Skype Guitar Lessons

Gearing Up for DjangoFest 2012

by Joe Walker, 5 Sep 2012, in Gear

Gypsy Jazz GuitarLast September, I attended my first DjangoFest. I took a couple workshops with Michael Horowitz (owner of, and one of my wedding musicians) and Stochelo Rosenberg (wow). I've since dabbled here and there in the concepts I picked up, but I've been more focused over the past year on my teaching and other styles. Gypsy jazz has a specific technique, sound, and repertoire that all take time and commitment to master.

So I checked out this year's lineup to see if I'll want to attend again. Joscho Stephan will be there. This video of Joscho blew my mind five years ago, and is the reason I'm aware of and excited about modern gypsy jazz. (That, and I was taking lessons with Steve Nichols in San Diego a few years ago when he was shedding Django tunes for his new band, The Gypsy Swing Cats.)

I grabbed the phone to sign up for this year's DjangoFest (Sep 20-23) and to make sure I'll be in Joshco's workshop. And since I've been thinking about it for a while, what better time to buy my own gypsy jazz guitar? I did my research, tried out several options, and settled on the Atamira M10D, all a very quick process with headquarters located a few miles from my doorstep. Here's a little video:

More to come as I keep learning!

I Got a Mandolin for Christmas

by Joe Walker, 2 Jan 2012, in Gear

My wife got me a mandolin for Christmas! I did not see that coming. She is awesome.

It's a Savannah SF-100. I had been thinking for a while about buying myself a ukulele or mandolin. I've played both quite a bit (see I'm Learning the Mandolin from two years ago) but never owned one. I always tell potential guitar students who are worried about their small hands to grab a 3/4-size guitar or a ukulele. Now I can recommend a mandolin too!

Perfect timing on this gift; I recently started learning bluegrass guitar. I saw The Pitchfork Revolution play at an event last month, and a few days later I had a student call and ask if I teach bluegrass. So I said, "You know what, yes. I do now." And I immediately started learning from Russ Barenberg's Teach Yourself Bluegrass Guitar, and I was really digging it. Now that I've got a mando too, I can really get into the music. Who wants to buy me a banjo?

Once I get some new strings from Webstrings and a little setup work done, I think it will sound quite pretty. It already feels pretty great for one's first mandolin. And I'll be studying every video I can find from Nickel Creek's phenomenon, Chris Thile:

My Approach to Composition

by Joe Walker, 17 Nov 2011, in Thoughts

Music CompositionThe only rule of composing is that there are no rules. It's like Calvinball. As for my approach, I try to take a new perspective with each new composition. This might mean beginning with a title instead of a song structure or chord progression or melody and letting the rest follow. It might mean composing outside on some days, inside on others, sometimes standing on my head. I might choose an absurd set of instruments before I start writing, just to see what happens.

All this variety has a real purpose, and it's not just for variety in my music. I'm not particularly interested in variety in my results. I'm interested in inspiration. The phrase above, "just to see what happens," gets to the core of it. I've actually never tried standing on my head while composing yet, but when I do, it will be in pursuit of inspiration.

I think of it as if I have two minds that contribute to art: a conscious, judging, analytical, inhibited mind, and an unconscious, embracing, emotional, divinely-inspired mind. These might equate to left and right brain, but I prefer to call them front and back. The front is always on when I'm awake, while the back turns itself on and off willy-nilly. The front is where I store music theory, deadlines, distractions, instrument ranges, Sibelius chops, etc. The back is the source of all that is good, but because I can't turn it on at will, I need to prepare with the front mind, prodding the back to open up and drop me some gold nuggets. If you've ever had a great melody pop into your head, and you wrote it down so you wouldn't lose it, that was your back mind offering up a gift and your front mind accepting it. You need both to compose anything good.

My front mind is the reason I can crank out a tune in a couple hours. I wrote one today. I can make a bunch of random choices about the structure, progressions, etc., enough to form a complete piece, but without any inspiration, it's worthless. (Someone else might enjoy it, but until I do, no one else will hear it.) That's why I consciously vary my composing situations. Repetition and familiar settings don't yield much inspiration, but discomfort in a foreign environment might do the trick. Ever found yourself suddenly able to write a paper in the final hours before it's due? The pressure does wonders for creative juices.

