Metal Guitar Lessons with Jeff!
Jeff is an amazing guitarist – our resident metal expert, and a great guy! Please enjoy this interview – chock full of good advice, and some funny road stories too! And, of course, drop us a line to schedule guitar lessons with Jeff! (Live, virtual lessons)
When did you first start playing? I fell in love with music at a really early age – after being totally mesmerized by my elementary school’s concert band, I begged the music teacher to let me join a year early. So I picked up the tuba (the biggest and loudest choice available to me at the time) in 4th grade. Two years later, I heard Led Zeppelin on the radio and immediately asked for a guitar, which I got for my 12th birthday.
What was music like for you as a kid? As a kid, music was exciting! YouTube didn’t exist yet and there weren’t a lot of teachers where I grew up, so while I learned to read music in my school’s concert band (which I did all the way through high school), guitar was a split between some lessons and a LOT of self-guided exploration. I had three friends who also played, and we would stay up all night learning songs, figuring out new sounds, jamming, listening, writing, and absorbing whatever we could. I was buying a lot of theory books and was so excited to figure out how it all fit together. A few of us made a band and wrote some songs, but there weren’t any venues… so the real education happened when we had to learn 3 or 4 hours of cover songs to play at backyard parties.
Tell me about some of your favorite musicians. My favorite musicians have usually fallen under the description of, “rockers who have done their homework” – and they led me to really broaden my horizons.
My first love was Jimmy Page. His versatility is off the charts, he never plays anything the same way twice, and he plays the instrument with his entire body. But more importantly, he produced all of Zeppelin’s records and made all those compelling soundscapes, from folk to heavy metal to psychedelia. He really covered a lot of ground in a tasteful way and introduced me to blues and folk music. I owe my love of folk greats like John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, and John Fahey to my early love of Zeppelin.
As a teenager, I spent a lot of time with the shredders like Eddie Van Halen. How can you not love Eddie? He changed the way we use our gear, he wrote the book on technique, his playing sounds like his guitar is on fire, his songs are as catchy as can be, and he did the whole thing with an infectious smile plastered on his face. The search for faster shredders led me to Yngwie Malmsteen. People focus on his speed, which was jaw dropping for me, but his musicality, his tone, his vibrato, his phrasing… he clearly heard things differently from most guitarists, and that led me into the world of classical music. Same with Michael Romeo, who I still think is the best “real composer” to step into the heavy metal world. His virtuosity is crazy, but the important thing was that his music opened my ears to more modern composers like Stravinsky, Bartok, Prokofiev, etc.. These days, most of my listening is in that world, from Bach to Mendelssohn to Debussy and everyone in between.
I can’t go without mentioning Brian May from Queen – the most tasteful and melodic player out there, with a brilliant sense of harmony and arrangement. My 20’s were a deep dive into his music and I learned a lot that I’d skipped over in my quest to become the fastest shredder.
I had thought that I’d already discovered all the great 70’s rock guitarists when I stumbled upon Rory Gallagher. Not only is he the guy who taught Brian May how to get his tone, he’s the most charismatic guitarist I’ve ever seen. He’s just so down to earth and charming, and his connection with the music and the audience was nothing short of spiritual! There’s a real honesty in his playing and his performance – everything is from the gut, everything is in the moment, and he never plays the same thing twice. It’s just real! After years of trying to be a technical wizard, I’ve found that the real wizardry is in the kind of playing that Rory does.
What advice would you give a beginner? There are two things you have to do to become a musician: listen to a lot of music, and play a lot of music.
Listening to a wide variety of things will help you develop a true love of music, and that will be more valuable to you than any amount of studying. Studying is great, and hard work is great, but the love of music is what keeps us going throughout the years. And when I say “play” a lot music, I really do mean that. This is PLAYING! You’re allowed to get messy. You’re allowed to try things, even if they’re silly. Don’t be afraid to mess up or make mistakes – you WILL make mistakes, and if you don’t, then you’re not learning!
Tell me about some of your favorite instructional books or materials. My personal favorite method book is called “The Olcott-Bickford Guitar Method” which is a complete guitar method from the 1920’s by Vahdah Olcott-Bickford, one of the first famous female guitarists. I think it’s the best way to learn to read music for the guitar. I was given a dusty old copy of it and have made countless copies and scanned tons of pages for my students.
Another favorite book is William Leavitt’s “Classical Studies for Pickstyle Guitar,” a collection of really cool classical pieces that can be played with a pick. Guitarists have been mining this book for inspiration for decades! I still have my beat up copy that I got 20 years ago and I play from it all the time.
I also love Ben Levin’s YouTube channel. He discusses theory in really interesting ways, and so much more of the parts of being a musician that people don’t talk about – performance anxiety, frustration if you’re not ‘getting better’, music as a career choice, etc..
