Let me tell you about my guitar-learning journey!
In the video above, I tell you about my journey, so you can see the logic behind the learn guitar experience that is Spytunes.
Most of my students over the years have not been beginners but instead, people who have played for a long time, but have gotten stuck and decided they want to have another go and this time, do it properly.
So I guess that’s my target audience. Typically, most people end up there and I think with my experience I can relate to the various pitfalls learning guitar comes with.
Alright, so let me tell you about my journey then, so I started out playing classical guitar in school at the age of 7 or 8, that’s when you start school in Sweden where I’m from.
I had an older lady teaching me really simple classical pieces in a group class.
After a few years, she was replaced with a younger guy who played pub gigs, he introduced me to the songbook. So that’s the lyrics and chords of famous songs. No TAB or sheet music.
So I went from reading simple music on the stave to playing simple chords above lyrics of songs I kind of heard on the radio.
My parents weren’t musicians, they didn’t even have a record collection so these once-a-week guitar lessons were all I had.
None of what these two teachers showed me was difficult or complicated. Being very naive I thought playing guitar was pretty easy but that’s just because I didn’t really know any better. I was never challenged.
This is a trick I’ve seen a lot of beginner teachers use actually. If you never challenge your student they can remain at this stage and you have a weekly income for years.
So this went on for about 4 or 5 years, I made very little progress but I supposed I enjoy it.
First electric guitar lessons
At 12 I started taking electric guitar lessons from a private teacher. This guy was your typical musician who played in a wedding band and had private students.
He had been to MI in Los Angeles and was actually roommates with a guy called Frank Gambale. Maybe you’ve heard of him? He invented a speed-picking method during that time so we worked on that for a while.
We also practiced modes, and played some solos, standard stuff you’re doing, in a once-a-week guitar lesson in the late 80s.
Looking back, the main thing missing was context. We didn’t play complete songs or practice stuff related to songs. It was all very separate. I didn’t listen to much music, I just played exercises basically.
I could play three-note-per-string patterns like Frank Gambale had designed really fast but I couldn’t apply them, because I had no suitable context. I did have a garage band with some friends but my solos never worked very well with the songs we played although they were really fast and loud.
If I went to a music shop to try an amp, it sounded like I was pretty decent but really, if you’d put me in a band I would have sounded like a beginner.
Since I didn’t understand enough about actual music and didn’t play that much with the band, I wasn’t really aware of my own level, I thought I was much better than I actually was.
This is still the case with a lot of players these days that I come across, they’re technically decent, it appears as if they’re good but really, because they don’t have much context or real-world experience, you put them in a band and they just disappear into the background. That’s until it’s time to solo and now they’re too loud and too fast, you know, just like I was.
So this goes on for another 4 or 5 years until I finish school, and at 16 I go to college.
First music college
I find a music college, one of those rock-pop places that started to pop up in the mid-90s.
Here I got a teacher that played jazz, he tuned his guitar in 4ths so his scales were more symmetrical and he actually played a double-neck guitar, tapping chords with the left hand on the top neck, and then he’s playing melodies, on the bottom neck, tapping.
This is about as far removed from The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix as you can get.
I spent three years with him (Matthias Windemo) playing modes and licks by his favorite players which were Pat Metheny and George Benson.
We’d do things like spend an entire lesson improvising with Lydian or we’d play using free improvisation where there would be no harmonic rules.
This was way too advanced for me. I could just about get away with it but really, I should have been playing simpler things well before I got to this stage.
Again, I see this with loads of young players these days, they play things they don’t really understand and can just about get away with.
You put them in a real-world scenario and it all falls apart. Especially rhythm playing, it’s usually a disaster.
Early years as a professional musician
After college, I’m now 18 or 19 and I figured I need real-world experience so I start gigging in bars, tourist resorts around Europe, cruise ships, etc. I’d be in Greece in the summer, the alps in the winter, and on a cruise ship in between. Most of this work was with duos playing acoustic guitar as well as singing.
I figured I needed to make up for this lack of knowing normal songs, I desperately needed some real-world experience.
And this was good because it provided me with context but I missed out on a couple of vital details.
Because I was singing, bringing the PA, booking the gig, talking to the audience, taking the payment, driving the car, and negotiating the next booking I didn’t have the headspace to focus on what I was playing.
The guitar part became my last priority, and this was a huge mistake, I so wish someone would have pointed this out to me at the time, that would have been really helpful.
The advice I needed was, to stop singing, focus on what you’re playing, practice during the day what you’re playing at night, and aim to develop my parts.
