Today we’re joined by Dave Isaacs, a man known as the “Guitar Guru of Nashville”. Dave has been teaching music for over thirty years and provides online courses at JamPlay.com. Dave is also a performing artist, releasing ten CDs of his own and continuing to perform with an Americana trio called Renfree Isaacs.
Dave wrote a terrific guest post on song writing and arranging for the Musical U website last year and we were keen to pick his brains on songwriting advice – but in this conversation we also go deep into his own journey as a musician, the interplay of theory, instrument skills and your musical ear, and how he discovered the improviser’s mindset.
- The trick to breaking into improv if it’s always seemed intimidating, and how he discovered this almost by accident.
- His two big tips for songwriters looking to improve.
- What causes many musicians to stall or plateau after learning for a few years, and how you can best tackle that and get moving again.
Dave has had a particularly interesting journey as a musician and it’s left him with true wisdom when it comes to the right mindset for teaching and learning music. We hope you’ll find this conversation as enlightening and inspiring as we did.
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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Dave. Thank you for joining us today.
Dave: Thanks for having me.
Christopher: So I’d love to start at the beginning if you wouldn’t mind. You’ve had an incredible career up to this point and I’d love to know more about how you got started in the first place in music.
Dave: Well, I grew up with a lot of music in the household. My mother played piano, my father played the guitar. Neither one of them had any kind of great level of skill but they loved it and they loved music so it was always music in the household and so I grew up being introduced to all these different things. My father had discovered classical and flamenco when he was actually in medical school in Holland in the 60’s and had brought back all of this music and so we had reams and reams of classical guitar music and Segovia records and John Williams records but my parents were also 60’s folk revivalists and so we had all kinds of folk records and my mother grew up in eastern Kentucky in the heart of Appalachia so I grew up hearing this mountain music and not even bluegrass so much but sort of pre-bluegrass, you know, the old mountain songs and things like that. And so you have the classical music on the one hand and she — my mother also loved a lot of the eastern European composers. She loved Bartok.
So I’m hearing Segovia playing Spanish music. I’m hearing Bartok on the piano. I’m hearing mountain ballads accompanied by dulcimer. I’m hearing Doc Watson flatpicking fiddle tunes and then I guess what started to catch me in terms of pop music was, just, what was on the radio and this is the late 70’s, early 80’s and pretty much my tastes weren’t all that different than your average American suburban kid. The Beatles were, I think, the first group that really sort of caught me as far as now I’m listening to everything. And now my mother maintains that I started playing guitar because she gave me an ultimatum that I had to find something to do with myself one summer instead of just laying around the house so I don’t recall this but I had, I don’t have any reason to doubt her and like I said, the guitar had been in the house and I was familiar with guitar music and, you know, as a 14-year-old you’re looking for your identity and it was the place that I found it quickly, and, you know, in the way that teenagers do so my hair started growing out and my wardrobe started changing and everything that goes with that but I just loved it and after a year or so of playing it started to seem like it was coming pretty naturally. So I was serious about it inside of a year and a half, two years.
Christopher: And what did it look like for you, learning guitar in that first year or two?
Dave: You know, I don’t think I was thinking all that much about it. It was just that there was music. I just found music so exciting and I would get a, I still do get very much a visceral response to it and I think that one of the things that first caught me early on was just the way that it felt. So some of it is listening and the response and I’m very auditory in my response to things which is no mystery for a musician but I experience music very vividly in that way, as sensation. And then you add the tactile element to that, of touching the strings and I goofed around on the piano and liked the piano. I had had a few episodes of piano lessons and the only time I really took to it was when I had a teacher who let me play by ear and it connected, actually, to the folk music because my mother also loved folk dancing. A lot of, actually, New England folk dancing and English contra dancing and things like that and so the music for this is some of these fiddle tunes but some of it was Renaissance music and these ancient melodies and I just really loved those and so the one piano teacher that I really loved was teaching me how to play these tunes and that stuff really stuck with me but the guitar I think also there was that aspect of, “Ooh, this might make me cool.” So, you know, there’s that —
Christopher: (Laughs) That’s great motivation for a 14-year-old.
Dave: Well, yeah, and it’s not the first time anyone’s said that. (Laughs) There’s lots of songs about it.
Christopher: So you were clearly immersed in a very musical household and it sounds like you had that inner drive to learn guitar, like this wasn’t something being forced upon you, but —
Dave: Oh, yeah. Not at all.
Christopher: Was it entirely self-taught, there?
