Last week, I had an opportunity to interview Jeff Fiorentino of JFRocks.com. Jeff started JFRocks in 2001 to help others learn how to become a “guitarist” as opposed to just learning a few songs and some basic theory. He is also a successful studio/sessions guitarist. Admittedly, he’s a huge Van Halen fan and teaches you how to develop a “Van Halen’ized” style of playing guitar and how to apply it to different songs. Beyond VH, he also tackles 80′s Rock, Blues Guitar, Acoustic, Surf Guitar, and a ton more.
What I found unique about Jeff’s teaching approach is that he doesn’t teach you how to play songs note for note, but he teaches you to understand what you’re playing and how to do your own thing with it in developing your own style. He also includes detailed information with each video lesson like the song mp3, lesson tab, jam track, and guitar setup. Jeff’s passion for playing guitar is evident in the quality of lessons he produces as well as in his responses to following interview questions. I think you’ll find them both interesting and insightful.
1. When did you first pick up a guitar and who inspired you?
I guess my dad was my initial inspiration for the guitar. He was in bands in the western Massachusetts area where I great up and I used to watch him play. I think I was about 4 or 5 years old when I got my first guitar. It was a mini-acoustic from Sears and by that time I had learned most of the open position chords from watching my father play. I was actually pretty good at strumming through them and knew quite a few Eagles tunes as I recall. I played acoustic for quite awhile, my dad felt it was better for me to learn on acoustic then move to electric.
I didn’t actually get my first electric guitar until I was about 11 or 12. I had learned Led Zeppelin’s first album by ear and was playing it all on my dad’s guild acoustic at the time, and I think it freaked him out that I could do that so he went out and bought me a Stratocaster and a little practice amp. I actually have my dad’s original acoustic guitar from back in those days, he gave it to me years ago, and I use it from time to time on recordings. That’s a guitar with stories to tell man. Dings in it from campfires and clubs going back to the late 60’s.
As far as early inspirations, most who visit the JFRocks.com website would think Van Halen would be my biggest influence, but the reality is I was a huge Zeppelin Jimmy Page freak until about my mid teens and that influenced my style a lot. So Jimmy Page was my biggest inspiration with Jeff Beck riding a close second.
I got into Van Halen much later in my playing by accident to tell the truth. The kids at school were listening to Van Halen of course but I hadn’t heard much of it, I was still in my Zeppelin phase. I never paid it much attention to Van Halen until I was home sick from school one day when I was about 14 or so and I had the radio on WAAF which was a local rock station in Massachusetts. They did a rock block of Van Halen and played the now classic Eruption into You really got me.
To make a long story short, by the time Eruption ended I was on the floor with my jaw open, then the You really got me opening riff kicked in and that was a life changing moment for me. I remember not expecting it as the reverb and echoplex echoes of Eruption faded. I went to the mall a couple days later and spent every cent I had on every Van Halen album that existed at the time. I liked the free flowing nature of the style and I loved the sound. So I tried to incorporate a lot of that into the blues and jazz based foundation I had built up to that point, and I found it worked out well for me.
2. How did you get into becoming a studio/sessions guitarist?
I had done some light studio work for local Massachusetts players in the late 80’s and I found I really enjoyed recording. When I came out to Los Angeles I ended up helping out a friend of mine back in 1993 with a radio spot he was doing for a station called KLOS. I don’t even remember what it was, I think it was backgrounds for a promo of some sort. The producer of that project liked how I could come up with riffs and catchy hooks seemingly on the spot and suggested I submit what at that time was a DAT for possible use in commercials and things like that. I made the DAT and some of my stuff got picked up here and there.
These days I have CD materials that are actually produced through JFRocks.com on file with everything from ABC Sports to The Discovery Channel for use as music backgrounds. I also hire myself out. Usually it’s really small time stuff, helping singers with demos, or cool guitar riffs or songs for local filmmakers. I just finished some music for a Surf documentary actually. There’s a track online that JFRocks released to the internet called “Mad Surf” from that. It’s on Youtube.
There are a lot of music school students who visit my website and I always like to remind them that you don’t have to be a rock star to play guitar for a living. A lot of them seem to think they’re going to be big stars, and some of them might, but there’s no shame in being a Blue collar musician, in fact it’s a pretty cool gig and it’s what most music school grads end up becoming. That’s not to say don’t dream big, but if you’re willing to put yourself out there, there are many different levels of work available to keep you busy and playing.
3. Why did you decide to start JFRocks.com?
There are a lot of fans of my website that have their own memories of how things started. They email into us all the time talking about the old days of the site. We really have a loyal following, some have been visiting the site since 2004 or so, but only a select few remember 2001 when the site came to be.
