NGW Blog Archive

Zack Urlocker, one of my students at National Guitar Workshop in Chicago runs and actively blogged about his experiences at NGW. I’m taking the liberty of archiving his words here, but prospective NGW students and other interested readers should click on the headings of each section to visit the original posts that includes pictures and video.

NGW Sunday: Warmup in Chicago

I’ve decided to dive in to the deep end by attending the National Guitar Workshop here in Chicago this week. Its definitely a stretch for me as my formal guitar lessons were minimal and many years in the past. I’ll be reporting throughout the week to try to give prospective students the full blow-by-blow story.

First of all, I have to say that the staff of NGW are all top notch. They take good care of their students, whether it’s making sure everyone’s got an amp, hooking them up with the right instructors, taking care of rooming assignments or even getting an ethernet cable late at night. And despite the incredible talent of the instructors, as has been stressed numerous times, it’s about making sure everyone is learning and having fun.

My adventure began with a very early flight from San Francisco to Chicago O’Hare and then a trek it out to Elgin. While Elgin is closer to Chicago than , say, New York, it’s still a good 30 miles west of the airport in the middle of not much of anything. (Sing: “I been travelin’ so long, I got them deep Elgin blues.”) The NGW workshop is held at Judson University a small private university with fairly stict rules against smoking, drinking and (gasp) dancing. (Sing: “You ain’t got no rhythm, ’cause you ain’t paid your dues.”)

Despite all of that, the facilities are quite decent. I chose to bunk in the university dorm for a full immersive experience. Food on the campus is decent, but it’s not going to win any awards. It’s convenient, reasonably cheap and, hey, it’s all you can eat. No doubt that accounts for the famous “freshman fifteen” that gets packed on many new students entering university.

Since we’re somewhere near Chicago, I decided to take the “Blues Core” course and see if could lay a foundation that would be helpful for later explorations in rock and R&B. After all, the blues is where it all started. While the NGW attracts a broad cross-section of students, it’s somewhat polarized into kids under 18 and adults over 40. I guess most teenagers would rather learn shredding than the blues, so “Blues Core” consists exclusively of middle-age white males. There’s a good teacher / student ratio in all of the classes and in our case, the group of eight students with two instructors. So we split into two different groups based on skill and hairline levels. While there are some excellent players, everyone was courteous and there was no showboating.

Today’s instruction was just a few hours and mostly informal as we got to know each other. John, our instructor, got to assess our abilities and what we want to learn. So far, I’m doing my best to keep up, but there’s a lot of new information and only so much space in my head to retain it all. I’m not overwhelmed, but its clear that it will take a lot of practice to reinforce the instruction.

The evening finished off with a brief concert featuring some of the instructors playing a broad range of different styles of music including classic rock, blues, jazz, bluegress flatpicking etc. While the music wouldn’t necessarily be everyone’s taste it was good to mix it up. I suspect for some of the younger students it may be the first time they’re being exposed to certain genres. And they seemed pretty enthusiastic about.

All in all, it’s been a good start. Hopefully tomorrow things will get a bit more structured even more immersive. But I’m looking forward to it. Later in the week, we’ll be heading out to Buddy Guy’s club to meet the man himself. That promises to be a unique Elgin, I mean Chicago, experience. (Sing: “When you’re in Chicago, you ain’t got nothing to lose.”)

NGW Monday: Working on the Basics

Today was the first full day of the National Guitar Workshop session in Chicago area and we’re getting into the “Blues Core” curriculum. Things started out this morning with a great rhythm training session playing on stage with a drummer and bass player. We played a basic blues shuffle in the key of A. Even though we have 4 guitar players in our class, the rhythm section is the lifeblood of a band, so they were in charge. The instructors gave us tips to help us tune in to what’s going on in the band and lock into the rhythm. And despite our occasional sloppy playing, they were always encouraging. Everyone took a couple of solos and then the instructors wrapped up with an improvised a blues jam. John, our blues instructor, played some impressive lead guitar.

Once we got back with John on the Blues Core curriculum, we went through some exercises to help us develop our ability play together as a band. It included different rhythms, different pentatonic scale patterns, and learning how to mix things up with some fancy-pants 9th and 13th chords. John is not only an excellent musician but also a great instructor. He knows when to give us theory, balances things with a lot of guided playing and makes sure that no one gets lost. I’m also picking up some licks from the other students.

At the end of the day, we picked a song to work on as a group. It’s an old Freddy King song “I’m Tore Down” as played by Eric Clapton from his album “From the Cradle.” It’s a bit more complex than anything we’ve seen so far, but I think everyone is up for the challenge. Still, I skipped the evening concert in order to get more practice time.

In the late afternoon there were Special Interest Clinics on a variety of different topics. This made for a nice break in the schedule and a chance to focus on something other than the blues. (Is there anything other than the blues?) There were sessions on drumming for non-drummers, bluegrass flatpicking, jazz, and metronome training. Since I’m rhythmically challenged, I chose the latter and it was a good introduction on techniques on how to get more out of your practice time and develop better timing. It will take me a while to try these techniques out, but it’s the kind of basic learning that’s necessary in developing your chops. It may not sound like the most exciting topic, but the instructor Gary was passionate about it and he explained a few things about time signatures and rhythms that even impressed the drummers in the audience. Here’s a short video interview with Gary who teaches the Jazz workshops.

NGW Tuesday: Theory Behind the Blues

This morning’s rhythm training session on stage in the auditorium started off strong. We played a slow tempo version of “I’m Tore Down” and it sounded a lot like music. Occasionally we’d meander off course a bit, but overall it seemed to be working. As usual, the drummers and bass players were awesome and it was great to play in a “live” band session where we could lock into the beat. In some ways, this is the most fun of everything we’ve been doing.

