Interview With Joel Hoekstra of Whitesnake
Question: How did you get started in music and what attracted you to the guitar?
I was 11 when I started playing guitar. My parents are classical musicians so they had me playing cello when I was three, I think, and piano when I was seven. I definitely picked up some fundamentals from all that. I didn’t really care for it honestly at that stage. When you’re a boy that age you just want to play with your Star Wars action figures and be a baseball player pretty much.
For me it was seeing AC/DC on the very early days of MTV. Seeing Angus Young made me really want to play guitar. Guitar was the first instrument that I really wanted to play. My parents were like—“what did you say?”--when I said I wanted to get a guitar. They were shocked when I wanted to play something because I was really begging off the piano.
Question: What was it like for you in the beginning?
For a very brief amount of time I started out on my stepmoms acoustic guitar. I was taking lessons from a guy that was teaching out of the Alfred method book. The one where you learn E, F and G on the high E string and you learn to read music. He had a Simon and Garfunkel poster up in his teaching room and was eating sunflower seeds. It wasn’t what I expected because I wanted to be Angus Young.
I had a friend who came over and he knew all these rock riffs. And I was like “wow, how did you learn all that?” He said “I take lessons from this guy at the mall and he’ll teach you any rock song you want to learn. Just bring in a cassette tape and he can figure it out for you.” The rest is really history from there. I went and took lessons with this guy and that was a really great way to start playing. Doing nothing but learning songs. I did work on reading music a little bit, but I already had that background from the cello and piano.
Question: What helped you the most from those beginning lessons?
It was great for me because it provided the proper motivation to get my physical skills on the guitar going. It was exactly what I wanted to be doing. At that age you’re not into “let’s torture yourself” or something. You wanted to have fun and it was exactly what I wanted to be doing. It was perfect for me and he was a fantastic teacher in that regard.
The other thing that was really cool about those lessons is that he never wrote anything out for me. He would just show it to me. So it was basically if you didn’t go home and practice immediately after your lesson then your lesson was completely wasted! If you waited until the next day, you’d forget what you learned. I remember leaving my lessons at the mall and when I was waiting for my mom to pick me up I would practice in the little cubicle area where the payphones were. Just trying to get the song down as fast as I could. So it was actually a great method on his part. Whether it was laziness on his part, who knows? It was really good for me because it made me practice really hard.
Today there’s that ability to put it off. There’s tab online, or you can watch someone break it down on YouTube. So I think that kind of encourages procrastination.
So that was really good for me.
Question: What was the next phase for you on the guitar?
Shortly after that, at that same store at the mall, me and another of my friends and one other guy, we were all getting pretty good and we were wanting to learn leads and theory and how to really play lead guitar. So they hired a guy from a local band, he was unbelievable and we all knew about him. His name is T.J. Helmerich and he’s gone on to have a great career. He went on to teach at GIT (at the Musician’s Institute) and put fusion albums out with Bret Garsed. So I was really lucky there. He was a great teacher and I only been playing about a year.
I was only 12 or 13, and now I could take in solos and he would transcribe solos for me and teach me those. He taught me about theory, scales and how the modes work and everything like that. It was great having a teacher like that. I wasn’t from a major city, just this suburb of Chicago. It was a great stroke of luck to get a teacher that good right out of the gate.
Those two teachers really jumpstarted me. It really got me off and running and it was a great start.
Question: Was it difficult for you to develop your technique? Where the things that you struggled with?
All those things are relative. We are always trying to expand our limitations. So there are always going to be things that we struggle with. I think the idea in the early going is finding something that’s going to make it all stick. And for me that worked.
I’ve tried to follow that in my own teaching. I did a lot of teaching in my 20s and I was trying to find the thing that would get my students hooked. At the end of the day, if someone is going to practice for an hour and get their fingers moving, there’s your finger exercise, right there. You are coordinating your fingers just learning the songs. There’s really no need for a “finger exercise.” And honestly, there’s no need to learn how to read music at that point, either. Eventually there is. I mean, if you want to be a pro. And even that is debatable to a degree. I don’t think Eddie Van Halen reads. There’s so many ways to get good on the guitar. The only common bond that all people share with their approaches is the amount of time spent.
If you want to get good, you have to spend time with it. It’s all about finding that inspiration to spend the time with it. I think it’s important that everybody finds what they’re into and spends time doing it. At the end of the day, the best thing they can do is spend time playing music.
Question: How did you encourage your students?
I used to tell my students that every day that you take off, you kind of take a step backwards. In the early going of playing guitar, one of the most important things you can do is develop consistency. You can’t say I’m going to practice 20 minutes a day every day this week, and then take off for three days and then play for an hour on the fourth day. It doesn’t work that way.
What I used to tell people was to try to play every day. Even if you pick it up for only two minutes, pick it up for two minutes because you’re telling yourself that you play guitar. More often than not, when you do get the guitar in your hands, you’ve made time for it and you’re going to play more than just the two minutes.
Another recommendation that I would make to the parents of my students is that I would recommend that they get electric guitar to start on. It’s easier on the fingers, it’s not as wide and it’s easier to see around. If you like rock stuff it’s a lot more inspiring.
Question: Did you have problems with stage fright or playing in front of people early on?
My first gig with my first band I was just terrified. I just remember being so nervous that I couldn’t move my feet! It’s a funny thing, man. Leading into a show you always feel slightly tortured about it all. And then when you’re doing it, you don’t think of anything else. Any problems you have with anything else going on in the world all mean nothing. That’s the coolest thing about playing a show. Nothing else matters other than what you are doing.
Just by doing it, little by little it (stage fright) just goes away. I’m going to quote out friend Jeff Plate (drummer for the band Savatage and Trans Siberian Orchestra) on this. He’s got a great phrase: “If you make a mistake, it’s never as bad as you thought it was. And also it’s never as good as you thought it was.” (laughs).
Question: What is your favorite guitar moment from your first year of playing?
Right out of the gate my guitar teacher showed me the riff from paranoid by Black Sabbath. I played that riff endlessly. The first week I must’ve played it for hours on end every day. I knew right away when I was playing that.
Also for me learning power chords was a great thing. My ear was good enough from growing up with music in the house all the time that I could figure out riffs to songs. My ear could take me to the right root note for the power chord. Once I learned how to play a power chord I was off and running.
Question: What is the best advice you have for beginning guitar players?
They should make the music that they like. That’s how you get hooked. Sometimes there’s a disconnect between popular music and music lessons. Or at least it definitely used to be there where you had to learn classical or jazz first. There’s nothing wrong with learning anything as long as you’re going to practice it.
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