Who or what inspired you to play guitar?
Hearing the Ventures and Elvis Presley when I was eight years old. But my guitar teacher thought I should learn jazz standards first, and the training really paid off. I was taught theory, reading and understanding the instrument.
Can anyone learn to play fast like you?
Yes, if they’re willing to put in the time. There’s a myth that you need big hands, but it’s not a help to have gigantic fingers because the frets themselves are small. I don’t have big hands, but I do have a very wide span, and that’s from developing it over the years; it’s not a natural occurrence.
You were one of the inventors of jazz-rock fusion. Did any rock players influence you?
Not in the same way as jazz guys like George Benson and Kenny Burrell or country pickers with great technique like Clarence White and Doc Watson. I never thought of the rock players as having good technique. They have something else very appealing. I love the whole package of guys like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana, but I never looked at them as people to imitate.
At your peak, how long did you practice each day?
Eight hours when I was at the Berklee School of Music. It wasn’t easy. I would wake up at seven and practice as much as possible between classes, then play all night. I was a little obsessed. I would practice specific tunes, improvisation on the changes, inversions…the whole gamut.
Is there a point at which there’s nothing left to practice?
If you hear something you’re unable to play, then you have room to grow.
What’s more important: learning to play a lot of notes fast or learning how to get the most out of a few notes?
You need both abilities: to be able to sing a melody and play with space, and also to have the requisite technique to play the most intricate music. That makes you more complete, and able to play a wider variety of music. It’s a bunch of bullshit every time guitarists say, “One note says so much more than 100.” I always laugh at idiots who make that claim. Tell that to a flamenco player or a classical player and see what they say. It’s almost a defensive reaction. They take something they lack, attack it and claim they never wanted it in the first place. Sure!
FROM THE GW ARCHIVE: Al Di Meola gets the “Inquirer” treatment: