Guitarist Frank Vignola learned at the feet of many masters

CorrespondentApril 11, 2013 

Frank Vignola.

COURTESY OF FRANK VIGNOLA

  • More information

    Who: Frank Vignola

    When: 8 p.m. Friday & Saturday

    Where: Titmus Theatre at N.C. State University, 2241 Dunn Ave., Raleigh

    Cost: $26

    Details: 919-515-1100 or ncsu.edu/arts

Master jazz guitarist Frank Vignola is a born storyteller, as any interviewer who’s spent time with the talkative Long Islander will likely tell you.

Vignola, 47, has played with some greats during his long career – Madonna, Leon Redbone, Les Paul – and he has tales to tell about all of those experiences. If he ever writes his memoirs, a good title might be “Have Guitar, Will Travel.”

“I was never afraid to knock on doors,” says Vignola, who will play his virtuosic, classy style at N.C. State’s Titmus Theatre for two nights.

“You have to always kind of be trying to get work,” he adds.

That ethic, along with a vast knowledge of jazz standards, has paid off.

As a youngster, Vignola’s first instrument was the ukulele. “They’re cheap, and they all sound pretty good,” he says. “I just bought my son one.”

The first song that made him want to be a guitarist was “Limehouse Blues” by Django Reinhardt.

“My father showed me the chords – on the guitar, at that point – and that was it,” he says. “I was hooked.”

Once he was on his own, Vignola’s first gigs were in bars, where college kids sang along to some of those old tunes he learned at home. Later, after working steadily around New York City with traditional jazz bands, Vignola backed up Madonna as a member of Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks in the 1989 film “Bloodhounds of Broadway,” which was set in 1928.

“We were her choice to be on the record and do the film,” he says. “It was pretty cool.”

He’s met and played with lots of famous musicians. But the most significant connection of his life came at the age of 19, when he met guitar legend Les Paul for dinner in New York, right after Paul had come out of retirement. The dinner was arranged by a mutual friend in the radio business.

“My first impression of the great Les Paul was him eating ribs,” Vignola recalls, with a laugh. “And it was all over his mouth and face. I was like, ‘Wow, this guy’s a sloppy eater!’ ”

They became close friends. In 2000, Paul became ill and asked Vignola to fill in for him for a couple of weeks at The Iridium club in New York City.

When Paul recovered, he asked Vignola to stay on as his rhythm guitarist. Vignola says the most important thing he learned from Paul was “sense of melody.”

He also learned a thing or two about showmanship, although the synchronized “dance” steps (just kicks, really) that Vignola and his young rhythm guitarist Vinny Raniolo will break out on stage owe more to classic comedy teams such as The Smothers Brothers or Roy Clark and Buck Owens.

“It’s like, entertainment,” Vignola says. “You know, that’s where I think jazz went wrong, in a lot of ways. It got too serious. Too intellectual. Jazz, to me, is Louis Armstrong.”

To Vignola, that’s what it’s all about. Fun and entertainment.

Oh, and the melodies. Don’t forget the melodies.

“If you learn a thousand songs,” he advises young musicians, “you’ll improvise for the rest of your life.”

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