The truth is I originally started the site to honor my father, who had become ill around that time with cancer. He was a big proponent of education, and knew how obsessed with the instrument I was, and how much knowledge I had locked up in my head. I was always teaching people anyway. I would play a gig and people would ask me questions afterward and I would end up giving an impromptu guitar clinic in a corner booth somewhere. My father believed that if you don’t share what you know you’ve in some way wasted your life, and that’s something he always pounded into my head from day one.
The bigger miracle is that JFRocks.com even came to be in the first place because I knew nothing about computers at the time.
As luck would have it In July of 2001 I was doing the music for a play in Hollywood. The play was being directed by an actor named Keith Coogan. I was up in the control booth with Keith, and I ran a concept by him for a website that gave detailed guitar lessons with audio lessons to go with them. Video was in its infancy online at that time, and would have been expensive to do on the scale I wanted so I was thinking audio.
Keith it turns out knew a lot about websites and he was pretty stoked by the idea and built the original infrastructure for what would become JFRocks.com at home in his living room a couple days later. Keith as I recall suggested we do video, and he had this embedding of video lessons idea. The problem was at the time server companies were not offering a lot of space and were limiting bandwidth. Nobody was doing heavy video content at that time and I had a hard time finding a server company that would even talk to us.
In fact we did a video experiment early on with a lesson on Van Halen’s Little Dreamer, and we got kicked off our server for being a resource hog. I gotta laugh at that because it was a Yahoo server and they now offer unlimited services for less money than we paid for 100 MB of storage and 2 GB of transfer back then. So in the early days 2001 to 2004 JFRocks.com was all audio lessons in wma format and short tab riffs and such. The site didn’t really come into its own until mid 2004 when the technology caught up to us and we switched to video formats.
Ultimately though I started the site to teach and offer a service to those that wanted to learn how to be a guitarist. And for me that means more than just knowing some songs. A guitarist to me is someone who has an understanding of the instrument, or a good understanding of themselves as a player and how they approach the guitar.
I wanted to help people stop playing guessing games with the fret-board and start playing serious guitar, without gimmicks or methods. Just understand the instrument and create with it. I think with JFRocks.com I’ve accomplished that. I still to this day get dozens of emails a week from people telling me how I’ve changed their lives and how they approach the guitar. I think that’s great, it’s very flattering, but ultimately I never set out to do that. I just want people to realize it’s not that complicated to be a really good effective guitarist.
4. I noticed in your “Van Halen’ized” lesson of “Crazy train” that you really emphasize understanding the piece and build off it to do you’re own thing. Your lessons are not note-for-note song lessons, is this how you decided to differentiate yourself form other guitar lessons available online?
No I don’t set out to differentiate myself from anyone. I don’t look at JFRocks.com as a business with competition. I know there are a lot of places people can go for guitar lessons these days. I offer a service, a perspective, and a point of view, and what I think are lessons you can’t get just anywhere. It’s really about me having some fun and teaching what I want to teach. I think that fun comes across in the lessons too, which is why people stick and become long term fans of the site. JFRocks.com is more like a TV show than a guitar lesson website.
What I mean is we produce huge lessons that are very involved. I’m a character for lack of a better way to put it. I talk to the people watching the videos, and offer some humor in spots, and at the same time try to give a real guitar lesson as an in person teacher or music school would. I always say, watching a JFRocks.com video lesson is like having me in your living room chatting with you about a guitar topic. If you go to music school the teacher will discuss things with the class. I do the same thing, it’s just a one way conversation in my case.
The lessons are very involved. One lesson can take us an entire week to produce, they’re all very well thought out and each lesson has many layers to it. It’s up to the student/viewer how much of the lesson they take. Some just want to learn one of the riffs or solos I did. Which is fine, but that’s not a guitar lesson in my opinion. The guitar lesson is what’s making the riff tick, why does it work within the key of the song, What’s the bass doing around that riff or solo, etc. etc. etc…
One of the main reasons I produce tracks like the VH’izing cover songs stuff is because I want to show people that understanding a style and what makes it tick is in my opinion is as important as learning a bunch of songs from the given artist or style. Now that may sound weird to some, and in fact many people don’t get it and probably never will, but the reality is cover songs always bored me, and they bore a lot of people. In my case I would learn them and play them a few times then get bored and tweak them and start twisting the riffs into other things.
I believe that a person studying the guitar should always be asking “what if”. What if I did this? What if I change that?
I always encourage people to learn cover songs, but they will only teach you things if you break them apart and embellish on them and figure out what makes them tick. So learn Crazy Train. Rhoads rules the world man, but then after you learn it, break the riff down and twist it up, or do what I did at JFRocks.com and say what if Van Halen did it, what might happen.
