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Becoming a Complete Musician: Interview with Scott Law

scott law

We first met Scott Law in 2011 when he came to the ArtistWorks studio in Napa, CA to play acoustic guitar on a few of Darol Anger's Fiddle Lessons. Needless to say that all went great and we became big fans immediately. We stayed in touch with Scott and would often run into him at summer festivals and also had him back in the studio to play acoustic guitar for some of Andy Hall's Dobro Lessons. All the more reason why we're very excited to have him on board here for a series of free beginner guitar lessons we're calling Acoustic Guitar 101. We asked him some questions while he was here to find out more about his background and his approach to teaching guitar. 

AW: What kind of things are you teaching in these guitar lessons?

Scott Law:  I'm focusing on the beginning steps for how to play guitar and working towards getting people to the next level - the intermediate level. I'm going back to what it was like for me when I first approached the whole idea of playing guitar, taking it back to things like: holding the guitar, the different parts of the guitar, the overall architecture of the instrument, how heavy or light strings we might decide to use… There's a lot of it which is an overview of guitar and guitar playing, and some very specific basic fundamentals like: learning to play with a pick, learning to play with fingers, getting your right and left hand working together, basic chord progressions. I want to create a resource for a person who either just wants to learn to play guitar along to music they like, or to give a foundation to go into other areas of guitar playing. It's sort of a starting point for getting some foundation which they can build on.

AW: Have you ever done anything with online guitar lessons before?

SL: Well, not guitar lessons Per Se, not in any kind of public forum. I've taught guitar lessons online, I do some private lessons as well, and I've documented certain ways of doing things for my students, but that's about it.

AW: These are all acoustic guitar lessons, but do you also play electric?

SL:  Yeah, I try to be what I call a "complete guitar player." That means I love electric guitar music. I really came to the guitar first as an electric guitarist, and then I realized how much value there is to be gained by learning the acoustic instrument, and the fundamentals of playing the acoustic instrument have served my electric playing very well. So yes, I do both, because I want to be a "complete musician," so I'm also trying to pass along some ideas about that too.

scott law tony trischkaAW: What other instruments do you play?

SL: Well, I started playing drums. My earliest experience is that I was exposed to drums and guitar around the same time, and I really got serious about drums first. In the first band I was in actually, I was the drummer until we decided to switch up positions - I came in from the outfield as it were!

AW: How do you think starting off as a drummer has influenced you as a guitar player?

SL:  This is a very good question. I think it's made me more rhythmically aware, and I think it is very valuable to be rhythmically aware because at the end of the day it's rhythm that rules everything in music.  It really determines how the music feels, it's how we interpret the rhythm and notes. So for me, I think it informed my future as a guitar player greatly. And my sensitively to tempo and meter is pretty highly attuned because of my experience of starting on drums.

AW: How old were you when you started playing guitar?

SL: I got serious about guitar when I was 15 and I just kept rolling with it. It was then that I decided I wanted to take a crack at being a musician, because it seemed to be the most rewarding pursuit at that time for my life. But I did get exposed to guitar when I was young. I wanted to play guitar from the time I was like 4 or 5. I got really hopped up at the idea, but I was told my hands were too small. And then by the time I got to be a little older, around 7 or 8, my dad got a guitar in the house. I took a few lessons, but I was never really supported in the right way. I didn't have enough of my own discipline to stay on it. There wasn't really a community or group of kids to play with at that time. My parents really didn't know what to do - they just didn't have the tools or a way to get me to stick to it, so I didn't stick to it. But I think what happened was, I didn't have a fear factor about it when I came back to guitar, because I was exposed to it as a really young kid.

AW: So there was a gap.

SL: There was a gap, a big gap. I was probably around 7 or 8 when I first got my hands on a guitar - I learned the open chords. That guitar was around the house, and maybe a couple times a year when I was bored I'd pick it up and goof around on it, but I wasn't serious. Then there was a gap of about 7 or 8 years, when I started playing guitar in my first band. The week I started playing guitar, I was gigging, and it was awful!  

AW: Did you even know all the guitar chords?

