Bill Edwards Interview
Bill Edwards may very well be an unsung guitar hero. If the name sounds familiar to you but you can’t quite place it, don’t start reaching for your CD collection yet. You won’t likely find his name there, but if you are serious about guitar you’ll probably find his name somewhere on your bookshelf among all those guitar books.
Originally conceived and published in the 1980s, Fretboard Logic is Bill Edwards’ gift to the guitar world. Currently it is the best selling guitar book on both Amazon.com and GuitarNoise.com That is no small feat for a self published book in an industry seemingly dominated by giants like Mel Bay and Hal Leonard.
Fretboard Logic is different from other guitar method books because it only deals with guitar. Most guitar books delve into music theory applying to other instruments and all music in general. Bill’s book approaches things from a unique “guitar-thinking” perspective. In it, the author lays down the reasoning for the guitar’s unique tuning system of EADGBE. Learning to play guitar using the CAGED sequence taught in this book seriously reduces the learning curve. Today the Fretboard Logic series includes three volumes and a series of instructional videos.
As well as being the author of one of the best guitar books to date, Bill has also done gigs as an inventor, teacher and music store owner.
Last week I had the chance to ask Bill some questions about his teaching method, his books and himself. I also snuck in a few questions that tie in with this month’s topic on Guitar Noise soloing and improvisation. As well as getting a peak inside the psyche of a guitar teacher, it was worth it to chat with the guy who wrote the book that has been called “the operator’s manual that should have come with your guitar.”
Guitar Noise: Firstly, can you tell us a bit about yourself? How did you get into music and the guitar especially? What were you doing before you taught guitar?
Bill Edwards: I was about 6 or 7, and playing outside, and my mother just came up out of nowhere and asked me if I wanted to take piano lessons. It seems unlikely, but I distinctly remember having one of those moments that we’ve all had where time just kind of stretches a bit. Usually I made up my mind about things instantly, but not this time. I couldn’t come up with a reason either do or not do this thing. I hesitated and then said “Sure.” The teacher was the proverbial “little old lady down the street,” I remember the one thing she always stressed was “proper -roll the Rs please – technique.” (Another thing she always stressed was the furniture, since, at 285, technically she wasn’t “little.” Let’s just say she left a lasting impression on us both and leave it at that.)
My older brother Steve, was the guitarist in our family. For his benefit, the family went to a concert featuring guitarist Andres Segovia, and I was blown away more than anyone else. The image – still vivid – was one of “dancing fingers.” It was a lasting introduction to the possibilities of the guitar. After that, I constantly bugged my brother to show me stuff he was learning from his teacher. Face it, if you’re a guy at a certain age, the guitar is just so much more where it’s at than the piano or anything else. I found myself playing it more, even though after years of practice, I sounded much better on a keyboard than a fretboard. I liked listening to records and trying to figure out how to play what I was hearing. It was like working on a three dimensional moving puzzle. Having already invested so much time and effort learning to read standard notation on the piano, learning by ear on the guitar was like starting all over playing a whole new kind of ball game.
So a few years pass and I go on a date to a Led Zeppelin concert. At one point, the rest of the band left the stage and Page sat down by himself on stage and again, I was the person in the audience who was most blown away. All this, naturally, led to a series of garage bands. As time went on, I became aware that music became increasingly more influential – even transformational. It had the power to change the world. After high school, I started college with no particular direction in mind and just decided – to my parent’s horror – that I’d just as soon spend my life doing something I truly enjoyed, as joining the rat race doing a job I hated like everyone else, just for the sake of a paycheck. I played in bands at night and took classes in the day. It sounds funny now, but the university I attended (USF) did not have a guitar department at the time, so it was back to the piano. So now I sucked at the keyboard and played pretty well on the fretboard. Plus, in music school, everyone ranked you by how well you played, period. One of my pickin’ pals was leaving his teaching job at a local music store to hit the road, and I applied for his position and got it. Since the band thing at night was so unstable, the teaching thing in the day helped pay the bills. This combination lasted for years until I bought the store at which I had been teaching.
