Al Joseph is a talented guitarist and a skilled shredder. But on his new solo album, All of Creation, Joseph wanted to do more than shred. He wanted to jam, too.
“You have to back off the study mentality,” he told Behind the Setlist. “The ‘sheet music out and glasses on’ mentality. There are a lot of things you can do, but is that what you naturally do?”
All of Creation may be Joseph at his most natural, but that doesn’t mean his playing is simple. Take the song “Night Lights,” for example. The melody is catchy and clear, but dense enough you’ll want to listen, eyes closed, through a good pair of headphones. It’s clear Joseph knows his way around a fretboard. When he jams, it’s with the full arpeggiated, finger-tapping, whammy-slamming intensity players and casual listeners alike immediately identify as heroic.
“The way that I express myself—all the things I’ve been through in my life, everything that’s shaped me into the individual that I am—I’m able to express on the guitar,” he said. “I’m so thankful to have that outlet.”
Joseph’s love for guitar came long before his ability to express anything through it. His father’s midlife crisis purchase of two guitars opened his eyes to the possibilities practice could unlock. But it took drive and a little hubris to start from square one with his sights set on total mastery.
Geography didn’t make the process easy. Born in Illinois but raised in rural Pennsylvania, Joseph mostly had to teach himself to play. There weren’t any guitar instructors in the area for that style of music, but fortunately there were kindred spirits at his local music store. The employees, which he describes as “totally cool dudes,” encouraged him to keep playing, and let him practice on their expensive guitars even though he was just a kid.
Joseph’s father, “an island dude from Trinidad,” also helped expand his son’s musical horizons. He had a sweet stereo system in his car and, while not a musician himself, “knew what to listen to in every style.” One day he popped in Joe Satriani’s 1987 album, Surfing with the Alien. The virtuoso musicianship on display there, and in the other Satriani albums Joseph found boxed up in his father’s basement, left a lasting impression.
But the first band Joseph remembers really locking into is Living Colour. Well before he would express any interest in music, it left a bug in his ear. “Seeing these guys playing this crazy, loud, aggressive music really stuck out to me,” he remembered. “Years later, when I finally did pick up the guitar, it made perfect sense.”
Joseph learned guitar in the days before YouTube, before the Amazing Slow Downer and Ultimate Guitar and Guitar Tab Universe made instruction as accessible as it is today. It’s not easy to teach yourself Joe Satriani licks, but Joseph had the drive to get better. He didn’t have many other options.
“It was just pause and play, stopping and going and trying to see how many notes I could remember,” he said. “Of course, they were all wrong, but I was still playing the songs.” When he reached a point where he could identify and correct those early mistakes, he knew he wanted to go pro.
“I caught the bug,” he said. “The bug was, ‘I want to play. I want to do this the rest of my life. And I want to do it in front of everyone.’”
But first came college. Joseph began his studies at Penn State, not far from home. He played on the football team for a short while, another early dream of his, and was in a church band. One day, some of his coaches saw him perform.
“They were like, ‘Man, we know what you really want to do,’” he said. “I had to make a decision. Music won.”
He transferred to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where it turned out he was more serious about his craft than his grades. Eventually he dropped out, or as he put it, “Took a break, which kind of turned into an even longer break.” What he really wanted to do was use his guitar to make money.
Like his idol, Joe Satriani, Al Joseph began teaching music to earn a living through his art. It was after doing that for a few years when he caught the eye of Jam Track Central. The website, with its formidable stable of musicians, is a marketplace for lesson packages at all skill levels. Joseph’s packages include masterclasses in progressive soloing, rock attitude, line integration, alternate picking and melodic phrasing, among others. Each comes with video tutorials, chord charts, practice exercises and more. You can even order personal instruction through the Skype Academy on Joseph’s own website.
Everything a budding guitarist could ever want to learn—techniques, concepts and theory—is on the internet in mass quantities, often for free. How Joseph differentiates his lessons is by focusing on the individual needs of each student. He says his aim in a Skype session is to learn about the kinds of music they want to play and then provide direction as to the specific skills needed in order to reach those goals. “It feels great in Skype or in person to see their eyes light up. All those a-ha moments, that’s what I live for.”
“I had to make a decision. Music won.”
Interestingly, the same technology that allows Joseph to give guitar lessons to people all over the world led to him recording All of Creation on his own terms. He had worked with other musicians before to put together his previous album, Out in the Open. In a complicated process, it had to be recorded twice. It was a whole thing he didn’t want to repeat.
“I’m not a control freak if I’m in a band setting. It’s only when it’s my album,” Joseph explained. “Something like this is a real intimate thing. It’s not only a showcase of what I can do on guitar, it’s also a showcase of my feelings, my emotions, how I feel about certain things.” Even the track names, and how they related to the musical tune and texture, were critical parts of the process, a process he didn’t want to open any more than absolutely necessary.
The finished product is now available and something he’s proud to call his own. A less compulsive musician might be more fulfilled by the accomplishment, but Joseph doesn’t take breaks. He’s already experimenting with vocal tracks for a possible remix, preparing a “Jam-a-long Contest” through his website, and launching a new workshop on how to break through writer’s block as a composer.
More than anything, he’s looking forward to taking the new songs out onto the stage. A big factor in his choice to write All of Creation as a jammer rather than a shredder was playability. It was a lesson learned from older material, where some of the slick parts ended up too tough to play live.
“I made the conscious decision as I was writing the tunes and creating the solos,” he said. “Where do my fingers want to go? Will I be able to smile at the audience, show that I’m having a great time, and not have to look at the guitar 100 percent of the time?”
It’s a tradeoff he’s fine with, “because to me, it’s all about the melody.” And for Joseph, the melody has never been more alive.