This visualization revealed itself to me after I wrote "Defending Their Turf" last year. I started with a random sequence of chords (literally; I used a random number generator to produce the chord progression) just to see if it would work musically. I liked the first chord, then for the second chord I heard something a little different in my head, so I changed it. Then I lost a few hours to a frenzy of inspiration, changing every last pre-selected chord to what was coming out of my head. The piece that emerged is still my favorite original piece to date.

Learning Sweep Arpeggios

by Joe Walker, 3 Sep 2011, in Skills

I've never been into sweep arpeggios. That's not to say I avoided them on purpose, I just never felt motivated to practice them. I dig a lot of rock/metal players that use sweep arpeggios extensively, so it was only a matter of time before they became the target of my ever-shifting obsessions.

The catalyst was a confluence of a couple events this week: I attended a metal show to see and old friend perform (saw two players with amazing chug-a-lug, speed-picking, and sweep arpeggio chops), and I watched some Metalocalypse the next day. Something made me want to learn this technique immediately.

Sweep Arpeggio Shapes

One hurdle that prevented me from jumping on this earlier was that I didn't know what arpeggio shapes are used for sweeping. Most of the arpeggios I've really worked on over the years were 7th arpeggios, which use a combination of one and two notes per string, not very conducive to sweeping. I worked briefly with some John Petrucci exercises long ago, but his shapes were mostly mechanical, designed to get the sweeping feel into your fingers, not for making real music.

So I looked up a few YouTube videos on how to play sweep arpeggios, got the general idea, then modified the shapes to my own tastes. I decided to stick to only major and minor triads. They seem like the most-used shapes in shred sweeping. Even if they weren't, they're still fundamental to tonal music. Why master more complex ideas without conquering triads first?

There are six sweep arpeggio shapes I'm working with: root position, first inversion, and second inversion of major and minor. Each shape contains eight notes. Ascending and descending, without repeating the highest or lowest note, makes a total of 14 notes, so I put each example below in 7/8.

Major Root Position

Major Sweep Arpeggio Root Position

Minor Root Position

Minor Sweep Arpeggio Root Position

Major First Inversion

Major Sweep Arpeggio First Inversion

Minor First Inversion

Minor Sweep Arpeggio First Inversion

Major Second Inversion

Major Sweep Arpeggio Second Inversion

Minor Second Inversion

Minor Sweep Arpeggio Second Inversion

How to Practice Sweep Arpeggios

I'm still pretty slow at these things, compared to the professionals, but I've made pretty rapid progress in the last few days. I play these primarily in quintuplets. I know, it strains the mind a bit, but it ensures that every note is played evenly; your perception is never skewed by hearing the pattern in the same rhythmic position every time. Each of these shapes can be broken down into smaller, more manageable chunks. I find it especially engaging to apply sweep arpeggios to common pop chord progressions like i-bVI-bIII-V or I-iii-vi-IV. And for long-term daily warmup exercises, nothing works better than my new Custom Flash Cards application (preset to the settings I use, just for you).

Rob's Totally Awesome Guitar Teaching Handbook

by Joe Walker, 25 Aug 2011, in Resources

Guitar Teaching HandbookI've been working rather incessantly on my new business, Deft Digits Guitar Lessons, and I bought a wonderful book on teaching guitar the other day. That's the actual title above, Rob's Totally Awesome Guitar Teaching Handbook. As other reviewers have indicated, the title is appropriate.

I first discovered the author, Rob Hampton, through his blog at Heartwood Guitar in 2007. It wasn't long after I started From the Woodshed, and I was fascinated with reading other guitar blogs and connecting with fellow writers. Rob's site grabbed my attention because he was operating in my hometown, Seattle (I was living in Southern California at the time), and his blog offered great advice on running a successful guitar teaching business. I wasn't currently teaching, but I had taught previously, enjoyed it, and I knew it would be in my future if I was to make a living as a musician.

The Book

I've known about this book for a few years. I'm a little late to the game reading it, as many of my guitar blogging colleagues have long since written unanimously positive reviews on it. I've been looking forward to reading it all this time, and I finally bought the 148-page e-book a few days ago. I devoured it in a day, I loved it, and I'm as jacked up on teaching guitar as I've ever been. The book is divided into three chapters: 1. whether you should teach, 2. how to make money teaching, 3. how to teach. Rob has an M.A. in Education, so he knows his stuff when it comes to effective teaching. The middle section was the most useful and timely for me, as I'm still in the early stages of building my business, adding students, and eventually filling my schedule.