Dave: Oh, no. I started lessons right away and I think my folks saw the importance of that and I think I needed the guidance. I wasn’t a noodler when I started off, and I see this all the time. When I was teaching kids, which I don’t do so much anymore, but before I came to Nashville I had a neighborhood teaching business and was very busy with that and did that for the first few years that I was here, as well. I see some kids, they just pick it up and they just start noodling around with it and I’m sure I did that to a certain extent but at first I did need structure. I like to noodle around on the piano, I think just the physicality of it, and I find this with most students. It takes a little bit of time just because the guitar is a little ungainly, sometimes, to start with. It’s not like piano where you just, basically, you’re pushing a button, just hitting a key.
Christopher: Absolutely. And so, how did things develop, then, for you in your teenage years as a guitar player?
Dave: Well I just started getting interested in all of it. I wanted to know about everything. My mom. I have to give my mom credit for a lot of this. She brought home a copy of Guitar Player Magazine that she had bought and this was, I don’t know, 1980, 1981. And so I’m reading all this stuff and I don’t know what most of it means but it’s interesting to me and then I start reading regularly and so I’m learning about all of these players doing all these different things and it made me curious about what they sounded like and so it became clear not too far in.
My first teacher’s name was Andy Polin. He passed away a couple of years ago I believe up in New York City, but he was a folkie but also a classically trained guitarist and so he was able to teach me the Doc Watson Finger Picking Blues but also started me off fairly early on with the classical guitar and told me, maybe somewhat not entirely accurately that it was the best way to be taken seriously if I wanted to go to music school.
Now, I didn’t know much about jazz or jazz programs. He taught me a little bit about that but I knew that, I guess, at this point I had already started at the, in the prep division where I later went on to go to college at Queens College in the City University of New York. They had a weekend program and so I was taking a couple of classes there.
I was taking guitar lessons and sight singing theory and playing in the jazz band so I was starting to be introduced to that and so I learned about this summer program at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, which is a venerable and very highly regarded music school and at the time was very much still a jazz program. And so I got up there, 16 years old. It was my first time away from home on my own. I walk in the door with my guitar and there’s hundreds of guys with guitars, mostly guys, mind you. This is still 1984 and that was my first real-world, hit-you-upside-the-head music industry lesson. “Oh, okay. There’s hundreds of people here and most of them know more than you do,” but I was so hungry to learn about it.
Christopher: And what was that like for you, going to that Berklee Summer School? That sounds like an amazing opportunity.
Dave: It really, it was very eye-opening because I got exposed to a lot of different kinds of music. I came back with, you know, my record collection something like tripled after I came back from that program because it introduced me to so much but the biggest thing that happened for me was that I discovered improvisation and not necessarily in the jazz context, either, because that was very intimidating. It was learning how to do that. We had classes where we were doing that but it was more in the sense of, like I said before, that I wasn’t really a noodler as far as just sort of finding things on my own.
I was practicing what my teacher taught me and I was playing a lot. I know that. I can’t even tell you I remember very clearly that first year or so of what we were doing although I can remember — well, no, that’s not true, because I can picture what’s in that first notebook and I still have it, but this idea of improvisation as just something that you could just do and that you didn’t need knowledge to do, you could just pick up your guitar and make a sound and that might mean strumming behind the nut and just going, scrape, scrape, scrape. It might mean yelling into the pickups. It might mean whatever you could do to make another sound and this was huge because it was — you know, up to that point everything that I was trying to do was to imitate something that I loved.
So it’s 1984, I’m 16 years old so I’m listening to Van Halen and Rush and Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix and so I get together with some guys who were up the hall in the dorm and oddly enough there were two bass players and a drummer rooming together, which is absolutely bizarre. Just having two bass players in one room in most musical situations is pretty unusual and the four of us got together and just started jamming and, “Well, okay, how do you do this with two bass players?” and I guess maybe it wasn’t four of us all of the time but we’re trying to play this very technical, heavier rock stuff and none of us were really skilled enough to do it well. We were having fun but it wasn’t, you know, I would listen to some of the other guys who were there playing and it just, you know, took the top of your head off. Like, how the heck did they do that? We knew we weren’t at that point but we were taking classes and playing in these jazz ensembles and I don’t even remember who brought in the idea but somebody brought up the word, conversation. “Hey, why don’t we just talk to each other?”
Dave: I play something, you play something and we go back and forth. And so we started experimenting with this where the drummer would just set up a beat and one of the bass players would sort of lay in and hold down a groove doing it in a more traditional way and the other who also played guitar was treating his bass more like a baritone guitar and he and I just started basically making noise over the top of it. We called ourselves, The Noise Quartet, and it was just free-form, sometimes over a groove, sometimes not and we started recording these sessions and then we’d go back up to the dorm and listen to them and you’d hear yourself doing something and you’d think, “Wow. I just played that?” because you’re really not aware of it, maybe you are but in the moment it goes by, but you’re not thinking so much about what you’re doing.
