Singer, guitarist and songwriter Ben Mauro has just finished up a major European tour with none other than legendary pop/funk icon Lionel Richie. It was a two month tour of sold out arenas across Europe. Ben’s extraordinary musical skills and dynamic stage presence have been the reason that he has remained a core member of Lionel Richie’s band for over fifteen years. He's also worked with many other artists including Kelly Clarkson, Britney Spears, Don Felder from the Eagles, John Fogerty, Christina Aquilera, Toni Braxton, and worked on projects produced by Peter Frampton and Prince.
Ben was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about what it takes to achieve such an impressive resume, life as an in-demand session player, and his latest project as a solo artist.
Matt: What made you first pick up a guitar and want to learn to play?
Ben: My first instrument that I played was the French horn. It wasn’t very rock and roll but I still liked it a lot and I played for about five years. I stopped playing when I got to high school and one day my Dad walked in the door with a beat up red electric guitar. My Dad is a rugby player and he was out running, and he found this guitar in our neighbor’s trash. He grabbed it and brought it home to me. It was red and kind of cool looking. I remember trying to learn ‘Cuts like a Knife’ by Brian Adams on it. It was really beat up and it fell apart pretty quickly, but it started my love for the guitar.
Matt: Who are your biggest influences on guitar?
Ben: I loved classic rock music growing up. Especially southern rock music. The Allman Brothers were my favorite but I loved all those bands from Lynyrd Skynyrd to ZZ Top. I saw Warren Haynes from The Allman Brothers playing in a club with The Dickey Betts Band when I was young and he completely blew me away! He was so soulful and passionate. I used to see Carlos Santana play every year at a festival in my hometown of Syracuse, New York. I had Led Zeppelin posters up all over my walls when I was growing up so I’m sure that I wanted to be Jimmy Page. Jimi Hendrix was larger than life. Zakk Wylde is one my favorite rock players. For a long stretch when I was in high school I would study two players a lot. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Steve Vai. Stevie was unbelievable and so passionate when he played. Vai knew all the theory behind everything little thing that he did. These days my favorite player is Gary Clark Jr. I love his playing! Recently I was playing at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam. Lionel Richie and Gary Clark Jr. were both on the bill. I had been listening to Gary Clark Jr’s record for the whole tour. I also had been listening to his record all that day. I went down to the front desk to change some money and when I turned around he was standing right behind me. He looked so cool that I was completely star struck. I just stood there and stared at him! After the show I saw him again in the lobby, and this time I had to say something. I tapped him on the shoulder and introduced myself and told him how much I liked his record. There is something so cool about him. I swear it was almost like getting to meet Jimi Hendrix!
Matt: What was your approach to learning chords, arpeggios and scales when you were starting out?
Ben: I had some great teachers along the way and I definitely recommend that you find a teacher to study with. A jazz teacher is great to study with even if that is not your favorite form of music to play. One of the things that really helped me a lot was to learn the number system of music. I can’t explain it all here but once you understand how the formula of chords in one key work each key follows that same formula. You want to be able to know what all the seventh chords of a key are and also what mode goes along with that chord. If you don’t know this find a jazz teacher to teach you. Knowledge is definitely power.
Matt: I know you studied classical guitar and jazz theory early on; in what ways did your rock, blues and funk playing benefit from this?
Ben: Studying classical music prepared me to play anything. It was challenging and very precise. Studying jazz music taught me music theory and how to really play inside the actual key and chords that you are playing in at all times. When I play rock, blues and funk now I can do it while understanding exactly what key that I am in all the time and I also have the technique to be able to play it. But honestly playing funk guitar is a completely different animal than either of those styles. I got to play onstage with Thomas McClary from The Commodores a few times and that really taught me a lot. The way he played was so loose and relaxed. He was completely locked into the rhythm and what the drummer was playing. He was also always dancing the whole time that he was playing. That was pretty cool! Playing each style of music is very different, and if you want to be a professional musician you have to be able to play many styles of music well.
Matt: What was the best piece of advice you received when you were learning to play guitar?
Ben: Well it wasn’t really about playing the guitar but my dream was to be a professional musician and my Dad gave me some advice before I moved out of the house. He said “If you can make this into your job then you have our blessing. You can’t just be lazy and sit around and call yourself a musician. We don’t know anything about the music business but if can make it be how you earn your living go for it.” That was probably the best advice because it inspired me to work hard and be the best that I could be. Thank you Mom and Dad!
Matt: What was something you found difficult to do on guitar and how did you overcome that difficulty?
Ben: I still remember how hard it was to play an F major barre chord! I overcame it by doing many, many hours of practicing!
Matt: You’ve toured and played with a lot of big national and international acts over the years, what would you say are the essential qualities or skills that a session player or touring guitarist needs to develop?
