Am I good enough to go pro? Can a hobby really be transformed into a money making career? I have passion and enthusiasm in abundance, but will that really translate up on stage? And even if it does, how on earth do I go about making it happen?
These are the questions that circulate in the back of a talented guitarist’s mind. Whether we’re sneaking in a couple hours of practice after work or toiling away in a garage band - the idea of breaking into the industry continues to allure. For the vast majority, the path from good to great, and from amateur to pro is obscure, a dream we fumble towards in the dark, alone and unadvised.
London’s Tech Music School may hold the answers. Whether you dream of shredding to the hundred thousand strong crowd at Download, playing rhythm for One Direction, working in a pit in the West End, or comprehensively mastering the art of the guitar – they’ve got it covered. Their list of Alumni is impressive, as are their star-studded master classes - who wouldn’t relish the chance to learn from Paul Gilbert?
Still, the doubts persist. How do they go about teaching guitar to a class? Will I fit in? Would I fall behind? Will I be allowed to be myself or will I be transformed into a characterless jack-of-all-trades? Is this course right for me?
The opportunity appears irresistible, but the idea of paying for a one or three year course feels alien. So rather than relying on a PR print out or word of mouth, Guitar Planet put these question directly to the Tech Music School’s Head of Guitar, John Wheatcroft (the man responsible for shaping both the one and three year guitar courses).
We started by getting a feel for John and his professional background in the music industry:
I’m sure our readers will be dying to know what kind of professional experience you have away from teaching, who you have played with and what kind of industry knowledge you bring to the course?
I have two different streams to what I do as a guitar player. There’s me as a freelance player, where I’ll play for other artists. Then there’s the stuff I do when I play my own thing.
Now the stuff I do is mainly jazz orientated, and fusion. I’ve got a jazz ensemble loosely based on Django Reinhardt’s legacy but it’s a more modern interpretation, called Ensemble Futur. Then I’ve got a fusion line up with Darby Todd, he’s drummed with Buddy Wittington (John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers) and he was in Justin Hawkins’ post-Darkness band.
But I’ve done all sorts of things from jazz to rock, to playing bass, I’ve even written a book about the blues, I’ve written for all of the guitar magazines, and I’m working for the Associate Board for the Rhodes School of Music.
When you’re away from the classroom, what excites you as a player and as a music fan?
I like improvisation. I’m really keen on players who can think fast, like Michael Breaker and Allan Holdsworth. But I like things that aren’t played on the guitar, I like things that have got heart, and soul, and that are viby. So I enjoy Eric Clapton and Cream, but I can also admire and appreciate Kurt Rosenwinkel.
Were you always fascinated by technique and theory or is it a role you grew into?
I was always fascinated by music; technique and theory are just a means to convey that. Just as you may like the works of Dickens and Shakespeare and as a by-product you have to get into grammatical composition, to better understand how it works.
When I was young I used to play along with records, Hendrix and Clapton, before Django got me into jazz. I was fascinated by what it was they did, I didn’t exactly want to play like any of those guys but I wanted to play as well as them. I wanted to know, how I might go about doing similar things.
When it comes to committing to a Tech School, a guitarist may wonder “Am I good enough, is this course for me”? So is there any base skill level a guitarist would need to apply, and who is the one-year guitar course aimed at?
Yes there is really. The one-year course is aimed at players who are proficient enough to play in a band, but maybe who have some holes in their game. You need to be able to play a number of tunes from a selection of songs at the audition process. It’s a helpful process; it allows us understand how well someone can play in quite an exposed environment.
I see the one-year course as a bit of a leveller. So for example, you may play in a band, you might be good in a particular style – a great blues player say – but you don’t know the first thing about finger style, or acoustic playing, or if someone put a chart in front of you, you’d just about know which way up it went on the stand.
You come out of the course with a good level of general musicianship. You’d know how to read, you’d understand the fret board, you’d know the modes and scales that are in common usage, in some degree of depth, and you’d be able to apply these things in a musical situation.
How approachable is the class if you have your four GCSE’s or A-Levels but aren’t familiar with the lecture or course environment; will you feel like you’ve been thrown in at the deep end?
I kind of thought that before I started teaching here. A class of guitarists is going to be a bunch of egomaniacs tearing each other to pieces, but it’s not the way that it transpires in reality. It’s a very supportive environment in the class.
Generally speaking, I think the students can learn as much from each other as they can from the teachers. Usually what you find is that every student has his particularly strengths, and his own unique set of weaknesses. So even if someone excels in one class, it doesn’t mean they’ll do well across the board. It levels it’s self out.
We keep the class sizes small, so we can spot anyone who falls behind in the class. We’ve got an extensive tutorial system as well. So we’re really accessible. If someone is struggling with a certain class or if something didn’t quite add up, they can come and see me, or one of the other tutors - we all have tutorial slots available.
Each student will find a tutor they have an affinity for. If they’re a really technique driven rock guy they can work with Jim Clark, or if they’re after West End pit work or being a session player they’ll get a lot from Al Cherry.
