She Will Rock You: Arielle’s Creative Journey from Music Making to Guitar Design

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Arielle is no stranger to the music industry. The New Jersey-born guitarist, singer, and guitar designer has been making moves in the music industry since 2008. Discovered by guitarist Nuno Bettencourt in 2010, she set off on an amazing journey of accomplishments and setbacks. Her journey has included opening up for major acts, finding her own voice as a musician, and battling body image issues. Her gamble to carve her own path in the music industry has paid off tremendously. From a collaboration with Vince Gil to a self-designed guitar line released by Brian May guitars, who happens to be her idol, and now, her good friend.

We had the opportunity to chat with this amazingly intelligent and talented guitarist. We spoke about what she has been doing during the pandemic and her new non-profit that is very close to her heart. Arielle exhibits the type of musical uniqueness and drive that will allow her to have a long career in the industry. She is currently working on new music and new guitar designs, both of which we are looking forward to hearing about in the future.

How have you been during the quarantine, and what have you been up to?

Well, the first part was just to get over the fact that I wasn’t going to be on the road for a while. I was on the road most of the year, every year, for about five years. I wanted to finish up this album, so I started creating content for that, but then that got delayed. I spent a good part of it in a pretty big depression. I’ve just been refocusing on what I’ve already done, trying to create new music now. I want to have a plan for the future that is more sustainable, one that makes more sense than what I was doing before. I think I was overdoing it in a lot of ways.

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What got you started playing guitar? What made you pick it up?

When I was six years old, I saw a video of Queen, Live at Wembley, and people were paying attention to Freddie Mercury—I was fascinated with the guy with the curly hair and the cool guitar. Then I asked my parents, “Can I have a guitar?” and they said, “No, you can’t have a guitar,” so I started off playing piano, violin, and the trumpet. Then, when I was ten years old, they finally got me my first guitar that was this funny, knock-off Stratocaster, called an Austin, that was red like Brian May’s guitar, and ever since then, he’s always been my favorite guitar player.

Who were some of your other influences? 

Well, Jeff Beck is up there. He’s definitely top two. Maybe he’s second to Brian May for me. I love Uli John Roth, Tommy Emmanuel, Robben Ford, and Pat Metheny. Anybody who’s got a lot of heart and not a ton of shredding is typically my favorite. I mean, Eric Clapton, of course, there’s so many.

It seems like you don’t generally stick to one genre. You seem to pull from a lot of different genres when you play and in your compositions.

Yeah, it’s the guitar really. I mean, I feel it’s one thing to be diverse when listening to music, but I love the guitar so much. I like being able to go into different areas, even just for one song, just to see what the guitar can do in that world. It might be different than what I’m used to.

At what point in your life did you say, “I want to play guitar for a living?”

Probably about thirteen or fourteen years old when I started getting ready for a job. I worked at an Italian restaurant. I was making pizzas, and I was burning my hands putting the pizzas in the oven and in my arms. I was just like, “this is miserable.” I thought, “Well, I should probably do this music thing because I love it.” I never thought, “Oh, I’m gonna be a rockstar” or anything. It was more just to have something I could focus on and get better at. I think I was really fortunate to be able to do that before social media was really much of a thing. I believe there was Myspace, but there was no YouTube, so I got to really learn by just listening to records and CDs, by reading books, and going to school. I graduated high school early, at sixteen, and I moved to LA to go to the Musicians Institute. I think doing that was one of the best things I ever did. It’s hard for people nowadays to actually learn something. There are so many elements to music and the guitar that you have to submerge yourself in it, which is hard to do at home or online with no real structure. I don’t know where I would be had I not done that.

You started working with Brian May and moved to London. What was behind your decision to live in London, and what are some of the differences that you notice about the culture?

When there’s not COVID happening, I usually am in London. I came back to the US because of family health stuff. I was making sure I was kind of local for them. Ever since I was eighteen years old, I’ve kind of been back and forth from London to the US, and that was because of Brian. It started off that way, and then I went to music school in London when I was eighteen years old. Then every year, I started touring there when my visa expired, and I couldn’t live there anymore. That was about two and a half years ago now that I got my visa to live there. The main reason I wanted to live there, of course, was just because of the work I was doing, but there’s something in the water over there. My favorite bands and musicians are from England. I like what is going on over there. So the best way to learn about a culture is submerging yourself in it entirely, from the simplest things to getting a bank account. It’s been interesting to experience it on all levels. Even the way that the musicians are.

