Chris Buono Talks Beginnings, Recording, Gear, Teaching, and More

Chris Buono with S2

Photo Credit – Laura Masi

Chris Buono is the six-string guru behind an almost mind-numbing array of guitar-based media. Whether it’s audio, video or print – you name it and Chris is doing it!  Online –  Buono’s TrueFire courses (19 and counting including his Guitar Gym series) are some of TrueFire’s best-sellers. In print, his name can be found on numerous titles for Alfred, Cengage Learning and Hal Leonard as well as an impressive catalog of guitar magazine bylines as both a contributor and columnist for Guitar One, Guitar Player, Just Jazz Guitar and more. As a musician and an author, Chris has an incredible gift to communicate in whatever medium he’s presented with and his instructional-based output is so high profile that Guitar-Muse readers may not be aware of his substantial credits as an active recording artist and a sideman.

While navigating through a wave of recent releases including three TrueFire offerings (Guitar Gym: Tapping, Guitar Gym: Arpeggios and Guitar Gym: Hybrid Picking) and a new Hal Leonard book on sight-reading (The Guitarist’s Guide To Sight Reading) Chris was incredibly generous with his time and shared some deep insights on many aspects of his career and life as a working musician.

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Beginnings

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How did you get into guitar playing?

My two older brothers are all to blame. My oldest brother Louis played from as far back as I can remember and still does. He’s a total zealot and, he’s the biggest music lover I know. It’s that intensity that rubbed on me both as a player and just a fan of the guitar and music overall. I used to sit outside his bedroom and stare at his guitars ([I] wasn’t allowed to touch for a loooong time) as well as his formidable record collection. I was brought up on what became classic rock, which was his thing to the nth degree. Later on after he flew the nest and was married with children and living right across the street, he started to show me some things on his ’79 (Gibson) ES-175. This was around ’83 or ’84. You had to see this monster hollow body sitting on my lap. I was a little kid with this 17” bout (the lower bout is the widest side to side distance of a guitar) lifting my pick hand elbow over my head learning how to play (Yes’) Roundabout. I didn’t care – I LOVED IT and LOVED PLAYING.
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My other brother Greg was always encouraging and was the one who gave me my first guitar. He turned me onto even more music – mostly what was going on at the time (mid 80’s/early 90’s). They both played huge roles in setting me on the right path. They even went as far as scoping out my first private teacher and swaying my parents to spring for an SG – my first “real” guitar.

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It sounds like they were other guitars before the SG.

Well, technically the first guitar was a no-name pawnshop prize I soon re-painted in traditional VH black and white striping. Not sure how that fell in my hands, but it was the official first guitar that I could call mine. It was a real bitch to play though. I still dug it and tried my best. Soon after my brother Greg came home from college with a Stella nylon string strung with steel strings. Needless to say it was basically unplayable until someone realized a switch was necessary. Once that was in place I got a lot of years out of that axe and it served me well. Not bad for a $23 pawnshop buy. The first playable electric I had was a red Hohner ST Special [which was] basically a Strat copy. It was decent and did the job. I actually still have the no-name and the Stella. The latter suffered over-exposure to moisture and literally blew up. I don’t have the heart to throw it away. It was the first guitar of my own I really played.

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Who were your guitar playing/compositional influences?

My brother Louis was my first guitar hero. He quickly shifted my worship to Steve Howe, which is an obsession I have to this day. I’ll be enamored of Steve forever and ever. This is coming from a kid who grew up a major Kiss fan (long before I ever touched a real guitar) who thought Ace Frehley was a God. It wasn’t long before the rest of the usual suspects of that time infiltrated my world. You know who I’m talking about: Page, Gilmour, Van Halen, Vai, Satch, Blackmore, Joe Perry, Clapton, Jeff Beck, etc. They all were (and still are) special to me both in playing and composition. Of course, I would move on to sooooo much more as the years went on, but this is where I came from. The jazz thing came a little later (as did the So-Cal punk thing, the shred thing and, of course, the funk thing). The coolest part about it all was I was there as this stuff was happening. It was so cool to see the new wave of Shrapnel [Records] players come on to the scene one-by-one. It was always awesome to see bands like All and Bad Religion on a regular basis for [just] a few dollars admission and equally awesome to see MTV rise and have the opportunity to see a lot of guys play on a regular basis. Hell – the release of Surfing with the Alien and Passion & Warfare was life-changing!

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Who do you look towards now for guitar playing/compositional inspiration?

Not many guitar players – HA! Seriously, early on I started an obsession with keyboard players and synth sounds as well as scratch DJs and effects that still runs strong today. Much of what comes out in my sound design with pedals and my Fractal/Atomic rig is trying to nail sounds from guys like Tony Banks, Bernie Worrell, Herbie Hancock, DJ Spooky, Kid Koala, Deadmau5 and Peter Gabriel (Birdy and Passion era). Don’t get me wrong, I truly adore the guitar still, it’s just that my interests went in so many directions following those formative years living with my brothers and my parents.

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Soon after, my deep connection with jazz was set in stone starting a whole new crew [of players] on all sorts of instruments to follow for life. From George Benson to Joe Pass to Eric Dolphy to Charlie Parker to Chick to Miles to Duke all the way to Rashaan Roland Kirk and so many more. I could go on for days. Ultimate inspiration in both playing and composition goes to Gerry Carboy, Vic Juris, Dave Fiuczynski and Wayne Krantz. They changed everything from the first note and have never stopped keeping completely excited about music.

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How has your perception of the instrument evolved over time?

That’s a deep question when you do this for a living. In the beginning I was SO intrigued by the guitar and effects. Learning something new was so, so incredible. Getting a new pedal was like a year’s supply of Reggie Bars! I’m forever chasing that feeling. I still very much love what I do, but over time it’s hard to maintain that naiveté. I spend hours working with guitars and things related to it. It’s not my escape anymore. It’s not my downtime activity anymore. I miss that.

