7 Questions with Frank Vignola
He hosts several annual players’ camps, a weekly guitar night at NYC’s Birdland Jazz Club, has written and published more than 20 books with Mel Bay, and has about 97 other irons in the fire. Meet the multitasking magnate, Frank Vignola!
Tell us about the Big Jersey Guitar Camps
The Big Jersey Guitar Camps were started in 2018. I started them because I was hired as a teacher at a lot of camps all around the country and the world, and I noticed that you’d have 50 people in a room – hobbyists, not students that were studying to be professional players – and as a teacher, it was frustrating. And I noticed – no one played! So we started this camp based on a 5 student per teacher ratio, all jamming. Everyone’s responsible to learn 10 songs (jazz standards) that I send out, and we do Zoom meetings prior to the camps.
The first one sold out quick! Before we ended that camp, the next year was sold out. We have two a year in New Jersey, and we have 8 teachers – sometimes 9 or 10 – and four or 5 jam sessions of 45 minutes a day, four or 5 students and a teacher. Then we all play at night, and the students and the teacher can play together. So it’s a great camp, it’s a family of people. We could be more profitable if we took that other model, but that’s not what the camp is about. We try to really keep to the low student to teacher ratio.
With the Camps, your Big Jersey Guitar Club, online video series and more, what are some of the lessons you’d pass on to musicians about diversification of income generating channels?
Well if you haven’t figured this out yet on your own… I mean you have to do that. Either you need to be a musical genius like Django or Charlie Parker, or you’re gonna really be scuffling around. What people in this business I think need to do, is not only to have different revenue streams, but what they call “mailbox money”; royalties. There used to be royalties in the record industry, now for me there’s more royalties in educational products. I have a TrueFire channel, which is a pretty amazing guitar education company that started maybe 25 years ago, and I was one of the first ones that worked with them. We’ve been on and off developing all these crazy ideas; some have failed miserably, and some have had moderate success, like my channel!
So I started developing that a long time ago. And what started me on this whole thing was when I had my first son 24 years ago, I said “boy, I need another revenue stream in case I break my arm or something, you know!” So I started writing books. I hooked up with Mel Bay at the time, and we did, I think, 26 or 27 books together. And I still get checks every quarter, to this day! It’s not enough for me to make a living off of, but I have probably 100 different revenue streams right now.
Think about digital products! If you have a video of yourself playing, not only can you sell the video, but you can sell the video with you talking about the performance of it. Then you can sell it with a transcription of what you played. Then you can sell it with you talking about the transcription you played. Then you can sell the audio! I mean right there, you can make many products out of one little 5 minute video. But it is fun to go out there and play, after touring for so many years with the greats, like Les Paul, Bucky Pizzarelli… it’s like, wow, I miss that aspect a little. Then Birdland guitar night fell into my lap every Wednesday in New York City, so, perfect!
How do you find time to be involved in the administration of so many camps and programs, aside from playing?
We have someone who produces the camps. If I had to produce them, I wouldn’t do them to be honest with you, because that’s not me. I’m a big believer in having a little team of people if you’re going to be running something like that. We also have a former events coordinator, so she knows how to talk to the hotels, she’s great at the customer service aspects, she knows everybody by their first names. We’re not talking thousands and thousands of people, we’re talking about basically the same 60-100 people who visit all the camps. We’ve already got camps sold out for next year! The model for the camps is great, everybody leaves so happy and fulfilled, and that’s what I really love about the camps. Everybody’s so happy, because they’re playing music! Doing what they bought the guitar to do. It’s not just a lecture series.
What was your experience at the Rocky Mountain Archtop Festival this year, and who or what were you most excited to see?
First of all, those Henriksen amps are the bomb, let’s put it that way! I’ve been reluctant, because I love my old 1966 Fender Princeton, but man – I plugged into that thing (Henriksen Bud) and I was like “Whoa, hey, this is really nice!” I would just plug in and play a little, and then we did a couple of nights with just guitar and bass, no drums yet, and the amp just had really nice tone. Even the 6” one was really nice! Then I sat in with drums and organ at a wine bar venue over there, which I usually don’t do, but after a couple glasses of that wine, I was like, “Yeah!” And man, I turned that thing up and was blown away. I was very excited about the quality of sound from the amp. And Peter is just such a mellow, nice, smart man. You know, pleasant, fair – these are words you don’t usually hear in the music business!
You have a weekly series of shows at Birdland Jazz Club – what’s the concept, and how do you keep it fresh week after week?
Well, the concept comes from John Pisano, 92 years old, who wrote a lot of the Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass hits. He was also the first rhythm guitarist with the Joe Pass Quartet. Hell of a nice guy! He started something probably 40 years ago at a place in LA, and every Tuesday night I think it was. He had a guitar night. He knew so many people that he had iconic players going through there every week, and he’d give newcomers a start. It was really a cool event that he started.
So the gentleman who’s been the managing partner at Birdland for the last 25 years is a huge jazz guitar fan, which I didn’t even know until recently. After the pandemic, or maybe in the middle of it, I guess he thought “well, maybe Frank would want to do this sort of a thing, because maybe he’s not touring so much,” and he asked me to start the New York version of that guitar night. And I wrote back, “Does the Pope wear a funny hat?!” Of course I want to do that! So that was the birth of it.
It has evolved; I have a great trio, bass and drums. And depending on the guest, I get either a piano, or sometimes with two guitars you don’t even need a piano. Sometimes we play with a horn – like last week we had the great 87 year old Houston Person on tenor sax, the last of like the real tenor saxophone players – talk about blues, oh my God! I get goosebumps thinking about this man, the way he plays the blues. Incredible. I want to create a community for all the jazz guitar players. We’ve had Pasquale Grasso, Peter Berstein, Russel Malone, 17 year old Henry Acker out of Massachusetts who plays like the wind, Martin Taylor, Jimmy Bruno, the list is pretty huge. Given the fact that New York is still somewhat reluctant to fully engage in activity again, I think we’re doing pretty good. We’re ¾ full every week at least, so they love us there!
What do you have planned for early 2023 that our readers should know about?
Well, every Wednesday at Birdland, I’ll be there. We have a winter camp in New Jersey, that’s about 2/3rds sold out at this point. That’s happening February 19th through the 26th, check out BigJerseyGuitarCamps.com. Then we also have an acoustic roots and blues camp coming up, but that’s actually in October.
If you could have dinner with a few of your favorite artists, living or deceased, who might be at that table with you?
Well, George Benson. We’ve hung out before, but dinner would be so much fun with him. Let’s see, Django, Charlie Christian – and in Italy, it’s gotta be in Italy! Or France. You know, there, they really know how to enjoy a meal! Over there a meal would be like three hours. You can hang out, you don’t just down the wine to get drunk, it’s part of a whole experience. And those would be just the guitarists!
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