If I had done that, I could have stayed with gigging and developed as I went along.
What I’ve learned since then is that every musician that gets good, does so by focusing on their playing. They gig, and practice stuff related to the songs they play. Most importantly, they don’t do much else.
As soon as they get distracted and lose focus, their playing takes a backseat and they stop developing, even if they gig three nights a week.
I’ve met so many musicians in the last twenty years and every single one of them that has become great has done the same thing. They gig, they practice, and they work on their repertoire. They focus on playing what they played yesterday to be even better today.
So anyway, I didn’t do that, I got distracted and after 6 or 7 years of gigging, I actually went back to music school, this time in England.
Second music college
Another rock-pop music college for three years (Bimm) and here I meet what I can only describe as the best guitar player and probably teacher as well, in the world.
You have probably heard of him, the unbelievable Guthrie Govan.
This guy is so good, it’s mind-blowing. I spent three years with him and apart from being constantly blown away, I realized that the main problem with guitar lessons is not the student’s ambition or the teacher’s ability, it’s actually the format.
Guthrie has an answer to every question you could possibly have. How do you play like Jimi Hendrix, oh it’s just like this, boom, note for note, it sounds exactly the same!
Any detailed question you have, he knows and he tells you straight away.
There’s no, oh, I have to think about that for a bit, he just knows it.
What about Allan Holdsworth? Oh, it’s just this… to be in the same room as Guthrie, being able to ask him anything is quite the experience.
But then the lesson ends and you’re there with this impossible question to answer which is, where do I start?
And what was that thing he said about Allan Holdsworth’s scale pattern again?
So after some time, I realized that I had to just sit down and decide what I’m gonna work on, make it a practice routine and stop thinking so much about this. It was time to, as Nike says: Just Do It.
The CAGED system + John Mehegan
This is 2003 and three years after a book called the CAGED guitarist had come out and everyone was talking about this. Few read the book but everyone acted as if they understood it.
I found the book and realized that all it meant was that instead of positions 1-5, we called them by their CAGED name.
This may seem irrelevant but it really is truly revolutionary. Me being bilingual, by moving from Sweden to England.
Speaking a lot of English and thinking in English, I really understand how important language is to thinking. ‘Cause I think in English.
That was a really important part for me to understand why this CAGED system is so important.
We think in English, so by thinking, that’s a C-shaped chord. That’s much better than thinking, that’s position 3. It’s just a language thing.
I presented this developed CAGED and roman numeral system to the college along with a bunch of chromatic exercises I developed inspired by drummers’ rudiments, you can find these in the SEPR on the member’s site.
Anyway, the result was that they offered me a job as a teacher. I rewrote their guitar manual into CAGED and would now teach a few days a week during my 2nd and 3rd year as a student. I also started writing a column for Guitar Techniques magazine.
All this was a big turning point for me, my playing had improved enormously now that I had names for my chord and scale shapes and understood chord theory using Roman Numerals properly. I also played in several bands which gave me context.
I wrote songs with these bands which seemed remarkably easy now that I could find my way around the fretboard or develop a melody by reharmonizing it or just manipulating the rhythm.
It was as if things had finally fallen into place.
But one problem was still there, and that was the format of the face-to-face lessons.
Even with the best guitar player in the world, Guthrie Govan, there were two massive parts missing.
The first was that you couldn’t see the lesson again since it was live.
The second was that because Guthrie can answer any question and you’ve got 30 people with their minds blown in one room, there’s gonna be a lot of questions.
So the structure of each lesson and the course as a whole was not great and as I mentioned, you couldn’t play it again, that was the main thing really. I mean don’t get me wrong, it was very entertaining and I am very grateful to have been a student of Guthrie’s, he’s amazing,
Anyway, this led me to the conclusion that what this music college needed to do was film the lessons and offer this as a video library to all future students.
This is 2005, just before YouTube appears. Streaming is extremely expensive and the college I’m in doesn’t want to use computers.
So I left, I found an investor, and I set up my first company to do video guitar lessons in 2006.
After this huge investment, we built a film and recording studio, we hired editors, engineers, and writers, and we even had a front desk girl to answer the phone.
There were way too many board meetings with a bunch of crazy directors, and after about a year, this company fell apart. The website shut down only a few months after launch.
The main problem was that streaming at this point in time was way too expensive. I think it was like $5/gig, now it’s less than a cent. So, an insane difference. It was the right place but definitely the wrong time.
