Disclaimer. This is a long interview. Only read it if you’d like to know more about Sean, as his answers tend to be on the detailed and introspective side of things. Sean is a thoughtful, deep thinking and very opinionated man who is truly passionate about what he does. This series of Interviews was conducted to give visitors more insight into the man behind the method.
So Sean here we are, how did all this get started?
Yep, here we are (looks around) I never saw any of this coming. I mean I didn’t set out to do any of this, it sort of just happened. Where do I begin? I guess it all comes from my own attempts to finally arrive at understanding the guitar in a way that I could make use of it. Over the years through books, videos, anything out there that claimed to be able to make me a better guitar player, I tried them all! (Laughs) I swear I’ve spent thousands on magazines, books, etc.
For example, just off hand some of the things I remember, was that I enrolled for Dick Grove’s School of Music,which was a well developed (and expensive…over 1000 dollars at the time for one course) and I ended up frustrated, because, while it seemed to have some real merits, the sheer time required to begin to make use of it, and ultimately, to pay for it all, was just overwhelming. Back in the 80s there was a system called RPM – Or Rapid Play Music, and I tried that, got a lot of books, and cassettes , (laughs) see I told you it was the 80s! Ultimately I knew there was so much more to the guitar that I wasn’t getting, and when Id see a knowledgeable musician/teacher like Wolf Marshall, who used terms like “ostinanto”, or explained the why behind the what, I knew that was what I wanted. I didn’t necessarily want licks or tricks, or scales, but rather to just play anything I wanted because I could understand what I was doing.
I didn’t have the time to invest into a full time music education, nor the money, even though I was accepted to GIT, this is also showing my age, I was accepted at both GIT in Hollywood long before it was called Musicians Institute, and later in 88 I was accepted to Music Tech, in Minneapolis, which at the the time I think was called “Guitar Tech” or something like that. I wanted to go, but it all came down to money, and I had none when it was time to pay. So I was left on my own. For the next several years I sort of figured it out my myself. I didnt set out to discover a unique system, it was more the byproduct of observing the whole thing once I understood it, you know? Like I could step back and say “Oh wait this works because of this…why didn’t anyone else teach this in their books? It makes total sense!”
So what did you do then?
Well the question sort of made its own answer. If others had known about this, wouldn’t they have been teaching it for the last few decades? I mean think about it, no one ever expects to find a new system of learning guitar, right? There have been people teaching for 100’s of years. Its a little bold to presume that I’m the only one that’s ever stumbled upon these ideas and concepts, I get it, but if others have, where are they? I guess at that point, I reasoned that apparently no one else knew about this. So I did nothing, I just applied it to my own playing. I didn’t even think about teaching it, it was more like a personal set of observances that helped me to understand things, it wasn’t until I’d been applying these strange things for a couple of years that people started asking questions…
Yeah, I’d play a gig and race all over the fretboard, without batting an eye, and you know people who play scales and patterns, were noticing this, and they asked me how I was doing it, what was I going to say? “Um it took 12 years to understand”? So I basically used the old stand by, “I dunno, Ive been playing for years and just sort of picked it all up”. I’d basically been self taught. Then when I started applying theory to a band situation, correcting the other guitarist, or explaining where to play notes, that’s when I got the nickname “Professor”. I remember it, because we were playing a D Augmented for Stormy Monday, and the guitarist didn’t know what it was. Well, we had a sax player that knew theory also and he was trying to blow the notes, and I said, Oh play a “D F# and and A#” and every head in the room turned and looked at me like I was some sort of Alien. The other guy didn’t even know where those notes were, but when the sax player realized I knew theory he started checking my facts, throwing me questions, and they all panned out. So, turns out, this self taught guy knew theory like the college trained sax jazz player. Then the drummer looked at me and called me the “Professor”, that was the first of my nicknames in the band.
There were others?
Yeah but I dunno if it was due to my theory or just how I confused other guitar players. One gig I played there was this local hotshot who literally came up and before we played, shook my hand and introduced himself as “I’m so-and-so…Master Guitarist”. I shook hands with him and the drummer gave me a knowing smile. I guess the guy was pretty good good, and I don’t want to take anything away from him, but I just took it for what it was, and got ready to play. But as the set started, I was launching into Steeley Dan arrangements with like 28 chords all of which were not Major or Minor, and playing solos all over the place at will. I am not a competitive guy when it comes to playing the guitar, I just let people do their thing, nor do I care to have the spotlight.
