stefan grossman

This is the third and last part of a series of articles based on the interview that I had with Mr. Stefan Grossman on August 16, 2017.

You can read part I here and you can read part II here. I tried to ask as many questions that I received from our community, as possible. 

Do you know what these pickers like John Hurt, Son House and the like were thinking of amplifying the blues?

They didn’t had an opinion about it and didn’t had that much of an interest in amplifying their music. It was as if they were taken out of a time warp and they were being asked to play how they were used to play. The only one who was discovered and was playing acoustic and did amplify his music was Mississippi Fred McDowell. I think Fred sounded much better un-amplified by the way. But take into account that it DOES help if you amplify your music in a packed, hot and steamy juke joint down in Mississippi.

Son House, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis… all those guys were just being asked to play acoustic and they sticked to that. BUT I have a recording where Reverend Gary Davis is playing an electric guitar and it was “not so good”, his technique was not made for that.

But there is of course a direct line between acoustic and electric blues. For example the story goes that Howlin’ Wolf directly learned from Charley Patton. After that Wolf developed an electric sound out of it. Do you have any ideas on this?

Yes, Howlin’ Wolf did directly learn from Charley Patton. My idea is that you have these musicians from Mississippi like Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf, they go up to Chicago to work. At the same time electric guitars and amplifiers are coming around and they’re playing in rough-and-tumble clubs. These audiences didn’t consist of a bunch of white kids sitting down and applauding, these were people who wanted to dance… so they plug in.

As a result if you listen to Muddy’s early 1942 recordings and then listen to the recordings of ‘49 or ‘50 and later (the time he starts to amplify his guitar), his guitar playing gets less and less and less. Literally less and less. When you play an acoustic guitar by yourself you have to cover all bases and now these guys play in band settings so they can play much less. They have to. Because they can’t play the bass and drum part, because that’s already in place.

The next question is asked by Creighton Wodarwski: How did you get your guitar workshop company started and what drove you to produce instructional DVDs?

I was telling you about the summers from ‘62 to ‘66, I was going backwards and forwards from the east to the west coast and I was looking for guitars to sell and guitars to buy. One of the ways I had to earn a living was to teach guitar. People would say after a lesson in person ‘hey, great lesson but I like to continue with it…”. We’re talking about ‘62 here and we started recording my lessons on reel to reel tapes and people could order them and we would send these tapes to the people. This was the beginning.

In ‘67 I left to Europe and my father, he had gotten cancer, so he had to retire for his work. He was a Hungarian man with a Hungarian spirit of ‘always working’, he always had to do things and needed to be busy. So my mother was concerned about him that he had nothing to be busy with. So she asked my father if it wasn’t a good idea if he would expand my business so we started the Guitar Workshop more formally. Because I was very involved in Europe with people starting the Kicking Mule label and with a lot of guitar players we started doing a lot of audio lessons. I started to write more books and all that kept my father really busy. Very busy so that he live until ‘92. So that was the genesis, how it got bigger and bigger and as technology would change – from reel to reel, cassette, video vhs, video dvd and now it’s online streaming- the Guitar Workshop kept evolving staying with the standards of technology.

When you just started out with the lessons I read that the Guitar Workshop had a different name?

Yes that’s true in the beginning it was called “Black Patty”. We had the idea and in the very early beginning my friend Nick Perls, who ran Yazoo Records, he wanted to do this (the Guitar Workshop) but after some time he was like “Nah, I’m not that interested in doing it” so then “we” had to do it ourselves, we being my family. So the first five books they contained cassettes, this build up a mailing list and the more additional material was produced the more people got interested and so on.

Apart from the commercial side, was there also an idealistic side or an idea that you felt that you had to pass this torch and spread this music to a wider audience?

Actually no. Especially not in the beginning. It’s the stuff I love to do and wow what a joke that I can while make a living from it. That’s just wonderful.. But the main reason I do it is because I’m crazy involved in this music. For example even today I have a whole list of tunes that I want to transcribe and they’re all from recordings of the 20’s. It’s just passion and/or being totally nuts (*laughs).

A question from Adam Sanderson: How’s it feel to be Uncle to a large invisible family of players?