The following year, 2007, I thought, this is crunch time. If I’m gonna get anywhere with teaching I have to get on with it so I started Spytunes, put all my song videos on YouTube, and wrote a bunch of books for my scale theories and practice routines, thinking that the variety of the songs prove the scale and chord theories work for any style of music.
It was just me, Justin and a couple of Australian guys called next-level guitar on YouTube.
I got millions of plays on my videos, I got loads of traffic to the site and as a result, I sold lots of books, and seemingly, everything was working out.
So I expanded I recorded songs by Jimi Hendrix, AC/DC, and Led Zeppelin. This triggered a copyright issue with YouTube and they shut down my account.
I uploaded the songs that weren’t banned to new accounts but the momentum was gone and the traffic didn’t come back to what I was used to.
This is now 2009 and I join a band playing bass, we get a record deal and Spytunes goes into hibernation.
I never got paid for my YouTube videos since all the ad revenue goes straight to the copyright holder, my eBooks are now being spread over emails and in forums and I’m way too busy to care about it, to be honest.
I’m touring with this band. We’re supporting big named acts (Sting, Hoosiers, The Script, Paolo Nutini, Girls Aloud), we’re playing festivals, we’re making music videos, we’re going to photo shoots and all thinking we’re gonna make it.
A few years later the band is dropped by the label and I’m back playing weddings again, thinking about how can I make Spytunes work.
If I’m going to have a go at this again, I want to get everything right.
I’ve been having a bunch of superfans during this time and they’ve been mainly focusing on the SEPR. They’re all great at playing scales but struggle with putting it into a real-world context.
Just like when I learned how to play Frank Gambale’s three-note per string patterns, they practice, but without context.
I’d like to think that Chordacus is much better than three-note per string patterns but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter.
Even though my scale patterns and music theory ideas were the reason I came online. The reason I got my first job in the music school felt like a big turnaround for me personally, I could see in my student’s development that something was clearly missing.
And what was missing was context. I realized that the answer had been there all along, in the name of the website. Spytunes, study songs.
If I was gonna have another go at this I had to get everything right this time. The format, the streaming, the context, the payments, and the copyright. The focus.
Let me tell you one final story that has to do with focus and success.
The final piece of the puzzle
I spend 2012-2018 faffing about with the structure of the courses, writing and rewriting stuff to make sure all these exercises and chord theories are integrated well with the songs.
Alongside this, I play events with soul bands and I also have an original rock band, we made an album and did a bunch of tours for a few years before it finally collapsed due to internal conflict. Like most bands do.
One of the tours we did was with this really terrible band, they were bankrolled by a billionaire who basically got famous musicians in and would fly the band on private jets between gigs.
They had the bass player from Whitesnake, the drummer from Ozzy Osbourne’s band, etc.
We did this tour with them for a few weeks and the guy that played guitar was called Richard. I’ve never seen him before but he was crazy good. The songs were awful but he gave it everything.
Every note of every song was played with so much passion, he was just the perfect professional.
He had this 100-watt custom-made amp that was louder than the PA, and loads of incredible guitars, this guy was without a doubt, the real deal.
We played venues with about 500 people capacity. On a Tuesday night in Sunderland with only 200 tickets sold, Richard was out there as if his life depended on it.
It was incredible.
I was standing there watching him, I was just fascinated with how much he put into this, clearly a dead-end project. You know, as soon as the billionaire got bored, the band would be over.
So why am I telling you this? Well two months later, Richard joins the biggest rock band in the world for their reunion tour (he’s called Richard Fortus this guy). He joined Guns n Roses.
I look into this and it turns out that he’s been with Guns n Roses when Axl did the band on his own.
So just imagine how many guitar players in the world would want that gig. Everyone all those guys in the original band lineup would know personally, out of all of them, when the band reunites with the original lineup minus Izzy Stradlin, they picked Richard.
So what Richard taught me here, is that I think this is the final piece of the puzzle, it doesn’t matter what song you’re playing, you need to give it 100%. No note is too small to not be considered, excuses are for amateurs.
So in 2019, I started the big rebuild and what you see here today is the result.
A step-by-step program, without any homework, with 24/7 access so we can practice together.
The focus is to learn from the songs, and play along with loops for each section. Pay great attention to every note, develop parts, and actually play these songs together.
My goal is that you by doing this get great habits already from the start and avoid all the pitfalls that I fell into.
My goal is that it doesn’t take you decades to learn the guitar. That you go out there and make music with other people, write songs and have a great time.
It doesn’t have to be difficult, you just need to get on the right track and stay there.
All you have to do is focus and learn from every song you play.