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To feel that spark these days I try to play guitars that offer up something different. I’m totally into my Vigier Surfreter fretless, my Taylor GT-8 Baritone as well as my modded Line 6 JTV-69. I’m all over forwarding my use of the (Fractal Audio) Axe-Fx II and still keep up on the latest pedals from the deep boutique realms!

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I’m totally down with technology, love MIDI controllers, am an avid Ableton Live user/fanboy (here’s some Buono trivia – I’m the founder of the New Jersey User Group), and a huge proponent of Controllerism, electronic music production and Turntablism. At the end of the day though, I still see the guitar as my ultimate tool on every level.

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How do you keep your playing fresh?

If you’ve read the previous answers you’ve probably picked up some of what I do, but one big way I stay fresh is to not play. I do other things such as spend a lot of time with my wife and kids, I play soccer in an over-40 league, I help coach my kid’s teams, work on my house, build Lego’s (seriously), drive my ‘72 International Scout like a madman, etc. Then, when I go to play, I’m ready to PLAY. Sure, listening to new players and sounds gets me psyched too, but I value the time away [from the guitar] and what I’m doing during that time.

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In regards to actually playing and doing things to keep ignited, there’s nothing like playing a guitar you haven’t touched in a while to spark some ideas. I like to change picks. I use a few variations of cool picks so I’ll just change them up whenever. And, of course, I’ll go for a new sound. Whether it’s a new or neglected pedal or simply a whimsical download of an Axe-Fx preset from Axe-Change, it all does the job.

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Sideman

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Buono-Kale-GreyYou have extensive performances and a sizeable discography.   What attracts you to projects and collaboration in general?

The music. Period. Sure, I get excited when I see players involved I admire and really want to play with, but if the music is not there, I won’t do it. Not anymore. No more is [it] more about the career advancement than the music. Been there and wholeheartedly did that. No regrets and many good times. I just value my time differently now. I’m very much into the music I play now and who I play it with and for. I’m always psyched when new Karsh Kale tour dates hit my Inbox or when I get to play on CD projects for guys like Elijah B Torn, Steve Jenkins and Dweezil Zappa.

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How did the Karsh Kale gig come about?

In a karmic roundabout way…this is a cool story. Back in 2003 I started aggressively pursuing sideman gigs and with a lot of help from Dave Fiuczynski who recommended me over and over again. I ended up scoring some nice ones early on including playing in Haale Gafori’s band (that had pre-Steely Dan Keith Carlock on drums) when she was just starting out. It was a great time and a great band. She eventually got the attention of NY-based world music impresario Fabian Alsultany who took her as a management client. At the time he also worked with Karsh who I was first hearing about a lot around town at the time. His third album, Liberation, was out and he was killin’ it. Kirk Douglas of The Roots was playing guitar for him at the time. Fabian approached me with an offer from Karsh to come and play with him when Kirk was making his exit. While it was very tempting, I thought it was best to stay put for a few reasons. But, as any networking musician worth his salt would do, I recommended someone for the slot – JP Doherty. He did the gig for a few years and appeared on Broken English.

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Buono-VaidFast-forward a few years. I had left Haale’s band (as well as the NY scene) to be closer to my teaching gig at Berklee. My family and I were living in western Mass. One night I found myself at a showing of Enter the Dragon on the big screen at MASS MoCA courtesy of a very cool birthday present from my wife. Even better was the soundtrack had been redone and was being performed live that night. Being a Bruce Lee fan, I was pretty stoked, but I was totally blown away when I was reading the j-card my wife stuck in my birthday card to see who was behind the redesigning of the soundtrack. It was freakin’ Karsh along with the MIDIval Pundits! We saw each other after the show and had a few laughs as well as talked about finally getting to play together.

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About six months later I got an email out of nowhere inviting me to do some dates in the US and Canada. I’ve been playing in countless variations of his live band here in North America ever since. It’s been an amazing four years filled with incredible moments including sold out festival appearances, capacity crowd at the Hollywood Bowl and playing alongside some seriously amazing musicians such as Gbatokai Dakhina, Tony Grey, U. Rajesh, Salim Merchant, Adam Matta, the Pundits, Monica Dogra, Vishal Vaid, Harry Manx, Todd Michaelson and many more.

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Is being a sideman something that you’re going to continue to do or are you more interested in leading a group at this point?
I’ve done both and will continue to do so, but these days I’m looking more towards leading. It’s time I get my stuff out there. I’ve been sitting on too much for far too long that people should hear. I have two fully realized projects waiting for me to record my parts on.

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Chris Buono / ZappaThere will always be the sideman part of what I do. I’ll always play on other artist’s album projects and take on gigs with others that get me excited.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing a recording project I’m involved with Dweezil Zappa and many others through to fruition. It’s called The Dweezilla Volumes and its total madness.

It’s a project born from DZ’s Dweezilla Boot Camp I taught at this past summer in upstate NY along with Oz Noy, Derryl Gabel, David Walliman, James Santiago, Tom Qualye and Matt Picone from Fractal Audio Systems. To help promote future Dweezillas and other endeavors such as a G3-style package tour, Dweezil thought it would be good to have everyone write and produce tracks for all us to solo on.

If nothing else it’s some pretty awesome moments in guitardom. So yeah, with opportunities like that you can bet I’ll stay in the freelance sideman game or whatever you want to call it.

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Do you have any recommendations for our readers about networking or preparing for an audition?

Absolutely. Let’s start with networking: Say yes to everything and follow-up [with new contacts]. Be fair to people, be honest and up front and it will come back your way. Also, don’t forget to hook a brother up. Hit those “Like” buttons, make those calls/emails to recommend someone for something and go to those gigs to support. Do your part and, again, it will come back your way. As for auditioning, it’s real simple: Be prepared, be on time, be cool and don’t name drop.