GN: What originally inspired you to write Fretboard Logic and how did the sequels come about?
BE: When I started teaching, I asked my friend Dave for any tips on how to approach his students. Dave, a very amusing guy, says “Help the little monsters? You can’t help the monsters. Fear the monsters. I just string em’ along as long as possible. When I can’t dazzle em with brilliance I baffle em with bullshit.” As I said, Dave was a funny guy (and a great flatpicker too). Well, anyway that was my expectation going in. But the reality was a little different. The reality was that every week, these dedicated, earnest, bright-eyed, hard-working little kids would trudge into the studio banging their giant guitars against doorways, walls and cases, and for 30 of the shortest minutes you can imagine, would hang on my every word. They’d laugh at my stupid jokes, and worst of all, when I’d play stuff for them, their little mouths would hang open. So the reality was that I fell like a ton of bricks for the little monsters and actually started casting about for ways to help them over their guitar hurdles, which were many. My boss – the guy who owned the store at the time – wanted me to use the books he stocked. So I tried using the usual stuff, Mel Bay, Alfreds, etc., and the kids who didn’t quit said stuff like “What did I ever do to you?” and “You think I’m gonna play this for my friends? I could get beat up for that.” The classic one for this was the kid who came in to his first lesson dreaming of “Eruption” by Van Halen and went out playin “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” Oh yeah, I cured him. He’s probably an accountant now.
What they wanted was pretty much the same thing yet different. They wanted me to show them how to play stuff they liked and which would impress their friends, but the style and content varied from student to student. By now I had a pretty good ear, so I’d listen to their tapes, figure out the parts and then show it to them. Keep in mind that each student had different needs and abilities. In general, some wanted to be lead playing shredders, some wanted to learn instrumentals and some wanted to sing and play along. The music styles and guitar types spanned the gamut. I made up my mind to completely support the choices of each individual student and not force them into areas of my own personal strengths or preferences (as, I suspect, is usually the case). As they would get into a piece, I’d try to sneak in explanations for how things worked in terms of music theory, etc. I constantly used positive reinforcement and I lavished praise without reservation. It is a powerful teaching tool. I also had a signature style. By that I mean I had posters of all the most famous guitarists on the walls of my studio and I faked their autographs saying stuff like “Thanks for teaching me everything I know. Signed Edward Van Halen” or my personal favorite “Thanks for a lesson I’ll never forget. Signed Nancy Wilson.” I used to get big smiles and funny looks when new students sat down and looked around the room the first time. Interestingly, those lines got blurred later on after I met Mr. Van Halen and Ms. Wilson, but that’s another story or two.
This goes on for years and I’ve got this huge student schedule. After I while I suggest to some of my advanced students that they need to graduate to a better teacher. Some of them were incredibly talented. So nothing happens and I’m going, hmmmm. What’s the deal here? First I can’t keep em’ and now I can’t get rid of em. It finally dawns on me that they’ve got it too easy. They’re using me like a pack animal to figure out the hard stuff and spoon feed it to em, the monsters. So I decide OK, fine, I’ll show em how I figure out stuff by ear and they can learn to do this on their own. This is where things got interesting, and by interesting I mean weird, frustrating and embarrassing, because the more I tried to explain things, the more I realized that I lacked the ability to verbalize what I’d been doing more or less automatically whenever I’d figure out gtr parts. They say you never really know a subject until you teach it to someone else. Well, the flip side is that you can also find out how well you don’t know a subject when you start to explain it to someone else. So when words fail, one of the things we can do is draw pictures. I went home and sat down to “draw an explanation” of the things I was thinking about when I tried to figure out parts. So I’m at home and illustrating these diagrams, and after hours of drawing, all of a sudden these patterns fell together like – BAM! – for the first time in all my years of teaching, playing and taking lessons. It was like getting hit by the proverbial thunderbolt. I jumped out of my chair and stomped around the room banging my head saying “Boy you are too stupid to live.” It had been right there – literally under my nose for all those years and I’d failed to recognize it. It was at that moment I got my first glimpse of the pattern organization of the fretboard which exists independent of music. This happens on the guitar and no other instrument. I finished my drawings, but I also realized that I would be unable to reduce it to a single page or chart or poster. It would take a small book to explain it in detail. Later on, as a side project during my retailing and inventing days, I attempted to put it into book form using an early 8 bit command line computer. Ugh. The result was a disappointing mess. When the first Macintosh computers came out in 1984 and 85′, and I saw how you could control the graphics, fonts, scaling, etc., and have on screen WYSIWYG. I realized that was the tool I needed to make the book convey the message. In developing the book I decided to incorporate a split page format – half text and half graphics – whenever possible to help get the ideas across verbally and visually for people who are more right-brained and left-brained.
