The Guitar Master
Today I get to interview another of my Facebook friends, Marc Johnson. Marc not only teaches and plays music, he also writes! With such a fantastic combination of talents, I talked him into answering a few questions for the blog.
Since you give guitar and bass lessons, let’s start with a few questions about that.
I’ve heard people say there are no bad students, only bad teachers. I’m not sure I agree with that. I’ve been in classes with plenty of bad students. Have you ever had guitar or bass students who really aggravated you?
Most of the people I’ve taught have aggravated me. Bad students will always outnumber the good ones 3 to 1. It’s a certainty in the universe.
That being said, there are bad teachers too. And, somehow those bastards manage to stay teachers for a long time while the good ones get discouraged and leave. There’s a real dearth of good teachers out there.
One of the jobs of a good teacher is to get students excited about the subject. And the best way to do that is to be enthusiastic about it yourself. If the teacher loves the subject, and the student is genuinely interested in putting the time in, then things will work. If the teacher is a lump on a log, then they’ll probably ruin whatever ambition the student had.
When people come to you for lessons, do they sometimes think that learning to play an instrument is a quick and easy endeavor?
In their first lesson, everyone acknowledges that learning the guitar is going to be difficult for them, and they say that they are up for the challenge. The following week, the second lesson rolls around and they say, “I didn’t think it would be this hard.” Usually, that’s where I’ll begin to notice signs if the student is going to last or not.
Unfortunately, the parents are rarely helpful. In order for someone to be a good student of music, they have to immerse themselves in it. And, it seems that very few households have any music in them. Even something as simple as a parent blaring some music while dancing in front of their kids can have a significant influence on how the child perceives music. They have to know that music is meant to be enjoyed and not just something that plays in the background of movies.
It also doesn’t help that music education is seen as extracurricular instead of being part of a standard education. In some countries, learning an instrument is part of a student’s normal study. Where in the US it’s seen as frivolous or flighty. Hell, some parents make it next to impossible for the student to pursue music by bogging them down with a bunch of sports or other shit that the kid doesn’t even want to be involved in. Would you rather be a freaking boy scout or learn how to play Bark at the Moon? Which would you rather have, a merit badge or a Jackson Randy Rhoads “V” guitar?
As both a writer and musician you’ve seen two different worlds. Would you say it’s easier to get your writing or your music noticed? Or are they both difficult?
They are both very difficult, and they are both very similar. While there are definitely more outlets than there used to be, there are so many shit writers and musicians clogging up the pipes that it makes it hard for anyone with anything interesting to say to get through.
Writers and Musicians both have to work harder and smarter to get noticed. While you can still play some shithole bar (My favorite kind) or sign books at some hole-in-the-wall bookstore (Also, my favorite kind), you’re going to get very little notoriety from that alone.
The hardest thing is that few are willing to pay for books or music. There’s an expectation that, if someone writes a book or records an album, they’ve done so because they love it and that should be enough reward for them. But, the writer or musician has to sacrifice time and opportunity to create these things. If they can’t make a living off of writing books or making music, how can you possibly expect them to keep doing it?
Publishing houses have even pulled their heads out of their own asses long enough to notice this trend, which is why unless you’re a writer with an existing track record of selling books, good luck getting published. That leaves writers with independent houses, which have been doing good work lately, or self-publishing. Either way, it’s difficult to get your name out there.
Some market the shit out of themselves and some cling onto niches that are big thing for the moment. It’s like the 90’s grunge thing. Every terrible band out there was calling themselves “grunge” so that they could get in on the action. Just like tons of terrible writers are getting in on the vampire or zombie thing for the same reason.
The good news is that there are many great writers and musicians out there for anyone willing to look. Writers like you and Steve Morris have managed to get their stories out there without any big publishing house help, which is big. And musicians like Andy McKee have managed to garner a strong following based on YouTube performances. Something like that wouldn’t have been possible fifteen years ago.
Have you ever incorporated music in your writing?
Music strongly influences my writing. When I was writing Becoming, I wanted to have a song threaded throughout the narrative. Portions of the song would pop up from different characters and even from the narrator at times in either lyrical or musical form. It was intended to be a stream of continuity through an otherwise fragmented story. I’m not sure if anyone caught on to that.
The relationship between music and writing is a complementary one. They both rely on moments that can’t be relived but we search to relive them anyway. That moment when I finished Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing will always haunt me, but I will never be able to experience that moment the same way again. When I first heard ORIGA’s voice in the song Inner Universe, my guts twisted and my hands started to quiver. It’s like heroin. You’re always chasing that first high.
Generally, I like to create a song for the story that then becomes part of the narrative. I’m currently working on two new titles that are both heavily influenced by music. Given how quickly I write novels, they should both be out by 2045.
Do you listen to music when you write?
Always. The mood that I’m trying to convey in the work determines what kind of music. If the writing calls for something more ethereal, I’ll listen to ORIGA, Little Dragon, Florence + The Machine, Yoko Kanno, or Michael Hedges. If the writing calls for some crazy-maniacal-blood bath, I’ll put on something a bit heavier like In Flames, Soilwork, Sybreed, Bring Me The Horizon, Opeth, or Katatonia. Or, if I’m just feeling sorry for myself, I’ll put on some Soulsavers or Chris Whitley.