There are a lot of things that are more difficult there. I live just outside of London, and I do have a car, and very fortunate for that, but there’s hardly anywhere to park. So, when you have a bunch of gear, you’re lucky to be able to park. Parking is an added stress, unlike in the US, where they have massive parking lots. Everything is a lot smaller in London. It is also very expensive, and the weather is kind of crappy during the wintertime. It gets dark at around 3:30 pm during the winter, which is super depressing. Then you have the most amazing people who love music, all sorts of music. I find that people tend to be a little bit more diverse in the UK and have a totally different approach to music and to the guitar. There are even different terms for saying certain words. Quarter notes are called crotchets, and a power cable is called a kettle lead. I’ve loved doing the back-and-forth thing when I’m wanting something different. Being in the UK has taught me a lot about music and the world and, and it’s inspired a lot of songwriting as well. So I love it. I wrote about it in my album; it’s a cool place.

Tell us a little bit about the story of how you came to be in contact with Brian May.

I met Brian when I was living in LA going to music school in 2007, and that to me, that’s a long time. That’s about half my life almost that I’ve known the guy. I’d always had this idea that we were friends when I was younger. We approached the guitar the same. We understand things in a very similar way. I just had an interview with him, and he said to the guy interviewing us, “You know, she and I are the only two people in the world that play these pickups, these particular pickup selectors.” He sent me a demo yesterday, and I said, “Brian, you’re on the neck pickup, and the bridge pickup is out of phase, aren’t you?” He said, “How did you know that?” I was like, “because we just have this thing.” It’s like a soulmate/friendship thing that we’ve had from the very beginning. Most of our connection hasn’t been with music at all. He connected me with his kids. I kind of grew up with a couple of his kids and have gotten to talk about life and experiences beyond music through the years. He invited me in 2008 to audition for the musical We Will Rock You in London. I was there for two years, and then I just kept going back and forth until I moved back again in early 2018, I believe. So we’ve just stayed in touch. It’s a real friendship. I can tell the guy anything, literally anything. He’s just a cool guy on every level. I feel very blessed that we can have conversations, and he’s like, “Hey, let’s write a song together,” and then we write a song together. It’s just a thing that I’ll never fully digest. Especially because he’s the reason why I built the guitar and the reason I started playing guitar. The respect that I have for him, he has for me, which is even crazier. So I feel very, very fortunate to have a friend like him.

How did your custom guitar, Two Tone, come to be?

I was going to Musicians Institute, and there was a Uli John Roth Sky Academy class, and there was a guy there named Patrick, who built Uli’s Sky guitar. He had three or four guitars that he’d had that you would look at them and say, “Well, those are pretty amateur guitars,” but I was like, “That’s fine.” I asked, “Would you ever make a guitar with me? Like a cool custom guitar?” And he said, “Oh. yeah, sure.” We started off, and it took about a year, I think—I mean, six months of actively working on it, but a lot of back and forth for a while about the design and what we were going to do, and all sorts of things like that. He was a guy I didn’t know very well, and we just worked together on it. Then I have this weird story how the guy disappeared in 2008. He kept saying, “We’ve got to hurry this up. I gotta go.” I’m like, “Where are you going?” And he just disappeared one day. The guitar showed up to me in pieces at my home, and since then, I haven’t been able to find him. So I have this weird story of the guy that helped me build this guitar that is now in production with Brian May guitars, and he’s MIA, and no one can find him.

Do you have any plans to release any other guitars? 

Absolutely! Before Brian decided to bring my guitar into his line, I was actually going to do it myself. We were catching up for lunch when I was touring about three years back, and I was saying that I was going to be making these guitars with a friend of mine. I told him we were going to have them American-made, and they’re gonna have to be expensive because of building costs. He said, “Well, why doesn’t Brian May guitars do it?” And that’s when that started. I’ve been constantly working on variations of my guitar now since I’ve had it for about thirteen years. I have ten different models that I’ve experimented with—everything from the body, weight, wood type, set necks to neck-through, and the scale lengths. I’m also trying to make one with humbuckers on it.

What other projects do you have in the works?

I’ve also been working on a non-profit that I’m creating right now to replant tonewood trees. So I have the first-ever tonewood forest. It has woods that people typically cut down like ebony, mahogany, koa, rosewood, alder, and ash. I’ve been growing them from a seed. Actually. I have one here cause sometimes I show people. This is a koa tree, and I grew it from a seed. (Shows me small, potted koa seedling.) I grow tonewood trees from seeds, and it’s amazing to give back. That’s what I’m trying to do right now, is purchase a few lots in different parts of the world. So, to have one in Florida, which is great to replicate more exotic trees, like ones that grow in Ghana and things like that. Also, to have one in the UK, just a plot of land that I can plant more of the colder climate trees, like maple and spruce and those kinds of trees. So that’s been the other project to try to give back because I don’t know how many guitars we’re going to sell, but that’s kind of a lot of trees that get cut down.

