Reflections on National Guitar Workshop VA 2009

Above: NGW students Mike, Russ, and Duncan ham it up for the camera!

Participating in National Guitar Workshop continues to be one of the most renewing and exhausting (only because I never get enough sleep!) experiences I have each year. This year I was lucky enough to wrangle a teaching gig at the McLean, VA campus which is the closest NGW campus to home. I had a really great time teaching, hanging out, and taking in some great music.

The Drive

Here’s the route I followed. (I’m only posting this so I can refer to it if I end up returning to the VA campus next year.)

Driving to NGW VA wasn’t bad at all except for what lies between Athens and McLean: West Virginia. A really boring drive with not a Starbucks or much of anything else to be found along the way. I guess I’ve seen way too many horror flicks because the idea of stopping in a remote area of West Virgina made me wary of being attacked and eaten by a family of inbred cannibals. Such incidents have been well documented in films like The Hills Have Eyes, Vacancy, Wrong Turn, etc. Fortunately, if any of these types exist, they weren’t at the BP station where I stopped to refuel. Maybe they ate the last guy.

As I approached the DC area in the last 15 or 20 minutes of the trip, I probably saw more traffic than I did in the previous 5 hours, but it moved along and I manged not to get lost despite some goofy mileage indications from Google.

Madeira School

NGW uses The Madeira School for this campus. Madeira is a girls’ boarding school and day school, grades 9–12, located a few miles outside Washington, D.C. During the summer they serve as a host for several summer programs and we were not the only group around this week. Madeira has incredible scenery, good food, and air conditioned classrooms and dorms. What else can you ask for?

Pat Martino at Blues Alley

I was really hoping to get to the VA campus this year because one of my favorite jazz artists, Pat Martino was scheduled to do a presentation there. I had even considered going down for a day or two to hang around if a position didn’t open up, but I got lucky.

On the evening that I arrived, I went along with NGW faculty & staff members Jason Shadrick, Amanda Monaco, and Tom Dempsey to hear Pat perform at legendary D.C. jazz club Blues Alley. Pat had some smoking musicians in the ensemble including Eric Alexander on tenor sax, Tony Monaco on B3, and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums. Their playing was amazing all around and was among the best, most exciting listening experiences I’ve ever had. After the show Jason introduced me to Pat and had a moment to shake his hand and express my thanks for his music. As an added bonus, Pat’s run at Blues Alley was being recorded for a live CD. I’ll definitely be looking forward to hearing that sometime soon.

Rock Core

This was the first time I’ve been asked to teach a Rock Core class for NGW. I honestly didn’t prep too much, since rock is such a vast genre and I knew it would be difficult to prepare repertoire for the class until I met my students and determined what their skill levels and interests were. Fortunately I had a group of reasonably advanced students who were open to more than just metal tunes and we were able to cover a lot of ground. I ended up teaching a lot of the same material that I would teach any intermediate students, but chose rock repertoire, and reference points throughout to illustrate how to use the concepts. Below is an overview of the material I covered with them in 5 days.

Basic Technique and Warm Up Exercises
4-finger patterns
2- and 3-octave chromatic scales
Paul Gilbert-style alternate picking exercises
hammer-on and pull-off drills
strumming patterns

Scales and Improvisation
major pentatonic scales
minor pentatonic scales
blues scale
major scale
natural minor scale
basics of modes
harmonic minor scale
identifying when to use each scale.
using chord tones to add harmonic content to pentatonic solos
using harmonic minor on the V chord of a minor progression
using half-step and whole-step bends musically

Musicianship and Interpretation
competence in “guitar friendly” keys: C, G, D, A, E
diatonic harmony: I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii
ear training: Identifying only I IV and V chords in a song
creating new song forms using chord substitutions
finding all major chords using CAGED system
embellishing chords using add9 and sus4 and 6 voicings ala Jimi Hendrix
intro to alternate tunings: Open G (Keith Richards), DADGAD
identifying key, meter, tempo, and feel
identifying intro, verse, chorus, etc.
creating dynamics and contrast throughout a piece
researching a song

12-Bar Blues Forms (Straight 8th and Shuffle Feel)
Cissy Strut – The Meters
Green Onions – Steve Cropper
Hey Joe – Jimi Hendrix
Hotel California – The Eagles
Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door
Let It Be – Lennon McCartney
Stand By Me – Ben E. King
The Waiting – Tom Petty
You Really Got Me – Van Halen

Rhythm Section Classes

Because I have taught Acoustic Core for the past few years, rhythm section classes were new to me. (I don’t know why, but Acoustic Core classes do not receive this opportunity.) These classes are designed to give guitar students the opportunity to work on locking into a groove with bassists and drummers. The bass and drum instructors usually are given the reins with these classes and in our case we were led by drummer Tobias Ralph. Tobias had a fantastic attitude and all of the students commented to me on how much they enjoyed his style of teaching. Tobias also suggested several great tunes that we ended up incorporating into our week, including “You Really Got Me” and “Cissy Strut” by The Meters. I wouldn’t normally have included “Cissy Strut” in a rock class but it gave us an opportunity to work on a funky New Orleans second-line feel and the class seemed to enjoy it.

Special Interest Clinics

I also gave 2 special interest clinics this week: Practice Sessions: Get More Done In Less Time and Learn Every Note on the Guitar Neck TODAY!

