad ones dictate.
What I have found is that Guitarists or musicians that play any instrument must have and posses uniqueness. After that is achieved, most of these players will find they want to follow their direction, sort of like a good parent. Always wanting the best but doing so in a way where other players can make mistakes and get stronger by example.
You studied classical music during your youth; at what point was that advanced knowledge first called upon in your professional playing career?
From the very beginning! It’s a by-product of what I am today…everyday as a player and composer of my own music or music for others. From the age of 5, I had to learn that I must always be prepared, practiced and in shape. So that meant improving my theory and understanding of chord structure or sight reading.
And then there is the character that makes us what we are. I learned very early on that what you strive to be when you are young is exactly what you will become when you get older. So naturally I never wanted to be that guy who shows up at rehearsal and does not know the material. I have learned that the public always expects you to be at your best, even when you are not at that level for whatever reason.
By the time I had worked my way up to my first professional recordings and those were jingles (commercials), I always had a very open mind and was always (and still am) ready to devote more energy than I posses simply for the greater outcome. All of those early records I did like “Edge of Insanity”, during those recording sessions I was not shocked at all to see that Steve Smith and Billy Sheehan for example, embraced those same ideals. We were there to give all we had and even when we had nothing more we still gave.
During your time with fusion outfit CAB you were playing alongside some big names in the jazz-fusion world. What was it like to join a group like that, and were you aware of the music Brian, Bunny and Dennis had been a part of when you joined?
Yes I was fully aware of Bunny Brunel and his history because I was such a huge Chick Corea fan. So the “Secret Agent” and “Tap Step” records were of course a huge part of my fusion collection. And the “Oblivion Express” of Brian Auger and everything Dennis Chambers ever did…yeah these guys are legends and I was always fully immersed in what ever they did.
CAB was very cool because you could see the initial impact that the band had especially for example when Jack Bruce and Andy Summers were coming to see your shows in Los Angeles, or selling out all the Blue Note clubs in Japan on our first tour there. That does not happen always so it was really evident that it was something special.
And later in life it’s even greater to know you made such good friends with these very cool people!