An Interview with Marc Ribler of Little Steven’s Disciples of Soul

Marc Ribler Interview

Marc Ribler photo courtesy of EarShot Media

East Coast native Marc Ribler is about as good as it gets when it comes to guitar-based, good-time rock ‘n’ roll. Sure, he pals around with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt, aka “Little Steven,” as a member of The Disciples of Soul.

And yes, he’s also great friends with Steve Conte, who formally held court in The New York Dolls and has been Michael Monroe’s leading man for years. But those connections aside, in the last twenty or so years, Ribler has dropped several outstanding solo works, the most recent of which is Armageddon, due out in the spring of 2024.

In support of Armageddon, guitarist Marc Ribler dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to dig into his origins, process, influences, gear, new music, goals, and more.

What inspired you to become a musician, and what keeps you inspired?

In retrospect, it was the need to find meaning in a very confusing and complicated world through creative self-expression.

As a kid, I had all this creative energy bottled up. It could have easily been channeled into destructive behavior. In fact, my friends and I wielded more than our share of destruction to ourselves and the community at large. Fortunately, it never got to the point where it couldn’t be reeled in. The guitar gave me a positive outlet for soothing these primal adolescent instincts.

What keeps me inspired is the same thing that started it all: the continuing need for salvation in a world gone mad. I feel blessed to have found this sanctuary at a very young age. I plucked one note on the geetah and was hooked for life.

Tell me about where you grew up. What was the scene like?

I grew up in the projects in Brooklyn, New York. It was a melting pot of many cultures—African American, Italian, Jewish, Irish, Puerto Rican, Polish, German, etc. I was raised in a very liberal household; I never heard a word or saw a sign of prejudice or bigotry from my parents, extended family, or neighbors.

Although you could turn on the evening news and watch African Americans, just like my friends and neighbors, being persecuted, tortured, and murdered in their plight striving for equality in the ’60s, this had a very profound effect on my psyche and emotions. I wondered in horror and amazement how a man could disgracefully treat his fellow man.

When I was nine, we moved to Jackson, New Jersey. My mind was blown. It was the first time I had experienced firsthand any sort of prejudice or bigotry. All I wanted was to move back to my Brooklyn roots. But thankfully, and just in the nick of time, I found a couple of like-minded friends who moved to Jackson from the city to commiserate with.

Two years later, I started playing music, which really became my place of worship and gratification. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the guitar is the father of my intention. It led me to every other creative thing I’ve been doing since I was a teenager, including singing, songwriting, playing multiple instruments, producing, performing, and, most importantly, sharing the experience with others.

What were some of your favorite spots to take in shows as a kid?

When I was a kid, the Jersey Shore club and bar scene was in its prime. The drinking age was 18. I started playing in clubs at 15. I had a makeshift false ID; you could get away with it those days. We would go to bars and nightclubs on the Jersey Shore, NYC, and Greenwich Village.

We would frequent all the iconic Asbury Park haunts, including The Stone Pony and The Fast Lane, as well as Richards Lounge, a tiny little jazz joint on Route 9 in Lakewood. There, we would see some of the greatest jazz musicians on the planet, including a very young John Scofield. Watching him from ten feet away with his ES-335 and Marshall combo blew my mind.

With an aggressive rock tone, he was playing Coltrane and Bird bebop lines. That experience got me interested in studying jazz with the incredible New Jersey jazz guitar master Harry Leahey. I never became a full-fledged jazz cat, but this experience greatly broadened my musical horizons. I realized in my later teens that although I get enjoyment from playing all types of music (funk, country, R&B, etc.), rock ‘n’ roll is where I truly lived in my heart and soul.

Did any local musicians inspire you as you were coming up? 

As it turns out, I grew up in a very fertile area for brilliant musicians. There was a lot of talent in the nearby neighborhoods, which inspired competitiveness and striving to be better on your instrument to keep up with the pack.

Growing up performing at the Jersey Shore, I could not help but be influenced by the likes of  Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Van Zandt. The great David Sancious and Ernest “Boom” Carter grew up a few towns over. Zack Wylde, aka Jeff Wylant, grew up a block away from my childhood home.

As a teenager, I met John Conte (SSJ and the Asbury Jukes) and Steve Conte (New York Dolls) at a pig roast in Matawan, New Jersey. At the tender age of 16, we were all very impressed with each other’s playing. We realized that there was much common ground in our musical taste, so we started playing together occasionally at their mom’s, Rosemary, house.

Eventually, we all ventured off into other projects and uncharted territories. We are friends and musical compadres to this day. Steve and I are label mates on Wicked Cool Records. As musical Director for Stevie Van Zandt “Little Steven” and The Disciples of Soul, I get called each year to be the Musical Director for the Bruce Springsteen Archives American Music Honors at Monmouth University.

This year, I called John Conte to play bass for the American Music Honors on April 24. The honorees are Jackson Browne, Mavis Staples, Dion, and John Mellencamp.

How did you pick up the guitar, and what was your first guitar? 

My cousin, who is two years older and someone I looked up to as a kid, got a guitar and started taking lessons. I visited him at his apartment in Brooklyn when I was 11. In the corner of his room was this acoustic guitar. In some unexplainable, transcendent way, it shined like a beacon of hope and salvation.

On the way home that night, I asked my parents if I could learn to play guitar. That week, they bought me a Giannini acoustic guitar from the local music store, and I never looked back. It became the Holy Grail and my eternal salvation.