It was just — we were all in this mindset of, we’re exploring together and it was as much a social interaction as anything else but we weren’t talking to each other, we were playing our instruments and to go from trying to emulate Rush, you know, this highly technical music to just saying, “Whatever I do is okay. The skills that I have at this moment are enough for me to make music with.” That was huge.
And so the fact that the music was weird and dissonant and kind of strange didn’t really bother us. I mean, it was partly this sort of rebellious teenage thing, “We don’t have to sound like that,” you know. I’m sure there was an element of that because I certainly wasn’t listening to dissonant music before that, you know, I was not hip to Sonic Youth or Huskerdu or anything like, you know, I didn’t know from punk or anything like that or noise rock or any of that. It was just, “Wow, we can play if we do this,” and the interesting thing was by the end of that summer we could play the songs we wanted to play much better because we’d really dug into our instruments and spent some time exploring and that was huge and that’s stayed with me ever since.
Christopher: That’s fantastic. I love the way you describe that and I think it’s particularly powerful because you were coming from the perspective that I think probably a lot of our listeners are experiencing, which is to look at, say, jazz improvisation and think it’s very technical and methodical and theory-based and you need to kind of study and master it and then you can improvise, which is obviously–
Dave: And they’re the same.
Christopher: — it’s obviously the exact opposite of what you just said.
Dave: Right. Well, then of course, then at the same time you hear these quotes from Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis and they say, “Oh, just forget everything and play,” and so the student is, “Well, how the heck do I do that?”
Christopher: Mm-hm. And it sounds like it was really, for you, it was about having that playground to explore in, to have that opportunity to see what you could do with your guitar rather than always having to, kind of, figure out in advance and be fully polished up before you tried it.
Christopher: And I, yeah, I think that alone is fascinating, but you kind of tacked on something else powerful at the end, there, out of nowhere, which is that it wasn’t just improving your improv skills. You were able to then apply this new mastery of your instrument or understanding of your instrument to what had been challenging before, which was just playing other people’s music, playing by ear. Is that right?
Dave: Yeah, and I think, you know, I didn’t have an understanding of this in the same way that I do now, having been teaching for all these years, but, you know, one of the things I tell my students is you want to play consciously and that doesn’t necessarily mean knowing what you’re going to play next but it means you’re playing with some kind of intention and you’re attempting to control, at least when you’re practicing, you do want to control your hands. You have an idea you are giving the hands an instruction to do something and you want them to do it so you need to play or at least spend a certain amount of your time staying within your technical capabilities because that’s how you reinforce the accuracy. And then of course you want to spend a certain amount of time pushing your technical capabilities and that’s different but what those improvisations did was it tuned me in to that.
It was, “Okay, this is what I can do well right this moment,” and it did a lot to develop my control. Now, of course, I was also practicing for ensembles. I was in private lessons. I was being challenged very, very highly all around so I can’t discount the impact of that. All of those things together had an impact but it really is true that by exploring with what you can do you, I think, you make a stronger connection between the mental and the tactile aspects of playing and that’s just going to make you a stronger player.
Christopher: For sure. You know, it reminds me very much of something a previous guest said, Gerald Klickstein, who wrote The Musician’s Way and he talked about how you can do exercises to improve your technique and that’s very important and you want to push your technique and continue pushing yourself, but when it comes to actually working on a piece and making music and trying to express your musical ideas, you actually want to take it back a few notches. You don’t want to be at the forefront of your technique ability, and it sounds like you’ve expressed the same in your teaching, that, you know, you need to separate out a bit really pushing yourself versus giving yourself a bit of space to explore what’s possible, musically.
Dave: Yeah. I sort of, I guess the way that I break things down in terms of the teaching philosophy is that I see practices falling into three categories and one is pure technique, where you’re not playing music, you’re playing exercises because you’re breaking things down to the absolute mechanics and this is something that I learned from the classical guitar, that you can isolate not just one passage but one measure or two notes and just practice that and when you’re able to dig in with that level of detail, that level of specificity, everything breaks down to what’s mechanical and all mechanical problems have mechanical solutions. So you need to spend some time with that but if you spent your time only with that most people’s brains would bubble.
They can’t, it’s just not something you can concentrate on for that length of time, some people more so than others, but from there the next part of practicing is getting into musical contexts but still not worrying about things that you can do. You’re practicing things that you can’t yet do and so maybe you’re learning something new in your vocabulary. Maybe it’s still technical in the sense of scales and arpeggios. Maybe it’s a chord that you need for a song or a particular chord transition that you need for a song. If you’re studying jazz maybe it’s your 2-5 progressions or whatever it is but it’s putting the technique in a musical context but you’re not trying to do things that are really in your hands and in your mind yet.