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Recording

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Do you have different approaches or mindsets for live gigs versus recording in the studio?

Lately I feel like there’s much less of a line for me. The Axe-Fx II has drastically changed the game for me when it comes to how and when I record. All in a good way, that’s for sure. Not having to deal with miking and noise restrictions is amazing. I know I’ve had similar options before 2010 when I started using the Axe-Fx Ultra, but it just wasn’t this good and this powerful. Since that’s my main live rig, it keeps so much of what I do consistent on every level. It’s really liberating.

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Specifically regarding having a mindset for recording– I just try to go for it every time. That’s made what I record so much more real. I feel much better about what I record these days because I just got to the point where I can truly leave the baggage behind. That really came to be on the Dweezilla Volumes sessions. If I let the crowd of players I was working with get to my head I was doomed. It’s an intimidating bunch to say the least!

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How do you prepare for recording sessions?

Play the shit out of the tunes I need to solo over and try to set aside enough time to design inspiring tones. If you’re asking from a standpoint of preparing for an in-person session – it’s been year since I walked into a “studio” and put headphones on in a live room. Times have changed.

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Do you have any favorite releases that you’ve played on?

Every record marks a time in my life so that makes them all something special. As for pure listening pleasure I really dig the Graham Haynes record, Full Circle. We did the entire record in two days at Bill Laswell’s place live and it just rocked. Graham assembled a great cast of players that really came together to make a great record. I also really liked the track I played on for Steve Jenkins’ release (Steve Jenkins and the Coaxial Flutter). Along with Steve’s programming, Adam Deitch played drums and did an incredible job. There’s a track on the Dweezilla project where I take a fretless solo on a beautiful tune James Santiago wrote and produced that I’m very happy with. It was a one take, which this perfectionist doesn’t allow to happen often. The Rodney Holmes tracks always sound fresh to me when they pop up on my iPod. There’s an indie release I was lucky to be part of from a band called Lumatic. I played all over the record along with guitarists Shahzad Ismaily and Ty Citterman. Man, it was on. There’s some very edgey, fresh playing from start to finish from everyone involved and the leader, Katherine Miller, was just such a good writer and producer.

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Your Solitaire recording has a number of stylistic similarities with your playing on the other releases, but has a very different feel from any of your earlier works. What was the impetus behind that recording?

To my ears, the similar aspects are rooted in the approach to extreme sound design. That entire CD came from solo gigs I was doing in a little vegetarian burrito place one Sunday a month in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn called the Goga Café. My old friend Mikel Banks of Burnt Sugar was booking the place. He had all sorts of musicians doing that gig including David Gilmore, Rufus Cappadochia and other downtown guys – so the bar was set high. Mikel gave me carte blanche as to what I wanted to do. I decided to throw caution to the wind and not prepare a thing. I would literally walk up to my shelves of gear and think through signal chains as I grabbed pedals to stuff in my bag. On the way there I would listen to anything that was not related to what I was about to while praying I packed enough cables to connect these spontaneous “split rigs” I cooked up as I rushed out the door! I would set a Sony MiniDisc player in front of me and just go. The gig where Mikel got a little freaked out is the one I culled most of what become Solitaire. Take note: There’s no looping on any kind on any one of those pieces and they’re all completely improvised.

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As a related question, how do you feel your playing and compositional method have evolved over your releases?

I haven’t had all that much involvement in the composing part of the records I’ve played on, but I can answer the playing part of the question, for sure. I’ve just learned to not to get hung up on the shit that really doesn’t matter and to just play. The more I get ME out of my head, the better the results.

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You have some new releases coming out that feature you as a leader.  Can you talk a little about them?

I would love to think they could be stamped as “releases coming out!” But, hey, we can dream, right? One is a trio CD with Tobias Ralph and Steve Jenkins and the other is a very cool project where myself and a gang of players teamed up to record my own re-working of a classic movie’s musical background.

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The trio CD was recorded in Studio A at Berklee. I applied for a faculty development grant and got it. Studio time was the prize and I seized the day. Steve and Tobias came up to the house we had in MA at the time for the a few days. We wrote the charts in two sessions and went to Boston to do the basic tracks for another two days. It’s some crazy stuff. Tobias delivered some INCREDIBLE playing. One of the tracks – “Metric Overlap” – was used for the Dweezilla project and it will be the first time any of those tunes will be heard.

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The other project is my own modern soundtrack for the cult-classic, The Warriors. If there was ever a re-issue I have the soundtrack ready to go. Mind you, there’s no plans for any such thing but we sure do want there to be one! So, if the producer of this most excellent movie is reading this – I have your soundtrack! Jesse Gibbon and I wrote the tunes. Jesse’s a very hip keyboard player who played in a jam band called Schleigho that my project partner, drummer Andy Sanesi, brought in. He brought some extremely cool ideas to the sessions. Along with Matt Rubano from Taking Back Sunday on bass, Ben Stivers on keys, Danny Sadownick of the Screaming Headless Torsos on percussion and John Ellis and Graham Haynes in the “horn section” we did everything in two days. It’s bad-ass and just needs me to complete it. If someone can get this cloning thing going, I’d be set! Seriously, I really can’t wait to finish them and just get them out there.

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Gear

It seems like your gear has been perpetually evolving as well.  What does your current live and studio rig consist of?

Chris BuonoNot lately. It’s been an Axe-Fx II, an MFC-101 controller and an all Atomic FRFR rig for the last few years. I still have all the pedals and a few amps in the arsenal, but I almost always walk out the door with my Fractal rig. Fly dates are always the Axe-Fx II and active monitor backlines. In the studio it’s been primarily the Axe-FX as well. Due to my disdain for miking as well as noise restrictions it’s not just worth the hassle to deal with anything else. That is, until I got my hands on a Two Notes VB-101, which is a digital loadbox that gives me cabinet, mic and room simulations in a direct recording environment. Basically I can slave an amp’s preamp and power amp and get number crunched from the speaker out allowing me to use my amps and pedals the way I used to. It’s a very good thing!