Well in my mind VH likes open string pull offs and under-bends and slide-ins, and that’s what I did with the riff, I twisted it without losing its initial vibe. But for that lesson in particular I also had to re-write the song, because for something like Van Halen it’s not just about Eddie’s style, there’s a band dynamic, there’s Mike and Alex and what they’re doing which is contributing to the sound. And that’s the kind of stuff I teach at JFRocks.com and it’s also why we produce a full length song example MP3 for each of our lessons.
The song example makes it a real song for people and not just a random guitar lesson. You can hear what I’m teaching so to speak. We’re doing more than just a guitar lesson, it’s a whole band dynamic lesson too. Which I feel is something that’s important for a guitarist to understand. That’s why I say the lessons on the site and on my products have many layers to them. Just learning the riff because you like it isn’t even scratching the surface of the real lesson.
Here’s an excerpt from Jeff’s “Van Halen’ized Crazy Train” lesson …
5. What do you think was the most important thing you learned in getting to where you are as a guitarist?
My teacher was a guy named Kevin Jones. He was jazz musician by trade, and he had a gift for un-complicating music theory. So to answer your question, the most helpful thing to me was learning to not over analyze things.
The fretboard is only as daunting as you want to make it.
Use theory to get you out of a corner, but not to drive the writing. Once I figured that out, I was able to really create on the fly, write songs faster, and have more fun at improvisational jams as well.
6. Is there a lesson, technique, or concept that you look back on and think that you spent too much time or wasted time on? Potential pitfalls for beginners?
Yeah I spent a lot of time trying to play fast in the early days without enough emphasis on accuracy. In later years I had to go back and re-learn speed by slowing down and going through precision exercises and working them up to speed. A lot of young players spend months trying to learn something like Eruption when they don’t even have the foundation for playing a basic Eagles or Tom Petty style song. I think the biggest pitfall for beginners, and I know this from emails I’ve received from JFRocks site visitors over the years is the urge to run before they can walk. Building a solid foundation as a player in both theory and technique early on will make you a better player later on, and a more well rounded player as well.
Also, a pet peeve I have is with what I call music snobs. Beginner guitarists should be open minded and want to learn everything they can I think. Whether they like the music or not, if it’s on guitar they should learn what makes it tick. For example I’m not a huge country music fan, but I love to play it. I know how to play it because I studied it so I knew about it. Beginners should learn all they can, and approach the instrument not as a music fan learning their favorite songs, and ignoring the stuff they hate, but as a guitarist learning about the instrument from all possible angles
7. For beginners, in order of importance, what should they be learning?
That answer varies based on the individual but in a nut shell, first off and above all, “LEARN THE NOTES ON YOUR FRETBOARD”, I’ve never been so surprised as I was when JFRocks.com first started out and I would get countless emails from visitors asking me to not refer to pitches, but rather frets and strings. NO THAT IS WRONG!! You should know that the 5th fret 3rd string is a “C”, and not that it’s just the 5th fret 3rd string. Also of course a good foundation of theory, meaning both chord theory as well as scales and the basic modes. Practice good picking technique, and good hand brain coordination. This is done by running through scales and scale patterns only as fast as you can go smoothly with no mistakes. It’s important to learn properly so as to limit the development of bad habits that you won’t be able to fix later. Practice and studying doesn’t have to be tedious either, you can make it fun. I used to like to turn scale exercises into fun catchy riffs.
This is a great question because the guitar suffers a little in the beginners department. What I mean by that is if you learn any other instrument, flute, trumpet, piano etc., the first lesson is what the notes are and some scales. For many the guitar seems to be the instrument where their first lesson was Iron Man or Stairway to Heaven, with no mention that there are notes on the fretboard and it’s a good idea to know where they are.
8. What are you’re thoughts on the popularity of tablature, and it’s pros/cons in learning guitar? Also, you’re opinion on the copyright issue?
That’s a touchy topic, with lots of opinions floating around the internet. I hate to start a fire storm but I think the reason there’s less innovation in recent years is because these days if someone wants to learn a song, there’s a tab for it somewhere. In the old days (the 80’s) when I was learning and when Van Halen was learning back in the 70’s or when Page or Hendrix were learning in the 50’s and 60’s, there were no tabs online, there was no online actually.
Granted many of us played songs wrong back in those days because of the lack of accurate transcriptions of our favorite songs, bthe trial and error we went through learning the songs by ear was a learning experience in and of itself. In fact many of the guitar greats played their favorite songs from their heroes of guitar incorrectly, and those mistakes often times became the basis of their whole style. While I understand having access to tabs is a great tool for learning songs correctly, the reality is by not learning it by ear or at least trying, you don’t develop a good ear, and you also deprive yourself of one hell of a trial and error learning experience.
What I do to help guitarists get around this loss of a valuable guitar learning experience is to advise my students and site visitors to always try to learn a song by ear first, then cross check it with the tab. That way they can both learn it correctly, and get the important ear training and trial and error learning experience all at the same time.
