More Online Guitar Instruction Than You Can Shake a Stratocaster At

Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett is preparing for the launch of his new podcast, "Shred with Shifty," a series in which Shiflett and other well-known guitarists dissect classic solos.
Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett is preparing for the launch of his new podcast, "Shred with Shifty," a series in which Shiflett and other well-known guitarists dissect classic solos. Photo by Joey Martinez
In the beginning, there was Mel Bay. In 1947, Melbourne E. Bay wrote the first of what would be dozens (hundreds?) of instructional books that taught the nation (the world?) how to play the guitar. If you are “of a certain age” and took guitar lessons, you are acquainted with Mr. Bay.

The one that many of us started with. Book cover
He not only wrote the books, he also served as a model for the photos, dressed in a natty suit and playing an ornate D’Angelico jazz guitar. By all accounts, he was a wonderful gentleman, but Mel was, charitably speaking, a bit of a square. Four corners. L-7. He referred to a guitar pick as a “plectrum.” Mel was not hip.

Following the Beatles’ success, some companies began publishing guitar songbooks containing the sheet music for songs by popular artists. There were a couple of problems, though. Many of the books were edited by keyboard players, who placed the songs in keys unfriendly to the guitar. Also, you had to actually read music.

Fast forward to the internet age, and there are more people on YouTube teaching guitar lessons that you can shake a Stratocaster at. This has been a boon to aspiring guitar players, particularly those who learn best by watching a demonstration rather than gleaning skills from the printed page.

Some lessons you pay for, but some are free. Such is the case with Farner Chords, a newly-launched addition to the website of Mark Farner, lead guitarist with the band Grand Funk (“We’re an American Band,” “I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home),” “The Loco-Motion”).

Speaking from his farm in Michigan, Farner explains that he had no financial motive in mind when he decided to introduce Farner Chords, just simple frustration “They weren’t playing it right,” Farner says of his fellow six-stringers.

The first installment of Farner’s series is a video in which he demonstrates the guitar part from the 1971 Grand Funk song “People Let’s Stop the War.” While maybe not one of the band’s best-known tunes, “People” contains a funk-influenced guitar groove and a serious workout for the wah-wah pedal. “I don’t think there’s such a thing as too much wah-wah,” Farner sagely observes.
And it doesn’t really have anything to do with the story, but, for your edification, when farmer Farner signs off from a Zoom meeting, he says, “If I don’t see you in the future, I’ll see you in the pasture.”

Another guitarist of some renown, Chris “Shifty” Shiflett of the Foo Fighters, is preparing to debut a video podcast called “Shred with Shifty.” In this case, Shiflett will feature a different guest guitarist in each episode, and the two of them will dissect one of the guests’ famous solos. Among the players featured in the first season are Brian Setzer (Stray Cats), Alex Lifeson (Rush), Rivers Cuomo (Weezer) and country chopsmeister Brad Paisley.

Shiflett recalls the period when, prior to YouTube, guitarists could buy VHS tapes featuring well-known players teaching some of their best licks. (Ironically, many of these early videos have now been posted on YouTube.) “It used to drive me nuts with all of them,” Shiflett says, “Whoever would be doing it wouldn’t play it slow enough to really work it out. It would be grainy, it would be hard to see their hands.”

"Why fuck around when you can go to the guy that played the thing and go, ‘How did you do that?’”

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So what were the criteria when it came to determining which players would be featured during the first season of “Shred”? “This show could go on forever. It’s not like there’s a shortage of great guitar players out there in the world,” Shiflett says. “It’s kind of a mix. It’s the people that I grew up listening to, modern players – it’s not genre specific. I wanted to make sure that it was not genre specific, but kinda all over the shop.”

It's no surprise that Shiflett has enjoyed all of the episodes recorded so far, but some stand out. “I’ve gotten a lot out of all of them so far, but the one that was maybe the most illuminating was Nile Rogers (Chic, David Bowie). As a guitar player, he’s about the furthest away from what I do. He’s a whole different thing, coming from a whole different place, so it was really fun to sit and talk guitar with him.”

Inspiration for “Shred” came, in part, from Shiflett’s discovery that some monster players were offering private guitar lessons via Zoom. “I still take lessons here and there,” Shiflett says. “That’s how I met (Nashville studio ace) Brent Mason. I somehow found his website and realized, ‘Wait a minute. You can schedule a lesson over Zoom with Brent Mason?’ Why fuck around when you can go to the guy that played the thing and go, ‘How did you do that?’”
Shiflett continues, “I should mention that the punchline to that is nobody actually knows what they played on the record, really. Nobody remembers! The older the song is, the less they remember what they played on it.”

The Rolling Stones came up in the discussion on that subject, and Shiflett is quick to jump in with a story. “Maybe the most amazing thing that I’ve done musically was when the Foo Fighters got to go back up Mick Jagger on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ That’s the dream.