After I finished the book, I felt confident that I had something that was unique in the field of guitar methods. Remember, I’d been through many different methods myself and with my students, and I’d also bought thousands of books for my store. My book was clean, narrowly focused, and well organized. Plus, no one could dispute the accuracy of the content. At the time I had no intentions of opening up the cans of worms that the other areas of musical development involved. No sir – way too messy. Anyway I’ve got this store to run. My readers had other ideas however, and I was persuaded by the same positive reinforcement and praise that I’d been using on the little monsters for years. It took about a year and a half to come up with a way of building on the first volume (without wrecking it), and about a year and a half to get it written. Vol. III took even longer. The videos? Forget about it. The equipment wasn’t even available at the time unless you had a Hollywood budget or were willing to settle for cheesy production values.
GN: As you have said, most instructional guitar books fall into three categories: popular arrangements, methods and reference books. Where does Fretboard Logic fit in all of this? How is your book or method different from others?
BE: It is a method, but it differs because it is a guitar-oriented approach. It treats the guitar as if it were different from every other instrument ever designed. In general, most guitar books talk a little bit about a lot of different subjects and wind up not nailing any one thing down substantively. The thread of continuity holding the subject matter together is merely the author’s personal experiences and preferences. An entire category of beginner guitar books simply copy beginner piano books, and don’t acknowledge the guitar’s unusual characteristics. Plus they publish music examples which are typically 75-100 years out of date for copyright reasons. These are prescriptions for failure somewhere down the line. Fretboard Logic takes the position that there are “constants” and “variables” in a guitarist’s learning curve. Also, there are certain things you need to know first, then second, third and so on. This is termed the “building block” theory of learning, to which I subscribe. “Constants” are those things which won’t change regardless of a student’s personal preferences. Fretboard Logic acknowledges the unique qualities of the instrument as the one thing which all the other learning events have in common. Therefore it is the first place to start. Doing so gives the guitarist a “place” to put everything he or she is learning. It eliminates the “put this finger here and put that finger there” type of thinking which seems to pervade the industry. After the issues dealing with the instrument are mastered, the next set of constants are those on the music side of the equation: the tone groups. Typically, these are learned either by rote memorization or by the guesswork method. Fretboard Logic teaches these constants in the context of the pattern organization of the fretboard outlined in book one, eliminating guesswork and rote. I’m reminded of an early Macintosh commercial where they dropped all these huge manuals in a two or three foot stack beside an IBM PC computer and the little Mac manual gently wafts down beside the Mac. Learning chords, scales and arpeggios can be a very similar similar experience. Hundreds of pages and thousands of diagrams of chords, followed by thousands of diagrams of scales, followed by… News flash: our brains don’t work that way. So when it comes time to actually use these things to produce something worth listening to, the student has to keep relearning the basics by rote and winds up with a monkey-see, monkey-do mentality which holds them back from enjoying the next phase: the variables.