And then the third part of practicing is getting into a flow and doing the things that you can technically accomplish but doing them with fluidity and doing them with confidence and doing them naturally and I think that all three of those things are equally important and if you neglect any one of them you don’t really progress, where there’s a hole somewhere in your development as a musician.
Christopher: How important would you say developing your musical ear was in that period where you were learning to improvise and you were, you know, finding that the way to play the songs you liked might be more by ear than by carefully studying tab or sheet music? How important was it for you to have a good ear to begin with and how important was it to develop one on the way?
Dave: It was huge. I think the fact that I had a decent ear to start with, at least enough that I could plink out melodies with one finger on the piano when I was a kid and my first teacher really did encourage me. I remember wanting to learn Jimmy Page’s guitar solo from “Stairway to Heaven,” and he said, “Why don’t you sit down with it and see if you can find some of it?” and so I did and just the fact that he encouraged that maybe this was possible, I think, got me to feel that I probably could do it and I at least got a start on it and in those days you couldn’t find tablets the way you can now. You were just beginning to have tablets being published in the guitar magazines.
In fact, I remember the very first guitar solo that I learned from a tab in a publication was Angus Young’s solo in AC/DC, “You Shook Me All Night Long,” and that was, like, you know, that was great. “All right. I can get into this,” but you didn’t really, obviously, you didn’t have the internet and you were just beginning to see the publications that would publish tabs and so when it came to tablatures mostly my tabbing things out myself and I spent a lot of time when I was in high school trying to work things out.
Now, I made a lot of mistakes in not quite understanding fingerings and there were quite a few revelations when someone showed me the right way to do something and I’d been beating my head against the wall trying to accomplish an impossible fingering. But when I got to music school I struggled with theory at first. It took several times through Theory 1 before I got it. I went to one college — I spent two years at the Hart School of Music at the University of Hartford in Connecticut and then came back home to New York and started at Queens College in New York City and failed my theory placement test and had to go back to Theory 1 again and it was, I guess that was about the point where I realized I had really better knuckle down and start working on this or I’m not gonna get it, because it was a very rigorous program. In fact, Queens College, this was the Aaron Copeland School of Music and they had a theory jury. In order for you to graduate and get your degree, you had to give an hour-long oral presentation on two large-scale pieces that they gave you to analyze and do a large-scale written presentation on the same thing and it was a Schubert quintet and a Stravinsky orchestral, but this was heavy-duty stuff, so they took the theory seriously. But at the same time, I got to school and started ear training classes and my ear was much more developed than a lot of my classmates because I had spent that time working out those tabs.
Dave: So that was huge.
Christopher: And how did things develop for you from there, after music school? What direction did you go in?
Dave: Well, things took a few turns. As I said, my first teacher had encouraged me to study classical guitar and so I did do that and I will say that I loved it, I will say that I was devoted to it but not exclusively. So I was still playing electric guitar, I was still playing in bands on the weekends all through grad school, well, all through most of college. I discovered the Grateful Dead my first year of college and that took me off on a whole thing right there and of course that connected to the improvisation thing but there was also a connection to the folk music that I knew and it was rock and roll. So all of these things kind of started connecting there.
So I’ve come to believe that to really master something like classical guitar you really need to devote yourself to it exclusively and not only because you’re gonna rip your nails to shreds playing an electric guitar but I worked very seriously at it all through college and grad school and I finished my master’s degree and at this point I had started writing some music and I was putting together concerts. I was booking church halls and things like that. I was getting friends together for little chamber recitals and really was hustling and I spent the winter of 1993, so I graduated 1990, okay, 1993. So ’93, ’94 was a real bad winter in New York City. We had a lot of snow and I didn’t go out much and I practiced something like eight hours a days for that entire winter. I had wanted to enter the GFA competition, the Guitar Foundation of America, in the spring and this was a big deal. If you won this thing, you got a debut recital in New York and it could be a career-making thing to win and certainly just to do well in but I didn’t go out much. I didn’t have much of a social life since I had moved back home and eight hours a day of guitar with not much else in my life to balance it became a problem.