SL: Somewhere along the line I learned some barre chords, and we were playing rock n' roll so that got me there. I think we were playing a couple Stones tunes, a couple Clapton tunes, couple Grateful Dead songs and maybe some Neil Young and Hendrix. This was on electric, a borrowed electric guitar. I remember that guitar, it was a Lyle hollowbody with Bigsby-like tremolo on it.

He just wanted to come around and hear us play. He was like, "Hey I got this guitar, you can use it!". So I used it for a couple months. And because I knew some barre chords I knew I could find everything I needed, but I could not for the life of me get it to sound right. I couldn't get the music - I couldn't get my parts to sound like the parts on the records. But I could make something up that worked well enough, and that's just what I did. I banged around on that for a long time before I started to sort things out!

AW: What would you say it was that gave you the drive to start learning guitar again at age 15?

SL: Around that time in my life, I'd been bounced around a lot. My family had been through a lot of changes that were definitely making it challenging for me to concentrate in school. I wasn't really motivated - I really didn't see the point. I wasn't disciplined with my schoolwork, I was a little bit of an angsty disillusioned teenager. Music though, is something that I was always passionate about. I grew up in a house where my father had a huge record collection, and an extraordinary hi-fi system. State-of-the-art, tubed power amps, Altech speakers. I mean, I grew up listening to music in the best tonal environment.   

AW: What were some of your favorite records from around that time?

SL:  I listened to so much. My dad exposed to me to a ton. I loved Country music - the first artist whose name I knew was Johnny Cash, and after that it was Merle Haggard. And so I was listening to electric guitar right off the bat. My dad was interesting because he parsed music out to me. It was almost as if I'd get through a stage and he'd start laying this other stuff on me. Like I heard Django Reinhardt when I was about 9 years old, and I couldn't believe it. I was Like, "What is THAT? How does he play like THAT?" - which I still think that when I hear it.

But also: Beatles, Chet Atkins, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Big Momma Thorton, Pete Seeger, lots of Blues, Gospel, and Folk stuff. I heard a lot of these sounds way early - he turned me on to it at a really early age so it just became part of the fabric of my musical experience.

scott law darol anger

So the point is, I was super passionate about it. And when I moved to Seattle I met this really nice group of friends, we were in this band together and we started playing after school. Like I said, I switched from drums to guitar because we had too many drummers - but we really needed a lead guitar player. I thought, "Well I kinda know how to play some barre chords," and I looked up the Blues scale in a book and started to work that out. And I just figured out how to play that everywhere. It didn't always fit, but it was like trial and error. Anyway, I had a music teacher then who channeled my passion for the music and taught me how to be a successful person - how to get my act together so I did better in school. He said "Just take as many music classes as you can and do well and it'll all turn out." And he was right.

AW: So you mentioned Seattle and now you're in the Portland area, is that right?

SL: I've been in Portland for 10 years. I still play in Seattle a few times a year - I've got a real nice solid base of an audience that's in the Northwest. I do a lot of playing all over the region when I'm not traveling other places.

AW: You play in a lot of different groups. For example you've played a lot with Darol Anger [who teaches fiddle lessons online at ArtistWorks].

SL: Yeah, Darol and I have been playing together pretty consistently for 5 or 6 years. Darol's in Boston right now teaching at Berklee, so it's been less just because we're 3000 miles away. We played together in a band called Strings For Industry, which was an electric band. We play in a band which is Darol's project called Republic of Strings, which was just an absolute joy - the material is wonderful. And also Darol and I will just do duo gigs whenever we can, which is a total blast.

AW: How did you first link up with Darol?

SL: I met Darol in Portland through my good buddy, Ty North, who's a bass player - he used to play with a band called Leftover Salmon. So it was Ty who hooked us up - he invited Darol to sit in on a gig that we were doing. We had a little band called The Piano Throwers - no piano, it was just a little rock 'n roll trio. He invited Darol to come down and we played some Clapton tune or something, and Darol and I both launched into the solo at the same time and played the exact same - it wasn't just one phrase, it was like two long phrases. We both looked at each other like, "We just played the exact same thing at the exact same time." It was really bizarre. So from there we pursued things in both the electric and the acoustic world.

