Jeff McErlain is a gritty guitarist with a long history of playing and teaching. His blues trio can be seen pouring it out on the stage in clubs in NYC, and his recordings exemplify his soulful playing and writing. But when I sat down with Jeff, I wanted to get inside the mind of one of the long-running top instructors at TrueFire. What is it that makes him so passionate about teaching? What is it that makes him resonate with students? While Jeff is a great player, we live in a world of great players, so what is it that makes his teaching special? We dug into this conversation about teaching and explored his thoughts on being both a good teacher and a good student.
TF: When did you first start teaching guitar?
JEFF: Right out of Berklee actually. I think the gig that really started me down this path was teaching at the National Guitar Workshop. I was 21 and their youngest teacher at the time. I was hired to teach the heavy metal classes for six weeks straight all day. That style of guitar was at its zenith then with guys like Vai, Satch, and Yngwie, so all the classes were full and I loved every second of it! I also started teaching at some local music stores in NJ where I grew up. Shortly after that I moved to NYC and had to start all over again building the practice. There is just a little more competition…
TF: So you seemed like you jumped in to teaching with both feet! What was it that drew you in to teaching?
JEFF: One of the greatest rewards of teaching is seeing a student smile when I show them something new or open a door to them as a player or musician. I know I love that feeling of discovery to this day, I feel like a perpetual student myself. It’s immensely satisfying to share information and my love of music and the guitar with others. It’s like I’m contributing to society in my own little way and hopefully enriching people’s lives by helping them play music and maybe get out of their daily routine. It makes people happy and that makes me happy!
I also love the people I meet, I have taught musicians, celebrities, dignitaries, politicians, artists, writers, directors, photographers, investments bankers, and more. Teaching guitar has brought me around the world and I have met people I would never have met otherwise. The connecting thread is music and guitar, and that’s very rewarding.
TF: I have known a lot of players who thought they wanted to teach, but they were not able to make a go of it. I know there are a variety of reasons why some may fail, but in your experience what do you think makes a good teacher?
JEFF: Many things, with the overriding one being it’s about the student, not the teacher. Many students come to me after working with other teachers where they say they just sat there and watched the teacher play. Obviously that doesn’t lead to an enriching experience for them and is just bad teaching. I see it as an honor when someone wants to study with me and I take it seriously.
It’s very easy to scare students away if you come on too strong or too heavy-handed. Always strive to make the lessons as fun as possible while actually teaching something. You need to be cognizant of their lives, as well since many of my students are adults and do this for fun in their free time. How much time do they have to practice, what are their goals as a player, basically, how serious are they? These are all things that need to be taken into consideration. For example, if I get a 45 year old guy who has been playing all his life, he has a job, a family and that leaves him maybe an hour or two a week to practice. I have to treat him much differently than the teenager wanting to go to music school. The one-size-fits-all lesson doesn’t fit all.
It is also important to have a methodology in your teaching. Using a pretty solid learning path developed over years is something that I use with most students of every level. That has been an enormously beneficial outcome of preparing my TrueFire courses, planning them and teaching the information in a simple methodical way.
TF: Do you feel like being a teacher has helped your own playing?
JEFF: Absolutely! Along with gigging, it has made a huge difference in my playing. Teaching at the National Guitar Workshop very early on, I was explaining the modes. Now, I already knew them, but I remember having a real lightbulb moment where I now understood them on a different level through teaching. This happens a fair amount and oftentimes share that moment with the student “wow, I just thought of this, let’s check it out together.” I love that aspect of music and teaching…discovering something new about the instrument even on things that I thought I knew! I have songs that came out of exercises I was developing for my students.
TF: What advice can we give students from a teacher’s perspective – what is the most common problem you see students have?
JEFF: Being overwhelmed with the amount of information available to them and becoming frozen, maybe spreading themselves too thin. Neither makes for a good outcome. Try to narrow down what they need to work on to a few simple concepts. Students very often underestimate the importance of the basics and want to run before walking. It’s like everything in life! For example, I teach a lot of blues of course, people come in asking me about the modes, arpeggios, or some more advanced stuff. The first thing I will do is ask them to just play the blues for me and do some soloing. Very often this will show them what they really need to know, and almost without fail it will be the basics.
Oh yeah, and lay off the gear obsession, with the forums and YouTube, many guys get more involved in having the “right” amp or pedal etc. None of those things will make you a better player unless you can already play and you want to fine tune things. A decent amp and guitar is all you need.
TF: What should a student do or ask to get the most from a teacher?
JEFF: Suggest a student research the teacher before they start working with them. That’s very easy to do these days. Certainly ask questions, ask what the teacher’s long term plan is, always give the teacher feedback on how you feel the lessons are going. One-on-one instruction is very different from a classroom, direct feedback is key.
TF: With technology as advanced as it is today, and lessons available to anyone, sometimes guitarists still don’t take lessons, but rather try to go it alone. Do you think this is just a guitarist thing – sort of a throwback to the old days of rebellious guitar players? With many other instruments people automatically take lessons, but not always with guitar.
JEFF: Yeah, I think it’s that rebellious thing that all guitar players have. People say to me “Jimi Hendrix didn’t know what he was doing…” and my response is “Oh really?” Some of these people may not have known what they were doing from a pedagogical standpoint, but they knew the SOUND of what they were doing. They understood it in their own way. A lot of these guys, Hendrix for example, are supremely talented as well so that didn’t hurt. But talent only goes so far, it comes down to hard work, and practice. I’ve heard Billy Gibbons talk about when he was touring with Hendrix how he would carry around a reel-to-reel tape recorder with him just so he could learn Clapton and Jeff Beck licks in the hotel. That was his classroom. We mere mortals need lessons, I have taken them since I was 12 and still study with people here and there.