After that, we got back into “Blues Core” course with John. We started to dig deeper into some of the musical theories that make up the blues. John showed us how the various pentatonic forms are connected and then we went on to the blues scale (with an added flat fifth) and an overview of how chords are formed in general with the CAGED system. Whole books have been written on the CAGED system, but John presented it in a way that gave us some of the reasons behind the theory and how we might apply it in the song we’re working on to use different chord forms.

After dinner we got back together to practice our ensemble piece, working on the intro, the outro and some horn patterns that overlay on top of the basic rhythm. After John left we stayed working on it for another hour or so, but by the end of evening I think we were all having trouble focusing and keeping time. Where’s the drummer and bass player when we need them? Will it all come together by Thursday evening? More importantly, will we ever leave the campus for a good meal and a cold beer? Stay tuned…

NGW Wednesday: Down in the Groove

One of the things that’s most interesting about the National Guitar Workshop (NGW) is that new experience of finding a groove with a band. There are four of us in the “Blues Core” course together and none of us play in a band. So when we are able to work together on a song, especially when everyone is dead on the rhythm, it’s pretty exciting. One of the students commented on how the sound comes together to create something unique. And to do that with a drummer and a bass player together and each of us taking our solos, it’s pretty incredible. It’s an experience you can’t read about or ever get playing on your own. And you don’t have to be shredding some complex solo. It can come from just playing a rhthym pattern, knowing and feeling your guitar part and how it contributes to the overall sound.

So in a way, it’s not surprising that many of the attendees at NGW are what I call “repeat offenders.” Some of them have previously attended the “Rock Core” curriculum, others started in core classes and have expanded their skills and repertoire by getting into Jazz sessions or the Blues Summit. Some of the attendees are local, but many others have traveled a long distance to attend. I’ve met folks from St Louis, Orlando, Mexico, Italy and Paris. There’s nothing else like the NGW.

I think the Core curriculum is possibly the most fun because you get a balance of theory and that time to develop a groove. Tomorrow morning we’re going to head into Chicago to go see Buddy Guy at his club. Should be fun.

NGW Thursday: The Amazing Buddy Guy

This morning we headed to downtown Chicago for an open Q&A with blues legend, Buddy Guy. This was a rare occasion for several dozen guitar geeks to meet and learn from one of the greatest living bluesman in the world. Buddy Guy influenced the sound of rock and roll and blues around the world paving the road for big name acts, whether it was Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn or Kenny Wayne Shephard. Buddy Guy, more than any other artist, was the bridge between traditional blues and rock and roll. That said, it’s ironic that the blues were ignored for a long time in America and it was only with the British Invasion of the ’60s and with a blues resurgence in the ’90s that artists like Buddy Guy got their due.

Guy talked about every topic you could think of whether it was growing up poor, moving to Chicago, playing with BB King and Eric Clapton, recording his new CD “Skin Deep,” and even what’s wrong with bottled water.

Throughout the entire time, Guy was warm, gracious and generous with his time. Many of the younger NGW students were smart enough to bring their guitars and get them autographed. And although Guy did not play guitar for us, students in the Blues Summit had a jam session on stage at the Legends Club.

I came away inspired from the visit. Not just because Buddy Guy is a great guitar player, but he’s a tremendous human being. Not only that, but it created a tremendous positive vibe that I took with me for the rest of the day. All the tension around rehearsing our song melted away and I was able to focus on what a great week I’ve had being part of National Guitar Workshop. This is one heck of an experience.

Still, we do have that evening concert to get ready for…

I’ve posted a brief excerpt on YouTube where Guy talks about growing up in Lettsworth, Louisiana and the effect that music had on him as a young man.

NGW Friday: Bringing It All Back Home

After thursday morning’s great session with Buddy Guy we were pretty pumped. We spent most of the afternoon polishing up the solos for “I’m Toredown,” getting through some run throughs with “Diamond Drey,” our bass player, and trying to locate our drummer. Luckily Jordan was able to play the song perfectly from the first run through. Then we hung out, got nervous, and tried to enjoy those on the bill before our song.

I’ll admit that we probably played a bit better in the on-stage rehearsal than at the actual concert, but we were as prepared as we could be and it came out just fine. That’s not to say that everything was perfect –it wasn’t. There were a few clunker notes and off-beats, but the audience clapped along, everyone had a few moments of brilliance and it felt great.

Everything we learned came together in that performance and the experience, at least for us on stage, transcended the quality of our playing. None of us are going to turn pro. But we all played better at the end of the week than we did at the beginning. And it was the first time most of us played with a band or on stage before. In short, it was awesome.

I can understand why so many people come back to the National Guitar Workshop. It’s an addictive and intoxicating experience. When the music comes together it’s pretty incredible. There’s a feeling of being a part of something larger than life. To hear the sound coming through your fingers and amplified in front of an audience rocking to the beat is inspiring.

A lot of the credit goes to the quality of the instructors. We were very fortunate in the Blues Core course to have a superbly gifted musician, John Horne from Athens, Ohio, who is also a heckuva good teacher. He kept us focused, gave us the right amount of theory and enabled us to tackle a pretty tricky song in just a few days. That’s no simple feat. Here’s a short video where John talks about the Blues Core course.

For anyone who is on the fence about attending National Guitar Workshop all I can say is you gotta just do it. No matter what your skill level, no matter what your age, you will come away as a better player and better equipped to learn on your own. And it may just be the one of the most memorable and fun experiences you’ll have.