Great Advice

You can preview the contents of Rob's book at his site, but I'll run through some of the most valuable insights I found.

In the first chapter, Rob guides the reader through a bit of soul-searching. Are you right for this? If you're considering teaching guitar, you obviously love music and guitar, but do you love to teach? I've known since I started teaching lessons in high school that I love doing this, and it definitely belongs in my definition of "being a musician."

Running your own teaching business doesn't have to take up all your time. Make your lessons amazing, develop your teaching skills, be a "premium" teacher, and charge "premium" rates. This might require more work up front, but far less in the end. Rob currently charges $80 per hour for his lessons, with a full schedule and a long waiting list. He can charge that rate because he did so much initial work to create a high demand for his teaching. Now he only devotes about 20 hours per week to lessons and spends the rest of his time on other things.

Rob emphasizes the importance of branding. He highly recommends getting a professionally-designed logo before you even start teaching. I haven't had mine done yet. Perhaps by the time you read this, Deft Digits will have a more polished look, but for now it's my mediocre image-editing skills and questionable design intuition.

Rob shares some great tips on creating flyers and where to post them. He even provides his personal flyer designs as downloadable templates.

Fellow guitar teachers are your friends, not your competition. Well, they are your competition, but be friendly. Most guitar students select a teacher by referral, and a huge chunk of those referrals come from other guitar teachers, so make all the friends you can.

There's a great section on writing a "Policies" document. The message: get something in writing that ensures teacher and student have an understanding, but don't be crazy. Be flexible, and trust people until they give reason not to (learned that from my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Pilz). But I also like the approach taken by the RAs at last year's National Guitar Workshop: lay down the law in an authoritarian voice on day one, then relax and don't be a hard-ass. I take a moderate approach with my lessons: make the policies as clear as possible to avoid any disputes, then be flexible and friendly in practice.

Teach what the student wants to learn! Most guitar students don't want to be well-rounded musicians. They don't want to be your "ideal student". They pay you for a rewarding experience, so you need to figure out what that means for each student and deliver it.

There's an illuminating walk-through of Rob's daily routine.

Small talk is important. Rob actually budgets time for it each lesson. Don't think of it as wasting the student's money; it builds a rapport and ultimately contributes to that rewarding experience.

The section on modifying lessons for kids was most helpful. I've only taught a few youngsters, and I presently limit myself to ages 10 and up, but I feel more confident about taking on smaller people now that I've read this.

Rob specializes in teaching beginners, and his best teaching advice is in this area. Beginners, especially adults, have courage. Some may be terrified of this new experience, so you must empathize. There's a detailed outline of the first lesson with a first-time player. It includes a list of essential first skills (how to hold a pick, etc.) to introduce before playing anything and a list of easy single-string melodies (nursery rhymes, classical, or rock, depending on the student). Beyond the first lesson, Rob explains effective means of teaching certain techniques and how to avoid early mistakes and bad habits by simplifying well-known riffs. There's a miniature gold mine in his list of easy songs that rock for beginners and intermediate players.

There's a wonderful section on how to give gracious, effective feedback and how to cater your teaching to several different learning styles.

Getting students motivated to practice is another tough task for the guitar teacher. Rob chooses to go easy on the young kids and adults, because they're usually only looking for a fun experience. Many don't practice much at all, and that's not a big deal. Teenagers, on the other hand, are usually in lessons because they really love it, and they often have dreams of a lifelong pursuit of music, so he expects more from them between lessons.

The Bonus Section

Buying the PDF unlocks the Bonus Section of Rob's website. It includes a crash course in creating your own teaching website, SEO advice, links to dozens of resources, and more downloadable templates. I must say, the SEO section was most intriguing, as that's a big reason Rob got so much business in the first place: his site holds the top Google rank for "Seattle guitar lessons". (Funny, that's the exact phrase I'm now targeting.)

Buy It!

I'm only sort of new to teaching guitar. I taught my first lessons 11 years ago during a few summers in my high school and college years. Then I taught here and there for the last few years in San Diego before taking it up as a full-time endeavor here in Seattle. So much of Rob's book confirmed and articulated the convictions I've already formed about teaching. But there was enough new and fascinating material in there to give me a more confident direction in running my business. It made me rethink The Essentials, my most important advice to guitar students, and it will likely give me food for thought in every new teaching challenge I face. Rob's book is full of fantastic advice for any guitar teacher, but it's essential reading for those of us with less experience. Go buy it!