I believe that a good teacher never just gives the student the answer. Whether they get it wrong or right, students will learn more by trying to figure out a problem than by just handing them the answer. Assuming they’re accurate, tabs are in essence handing the guitarist the answer.
As for the copyright issue. I would be a hypocrite to say copyrights aren’t important, because I hope people respect mine. BUT, for teaching purposes I think they should lighten up, provided it’s for a lesson. Now if a site is just putting up a tab of a song with no lesson, that’s a violation of the song’s publishing rights. It could be argued that by putting up the tab they are teaching people the song, but if there’s no lesson with it, it’s no different than the tab book put out by the publishing company that owns the rights.
I guess that begs the question, what constitutes a lesson? I believe a lesson should be viewed as a tab of the song, which has a video or text of some sort along with it. That video or text shouldn’t just talk about how to play the song, i.e. performance notes, but it should “teach” what makes the song tick, i.e. the theory behind the bridge, or the modes used in the solo etc. etc. If it’s a true lesson I think the publishing companies could and should lighten up a little. I think it’s an honor to have your song used as a lesson to further the instrument, and I think most artists feel that was as well. In the end though sometimes education loses out to the all mighty dollar.
9. On you’re website, you offer a ton of free lessons as well as gear tips including amp and effect settings. You have some great tips and go into a lot of detail on your “Brown Sound” Tips page, is “How do I get a good sound?” still the most common question you get?
Oh yeah totally. Everyone wants a good sound. Most questions from JFRocks site fans come in these days through my Facebook page. People figured out they can get faster answers that way, and I’m cool with that. My site and well I guess myself are known for dialing in good sounds, especially for the Van Halen stuff. The Brown sound page on JFRocks.com is pretty old, I plan to update it soon with an even better page, but giving a guitar lesson on a style like Van Halen without sound tips is just wrong.
Most people think I’ve done a very authentic job of dialing it in and believe me they always want the settings. Some have even built guitars modeled after my now infamous White Kramer which is used for all the VH style stuff on the site lessons and VH style lesson products we offer in our store. It’s difficult for me to dial in a sound for someone else though. I say all the time that there are so many variables involved with it. Room size, weather, amp, amp settings, equipment such as … guitar, pickups, and the always overlooked … STRINGS.
The best tip I give people is if they want Brown in their sound, use Pure Nickel strings and not plated Nickel.
Brand is really a personal choice. I’ve been using Fender 150xl strings since the mid 80’s and they are a huge part of the Brown Sound that I get. But yeah I give tips via Facebook, via email, in my forum, and each guitar lesson on the site has a setup description page. On that page are the exact settings and equipment used to record the lesson’s song example track. That way if people like the sound, they can see exactly how I got it. The setup pages have been tweaked over the years based on emails from site visitors telling us what they want to see or know about.
In the end though, I think the reason sound is so important to people is the excitement factor. What I mean by that is, if someone is learning to play guitar, or learning a song, let’s say Panama from Van Halen for example, they are going to get way more juiced and excited about learning it and sitting with it, and playing it if it sounds just like the record when they hit that first E chord. So yeah the sound lessons are without a doubt the highlight of every lesson on my website, especially among our intermediate and advanced audience. Whether it’s Van Halen style or ZZ Top or the Allman Brothers. It just doesn’t matter, the sound and sound settings is another layer of the multi-layered JFRocks guitar lesson.
10. What is your latest project/lesson that you’re working on?
Well I said earlier that JFRocks.com is more like a TV show than a typical guitar lesson website. That’s never more true than with our production schedule. TV shows bank episodes, and we bank lessons and products. There’s always a lot going on, and it takes two white boards and a couple laptops to keep track of it all.
I just finished and released a product in the JFRocks Store called “80’s ROCK”, which looks at hair band rock techniques and theory through song examples, jam tracks, tabs and video lessons. We’re currently working on the next installment in what we call the decade series, “60’s ROCK”. I’m hoping to have “60’s ROCK” ready for release by the 2010 holiday season although that may take a miracle.
We’ve also begun work on “Sun, Sand, & Surf music” part 2. The sequel to our very popular Sun, Sand, & Surf music guitar lesson product. I’m hoping for an early spring release on that. I’ve been driving up the Malibu coast taking photos for the product’s cover art.
As far as lessons for the website, right now I’m working on our annual Halloween Guitar Lesson. Every year we take a song either original or cover and spook it up a bit for the Halloween season. This year I’m working on a kicked up Munsters theme complete with pitch shifting and sub octaves, so 2010’s Halloween lesson should be a blast and a real cranker for those with good sub-woofers. But a great guitar lesson too.
We’re also gearing up in 2011 to dive into the Sammy era of the Van Halen guitar style with our VH-style Guitar Lesson Product Line, and that’s just gonna be a blast.