News Review

My last online teaching review (see the review) was also my first involved experience with the website as a medium for guitar tuition. As such, I dedicated much of the review to analyzing the format as a whole, and its comparative value to a ‘real world’ counterpart, whilst still trying to be specific to the site and task at hand. Now that I have cast off my proverbial ‘training wheels’ for this avenue for learning. I have a decent basis of understanding and point of reference for how a website like this should function, and what it should contain. Therefore, this review will be more ‘to the point’ and particular to the site itself, and how it rates against the competition.

Right off the bat, I put my ‘point of reference’ based review style to work. While I enjoyed the opening titles with a variety of artists tearing it up in a wide array of genre styles, I couldn’t find anything that introduced me to the interface of the site at first glance. Not really an issue though, as the format was simple and logical, and the layout was clear and easy enough to follow. Being the simple and logical guy I am, I decided to peruse the tutors, to see who I would like to learn off. Many of the teachers are based in rock and metal, which while I find fun, had no interest in learning.

You can check my previous review for an explanation of why these are the most prevalently featured styles on learning sites, or the internet as a whole for that matter. As if to confirm my hypothesis, I looked into the exclusive ‘premium forum’ under an article where a tutor gallantly offered to teach in the style of a well-known player. Reply requests ranged from Joe Satriani, to John Petrucci, to Frank Gambale, to Sean Lane, to Paul Gilbert, to…obviously these guys are listening to a plethora of different genres.

As a sustainable business, the website has to cater to the majority. Case and rant #2 concluded.

In the spirit of using the site to ‘genuinely learn something’ as my benchmark for quality, I found Mike Edwin. He seemed to be a suitably six-string obsessed tutor, with plenty of common ground in his taste and styles to mine. A good teacher is always going to be the ‘be all and end all’ in your lessons, whether they are online or not. Therefore, it correlates that teachers would be the primary yardstick that a site should be rated on.

Feeling an instantaneous gravitational pull toward his (ironically titled considering my aforementioned rant) ‘in the style of Joe Pass- Chordal Blues’, I decided this would be my first lesson. The idea of combining an opportunity to work on two of my favorite musical approaches (jazz and blues), with insight into a player who is a true god at what he does (check out the accurately titled album ‘Virtuoso’ if you ever have any doubt), was too good to ‘Pass’ up. (Sorry).

The audio and video quality in the clips were pristine. However there was no option for a ‘lower quality’ setting, which is very useful for slower computers or those with download caps.

There was also a single camera. Sites which can have three or more are very handy for checking the fingering on chord voicings etc, but this is not the end of the world. It just means the user has to be more proactive in their learning and use their ears more, which is essentially good in my books.

Daunted by Mr. Pass and his progeny on screen, I went into the ‘manageable’ sections where the piece was broken up into individual choruses. Surprisingly, There was very little tuition. All I received was a demo at tempo, followed by another in slower time.

I expected (maybe I am being a little baby here) to have the piece worked through in sections, as a teacher would. This was basically a youtube clip of someone playing something impressive, with a transcription notated below. A good way to learn for sure, but not really any more helpful than just teaching yourself off of records (or videos) the traditional way.

To be fair, I did skip straight to an ‘advanced lesson’, and perhaps learning from ‘beginner’ with Mike would have filled in some of the gaps. Nonetheless I will persevere.

Here we are a couple days later, and I have pretty much nailed the first chorus (at a slow BPM). Rather than spending the entire time I have allocated to this site being brutalized by the majesty of Mr. Pass via Mr. Edwin, I decided I to investigate some other areas for a broader assessment of (I will be back to learn the other two choruses).

Although I mentioned that Mike didn’t really teach anything other than giving me a demo and a lead sheet, the (chordal) shapes he employed on the piece were very utilitarian. Many of these I recognized from the classic ‘jazz guitar chord melody voicings’ that turn up recurrently, and are a staple in most player’s vocabularies. This is a great thing, as (for me at least) learning and memorizing the new and multitudinous positions for your fingers is one of the hardest parts of chord melody playing. I also copped a few new ones I didn’t use before, including a really nice dominant chord (in this case Eb13) voicing.

Moving on, I clicked the tutorials section, and went to the first appealing lesson I saw, which happened to be the first one on the list (this bodes well); the ‘Creative Scales: Pentatonic Hybrid Scale’ with Rick Graham. I have a love/hate relationship with the minor pentatonic scale. I love the sound of it, but hate the clichés it instantaneously provokes, especially when used exclusively and gratuitously. Despite striking me as a definite shredder (I shouldn’t be biased anyway), Rick had a nice demeanor and teaching style, and I appreciated his mention in the introductory lesson of the three main minor pentatonic sources.

The Dorian/Aeolian ones are constantly (ab)used – often, I suspect with little knowledge of which one is actually being applied, but the Phrygian version is a lesser-tapped goldmine for improvisation. I believe it is possibly the intervallic structure of the minor pentatonic scale itself (1, b3, 4, 5, b7) which has such an appeal to the ear, rather than the notes in relation to the chords they are being employed over (this is very subjective and open for debate). As such, using the Phrygian rendering of the scale can give a much more exotic and less worn-out mood to your improvisations, whilst retaining ‘that sound’.

Anyway, Rick’s lesson was on combining the Dorian and Aeolian renditions into one scale. I also like this, as anything to consciously deviate from mindlessly ‘munting away’ in that familiar and comfortable finger position, and starting to really think about and hear the notes instead, is a positive move for sure.

The lesson itself was no trouble to learn (also a positive). This is probably because of the familiarity of the scale with only a slight alteration, but I saw plenty of room for practice and further development in these ideas. I also liked what Rick mentioned in the 3rd lesson about making sure you restrict yourself to the one (hybrid) scale (for the time being), and work on being creative within those perimeters.

The teaching speed was prompt enough to avoid being repetitive, yet clear enough to easily pick up what he was trying to get across. A definite benefit of video-based lessons is being able to rewind anything you might have missed.

Having a backing track (no comment on the taste or style of it) to practice these new concepts over as a final part of the lesson, was a useful touch. I also like the mention of posting your improvisations over this track in the forums. I hate the idea of shred/wank speed orientated competitions (just check youtube for a thousand examples), but sharing ideas is an integral part of growing as a musician, broadening your horizons, and staying inspired.

For the final part of my review, I chose Richard Lundmark’s 19 lesson Funk Tutorial. I thought it would be a good idea to check out an extended lesson series, and also a chance to tighten up my rhythm playing, something I have noticed at gigs has become a little neglected of late.

I instantly liked Richard’s notion of the importance of listening to the masters. If you want to learn about funk in any way shape or form, you cannot go past James Brown.

My own understanding of the guitars’ role in this style derives from listening to Jimmy ‘Chank’ Nolen play on James’ recordings, Funk Brothers Eddie ‘Chank’ Willis, WahWah Watson, and Joe Messina (in a Motown setting), or Cornell Dupree with King Curtis, and Donny Hathaway to name a few.

The Tower of Power name check was astute, although they deviate slightly from what I naturally gravitate toward in a funk-based situation.

I mostly agree with Richard on the bass and drums being the foundation, however if you listen to Jimmy Nolen play on a track like “Doing it to Death”, you know that the guitar is more than just “icing on the cake”. I think of it more as a percussion instrument and a vital part of the rhythm section, helping create and sustain the groove.

One of my favorite Prince quotes when asked what makes a musician funky, was simply replying; “A profound understanding of the music of James Brown.” Damn straight.