Local guitarist teaches at renowned workshop
By Jim Phillips Athens NEWS Senior Writer
John Horne has been entertaining local audiences for years with his skillful jazz/blues guitar work. This summer, he got a chance to combine those guitar chops with another skill he’s passionate about, that of teaching others to play the guitar.
Horne landed himself a two-week gig at the prestigious National Guitar Workshop (NGW), teaching beginning jazz guitar. The program has locations around the country in places including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin, Nashville, Seattle, New Orleans, Chicago, and New Milford, Conn., where Horne did his stint as a teacher.
The workshop, which was founded in 1984 by musician David Smolover, offers intense musical training sessions, with a typical day including more than five hours of classroom time, plus ensembles, lectures, and concerts. Classes are kept small, and many top professional musicians are brought in as instructors.
Big-name guitarists who’ve served as guest instructors according to the NGW Web site, include Phil Keaggy, Pat Metheny, Allan Holdsworth, Robben Ford and John Hammond. The workshop also has a solid faculty of working musicians, which this summer included Horne.
“I really enjoy teaching,” Horne said, adding that his wife Melanie is also a music teacher, in the Athens City School District.
While Horne has long offered guitar classes through Studio E Music in Athens County, he said, he jumped at the chance to work for NGW, which he learned about through a musician friend who had taught there.
By way of application, he sent the workshop a resume and a CD of his playing, and got the job.
NGW’s classes are open to all ages, and Horne recalled that his class ranged in age from 12 to 83.
He noted that the adult students in the class were more focused on honing a particular jazz style, whereas the younger students seemed a little less clear on just what they wanted to get from a jazz class. While he introduced his students to jazz stylings with recordings of guitar greats like Wes Montgomery, he said, these names typically made more of an impression on the adults.
“Most kids don’t really care about names,” he observed.
One challenge with a come-one-come-all approach to filling classes, Horne said, is sorting out the students to group them roughly in the same skill level. “You get in there the first day and you want your students to try to find out where they stand,” he explained. “You try to get everybody in the same place.”
When the sorting was done, Horne ended up with two adults and seven teenagers, all roughly beginners in jazz. “They all had that kind of blues-rock background,” he said, the younger students in particular.
Horne said he can empathize with that, having been a big fan of players like Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton in his younger days. This kind of background, however, presents a challenge when you try to open somebody’s ears to the chord-based improvisations of jazz, if he’s used to being able to riff endlessly over a 12-bar blues using a pentatonic scale, without having to pay much attention to the chord progression.
Horne said he first worked on just getting his students to hear how a jazz player takes a chord progression and pulls licks out of all the chord notes, rather than just applying a single scale over top of the chords.
“I focused on the tunes,” he recalled, including some that weren’t primarily guitar-based, like “Blues Walk” by the legendary horn player Clifford Brown. Based on these examples, he then tried to get his students to “try to make melodies out of the chord shape.”
Old habits die hard, however, and some of his students showed a tendency to fall back on scale-based wanking habits. When a guitarist with a blues-rock background first tries to jazz it up, Horne admitted, “they tend to noodle a lot.”
To remedy this, Horne said, he would put players in a situation where they had to play a solo only for two or four bars, then pass it on to another guitarist. That way, he explained, the students had to concentrate on coming up with complete, concise musical phrases, rather than just cranking it up and letting it fly like some blues soloists.
“It’s just a totally different vocabulary,” he said.
At the end of the classes came the final test — an ensemble jazz piece called “Rhapsody” on which every student had to play in concert.
Horne said he’s hoping to get a repeat gig at the workshop next year, and meanwhile will keep teaching here in Athens County, where he’s lived and played for the last nine years. While teaching is admittedly a time-honored way for working musicians to make ends meet financially, he added, he loves doing it for its own sake as well.
“I understand why some people can’t do it, and there are always some students who do test me,” he admitted. “But I have a passion for it.”