What are the essential things for a beginner to have? Things have progressed so far in the last few years that beginners don’t need much to get started. If you’re playing acoustic guitar, then a guitar and a smartphone will get you most of the way there. You can download a tuner and a metronome now! With an electric guitar, you need a guitar, cable, amp, and phone. Smartphones also have the handy ability to let you videotape yourself, which is essential for improving your playing.
Beyond that, all you need is the willingness to make the time to play, a love of music, and hopefully some open-mindedness and curiosity!
What are some of your favorite things about teaching? Teaching is incredibly rewarding. I started doing it because I’d been in bands with people who teach, and they always had a great clarity to their playing. I realized it’s because they spent hours focusing on the basics and it made their foundations really solid, so that was my selfish reason to get started! 🙂
But I quickly found that it’s so much more than that. Music is a joyous thing that humans have been doing since the dawn of time, and helping people learn to take part in it is a wonderful experience. Even the most shy and reserved people can’t help but light up when it “clicks” and they start to get sounds out of their instrument.
My favorite moment is when a new musician finds their footing, and I go from teaching them to walk to guiding them on the journey. It usually goes like this: a few months into lessons, I point out to a student how far they’ve come. It’s so gradual that they hardly notice it, but there’s always a lesson when I say, “Hey, let’s go and revisit those songs that seemed impossible 3 months ago,” and they breeze through them in five minutes. Then they see their progress, and there’s a renewed confidence going forward that’s amazing to see. Everything starts to snowball from there and after that, they’re coming to lessons showing me all the things they’ve explored on their own and it’s all I can do to rein them in to work on one thing at a time!
Favorite styles of music to teach? One of the best parts of teaching is how it’s broadened my horizons into lots of different kinds of music.
I have a lot of fun teaching rock and roll and heavy metal – I spent my formative years playing that stuff, and toured the world doing it, so I can bring a lot of very practical knowledge to the table. Loud, rude punk music DOES have an art to it, and historical context, just like jazz or classical music. I really enjoy showing people the chronological progression of music, how players influenced each other over the years, and how we made it from Chuck Berry to speed metal virtuosity in just a few decades.
Blues and folk music are also really enjoyable to teach because they’re so improvisational. It’s so rewarding for new musicians when they learn that they can play simple music that lets them add their own ideas and personality to what they do, rather than “getting all the notes right.”
Lastly, a lot of modern indie stuff is incredibly fun to work with. The electric guitar has so many cool sonic possibilities, and indie rock is a great way to show someone how to experiment with that stuff. This music is also a great way to learn the art of songwriting, and it can bring in elements of other genres from folk to punk.
Pros and cons of online guitar lessons? Thanks to COVID-19, I’m doing all my teaching online. But I currently live in Seattle! Online teaching has been the name of the game for over a year now, thanks to the pandemic. I was really apprehensive about it at first, but I’ve found that there are pros as well as cons.
To be honest, the difference hasn’t been as big as I would have thought. A lot of people are more comfortable learning in their own environment, which is great. I’ve found that a lot of students progress more quickly when they have to play on their own, and they can’t do the “turn down and hide behind the teacher when we play together” thing that beginners are so fond of! For intermediate and advanced students, the focus really shifts to asking more pointed questions about what they’re doing. We cover a lot more theoretical ground and work less on ‘guitar’ stuff and more real ‘music’ questions.
The biggest challenge is that we can’t play together. That’s a real shame, and I encourage students to find local friends that they can learn some songs with. Playing with other people is one of the real joys of music, and I miss sharing that with students.
Memorable gig story? I have SO many crazy gig stories, haha. I think I’m a solid live performer these days, just because I’ve had EVERYTHING go wrong once or twice. I’ve been smacked in the face with guitars, bitten, booed, had a backdrop fall on me mid-song, had an entire pitcher of beer spilled on me and my new expensive guitar, gotten lost trying to find the stage like Spinal Tap, gotten an electrical shock so bad it almost knocked me out, and every equipment malfunction under the sun. But here’s one of my favorites:
I’d just joined this band and after only two rehearsals, headed to Europe for a 6 week tour. I remember plugging in my pedals on day 1 and one of them immediately burned up with a cartoony puff of smoke. A few weeks into the tour, the band decided to give me my “new guy hazing” when we had a small show in Milan, Italy. Near the end of the set, there’s a big dramatic heavy metal moment where the music cuts, the singer shrieks the name of the song like a banshee, and the band blasts back in, with me shredding for all I’m worth. We get to that part, the crowd goes wild, I strike my cool-guy pose and start tearing it up, only to realize that I have no idea what everyone else is playing… waitaminute, is that a country shuffle beat? I listen for a second and realize that instead of the mean thrash riff I’m supposed to play over, it’s the “King of the Hill” theme song. Little did they know that my high school band used to play that song, so I just jump right in like it was planned and throw their own joke right back at them! Good times 🙂