The Practice Sessions clinic was attended entirely by adult students who likely have much less free time in their schedule than the average teenager. I don’t know that I had any earth-shattering revelations for them but some of the ideas presented included: setting up a practice space, determining a practice time and schedule, asking for family support, setting goals, using a practice journal, using a metronome, practicing with altered rhythms, playing with others,and rewarding oneself. It was a good clinic, but with the exception of a few topics a lot of common sense ideas.

I got the idea for the Learn Every Note on the Guitar Neck clinic from an article recently released by Mark Hanson of Accent On Music. He teaches his students to find all of the notes by first locating when the open-string notes recur on the fingerboard. I added a few of my own ideas to his, and went about breaking down the 78 notes between the open strings and the 12th fret in the following way: First, we start by finding the open-string notes (EADGBE) in other positions on the fingerboard. There are a few tricks to finding these notes but basically we are looking at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 10th positions. Then I point out that when rearranged, the open string notes create a G pentatonic major scale (GABDE) or, if you prefer an E pentatonic minor scale (EGABD). Since guitarists use the pentatonic scales all the time for soloing in rock and blues settings this is a great way to master all of the pentatonic patterns and drill yourself on note names at the same time! The only two natural notes not addressed here are C and F which may be added to create a C major scale in any position. Finally, the sharps and flats are added at which time we note that they form a Gb pentatonic major or an Eb pentatonic minor. Each of these notes is only one half-step away from our initial step. So basically, you could drill yourself while jamming over a blues in E and then a blues in Eb and cover every note except C and F. It’s a pretty slick system, and I plan to post more details on this concept in the future.

Pat Martino

On Monday Pat and his beautiful wife Aya visited campus and gave a great presentation. Most of the technical concepts that he covered are available in this handout that he provided. What really impressed me even more than his material was just how open he was to sharing his concepts, taking all questions, and how respectfully he treated the students. He responded to them as if it was a given that they would all one day be gigging and recording and releasing their own CDs. He had a fantastic, selfless attitude. He even talked about how he tried to maintain a positive outlook while going through security in airports all over the world and acknowledged that it was a part of his job to interact with the audience and take care of the other musicians in the group.

There were a couple of funny moments in the clinic. At one point jazz instructor Baron Tymas asked Pat if there was any music he was listening to that he was particularly inspired by. Pat said: “Yes, but it doesn’t necessarily relate to the guitar. You still want to hear about it?” He then went on to relate that when he is at home he values silence, but really enjoys taking a shower while listening to recordings of Gregorian Chant. Later, one of my Rock Core students, Duncan Stuart, asked: “After all these years performing music, are there any songs you are sick of?” To which Pat replied “Yes!” and played the opening statement to “Sunny” with a grin.

Alex Skolnick

Guitarist for Testament and Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Alex Skolnick visited campus on Tuesday afternoon. In spite of achieving huge success as a rock guitarist, Skolnick relocated to NYC and enrolled in the New School to study jazz in the late 90’s and has earned a BFA. His trio focuses largely on re-imagining rock and metal classics as vehicles for jazz improvisation and he addressed how he re-harmonizes melodies from familiar rock tunes and morphs them into jazz tunes. While I have a lot of respect for Alex’s work and his ability to straddle two very different musical worlds, I’m not particularly moved by most of his music. He obviously knows his stuff, and there seems to be an audience for his music, but I’m not sure I get it. I’d guess I’d just rather keep rock tunes slammin’ and jazz tunes swingin’, but it was definitely fun to hear him play.

Hey! I just found out that Alex’s trio features Nathan Peck, an old friend of mine on bass. Cool!

Benedetto Guitars

On Wednesday afternoon Howard Paul, CEO of Benedetto Guitars stopped by on his way to the Montreal Guitar Show. He brought a carload of guitars with him and gave us an in-depth lecture on how carved and laminate archtop guitars are constructed at Benedetto. Prices for Benedetto guitars start around $5,000.00 and go up, up, up from there, but after hearing how much work is involved in crafting each guitar it’s easy to understand why. The wood alone may be worth $1,000 or more before it is ever even touched by a Benedetto luthier.

But Howard also pointed out that just because a guitar costs $40,000 doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a better guitar than one priced at $5,000. It all depends on what you need and expect from the guitar. For most working musicians a lower-end model would do fine. Besides, can you imagine taking a $40k instrument to a gig?

All of the guitars looked and sounded absolutely gorgeous. Howard demoed several models so we could hear the differences. The carved top with the floating pickup definitely had more volume, clarity, and low-end response than any archtop guitar I’ve ever heard. I’m pretty sure I could have taken one of the Benedettos for a test drive after the presentation but I decided not to, since to do so might make me eternally dissatisfied. At breakfast the next morning Amanda Monanco was already talking of selling a guitar in order to purchase a Benedetto Bambino Deluxe. That would have been me after one chord.


As usual it was great to visit with all the folks on faculty and staff. Please visit their websites and check out their fine work. Hope I didn’t forget anyone.

Angus ClarkNick CostaTom DempseyHarry JacobsonChad LeaderLisa LimDave MarshJeff McErlainPhil McCuskerAmanda MonacoTobias RalphJason ShadrickMatt SmithTerry SyrekBaron Tymas

Pictures From The Week

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