Review: Study with Adam

World-renown fingerstyle guitarist Adam Rafferty recently hung out his virtual shingle as an on-line guitar teacher. His well-thought-out website offers step-by-step video lessons on many of his popular arrangements and originals, a chance to interact with and receive constructive feedback from Adam, and a treasure trove of opportunities to learn and grow as a guitarist and arranger.

As a teacher that meets in person with students I was a little dubious of how much value could be offered via a website that – at first glance – offers prerecorded lessons, but after spending some time exploring www.studywithadam.com (SWA) I was really impressed with how much thought was put into the design of the site and how much care Adam takes in creating meaningful interactive content for it.

On the site, you’ll find over 23 hours of video providing instruction on professional-level songs, techniques, and concepts to help improve your understanding of harmony and groove. If you’ve ever seen any of his other video lessons, you’ll know that Adam thoughtfully prepares these videos and presents everything you need to know in very concise way that’s easy to follow without ever letting things get overwhelming or boring. You also get a feel for why he chooses certain chord voicings or fingerings as he goes through the material. Videos are rated by difficulty so you’ll know a little about what to expect and most pieces are often broken into small, manageable segments. There’s also a detailed audiobook and accompanying PDF “How to Arrange for Solo Guitar” that delves into Adam’s approach and provides players with several methods of creating their own arrangements and even some instruction on jazz improvisation if that’s an avenue you want to explore. New content is added about every six weeks and there is a poll where users can let Adam know what they’d like to see a lesson on next.

One thing you won’t find on the site is guitar tablature for Adam’s arrangements of popular songs. Unfortunately, guitar tablature requires print licensing so lessons are taught strictly by rote in order avoid copyright infringement. Some of the newer lessons on SWA include occasional onscreen chord diagrams or PDF “help files” containing tips and tricks and blank TAB lines to scribble in the fingerings of the melody or other notes for your own personal use. Also, note that if you want to learn any of Adam’s arrangements of Stevie Wonder or Jackson 5 tunes they are only available on his DVD packages and they do include licensed tablature booklets. You can find them here: http://www.adamrafferty.com/guitar-instructional-dvds/

One of the most popular features of the site is the ability to upload a video of yourself performing for Adam to review and offer constructive feedback. Adam is really devoted to keeping up with this and recently reported that in 2016 he watched over 280 student uploads. It’s important to note that users do not have to record a piece from Adam’s repertoire to participate in this exchange. Of course, many players do submit video covers of the material presented on the site but others will upload pieces by other well-known guitarists or even their own arrangements. A response is given by way of another video from Adam discussing what elements of the performance were good and which need improvement. Adam’s advice is always thoughtful and encouraging but contains concrete observations and specific, personalized suggestions of how to improve.

For me, this is a key hidden value of the site: watching other guitarists perform for Adam and receive feedback is very often just as instructive as receiving a critique of your own. It’s essentially a digital master-class where all the students can learn from observing one another.

The only criticism I could possibly make is that although the website has a “community” section for members to connect, it’s not particularly robust or intuitive. However, a private Facebook group for SWA members more than makes up for that and anyway, you should be practicing – not chatting!

I highly recommend Study with Adam for any intermediate to advanced fingerstyle guitarists who want to widen their solo repertoire, improve their arranging chops, and deepen their groove. SWA also offers several subscription options that are all very reasonably priced and all feature a 14-day free trail so you can take some time to be sure the site is right for you. Go check it out!

My Top Albums of 2015

A short list of my favorite releases from 2015.

Bill Frisell Guitar in the Space Age

Technically this one was released in 2014 but I didn’t get around to it until this year so I’m including it here. This is mostly a collection of trippy instrumental covers of the guitar music that influenced Frisell when he was growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s. Songs like “Telstar” and “Surfer Girl.” The album features clean guitar and pedal steel sounds awash in a haze of delay and reverb. I’m not sure everyone would enjoy it, but most guitarists probably will.


Julian Lage Worlds Fair

This is my absolute favorite album of 2015 and will probably become an all-time favorite. I was only peripherally aware of Julian Lage before attending a workshop at Denison University a few years ago. His chops and musicality were breathtaking to be sure and I had sought out his earlier recordings but I wasn’t prepared for this release. An intimately-recorded collection of works for solo acoustic guitar that are stylistically un-classifiable and virtuosic without being pretentious. It’s hard to know how much of the pieces are arranged and how much were improvised since Lage is such a skilled improviser and his playing always sounds so fresh and extemporaneous.


Mark Knopfler Tracker

Knopfler is one of my favorite musicians. I feel like everything about his work is underrated: his singing, his songwriting, and his guitar playing. Although my favorite album of his is the 2004 release Shangri-La – I still love virtually every one of the songs in this collection. I especially love the descending harmonies on the chorus section of “Skydiver,” the journal-like verses of “River Towns,” and the introspective musings of “Lights Of Taormina.”