The variables come into play when one begins to apply the constants to the style of music or type of guitar the individual prefers. They are termed “variables” since they will vary from person to person – different guitar types, techniques, goals, etc. What is interesting is that we are all on a kind of “spectrum” of experience as guitar players. In general, when we start out, we tend to play or “copy” the music of others. As we get better, it is only natural to start to investigate and find out what makes it tick. This is an analytical process and the Analytical end of our experiential spectrum. Later on, as we progress, it is only natural that we begin to develop our own ideas, our own musical statements and expressions. This, of course, is the Creative end of our experiential spectrum. What I think is interesting, is that both ends of the spectrum require pretty much the same tools, materials and resources – just approached differently. That is where Vol. III and the Videos come in. They are designed to approach the variables from either perspective. Volume III is non-linear. Instead, it provides a menu of options for each player to choose from to take his or her interests in the exact right direction for their needs. The material is also media-specific. Whereas the book is excellent for organization, detail and illustration, the video tape is ideal for demonstrating ideas in action. One video is organized from the Creative perspective, and the other from the Analytical point of view. One focuses one the fretboard and the other discusses the tone groups. One uses lead playing as the genre and the other uses instrumentals, and so on.
I like to use the metaphor of the five blind men and the elephant for people who are learning to play guitar. Starting out, most people only see the parts of the fretboard “elephant.” Fretboard Logic shows the beast in its entirety and lets the student apply these concepts to the music style and guitar type of their own choosing.
GN: Fretboard Logic is the top selling guitar book both on Amazon.com and GuitarNoise.com. To what do you attribute its success? Are you at all surprised?
BE: It’s the payoffs… Ok, well, one side of me wants to say that it’s the accuracy of the content and flexibility in the application of ideas in different playing situations. Plus, it also shaves a good deal of time off the learning curve. Another side wants to say that learning doesn’t have to be torture. It can actually be fun, and when it works and is fun, people respond.
Based on my teaching experiences, I learned to respect my student’s preferences. Fretboard Logic does not dictate these to the reader. It supports each individual’s choices and only requires that they use six strings tuned EADGBE, or standard tuning. From my reader’s feedback, it seems that the method fills in a lot of gaps in people’s understanding. This can be very liberating. It also helps them get to a place where they can understand other authors and teachers better.
Am I surprised? Well, I put my mind, heart and soul into two other very difficult long term projects around the same time as Fretboard Logic: my retail store and my Finger-Tite Locking Nut inventions. Both failed for reasons having less to do with the success of the design, than with the idiosyncrasies of the legal system. That the books held up is only surprising in that everyone’s expectation, mine included, were that the other two projects would be successful since I’d worked so hard.
GN: You are in fact the guy who stumbled across the reasoning behind the fretboard’s unique tuning system and came up with the CAGED sequence. Was it like penicillin and an accidental discovery? Can you shed some light on how you came up with it all?
BE: Oops. Well, that isn’t exactly accurate. The first half, OK, but someone invented this tuning many years ago – about 500 years, as best as I can estimate from my own research. Second, parts of the pattern organization have been recognized by various others throughout the years. The chordal aspect had been termed the CAGED System before I was born. My primary contribution has been to recognize the entirety of the pattern organization resulting from the guitar’s unique tuning. Secondarily, I’ve developed a method for approaching the tasks of learning tone groups without guesswork or rote by building upon the framework established in the first book. It’s funny, but I’m certain that even now, 12 years after FLII was written, that in the classrooms of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the world, they still teach chords, scales and arpeggios as if a fretboard were not much different from a keyboard. I’ve been waiting for that time when my early students and readers become college professors and correct this by incorporating Fretboard Logic into their curriculum(s).
GN: Fretboard Logic is loaded with testimonials from readers. What is the most memorable letter or comment you have ever received?