Of your older work, what albums mean the most, and why? 

My first album, titled Life is But a Dream, was released in 2002. That holds a special place in my heart. Most of the album was written after a life-threatening health crisis where I spent four months in the hospital. Shortly after I was released from the hospital, we all experienced the 9/11 terrorist attacks. During those very challenging days, the songwriting process provided a sanctuary of hope and understanding that helped me get through to the other side.

 For the new record, Armageddon, where are you pulling from in terms of songwriting?

I started writing what turned out to be my new album, Armageddon, during the strange dark days of the pandemic and the fallout from the last election and insurrection. In the middle of all the internal turmoil that I was processing, I started becoming very nostalgic about how things were when I was a kid.

Everything seems so hopeful, vibrant, fresh, and new. I began to write several songs about what it was like growing up. The album is an observational contrast of where we are now as a society and the seemingly hopeful place of endless possibility that we grew up in.

 Which song means the most to you, and why?

If you get a copy of the Armageddon album on old-school vinyl, you’ll notice that Side A is about the treacherous times we live in. The media and our leaders continually influence the unprecedented division we are experiencing in this country and the world at large. It’s become nearly impossible to tell the truth from a lie or foe from a friend. It’s challenging and disheartening, to say the least.

Side B is very nostalgic and sentimental about where we came from: the ’60s peace and love, free love, the incredible Renaissance of music, television, and art: The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, the ’69 Mets, the Chicago, seven, etc., etc., etc.

The last song that I wrote for the record, and one that has become more meaningful as time goes on, was a little pop ditty called “Dick Cavett.” As it turns out, Dick was at the very epicenter of the culture and all its glory, interviewing everyone from John Lennon to Janis Joplin, Muhammad Ali, Jimi Hendrix, Truman Capote, Salvador Dali, Raquel Welch, Jackie Gleason, and all of our favorite Rockstars, media icons, and cultural figures of the times.

The list is endless. It was only fitting that I write a song about this incredible, brilliant, hilarious gentleman who presented the Renaissance to us all on a TV screen in our living rooms. Somehow, from some magical, mystical dream, I got to meet Dick, and he invited us to his home to make a music video. I pinch myself every day and thank my lucky stars.

How do you view the way you sing today versus the past? What has changed most? 

When I first started singing as a preteen, it all just naturally came out pure and innocent, without any intended color or inflection. As I became more serious about singing in my mid to late teens, I began mimicking the tonalities I would hear from my favorite singers.

As I became a more accomplished singer/songwriter in my early 20s, I started searching for my own sound. Now that I’m a bit older, I let the song dictate the tone and emotion. The singing is expressed more organically without as much scrutiny or judgment. The older I get, the more content I am with what comes out naturally and the connection between emotion and the pure act of singing.

In retrospect, I realize that it has come full circle since I was a kid. This shows that we come to this earth with a certain amount of innate knowledge and wisdom. I guess the key is to try and remember where it all began and hold on for dear life.

Tell me about your gear: guitars, amps, pedals. 

I would say I’m a traditionalist. My favorite guitars, which I own and play depending on the project, are a Fender Telecaster, Stratocaster, Gibson, Les Paul, ES-335, and SG. I also like to use Rickenbacker 12-string guitars, a Gibson J-200, A Guild 12-string acoustic, and a Collings D3 that I purchased 30 years ago.

I’m pretty conservative with my use of pedals unless the project calls for it. With The Disciples of Soul, I need to recreate many different guitar colors from Stevie Van Zandt’s past records. In that case, I will use much more processing at times. This includes the Eventide H9, the Eventide digital delay, the Boss Leslie pedal, the Electro-Harmonix Ravish sitar pedal, and a couple of different tremolo pedals.

My Crunch pedal is an old, early 2000s Fulltone Full Drive 2. A while ago, the toggle switch that selects between vintage, no compressor, and modern broke, so I bypassed it by soldering two of the leads together. Something magical happened; it became one of the coolest and nastiest crunch-tone pedals on the planet.

I have bought five others since, and none of them come close to the tone I get from this one. One day, I will ask one of my guitar techhead geek friends to figure out exactly what happened when those wires were jumped. Then, I will be able to share the modification with all my friends out there in TonePedalLand.

My amps vary from many black-face Fenders, such as a Deluxe, Super Reverb, Princeton, or Vibro Champ. I use Supro amps on the road, mainly The Neptune and the Black Magik. Depending on the tone that I need, I also have a Marshall combo, Matchless Lightning, Vox AC15, and an old Danelectro amp.

What’s one thing about you as a musician that you’d like people to understand?

I care deeply about what happens to my fellow man and the environment. I feel very strongly that we desperately need to come to a place of unity; otherwise, it won’t be long before we blow this whole thing up. Like my compadres, I am always willing to donate my time when needed, whether it’s by writing a song for a cause, producing a charity show, or whatever I can do with music to help make a difference.

What are your short and long-term goals? How will you achieve them?

Needless to say, the music business has changed drastically in the past couple of decades and is a mere shell of its former existence. My primary goals have not changed much. They are to write, produce, and perform music with extremely talented people I care about and enjoy spending time with. That is what got me hooked in the first place.

I will achieve this by continuing to nurture my relationships with friends and musicians whom I’ve had the honor of connecting with throughout the years.

An Interview with Marc Ribler of Little Steven’s Disciples of Soul article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2024

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