Back in 2012, Al Di Meola walked through the doors of London’s fabled Abbey Road studios to record an intimate take on a selection of Lennon and McCartney classics. Due to an extraordinary set of circumstances involving an 1830s Martin guitar, this correspondent was present for one of those original sessions and having experienced Di Meola’s masterful nylon-string arrangements up close it came as no surprise when the resulting anthology, All Your Life, quickly became one of the best-selling guitar records of the following year.
Now, following several albums of original compositions including 2018’s extraordinary Opus, Di Meola returns to the music that inspired him to play the guitar in the first place with a new album of Beatles arrangements, this time with a full band sound, titled Across The Universe – The Beatles Vol 2. We caught up with him during an extensive European tour to find out more about his approach to arranging some of the world’s best-known melodies.
“Well, it’s interesting,” he says, of tackling the world’s most famous back catalogue. “These are songs that we all know and love, and I’m very passionate about The Beatles. After doing the first record and being overwhelmed by the response, I wanted to return to The Beatles’ back catalogue but this time do it with fuller production.
“Also, in some cases where The Beatles had originally recorded two-minute versions of those songs, I wanted to be able to write some parts and develop those ideas, as I did on Strawberry Fields Forever and Norwegian Wood. Norwegian Wood was basically a two-minute piece exactly – it’s just melody/bridge/melody/bridge and it’s over – and it’s beautiful! You can play it anywhere and everyone knows it! Of course, in my world, there are no lyrics so I feel the need as an instrumentalist to bring more to the essence of the piece in terms of composition and that’s what you hear on this record.”
Di Meola’s reverence for the Fab Four runs deep: “It was the whole package, you know? It was stunning in terms of sound. There had not been anything like it before, everyone was trying to reach that benchmark – The Dave Clarke Five, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, they all had their own unique thing but they all point to The Beatles. No-one could really surpass that beautiful combination of those voices. Together The Beatles were a force. What they produced in only six or seven years was just mind-blowing.
“What I wanted to do was take that music that they created and do my own thing with it and just go a little deeper, syncopate some rhythms – things like that. A lot of it was chord melody, if you really examine the recording. Believe it or not, these ‘simplistic’ pieces turned out to be far more difficult to play and to rehearse than anything I’ve done before! People can say it’s just simple pop music but the way I approached it required me to really work hard on it! It wasn’t a simple ‘strum the guitar and sing the melody’ thing. I usually fragment the harmony into a kind of arpeggiated syncopation for the most part, because it’s my signature, but on this record, the melodies are closer to what they were originally.
“For me, the music of The Beatles means pure joy! That’s it, pure joy! it’s a combination of good feelings that bring you back to a time of innocence and youth, it relaxes me, it just makes you feel good – and good music is supposed to have that effect!”
The Fab Four: Take two
Di Meola’s sonic approach with this new record differs from the intimate nylon-string textures of All Your Life, his initial Beatles covers album released in 2013.
“Recording All Your Life was a tremendous experience, I felt like a five-year-old at Disneyland. Every day that I was there was just mind-blowing, I was in the same exact spot that The Beatles’ records happened! It was really an amazing point in my career.
“I wanted to make that first record simplistic and intimate in its production. It certainly wasn’t simplistic in the way I played those songs though, it was pretty damn hard – especially Penny Lane and Michelle – those were brutal!
“The only percussion on All Your Life was me tapping on the top of the guitar whereas this time it is almost a full production, I’m playing a Rickenbacker bass, the same exact model and strings as Paul McCartney [That’ll be a 4001s for the low-end enthusiasts]. I’m playing the drums, I’m playing percussion, I’m playing electric guitar on top of the acoustic guitar so it’s almost a one-man-band.
“There’s a tabla player on Norwegian Wood and Strawberry Fields Forever; Randy Brecker [trumpet] plays on Till There Was You; and there are also some vocal bits with me and my daughter, and Hernan Romero who also acted as co-producer.
“The thing is, I know what I want and that’s why I did most of the parts myself! If I had brought in a drummer I would have told him to do exactly what I did. I didn’t want or need a flash drummer, I needed the parts exactly the way they were. In addition, there are some really complex rhythms and ideas going on underneath the electric guitar on nylon-string and steel-string guitars. If you have other instruments playing complex ideas on top of that, well, something’s got to give!
“Having my own studio, I get to work in a very similar way that The Beatles did on ‘The White Album’ – they each did their own tracks and they got them the way they wanted them.”
Arranging other artist’s music poses a different set of challenges to original compositions – part of this is choosing what to keep and develop and what to leave out.
“Choosing the parts was really natural because I’m very close to the music. I feel an extreme closeness to the phrasings of the melodies and how they did it. I mean, I lived with this music for 50 years.
“The challenge is in playing it well. This is not an album of music that nobody has ever heard before – if you play a wrong note in the melody of a Beatles song… well… that’s very different! Of course, the next step is to try and recreate this in a live setting. It’s one thing to do this in the studio but another altogether to do it with other players in front of an audience.”
Guitar-wise, this record did involve a selection of beautiful instruments as well as a reunion with an old friend.