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For guitars, my modded ’73 Strat is what I’m most known for, but the custom build First Act did for me around 2007 has seen a lot of action as well as attention due to the unique designs. The volume slider has yet to be done and an arcade button for a kill switch was on that guitar years before anyone else, Buckethead included. If you’re familiar with the Robocaster from Visionary Instruments you’ll see my volume slider idea. Matt Moldover, the instrument’s creator, and have good history. I was fortunate enough to play the proto-type where I suggested they add that feature and they actually did!

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What does the Two Notes VB-101 give you that you don’t get out of the Axe-FX?

 

The ability to record an amp discretely and directly. While the Axe-Fx, of course, offers its own collection of cab and mic models it can’t serve as a digital loadbox. At the same time, the VB-101 gives me another set of cab IRs (Impulse Responses) and microphone models. It also offers some serious options when it comes to moving around those elements in the software. What the VB-101 and the Axe-Fx II offer me is huge given my studio situation as well as my noted disdain for miking – HA! Plus, in order to mic cabs and really get good results is time and investment in preamps and mics I’m just not at all down with.

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Is there a certain sound or aesthetic that you’re going for or are there other factors in selecting gear?

There’s always a certain something. The top of the list is always sound, but a close second is how I’m going to get that sound. How am I going to produce it, control it, tweak it, etc. I’ve always enjoyed putting together rigs and changing things up. When I was using pedals a lot I made sure every board I had built for me afforded me an easy way to swap pedals in and out. I always used George L. cables so I can make custom length cables. I had custom power supplies made for me with break out boxes and varying sized connecting cables long before that became the norm. It was all so I can constantly create the means to make the sounds I wanted to without restriction. The downside is that it’s a lot of work. A lot and you have to be very on top of it or it will fail on you.

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How did your association with Axe-Fx come about and what are your thoughts about analog versus digital technology?

When I got to the end of my rope with using pedals and dealing with tube amps was when I started to look in new directions and that’s how I came to the Axe-Fx. I did a ton of research, which included putting the Line 6 gear I was using at the time for direct recording (PODxt Live) through its paces.

When the Fractal idea started to look better and better I went to the artist list and contacted every guy I knew on there. From Rusty Cooley to Vernon Reid to Chris Traynor. I kid you not when I say not one guy had a negative comment. Nothing. I was sold. Chris made the introductions and the rest is great history.

Now I have even more versatility and way less maintenance to deal with. While I can get lost in programming there’s SO many shortcuts and backups and way less hardware to lug around.

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You mentioned you play fretless guitar as well.  Given the additional challenges that come from playing on that type of instrument what attracted you to that instrument (or sound) and how does it fit into your future plans?

Buono-FuzeWhen I was living with Fuze in the late 90’s he was just starting to get serious with fretless and I was totally interested, but something didn’t click with me. I came to discover I was not connecting with wood necks. I tried a few options over the next few years, but eventually gave up. It wasn’t until Bumblefoot put his Vigier Surfreter in my hands that I got back into it. I played it for about 30 seconds and knew that’s what I was searching for. Whenever I can, I have the Surferter on tour when out with Karsh and I make it a point to play only fretless when sitting in on gigs. In addition to the Fractal rig I like the results I get with the Surfreter through a Line 6 DT25 head/cab setup with an old Z.Vex Fuzz Factory and a vintage TS-808 going into it. The sound is enormous.

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Is there any new gear that’s working its way into your rig?

I plan to merge some Line 6 gear that came my way as I was writing The Guitarists Guide to Line 6 Studio Tools. I’ll be hooking up a DT25 head/cab rig with the POD HD500 and JTV-69 I had modded to create the Dream Rig Line 6 furnished with these three pieces. Plus, with the help of James Santiago – who is not only a stellar player but also one the main guys behind VooDoo Labs, I’m re-doing my pedal board. It’ll be centered on a Musicom EFX III+ (or whatever VooDoo has cookin’) and an array of Strymon pedals – love those! – among others from Source Audio and Pigtronix. Of course mainstays like a Boss DD-series delay as well as my trusty Whammy will be in the fold.

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On the laptop front I’ve been going through controllers like crazy trying to find what works for me best. The APC40 is a great home studio tool, but too bulky for travel. The Novation Launchpad, while as light as you can ask for, was a bummer with no sliders or even encoders. I’m testing Push for Ableton right now. Nice piece and built like a tank. I have a Taylor GT-8 that’s just amazing and so inspirational to play. But, nothing is more important than helping develop my signature guitar! An indie builder in Oregon – Kieran Downes of Downes Guitars – offered to develop a model based on my First Act specs as well as other ideas. So, a “Chris Buono” model is coming. Just wait – we’re doing some REALLY cool stuff.

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Speaking of the Line 6 gear can you talk more about the line 6 Dream Rig or what you like about it?

 

Actually, no. I need more time with it, but it WILL be a major focus in the Cengage book I’m working out the details on. As for the Variax, I have a JTV-69 that I modded a bit. I have the trem fully routed to allow the bridge to float so I can pull back. I also changed out the pickups with DiMarzio Injectors, too. It’s such a step up from the Variax 600 I had back in my Berklee days. While I really dug the concept, that guitar was just awful to play. James Tyler made right on that wrong big time.

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For players that are still trying to get “their sound” together, do you have any recommendations for starting points for developing sounds?

Yes – start by mastering what you have. Learn everything you can about it. Read the manual. Then, try anything that comes to mind that it was never meant to do. Also, learn about signal chains and then go against every rule, but don’t discount the norm either. Finally, keep your gear in the best condition you can and keep the box and paperwork. It makes selling it easier and a great way to build your arsenal is to buy and sell.