I also have a pretty vibrant freelance career going. I like being part of a band and collaborating as a valuable member of a team, so I do have a couple other projects that I work in. One of them is called Brokedown In Bakersfield, that's with Nikky Bloom and Tim Bloom, and then other members are from the band called ALO. It's sort of a San Francisco area All-Star band - I'm sort of the odd ball up there in Portland. It's "California Country Music," but I was born in California so it counts. It's kind of like the Bakersfield sound, hence the name - we play a lot of Merle Haggard, Buck Owens.

scott law new album - black mountain

AW:  And you also have a solo album coming out?

SL: Yeah, it's an acoustic record. I haven't officially set the street date yet but I'm thinking it'll be around the New Year in 2014. So besides the freelance stuff and all the bands I participate in, I have a solo thing where I write songs and am more of a leader. This record is definitely like a string-band record - it's got the classic line-up of a string band. We got fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin, upright bass, and a couple cuts have some cello and double fiddles.

I'm actually beginning to work on another new record for the future which will feature more of my electric playing - probably lots of Telecaster guitar kind of style. It'll be an electric thing with bass and drums, maybe some keyboard here and there. I'm kind of working in a trio, leading my own group - it's sort of a power trio. It's not heavy, in terms of when you think of a power trio, but the players of the music are really strong. It's a sturdy, grooving trio. It's really fun. 

AW: What's that group called?

SL:  We just play under my name, the Scott Law Electric Trio.

AW: Going back to the album that's about to come out, I hear you got David Grisman's son Sam playing bass on it.

SL: Yep, he plays bass on it. He plays with a band called Deadly Gentlemen, and we got the guys from his band too: Greg Liszt on banjo, Dominick Lesley on mandolin, Mike Barnett on fiddle, and their guitar player Stash Wyslouch plays on one of the cuts. They helped out with 7 out of the 10 tunes. And then another feller is on there for a couple of them - there's this band called Greensky Bluegrass, and my good friend Anders Beck plays some Dobro. Definitely this album was about bringing in some of my best peeps that I like to play with and collaborate with - so Tim and Nikky Bloom are also on there. Tim really helped produce and arrange some of the background vocals in the songs they were on.

AW: So let's talk more about these online guitar lessons that you've been recording. For someone that's never played guitar before, what's some of the first things they should learn or be aware of?

SL: Well, there are concepts and then there are mechanical things. So trying to get an understanding of what the role of the guitar is, what you want to get out of it when you first approach it, is really important. Some folks really just want to accompany themselves singing, so if that's your goal then great - we've just figured out what our first goal is. So what's it going to take to get there? First, we got to learn how to actually hold the guitar. And there's a whole universe just in holding the guitar in a proper way that allows you to maintain a good and relaxed posture and doesn't strain your body in any way. So holding the guitar, tuning the guitar, staying in tune - that comes from experience and also not playing too hard or out in direct sunlight - ha!

The next thing is really just getting the right and left hand coordinated, and then learning some guitar chords. If you're talking about learning to accompany yourself, you're gonna need to know which guitar chords to play.

My goal with teaching has always been this: I'm not just giving you some tidbit.  I want you to learn how to teach yourself. Once we get past these sort of basic things, there are some concepts in there that we can apply. Like with guitar chords, we can learn how to find chords that we don't know based on what we do know.

So it's like giving them the keys to unlock it themselves. Ultimately that's what I want to do with these guitar lessons, because that's how I learned. For the most part, I teach myself all the time. We pick up things from people and then we take it in the laboratory. That's the process I've always used.

AW: That's how music gets made - instead of just playing guitar you're playing music.

SL: Right. You can learn a set arrangement and still not know the song. You can read an entire paragraph and spit it right back, but not truly understand it. When you learn the essence of it, that's the comprehension part. So we're trying to get some guitar comprehension going in these lessons. 

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free beginner guitar lessons

Click here to check out Scott Law's free beginner guitar lessons! 

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