“Whenever you hear a nylon string it’s a Conde Hermanos Al Di Meola signature model and that’s all over the record. But I also used a Martin D-18, a 1948 model that sings forever and you can hear that quite often. I did use the Ovation [Al Di Meola Signature Model] however on Strawberry Fields… of all pieces! It just somehow worked on that one. There’s a lot of Guild 12-string too, and a 12-string harp guitar which I used on Here Comes The Sun.
“However, the thing that’s great about this record is that I rediscovered – for the first time since 1978 – my famous black 1971 Gibson Les Paul. That was the guitar I used when I joined Chick Corea, I recorded Land Of The Midnight Sun and Elegant Gypsy with it and I hadn’t used it since because I had been introduced to so many other guitars including Paul Reed Smith guitars, so the days of using that 1971 Les Paul through my 50-watt Marshall were long gone.
“You know, there was always a part of me that wondered how I got such a punchy sound back then. The PRS going through the Fuchs amp was close but there was still something missing and it bothered me so much. We were sitting in the studio one day and someone suggested trying the ’71 and asked me ‘do you still have that old Marshall?’. So, we went digging through piles and piles of equipment out in the garage, down in the basement, and behind a mountain of crap, I found my Marshall 50-watt head from the mid-70s!
“I said, ‘Okay, let’s plug this thing in, it’s not going to work, I haven’t used it for 45 years, it’s definitely not going to work’. So we plugged it in, hoping all the while that it wouldn’t blow up – and it worked! Then we found the cab, I hadn’t used that since then either, and the speakers worked too.
“That’s the electric guitar and amp that you hear on the record and it was wonderful to rediscover that combination. There’s something about the way they made the amps back then, those early DiMarzio pickups, and that super-heavy ’71 Les Paul that you just can’t beat. And there’s no effects. None! You just plug straight in. But you have to set the amp up right… no treble, no presence, bass all the way up and that’s the sound.
“Back in the day when Larry DiMarzio was first starting out in Statten Island, I was one of the first guys to use his pickups. He looked at my amp and said ‘Wow, that’s the way you have your settings? That’s exactly how Leslie West does it too!’ I was shocked. I was almost embarrassed that people would see my settings and think, ‘Wow, he’s insane!’ but that was the best sound. That Marshall was the gem of all gems, it had to be a 50-watt, the 100-watt versions just didn’t sound as good.”
The creative side of this record was as much about sounds and textures as it was about technique, there’s even an extremely authentic take on a classic Mellotron part
“Ha! Yes, on Strawberry Fields Forever, I played that part myself and if you listen to The Beatles’ original there is another part under it but it’s a signature sound and I wanted to use it. I really wanted to recreate that and also get some of those Ringo drum fills from the beginning because I felt like they were expected.
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Last night I rediscovered my very first Les Paul which was basically buried behind a wall of other guitars that I hadn’t actually touched in more than 30 years. I bought it when I was 17 years old, I ordered it from the famous Manny’s Music on 48th street. It was used on the first three RTF albums, Land of the Midnight Sun and exclusively as well on Elegant Gypsy. I completely forgot how this guitar sounds! Now I’m going to use it on my new studio album, Beatles tribute II. Then I recalled in the day when I was using this guitar that I was adamant against using any effects and I was one of the purists that preferred going direct. Then it dawned on me that somewhere deep in my warehouse of stuff may be two or three 50w Marshalls from the 70s which made that sound an iconic sound of the time. Luckily, after tearing through a ton of stuff, I was blown away to find that one of the Marshalls in particular sounded as good as it did in the heyday. I think there is no more powerful combination. What an epiphany!
A post shared by Al Di Meola (@official_aldimeola) on Jun 2, 2019 at 4:35am PDT
“On other tracks like Julia the arrangement is moved into 6/8 time in drop D tuning and the way that I play that involves a lot of string skipping – it’s a kind of arpeggiated chord melody. It can be a little bit tricky to play but it turned out to be one of my favourite pieces. And sometimes it’s the simplicity… it’s so heavily rooted around the G, it has an unbelievable aesthetic to it. It’s just pure beauty. I don’t know how else to say it.
“I am also very proud of my arrangement of Mother Nature’s Son. It’s a chord melody piece that was very, very hard to get right. I practised my balls off for a good two months!”
Al’s long and winding road
Reflecting on his extraordinary career to date – since his mid-70s solo debut, he has released over 30 albums under his own name and in collaborations, too – 65-year-old Di Meola is always keen to offer support and guidance for younger players.
“You have to find your influences and learn by trying to do what they do. When I was young I had a great guitar teacher and I was buying all the great records I could – I was a record freak. And of course, I had New York City nearby and I was going to the Fillmore East. Everybody from Hendrix on down was playing there – The Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead, The Byrds, The Who, Crosby Stills and Nash, Frank Zappa, everybody! I was going to all these shows and absorbing everything I could. Learning from a teacher is only a part of the game. All the other aspects are just as important. The inspiration you get from seeing live shows and trying to copy certain things you love on record – it’s all part of the process.
“And you’d better be very passionate – to the point of insanity because this is a harder time to get into the business in some ways. Although you could say it’s a better time in other ways, to me it seems like it’s harder because I had the experience of going through the greatest record industry period of all time back in the 70s and 80s. It was phenomenal.”
Across The Universe – The Beatles Vol 2 is out 13 March 2020.