The inaugural Axes & Anchors cruise, which shoves off from Miami February 20, features plenty of virtuosic guitarists, from Yngwie Malmsteen to Zakk Wylde to Marty Friedman.
But one of the more outside-the-box additions to the lineup is Gabriel Ayala, a Native American guitarist who is a member of the Yaqui tribe, and whose exotic nylon-string playing stands in stark contrast to the onslaught of electric shredders.
Like these players, Ayala, who has released several albums under his own name, wields a devastating technique, only his background is in a myriad of non-mainstream styles, from jazz to classical to flamenco. Which doesn’t mean he can’t also rock—he’s worked with bands like Queensryche, and he says he looking forward to seeing players like Yngwie and Alex Skolnick aboard the cruise ship.
Guitar World recently caught up with Ayala to discuss Axes & Anchors, his background as a guitarist, his work with children as a music educator, and just what, exactly, JazzMenco music sounds like.
How did you get involved with Axes & Anchors?
I got the call to meet with the promoters of the event at a hotel here in Tucson, where I live. I had already known about the cruise that was going to take place and there was talk that I might get an invite, but it was still uncertain. Once we met and I was invited to be on the cruise as part of a stellar lineup, I humbly accepted and signed the contract immediately.
Can you talk about any classes you are scheduled to take part in on the cruise?
I’ll be offering three different master classes on the cruise. The first is Effortless Guitar Playing, which is a class based on how to build up technique and get your hands to do what you mind tells them. The second is Improvisation 101, a class that demonstrates when and when not to play the guitar. And the third is JazzMenco, which will focus on the fusion of my own genre of music and how it was created.
Can you discuss the JazzMenco music style?
JazzMenco is me trying to fuse two different languages of music to form a new and unique sound. In this case, the chord structures and improvisational feel of jazz lies on top of this driving rhythmic force of flamenco. The sound is created from thousands of hours of playing so many diverse genres, but those two are clearly the main ones.
Are there any other artists you hope to play with on Axes & Anchors?
I will honestly say that it is my hope that some collaborations will spontaneously take place. I will definitely reach out to a couple of guys immediately, though.
What artists are you most looking forward to seeing on the cruise?
While I respect all of the musicians that are going to be a part of the cruise there are definitely a select few I have always looked up to as far as their playing and unique style, like Yngwie Malmsteem, Marty Friedman and Alex Skolnick.
What first led you to pick up a guitar?
As a child I had played several different instruments. I finally received my first guitar at 14 but didn’t play it for a year. After restringing it at 15 and strumming it, I was instantly addicted to it and knew it would be my voice.
Who are some of your primary guitar influences?
I like and listen to all genres of music, everything from classical, jazz and flamenco to bossa nova, metal and rock. Some of the players I enjoy are John Williams, Joe Pass, Paco de Lucia, Kazuhito Yamashita, Steve Vai, Andres Segovia, Satch, Yngwie Malmsteem.
Can you talk about your background as a guitarist?
Although I started out by playing pop/rock music I quickly moved toward classical guitar studies. I wanted to aspire to be something different as a Native American—and nothing is more different than a Native American playing classical guitar. I now hold a master’s degree from the University of Arizona in Tucson.
You have also worked with rock artists such as Queensryche. How did that relationship come about?
I have been very fortunate in my career to cross paths with so many musicians. Queensryche is one of those bands that are just truly amazing in every sense of the word. [Guitarist] Mike “Whip” Wilton is just one of those cats that is so down to earth and really respect his playing a great deal. [Singer] Todd La Torre is another great connection from the group. We are actually hoping to collaborate on perhaps just an instrumental project in the near future as well. All in all though, I really respect Queensryche for their humility as artists. When I hang with them they just want to know what I’m up to, both musically and in life.
What guitars and other gear are you currently using?
My main axes at the moment are a Merida Masters Series nylon string and a Godin 5th Avenue Kingpin. I use Hannabach strings on my nylon and Optima on my steel-strings. For effects, right now I’m using a few TC Electronic pedals—reverb, delay, chorus and also the BodyRez and Ditto X2—and a Dunlop Cry Baby Mini Wah. For sound reinforcement I prefer Bose, and I use Acoustic Solutions as my monitoring amp.
How does your Native American background factor into your music?
Everything I do is definitely influenced by my culture and upbringing. I don’t try to incorporate traditional aspects of my life though—I never wanted to sell myself as the “Native American Guitarist.” I just wanted to be that guitarist that happens to be Native American.
Can you discuss your work with children as a music educator and advocate? What does that work mean to you?
Giving back is the most important thing as far as being a human being. I feel that I have been given a gift, and want to share it with those who are longing for that healing. I speak about the importance of living a drug-, alcohol- and tobacco-free lifestyle, and for me, music has been my only addiction. And it is so fulfilling to see children smile when I perform for them. When I finally pack up and see the kids genuinely sad that I’m leaving, it makes me feel like a millionaire. I am so thankful that Creator has put me on this earth for the betterment of our youth.
What do you have coming up after Axes & Anchors?
I have been invited to teach in Italy this coming May. This make me extremely happy to be working in the field that was my first love, classical guitar. I have also been fortunate to be collaborating with Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas. I will be serving many different roles in a forthcoming project—musician, producer, writer and backup singer. I’m so humbled to have the career I have, and, more importantly, to have the life I live.
What are your ultimate goals with your music?
My longterm goal is to take music across all of “Indian Country” from the U.S. to Canada, in order to give our Indigenous people the same opportunity that I was given. It was not easy and still isn’t, but I have persevered through it all. So I hope to lead by example to show that anything is possible.