I started getting pain in my hands in early spring and by April its was so bad that I couldn’t play and it turned out that I had developed this pretty serious repetitive strain injury. So I had to stop playing completely for about six months and of course that was not fun. That was hard and when I came back to it I realized that I had to make a choice, that if I was going to have a career as a classical guitarist then I was basically gonna have to rebuild my technique from the beginning but that I could go back to playing popular music and started off really just playing the guitar and strumming and over the course of the next few years I started playing in bands again and rebuilding things and so I guess it’s two or three years after this and I had started a duo with a female singer and so we were playing around town singing two-part harmony and I’m playing acoustic guitar accompanying us and friends of mine are starting to record their first projects. They’re recording, they’re releasing CD’s. This is now 1995 and so I said, “We don’t have any original material. We should write some songs,” and my partner wasn’t all that interested in it but as I started writing I finally said, “You know, I really should start my own group to play these songs,” and so I started putting something together and we start playing and as we’re getting out and playing shows, so this is Long Island, New York outside of New York City, people are saying, “Oh, you guys sound kind of country,” and “We do?” I really didn’t even know what that meant because I wasn’t listening to country music. Like I said, I grew up on listening to deep folk music and there was a big country element to the Dead but I didn’t really know that or recognize that so much. You know, they were covering Merle Haggard but I didn’t know who Merle Haggard was, I mean, other than that he wrote this song. And we started digging into that and I went, “Oh, I like this,” and country music in the mid-90’s was pretty much what a lot of rock was in the mid-70’s. The Eagles obviously were a favorite band of mine and they had a real strong country element and there was steel guitar on Led Zeppelin records and on Elton John records, and, you know, you look at what Elton was doing in the early 70’s that Bernie Taupin is writing these sort of mythical stories of the American south and the American west and he’s writing music which is bringing together country elements and R&B and gospel elements and I’m discovering The Band around this time and so all of this roots music thing really started to come full circle. So I went from — oh yeah, and then we discovered that there were clubs where people played country music and if you played the right songs that people wanted to dance to you could get paid on a Tuesday night. So, now, of course I’m spelling out what a lot of people here in Nashville absolutely hate because you’re playing this music but you’re inauthentic, you know what I mean? Like, “Well, you didn’t grow up like that so you shouldn’t be doing that.”
Christopher: If you didn’t actually own a pickup truck you can’t sing about it.
Dave: Well, kind of. I mean, Alan Jackson has a song called “Gone Country” and there is a line in there, “Well, I’m a simple girl, myself. Grew up on Long Island,” and it’s absolutely about you discover it and you buy a pair of boots and yes, okay, so I live that cliché, too but I genuinely did love the music and there was a connection to the music that I knew and so I had a country rock band and ultimately it was a country rock band because we weren’t singing about pickup trucks. It was, you know, the influences that I was coming to were southern rock, you know, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Tom Petty isn’t necessarily southern rock but some of that kind of element and the Eagles and the Dead so it was definitely a country rock band and it was funny because, you know, when I started coming to Nashville it was a little puzzling to people because it just wasn’t fitting in.
And in New York we were just weird. We were completely uncool because, you know, how is that cool, to be doing that? And finally people did start to connect with it and so it was, you know, it’s a pretty big jump from serious classical guitar to trying to pitch songs in Nashville and playing in a band that’s playing for country line dancers but it was all musicianship, you know? And the ears and the training and the listening really did come in to all of that because pulling the band together took a lot of listening and arranging the songs took a lot of listening and thinking and we really worked it, really tried to put a lot of effort into the arrangements and what was going on there musically and so one of the things people started responding to when we started releasing CD’s and were getting press is people were responding to a level of depth and care that had gone in to the music itself because it is true that when it came to country music around that time you had basically the same ten, twelve musicians playing on virtually every major label record and so they pretty much all sounded the same, that it wasn’t like — and Nashville has always very much been about very, very, very skilled musicians turning out a consistent product very, very efficiently. I don’t think there’s anywhere where people do that better. I mean, I’ve played a lot of recording sessions in my career. I am still intimidated when I get on sessions with the full-time music row session players because I have never seen anybody work faster, just, bang, bang, bang, and I’m not saying that they’re not creative because they absolutely are but there’s definitely a sound. There’s a wheelhouse that everything falls right into and so we were making music that was appealing to that audience but was also relating to maybe if someone did grow up listening to the rock bands and listening to the Eagles and Loggins and Messina and Poco and Buffalo Springfield, and harmonies like Crosby, Stills and Nash and all that stuff was coming together and I mean, I know there are people who are gifted enough that they just are that creative on their own without any kind of training but I know that I wouldn’t have gotten there without it.
Christopher: So I have to interrupt there and pick up on that point, because this is a topic that comes up a lot on this podcast as you might imagine. That question of talent or having a gift and you are just the, you’re immersed in Nashville where, you know, musicians around the world dream of going because it’s where the gifted musicians live. I’d love to hear your perspective and particularly based on what you just said, what’s your feeling about, you know, having innate talent versus working hard versus luck for reaching your full musical potential and having success in music?