Ben: You have to be able to learn songs fast. When you are preparing for a big tour sometimes they throw a ton of music at you to learn in a very short amount of time and you have to be able to keep up. I played in cover bands for years so that helped me to be able to learn songs fast. I played on the very first American Idol tour. I already had the job with Lionel when I moved to California. I didn’t really have any work in Los Angeles for about eight months after I moved there. I was getting a little worried but then one day I actually got a call from Randy Jackson! It was so cool because I had been watching the whole first season of America Idol with Kelly Clarkson. He said the guitar player that they hired couldn’t learn all the songs fast enough and he heard that I could and wanted to hire me. Randy had called Lionel’s Music Director to ask if he could recommend a guitar player. I said definitely yes! That tour with Kelly was so fun. A good look is very important too. You don’t have to look like a movie star but you need to put some effort into your clothes and your image. Someone with a cool look may actually get hired over someone else who might be a better player. Really there are just a ton of good players out there so you have to be unique. Figure out what your look is and rock it! Keep in shape. Touring can be exhausting and you need to be able to give 110% every single night. So do some cardio and try to exercise as much as you can. Sing! Even if you don’t feel that you are best singer you should sing anyways. Every time in an audition for most touring bands someone who can sing will get hired over someone that can’t or won’t. Step up to the mike and sing!
Matt: Do you still practice? If so, what do you practice?
Ben: I use exercises from John Petrucci’s Rock Discipline DVD and also John Mclaughlin’s This Is How I Do It DVDs. When I am off on tour and at home I usually pick up a guitar every day. Mostly I’m writing new songs and practicing my voice lessons but many times I will still sit down and put the same two DVDs on and practice for a couple of hours. I also like to practice the guitar while watching movies or sports games. I will practice a technique exercise over and over while watching a movie and many times new ideas for songs will come out.
Matt: Tell us a little about your writing process. Do you write with the guitar or away from it? What inspires you?
Ben: It’s usually something that happens in my life that inspires me then I try and find the music that fits that mood. It happens in different ways. Sometimes the first thing that I play on the guitar when I first wake up is cool, and I work on that for a few hours. Sometimes I have a vocal melody and I have to find what chords will work well with it. When I get a quick idea I will record it on my phone and then later I will sit down and go through all the recording to see if I can find anything cool. Sometimes a song will just kind of magically come out. But usually it takes time to develop these little ideas that come out from just a spark into a real song. Some days I will take one of these ideas and play it in my truck over and over while I drive around LA and see if any vocal melodies or lyrics ideas come out.
Matt: What are the qualities you look for in other players when you’re recruiting musicians?
Ben: I look for people who have had a lot of experience. It’s also great if the people are fun to hang out with too. The vibe is very important and I usually only work with people that I really like being around. If they have a cool look that helps too but mostly I want to be around fun, positive thinking people.
Matt: How did the gig with Lionel Ritchie come about? What would you say is the best way for a working musician to land the big industry gigs?
Ben: I was living in New Jersey and playing every night of the week for usually about 30 to 40 night in a row in NYC. Then I would have a day off and start all over again. Lionel had a show coming up in NYC and his regular touring guitar player couldn’t make this show, so they needed a sub. They asked around and got my name from three different people. My advice for a working musician is that first you need to be living and working in a city where you can get noticed. If you can start a band with your friends from high school in your home town and make it big that is great, but that rarely happens. You have to be playing in a bigger city. The competition and environment will make you better. I was playing in ten bands at the same time when I got the Lionel audition. It kind of kind of came out of the blue for me but I got it because everyone in NYC knew that if you need a guitar player for almost any gig I would show up and do a great job. The big music cities for music are Nashville, New York City and Los Angeles. It can be hard to leave your hometown and family but eventually if you really want to get noticed you have to move to a big city. In Los Angeles there are guys that are hired to put together bands for major artists and you need to be on their list of guys or girls that they can call. Also many touring acts are looking for girl musicians these days so if you are a girl and you can play you should get yourself to a big city. Of course it is better if you have some kind of connection or get an invitation to move, but I moved to the North Jersey/NYC area without knowing a single person. So it can be done. To me Los Angeles is the best city for music but there are other cities that you can go to also. But it is usually not your hometown.
Matt: Your new single, ‘This Crazy Love’, is out with the EP, 'To LA', hitting the streets on November 3, tell us a little about what it’s like to make the transition to solo artist, and what we can look forward to from Ben Mauro in the near future.
Ben: It has been very exciting. You really have to put a lot of time into making it happen but it is also very rewarding. I wanted to see what kind of songs that I could write and I am especially happy with how this one came out. This Crazy Love is a fun love song inspired by the music of the great music city of New Orleans. For me a big part of becoming a solo artist was really getting into my voice lessons and learning how to use my voice the best that I could. I had to realize that I wasn’t Dave Grohl or Steven Tyler! But once I found my unique sound instead of pushing all the time, everything with my voice kind of fell into place. Now instead of practicing scales every time that I pick up a guitar many times now I am working on writing songs and expressing my thoughts and emotions. It has become a kind of therapy for me that I really enjoy. Getting to perform shows under my own name has been so much fun. When someone tells me that they play my songs at the gym or around the house that is also a great feeling. Playing in Lionel’s band is a great job and I am hoping that in the future I can start to book my own tours in between Lionel tours. It is starting to happen and I'm very happy about that. In the near future I have more music ready to release and I also have a brand new batch of songs ready to start recording. Thank you for the great questions and I hope that I get to see you out on the road one of these days!
Matt: We hope so too Ben, thanks for the great insight!