How good a guitar player is Frank Vignola?
For a number of years, the Long Island native backed Les Paul, the instrument’s inventor and ultimate senior statesman, at his standing Monday night gigs at Iridium's in New York City.
Playing with Paul week in and week out provided plenty of perks. Legendary musicians such as Paul McCartney and Keith Richards regularly dropped by to sit in and pay homage. For Vignola, however, the reflected celebrity paled in comparison to what he learned sitting at Paul's side.
“That might as well be Django Reinhardt or Lester Young or any of the great jazz musicians of the century up there," Vignola told me in an interview a few years back. “He knew Charlie Christian.”
Paul’s influence on Vignola's sound should be evident when he performs April 9 at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz and April 10 at Yoshi’s in Oakland. He's on the road these days as part of the Great Guitars tour with Martin Taylor, Vinny Raniolo and Peppino D'Agostino.
Vignola was raised among musicians, most notably his father who played guitar and banjo. Family gatherings often included a jam session, and the energy and creativity intrigued the youngster. By 6, Vignola owned a guitar of his own, and had begun his musical education. Fittingly, members of his family were his first teachers.
"My father, he'd buy me a Django record one month and the next month he'd buy me a Joe Pass record," Vignola said. "My grandmother had a bunch of guitar LPs because her first husband was a player."
And there was plenty of Les Paul on those early discs.
"I've known about Les since I was 6 years old," Vignola said, "trying to cop his 'Lover.’"
Vignola soon realized, however, that he was drawn more to the acoustic guitar. Decades later, he remained hard pressed to explain the instrument's appeal.
"What attracts me to it is just the fact that it is acoustic," Vignola said. "I guess it's that natural thing. I like to practice on the grass; I lie on a blanket in my back yard."
In his teens, music dominated Vignola's life. He absorbed the guitar styles of everyone from Wes Montgomery to Eddie Van Halen and began his studies at the Cultural Arts Center of Long Island.
"I knew what I wanted to do,” he said. “I was working six or seven gigs a week during high school. I was actually graduated a half year early to go on the road with Max Morath.”
Vignola learned to love the life of the touring musician, particularly after he sampled academia.
"I tried teaching two years at Arizona State and I went totally into depression," he said. "It takes a lot of (guts) to be a musician. It really does, because there is no job security. But I have to do it."
After Vignola returned to New York in the early '90s, his career took off. He signed with Concord Records and collaborated with Howard Alden and Jimmy Bruno as the Concord Jazz Guitar Collective. He played with Chet Atkins, Lionel Hampton, Woody Allen and Mark O'Connor.
Vignola in recent years has recorded a collection of Gershwin pieces for Mel Bay Records that reached No. 2 in NPR radio airplay charts. He also has recorded two important collaborative CD’s: “Just Between Frets” with Tommy Emmanuel on Solid Air Records, and “Frank-N-Dawg, Melody Monsters” with mandolinist David Grisman on Acoustic Disc Records. Vignola in addition has written 18 guitar instruction books for Mel Bay Publications and recorded 6 educational DVDs for Truefire.com.
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