Dave: I think having innate talent is fantastic and It’s a gift and it’s something to celebrate but there’s an awful lot of talented people that don’t go anywhere. I think that the innate talent is what often gets people hooked, then I think a lot of people quit before they’ve had a chance to really get anywhere if they don’t have enough natural ability to get to a point where they can really start making music but at the same time pretty much everybody, unless you’re at the absolute, you know, top, top, top of, you know, who’s out there and we can drop whatever names we want, there’s lots of them in whatever genre but everyone’s got a limit and even the most talented musicians are basically going to hit the end of their gift, the end of their ability and there are plenty of people who have sustained fantastic careers just getting to that point, finding a sound and they continue to explore it and there’s no denying that that talent is what got them there but at the same time they all worked hard, regardless of how it actually happened whether it was formal schooling or whether it was, like — I just finished, I mentioned The Band before, one of my favorite bands, The Band and a lot of younger people may not know them at this point, but the song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” the song, “The Wait,” and one of my favorite groups because of the interaction between them and the sound that they made.
So I just read Robbie Robertson’s book, who was their guitarist and primary songwriter and I’d read Lee Von Helm’s book who was the drummer and one of the main singers and they all went out together as teenagers. They got, they were working behind a rockabilly, singing in Ronnie Hawkins and this is the nineteen — late 50’s, early 60’s playing these rough clubs, southern roadhouses and things like that, touring all over, teenage kids playing in these tough clubs and getting their butts kicked every night. That was school. The Beatles in Hamburg, that was school. So you can’t, you know, the talent is not enough without the work and the formal schooling, I think, just bridges the gap — for me anyway. It helped me put the pieces together but it also was a place for me to find mentors and to get guidance. I mean, sure I learned from doing my counterpoint exercises but the things that really stuck with me were the teachers that I had that, whether it was one thing they said or one moment or a period of time that I was exposed to working with them that just opened these doors that made it possible for me to receive all this information and start to connect things together. So I think talent’s wonderful but it’s — I don’t think any talented person is going to go far without the effort and I think that someone without a natural gift can still accomplish a lot and be able to play confidently and enjoy playing.
Christopher: Wonderful. So one area where I think musicians have particular nervousness or hangups about where they have talent or whether they have a gift is creating your own music, whether that’s through improvisation, like we touched on there, or through writing songs or composing. You have particular expertise and experience in songwriting and I’d love to know more about how you got started, you know. You told a bit of the story, there, and I think you explained how your instrument playing transitioned from the classical world to this country rock kind of band but I’d love for you to fill in the part that explains how you were suddenly writing songs and performing them.
Dave: I think it was just, I mean, I was writing music when I was in school, instrumental music and arranging folk tunes and things like that. I just thought it was cool to be creating something and all the people that I admired the most were creators, were making their own music. So it was something that I wanted to do and so I just started doing it and, you know, the thing is, having now been surrounded by songwriters for the all the years that I’ve been here in Nashville, there are people that that is absolutely the core of what they do. They have been driven to write songs from the beginning and they started playing music because they needed a vehicle for their songs and I am not that person. For me a song is something that comes or something that I sit down to do. One of the things I’ve learned in my time in Nashville is to develop the craft enough that I know how to take an idea and sit down and write a song around it so it. So I can do that on command now. And whether it’s a great song or not, you try to make it the best song you can but there is a particular craft that goes into that and it does make me think of something that my composition teacher said in class one time. He was telling a story about being at a dinner party and a woman asked him, “Do you walk in the woods before you compose?” and he laughed and she said, “Why are you laughing?” He said, “Why would I do that?” and she said “For inspiration,” and he said, “No, I get up, I sit down at my piano every day at 9 o’clock and I go to work.” And there was something similar and I read a wonderful book recently called The War of Art and — Oh my God, what is his name?
Christopher: Steven Pressfield?
Dave: Steven Pressfield. Thank you. Amazing book and he had a quote from somebody who was a writer, I think and it was, “Inspiration strikes promptly at 9 o’clock when I sit down at my desk,” or something like that.
Dave: And he describes his own rituals that he has to sit down and things that to him are inspiring but at the same time you do the work. Now, for me, ultimately I’m a musician and a guitar player and writing songs is a piece of that puzzle so the songs over the years have gone in all kinds of different directions and I think because I always had a lot of enthusiasm for different kinds of music there’s different aesthetics, you know, I mean, learning how to write a song like a Nashville songwriter is one thing. Learning how to write an instrumental piece whether it’s a jazz tune that is a vehicle for improvisation or whether it’s a composed piece of music is something else entirely.
