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The Guitar Hero Series: Matt Warnock
Written by Ava

Musical instrument Guitar Musician String instrument String instrument


The Guitar Hero series on Jemsite features interviews with guitarists and musicians who may not have star status YET, but their current situations have shaped them to be who they are--determined, fond of their craft, and heroes in their own right. Perhaps you'll see in these upcoming entries the next Jimi Hendrix, Melissa Etheridge, or Duane Allman. Or perhaps they'll become household names by doing what they do best--ripping a mean riff!

Matt Warnock is the perfect example of how learning classical guitar can help make a difference in style, technical aspects, and skill for any type of guitar. Though he started playing the instrument simply because he loved rock & blues, Warnock is an advocate of classical guitar skills for good musicianship.

Still, the improvisation of jazz guitar appealed to him and though classical guitar helped with technique, Warnock switched his focus to jazz. As he mentions in the interview below, he loved the idea of making up arrangements and solos on the spot.

Warnock has used his work in both the technical and disciplinary classical guitar and fun and free improvisational jazz guitar to become the musician of many skills he is today.

Matt is currently the guitar professor at Western Illinois University and teaches jazz and classical lessons. He is also part of the faculty at the Interlochen Summer Arts Academy.

He maintains a popular blog on guitar news and events called Guitar Player Daily. He writes for Just Jazz Guitar magazine, Modern Guitar magazine, Jazz Guitar Gazette, Jazz Guitar Life Magazine, is a freelancer for the Hal Leonard guitar department, and has published a book called East Coast Love Affair: Transcriptions in 2008.

He maintains a private studio of both jazz and classical guitar students.

And that's why he's this week's Guitar Hero.

What is your background in guitars? Why classical guitar?

I began, like most people, learning how to play along with my favorite rock and blues records back in high school. When I was first starting out I was really into Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughn and David Gilmour. After playing for a year or so I realized that I wanted to play guitar for a living. While I was taking rock and blues guitar lessons at the time, I felt that in order to really push myself I needed to take classical guitar lessons. It wasn't that my other lessons weren't helping, but I wanted to develop my musicianship skills, such as reading, transposing, finger-picking etc, which are topics that receive a lot of focus when studying classical guitar. For the next three years I basically did nothing but practice and play classical guitar all day, and even though most of my playing today is jazz, I am really glad I studied classical when I was younger.

What was your experience like at the Royal Conservatory of Music and would you recommend that place for other guitarists?

I really enjoyed studying the RCM material. In fact, now that I have finished my DMA in jazz I am going back and am planning on finishing my ARCT diploma in classical guitar from the Conservatory. The way that the each of the RCM exams is laid out pretty much guarantees that people who study this system will become well-rounded players later on. To pass each exam players have to perform scales, tremelando scales, slur scales, arpeggios, compound scales, 4-7 pieces from various time periods, ear training and sight-reading, as well as pass theory and history components. By setting it up this way students are receiving a full Conservatory education, which is becoming rare these days.

I highly recommend classical guitarists work through at least parts of each section of the exam. The best part is that the RCM publishes all of their repertoire and technique books and they are available to order online. This allows anyone, whether they actually do the exams or not, to study the same material that any RCM student would who is working through the graded exams.

Why did you switch your focus to jazz guitar? Do you think others should follow in your footsteps?

As much as I love classical guitar, especially the discipline it takes to properly study it, I really enjoy the improvisational aspect of jazz music. When I was in my last year of high-school I played in my school's jazz band. The bandleader recognized that I had some talent and was really getting into the music, so he asked me to play in a pro big band in town and brought me up on stage to sit in with his small jazz group on gigs around town. I immediately fell in love with the music. Creating arrangements and solos on the spot with a group of musicians can be really exhilarating and almost addictive. I think that my classical training really helped me when I first started playing jazz.

My technique was already in good shape, I could hear a lot of the melodies and chord changes and play them by ear and I was able to read any chart that the groups were playing. All of these skills would have come along by just playing jazz, but my classical training gave me a big head start in these categories. I don't know if I recommend that people take the same path I did. For me it is more important that people follow their motivation and play the kind of music they love.

Who are your musical influences? Why did you choose to research jazz guitarist Johnny Smith for your dissertation? What does he bring to the table that you also hope to do?

I take influences from many different musicians, guitarists and otherwise, and from many styles of music. I really love the way that Jimmy Page can build a solo and the energy that he brings to a tune, both of which I try and use in my playing. On the jazz end of things, Lenny Breau and Ralph Towner have had a huge influence on my playing and approach to music. The level of creativity and musicianship that both of these great players bring to every tune they play is something that I definitely strive for.

I choose to research Johnny Smith for several reasons. The first is that he is such a great player and it seems that recently he has fallen under the radar a little bit. I felt that studying his music wouldn't just benefit my playing, but might also help expose others to his playing and arranging. The second reason was that Johnny is one of the most fluid and technically perfect guitarists from any genre or generations, and I wanted to find out how he developed this side of his playing. After I started transcribing and analyzing his solos I began to realize how incredibly creative, though compositional, his playing was. His ability to take a few short motives and work them through a tune in a Bebop fashion wasn't something I was expecting from Smith, but it ended up becoming the focus of my dissertation.

Do you think guitarists need a background or courses in Music Theory?