“The first day of rehearsals – we had learned four or five or six Stones songs – and one of the ones we ended up doing with him was ‘It’s Only Rock and Roll.’ We learned the studio version. We learned the ‘record’ version. So we played it for him, and when we finished, he kind of chuckled and said (insert Jagger accent here), ‘I haven’t played it that way since we recorded it!’” (For more on Jagger’s SNL appearance, check out this video from comedian John Mulaney.)

Playing Devil’s advocate, is it appropriate to strive for perfection in the domain of rock and roll, as some online guitar instructors seem to do? “The reality is, I’m not that kind of player,” Shiflett says. “Never was. I think there’s value in that, but I just get in the spirit of it. Or fuck it up completely and just take the shell of it and turn it in to something completely different. To me, it’s more about capturing the spirit. If I have to learn a Van Halen song, I can’t play guitar like Eddie Van Halen. I’m never going to be able to learn those leads note for note. Never, if I spent the rest of my life trying to do it. So I can’t worry about that. I’ve just got to get it in the spirit of what it was. And then do you own thing!”
But back to the notion of the horse’s mouth. “The reason I want to hear it from the people that did it is that I just want insight into what they were thinking. And their technique. There’s all these well-worn licks that we all do a version of. But there’s a million versions of [every one]. Each player has his own twist on it, and that’s what makes it great.”

Shiflett believes that “Shred” will appeal to more than just guitar geeks. “Hopefully even people who aren’t guitar players or musicians will get something out of it, because there are interview components to it. We do some fan questions at the end of the interviews, and that’s fun. I do this myself with other art forms, where there’s an interest – even if you don’t do the thing – in just hearing the minutia of the craft. I love hearing comedians – like in the early Marc Maron, when he first started his podcast – talking about the sort of ‘Inside Baseball’ comedy stuff. All of the stuff that, as a non-comedian, I’ve never paid attention to.”

And then there’s Marty Schwartz, a California guitar teacher who has turned his YouTube instructional videos into a good living. When Schwartz was playing guitar in cover bands and teaching guitar, he had an idea that would significantly impact his future. “It’s ultimately all a product of desperation,” Schwartz says, speaking from Nashville prior to an event he is hosting at the Gibson Garage, a combination guitar showroom, museum and live performance venue.

And ultimately, with electric guitar, it was just noisy enough for older people to hate it and cool enough for younger people to go, ‘Yeah! That’s my thing!’”

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“In 2008, when the economy crashed, I was a full-time musician and guitar teacher and also a part-time elementary school music teacher. And – boom! – in one fell swoop, the economy took a dive, and I got laid off from my [performing] gigs, I got laid off from my [school] teaching job, I lost students, all in a short period of time. So all of a sudden, when I needed work, the quickest way for me to get more work was to get every private student I could. So I started making YouTube videos, to market myself as a guitar teacher.

“And in 2008, it wasn’t an industry, the word ‘influencer’ didn’t exist. ‘Content creator,’ ‘YouTuber,’ none of those terms existed. YouTube was just a Wild West video platform. What I was trying to do was make lessons that showed I was a good guitar teacher, that I was a personable kind of guy who you could be comfortable learning from. If I got a referral from the various ways I was advertising myself as a guitar teacher, I could send a link to the channel, and you could see how I taught. At the same time, I started making clips from my regular guitar lessons, and what happened was that people started watching those.”

The videos quickly built a following that has only snowballed over the past 15 years. “Arguably, as one person, I have taught more people than anyone in the history of guitar,” Schwartz says. So how many is that? “From the time I started 15 years ago, it’s about two billion views. I still make videos every day.”
After all these years, Schwartz still seems to enjoy his work. “Well, that’s like the ultimate reward,” he says. “I don’t wake up, and the first thing I think about is making money. It’s the real people, the viewers, the students. I feel that responsibility. I feel that the audience is learning from me. I feel the connection with people, and I know I’m helping them. And yes, I make a living from it, and it all combines into a perfect career that I couldn’t have imagined.”

A new wrinkle in that career is “Marty Music Guitar Academy,” a television show which has just premiered on the AXS cable network. “The elevator pitch is ‘Bob Ross for guitar,’” Schwartz says. “I think about the fact that I love cooking shows, but I’m not sitting there with my cooking utensils. It’s like Bob Ross. I would think that 99.9 percent of the millions of people who watched him weren’t in front of their paint brush and canvas. It was like a meditative thing. So I hope that people who don’t play guitar can get a little Zen from it.”

So what is it about the guitar? Why do people love it so much? Why do they obsess over it? Schwartz ponders for a moment and then replies. “It just looks really cool. You’re kind of dancing with it. It does look like a woman’s body. And ultimately, with electric guitar, it was just noisy enough for older people to hate it and cool enough for younger people to go, ‘Yeah! That’s my thing!’”
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Contributor Tom Richards is a broadcaster, writer, and musician. He has an unseemly fondness for the Rolling Stones and bands of their ilk.
Contact: Tom Richards