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I understand there’s been an endorsement announcement recently with Gruv Gear. How did that endorsement come about and do you have any advice for people seeking them? 

 

Yes! I’m totally psyched about their FretWraps product. Previous to FretWraps I’ve was a scrunchie user for far too long to help cut down unwanted string noise. While it worked it was a pain the ass finding them and not easy to deal with. Gruv Gear got it right with the material and the way you place the piece on the neck so it can do its job with no trouble at all. Looks way better, too. I discovered them on a whim as I was perusing YouTube and noticed a young players with some mighty chops had one on his neck. I dropped him a line for some intel and immediately dropped Gruv Gear a line. It was perfect timing as I was just starting to put together my charts for Guitar Gym: Tapping and I would definitely be using something to dampen strings. That’s a nice segue to answer your question…

 

The term “endorsement” means different things to different people. What many musicians seem to overlook is these “deals” are really RELATIONSHIPS. There has to be something for both parties to benefit from or why do it? If you’re a rock star the exchange is obvious – the company makes available their product to said artist however they agree upon in exchange for increased exposure as well as credibility they feel the artist can garner. It’s a text book “win-win”.

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For guys like myself – the working stiff – I have to present what I bring to the table. Be it increased or new exposure to my slice of a certain market or services I can provide that help promote the product such as beta testing or product videos. Or, all of the above. Every relationship I’ve made has been of my own doing one way or another. Whether it be one that was started on a recommendation from a peer (another relationship) or me simply “cold calling” a company and presenting something that I feel can work for the both of us. I take the relationships seriously and carefully consider what it is I can offer and what I can actually get done. You have to or they will go away. And they may go away for reasons out of your control such as takeovers or your rep moving or for whatever reason so you you need to be prepared for that as well.

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I’m very loyal. For instance, I’ve been with DiMarzio since 2000 and I’ve used their pickups in most every guitar I’ve played publicly as well as in the shadows since. I’ve been a D’Addario artist since 2006. And, I should because I really like what these companies produce. I depend on it and do whatever I can to help continue their existence as well as mine. That said only enter a relationship you believe in. Never, ever take a deal or try to create one just for the hookup. That will come to haunt you one way or another. This is a small community and word gets around real fast when someone has something negative to report. When you feel it’s time to move, no problem, end the relationship like a professional. Keep the bridge open not just for you, but maybe someone else. It’s all about networking.

Teaching

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How did you get into teaching?

When I was in college at William Paterson a friend simply asked, “Do you give guitar lessons?” It wasn’t even for him. It was that simple.

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How did gigging affect your teaching style and (in a related question) has teaching affected your playing style at all?
Whatever I was learning in the “real world” I was bringing back to the lessons. As things started to progress as a sideman and session guy I started to realize that’s how I was taught from the very beginning. My first teacher, Frankie Cicala, was molding me right from the start and I didn’t even know it. I make sure at any opportunity I give that back to my students.

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Teaching has completely influenced how I’ve developed as a player on every level. First, by having to explain the same concepts in so many different ways to so many different types of people it brought out aspects about these concepts I may never have discovered [on my own]. Trying to stay ahead of my advanced students forced me to do just that making me progress even further. Finally, when you’re assembly line teaching ½-hour lessons in a music store you get a lot of unforeseen downtime. Well, what do you think a guitar player is going to do when left to his own devices? NOODLE! I kid you not when I tell you the foundation for my percussive punch comping and slap guitar techniques came out of those minutes waiting for students to come in and out of the lesson room.

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You taught at Berklee College of Music for some time.  How did that come about and what was that experience like?

Teaching at Berklee was nothing short of amazing. It was never lost on me where I was and who I was working alongside. I’ll never forget my first faculty meeting and looking around the room. There was Mick Goodrick, Jon Damian, Brett Wilmott, Bruce Bartlett, Joe Stump, Jim Kelly, Jon Finn, Garrison Fewel and so many other guitar teaching legends and tremendous musical minds, not to mention master players.

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It started during the spring 2003 semester when Fuze had me sub for him. He had recently been hired and not long after scoring that gig he came up to where I was recording a record for Lava/Atlantic in upstate NY and asked if I was interested in being on call to sub. A few months later, that call to sub came in and I spent two weeks fully immersed in his schedule. It was on. I drove back to NJ forever a changed man. Whatever apprehensions I had on the drive up were gone. I knew I needed to find a way in to this level.

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While I was there, I met everyone I could in my spare time including the Co-Chair of the Guitar Department, Rick Peckham (another killer player). It was in that conversation I discovered Fuze as well as Wayne Krantz, who was teaching there at the time, had already planted the seeds on my behalf. That was key. I wouldn’t meet the Chair, Larry Baione until that summer where I was invited up to be a part of the 2003 Guitar Sessions teaching staff. It was there I made more connections including key meetings with Larry and Matt Marvuglio. While Larry made it clear our meeting was not an interview and there was no room for a new hire, I got the call a few weeks later asking if I wanted to take a day teaching in the Guitar Department for the fall 2003 semester. That call came in while I was standing in a one-bedroom living space my wife and I had put together in my father-in-law’s house so we could save up for our first house. It was the beginning of a five-year adventure that took us to that first house, then a move up to MA and back to NJ. It was wild!

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How did you get involved with TrueFire?

At the close of the spring 2007 semester, living in western Mass was wearing thin on me. I’ll always be a kid from the Jersey Shore with a deep connection to NYC. I was disconnected from both of these worlds and it was really getting to me. During that spring semester I saw my Guitar One magazine gig go by the wayside when Future Publishing abruptly shut them down, I wrote what would be my last column for Just Jazz Guitar, had moved on from all my NY gigs and not recorded on projects – a change was needed. While Berklee was moving in very positive directions seeing how fast the years were going by was not sitting right with me. I felt like I had more to give. Also, since I was still the “new guy” I wasn’t getting in on things like Berklee Online, which was fresh out of the oven at the time, I wasn’t getting offered any book deals with Berklee Press and no one was entertaining my interest in doing DVDs for Berklee. In my search for the next move someone mentioned TrueFire. I literally cold called the president, Brad Wendkos, and we immediately hit it off. At the same time my wife and I were planning a move back to NJ to be closer to both our families and to get back to the ocean.

