The Evolving Guitar Student

Friday, October 1, 2010


I recently interviewed session guitarist, former GIT instructor, and current Director of Education at the Tokyo School of Music, Chris Juergensen, about how guitar students have changed from the 80s to the present. Read on as he shares the insight he's gained from over 20 years as a music educator.

H: What were your guitar students like at GIT?

C: When I started teaching at MI in the late eighties, music was going through what I often call the sports mode, and this went for all genres. Everything was super charged. Yngwie Malmsteen was at his zenith and Paul Gilbert was getting his start. Frank Gambale had just gotten the Chick Corea gig and was sweeping all over the place. You would hear “Giant Steps” being played everywhere even faster than the original and sometimes in odd time signatures. Even blues was hot and SRV was the focus. Basically, if you wanted to compete in the 80s, you really had to go to a school like MI to get your chops together. So there were a lot of great players at MI and the ensemble classes were a breeze for them. They were good at remembering the assigned songs, could play good solos, had decent time, and could communicate musically. They also had plenty of ensemble experience, so they knew how to dial up a guitar amp.

H: Did those highly technical students struggle with anything at all in school?

C: If there is anything negative to say about the 80s generation of players, it's that they weren't very good at coming up with parts and had bad hairdos. Even though music was going through this super technical stage and players were good ensemble players, they couldn't write worth a crap. It wasn't really a good time for music because when musicians focus on technique they generally stop focusing on music, so there were a lot of great players playing solos over lame tunes. The slightly older 70s generation like me, was much better at coming up with parts simply because the players we listened to like Page and Hendrix were good at parts. The 80s guys focused on technique and sort of snickered at the blues based 70s guys. They preferred to focus on bpms, which was, and still is, something strange to me.

H: So how does that differ with the guitar students that you teach today?

C: The internet age has brought about a whole new way to have fun with the guitar. Basically you can pick up licks and songs on Youtube, so I think today’s generation of players have way less experience playing with other musicians than the last generation of students. And this has really changed the way that we have to design curriculum and ensemble classes. Twenty years ago, I could assign the songs, write up the charts, hand out the audio, and the students could learn them and play them in class using good communication skills and a nice balanced tone and volume. The focus could really be on increasing the student’s repertoire and picking songs you knew would be of good use in the future, while focusing in on their weak points. I would also try to come up with songs that required technical challenges that would force the students to stretch a little each week. These days, I have had to simplify the music and work on really basic skills like using an amp, communicating endings and beginnings, switching channels, following form, etc. I actually have eliminated standards to some extent and have been writing simple, short songs in order to allow the students to learn these basic skills. Music education has really moved back to focusing on the basics.

H: What about their musical influences – what effect has the predominant forms of music on the radio, such as pop, hip hop, alternative rock and metal from the 90s to today had on the modern guitar student?

C: Considering that blues is non-existent, students today are less likely to simply book an ensemble room and jam out. When I started teaching at MI back in the eighties, most players had plenty of experience playing the blues and really didn’t feel the need to study it anymore. We were mostly trying to get away from it actually. I mean, why would you want to travel halfway across the world to study blues? I’m not saying that the blues is something that everyone could do convincingly, but at least most of us could fake it decent enough. Now the blues is pretty much gone so students are packed into the blues electives. Very few players can play something that sounds anything like the blues and because of that, there is really something lacking in a lot of younger players' solos and phrasing. So the blues is starting to look like more of a required course than an elective. On top of all this, modern music has moved away from technique and is based more on the song. Guitarists don’t even necessarily have to play solos, so we get a lot of students who don’t know scales or have chops.

H: But surely the guitar students you teach these days have something new to bring to the table?

C: Students are generally writing better than they have in the past. So maybe it is safe to say that there are more artistic types than virtuosos. And it certainly seems that there are more guitarists that can sing compared to a few decades ago, which is something positive I think.

Chris Juergensen continues to do sessions and teach in both Los Angeles and Tokyo, and has released 3 solo albums. In addition, he has published “The Infinite Guitar”, a music book on learning improvisation, which became a best seller on, and “The Empowered Musician”, a guide on building your career as a musician in today’s industry. Visit Chris at:

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