John Stowell has spent the last thirty years developing a reputation as one of the finest guitarists and educators in the country. John has a unique playing style, holding the guitar almost upright like a cellist. His incredible harmonic vocabulary has given him a personalized sound that has become instantly recognizable to fans of jazz guitar. Along with his performing career, John is also in high demand as a teacher and clinician. Over the years John has taught courses and clinics at countless colleges, high schools and performing arts camps throughout North America, Europe, Asia and South America.
John took time out of his busy teaching and touring schedule to discuss his influences, teaching experiences and advice for how to make it as a self-promoting musician.
MW: How did you get your start as a guitar teacher?
JS: That kind of happened very informally when I started teaching some friends, then gradually in my late teens I started taking money for it as I started to develop some expertise. But it was mostly learning on the job and developing a methodology for teaching beginners.
Later, I started studying with two musicians Linc Chamberland, who is kind of a local guitar hero in Connecticut, and John Mehegan who taught at Julliard, then eventually at Yale. So I started taking their ideas and concepts and began using them in my own teaching, and then I kind of developed from there.
Around this time I started to teach at music stores as well as private lessons, then in the late 70's I started doing a few high school and college clinics. So I got more comfortable talking to large groups of people. I also started to develop my teaching concepts beyond guitarists and guitar techniques. Teaching about other instruments, the group dynamic and other big picture ideas became a part of my teaching repertoire.
MW: As you were studying with different people, did you have non-guitar teachers that influenced your approach to teaching?
JS: Well, John Mehegan was a pianist, and actually he was the first guy to label chords with numbers, like 2-5-1 for example. I'm not sure if he invented the terms 2-5-1, or 3-6-2-5-1, but he was the first person to put them in a book I think.
MW: I didn't know that.
JS: So that certainly influenced me, and just about everybody, at least in terms of how I think about harmony. When I talk to guitarists now, I emphasize the importance of listening to piano players in terms of how to accompany. When I think about pianists, their accompaniment is a lot more developed in terms of the rhythmic component, isolating individual notes in the bass, interior voice movement, etc
MW: To elaborate on the concept of studying piano players. You are one of a handful of guys who plays the guitar in a pianistic style. It's very hard to do, as I'm sure you know, and takes a lot of time and practice. I am wondering how much of an influence did players like Lenny Breau, Ted Green and Ed Bickert, guitarists who played like pianists, have on your playing. Or did you spend more of your time strictly studying pianists?
JS: I'm not sure if I studied them, but I was certainly aware of their playing. I've listened to a number of Lenny's recordings, and also to the work of Ted Greene, Ed Bickert and Jimmy Wyble. Jimmy just turned 87 and he still sounds fantastic.
Jimmy's someone I've spent some time with over the last few years and he has absolutely influenced my playing, especially my solo playing. I wouldn't say I was limited to only listening to pianists, I definitely checked out other guitarists, who like me, were influenced directly from pianists themselves.
MW: Jimmy Wyble has seen a resurgence in his performing and teaching appearances recently as a new generation of players has discovered his method books and recordings. How did you meet Jimmy and how has that relationship developed since then?
JS: It started in the early 90's, when a friend of mine David Oakes, who is a classical and jazz guitarist teaching at USC republished Jimmy's "Art of Two Line Improvisation." It was originally released in the 70's, but I guess there were some mistakes in it and there was no recording with the book. So David helped to rerelease this book, and he told me about it and gave me a copy to check out.
I thought it looked really interesting so I sent Jimmy a cassette of me playing. At the time his wife was very ill so he wasn't socializing or teaching very much. I think if you were a good friend you could stop by the house, but if you didn't know him I think it would have been a bit presumptuous to assume that he would have time for you.
He didn't really play out at this time either, because he was taking care of his wife full time. So I sent him a tape and a letter saying I really enjoyed his book and he sent me a tape back in return with a nice little note. I think the recording was just him in his living and it was spectacular. I still have the tape and it's still just as amazing to listen to today as it was then.
So I was aware of Jimmy for a while, but had never had the chance to meet him. Then about three years ago I was at the NAMM show in Anaheim. A mutual friend, Sid Jacobs, introduced me to Jimmy while we were hanging out one day. Although we hadn't spoken since, he still remembered me from the tape I sent him and we had a great conversation.
This was after his wife had passed away, and he was out playing more. I got the impression that his wife was very supportive of his music and that she would have been happy with him returning to performing after taking those years off.
Sid arranged to get Jimmy some teaching at the Musicians' Institute in LA. Everybody is thrilled to have Jimmy on the faculty there. He also has done some touring, including a trip to Argentina with Sid and some clinics in New York and Spokane, WA. I'm really glad to see Jimmy active again and so happy to have him as friend and mentor. There was a wonderful tribute to Jimmy that Brandon Bernstein just organized down in LA.
MW: Yeah I heard about that, Brandon's one of my closest friends.
JS: I didn't know that. I ran into Gene Bertoncini a few weeks earlier in New York and he mentioned he was flying out for the tribute, and Howard Alden flew out as well.
I saw some great video clips by Bob Barry, who is a good friend also and was there documenting the tribute. Jimmy thought that the event was going to be an informal gathering with a few guitarists playing his etudes. He was completely surprised to see thirty or so of the best guitarists on the planet there to perform and honor him, with a nice crowd in attendance. It was a very nice tribute and he most certainly deserves it.
This is a long answer to your question, but I've been aware of him for some time, but have only recently begun to spend some time with him at his house. I've been to his house about a half a dozen times and watched him play, and he still absolutely has it, he can still play all those amazing things.
I know that my solo playing, absolutely, has been influenced by Jimmy's books and approach. The way I approach counterpoint, inner-voice movement and double stops, among other things have all been influenced by Jimmy. I'm not trying to copy him, I'm just trying to get those sounds into my head. When I see those YouTube videos of him playing, he sounds like a little orchestra all by himself. He's a totally complete player.
MW: Speaking of that counterpoint based, multi-voiced, playing, there was another great teacher out in LA who played this way, Ted Greene. Did you ever spend time working with Ted or did you ever get a chance to hear him play?
JS: I didn't study with him, but I met him twice. A lot of LA pros used to take lessons with him and there was a line-up of guys wanting to study with him. I was hanging out with John Pisano one time and he was getting ready to go in for a lesson with Ted, so I asked him to call Ted and see if he didn't mind me coming in to be a fly on the wall. Ted said OK and so I sat there and watched it.
It was mostly just Ted working on a standard from many different angles, though very inside, not a lot of tension and release. He had so many wonderful variations on just triads and voice movement involving sympathetic harmonics, and playing way up the neck, it was a very entertaining hour.
The other time he did a clinic at USC and I went to that and talked to him a bit. He was very nice, very unassuming, and I thought it would be fun to take a lesson with him. Since Ted had a full schedule, he wouldn't take new students. The only way you could get in was if an existing student couldn't make it and you knew this and could take their place.
Since I didn't live in LA, I could never quite work out the timing to take advantage of one of these lessons. Ted was a very unassuming guy, and that one solo record that he did in his twenties, which was just released on CD, still holds up very well I think.
Most of the guys I know, Jimmy and Ted included, that I really respect are pretty humble, still working with students, still very involved in pushing their limitations, trying to get better. Very aware of what they'd like to do better on the guitar. I know very few guys who I respect that think they play really great. They're all just trying to push up against their limitations and trying to get better.
MW: You teach a lot of masterclasses at high schools, colleges and other venues along the west coast. I noticed on your website you are doing more than five of these clinics in the next two weeks, including one at the Jazz School in Berklee. Do you prepare differently for a masterclass or clinic compared to how you would prepare for a private lesson with a student? Do you let the students in the room, and their level of experience, dictate what you talk about? Or do you have planned lesson material that you like to bring to these types of clinics?
JS: In the big cities like New York or LA, the level of playing can be higher; in general students range in ability from advanced beginner to intermediate. I'm always happy when a student comes up who can really play, and I've heard some wonderful high school and college guitarists over the years.
I've got about thirty pages of handouts from different articles I've written over the years for different magazines that I bring with me to give to the students. I've been writing for almost fifteen years for various magazines so I keep copies of those articles available to hand out to everybody at these clinics.
I have a lot of potential topics for discussion. I demonstrate applications of the melodic and harmonic minor over different chord qualities, triad substitutions, open string and close interval voicings, chord melody concepts, and ways to visualize and internalize harmony on the neck. If I'm speaking to a group of younger players, I begin with the four note arpeggios over chord changes as a template for outlining basic harmony over a set of changes.
I like to let the room dictate where I go with any topic I'm teaching. If I notice that everyone is interested, and I feel I can push them to more advanced topics, I'll do that. If I feel I'm losing them, you can tell right away when this happens, I try to keep them engaged. I get people up to play if they're interested, and then comment on that. I also talk about more general topics such as how to interact on the bandstand. Sometimes people will ask questions about the business of music so I'll spend some time talking about promotion and how to make it as a freelance musician.
MW: Do you have a preference between the group classes and private lessons, or do you find that you enjoy them both?
JS: I enjoy the variety of teaching in different settings. Sometimes I'll teach complete beginners, people with little experience but who have a desire to learn. My job there is to communicate clearly, and keep things simple. Like taking a simple arpeggio up and down the neck and making it sound melodic over a set of changes. That can be just as rewarding if I see them get it, to see them be enthusiastic about it and wanting to practice. We can then move on to more advanced theory, like playing the harmonic minor a major third above a major chord to create a Lydian #9 sound (the 6th mode of the harmonic minor). It's all relative, and it's all about making music.
MW: Speaking of your performing career. Do you find that you bring concepts from the bandstand into your lessons or clinics and vice versa? Maybe you play a cool sub or pattern one night that you then teach to a group of students the next day. Or you are asked a question in a class that makes you see things differently, and you then apply that new vision on the bandstand.
JS: Not often but it absolutely happens. I've done 2 CD ROM Courses for Truefire, a book/DVD for Mel Bay and some online lessons for Mike Gellar. The Truefire Courses are also available as CD ROM discs that you can play in your computer.
In the first Truefire Course, I took five of my original chord melodies and used them as a way to develop new ideas for inversions and soloing. Both the second course and the Mel Bay book deal with single line playing and substitutions using triads, melodic and harmonic minor sounds and reharmonizations. My lessons for Mike Gellar address variations on all of the above. I've definitely found my playing develop and change as a direct result of documenting and formalizing my teaching. Explaining and demonstrating concepts to students very often yields fresh applications in your own solos.
MW: You've been teaching for many years at colleges and universities all over the country, and the world. You're on the road a lot of the time either performing or teaching. Have you ever thought of settling down and taking a full time college teaching gig, or do you like life on the road too much to commit yourself to one place?
JS: I began adjunct teaching thirty years ago after my first college clinics with bassist David Friesen. I still do some part time adjunct work at several colleges in Oregon.
At one point I was offered what was essentially a full-time teaching gig at Arizona State University, where a friend of mine was the head of the jazz program at the time. I had given several clinics and workshops at the program so when they had an opening they offered it to me. I was really flattered to be considered for the position, but I had to decline because I was just travelling too much to commit to a full-time teaching gig. I might have been able to get the lessons done, but it would have been tough for me to be there every week to teach classes etc.
Right now I'm putting the word out a bit with some friends who teach at colleges, not for a full-time gig, but maybe to come in three to four times a semester. There are actually plenty of guys, who are really famous, guys who's name can draw students, that teach once or twice a semester at different schools and do quite well. Guys like Joe Lovano at Berklee and Billy Hart at Western Michigan. These guys don't live in those towns, but they go there maybe once or twice a semester, enough to be listed as adjunct faculty.
MW: Right, I was lucky enough to study with Billy at WMU when I was doing my masters there. He would come in one week per semester to teach privately, give clinics, and usually do a concert or two.
JS: Right. If you're well known enough, and the students like you, schools are willing to work around your schedule to allow you to go on the road, and still hold a teaching position there. I do kind of put the word out periodically, but it's getting harder not easier. With the economic situation and budget cutbacks, funding for clinicians and guest teachers is getting smaller, or non-existent.
Holding an adjust position has never been easy, but I do enjoy the work, putting these things together. I usually have friends at the places I'm going, so I can stay with them and it's a chance to hang out as well as teach. The travel can be a bit arduous, but I like the people that I work with, and the teaching is enjoyable as well.
Though, if these teaching opportunities suddenly dried up, I guess I would have to try and find a way to teach more locally. Whether it just be private students, or try to develop more adjunct positions somewhere.
MW: What advice would you give to younger teachers who are just starting out in a career as a music educator?
JS: I think at first it's good to observe. Take some guidance from your teachers and mentors, which is what I did, in terms of developing your own methodology. Then look for opportunities where you can teach. Even if it's teaching for free, or to a friend who just wants to learn. A lot of places won't be able to hire you at first, but get yourself on as a substitute, or on a list of people that music stores and other institutes use to hire full and part time teachers from.
Make a list of high schools, grade schools, community college, four-year colleges, anywhere there are opportunities to teach in your area. Then be proactive about it. Talk to people who are teaching, find out where the opportunities are in your area. Start networking, talk to organizations in your city or others, to club owners and agents, festival promoters, anyone involved in booking musicians. Talk to travelling musicians and make note of the places they're going. Check out trade publications, go online. Always be looking for new opportunities, it's kind of like being a detective in some ways.
If you're famous you have an agent to do all of this for you. I don't think I'll ever have an agent because unless you're making a six figure income, most agents aren't going to be interested. This means I'll probably be booking myself my whole life, so I'm always talking to people in order to find new opportunities.
