Listen up, aspiring guitar heroes, hacks and hobbyists: If you’ve got the bandwidth, they’ve got the time.
For Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, the Grammy Award-winning mainstays of traditional folk who live in Silver Spring, the halting of live concerts has not been the devastating financial blow it might have been for younger artists. “At the ages of 65 and 67, the idea of taking a break from that world was not a terrible idea,” Fink says.
Fink and Marxer found themselves well-positioned to ride out the pandemic; they had already built up a library of hundreds of hours of how-to videos for guitar, banjo and ukulele, cultivating a broad audience of aspiring players since the 1980s. Instead of yesterday’s VHS tapes or DVDs, today you can find them uncovering the endless permutations of alternate tunings and fingerpicking techniques on instructional websites such as Homespun and TrueFire. “We like to say we’re obsolete in 47 formats,” Marxer laughs.
Navigating the world of digital media — they’ve taught themselves how to edit video, run webinars and virtual jam sessions — is “no different than the audio world,” she continues. “If you’re in it, share it. Art and artists are always going to find a way.”
“I never set out to be a music teacher. I’m a professional player first and foremost,” says Guthrie Trapp, a session guitarist and live sideman to John Oates. Yet teaching “helped me survive covid. I did better in 2020 than I did in 20 years in Nashville. Now a bunch of guys are calling me, ‘How do I get into this online teaching thing?’ ”
The profusion of world-class guitarists revealing the tricks of their craft has led to a sort of paradox: While the instrument itself has receded from the center of popular music culture, there’s never been a more auspicious time to try to be a guitarist.
“Finally, pedagogy on guitar has caught up to where piano and violin were 150 years ago,” says Rick Beato, a longtime Atlanta-based producer and composer who since October 2016 has hosted a popular YouTube channel called Everything Music that has more than 2 million subscribers. He’s equally at ease illuminating the music theory and production methods behind hit songs from the classic rock generation to the present day.
“Because of YouTube and Instagram, people are learning techniques they never would have been exposed to,” Beato says.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that sales of guitars and other stringed instruments saw a significant spike last year as homebound consumers sought new hobbies (or revived old ones).
“My business doubled,” says Tim Pierce, a Los Angeles-based session guitarist turned YouTube instructor. Despite an illustrious résumé of recording credits, he saw the writing on the wall in the early 2000s as the music industry adapted fitfully to the digital era. So he embraced online teaching.
In the beginning, he says the YouTube scene was “provincial.” Now it’s his full-time job. Pierce films his videos while seated in a space he likens to an airplane cockpit, surrounded by stacks of amplifier heads and rack-mounted guitar effects. Once a hired gun for hard rock, soft rock and every genre in between, Pierce can show you how to dial in the perfect situational tone.
Kirk Fletcher, a traditional blues guitarist, says, “It took a lifetime to get to the way I play guitar now.” His experiential approach to blues isn’t easily condensable to formal methods of instruction. YouTube and Instagram allow him “to keep it very soulful and organic.” Whether it’s the touch, feel or inflection of the blues — how to bend a string for just the right vibrato effect, for instance — Fletcher finds it simpler to show rather than tell viewers.
Social media viewership can generate significant advertising revenue for high-volume creators. But the business of online guitar teaching can’t sustainably be given away. “The music education space is very transactional,” Beato says. “People come to your channel if they can learn things for free.”
Solvency depends on viewers who pay for more expansive instruction. Beato sells a 600-page textbook he wrote when he was a jazz studies professor in Upstate New York. In addition to his cache of prerecorded lessons at the video exchange platform ArtistWorks, Trapp is available for lessons via Skype or Zoom. Pierce runs an online “Masterclass” for paying subscribers.
As they see it, with their industry credibility and professional experience, they add value that other online teachers, some of them with quite large viewership, can’t possibly match. Says Trapp: “I’m at the point in my life where I’m confident enough to know what to show these guys and get them going.”
Josh Smith, a journeyman guitarist who cut his teeth playing blues before landing gigs with artists like R&B singer Raphael Saadiq, sees online teaching as a valuable side hustle. Within two years, he says, “it could possibly pay my bills.”
Yet no matter how lucrative online instruction might prove, he’ll never be able to give up what he calls the “drug” of touring and playing before live audiences. “I have a family. I have responsibilities. This could change my life,” Smith concedes. “Do I want to do this? Would I be fulfilled? I don’t think so. I’m an improvisor. As silly as it sounds, that’s what I was put on this planet to do.”
What kind of harvest will all this virtual mentoring yield? Could the recent boom in guitar sales to a younger and increasingly diverse audience lead to a restoration of the pride of place guitars once enjoyed in pop music? The engine of pop today, Pierce says, is the laptop computer, with its ready-made samples and digital plug-ins. The guitar is relegated to mere “flavoring or seasoning.”
But Beato is more optimistic. “Historically, all the great players were in bands that had charismatic frontmen who wrote hit songs,” he maintains. The late Eddie Van Halen, for instance, needed David Lee Roth to win over mass audiences.
How about Phoebe Bridgers and the Haim sisters inspiring a new generation of young female guitarists?
Says Beato: “There’s no reason it couldn’t happen.”