Jack Grassel was once listed in Guitar Player magazine as one of the top ten guitarists in America (you don't know). In case you are one of those people who hasn't yet heard of Jack let me be the first to introduce you to one of the best guitarists and guitar educators in the country.
Having been based out of Milwaukee his entire life, Jack has made a name for himself as a first call studio and performing guitarist throughout the Midwest. He was recorded over a dozen albums and written ten instructional books that range in topics from famous transcriptions to solo guitar to building technique. As an educator Jack has served on faculty at the Milwaukee Area Technical College and the Wisconsin Conservatory, while his list of private students is much too long to list. If you haven't heard Jack perform, live or on a recording, check out the video clips of him playing solo and duo on his homepage, you will become an instant fan.
Jack Grassel sat down with me this week to talk about his career as a teacher and performer and to give his unique approach to developing ones skills in these areas.
MW: How did you get your start as a guitar teacher?
JG: I starting teaching bass guitar in a music store at the age of 14. One day the store owner said if I taught guitar, I could recruit more students. Since I didn't have a guitar he sold me an old Harmony archtop for five bucks that the previous owner had painted orange with a paint brush.Â Having never played guitar before, I bought Mel Bay's book 1 and starting to teach myself the basics.
MW: Did any of your teachers have an influence on your private teaching approach?
JG: I didn't have good school teachers, so my teaching approach is based on what I would like to receive as a student. I had one great college theory instructor, Ted Ashford, who wrote on the board the first day of class, "You don't have to learn this stuff, but someday you will have to compete with someone who did." He was a jazz pianist, with a Doctorate from Julliard, who only taught at my school for one year before quitting to join a rock band. He was the finest teacher I have ever encountered. I was afraid to miss even one class during the entire year. Each class was unique and mind blowing. Everyone in that class turned out to be a powerful musical force. I dropped out of college when I found out he wasn't going to return the next year. I have always used Ted Ashford as a model for my teaching approach. I asked him once, "Ted, how can I get gigs." He said, "Jack, go home and practice." I then practiced 16-17 hours a day for six months. Then gigs started to appear and have continued on for the last forty years. I just went over the 11,000 gig mark and am still playing up to five gigs every week.
MW: You have written a number of instructional books and recently released an instructional DVD. How did you approach these educational publications as compared to how you approach a private lesson?
JG: The books were written as things for me to practice. When I began studying the guitar I found that there wasn't anything in print to help me get where I wanted to be as a guitarist. In general, I've found that most guitarists aren't very original. (John Coltrane didn't have a guitarist in his band because there wasn't one who could "hang.") There aren't many books for advanced guitarists because there is more money in creating books for beginners. I developed these teaching methods to help myself develop an original voice on the guitar. I found it difficult to develop my own unique voice when practicing other people's materials. Kind of like how saxophonist Sam Rivers practiced his own materials so he wouldn't sound like John Coltrane. If I teach someone, the approach is unique to that student. I help them create their own practice materials, become themselves and achieve their own vision.
MW: In your opinion how has technology, especially the internet, changed the landscape of guitar education in recent years and where do you see it headed in the future?
JG: With the current mass availability of instruction it's more difficult than ever to create your own voice. When Frank Zappa auditioned players, he looked them in the eye and said, "What do you do that's fantastic?"Â When hiring teachers at MATC (Milwaukee Area Technical College), I would ask them that question. Nine out of ten applicants recoiled and couldn't give an answer. I would also ask, "What do you do that no one else can do?" Needless to say, I wound up with an incredible, fully-functioning faculty that turned out fantastic musicians. Remember that most of the great music legends were self-taught. They didn't have the internet, instruction books, DVDs, teachers, or music schools. Charlie Parker, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Tal Farlow, George Van Eps, Lenny Breau, Johnny Winter, Eddie Van Halen, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones,Â Roy Haynes, Gary Peacock, Keith Jarrett, Sonny Stitt, Thelonius Monk, etc. These guys were self taught musicians. They can play one note, and you know exactly who it is. Now ask yourself, what degrees to these guys have or what school did they attend?Â You don't care and it doesn't matter, it's about the music.
When I was chairman of the MATC music department, my goal was to create those kinds of unique musicians within a school environment. When I hear those students now, I know that I have achieved that goal. They all graduated from the same place, but don't sound like each other, or any of their teachers. In 1972, during gigs, numerous audience members would say, â€œJack you sound like Wes Montgomery, or like John McLaughlin or like Pat Martino." I responded by not listening to a single guitar player live or on record for the next ten years, which was how long it took me to start sounding like myself. Now folks say, "Jack you don't sound like anyone I've ever heard." I still don't listen to other guitar players these days. I have worked hard to attain individuality and plan to maintain it.
MW: You are such an experienced and accomplished performer as well as an educator. How has your teaching experience influenced your performing and vice-versa?
JG: In 1994, I was at Tal Farlow's house and told him how frustrated I was with my playing and that I hadn't improved for a long time.Â He asked what I did all day. I said that I taught 40 guitarists per week. He concluded that I was hearing my instrument played poorly for 40 hours a week and that we are the products of our environments. Since I was head of the music department, I immediately hired a guitar teacher and stopped teaching guitar. I then taught Music Appreciation which used recordings by the masters. I scheduled those classes in a different part of the building so that I never heard anyone play the guitar except me. I also only played my original compositions on most of my gigs. (Wayne Shorter, Thelonius Monk and Horace Silver do (did) that.) It didn't take long for my playing to improve.
MW: What advice do you have for people who are just starting to teach guitar?
JG: I think you have to have a clear vision of what to do. Do you want to be "a guitar player who teaches guitar" or do you want to be "a guitar teacher who plays guitar". There is a big difference between the two. During the periods when I taught, I constantly maintained my identity of "a guitar player who is teaching." It resulted in different choices. The music teachers who play instruments could be better players if they would turn their thinking around the other way. I feel that if you can't do it, you can't teach it.
MW: What advice do you have for students when they are looking for a private teacher?
JG: First, you need to know what you want to do. Then learn who the best teachers are to help you there. I didn't care where my teachers lived, I found a way to get there and pay for it. I used to drive 16 hours each way from Milwaukee to New Jersey for a lesson with Tal Farlow. I flew to Los Angeles, rented a car, and drove 4 hours for each lesson with George Van Eps. It was expensive, but those guys are dead now. You can always make more money, but great teachers may not always be available for you. Next month, I'm flying to Los Angeles from Chicago to study with Jimmy Wyble. I've driven to Toronto from Milwaukee numerous times, which is 23 hours, just to hear one of the legends play. Now when someone emails me for lessons,Â finds out that I live in a different part of country than they do, and says that's too far to go, I realize that they wouldn't have been serious students anyway.
MW: Thanks for your time Jack, I really appreciate it.
JG: No problem, any time!