Recently, I attended guitar virtuoso Guthrie Govan’s workshop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I first discovered Guthrie from his lesson articles in Guitar Techniques magazine. This was back around 1997 when I first started playing guitar. At that time, I was studying classical guitar. So, his electric guitar lessons were different from what I played. It was inspiring to see how many lessons he penned over the years. It seemed like nothing was out of reach for Guthrie. I was a fan. To actually meet him, watch him play live and hear him share his stories and tips was a wonderful experience.
Granted, nothing beats actually being at the workshop. But, I wanted to share some of the most insightful things I learned from the session. Please bear in mind that I’m paraphrasing these tips from my own notes and memory of the workshop. I apologize if there’s any mistakes! I hope this captures the essence of what I learned. If you ever get a chance to attend a Guthrie Govan workshop, clinic or meet and greet – go for it. It’s worth it.
Here are 10 of the important things I learned from the workshop.
1. Music is an art form
Growing up, Guthrie shared how his parents actively listened to music. It was not something in the background. Thus, this is how he developed his relationship to music. He had access to his dad’s record collection and this is how he learned to play guitar.
I could relate to this. I grew up in a family where music was a part of our life. My dad had classical music cassettes and a small record collection. As I approached my teenage years, my dad would buy me cassettes and later on CDs of the music I liked. Respecting music as an art form is paramount as a musician.
2. Learn a repertoire of actual songs
Guthrie mentioned that he was a fan of pre-army Elvis and Chuck Berry. When he was 3 years old, his dad started teaching him chords. Using what he learned, he built upon that by learning actual songs from the 50s. He joked about how most of the songs were similar except the titles had different girls’ names.
My take on this is to take whatever knowledge you have and go deep into it the music to learn more. As a teacher, I’ve had students who could play many scales but couldn’t play an entire song. I noticed that the musicians who learned by learning songs understood the music they played better.
3. Develop your ears
As Guthrie was self-taught, he learned by transcribing the music he was curious about. He noted that this was an experience that might be rare for today’s younger musician. The ease of finding transcriptions online (often imprecise tabs) and YouTube tutorials deprived musicians the opportunity to learn by ear.
He related how learning music could be approached the same way one learned their mother tongue. He suggested working on one’s ears and singing what one plays.
4. Learn more technique and music theory than you need
Guthrie explains that deep down we know how much chops we need. But, having that extra amount of technique can enable us to be freer in case we’re trying something beyond what we normally play. Guthrie also emphasized that knowledge can’t destroy our playing. He said fear of the unfamiliar is what stops people from learning theory or more technique.
5. On music college
As a self-taught musician, Guthrie never attended music college. For him, transcribing, along with visits to the local library informed him. According to Guhrie, Eddie Van Halen never went to music school and it didn’t hurt him. Steve Vai did go to music school and it didn’t hurt him. In the end, you have to make this decision yourself.
6. Discover why you’re playing guitar
Guthrie believes that everyone has a different purpose or reason to pick up the guitar. He asked one of the workshop attendee’s purpose of playing guitar. He also said his answer to a lot of questions would be to ask yourself what you’re curious about. Why do you play guitar? What do you want to do in music?
7. On playing on static chords
Guthrie doesn’t believe that there’s a set of right notes to play and wrong notes to avoid. Instead, he thinks of it a spectrum of notes from nice notes to ugly notes. The most of important thing is to use tension and release. When he improvises, he plays what he would like to hear. He advised to listen to how each note in the scale makes you feel. He demonstrated a variety of different note choices over an A minor loop to further elaborate on this. I took notes of the notes he played!
Here are some of what I noticed he played:
- A minor triad
- A minor pentatonic
- A dorian (A minor pentatonic with added 6th and 9th)
- A dorian with added chromatic passing notes
He also demonstrated how in a dominant blues, playing A major pentatonic can sound bland. He played phrases that included the b3 sliding, bending or hammering on into the natural 3. He also demonstrated how the equal temperament system makes everything equally out of tune in any key. For the blues, he played the b3 and natural 7th slightly sharper to get the actual pitch for a blues feel.
8. You are what you eat
I asked Guthrie how I could develop a personal guitar style. I’ve found that I sometimes get confused what to do or what to learn. I have questions like, “Do I sound like me? Do I have a personal sound?” I’m not sure so I wanted to hear his take on this.
Guthrie gave two valuable tips on this. Firstly, he said to steal what you like the most. Everyone would have different taste in music. So, everyone would have different preferences for harmony and melody. So, by stealing what you like, only you would have selected that precise balance. “You are what you eat,” said Guthrie.
His second tip was to play another instrument. He said that he would pick up bass for a week to get different musical ideas. This would get him in a different mindset, to think like a bassist. Then, when he returned to the guitar, he would have all these new ideas. This encourages me to play more ukulele, percussion or keyboards.
9. Sound before technique
For Guthrie, the technique is a product of the sound that you want to make. He’d rather the technique was transparent instead of being the focus. He said that Frank Gambale developed his technique because he wanted to play all these fast elaborate synth and sax melodies. The sound directed his search for the technique needed. Guthrie then demonstrated his tapping technique that developed from his desire to play lines that repeated for several octaves. He heard these kinds of lines from pianists and figured out what he needed to do to get this sound.
10. Introduce deadlines and decide on goals
The quest for perfection can stop us from creating work. By forcing yourself to finish a song or project by a certain date, that can help you finish your work.
Hope you found this blog post helpful. Please share this post if you think others might enjoy it!
Thanks to John Lau Guitars for inviting me and my students to this awesome workshop.
Now, I’d love to hear from you.
Have you attended a Guthrie Govan workshop before?
Did you learn something from Guthrie’s songs?
Leave your answer in the comments below. Remember to share as much detail as possible so that we can all learn from one another. Your insight may help another guitarist someone from across the world.
Thank you for reading and for hanging out here. Be back again soon!