I really appreciate it. I think it’s lovely. I gave a concert in 1969 and my teacher Reverend Davis came to that concert to listen to me. After the concert he was brought over to the Gaslight Cafe and Dave Bromberg was the artist who was playing there and he introduced Reverend Davis to the audience like “here’s the Reverend, he taught me guitar” etc.. Reverend Davis got up and started to preach, he ended that with a line where he said “I don’t have any children but I have many sons”. And he did, he really influenced a lot of people how to play guitar and he influenced their lives.

So if the work that I’ve done has been an influence on people to feel better or happier than that’s just fantastic! It’s the cream on top!

A question from Valerie Turner: I’d like to hear Stefan’s thoughts on how his business impacts his performing career, how he balances the two, and which one he prefers

(*laughs) I know Valerie well. I think I understand why Valerie asks this question. She’s a very talented lady and she’s involved in this world now. For me the business aspect and performing always went hand in hand. What is more complicated is the family and touring. My schedule during the years is based on one rule: family comes first, especially as you get older and you get grandchildren and want to spend time with them. Now touring is very difficult and for us it’s less and less attractive and I’m only touring when we, my wife and I, can see new places that we want to see.

So for us it’s lovely to go to Australia and perform, you meet local people so you’re not that much of a tourist- touring for three weeks means going for six weeks. Half the time concerts and workshops and half the time sightseeing. This combination really works for us. But like I said, touring is difficult and can be a catch 22 – it can ruin the family but fortunately I always tried to a certain degree to have it under control. AND by having the business (Guitar Workshop) you have more sources of income and touring is not your only income source.

How do you see the future of the Stefan Grossman Guitar Workshop?

Who knows with all these new technologies? Who would have thought ten year ago that 50% of our audience would not wanna have physical dvd’s? That they would prefer to have downloads on their computer! Who would have thought that!? It always was a materialistic society, people wanted to have stuff in their hands – books, cd’s, dvd’s and now everything is changing.

The motto of the Guitar Workshop always was “lean and mean”, keep everything (costs) down so we wouldn’t have that much overhead. If I would really plan to expand, the first thing I would do is to hire two people and their ages probably would be 15 and 16 because they have their thumb on what’s happening in the world of technology. I can’t keep up with it.Stefan Grossman Guitar Workshop

That brings us to a paradox: how do you see these new technologies, which can be very helpful spreading lessons and music but can also be major distractions?

I transcribe a lot of music and for this the digital revolution has really helped me. You have for example apps like “The Amazing Slowdown” and “Transcribe” and boy have they helped me to be able to really hear every note that’s being played. So for me that part of it has really been helpful.

One of the dangers is that people think that the better tuner they have or the better metronome or app, makes you a better musician and that is simply not true. It’s not gonna make you necessarily better.

And what about the role of traditional music theory in the world of country blues?

The music that we’re involved in which is solo guitar playing, learning music theory – which is fine to learn – will not make you a better country blues fingerstyle guitar player… I guarantee you. Because the way this stuff was taught, it was always taught by imitation. Because it was being played by “uneducated” musicians, they would come up with stuff that sometimes was very complicated to translate to traditional music theory. But if you just use your ears to listen to it, it’s relatively simple because you get on the wavelength of the musician.

The problem with music theory is also that everything is sort of funneled into what was being played in Europe in the 1800’s, so that became the music theory and that’s supposed to be the ‘best’ music. But if you think of the really incredible music of the world like Flamenco, Indian Music, Japanese music or Blues music… how was it taught? None of it is taught by written notation. It’s all taught by imitation.

So I was always against putting western musical notation in my books but I had to because of the publishers. For me the best way to do it is just having tablature with the recording and all the tablature is, is a map.

Let’s be honest- most of the tablature out there is half-ass it doesn’t contain enough information- with which finger do you pick for example? I had to use tablature when I was going to Reverend Gary Davis, he only used his thumb and index fingers of his right hand and I had to write down which fingers he was using to hit the strings. Because if you hit a string with your thumb or index finger really makes a difference. Likewise if you strum- do you strum up or do you strum down? And my tablature showed me that.

