The Soul Connection in Aquinnah

Guitarist Arlen Roth collects his favorite instrument – as well as vintage cars, toys, and memorabilia.

Travel down State Road on any given day and you might see the past driving by, in the shape of a 1951 Willys Jeepster, a 1956 pink and white Buick Century convertible, or a 1953 Hudson Hornet two-door coupe. The grinning man behind the wheel? Renowned guitarist and Aquinnah resident Arlen Roth.

The three lovingly maintained classic autos are part of Arlen’s large vintage-car stable, which in turn is only a part of a bigger picture – a much bigger picture.

As a musical performer, producer, songwriter, and composer for the past four decades, Arlen Roth is known not only for his dexterity as a solo guitar player who crosses musical genres with ease, but also as a collaborator who has performed and recorded with a long list of household-name musicians, among them Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel (both in their duo and solo incarnations), Levon Helm, Don McLean, John Prine, Bob Dylan, Janis Ian, and Duane Eddy. Though he may not be a household name himself, he is a virtual legend in the guitar community, occupying a slot on the list of Vintage Guitar magazine’s “Top 100 Influential Guitarists of the Century.”

On a parallel track, Arlen’s name and face are known to an untold number of aspiring guitarists. He first created the Hot Licks audio teaching series in the late 1970s and, in the early ’80s, back when VHS was the “hot new thing,” began producing hundreds of instructional guitar videos that featured Arlen and other expert players. These are still must-haves for guitarists trying to improve their playing, or working to learn a new style or “lick.” Arlen also has some dexterity with the printed page – as a music columnist and author of several instructional guitar books. As a teacher, he might be called the man who has launched ten thousand guitar players.

But if “Music” is Arlen Roth’s first and last name, then his middle initial should be “C” for collector. His passion for the music he loves is apparent, and that passion easily crosses over to the vintage objects he collects. Climb the stairs to the top floor of his garage- converted-to-virtual-museum and you may be overwhelmed at the amazing array of objects before you – objects that otherwise exist mostly in old photographs and collectors’ books.

Since Arlen is known as a “guitarist’s guitarist,” it seems fitting that a large section of the room is claimed by vintage guitars of every type, style, and era. Among the instruments stands a pair of boots in blazing red and black and a matching Telecaster-style electric guitar with its distinctive cutaway shape. The boots and guitar’s leather face were handcrafted by Tony Murga, a California bootmaker and musician who has recently designed a limited-edition line of Arlen Roth–autographed leather guitars.

But in the arena of collecting, Arlen’s interest spills over the boundaries of guitars and extends into several other worlds. Not far from the guitars is a Kendall Motor Oil wall clock that looks as though it’s straight out of a local gas station, circa 1945, Anywhere, USA. A Wurlitzer jukebox from the same period sits below it – still eagerly awaiting nickels (dimes or quarters for multiple plays!). Several antique toy cars and buses are artfully arranged in glass display cases. Neon signs on the walls and in corners cast a glow into the room. And of course, there are the aforementioned cars, housed downstairs, in the garage part of the garage.

“What I collect is all about roots,” Arlen says. “That’s something that was implanted in me a very long time ago. Although we’ve surrounded ourselves in these modern trappings, we still have the same needs. I long for simpler times.” He points to a vintage neon Buick sign above his head. “That neon sign – because of the way it was built in 1923 – it was something made to last forever. It has a lot of soul.”

Not surprisingly, Arlen’s collecting roots started with guitars, under the encouraging eye of his father, The New Yorker cartoonist Al Ross, also a collector. (The last names differ because Roth Senior is one of four famed cartoonist brothers who all chose different pen names.) “My father would take me down to Manhattan,” Arlen says. “And I would frequent the art galleries with him. I was only fifteen. Then he would go with me to the guitar shops and say, ‘Look at all these beautiful Les Paul guitars.’”

Four decades later, Arlen still owns the first guitar he bought. Numerous others that have been added span 130 years of guitar history and include a nineteenth-century Martin guitar that he purchased in the seventies from the original owner, Iago Galdston, a friend’s uncle who was ninety-eight at the time. As Arlen sat in the seller’s living room, playing the guitar, Mr. Galdston’s wife exclaimed from the other room, “Isn’t that nice. We haven’t heard guitar playing in this house in sixty-five years.”

Though some might not see the connection, the relationship between an 1880s vintage guitar and an antique toy is a close one in Arlen’s mind. He talks enthusiastically about a sleek, silver, torpedo-shaped vehicle under display glass: “That’s my favorite: a Silver Bullet by Buffalo Toys from the 1920s. You pull a long tab in the back and it shoots forward.Antique toys have such beauty and quality. I love the colors and paints of them. It’s a fine line between a toy like that, or an old Martin guitar or a 1940 ‘woody’ car. They all have that same aesthetic experience.”