BE: To be honest they are all, well, pretty heartwarming, but there are a couple that popped into my head when I read your question: I received a phone call from a guitarist many years ago, and we got to talking and hit it off, as guitarists often do, and he said matter of factly, “you know you’re going to change the way the guitar is taught forever.” That had never occurred to me before. It sent chills down my spine. Time stretched. Later on someone said I should get some kind of Nobel prize. Heh. That also had never occurred to me before. Not freekin’ likely, but it sure made my day. Needless to say, I enjoy hearing from my readers.
GN: Realizing that people’s tastes in music change, what music are you into at the moment? What do you listen to and play?
BE: As you can probably guess, I play different types of guitars. Two electrics and two acoustics – a custom Performance Strat and a parts Tele, plus a Martin dreadnought and a nylon string cutaway. On the Strat, among others, I play some Eric Johnson pieces, some Malmsteen, Satriani, and, of course Van Halen. I plan to relearn some Randy Rhoads stuff since I was a big fan of his. On the Tele I do some Hellecasters, of course, Jerry Reed, Steve Morse and so on. The nylon string gets some Bach, Tarrega, Lucona, Villa-Lobos etc. On the steel string I do some Chet, a lovely arrangement by Ed Gerhard and some Doc Watson and Tony Rice flat pickin stuff. I’m also a fan of guitarist Muriel Anderson, who is one of Chet Atkins’ protégés. I do some originals and some of my own arrangements on each as well. I’ve noticed that I play a lot of #2 cuts. For some reason, record producers like to put the hot instrumentals in the second spot on a disc.
GN: You also hold the patent for the Finger Tite Locking Nut. What exactly is that and what is the story there?
BE: The horror… the horror. This is a truly long story. In a moment of weakness, I actually attempted to relate it to a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who was doing an invention story several years ago. I spent hours relating the story in minute detail. Later when I read it, he’d got so many facts wrong that I realized that it was too complicated unless you happened to already know the principles and what they do or did. Just the names of the parties involved – Kramer, Kahler, Schaller, Fender, Yamaha, blah blah… they tend to get mushed together if you’re not in the biz. Suffice it to say that I got screwed blued and tattooed by several industry heavyweights. The device was an improvement on the Floyd Rose locking nut, which I’d dealt with as a frequent repair item in my store. Everyone stripped out the hex screws, or lost the 3 mm wrenches and went nuts because the very thing supposed to keep their gtrs in tune kept them from tuning up. The Finger-Tite Locking Nut was a cam lever operated device designed to eliminate the wrenches, but clamp the strings securely. Again, the idiosyncrasies (and costs) of the legal system defeated this nice little niche product. I spent two years of overtime working out different designs and shapes before I found one that worked. About ten or fifteen companies liked the idea so much they decided to make their own – invariably half-assed – version. In the end they “poisoned the well” of consumer opinion about mine, which was the one that actually worked correctly. I remember my little booth at NAMM and people coming by after having bought the crappy copies and saying “Those things don’t work.” It was a terrible experience. It hurt me and my family badly.
Postscript: I thought it was all behind me when one day about a year or two ago, I get a call from a customer regarding Fretboard Logic. He said “By the way, I’m Gary Kahler’s son. Ever heard of him?” My throat clamped up and I actually started choking and actually couldn’t speak until I got some water. Issues? Hey – I bought a subscription.
GN: As a teacher you no doubt respond to a lot of student’s questions concerning what path they should take. What sort of guidance to you give to those who want to become professionals? And what about those who see guitar as a lifelong hobby?
BE: I try to make them focus on the distinction between treating the guitar and music primarily as a source of income or recreation. Doing both is possible, but not likely. All good players will come to the fork in the road when they have to make a decision to either play for pay or keep it as a hobby and earn money other ways. I try to get students to anticipate this so they can prepare for, among other things, the wrath and/or disappointment of their parents, the likelihood they will make substandard wages and the near certainty that they will always be temporarily employed, i.e.., in search of new venues, bandmates, trends, etc. Some of my own students had loads of talent, but had very poor social skills, and were often functionally illiterate about business. Some of the least neurotic people I know simply keep music as a hobby. But here’s the thing: playing guitar professionally is truly a calling. Can you imagine there never having been a Chet Atkins or Eddie Van Halen or Andres Segovia or Jimmy Page or … ?