I didn’t see this happen, but a few in my band did, and said to me that the guy left looking kind of mad about halfway through our second set, and afterwards the others told me “That guy had his eyes glued to your hands the entire time and you could see it on his face how confused he was, as to what you were doing”. So, I got my other nickname that night: The “Anti-Guitar Hero”. I didn’t set out to make anyone feel bad, I was just there to play a show.
When did you start teaching?
Around early part of 2000, I started getting requests from friends to teach their kids. I didnt want to teach anyone. I mean, how am I going to teach others what took 12 years to figure out myself? I hadn’t the first idea. So I politely declined, but they kept pushing. So finally I agreed to teach, but when they asked me how much I’d charge, I told them an amount that I knew they’d never agree to pay! That backfired, they said “OK” and that was that. I was teaching a little kid like 12 years old, you know, a few chords etc, and trying to figure how I got in this mess and how to get out of it.
Before I knew it, through word of mouth that I was teaching, and the progress this kid had made, I had 8 students. I didn’t even advertise. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was a fish out of water. I call these first students my “Guinea Pigs” (laughs). I mean, I knew my stuff, but how to break it down so others could understand it? That was a real challenge.
So you started with a few students and just tested the material on them?
Yeah, I mean at the time I didn’t even know I had material (laughs) it was just sort of just teaching off the top of my head, the best I could. I knew the stuff was solid, but I had doubts whether anyone else would see the logic inside my twisted mind! (laughs)
And at some point you have a guitar shop right? Did this happen before the teaching?
No, well, let me back up a bit to get to that question. One day I was walking into what was this little hole in the wall music store, I’d never been there before and a friend of mine was walking out of it, and we bumped into one another, and he got all excited, because he was a teacher at that shop, and the owner had just finished telling him they need more teachers. So literally seconds later he’s bumped into me and walks me right into the shop and says “This guy is awesome…he’d be perfect here”. I didn’t know what to say at that moment but, the next thing I knew, I had agreed to be a teacher in this little hole in the wall place. I brought my 8 students there and within a couple of months word really spread where I had 36 students! I had more than the other teachers there put together! I was making a windfall for that shop, because student need picks, strings, guitars…
So I don’t know, about 9 months after that, I had an opportunity to open my own guitar shop – the owners retired, they were in their 70’s and I didnt want any of their inventory, but I decided to at least buy their credit card machines and a couple display cabinets and their string inventory, and I opened up a shop in a new building, and came up with the name and logo and signage etc.
So that’s how you got started. Were there any problems teaching at that point?
Well when I announced to my students that I had decided to dig into my savings and start a guitar store they were happy, and then also concerned that I wouldn’t teach, so I told them I would find a way to do both, and that’s what I did, for a couple years, till I finally had my first student basically learn everything I had to teach.
Yeah, I understand at some point you got a building for lessons?
Yeah, well that was because I had finally enough kids, basically teens that were getting to the point where they had either graduated, or were very far advanced, and I had all these people wanting to take lessons, and here I was thinking if only I could clone myself. Id come in and have 21 messages a day from people who wanted lessons! All because of word of mouth. I’d be helping someone at the counter, the phone would ring, Id explain the program to the person on the phone, they’d sign up, the person standing at the counter would ask questions, they’d sign up, and then the person standing in line right after them upon overhearing me, and the first customer, would sign up! It was insane…insane. One year I bought little stockings to represent each student that I had, and I ended up buying 54 of them! This and running a full time guitar shop, in that year I didn’t have a single vacancy. Not one student quit that whole year!
Anyways the day came when I knew I had to replicate myself somehow, but who was gonna teach what I know if they didn’t know it. You have to understand, these guys, didn’t want lessons, they wanted what I taught. Anyone can go to a music store for lessons. Other teachers were sending their advanced students, that they’d taken as far as they could, and saying, “go to Sean, I only teach the basics”. And that was real cool because we all got along together. It wasn’t even competitive like you might think, because these other guys really couldn’t teach what I was teaching even if they wanted to. They kind of knew it, and Id send them really beginning students their way and get them business in return. One guy it was like trading baseball cards. “I have an advanced student” “Cool well I have a beginner, lets trade” (laugh) It was really cool.
