Guitar Interview With Sean Baker
Question: What was your first inspiration to learn to play the guitar?
I’ve always been a huge fan of music. Even if I didn’t play the guitar I would still be a music fan. My folks never played an instrument or anything but always played music.
I remember my dad bringing Stevie Wonder to my attention and taking me to Alice Cooper concerts before I was ten years old. Eric Clapton, Santana and a bunch of stuff like that.
I got to be about 11 or 12 and as clichéd as it sounds, it was pretty much hearing Eddie Van Halen play guitar that made me want to learn. Or at least attempt to pick it up and try to learn. My step dad, Dennis, had a friend that played guitar and he asked his buddy if he would give me lessons. Every Thursday he would come over and it was the Mel Bay Book One.
Of course, Pretty Woman and Eruption and all this Van Halen stuff is swimming around in my head and I was so anxious to play that stuff and it was like, “OK let’s play four quarter notes, now let’s play eighth notes” and all that stuff that didn’t sound remotely like what I was hearing in my head. So that didn’t last very long!
I remember being frustrated with reading music, and writing the names of the notes down and memorizing them, then going through three erasers erasing them before my lesson and then playing the exercises from memory. I got bored with it and quit taking lessons and just let the guitar sit there for a few years.
I remember seeing the first issue of Guitar For The Practicing Musician in a party store. That was the first time I’d ever seen tablature. And once I was able to learn a couple things on my own, and they probably came out of that magazine, I re-fell in love with it because I was learning things that were more current and recognizable to my ear. I didn’t want to learn nursery rhymes, I wanted to play music I could relate to. That was a big impact.
It was a love of music that got me started. I still love music—tremendously.
As far as getting stung by the bug of guitar, it was when I started seeing results. If I spent ten minutes learning a song I liked, as opposed to playing an exercise with three notes on the high E string.
Question: What did you struggle with as a beginning guitar player?
I was very intimidated by the mental things—theory, why do chords work, things like that. I was more intimidated by that then the physical side. So even with my students today, I’m not going to bombard you with too much mental stuff because you’re going to hate life with all the physical stuff at first. Getting your hands set, playing chords, muting stings and all the stuff like that.
I had so much fun playing songs I liked that the physical challenges didn’t feel like practicing because I just enjoyed it so much. I really avoided theory for the longest time. I had way more of a struggle with the mental side than the physical.
I wasn’t intimidated by the physical side. Obviously when I was first starting out I wasn’t that good at things like bending strings and had to work extremely hard at it.
Question: How did you develop and improve your ear?
Out of necessity, really. There was no internet, no ultimate guitar website, no real availability of tabs or ways to learn songs.
If you wanted to learn the new Van Halen song, you had to just kind of listen to it and try to figure it out. A big part of getting my ear together was being able to move barre chords around to any position. I remember there were probably three rock stations on the radio growing up here (Detroit, Michigan area) and during summer vacations from school I’d grab a guitar and would stay home and learn a song that was on one station. Then I’d go over to another station and try to learn a new one.
Whether I like the song or not, it was just so much fun trying to figure these things out my own—that great feeling that you get when the chord you’re playing matches the one that you’re hearing on the radio. That was so much fun that that was when the addiction to the guitar really came about for me.
If I listened to the radio for an hour and heard six songs, my goal was to have learned all six songs. Not all the way through, but I’m going to pick up a chunk here, I’m going to learn this Def Leppard riff here, I’m going to learn this 38 Special part here. If it was a song I didn’t want to learn, I’d just change the channel.
Question: Did you have problems with stage fright or playing in front of people?
I remember playing a recital with the music school I had taken lessons with and had my best friend playing guitar and cousin singing, I don’t remember being so nervous for that, being that it was a recital and it was playing in front of family. But I remember the very first bar gig that I played I definitely tossed cookies earlier in the day! I didn’t realize I was nervous until I threw up.
I think a lot of it has to do with your personality. I’m a pretty outgoing person and have been for a long time. I’m not all that shy and I think that helps me as well.
Some of my younger students that play in our rock band, they say “I’m going to be nervous, man!” I tell them, “No, go up there and it’s going to be fun.” We put these young kids together and book gigs for them and when they first get up there they are all stiff. And as soon as they do their first song and their family and friends are cheering they end up doing Angus Young moves in the second song.
I think it’s just wanting to be accepted and admired for doing it.
Question: How do you help your students build confidence and advance quickly?
With new students I find something that they are good at and build from there. They might be good at playing the A chord. “OK you’re good at the A chord? Let’s do another chord that is in that same basic position—here’s the D.” Whatever their strong suit is.
If they know that pentatonic scale well, I’ll help them build off that pentatonic scale. Give them notes that are outside of that scale or they can add that are still in key and go from there.
Question: What are the most common problems that you see with your beginning and intermediate guitar students?
Physical things are the hardest. Everybody comes in wanting to improve and put the time in, but they don’t really realize how much time it takes. I want to give them things that improve their physical technique but also that are musical. Sometimes people think they are going to be playing Enter Sandman the first day, and you know as well as I do that it takes time.
It’s not about the number of years you’ve been playing, but the hours and minutes that have gone into your practice. All players that I know that are really good have a love and a passion for it that helps them get through. That inner drive and love for it. I know how many hours and minutes I have and I can probably guess that you’ve got a load of them involved in your career to. It takes time. That love and and passion for it what keeps the drive going.
I can practice a whole years worth in three months, or I can practice three months in a whole year if that makes any sense. You can always challenge yourself—whether it’s a chord shape you’ve never played before, or an arpeggio or a new scale. A piece of music that you never though you’d have the ability to play. Sometimes you have to set the bar a little higher than your current abilities. If you don’t get challenged you get bored.
Question: What about battling frustration and discouragement?
Well, I don’t know if you noticed but I had hair before I played the guitar!
From my perspective, I have to go back to the passion and love that I had for it. There was nothing that was going to stand in my way. I never really looked at anything as being unachievable.
I remember hearing Eruption the first time—that’s what gave me the desire to want to go out and get a guitar. But if you had told me that day that one day I’d be able to play Eruption I would have called you a liar. But a year and half, two years into my playing I could play Eruption. The love and passion of playing guitar is just who I am. It just clicked for me.
From a teaching standpoint, I always, always, always try to lift their spirits and tell them that they are going to get through it. I never tolerate anything negative from my students. Every person I teach, even me and you when we started out, all pretty much had the same weaknesses. We all have the same challenges. We have different strong points but we all tend to have the same weak points. I always try to reinforce that they will be able to do it.
Always give them encouragement. People hear enough negative in their everyday life. And everybody’s motivations are different. Some people just want to play Nirvana songs I try to show them why it works—this is why these chords work. And they go “Wow, that’s cool.” I think as long as you are challenging them and uplifting their spirits they are going to improve.
Writing songs has been a big thing for me. Once you know a little bit you have to take what you know and create. There’s no wrong way to write a song. Not being afraid to put some chords together—things like that are what charged me.
There’s something about playing music that tickles your soul.
Sean Baker is a guitarist, teacher and musician from Detroit, Michigan USA. He has released three solo albums, toured with Bruce Bouillet (Racer X, The Scream, Epidemic) and recorded with Ronny Munroe (Former Metal Church and Trans Siberian Orchestra.)
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