He mentions a 1940 woody station wagon, because that’s one of the cars downstairs. “Someone once said, ‘Collect the little ones and you won’t want the big ones as much.’” He laughs. “Of course, that turned out to be totally inaccurate.”

The garage is a vision in pink – as well as yellow, blue, green, and the other eye-candy colors of the cars housed there. The garage interior is painted in bright pastel green, giving the place the overall effect of a large-car toy store – which is probably right. The walls are covered with car manufacturer plaques, license plates, and more neon signs. There is also a large number of small rectangular metal plates etched with names like “The Leisures,” “The Outlaws,” and “Sycamore Knights.” Arlen explains that these are “draggers” – plaques, designed back in the forties through the sixties for hot-rod clubs, that were strung from the back of cars so that they dragged along the ground as the drivers blazed by awed spectators.

How many cars does he have? “There are twelve.” He pauses and calculates before he goes on. There are enough of them that he has to count. “Ten of them are functional.Two have to be restored.” With the abundance of driving possibilities, an obvious question comes to mind. How does he decide which car to drive? “It depends on a combination of elements,” he says. “What moves me? What mood am I in? Is it a hot sunny day? Then I might drive a convertible. What can I get out of the garage fast enough?”

And if Arlen’s mood or the weather changes, the cars may change too. A quick run for groceries on a warm summer morning? The 1968 yellow Buick Skylark convertible sounds good. Picking up something at the hardware store that afternoon? The 1951 Mercury woody station wagon has space in the back. Spending the evening at a down-Island restaurant? Maybe it’s time for his “regular” car, a 2000 Jeep Cherokee, particularly if it’s raining. “Moisture is bad for the metal for some of the older cars. And I also have to make sure the windshield wipers are working.”

All told, Arlen might drive two or three different cars in a day. How does he fare with the rising cost of gas? “Fortunately, I can only drive one at a time, and I don’t drive them very far. But believe it or not, those old V-8 engines get good mileage. My 1954 Buick Century gets twenty-four miles a gallon!” He does have his favorites: At the moment it’s a recent purchase – that 1940 woody – a wooden-body station wagon manufactured in the first year that Buick came out with a station wagon model.

Fifty yards from the garage is the main house, and Arlen’s living space is understandably almost minimalist, with a spacious layout that lets in ample light. He lives here with his wife, Maria, a Reiki master from Rio de Janeiro, who was on her way to Switzerland three years ago to set up a Reiki clinic when she detoured to the Vineyard to see her daughter. While here, she attended the Vineyard party where she met Arlen, and the detour became a new road in her life. (Eventually her Swiss clinic plans also relocated – to New York City.)

How does she feel about a man who feels strongly enough about his collection to devote a building to it?

Maria, a diminutive woman who has the expansive nature often found in Latin temperaments, nods her head and makes a sweeping and enthusiastic gesture across the room with her hand. “If this is what he lovesit’s what I love also.”

Daughter Lexie, from Arlen’s first marriage, also lives here part time, when her own musical career doesn’t call her elsewhere. Carrying on the Roth tradition, she now has her own musical résumé, one that includes touring, recording, and a forthcoming album. Lexie performs with her father whenever they can work a double gig. She’ll open for Dad or vice versa, and then they’ll join forces on stage.

As Arlen sits in his living room, playing one of his many guitars, he is focused, at ease, and excited all at once. That combination seems particularly productive for him, no matter where he is placing his interest at any given moment. His newly released album, Toolin’ Around Woodstock: Featuring Levon Helm, has risen to the upper ranks of the Americana and Billboard Blues charts. Two new albums are on the horizon, with Arlen covering material by Dylan and by Simon and Garfunkel. (Some say his cover of “Layla” is better than Clapton’s acoustic version.) In keeping with the times, he’s recently taken his teaching expertise to the web, and now gives video guitar lessons under the Gibson Guitar umbrella, with a daily broadcast on the Gibson website. He continues teaching, in New York and on-Island. (Of course, we have our share of the wealthy, erudite, and celebrated – and when Arlen Roth is “in residence” we even have our own master guitarist on Martha’s Vineyard.) As for his collectibles, he is always on the prowl – yearning to find another vintage or antique hidden treasure to add to his ever-expanding collection – whether it be a car, guitar, toy, neon signor any number of etceteras.

Underlying it all seems to be Arlen’s search for “soul,” a feeling that pervades the collection and the music to which he has devoted his life: blues, country, folk, and rock – music that defines the soulful roots of America. It applies ultimately to Arlen himself, who in a world of fifteen-minute fame and disposable everything, truly values and works to preserve the American soul that remains.