GN: Do you have any advice of your own when it comes to buying a guitar?
BE: Yes. Take along an “expert” to annoy the sales help. I’m a big fan of playability and affordability. Once the basics are there – straight (correct) neck, flat face (no bowing), low action, light strings, etc., it’s about personal tastes and preferences. Some guitars just seem to speak to you. They say stuff like “If you don’t buy me right this minute I shall gently weep…” Over the years I’ve learned not to fall in love with my guitars. Why? All my guitars eventually get stolen, so I don’t own any collectibles. Also, I’ve taken the precaution of winding crime scene tape around them so they will be easy to identify in a line up. (This also works visually when I’m doing Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee.)
GN: Improvising on the guitar is such a difficult area of music to teach. What advice or tips do you have about improvising?
BE: This is the main focus of Video I. Without revealing too much, I will say that it isn’t enough to simply attempt to play the right notes against the right chord(s). Along the same lines, you can’t speed up a scale and improve it significantly. Knowing the available notes is merely the first step, and that is a function of knowing the fretboard and a few other things. Fretboard Logic teaches that you have to have two separate, equally important goals: 1) Create interest, and 2) Define the style. To do these, you have to put more and different balls in the air as you are playing. In Volume III, the reader is provided with a Menu of options from which to choose in order to accomplish these important goals. For example, in the category of Sonics, if you choose distortion reverb and compression, you better not be trying to convey, say Jazz or Bluegrass, because you’ve made a wrong choice in that area. On the other hand, if you wanted to create a rock or metal solo, you’re part the way there. If you choose to use heavy distortion for example, you should also concentrate your tonal choices in the areas of intervals and triads, because 7ths, 9ths and extended chords combined with square waves will create unintelligible mush. As the Video progresses, it demonstrates this “recipe” approach to creating interest and defining the style, step by step, but with more and more fretboard demands as the tape progresses.
GN: Also regarding improvisation, given your extensive knowledge of the CAGED system of the fretboard, what inherent strengths or advantages does this system offer students for improvising? What are the limitations?
BE: It gives them control over the first stage in the process: knowing what notes are available and where they are. Knowing all the pattern types gives each player the control over that tonal minefield, so he or she can concentrate on other, more important issues. Since this area was the most often requested by my own students, I decided to use lead playing as the vehicle in Video One to convey the subject matter in Book One. When people are watching the video and playing along, they get introduced to the different areas of involvement which will help them to add things of interest to their playing.
Guitarists have a tendency to sound “scaley” when they first begin to improvise. This results from the way they practice to learn their forms and positions. Fretboard Logic tries to get them past this type of thinking on to more musical and stylistic considerations, by adding elements one by one, so they are able to hear the effect each different element has on the whole solo. It is a very liberating approach. Plus the video includes jam tracks where yours truly fades out and let the students take over and experiment against different styles. I struggled to find the right balance so that players of different levels would feel comfortable with the demands being placed on them. Whenever there was a doubt, I just opted for whatever was the most fun.
GN: What role does your website www.billedwards.com play? Do you have any plans to teach students online?
BE: I’m eternally grateful to Tim Berners-Lee for his magnificent gift to the world. What an intellect. The web has been wonderful for our business, as it has for so many others. All the search engines are able to find both Fretboard Logic and Bill Edwards Publishing, so anyone who hears of us through word of mouth can go right to the source in a few keystrokes. I tried a Google search for the first time a while ago, and about 1600 hits came up in about a half a second. We receive orders from all over the world, which was unthinkable not that long ago.
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