The majority of our readers will be used to one-on-one lessons with an instructor, but the idea of a course or a class will be a new experience.
In your local one-on-one lesson, if the teacher’s not very strong and hasn’t got a clear idea as to what they are going to teach, the student will say “I want to do this” and will lead the lesson. The teacher will accommodate that, but there’s a combination between what’s good for the student and what they might actually be interested in. The role of the course is to expand the range, to introduce new things, and new ideas.
In my experience it’s the guy with a Jackson guitar, leather jacket and long hair that gets the most out of looking at Charlie Parker. The classes are formal to an extent, we have learning outcomes, but we end up with a good relationship with the students. It isn’t lecture driven, we don’t just deliver the class as the students take notes, they’re playing along.
We’re not just trying to create jack of all trade guitarists. It’s like Mastermind: not only have you got to be good all round but you’ll have a specialist subject.
Say I’m a guitarist who is completely new to jazz and the student sitting next to me has been playing that style for years, what happens if don’t gain a good grasp of a technique in a 60 minute session, will I be left stranded?
No, that’s not the case at all. We’ll give examples that are multi-level. We’ll say here’s how you make a start with this technique, at that level.
Then you can expand. When you’re accommodating people who have previous experience, you have to say, here’s a way this particular concept can be employed, and here’s how we take it further. We’ll show you that you have the potential to take it here, here, here, here or wherever it might be.
If you’re going to teach a practical skill, it could be pottery, there is always going to be someone who is completely new to a particular idea, and then there’s going to be someone who has a little bit of previous experience. You just accommodate that with good teaching, that’s why we’re very fussy about who we employ.
So you might not master every technique under the sun, but you’ll be constantly adding new strings to your bow?
What’s really important is to show how all this information relates. If all the classes were independent it would be too much information for the student to memorise, but if you can relate information, and expand one idea into another, everything you learn will relate to something else. We don’t look at what makes a style unique; we look at what brings them together, to help players understand.
For example learning Reggae if you’re a bluesman, isn’t completely alien. The harmony can be broadly similar. The improvisation vocabulary can be very similar, it’s may be just a different rhythmic thrust, but a lot of the information may be very similar to something they already know.
Ah…so there is no prototypical student?
It could be anyone. I’ve just seen a whole bunch of performers’ projects and I’ve seen everything from Frank Zappa instrumental jazz-rock to singer songwriters, Celtic acoustic guitar playing with vocals, and a great French guitar player who played electro-swing.
But these very diverse students will be able to apply what they’ve learnt in a professional environment?
I’m not a country player, but if I was called in to do a session. I could do something stylistically that was in the bag, and I believe our students could do the same. It also means, that when you play; you’ve got a wider palette of sounds to draw from. We’re not catering for pit musicians exclusively, we’ve got someone playing for One Direction, and he can play great blues and funk, but he’s onstage doing contemporary pop.
Ultimately, it means the decisions you make as a guitar player are based upon choice and not upon ignorance. Looking at the great R’n’B players isn’t going to turn you into Steve Cropper, nor is learning a Thrash riff going to turn you into the guitarist from Slayer. The modern guitarist is multi-styled. Think about the guitarist in Beyonce’s band, one minute it sounds like Jimi Hendrix, the next its Prince.
A lot of aspiring guitarists and many of our readers can be quite territorial. If I were to come into the class as a metal or folk guitarist, for example, would I feel like the tutors spoke my language, would I fit in and be free to develop my sound, or is the class pulled in one direction?
I encourage the student to have an open mind. If you are into metal, that’s absolutely fantastic, I respect that. I know that an amazing metal guitarist has put in the same level of effort and dedication as an amazing finger style guitar player. It’s just different skills.
So what I suggest is that you stay open minded. If you want to get the edge and create the unique sound, you might actually get some new ideas by looking at the finger style of Tommy Emmanuel and thinking “what I could I take from him, and interpret in my own way”. A great shredder like Michael Lee Firkins learnt a lot from listening to Albert Lee - who couldn’t be further away in terms of surface structure.
The student will be very well equipped to survive in any situation, and can develop their own style. We have people tearing it up on the jazz scene and people who are great metal players, because that’s their thing.
We might take someone who is quite narrow but enthusiastic and see by the end of the course he’s playing in a number of different styles, composing his own music, he’s able to turn up to rehearsals and read a chart. We’re talking real, employable skills.
The broader your range of influences the better, because you’re not going to run out of ideas. The real proof is in hearing our students play.
Hampered by ill health, but never ones to retire shyly, The Who continue celebrating their 50th anniversary as they contemplate retirement.
Guitar Planet grades the creative comebacks from three iconic artists who are attempting to give 2015 a much-needed injection of impetus.
Guitar Planet takes on new albums by southern stars Blackberry Smoke, nu-metal icons Papa Roach and the legendary Venom.
The music industry’s glamorous state of the union address was delivered this weekend, but what did the Grammys have to say about guitar music?
Enter Shikari renew their archly political assault while expanding their sonic horizons on The Mindsweep.