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What’s the lesson creation process like?

It’s intense, but extremely rewarding. It’s also changed quite a bit since I first started. Brad and I communicated for months after that initial phone call getting to know each other and finding out what it is we can do together. Brad has big time vision – the guy is just brilliant and makes so much shit happen, it’s mind boggling – and thankfully he saw what I do as a part of that vision. In the beginning the courses were brainstorms between Brad and I on the phone or in-person while I was down there shooting. I would literally scribble thoughts as they were discussed on a singe piece of paper and that would turn into a multi-media course packed with seemingly countless videos, charts and what have you. Or, sometimes it will be a “hey, you know…” over a meal. The nearly 2,000-page scale book that comes with Modes That Matter, as well as the title, was a thought as I got out of his truck after dinner one night. One aspect I really, really enjoy is I’m always left to my own devices on these projects. TrueFire allows me to just make it happen on my own. I respect that faith and enjoy the freedom. That said it’s crazy to look back at how much we did those first two years – 10 courses!

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Like I said, the process has changed, especially in the last few years with Jeff Scheetz taking on a role that was really made for him. He’s now the guy you brainstorm with and the guy who is there for you from conception to production to market. So, here’s the process we go through now: Once I have the concept I do the foundational stuff, which always starts with the licks and riffs. I chart them as I go along. In the beginning it was Power Tab, but now it’s Guitar Pro. At the same time I organize the order of things and eventually start writing the text in an Excel sheet template we use. This also serves as the XML data for the course in the background. Depending on the course and how it needs to be created is how and when I do jam track production. These days I’ve been only doing Guitar Gym titles so that process has been much easier. But, back in the days of the first ten I often produced the tracks as the playing parts were composed. I do all my audio production in Ableton Live along with Beta Monkey drum loops. For track triggering during the shoot I use an X-Tempo Pok to control everything with my foot. Once all the assets are complete and uploaded to a G-Drive folder TF creates for the course it goes through an approval process that involves myself, Jeff and engineer-extraordinaire Tommy Jamin. Then, I tighten it up and run to the airport a few weeks later and I’m off to Tampa where Mike the driver guy is waiting with a Lincoln Town Car to take me to a wonderful place called the La Veranda in St. Petersburg not far from the studio.

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Speaking of TrueFire, you have some recent releases and some new material coming out.  Can you talk a little about those?

Click to EnlargeI do. The Guitar Gym series will grow by another three titles very soon with Tapping, Arpeggios and Hybrid Picking. In March 2014 I’ll shoot Sweep Picking, Triad Chord Scales and Bending. The series was born from the Guitar Gym Online Classroom, which has consistently had high numbers since opening over two years ago.

Also in the can is something I’m very excited about. In March I went down to TFHQ to shoot something called “In the Jam.” Actually, that’s the name of a new series that TF has been brewing that involves a new video viewing technology they’re developing. It’s a course that gives the user an innovative way to interact with the material so they’re able to really get in the jam.

Can’t say much more, but it’s going to be amazing. Along with mine there will be titles from Robben Ford, Larry Carlton, Fareed Haque, Frank Vignola and Carl Verheyen. To take mine to the next level I shot my footage with a live rhythm section made up of Keith Carlock and Steve Jenkins. They were just incredible and the final products will be equally as incredible. It will actually be four products – one of each instrument and one that includes all three of us.

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Do you still teach privately?  If so, what do you look for in students?

I do. These days it’s mostly Skype. Because of that in-person private lesson is on a very limited basis. I look for serious students who are working towards something real and wanting to really, really work for it. With the global reach the Internet has given all of us I can be more select and that’s good for everyone. I’m now freed up to focus on what I want to be working on with students thus allowing me to produce more enriched content. I started teaching online in 2006 when I was living in MA. Oddly enough my first student was Steve Pedulla from the band Thursday. Between the exposure Berklee brought and later with TrueFire, the Skype thing really took off. To date I’ve taught students in the UK, Ireland, Israel, Malaysia, Canada, the Canary Islands of Spain, the Cayman Islands, The Netherlands, Spain, Turkey, Thailand and Japan; not to mention all over the US.

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What should students look for in teachers (and/or instruction)?

First and foremost that student should seek out a teacher that really inspires them. Like never before players have access to many of their favorite guitarists through some sort of online exchange. You’d be surprised whom you can study with these days. It’s almost surreal.

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Do you have a favorite method of instruction?

In-person is always preferred especially if a student wants to develop a certain skill set that points to improvising. Even when it comes to the 7-Tone programs I teach I’m always psyched when it can be done in-person. It just goes deeper, and hey, I get to play it, too!

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How did working with Dweezil Zappa in a teaching capacity come about?

Matt Picone from Fractal linked us up. Fractal has had a strong presence in past Dweezilla events and when Dweezil wanted to shift the focus to strictly guitar he turned to Matt for recommendations. I was fortunate enough to be one of them.

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You have a very distinctive sound that seems to be influenced by a variety of different sources.  Are there specific styles, players or techniques that you’re still interested in studying outside of what you currently do?

Buono at BBKings

Photo Credit – Vishwa Subick

Thanks so much. That’s one of them best things anyone can ever say about a guitar player, especially with so many incredible guys out there. I’m forever fascinated with the instrument and its players. From my earliest influences such as Steve Howe, VH and Steve Egerton of Descendents/All to my main sources of vision like Fuze and Krantz to myriad others who keep me hyper-focused on playing. I love playing just about anything and luckily I have outlets that allow me to do that. Between the work I did with the Guitar One CD-ROM, Berklee and TrueFire I’ve had places where that versatility came in handy. In addition to all the usual stylistic suspects I’ve had to lay down parts in such offbeat styles (for me) as surf, klezmer and rockabilly to name a few.