So the time came, when I realized I had to find a way to meet the demand, and I started taking some of my students that were getting ready to graduate from what I taught, and I figured, “hey let these guys have their first job as teachers instead of cooking burgers somewhere. Get paid to play guitar!” So I started to talk to a few of them, and they were really excited at the idea, and I spent about 6 months teaching them how to teach, and making lesson plans for each week, and when the time was right, just before summer started, I leased a 7 room building right down the street from my shop, it was literally a minutes walk. And I outfitted each classroom with amps, stands posters and CD Players, and there were were, the Rock N Blues Guitar Academy. Each Teacher got a notebook with all the lesson plans and at first, it was a hard sell, because they were young, but when I assured clients that the content was still the same and that I had taught these instructors how to teach the material over a 6 month training period, boom THAT filled right up.
I have heard a few people around here refer to you as the Guitar Guru.
Yeah, its really funny..and I don’t know if I can quite explain this right, but its not that I’m anything special, Im just a guy, its the system that works…but the thing is, that those that do well are those who actually do what I instruct them to do. It’s really because they worked on what I told them to do, that they have what they have achieved. The best teacher in the world, cannot make a student successful. All he can do is give the student the tools and knowledge. I mean if a legend like Chet Atkins himself were to teach me how to play, but I never practiced or did what he gave me to do, I wouldn’t be able to play. It’s very simple. The method works, and when people use it and do the stuff I give them, the result is almost guaranteed. So it’s weird, because its the students that make me look good, but if not for them believing in me, what good would it have done? So I don’t know, I’m just a guy. The stuff I teach is what works, but its not because I’m better than anyone else. This notion that I’m a guru, really is more like, “do this, and you can be a guru too! There can be 1000 guitar gurus running around, I don’t mind!” (laughs)
And now you are online, what is the best thing and the hardest thing about being on the Internet?
Honestly, its just getting the word out. I find it a struggle to equate myself on the same level as just another “guy that has a guitar website out there”, method, because that’s not us at all. But on the internet, people don’t know me from Adam. How do you tell people that you are different, and that you are unique without coming across as just another hype guy? Out there on the internet, you’re just a grain of sand among a million other grains. There are some good sites out there, and some of our students have told me that guys like Justin Sandercoe, and Desi Cerna are good teachers, and I believe that. I’ve seen some of Justin’s work and I respect the guy, he has the true heart of a teacher. But what I do is different, but how do you get others to understand that? I don’t know, you just do what you can to let others know, and believe in what you do. I truly feel that when it comes to understanding the guitar, say in terms of lead guitar, we win hands down, over all of them. I mean, I honestly believe that everything we teach is either different, or better than the way anyone else has even attempted to break it down.
That’s not to say that others aren’t doing a sincere job teaching what they know, its just that, that’s all they have, and what we do, this curricula, I think far surpasses all those others. I’ve always wished I could do a head to head challenge with anyone out there. “Give me 6 weeks….you take a total beginner, I take a total beginner and lets check back in 6 weeks”. Do it live over the internet, somehow. I don’t know how logistically it could be done. But 6 weeks and winner take all. In 6 weeks time, show me what you’ve done with that student, and I’ll show you the knowledge and skill sets of mine! I’d take that challenge on any day. I hope one day someone does. That’s like the ultimate right there. There’s not a doubt in my mind, that this system changes lives, Ive seen it so many times. I’ve even asked students to testify on camera, but I don’t really do that anymore…they are people, and people sometimes get shy and self conscious in front of the camera, and I get that. Once, we had a reporter from local TV doing a two day story at our school, and she asked if I could get a certain kid to talk on camera, and so I called him, and he didn’t want to be on TV….so I understood that. You’d be surprised the number of people that don’t want the camera trained on them. These are all good kids, and another thing I appreciate about them is they aren’t cocky or conceited, they are just good kids and I’ve taught them to not put others on the spot just because they don’t know things, and rather to encourage and inspire them, so maybe they’ll want to learn how to do it as well.