That depends on why the person is playing and studying the guitar. When I was younger I studied a lot of theory and wanted to understand everything I was hearing on my favorite records. While this helped me a lot in my development, as I get older I am starting to think that learning theory doesn't have to be such a focus in people's study in order to become a competent player. Now, when I teach my jazz students I focus on learning theory in order to explain why something sounds good and works in a musical situation, not in order to apply theory to their playing before they can properly hear and play the concept we are working on. Everyone is different so it should be up to the individual whether they feel they need to learn theory and how they want to apply it to their playing. Having a knowledgeable, experienced teacher can go a long way with dealing with this matter in our playing.

Of all the musicians you've performed or collaborated with, which one has had the most influence and why?

The one guitarist who has had the most impact on my playing and teaching is Roddy Ellias. Roddy was my teacher while I was an undergrad at McGill University in Montreal and I have been lucky enough to keep in touch, and perform a few times per year, with him since then. Roddy is, in my opinion, one of the best guitarists and guitar pedagogues on the planet. He brings a Zen-like approach to teaching that really helped me develop a deep relationship with both my guitar and the music I am playing. I still work on exercises that Roddy gave to me almost ten years ago, and I use many of the things he taught me when I teach my current jazz and classical students. For the past few years I have been lucky enough to play with Roddy several times and these concerts are the highlight of my year. Playing with Roddy brings out the best in my playing. He really pushes my to new levels of creativity and I am always on my toes just trying to keep up with all the rhythmic and harmonic twists and turns he throws at me during a set.

I have also learned a lot from studying and playing with saxophonist Chip McNeill, who is one of the most virtuosic players I have ever heard. Chip has a deep understanding of harmony and theory, though he is very musical at the same time. Studying with him has shown me that I need to know all of the theory behind what I play, but at the end of the day it is the music that matters. The audience doesn't want to hear me think, they just want to enjoy the music. Chip has definitely helped me bring this out in my playing and composing/arranging.

From a classical standpoint Tucson guitarist Marc Sandroff has really pushed me to develop my right-hand and ears to the point where I am always playing with the best tone possible. Marc can hear any little discrepancy in my tone and attack, even in a jazz setting. Though he is more classically trained, he also has a deep understanding of solo-jazz guitar and he was a very big factor in my choosing to pursue solo playing a few years back.

Do you think teaching is a skill that many guitarists should have? Why did you choose to go into teaching?

In today's society being able to teach and perform, as well as having other music related skills, can make guitarists much more marketable than if they focus on only one of these skills. I have always known that I wanted to teach, it was something that I enjoyed doing right from the beginning. I started teaching a few months after learning the guitar, just showing chords and scales to kids in the neighborhood, and I have been doing it almost daily since then.

I don't think that people should teach if they don't' want to, though it is a good way to make money in order to support one's performing and/or recording career. The thing that I like about teaching, as compared to working a non-music day job, is that I have my guitar in my hands all the time. I am constantly jamming with my students and reading through material with them. Though it is not the same as doing a gig, or my own practice routine, teaching helps keep me mentally and physically sharp while making money at the same time. The one thing that still surprises me is how much I learn from my students and from teaching in general. Each student learns differently and they need to approach the material from many different angles. This forces me to rethink how I play certain tunes or concepts, and exposes me to material that I may not have ever looked at in my own practicing.

What are key differences in the sound and technique of jazz guitar and classical guitar?

The biggest difference is in the instrument itself, along with the right-hand technique needed to play in each of these styles. Since classical guitarists use completely acoustic instruments, the tone and volume is very dependant on their right hands. Jazz guitarists can tweak both tone and volume by adjusting their guitars and/or amps/effects pedals, though the right-hand is also very important to jazz players in their feel and time. Most jazz guitarists will use either a pick or combination of a pick and fingers to pluck the strings, while classical guitarists only use their right-hand fingers. Both techniques can be applied to each genre, for example I play fingerstyle on my electric in a jazz setting and players like Pat Metheny have used picks to play classical guitars, though most jazz players stick to the pick while classical players prefer their fingers.

What does it take to be a professional guitarist? Why would you label yourself under that category?

I guess I began to consider myself a professional guitarist when I made the vast majority of my living with my guitar. When I was about twenty years old I was lucky enough to have enough gigs and students that I could support myself while I was going to school, and didn't have to work a non-music day job. This is just how I qualify myself as a professional guitarist; I have heard many players who are "professional" guitarists though they make their living in a different field.

To reach the level of a professional guitarist takes a lot of work and dedication. The skills that I would consider essential for anyone to have if they want to reach this level of playing would be sight-reading, knowing the neck inside and out, having highly-developed ears, being able to improvise in one or more genres, having a developed concept of accompaniment and having enough repertoire to perform a four hour gig from memory in the genre of their choice. Having all of these skills is not essential for anyone to go out and play a gig, but in order to go do a gig on short notice, without any rehearsal or advance knowledge of the music, most of these skills should be in our hands and ears.

What sort of advice would you give to someone who is not certain about pursuing jazz guitar? Why jazz guitar than a more mainstream guitar sound?

I think that if a person loves jazz and jazz guitar than they should go for it and really begin to study the instrument and genre. Some people get into jazz for different reasons than their love of the music and, in my experience, these players don't get very far before they move on to something else. Jazz is a tough music to player properly. It takes many hours of practicing, listening jamming and most importantly performing. It is not a style of music that can be learned on one's own without the input of older, more experienced players.

So my advice for anyone who is just starting to explore jazz guitar is to find the best jazz player around, guitarist or otherwise, and study with them. Follow them around to gigs and see how they perform. Jam with them and ask them as many questions as you can think of. Finding a good mentor can be an invaluable resource when learning to play jazz guitar. I still lean on Roddy from time to time when I need advice or am struggling through something. I couldn't have gotten to this point in my career without his, any many other people's, help.
 
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