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Aside from my own constant shedding of improvisational techniques I’m currently working on copping the phrasing of Indian mohan veena players like Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Brij Bhushan Kabra, but on fretless. I want to up my game with what I bring to the stage and sessions with Karsh. It’s going well, but man, it’s like starting all over at some points. It’s so, so different. But, that’s making that much more fun.

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Writing

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On a related topic, you’ve written for various trade publications and have released some densely informative texts!  How did you get involved in writing?

Oh man, both have some fun stories. First the guitar mags: The first time I was published was through Alfred with a book called Jazz Lead Guitar Solos. I scored that book through my National Guitar Workshop gig back in 2002 when someone bailed last minute on a contract. NGW knew I was hungry for a book and gave me a few weeks to do a project that is normally allotted months to complete. I had no clue how to do anything like this. The process also called for producing backing tracks and this was before it was common to do that on your own – at least in my world. It was a lot of work and a steep learning curve for me, but I totally needed to be put through it and somehow it got done. As a side note: this is what kids in music college should be made to do. It’s as real as it gets.

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Anyway, though it almost put me in my grave it started the ball rolling big time including writing for the magazines starting with Guitar One. Here’s how:

I’m an avid guitar magazine reader/collector since I was a kid. It’s cover-to-cover for this guy including the back pages with the 1/4-page ads. In those back pages of Guitar One is where I saw an ad for a transcribing gig. I immediately went for it and was instructed to transcribe Pearl Jam’s “Glorified G.” They wanted both guitar parts in TAB and notation and the vocals … in three days. After submitting that I got a call from one of the editors saying it was good, I made the grade and they would call me if they had an overflow the staff guys couldn’t handle, BUT they noticed I wrote this book for Alfred and that they liked my writing style and asked if I would be interested in writing for the magazine! Within a few issues I was writing two or more pieces, eventually doing artist interviews all the way up to columns. Most importantly I got the gig doing the footage for the CD-ROM that came with the magazine, which turned out to be a total game changing proving ground for me. Getting started with Guitar One coincided with starting my column in Just Jazz Guitar Magazine and led to work with several other magazines and publishers including Guitar Player and Mel Bay.

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As for the textbooks…

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Towards the ending of that period, I was making a conscious effort to up my artist endorsement profile. We had made the move to MA to be closer to the Berklee gig and I was disconnected from all the connections I spent years building. From something as simple being able to purchase strings at cost in local music stores to bartering time in studios when I needed to get something done quick – I had it good in a grassroots sort of way. That pretty much dried up living in the middle of nowhere and I felt the pinch quick. With the help of legendary AR guy Jimmy Archey, I established relationships with companies I had supported for many years like D’Addario and GraphTech, while at the same time breaking new ground most notably with M-Audio before they were swallowed by Avid years later. When I first started with M-Audio they immediately took advantage of my ability to create and convey content. I was doing NAMM demos for them and Digidesign as well as other side projects such as doing live demos at Avid HQ for their worldwide intranet meetings when new products were released. At the 2006 Winter NAMM show I was on a break doing demos and found myself in the right place at a very good time. My M-Audio rep was in a casual meeting with some other M-Audio people and a senior editor at Thompson Course Technology discussing a book series designed to educate guitar players on how to use M-Powered Pro Tools and M-Audio hardware. When they got to the part where they had to discuss who could write it they all literally looked over at me and I saw everyone’s light bulb go off – HA! That moment turned into a 500+ page book called M-Audio Guide for the Recording Guitarist and threw me into writing for Course Technology who is now part of and known as Cengage Learning. That editor was Mark Garvey and we went on to do House of Worship Sound Reinforcement, Your Ableton Live Studio and The Guitarists Guide to Line 6 Studio Tools together. Sadly Mark moved on, but I’m working with another great editor, Orren Merton, and we’re currently discussing my next book, which will be on approaches to digital guitar.

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Do you find that you need to be in a different head space with writing as opposed to playing and if so, how do you get into that space?

Absolutely. I need quiet! The problem is that almost never happens. Between being a dad and a musician on the move I end writing in anything but quiet environments. In order to make it happen I have to create a headspace that blocks out the noise – all types. At the same token a good portion of those books were written in the middle of the night with the dog sleeping next to me and a cup of coffee.

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Writing generally takes a lot of time and effort.  How do you balance writing with playing, performing, teaching and having a family?  Either from an emotional standpoint or a time management standpoint?

It does and it takes me even longer because I pick apart everything I do as I go along. It’s a terrible way to work, lemme tell ya. The balance comes from trying as hard as I can to delegate time for everything. To do that I have to make sure I’m not getting lost in just one thing. I wish I can say that’s always the case – it’s absolutely not. That’s where the emotional burden of a hard deadline sets in. While I need to make those dates I have other dates to make as well. For instance, the two years I cranked out ten TrueFire courses I was writing House of Worship Sound Reinforcement, Your Ableton Live Studio and starting to tour Karsh in addition to everything else including rebuilding a teaching practice after the move. At times I felt like my day was basically putting my head in a vice grip and turning the crank. Everyday I am thankful for love and support of my wife. Without her I would fall apart.

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Can you talk about the new book coming out this week.   What made you decide to write a book about music reading for guitarists?