The best part of being on the internet are the students. Hands down, when someone who has never met us says, “here’s my trust, and for some reason I believe you can help me” well that sets things in motion, it’s my job to live up to those hopes, and I do everything I can. The other good thing about it has been the results and seeing the testimonies and how all of it is working. You know a lot of sites do the lesson thing, they have style studies and basics, we don’t really start there, so a site like that is good in addition to ours, say if you’re a total beginner. A lot of people raised their eyebrows, when I gave the seal of approval to other sites. I’m not insecure nor jealous. If there’s a site out there that’s doing what they say, even if it’s different than ours, then I am going to give them due credit. But there are a lot of sites that aren’t doing what they say, and that’s a shame.
And see, the thing about it is, that even though these guys are learning styles and licks and maybe even a few ideas like the scale boxes, and caged systems, they aren’t really learning to understand how it all fits together, and so, that just leaves these tremendous gaps. I was on one site watching a guy do a breakdown of a song, and I’m pointing out how the song modulates, and there were oh I don’t know, 30 guitar players in the room and you could hear a pin drop. They had NO idea what I was talking about. The guy teaching it, was very good at Jazz so I knew he understood, but this gap between saying, “Oh that goes to the vi chord and then uses a iii and a sub for the I, but yes you’re right, that’s how it works, but I think you really only need to know that kind of stuff if you were interested in writing or composing yourself?”
Really? That’s all? So theory and understanding how things go together are only important if you want to write? That’s horribly condescending. I asked “are there lessons that teach the student how to name any chord they come across, or how to analyze any progression so they understand what’s going on?” They said, no, that’s the kind of stuff they may want to find a local teacher for or take it in college. You might be wondering if I spoke up right then and said “Well that’s what we teach, come on down to our site” but no, I didn’t do that.
One person said topics on music theory tend to be pretty dry, and I agree…as far as the way it’s traditionally taught…no kidding. And that’s been part of the problem with why guys aren’t going out and even learning it. If it’s as stale as week old bread don’t expect them to come crashing down your door. That’s what sets us apart. The last people you’d ever have thought would be learning theory and enjoying it, are some of our students. A death metal guy that shreds like nobody’s business, and couldn’t even tell you how the strings are tuned, and one month later, they know every note on the neck of the guitar, and they are smiling! They love it. They’re hooked.
Give someone a legitimate chance if they really want this, and it’s on. They’ll never be the same. I’ve taught people from guys that have toured around the world to little girls all of 8 years old. I’ve had 3 of my kids all in the same band recently getting interest from John Mayer, and Brad Paisley and Sony for their songs and album and video, and they aren’t even out of high school! That will be the second kid band composed of all students that I’ve taught, that got a lot of attention and press, for what we teach! The same thing happened to a lesser degree 3 years back, with 3 kids that went to our Academy.
So what about you, what do you play like? When you play, what is your style?
I don’t know, I really just play what’s in my head, I can hear a lot of Slash in my playing, in terms of melodic and bluesy. I’m not really the shredder type, but that’s because I don’t practice to be that. I spend so much time teaching and developing my system, but when it comes to playing, I just improvise, I have some speed no doubt, but I’m not all about that. The speed comes from familiarity with being able to play anywhere with anyone in any style. Most of the time, music’s in one key. The second I know your key and see your chords, I can shadow you, even if we’ve never played together. I love melody and phrasing over speed. To me speed is a tool, but there are other tools and whatever you do, whatever you use, make it say something. I love to just step in an unplanned situation, and tell the guitarist to just start playing. I watch him for 2 seconds and I know what he’s doing and I can fall right in. That’s impressive I guess, but its also fun. Its fun to not have to worry about what to do or where to play, and just play, and make music. That’s what inspires me to teach others.
When a person can take our course and walk out into the world and just play, for the rest of their lives….that’s what I love. That’s why I have come to believe that what I do is my calling in life. One thing about a calling, is, its confirmed by the results, and with the ways that I’ve seen this change others lives so profoundly, I believe it’s my calling to share what I’ve learned, and I’m just trying to do the best I can with it, because its a big world out there and people do need this stuff. At the end of the day I don’t care for riches or fame, I’m a very content person. I’m just very grateful to be able to make a living doing two things I’m passionate about – guitar and helping others.