I even composed a series of songs that were influenced by my first book, Becoming. Originally, they were supposed to be background for an audio book, but then I realized the monumental horror I would unleash if I narrated three hundred plus pages with my monotone lilt. The songs weren’t bad, though. So, I anticipate I’ll eventually get around to releasing them all somewhere.
While we’re on the topic of writing, tell us about the books you have out and where we can find them.
My overly ambitious work Becoming is available from Amazon in hardcover, paperback, or for Kindle. But I’d rather people purchase it from Powells.com because Amazon is the devil. Becoming is a very violent piece of speculative fiction with elements of fantasy. The characters of have no memory of who they are/were but find themselves in a reality that is manifested from their dreams and nightmares. They live in a world of their own design, and somehow they even manage to fuck that up.
(Click above to find Marc's book on Amazon.com, or use the link below to visit Powells.com. Marc prefers the link below.)
I also have a short story, Uncanny Valley, which doesn’t cost very much and is awesome. It’s only available on Kindle through Amazon.
Although I have another novel on the way, these are currently my only two stories. There is another writer named Marc Johnson on Amazon, so don’t confuse me with him. He didn’t like my book, and I haven’t read his.
I’m also the Head Writer/Editor in Chief for TheToneKing.com, which is a site dedicated to guitar gear. So, if guitar be your thing, you’ll want to check that out.
Let’s keep going with the plugs - Where can we find your music? Any YouTube links we should see? (I know there are! *chuckle*)
There are some vids of these “On The Mark” videos I did for TheToneKing.com. You can hear me play a bit, see my pretty face, and let my soothing tenor wash over you. I wanted to do some videos comparing/contrasting top shelf guitars with their less expensive counter parts. Those can be found here:
I also have a Soundcloud account, which I don’t use as often as I would like. That can be found here:
Some people have told me that there’s other stuff of mine floating around out there. I haven’t seen it, but who knows what’s out there.
Is it true that the guitar players get all the women? Silly question, I know.
The groupie hierarchy goes: Singer, Guitarist, Drummer, Horn Section, Bass Player, Roadies, Percussion, and Pianist. So, guitar players get almost all of the women, but not as much as the singers. But, at least we’re not pianists.
While we’re talking about that, do you ever have guys come in and want music lessons because they think playing a guitar will get them girls? Does this work out?
A huge part of playing the guitar is attitude. If you think you’re the best guitar player in the world, chances are, everyone else will agree. Same goes for picking up girls. If you act like every girl in the world would be lucky to hang out with you, you’ll probably never go home alone. Only one of my students has ever realized this. I wish I could’ve been so wise at his age.
Music is sexy. So is writing. They’re both expressions on how people deal with the world around them. And sex is a big part of that. When you’re looking to understand the passions that go into creating these things, you are looking to better understand sex. Most importantly, how to get more of it.
Are you more of a purist, or have you used music synthesizers before?
I enjoy the sound of grit, dirt, warmth, and things I can sink my teeth into. Which are impossible to get with synth. Synth by its nature is a calculation and an estimation of things that we hear in nature.
Practically, though, analog is a pain in the ass. You need to be really loud to achieve the right tone and usually you’re getting yelled at by somebody for being too loud. So, when I record, I use computer emulator software that mimics certain sounds that I’m trying to achieve.
Synth also gives players the ability to orchestrate for as many instruments as you want without having to play a single one of them. I’m terrible at brass instruments, but I can program the shit out of a horn section.
As far as what I listen to, some of the most exciting stuff that I’ve heard has been synth based. Whether it’s Anime or Film Soundtracks, Dubstep, or bands like Daft Punk, Yelle, Little Dragon, and Yoko Kanno, there’s something intriguing about that point where the synth sounds end and the organic instruments begin. There’s this great song by Yoko Kanno called Fish ~ Silent Cruise that starts out simply with a voice and some strings and slowly morphs into a slow-driving beat with all of these synth sounds that threaten to swallow up everything around them. It’s amazing.
But, there’s nothing sweeter to me than hearing the resonance of a minor 9th chord played on a guitar as it slowly dissipates to the point where you can hear the notes waver around each other. Synth could never reach that level richness or beauty in timbre.
And of course, what are you working on right now?
My second novel, Drugs and Pancakes, should be out early next year if my alcoholic editor can manage to work through the manuscript in between bouts of insanity and cursing my name.
Drugs and Pancakes is a story of a drug addled youth who is suddenly confronted by a suicidal lesbian. High jinks and hilarity ensue. Lots of drugs, sexual depravity, and inquiries into the nature of human relativity, fear, and interdependability.
I’m also working on a documentary titled, The Future of Gear. It’s pretty obvious what the subject is by the title. Basically, I’m asking all names big and small in the guitar instrument industry where they think things are headed. The first episode will be available before the end of October. You can watch the teaser here.
I do have a website dedicated to all of my stuff that I neglect often and update occasionally at http://www.Marcjohnsonbooks.com
You can also follow my awesome tweets @Mjohnsonbooks.