"Them that can't do, teach. Them that can't teach, teach teachers!"
Well...except for ME!
I can do; approximately 10,000 gigs since 1969.
I can teach; 50-100 personal students a week since the middle eighties. And that’s not counting the thousands of Site Members who have signed up at MasterGuitarSchool.com.
Many of my students are teachers; many of my former students teach guitar. So I can teach teachers.
Just because you’re a good player doesn’t mean you’re a good teacher; those are two different skill sets.
Because of the COVID shutdown, many pro guitarists whose income depended on gigs found themselves scrambling to survive. Many turned to teaching only to discover they weren't cut out for it. Over the last year and a half I have fielded calls from frustrated, established players asking my advice on teaching.
Questions about how to teach, how to organize material, how to generate referrals, how to deal with students' lack of focus and commitment, how to keep from being pissed off all the time and so on.
I spent about 15 years as a full time performer before I started teaching seriously. So I know the adjustments that have to be made. The first 2 or 3 years of teaching several hours a day, I was forced through a rigorous self-analysis that went something like this:
"Self," I thought, "This student is doing everything right. He's doing everything that I said to do; why does he still sound bad? What am I doing that I didn't tell him?"
Then, with an analytical mindset, I would observe myself play and define everything I was doing - what I had actually been doing for years without thinking. In most cases, what I didn't tell him had something to do with technique.
Don't misunderstand, I didn't spring from the womb as a fully-formed player, no one does. There was a time when I learned what to do. There was a time when I did a ton of thinking and analysis. I studied and worked hard. I took a decade of lessons from two very good - perhaps genius - teachers.
But through constant use and repetition on the gig, that knowledge was sublimated. I wasn't consciously accessing it, but it was always there; like computer programs running in the background. At first it was difficult to bring it all back into my conscious awareness.
There is a famous quote attributed to Charlie Parker:
“Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget all that bullshit and just play.”
People focus on the last half and ignore the first half. You can't forget something you never mastered.
In my opinion, Parker misspoke; I get what he's saying, but you don't "forget" - you sublimate.
Check out this interview of Charlie Parker by Paul Desmond. At 2:37 Parker starts talking about how much work he put into learning. He says at one point his neighbors asked his mother to move; he was driving them crazy, practicing "11 to 15 hours a day...for a period of 3 or 4 years." Charlie Parker definitely did the “master your instrument, master music” part.
In the middle eighties I attended a John Scofield clinic. This was during his Jazz-Funk stage and he was crossing over to Rock and Metal players. The event was full of Metal Heads; there was a lot of big eighties hair in the room.
BTW: I am in favor of anything that exposes jazz content and concepts to a broader audience, no matter what other, more popular, genre it happens to fuse with.
Scofield wrote the changes to "Autumn Leaves" on the blackboard. He then proceeded to define a mode for every chord in the tune. Then he got a local jazzer to accompany him while he soloed through the form.
As far as I could tell, he did very little of what he said when he talked about playing modally; I heard linear expressions of the bitonal triads of chord alterations and extensions, I heard lines implying tritone chord subs; I heard all kinds of stuff that was not what he spoke of when "teaching."
I looked around the room and wondered how many of the Hair Metal guys thought that what they were hearing was what he had defined earlier.
When he started actually playing, what he "taught" went out the window; he was playing from all his sublimated stuff, just like he does on stage every night.
Scofield is a great player and I'm a big, big fan, he's one of my favorite guitarists, but that was not good teaching.
Also in the eighties, I had a student that bought a teaching video of Eric Johnson. I'm also a big fan of Eric Johnson. My student invited me over to his place so we could watch it together.
It was painful watching Eric Johnson try to explain what he was doing. It was a perfect example of a great player who has sublimated all his technique and musical knowledge and then trying to present it in any kind of understandable, logical way.
I understood him because I already knew what he was talking about, but my student was mostly mystified.
For example, Johnson said, "A lot of times I'll play a Minor Pentatonic and add a 6th and a 2nd to it."
He then got a weird look on his face and said, "I suppose if you add a 2nd and a 6th to a Pentatonic it's some other kind of scale, but whatever."
What?! I couldn't believe that shot wasn't edited out of the video.
Ok...if you are a player who doesn't teach, whatever works for you. Like I said, I'm a big fan of Eric Johnson. But if you teach, you need to have things a little more defined because your student doesn't already know that what you are playing is a DORIAN MODE!
If you are a really good player, you have put in the time, whether in a formal sense or not. Then, through constant use and repetition, you sublimated it. To be a good player, that's what you have to do. Charlie Parker, John Scofield and Eric Johnson being cases-in-point.
But if you are ever going to be a good teacher, you must bring all that stuff back up into your conscious awareness.
I said I studied for years with two very good, if not genius, teachers.
The first was 3 years of Classical guitar with Douglas Niedt. Keep in mind this was pre-internet; so one-on-one, in person (the best way).
Doug taught me how to think analytically about technique. About my hands, my whole body actually, hand position, about the most efficient way to move, how to come up with the best way to finger things and so on.
I mentioned that when I discovered something that I was doing that I didn't tell my student, most of the time it had to do with technique. The lessons with Doug modeled a way for me to teach my students good technique, and how to think about it.
Then I studied for 7 years with John Elliott. John was not a guitarist, he was a Jazz pianist and arranger. So he didn't deal with technique at all, it was all about content. However, his system for applying music theory to the guitar is the best I've ever seen. My students get into John's material if they get advanced enough. I plagiarize him like crazy - is it plagiarism if he approved my book?
Back to the Charlie Parker quote; notice the sequence?
"Master your instrument, master music..."
Due to sheer dumb luck (or maybe Providence), I did things in the right order. The classical thing was all about technique and reading (master your instrument); my studies with John was all about musical content (master music).
Even though I deal with both areas more-or-less at the same time (each affects the other), when I first start teaching someone, no matter where they are on the continuum of proficiency, the lessons are heavily weighted on the technique side - "master your instrument."
The longer I teach a person, the more towards content the lessons tilt - "master music."
As a teacher, you need to have both these areas codified. A methodical, systematic approach to technique and also to musical content, i.e. music theory as applied to the guitar.
My experience as a student provided me a model for teaching. There were also aspects of my experience as a student that provided negative examples. Things that I consciously chose to not do as a teacher. That’s important too.
So if you’re a long-time player testing the teaching waters, know that you have a lot of stuff to teach, but it’s sublimated and you’ll have to bring it back to your conscious awareness in order to teach it.
You might have to give some thought to organizing or codifying it into some kind of system. You need a system for the technique-stuff, and you need a system for the music-stuff.
All that's not an easy thing to do, but doing it, and teaching it, has made me a better player. I don't know about you, but I need all the help I can get and it never hurts to revisit the basics, over and over.
P.S. There's a whole 'nother area that you'll need to tackle if you're a long-time player dipping into the teaching waters, and this is where most of the guys I know sabotage the whole deal.
How do you stay patient? How can you extend your tolerance level? How do you keep from becoming angry? Disappointed? How do you deal with students who you think are waste of time? How much should you invest emotionally in your students? How much of an asshole do you need to be for the good of the student?
Notice that I didn't conclude that my student had no "talent" - I concluded there was something I wasn't telling him. That position rests on a presupposition. What are your presuppositions?
I'll save this concept for a future blog, but the answer to these questions aren't the same for everybody, but in every case they involve doing a bunch of work on YOUR psychological/emotional issues.
Sign up as a Master Guitar School site member - it's free! - and get access to dozens of free site-based lessons, a monthly newsletter that