Tony Bennett & Bill Charlap The Silver Lining

Okay, this is a weird one for me. I have never considered myself a Tony Bennett fan. Not when he was younger and certainly not as he aged and his voice became increasingly warbly. But when I heard this recording I was instantly charmed. Unlike his “Duets” albums that paired him with a different pop star on each song or his 2014 project with Lady Gaga, this is a very understated and casual affair that sounds like you’re sitting about 10 feet from Bennett and pianist Bill Charlap while they run arrangements in a small club. They are occasionally joined by bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington. Charlap’s playing is flawless and serves as a masterclass in accompaniment techniques and classic intros and endings for interested musicians. Bennett sounds perfectly relaxed and much less forced as he seems to when paired with another entertainer. And though it is no less warbly, his vocal quality and phrasing here instill each song with a nostalgic, sage, and melancholy beauty that has inexplicably turned me into a fan.


John Pizzarelli Midnight McCartney

I generally hate – and I do mean hate – hearing jazz covers of songs originally written by pop artists. Jazz musicians usually take so many liberties with the source material that the result ends up sounding barely recognizable or worse. In this case however, the arrangements were written by an artist who grew up actually listening to the songs and clearly loves them. Instead of attempting clever reharmonizations or other devices, the versions here reveal how easily Paul McCartney’s writing transcends stylistic boundaries. Without much alteration other than instrumentation and groove, songs are transformed into breezy bossa novas and lightly swinging pieces ornamented with just a dash of Pizzarelli’s virtuoso guitar playing. Hardcore McCartney fans might still regard the effort as schmaltz but I think this is a great re-imagining of his work that emphasizes the strength of his songwriting.


John Scofield Past Present

Once upon a time – in 1991 to be exact – John Scofield released a fantastic album titled called Meant to Be. Unlike rock groups, jazz artists tend put together different ensembles for each new project so it’s been awhile since the quartet from Meant to Be has been heard from. This release is mostly a sequel to that old record featuring saxophonist Joe Lovano, drummer Bill Stewart, and bassist Larry Grenadier. (Bassist Marc Johnson was on the earlier release.) Scofield and Lovano compliment one another so well that they create a classic combination akin to peanut butter and jelly or bacon and eggs. The first two cuts are still my favorites: “Slinky” featuring a a medium-tempo 5/4 groove and “Chap Dance” that sounds like it might have been influenced by Aaron Copeland.


Tommy Emmanuel It’s Never Too Late

Like every guitar player, I love Tommy Emmanuel. Performing difficult pieces with ease and making easy pieces sound extraordinary, the worst thing I can say about him is that like Superman, he often seems a little too perfect. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing TE play in person several times and while his studio recordings never hold the excitement of his live performances they are always wonderful. My favorite selection from this album is called “Hope Street.”


John Williams Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Not long after Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released, a friend asked: “Where was Williams’ score?” I had to agree that the score was somewhat less noticeable in the film than I seem to recall it being in many of the other films that John Williams had scored, but then again I had seen all of those other movies and listened to their soundtracks dozens of times. After listening to the new soundtrack I was happy to find that there are as many memorable cues as ever. Just as the film has taken familiar environments and events and turned them on their head, Williams has done the same. Many of the old familiar themes are here but at appear only in a deconstructed form or intertwined with new music. New character motifs will likely prove to be memorable as well, especially the playful and mysterious “Rey’s Theme.”

Review: Adam Rafferty Instructional Video On Demand

Rafferty ScreenshotGuitarist Adam Rafferty is now introducing digital downloads of his popular instructional videos that walk players through his funky fingerstyle arrangements of Stevie Wonder and The Jackson Five. This is a great solution for folks who primarily use devices that don’t contain DVD players or who just want to be able to access the video lessons on their mobile devices.

I’ve tried the digital downloads out and they work great. Here’s a quick overview of the process:

The videos are sold via a company called Leaping Brain who also distribute content for Homespun Music Instruction and dozens of other well-known clients. You can visit this page to see all of Adam’s available titles: https://leapingbrain.com/modshop/?shop=194&

Upon purchasing a video, PC and Mac users are be prompted to download a special “Adam Rafferty Player” which basically acts as a container to organize the raw video and PDF files. Users can then download and launch all of their purchased content via the player. The videos will launch in their own player which has the ability to play the lessons at half- and quarter-speed and to select a portion of the video loop over and over. Great features for those elusive sections you need to see and hear several times to get a grip on them!

Tablet and smart phone users are prompted to click through to Leaping Brain’s “MOD Cloud Player” which loads as a regular browser page showing all of the purchased content available for streaming. I first tried the cloud player with Adam’s “How to Solo Over II-V-I Changes for Jazz Guitar” and found that the videos did not stream. However all of the other titles work just fine on both my iPhone 4 and on my PC. The vids all feature excellent sound and video quality and buffered almost instantly. I suspect that the II-V-I video had just not yet been converted for live streaming as of this writing.

Leaping Brain also offers an iPhone/iPad app called MOD Mobile that sells for $1.99. This app allows users to transfer the video files from a PC or Mac to a mobile device via iTunes. It takes a couple of extra steps to accomplish this, but if you don’t want to eat up your data plan or bandwidth streaming the videos this solution makes a lot of sense as all of the files will reside on your device. Although there are some negative reviews of MOD Mobile on iTunes, The app worked flawlessly for me.