Writing music with a band or arranging a song with a band is something else entirely and so all of those things, I mean, for me, personally, all, I touch on all of them which may have been a detriment to my performing career because I’ve crossed from one place to another so many times but it’s exciting to me. I think in terms of anything I might say to someone that wants to write songs I think that you have to look to the fact that all of us have grown up surrounded by music and we know what music is supposed to sound like. We know when something works and so the first thing is just to really start listening and noticing what’s going on around you and recognizing that you have to assess your own place in the continuum of musical skill and recognize that if you don’t have much, that you are at the beginning of that, but also that it is a journey and a path that you can proceed upon. Now, I see songwriters here in Nashville all the time that say, “I’m not a musician,” or “I don’t write music,” and then you sit down with them and you start — I had this in co-writing situations where they came in with a lyric that was finished or mostly finished and they’re coming to me as the quote, composer, to write the music.
So I’d start throwing out ideas and I’d get, “Well, no. It’s not that,” you know, “It doesn’t go like that.” Well, then you have an idea of what the music is. And so many writers, I find, are just convinced that they don’t have the — coming back to the talent question — they think they don’t have that ability or they don’t play an instrument or they don’t play it well so, “Well, I don’t really write music.” At the same time they’ll finish the lyric and call it a song and say that they can hear it in their heads. So what I’ve finally come to believe in working with people who are trying to be professional writers is that most people that are moved to write songs have an idea in their heads of how the music goes, whether they can articulate it or not and that there is very often, or sometimes, I should say, a disconnect between what they imagine and what they’re able to articulate and sometimes when they try to articulate it they think that what’s coming out is what they hear and it’s not or other times they recognize that and the best advice that I can give to somebody that wants to write songs is that first they should just write and it doesn’t matter what comes out and you should let it be whatever you want it to be but at the same time recognizing that there are songs that are going to be somewhat oblique and obscure and without something strong musically to hang on them they’re just not going to work as well. I mean, it’s a subjective thing, right?
But you can talk about song craft and you can talk about if something’s catchy or if it has a strong hook and if it’s memorable and that ultimately you can study even just by listening, songwriting, by looking at what, that music that people have written and not necessarily copying them but just saying, “Oh, well that works,” and you don’t have to lift somebody’s melody to appreciate the way a good melody moves. You don’t have to completely lift the chords from a song to see how a chord progression works. At the same time, though, I have to go back to another formative experience. I took a class in grad school called “Music About Music,” — you were asking about when I started writing music — and so this class was about how composers stole from each other, basically.
Dave: And in the very early, you’re talking about in the late Middle Ages and getting into the Renaissance, there was a tradition of this, of people would write songs on each other’s themes and, I mean, write pieces on each other’s themes and that went on through the classical, I mean, it still is a tradition in classical music, and I remember one day in class we were listening to an early Mozart piece, and by early, I mean, he was, what, eight, nine, something crazy like that and that he had studied with Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach’s son and then we listened to some of his music and lo and behold, they sound very, very similar and I thought, “Eureka!” There was the moment, right? Now, yes, it was the child genius Mozart but even Mozart sounded like somebody else at some point. I can write music, too without worrying about what it sounds like. I just need to write.
Christopher: I think you’ve painted such a lovely picture of how to approach songwriting and learning to write songs. Is there any other advice you’d have for someone who has maybe started on this journey and is faltering a little? Maybe they’re writing songs each week but they’re just, there is something they can’t put their finger on that they’re not happy with the quality of them. They’re not managing to bring out what they were inspired to bring out?
Dave: Well, as I said, I think there is the indefinable which is subjective and then there is the concrete which is the craft and that if you don’t understand meter then you need to look at the songs you love and understand why they work rhythmically, because rhythm, you know, is a physical thing and meter in songs is just speech with a rhythm you can feel, which, of course, all speech has to begin with, but, you know, what was exciting about Chuck Barry? Well, everything, basically, but the drive (Sings Johnny B Good) — went down in Louisiana close to New Orleans back up in the ponds by the evergreens — it’s driving and it’s — it catches your attention right away, you know? And so that is one thing that I find a lot of beginning songwriters don’t have a grasp of is meter and it’s not about counting syllables it’s understanding whether a lyric works as an understandable lyric and fits in a musical context and if you’re Peter Gabriel writing for Genesis in 1973 the rules were different. It didn’t have to have the same kind of meter but that was some other music that I completely love but that’s another thing.
And the other is to just start listening. I have rarely found that if I ask someone when I play a student a song whether they think they understand anything about harmony if I start playing a song and say, “When do you hear something change?” they’ll pick up on the chord change. They’ll pick up on a change in texture and they’ll pick up on the idea of a lift in energy. So it’s, so much of it is paying attention and just emulating what you hear and if you’re finding that it’s not coming naturally you can categorize those things and there are songwriting courses you can take and organizations. The Nashville Songwriter’s Association is fantastic. And it’s NSAI, Nashville Songwriters .com or .org. They have chapters all over. Actually it’s Nashville Songwriter’s Association International, so they’re everywhere and I learned a lot early on by going to some of these workshops and I learned something about the ways I didn’t want to write but I learned a lot about what made good writing and so you can look at the craft and just recognize that learning the craft is not going to be a barrier to creativity. It just gives you a way to create a structure to put your ideas into and gives you a set of tools and skills that you can work with to shape your ideas, take a good idea and make it into a good song.
