Mastering The Guitar: The Torch Podcast

An Interview with Professor Colin McAllister, D.M.A.

In this episode of The Torch, we learn techniques for how to play guitar from a master.

Here to discuss “Learning How to Play Guitar: Chords, Scales, and Solos” is Professor Colin McAllister, D.M.A.

The following transcript has been slightly edited for readability.

Basic Elements—Chords and Scales

Ed Leon: It’s so cool that you are here doing this course. Tell us a little bit of how you can do this because the course promises a lot. It promises that you’re going to be able to teach a neophyte like me how to play a guitar.

Colin McAllister: It does. I think it really delivers on that promise, too. There’s really a whole year of university-level guitar instruction packed into these 24 episodes. We move at a pretty quick pace and the course is constructed in modules. Almost like a CrossFit session.

Ed Leon: All right, good. CrossFit for guitar.

Colin McAllister: Yeah. We’ve got a technique module, we’ve got a module on note reading and musicianship. We’ve got one on chords and chord theory. We learn a little bit of music theory on that.

Ed Leon: All right. By the way, one of the beauties of this podcast is that I get to hold a guitar, so this is going to be super awesome. You mentioned basic elements like chords and scales. What’s a chord? Play me a chord.

Colin McAllister: Sure. I can play a chord for you.

Ed Leon: I don’t know music theory; maybe you don’t know music theory, you get to learn it in this course.

Colin McAllister: You want to learn the first chord that I teach in the course?

Ed Leon: Yeah, sure. Why not?

Colin McAllister: All right. So this is a G major.

Ed Leon: By the way, am I holding this right?

Colin McAllister: Well, it’s not too bad. What I prefer to have you do, put your left leg up on this foot stool instead.

Ed Leon: By the way, did you see it? These are special foot stools for the guitar. You can use anything, right? You can use anything.

Colin McAllister: Exactly. So put your left foot up there. Get that knee over your ankle and then you’re going to put the guitar over that left thigh, and the bottom of the guitar rests against the inside of your right thigh. The reason I like to sit like this, is because it’s very stable. You don’t have to hunch to see the instrument and it’s not going to fall out of your hands.

Ed Leon:  Yeah, it does feel stable.

Colin McAllister: A chord is three or more notes played at the same time, and we’re going to do this today.

Ed Leon: Okay.

Colin McAllister: I want you to put the third finger of your left hand-On the first string. That’s the skinny string up here on the third fret.

Ed Leon: OK. These are frets? These little bars, metal bars.

Colin McAllister: Exactly. So this is first, second, third fret.

Ed Leon: Is that it?

Colin McAllister: Yeah. Why don’t you put your third finger there instead.

Ed Leon: Okay.

Colin McAllister: There we go.

Ed Leon: Oh, that’s right. Thumb doesn’t count.

Colin McAllister:  That’s right, yeah. It’s not like the piano. And now I want you to strum these strings. The top four.

Ed Leon: What did I just play?

Colin McAllister: You played a G major chord.

Ed Leon: Of course I did.

Colin McAllister: And people get to learn this right off the bat. Sounds pretty good. Do you want to learn another chord? All right. Let’s learn the C major chord.

Learn more: Guitar Basics: Play a Song in 60 Seconds

Ed Leon: Okay.

Colin McAllister: Put your first finger on the second string at the first fret. It’s going to be right there. Yeah. And then your second finger.  On the fourth string, second fret. And then strum the same four strings.

Ed Leon: Mine sounds different.

Colin McAllister: Sound’s not too bad. You got to work on getting those fingers a little more on the tips.

Ed Leon:  Is that dexterity something that people should consider before taking up the course?

Colin McAllister: No, because we work on that a lot. I’m very diligent. I come from a classical background you know. So I’m really diligent about the proper way to physically play the guitar. And that’s covered in this technique module. And I gently remind the students throughout, “Hey, remember to keep those fingers on the tips at the front of the fret.”

Famous Guitarists

Ed Leon: Right. You talk about other famous guitarists in the course too, right?

Colin McAllister: We do.

Ed Leon: Yeah. Who are some of them? Talk to me a little about them.

Colin McAllister: Well, we talk about some famous guitarists that I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and studying with. Guys like Johnny Smith, jazz guitarist, Pepe and Celin Romero.

Ed Leon: I’ve heard of them. Who are they?

Colin McAllister: They were a family of classical guitarists. The father came over in the late 1950s and he formed a quartet. They’re from Spain originally. He formed a quartet with his three sons and they became really famous. They played at the White House, and for the Pope, and so forth. When I was in graduate school, I had the pleasure of studying with a couple of those brothers. They’re in their 70s now. Just amazing classical players.

Learn more: Classical Guitar Position and Posture

Ed Leon: Right. Are there different styles that these guitarists … I mean, once you know how to play a guitar, do you automatically bring a personality and a style to it or are you able to adapt to the styles?