In the end my tablature and music notation is like English and Chinese. Two totally different languages to get to the same spot. I see when I’m giving workshops that people who are trained in reading music, they just read the music and a lot of time they miss the whole concept of the tune and how it’s being played. They see a phrase is being played around a chord, they think that there are different lines. For instance with the music of John Hurt there aren’t different lines, as Reverend Davis used to say “the guitar is trying to imitate the piano” so the left hand of the piano player plays “boom-chick, boom-chick” – that’s the right hand thumb and over that a couple of melody notes come. But everything is in that thumb. That’s very hard for someone who’s reading music who came via classical guitar – that’s a concept that’s very difficult to understand. The way we play guitar in certain styles, is very unbalanced. It’s very bass-heavy, it has this rhythmic drive because it’s dance music.

What music do you listen to yourself? Only acoustic blues?

If you look in my Itunes library you will laugh… It’s the same stuff I was listening to when I was 17. This week it’s been Lonnie Johnson – Swing Out Rhythm, Reverend Gary Davis’ tunes in F, Blind Blake, Little Son Jackson, Buddy Moss, Big Bill, early Josh White stuff and a long list ‘to do’. But at the same I’m listening to 1960’s Bob Dylan and lots of Motown like Marvin Gaye, Martha & the Vandellas and the Temptations. In disperse you hear a lot of Blind Willie Johnson, Memphis Jug Band etc. – an interesting mix (*laughs).

In the 60’s and 70’s if I would see the top ten on the billboard, usually I would know most of the people. Nowadays if I look at the top ten I know nobody.

Stefan Grossman with Franklin Guitar

You mentioned Bob Dylan and that the acoustic musicians world was quite small at that time, you were close to him during that time period?

I was never very close to him. During that time he was almost obnoxious in making sure that his face was everywhere, and he was playing everywhere. There was not that much interest in him initially because he sounded like a weak Jack Elliott. Jack has just come back from Europe and he was like ‘the real thing’ in terms of playing Woody Guthrie songs and stuff. But then when Dylan started to write his own tunes, that period in Nashville with Blonde on Blonde, he really did some fantastic stuff and it took off.

I was mainly interested in people who listened to Gary Davis, Son House, Charley Patton and so on (*laughs).

They say in the publishing business: “You can go one mile wide and half an inch deep, or you can go half an inch wide and one mile deep”. The latter is my life story.

A question from Steve Whitely: which young players have you seen who we should look out for?

Larkin Poe, two sisters. Check them out doing Son House and Robert Johnson. They also have very cool versions of other older songs. Tom Feldmann is great of course.  Brooks Robertson (not an acoustic blues player, more Jerry Reed/Chet Atkins stuff). Hans Kristian Nordin. And of course Valerie Turner with her husband, they’re called “Piedmont Bluz”.

Paul Jones asks: How much did you practice in the beginning and how much do you practice now when not performing?

Reverend Gary Davis used to say, and I think it’s very important, “always leave the guitar out, don’t put it in the case and play the first thing in the morning because that’s the best time”. To mo the answer to that question: do not practice, but play. Play and enjoy it, as simple as that. It should never become like school but like THIS is fun. Build on some simple basics in the beginning and keep building on that success.

To me teaching guitar is mainly about teaching three lessons: one is how to read the tablature and different beginning chords, second to teach a tune, third: are these students following the tablature? Are they listening to the original music? And I’m just a policeman after that. Checking out and refining.

Are there any new releases planned for the Guitar Workshop?

Three new ones by me coming up: “Show me the way to go home”: fingerpicking blues, gospel and novelty songs. “Let’s go get stoned”: fingerpicking the devil’s music. A double DVD: “Fingerpicking guitar exercises and hot licks for blues and ragtime guitarists”.

Rolly Brown: “Where blues meets Jazz” and “Rolly on the Blues”.

Pat Donohue is just finishing two DVD’s, one is on his original songs and one is on constructing fingerstyle blues solo.

Tom Feldmann is working on a DVD on Muddy Waters early recordings and one on John Lee Hooker.

So there’s a lot to come.

I know someone told you ‘when you play for an audience you have to wear bright clothing’ who was it?

Brownee McGhee told me! He said it to me, he said it to Ry he said it to everybody. “It’s always important, when you’re onstage you have to wear something bright so that they see you!”. So I wear Hawaiian shirts, but it has also another purpose… as you get older it’s hard to stay slim and these shirts are great because they make you look as if you ‘maybe’ are on a diet (*laughs). It’s camouflage.

This was the last part of the Stefan Grossman interview series. You can go back and read part one and part two of the interview.

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  1. […] You can read the third and last part of this interview here. […]

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