My latest book is my first for Hal Leonard and it’s called Guitarists Guide to Music Reading. It’s a project I hold very dear as I struggled with reading notation for many years. After getting tired of failing at it and also having to teach it for all those years in the private lesson trenches I started coming up with fresh ways to not only teach players to read, but to help myself get better as I needed these skills to move forward with my sideman pursuits. The entire approach is rooted in a constant flow of fresh/recycled material, neck vision study and numeric assignment. I fine-tuned those concepts over the years and I really feel like I got this one right. I gotta tell ya: I’m very excited about this release and really hope players get it. Let me explain more…

When I was a kid – and I’m sure this goes for many players my age or older reading this – I started in the Mel Bay book (you know the one!). The drive-by one liners in the book that you’re expected to learn to read with were just not enough. There was no building. So, if you didn’t throw the book off your music stand and actually tried to progress you ended up memorizing the more “involved” pieces. Whoopee – now you knew how to play “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Not very appealing to a kid who wanted to rip through Eruption – HAHA!

Another part of the problem was there were no concepts – nothing to grab onto. Nothing to work with, nothing to build upon. The bottom line is you need way more content and you need a good vision of the neck. In regards to the former just think back to how you learned to read words. What reminded me was when my kids started coming home with simple short stories when they were in their early elementary school grades. EVERYDAY they had fresh material. That’s the backbone of this book. Well, one of them.

The other is a way to really see the neck and get to know where the notes are. In my 20 years of teaching not one student ever memorized the neck cold. I didn’t either. I did it by application of logical concepts. Gobs of content + proven neck vision concepts = a method that works. I’ve worked this through with students and I’ve seen the results. As a matter of fact, it was a current student of mine, Andrew Pevny, who wrote all the figures in the book. Writing your own material is part of the process. It just seemed so right to have someone who successfully went through the process do it. And, did it he did!

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Can you talk about the new book you’re working on and any books off in the distance?
As for future books I mentioned the digital guitar book idea earlier and I’m also going back and forth with Hal on a title or more based on Ableton’s Push!

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Beyond The Guitar

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I know that you were personally affected by Hurricane Sandy in a large way.  How did you deal with that situation and how do you deal with adversity in general?

[big sigh] Sandy was a game changer on many levels for my family and I. We lost almost everything in our one story ranch to the ocean breaching the barrier islands here on the Jersey Shore. As a result we were displaced for six months with all four of us living in a bedroom with the dog. It was on. I’m not going to get into the many, many details in coming back from this other than this simple truth: During a severe tragedy such as this you find out what people are made of real fast including yourself. We’re very lucky to be surrounded by so many good people. While we’ll never be the same we strive to make that change a positive one.

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How has becoming a father changed your outlook on music (or has it)?

My outlook on music has never changed – I love it. I really do. Becoming a father made all the things I love that much better because now I had these little people wired like me to share it with. It’s pretty awesome.

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As an improviser (or as a composer) how do you get out of the element of being self conscious and just get into the moment?

I’ll answer that from the perspective of an improviser – who by the way is just a quick-witted spontaneous composer. For too many years I analyzed what I was playing in real time – literally as it was happening. That’s not at all a good way to go and as a result I really struggled for a long time. I don’t feel like I started to play anything worth listening to until I was about 30. It was at that time I stopped playing for anyone including myself. I just started to play with reckless abandon; like it was the last time, like it was all I had left. To get there I didn’t allow myself head to get in the way. I learned to accept what I could do at the time and to really go for it. If I wanted to up my game in any way I took that to the shed and hit hard – as hard I could – until it came out in those reckless moments. Since then I continue to fine-tune that approach and it’s served me well. I feel good about what I play (most of the time) while never losing the desire to keep pushing.

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What advice would you give to up and coming players in regards to any aspect of the music industry?

Learn about it by first realizing that it is indeed a business and in business you need to have your shit together. You need to be organized in the form of being on top of your schedule and knowing how to manage money in all aspects. Become a consummate networker and develop the confidence to say “yes” to everything. Most important: Know that it is you who makes your path. It won’t come to you. You need to find work and if it’s not out there you need to create it. Never, ever give up. Don’t give in to the long line of family and friends waiting to tell you it won’t happen. It will if you really want it.

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How do you deal with criticism?

I listen and take into consideration what it real and what is fluff. I work on the real stuff and blow off the rest. I try to keep it simple and not take it personally. Sadly the Internet is packed with spineless bedroom heroes overflowing with forum bravado who can’t wait to try and take you down. They try to get personal. [Only] in very rare instances do you need to engage. Don’t let yourself go there and by all means don’t waste your time on it.

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If you could go back in time and give advice to yourself as a budding guitarist or a composer, what advice would you give?

Write, write, write! Compose music, dammit!! It’s a musician’s most important commodity. Looking back on everything my only regret is not having put out a catalog of my own music at this point. At the same time, the paths I chose have been good to me and my family and I like where I am these days. While I will continue on some and move on from others my vision is about filling that gap. I will produce in the coming years and start that chapter.

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Finally, what’s in store for you for 2014?

Chris Buono Music ReadingFirst and foremost completing the comeback from Sandy and working towards never being caught off guard like that ever again. On the multi-media guitar side of things making the music I need to, finishing the Dweezilla Volumes tracks and whatever is connected to that, more additions to my Guitar Gym course series as well as expanding the Guitar Gym Online Classroom, finishing my Modal Mother Lode Online Workshop series while producing more titles, pushing forward on these new book opportunities while promoting the Guitarists Guide to Music Reading, hopefully more Karsh Kale dates and recording on one or more of his new releases, helping push forward my signature model guitar series and more behind-the-scenes work with fine companies who support what I do. Just a few things ; )

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Chris, thank you SO much for your time!

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More information about Chris Buono check out his http://www.chrisbuono.com/ .  You can find his TrueFire courses on his TrueFire page, see videos of him on YouTube, follow him on Twitter and find his releases on Amazon.com.

Scott Collins (65 Articles)

Scott Collins is the author of the pedagogical/reference series, The GuitArchitect’s Guide To: and several e-book titles that include: An Indie Musician Wake Up Call and Selling It Versus Selling Out. His playing is inspired by a wide range of western and non-western music, and, as a performer, he specializes in real-time composition.