Colin McAllister: Well, I think that our goal in this course is to build a really strong and broad foundation. So that from there, a student could go into playing any other style and they’ll be equipped with the solid basics. At it’s most essential level, you’re right, playing the guitar requires the same things no matter what style you’re going into.

Ed Leon: Right. By the way, for an old rock and roll dude like me, is electric guitar different? Do you do electric guitar in this course?

Colin McAllister: I don’t play it in the course at all, but it’s the same. In fact, the strings are usually a little bit lower on an electric, so it’s even easier to play physically than one of these acoustic guitars.

Ed Leon: All right. Show me some techniques that you teach the students.

Colin McAllister: Sure.

Ed Leon: I’m not going to try to follow along. After all, I don’t want to slow the podcast down too much.

Colin McAllister: Well, one of the things I start off with is a very simple exercise to just coordinate the left and right hands. Grab a pick here. And up here I’ll just practice going down, up, down, up, while moving the fingers of the left hand like this. One, two, three, four. This serves to coordinate the hands. It also is helping me stretch and these gaps between fingers, because technique is about strength and flexibility and economy of motion.

Ed Leon: Wow. What is it when some guitarists are just playing all the strings and doing this kind of stuff versus what you just did, which is your picking at one particular string? That is some awesome musical ignorance, right, at play there ladies and gentlemen.

Colin McAllister: Well, you know, you can play nice rich chords using all six strings. Things like that.

Ed Leon: Yeah.

Colin McAllister: And we teach all of those chords in the course. Jazz chords. But we also teach soloing techniques. Playing things like a blues scale. That’ll appeal to all of our rocker-

Ed Leon: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I was digging that. Are scales different for each type of music? Are you able to blues scale? Why is that a blues scale?

Colin McAllister: It’s got an extra note. It starts off as what’s called a minor pentatonic scale. It’s a five note scale. But there’s this extra note in there that’s the flatted fifth. That’s the correct terminology for it. An augmented fourth. But it’s got that grind against that … You know? Blues is about micro tonality and this bending stuff. And against the root it’s got that. It came to be called the blues scale really out of development. Players like Louis Armstrong in the 1920s started playing this scale as a staple of jazz. So it developed and became more of a part of jazz and later rock and roll.

Learn more: The Pentatonic Scale

Ed Leon: Is there a similar scale for classical?

Colin McAllister: Yeah, there’s major scales, for instance. Or minor scales. But those scales are not just for classical music. They’re used in all kinds of things.

Ed Leon: How long have you been playing?

Colin McAllister: I’ve been playing for 30 years, over 30 years.

Ed Leon: Wow, wow. What kinds of performances have you done? With orchestras or with bands?

Colin McAllister: The things that I do now are mostly classical and jazz guitar. As a classical guitarist, I play everything from as a soloist, to playing with a string quartet, to accompanying a singer. To playing a concerto with an orchestra. Then, as a jazz guitarist, I play mostly in smaller ensembles, so four piece, five piece, six piece ensembles.

Hands-on Experience

Ed Leon: You were teaching me something in the rehearsal. Let’s do that one.

Colin McAllister: All right. Let’s do it. What we’re going to do is on this thick low string.

Ed Leon: Right.

Colin McAllister: This is the sixth string.

Ed Leon: This is easy because I can actually see this one.

Colin McAllister: Oh, yeah.

Ed Leon: That’s why it’s closest to me.

Colin McAllister: You got these markers, right?

Ed Leon: Yes.

Colin McAllister: So you’re going to play on the fifth fret. Three times. And now shift down to the third fret. First fret. Back to third. Keep that going, Ed. First. This is a song from Lesson 11, by the way.

Ed Leon: Uh-oh, I’m on my own.

Colin McAllister: You’re doing great. Yeah, man. That was awesome. That was very strong.

Ed Leon: I don’t know about awesome, but it was something. Do I need to know music theory to benefit from your lessons?

Colin McAllister: No. You don’t need to know anything. You’re going to pick up some music theory on the way, but it’s taught in a very … I’m not dry about anything as you can probably guess. When I teach music theory, it’s always applicable to the guitar immediately.

Ed Leon: Right. Yeah.

Colin McAllister: We don’t tech it as an abstract concept and then let it go.

Ed Leon: Yeah.

Colin McAllister: It’s always like, “Hey, let’s learn this about how a chord and scale works together, so that you can play better and you can figure out songs, and write your own songs.”

Ed Leon: You compose music too?

Colin McAllister: I do. I’m glad you brought up composing because one of the really neat things about this course is that at the end of every lesson, I’ve composed an original piece. It incorporates the elements into the piece.

Ed Leon: All right. Enough of my shenanigans here. We’re going to end … By the way, the course is coming out, will be out in May of 2017, so look for it. It’s Mastering the Fundamentals of Guitar, Colin McAllister from the University of Colorado Springs, Colorado, Colorado Springs.

From the Lecture Series: Learning to Play Guitar Chords, Scales, and Solos
Taught by Professor Colin McAllister, Ph.D.