Guitar greats like Nils Lofgren offer instruction via computer

Nils Lofgren, guitarist for the E Street Band.
Nils Lofgren, guitarist for the E Street Band.

Nils Lofgren doesn t have to do this: sit in front of a video camera trained on his face and hands as he talks guitar neophytes through the rudiments of playing a simple G chord.

He s the guitarist in the E Street Band, for heaven s sakes, a man Bruce Springsteen turns to when he wants a searing solo at a pivotal point in one of his epic concerts.

Lofgren s a true master of rock guitar, and here he is on your computer monitor showing you how to play guitar.

And not just lecturing from on-high, but encouraging you over the course of about an hour, telling you to hang in there when your fingers get sore and you get frustrated. It s a refreshingly intimate setting, with Lofgren alone in a hotel room somewhere on the road, and it feels like he s speaking directly to you.

Lofgren s lessons are part labor of love and partly a way to make money. They represent the high-end of the thousands of music instructional videos available on the Internet.

They range from dudes in sloppy shorts fumbling their way through Oasis songs on Youtube to Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson personally explaining the core riff of Spirit of the Radio on a pay-per-lesson site.

HEAR: E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren talks to The Blade about how he keeps guitar playing fun.

Google online music lessons and you get more than 2.6 million hits that go on forever. There s,,, ... the list goes on, each promising to unlock the secrets that will reveal your inner Hendrix.

Youtube overflows with instructional clips on how to play the electric bass, the sitar, the 12-string guitar, piano, jazz guitar, harmonica, Hawaiian black key guitar, cello, slide guitar, and just about any instrument that can be blown, plucked, or strummed.

For musicians especially guitarists it s a great way to make money by giving lessons, something most of them have done for years. And for the students it s an in-house instructional tool that done right can motivate them to learn new songs and techniques.

Desi Serna, a Toledo-area guitar instructor who makes his living producing an online lessons program and selling DVDs of his work, said there s a natural inclination for would-be musicians to skip all the technical stuff, which makes the online approach perfect.

Most students just want to learn how to play guitar, he says. They don t even care about understanding the traditional terminology. They would much rather be able to sit down and play Stairway to Heaven, Smoke on the Water, or Sweet Home Alabama than pass a written test. So I ve always focused on teaching what people play in the real world.

For most of us now, the real world involves sitting down in front of a computer for everything from sharing pictures with family members to shopping for cars. And for artists like Lofgren it s a chance to spread the word about music.

Commerce drives it, of course. Lofgren said changes in the music business mean he ll never get another large-scale recording contract for his solo work, despite a long, stellar career making his own music. So the Internet provides a way to make money by taking his music directly to his fans.

But it s also a way for him to give something back and preach about the joy of being able to play an instrument, even if you re not that good.

So many people through the years have come up and said to me, I d love to play music for fun, but I have no talent, I have no rhythm, and thus, I m not allowed to. I ve tried to correct them and say, No, no, you don t need any talent. You just need a little practice and a great teacher and you can have an incredible lifelong therapeutic ball learning an instrument.

He charges $20 for lessons that last about an hour. Five beginners lessons and four intermediate lessons are available at for download. Lofgren has a gentle, conversational nature, and given his track record playing with Springsteen, Neil Young, Willie Nelson and any number of great artists, his lessons have a certain cachet to them.

But he also provides an enthusiastic vibe that is realistic. You know you ll never be as good as he is, but so what?

I really mostly want to encourage people. When you get frustrated, stop practicing the hard stuff and go to the one finger, three-note fun things we learned today and do that for five minutes, do it for 20 minutes, do it until you feel a little joy that, Hey I m playing music, he said.

Serna is an example of the raft of lesser-known musicians online who offer instructional advice, videos, and tips online for a fee. He s been successful thanks to his clear explanations of complex concepts, carving out a living teaching his self-developed guitar theory online, recently attracting the attention of Rolling Stone magazine.

In its Site Specific feature looking at online music instruction, the magazine praised Serna s site. Listening to a lecture with no visual help can be tricky, but Serna s lessons are clear and accessible, the magazine writes. In his latest podcast, he explains the theory of modal scales a series of notes that can be used to improve solos. Overwhelmed? That s why the first lesson is called What Is Guitar Theory.

Serna taught lessons in the area for years, supplementing his income by playing gigs at night. As he started settling down with his family he and his wife have one young child the idea of playing in bars until 1 a.m. four nights a week lost its luster.

He also had become frustrated with the way guitar is taught, preferring his own method that focuses on the various shapes the left hand makes on the neck of the guitar to create chord patterns. He became convinced that there would be a demand for his method, so he started writing books and that evolved into making instructional videos.

He now has 17,000 subscribers to his mailing list and he continues to self-produce his DVDs.

After teaching for years and using the other method books that are available and experimenting with stuff and finding stuff that would work with students, I just knew I could sell it, Serna said. I just fill the orders and be thankful that I don t have to go out and play gigs anymore.

Tim Huffman s story is an amalgam of Lofgren s and Serna s. He was an in-demand studio musician and side man in the Atlanta area for years, playing with Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Atlanta Rhythm Section, Kansas, and numerous other bands. But he got burned out with the traveling and wanted to make money off music without the constant upheaval to his personal life.

In the mid 90s he made an instructional video and that morphed into teaching lessons. With access to a number of high-powered musicians he had befriended over the years like Chuck Leavell, who plays piano in the Rolling Stones, drummer Russ Kunkel, and Graham Nash, he hit upon an idea.

OK, I have this fantastic music education as a young man working side by side with amazing talent. How can we take that access to great talent and take it to anyone anywhere?

That s how he came up with, a fast-growing Web site in which musicians demonstrate how to play entire songs. Not snippets or styles like generic blues guitar or country finger-picking but entire songs from beginning to end. The trick is that to do entire songs you have pay royalties to the publishers, artists and record companies, which is why most of what you see on Youtube is just a part of a song or a musical style and not the entire thing.

It s a fine line you tread. If you say, here s an example of an Eric Clapton-style lick you re cool. But if you say here s how to play Layla, then you get into jeopardy with the legal folks.

Huffman s company has, as he says, fed a lot of lawyers, to buy the rights to the songs so that they can have Leavell, Nash, Lifeson, or any number of lesser-known artists show viewers how to play entire songs like A Hard Day s Night, Limelight or Losing My Religion.

The cost is between $5 and $10 depending on the song and lessons are available in guitar, drums, and keyboards. In some of the cases you re learning directly from the artists who played the original tunes and Huffman said ivideosongs is continuing to build both its library of songs and artists so listeners can dial up the original artists whenever they want to practice.

If you were sitting in a bar with Alex Lifeson would you buy him a pint to have him tell you all this stuff? he asked. Then you d have to remember everything he tells you.

Getting to work

All this advice and instruction means nothing unless the student is willing to work hard to accomplish her goals, something that doesn t escape Lofgren.

The lessons are shortcuts, but the real work comes when the computer is off and the musician is alone working. Lofgren offers almost constant encouragement during his lessons, telling his viewers that it took him months of constant playing to learn how to play difficult barre chords.

His mantra is to practice, practice, practice, and when it s not fun, stop and relax.

Dude, even Jimi Hendrix had to practice. Michael Jordan and Larry Bird showed up three hours early to practice and shoot free throws, he said.

It s not an accident and you can t skip the work of practicing in any profession. But you can mix it with enjoyment to keep the whole adventure fun if you have a good teacher and I m just trying to be that guy.

Contact Rod Lockwood at or 419-724-6159.