Who do you dream about collaborating with? 

I would love to have an album produced by Jeff Lynne. I would love to write a song with David Foster. And I would love to collaborate with—and this is a different group of people—it’s kind of funny, but to collaborate with Steve Perry, Peter Cetera, and Sting. I would love to have Vince Gill on one of my songs, and maybe Jeff Beck. For guitar, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton on the same stage as me, and maybe throw in Bonnie Raitt too. I could die happy.

The whole vintage vibe, old-school vibe, everything that I do, really works with that.

You have a unique and definitive style to your playing.

Thank you. I appreciate you saying that. It’s sometimes hard to be true to the music. I think with time as an artist, just being able to have time to get it wrong so many times, and to say, “Okay, this is genuinely what I like.” The whole vintage vibe, old-school vibe, everything that I do, really works with that. I spent years trying to do things that I thought other people would like, but I didn’t think that could sustain me for that long. So the moment I backed away from trying to fit in and be more popular or more sexy, everyone started hiring me to collaborate with them. I was just like, you know what, I’m gonna do my thing, and if people like it and want to do stuff, that’s awesome. It’s funny; I think because of my approach, it’s moved me away from the female guitar realm, which I never meant to have happened. All I meant to have happened was, I never wanted to be targeted just because I was a woman. I didn’t want to be a commodity. I wanted to be like a Bonnie Raitt or Eric Clapton or Vince Gill—they write great songs, they sing, and they play guitar. I’ve always wanted it to be a non-approach. But because of that approach, it’s alienated me from kind of both areas of singing and playing guitar, because I’m kind of in my own weird realm. So, I appreciate you saying that. Sometimes I don’t know. I’m just doing the best I can really, but it’s confusing at times.

What do you think the music industry will be like after the pandemic?

I think that live music is going to boom bigger than it ever has for independent artists and smaller artists. From the barometer of super successful to bedroom artists, people aren’t going to want to pay a thousand dollars to get a seat at an arena tour. Maybe some people will, but a lot just want to go to their local venues and see up-and-comers just because they’re so hungry for it. That wasn’t happening as much because people weren’t necessarily making the time. I think that’s that the divide that is gonna happen. I think there’s going to be a lot of live music, and a lot of need for some new venues.

A step-by-step regimen is
where you want to be . . .

Any advice for up-and-coming musicians based on your experiences?

I would say the first thing is to not learn how to play guitar on YouTube. If you want to play like your heroes, then you should learn like your heroes did. I don’t mean sit there and rewind VHS tapes, keep moving the track back, or play the record slow on your record player with your vinyls. I mean to really submerge yourself into learning the guitar—get a great teacher and get on a path, a real path, and have them set you up that so you don’t have gaps. Yeah, shredding is cool, and being able to play this thing fast is cool, but you really want to get the real fundamentals of guitar. Those are the things I always come back to. How can I find a cooler way to play that chord? Learning even a little bit of theory can help with your songwriting and develop you as a complete musician instead of just, for example, a lead guitar player. A step-by-step regimen is where you want to be instead of just trying to learn on YouTube and getting confused. Find a great book and take your time to learn and to listen to things that influenced you. Also, try to get yourself out of the things you are sonically used to and try to experiment a little bit with the guitar. I always say that my guitar taught me how to play. I have a guitar that no one in the world has, which means that I have to play differently than anyone else.

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Born and Raised in Miami, FL, Vanessa started playing music at a young age. Progressing through high school, Vanessa was playing and performing on multiple instruments including guitar, piano and trumpet. She was awarded a scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. During her time there, she studied the guitar playing of such influences as Pat Martino, Slash, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Eric Johnson and many others. After graduating with a degree in Music Business, she went on to work with such artists as Pat Metheny and Christian McBride. After years in the business end of the industry, she decided to pursue her own performing career and moved to Atlanta, GA. Once in Atlanta, she was playing with several groups, and doing recording sessions.  A year later, she was chosen as a finalist by Beyonce to audition for her all-girl backup band. Vanessa has traveled the world playing guitar, visiting countries such as France, Germany, Egypt, Italy, Japan, South America and the Caribbean. She has performed on the bill with such renown artists as Darius Rucker, LA Sno, KISS, Skid Row and Paramore. She is currently recording and performing as the front woman for rock trio, BAST. www.vanessaizabella.com