One more special feature of the digital download are the newly formatted booklets of the arrangements. The music in the included files is significantly larger than what is in the booklets that are provided with the DVDs. This makes for much easier reading and study. However, in order to protect the content the music only opens in it’s own PDF reader-type program and can’t be copied or shared. The booklet may be printed to your default printer but you can only print the entire book so be sure to have plenty of paper (about 60 pages) and ink ready to go!

These digital versions of Adam’s instructional videos are an excellent value and will likely be the preferred method of delivery for on-the-go players.

Related articles:
DVD Review: Adam Rafferty Teaches Stevie Wonder
DVD Review: Adam Rafferty Teaches Stevie Wonder Vol. II
DVD Review: Adam Rafferty Teaches The Jackson Five

DVD Review: Adam Rafferty Teaches Stevie Wonder Vol. II

How to Play the Music of Stevie Wonder Volume II by Adam Rafferty is a new instructional video with solo fingerstyle arrangements of the Stevie Wonder hits “Isn’t She Lovely”, “Higher Ground”, “My Cherie Amour”, and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” The DVD/booklet sells for $34.97 at www.adamrafferty.com. For a limited time you can buy it for $29.97 so don’t wait. Scroll to the end of the review for a preview video.

Although Adam Rafferty’s latest video offering is a follow-up to his highly successful instructional debut in 2009, this new video reflects the experience he’s gained touring and performing over the past three years. The four arrangements included highlight a diversity of guitar techniques including varying approaches to right-hand technique, modulating using mid-song capo moves, alternate tunings, percussive hits and more. While he includes plenty of harmonic detail Rafferty’s focus on groove helps guitarists to communicate these songs using only the essential elements. The result is a natural sounding treatment that is rich and full but never overburdened by the complex harmonies. The video includes a very detailed booklet containing both standard notation and tablature, and all instructional segments use a split-screen so you can easily observe either Adam’s right- or left-hand.

If you are familiar with Adam’s other DVD’s he follows the same format as usual. After a brief welcome each song is presented in its entirety followed by a detailed walkthrough and breakdown. Adam also provides a short wrap up at the end of the video with words of encouragement and practice strategies.

Here’s what impressed me most about each arrangement. The links in the title of each tune will create a pop-up of Adam’s older YouTube demo the song. It should be noted that the DVD is professionally produced and has better quality sound and video than what is represented and that the performances are even more polished now.

In “Isn’t She Lovely” Adam introduces a groove that is integral to making this song and others work. He actually begins the lesson by using a doumbek to illustrate how to properly execute a triplet swing feel. Also (although he doesn’t talk about it) by focusing on the triplet feel and notating the song in 12/8 time he avoids having to explain how to count the quarter-note triplet figure that is prominently featured in the melody. The constant bass figure in the right-hand thumb and fingers drives the rhythm section feel home while the melody soars overtop. He also sneaks in a tasty temporary key change in the second half of the piece.

“Higher Ground” uses the slightly altered tuning of DGDGBE and uses carefully selected muted notes to keep the bass line and snare drum hits percolating along on the lower three strings while also maintaining ringing melody notes above. The first verse begins with the melody played in single notes and then introduces a harmony in the second verse. There’s a simple but effective percussive hit on the body of the guitar leading into the bridge which uses a combination of slides, hammers, and right-hand back strikes to articulate the melody alongside the harmony and groove.

“My Cherie Amour” is the mellow tune in the set. Adam uses a combination of open strings, harmonics, and fretted notes in the introduction resulting in a texture reminiscent of the great Lenny Breau. Looking at the printed music this looks like the most conventional arrangement of the collection but examination of the right-hand parts reveals a tricky combination of traditional fingerpicking with light strumming and back-strikes. Since the attacks are somewhat unpredictable compared to most fingerpicking pieces the effect is unique and a bit mesmerizing. This tune also introduces the mid-song capo change something I first saw David Wilcox do many years ago. Adam starts with his Kyser capo on the nut and then shifts the capo to the first fret for a half step modulation on the final verse.

The video ends with “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” This song seems to have this biggest sound out of the group using lots of four- and five-note chords, open-strings, and quite a wide range. The arrangement utilizes all of the right- and left-hand techniques introduced in the earlier songs. It also features the mid-song capo move, a few chord substitution enhancements, and wraps up with a sweet samba vamp on the coda section.

While Adam Rafferty is still not a household name among guitarists his videos offer the very best instruction available on acoustic fingerpicking. Certainly there are instructional videos available from bigger name players but very few are as musically literate and approach the task of instruction with such care and detail. I would highly recommend this video to any intermediate to advanced level player. It’s a worthwhile investment for serious students of the guitar. Even if you aren’t particularly interested in learning the tunes of Stevie Wonder there is such a variety of guitar techniques and arranging ideas on display here that you’re sure to learn something that you can apply to your own arrangements down the line.