Christopher: Terrific. One thing I was particularly keen to ask you about is your website and blog, the blog being called The Perpetual Beginner. I’d love to hear, why that name? How does that relate to the way you teach your philosophy on teaching music or learning music?
Dave: It started with the fact that I recognized I was working with a lot of people who had been playing the guitar or playing music for five years or ten years or forty years but didn’t feel like they had gotten better in a long time. So they’d say, “I’m still at a beginner level even though I’ve been playing for all this time. What’s wrong?” and there was generally, to me, just, there was something missing in the mindset. Either they didn’t think they were capable of doing more or they just didn’t know what to study. They needed the guidance on how to go about getting better and then there’s also the concept in zen, the beginner’s mind, not just in zen, in all kinds of things, but there’s a wonderful book and I’m not going to say his name right, but the last name is Suzuki. Shunryu Suzuki? I don’t, I can’t pronounce Japanese properly, but it’s called, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and one of my favorite quotes from that is, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s, there are a few,” and it’s cool. It’s, like, it takes me back to being sixteen and going, “I can make any sound on this guitar,” and how much I learned from that and how that how that helps your exploration and how it’s exciting and motivating so the beginner’s mindset keeps you open and keeps you learning. It keeps you from stagnating and it allows you to continue to recognize what you can and can’t do but it gives you the positive feedback that you can accomplish those things that you’re not ready to accomplish yet.
So I just thought that was a great way of looking at things and it’s at the core. I mean, it’s the core of my learning experience and so it’s at the core of my teaching.
Christopher: So let me play devil’s advocate, then, and ask a question that may be on the listener’s mind, which is, if you put yourself in that position of, you know, learning guitar for five years and you’ve kind of stalled and plateaued, do they not just need the right guitar course? Can they not just go into, you know, guitartricks.com or one of these websites and get the intermediate guitar course and just follow it step-by-step?
Dave: Maybe. I mean, what I hear from people often is that they sit down and they do that and they can learn to put their fingers in the right place and if the instructor is offering the kind of guidance that I think I got, then, yeah, that will do it, but I think that the difference is that most people, particularly with guitar, and I don’t really know why that is but I think it’s because it’s such a tactile instrument and, I mean, even the piano, you’re sitting at the piano and touching the keyboard but I think you have more of an awareness of the rest of your body that with the guitar. For some reason, it’s two hands out here and everything else disappears, sometimes including the ears. (Laughs) You know, anyone can show you where to put your fingers but it’s not gonna make that into music and so if you find the right person who is giving you the guidance of where to put your fingers but also telling you how there’s music in there and at the same time keeping you motivated enough, that’s the challenge, I mean, people all the time come to me saying, “Well I’m trying to learn on YouTube. It’s not working,” because they’re missing the big picture and also that they don’t have the structure. They don’t know what to practice first. They don’t know how to get from point A to point B.
Some people really can put it all together from that but I think that mindset is so key to the whole process so ultimately it’s fantastic that these resources are out there. I wish they’d been out there when I was learning. It would have been fantastic. I would have, just, been immersed. I think I would have been on YouTube 24 hours a day just trying to learn more stuff and I do work with one of these companies. I work with jamplay.com and I think they’re fantastic. I’ve done a bunch of video courses for them but it’s one piece of the puzzle. So the nice thing about that, at least, is that the way JamPlay does it is that they are courses and there’s also something like a hundred instructors on there so you can find someone that you resonate with and they sort of curate the, you know, they invited me on. They invite the people that they have up there. So it’s not just someone who started it themselves. There’s lots of resources like that out there but it’s the person and the teacher and the style of teaching that is going to make the difference, whether it’s actual concrete guitar lessons or whether it’s just, “Hey, maybe you ought to think about it like this.”
Christopher: Absolutely. Well, I love the articles you’re publishing on The Perpetual Beginner. I think some of your posts there about mindset and about goal setting and planning are fantastic for any musician, not just guitarists, and I would add to that your YouTube channel where you’re publishing some great videos on similar topics. Those are two things I definitely recommend listeners to check out if what we’ve been talking about today resonates with you and if you’ve felt that urge to maybe bring more musicality to your playing and not just get buried in the advanced instrument technique.
Thank you so much for joining us, today, Dave. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you and learn more about your perspective on improv, on songwriting and on going about learning music in a truly musical way.
Dave: Thanks for having me. This was a lot of fun.