The other thing is to be supportive of your peers. If someone is going on the road, or needs a teacher for a clinic, and you can help them out, I think this will come back to help you in the future. Maybe not right away, but if you get a reputation of being professional and helpful, I think it will lead to other opportunities down the road.
People will usually try and return favors. So if someone asks "do you know anyone for this gig" or "can you give me some numbers for bass players in this area", or whatever, I am always trying to help out and develop my network this way. Things are always changing. Clubs are opening and closing, adjuncts teachers are coming and going. I find that if I help out others when they need it, they are much more likely to help me out down the road.
MW: Following up on being your own booking agent. It's a lot of work to maintain all of these relationships yourself, as opposed to someone who has an agent doing this work for them. Do you find in an economic climate like we're in now, that all the personal contacts you've made over the years have helped you to keep working, where others may not be able to find teaching or playing opportunities right now.
JS: I think that's true. Most of the time I'm dealing with friends in these situations, which helps when I'm trying to sell a gig or clinic. We have to remember though that in sales, and not just selling ourselves as a musical product, but sales in general, the rate of return is somewhere around 5 to 10%. The people who are able to get a 5 to 10% return are the ones that are willing to make the eight or ten follow up calls and emails, and who aren't afraid of hearing no. I hear no a lot more than I hear yes.
When I do a tour I don't start out with ten or twenty dates, I start out with one date. Maybe I have a gig in New York for 75$ a man, and I live in Portland, Oregon which means I have to fly there. If I know I have one gig booked I can talk to the thirty or forty people I know within a two-hundred mile radius of the gig to try and find more work.
One of the good things about living on the West Coast is I have gotten used to long trips, as I drive everywhere out here. If I have a gig at the Berkeley Jazz School for instance, that's an eleven hour drive. I usually try and break that up with a stop half-way there, maybe in Redding California, where I can do a gig, or at least take a break. When I get to the East Coast I try and do the same thing. If I have a gig in New York, I can rent or borrow a car and drive out of the city for another gig, and then back again. I will also try and find gigs in surrounding states. I've even gone as far as Ohio and Kentucky from New York in a rental car to do a gig.
This has allowed me to get used to doing long trips when I'm on tour. I've been doing this for so long that I have become acclimated to these types of trips. So I can take a long drive and get out of the car and teach a clinic and I'm fine. It's very demanding but I really enjoy these types of experiences. The other thing is, I am grateful for every little commitment. I only play the gigs and teach the clinics that I want to, even if it's playing background music at a restaurant, if I'm playing my music and with people I like, I'll have a great time.
Sometimes the gigs are high paying, and the audience is listening, but that's not always the case because I'm not famous. If Joe Lovano's on the gig it's going to be great, because he's earned it, he's famous. But in my case it's not always ideal. Though, I've found that there are quite a few people out there who are creating playing situations that may not be high profile, but it is a quality experience. It could be a house concert, which usually pays better than a club, and everyone's listening. I only take gigs and clinics that I enjoy doing; even if the gig isn't ideal, I'm always playing interesting music with people I like musically and personally. It's not the same as playing a concert hall for a few thousand people, but in some ways I like it better.
I also have friends who have created their own record labels. Two guys named John Bishop and Matt Jorgenson, two drummers, own a company called Origin records. I've done four recordings for them, with a fifth one coming out this Spring. In that case I pay for production, they do a limited pressing, but I get a bunch of free CD's which allows me to make my money back.
They also have a mailing list and are great about promoting new CD's and put on jazz festivals and host a jazz walk in Seattle. John started from nothing, just working with friends, but has now developed a catalogue of over 240 records, and has a great reputation within the industry as an independent label. None of us are getting rich off of this, but they are documenting our work, and helping to get music out into the marketplace.
There are a lot of guys like John and Matt that are starting up little production companies all over the country. They may not be a big name like Blue Note, but they can still produce a product that looks and sounds just as good as anything done by a big label.
One of the things I tell people at clinics is that most of us are not famous. On any instrument there are probably less than fifty guys that are travelling around the world living the life of a Pat Metheny or John Scofield, going from big festival to big festival. But for the rest of us, we can still have experiences that are just as fulfilling. Even if we're playing to smaller audiences, that doesn't mean we have to compromise our artistic integrity in any way.
I think what keeps us going is the love of music, not the chance of fame or fortune.
MW: That's a great close to this very insightful conversation. On behalf of our readers I'd like to thank you for taking the time to talk with us today, I really appreciate it.
JS: My pleasure, thanks for having me.