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Artist Spotlight: Michael Kaplan

Now for this artist spotlight, I will have to tread carefully as Michael is the illustrious leader of the American Guitar Academy! I chose to speak to Michael as I believe he has a unique insight into the industry, having performed extensively as well as running a successful business. 


Michael hails from the United States of America, and has taught at several noted Universities across the US the country as well as in Nepal as a course leader, and in Japan where he runs the American Guitar Academy currently. 

“First I am a musician and second, a guitarist. 


The bigger picture of music in general is of more importance to him than just the guitar on its own. Too many guitar players believe they are the most important factor in a song; in all honesty, guitarists are known for having a bit of an ego. The guitar is essentially a tool, and Allan Holdsworth shared a similar outlook - he initially wanted to play the saxophone, but was given a guitar instead. He used the instrument as a tool to bring to life the music in his head. 



Biography


Michael started playing guitar at  approximately 11 years of age. However, the reasons for initially picking up the instrument were unexpected when we discussed the matter. He started to play because he did want his family's neighbor at the time using his father’s guitar - I guess the neighbor in question couldn’t use it if Michael was!


In the mid 1980s, MTV was hugely popular and featured many different types of music, perhaps varying to a greater degree than today. Stadium-filling, timeless rock bands such as Guns N’ Roses and Whitesnake had their fair market share, as did artists such as Cyndi Lauper and Madonna - all of which were major influences on Michael. 


What Kind of Music Do You Not Like?


“I listen to all kinds of music and learn something (good or bad) from all of it.”


By now, and if you have been reading the other Artist Spotlight posts, I would imagine that you have noticed a pattern - true professionals really don’t like to dislike something. On the subject of learning something ‘bad’ from a piece of music, that can be just as useful, if not more so, than learning good things. If you hear something in a song, on guitar or otherwise, that you really dislike, try to figure out what is going on. Transcribe it, play it, isolate it so you can learn what not to do based on your own preferences. 


Working as a Musician


Everybody shout it with me - “EVERYTHING BUT THE PLAYING!”.


Michael has performed with big names in the industry, such as ‘Pee Wee’ Ellis and the Average White Band - this is in addition to hundreds of ‘meat and potatoes’ gigs over the years. However, the education side of things is focused on imparting knowledge or curriculum to a student and not necessarily the playing. As well as running a business, which is not too dissimilar from being a musician in this day and age, requiring an entirely different set of skills, Michael has also published several books - some of which through Berklee Press. 

Having a love of all music can only be a good thing. When Michael and I discussed playing in different styles, the response was that of pure enjoyment in the sense that as long as he is playing music, or working as a musician, then he is happy. That is a sentiment missing from so many musicians today!


Equipment

Whilst you have some people that are obsessed with gear to the point of obsession, you’ll notice how those one might consider altogether just know what they like. I have seen Michael play a Fender Stratocaster and a Gibson ES335 - both known for their dependability and versatility. However, I have also seen him play an acoustic guitar with action you could park a bus in, which is proof that it is not the equipment that makes the player. 


Has Your Playing Ever Been Judged Prematurely?


“There have been many times that I have gotten work without the person hearing me play based on my credentials.  However, I still needed to deliver -”


This is an interesting perspective, and a testament to how effective the word of mouth is in the industry. For example, you could count on one hand the number of true ‘session guitar players’ there are in London. Having a diversified and quality resume can help you get the gig, whatever it may be, but if you can’t pull it off then people will soon know about it. You can’t rely on the past alone, you need to deliver in whatever it is that you’re doing. 


Advice for Beginners


Here are some great words of advice from Michael. This applies to beginners, hobbyists, professionals and everyone else:


  • Listen to as much music as possible - Use your ears

  • Network with people - when playing with other musicians, listen more than you play

  • Sit down and have fun! - Too often, people focus on technique and not the simple enjoyment that playing an instrument brings


To expand upon the second point further, it is widely known that the best way to learn something is to surround yourself with people that are better than you are. Although playing an instrument is a journey we are all on, you will always find someone that is further along that journey. I spent two years studying the Japanese language whilst in the United Kingdom, but it was only after actually moving to Japan that I started to improve properly. It is the same with music, if you want to quickly brush up your Gypsy jazz chops, find an accomplished player and take it from there. 


It is always a good idea to not only listen to how others play melodically, something you can learn from by exposure to it, but also how they might react to your lead playing. Are they giving you more space, and are they actively listening to you playing and adjusting as they go? 



What is New?

You don’t always have to be publishing new material or content. Many aspiring content creators for YouTube and other similar platforms severely under-estimate how much work actually goes into this, especially if they wish to keep the algorithm happy!


“I am always trying to develop my ears as well as new ideas on the instrument.”


The process of self-improvement is never ending, and will only stop when we give up entirely or are no longer of this Earth. Things like true perfect pitch only presents itself to a select few and under the right conditions. However, we can all work on our relative pitch - this is where we hear a note and can recognise an interval from there. 

Further so simply learning to identify pitches, developing your ear more can help you differentiate parts within a song. From the point of view of a guitarist, many songs often have layered harmonies, some of them being very close. Your ear combined with common sense can help you determine the correct part!


As for new ideas on the instrument, that could mean anything and will be different for anyone. I don’t think it is possible to know everything, or be familiar with every playing concept. Just when you think you know everything, you realize that there is another approach to playing the minor pentatonic scale, or additional ways to represent some basic chords. I remember within the first few weeks of my playing, I discovered that I could lay my finger down across all of the strings at once - to my as yet unmolded mind this was nothing short of a revelation. I even gave the shape its own name, and only discovered it was the foundation for a barre chord shape a few months after the fact. As long as the idea is new to you, it is still a step forward on your own personal journey.


Here are some links for you to check out:

Berklee Press - Michael Kaplan

Here you can find an overview of the two books he has published with Berklee Press.

You can also find them on Amazon here if you prefer eBook versions:


Of course, we can’t wrap this up without mentioning the American Guitar Academy, a prestigious establishment that you will undoubtedly know about simply based on the fact that you’re reading this blog post - the best teachers, the best staff and the number one content in Tokyo (no I am not biased, I promise!).


Alex

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