The Many Hats of Troy Stetina


The man behind the method books talks with WholeNote about teaching, producing, the social aspects of rock, and of course, guitar playing.
If you've ever spent time either learning from a current instructional book, or browsing through the various offerings at your favorite local or on-line music store, you've no doubt heard of Troy Stetina. One of Hal Leonard's most prolific authors, Troy has penned over 25 method and style books over the last 15 years. In between, he's spent time on the faculty at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, in Los Angeles working with 80's legend Don Dokken, and in Milwaukee where he now assumes the many roles of recording artist, teacher, author, recording studio owner, and producer. Troy took some time out of his busy schedule to chat with WholeNote's Christopher Sung about his new CD, his new book, and his many musical pursuits.

Christopher Sung: When did you start to play the guitar, and when did you realize that this was going to be a permanent part of your life?

Troy Stetina: Well, I got by first guitar at about the age of 12. My mom was an opera singer and was thrilled that I had any interest in music at all. So she went out and bought this cheap Strat copy for me, and my dad was like, "What the heck did you waste money on that for!!" He came around eventually, though. By the time I was 18, I was playing in some bands and decided to put off going to college for "just a year." I started teaching at a local music store just for a little side cash, and well, it turned out I was pretty good at it. College kinda' drifted away!

CS: What were some of the things you practiced or did early on that helped you progress from a beginning guitarist to a proficient one?

Troy: I played a clarinet in school for a couple years so I already knew how to read music pretty well. So I picked up Alfred's Basic Guitar 1 and tried to muddle through it. Well, it sucked! (Sorry, Alfred.) Finally, someone showed me chords and I started learning Kiss songs by ear. That's when real guitar playing started. I progressed pretty quick then, following my own inspiration and developing my ear. I formed some garage bands and did a lot of original music and covers, too. Everything popular in the late 70s from Van Halen and Aerosmith to Rush, Kansas, the Cars, Cheap Trick...plus lots of Zeppelin, anything really. In the early 1980s, I got into Randy Rhoads (with Ozzy Osbourne) big time, as well as heavy metal like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Dio. Of course I practiced my butt off plenty, spending all day woodshedding, then going to rehearsals at night. But what also pushed me forward was teaching, because it forced me to constantly learn new stuff "on the spot." That's where I really honed my ear, plus the sheer repetition just burns stuff into your brain. I also got into Al DiMeola for a while and took a few lessons from a fusion guitarist, and then got into classical music and took classical guitar lessons for a bit. More than anything, though, I studied stuff on my own, a little here and there. I always had this overriding ambition to master the guitar thoroughly. I wanted to be able to play anything I could imagine, or hear in my head. And I also had this nagging question of how all the musical styles related to one another. I wanted to know the 'big picture' too.

CS: In your early 20's, you accepted a faculty position at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. What was your experience like in this musically academic environment?

Troy: A few of the faculty there accepted rock, but I was clearly the "outsider". Cranking up the Marshalls down in the "dungeon" (the basement was the domain of rock and jazz) and ripping on Yngwie lines - I'd get all these sideways glances by other faculty, "What is that noise!? Oh, it's you." I did earn a bit of begrudging respect, though, upon performing a bunch of the Paganini violin caprices at Conservatory events. The traditional classical guitarists would say things like, "very.... interesting" in a muted tone. I'd just laugh. I studied a bit of advanced theory there privately, too, and picked up an appreciation for folk/fingerstyle players like Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges from my friend and then-Chairman of the guitar faculty, John Stropes.

CS: You've penned over 25 instructional books for Hal Leonard. How did this opportunity arise, and to what extent will you continue to do it in the future?

Troy: Back in Indianapolis, where I grew up, I was teaching at a small music store. One day, Will Schmid, an author for Hal Leonard, came by to give a mini "seminar," talking to us teachers and showing the details of their instructional methods. So after a few minutes, I said, "that's nice, but why don't you have any books that teach what all the kids really want to learn, rock guitar!?" He said, "Well, how about if you write one?" So I did. Then another, and another, and another. Years later, he told me he had the exact same discussion with at least 20 people before me, but no one ever followed through!

It wasn't easy, you know, but I couldn't imagine not doing it when the opportunity was there. Of course, over the years writing has gotten easier for me - anything you do enough gets easier. But still, music is the fun part. Writing is always a bit of a chore. Frankly, even though my career success has been primarily in music education, I've always considered myself a musician first and educator second. And these days, I always take on music projects first whenever I can, my own or producing other bands, and just fill in with instructional work here and there to help pay the bills. Yet even if my recording career took off tomorrow, I'm sure I'd continue writing at least a little. It seems I've always got more to write than I can ever finish. Several devious projects are in the works, as a matter of fact...

CS: You have a new book out entitled Total Rock Guitar. What is the basis of the book and who would it best be suited for?

Total Rock Guitar

(2001)
Troy: I think Total Rock Guitar is some of my best instructional work to date. I've always believed in "direct application". By that I mean that you need to learn the larger concepts in music, but you have to see it in real musical situations or it's just abstract, meaningless stuff. So the success of any guitar method, in my view, is largely about how well it integrates the various structured concepts into its musical "studies," and of course, the music itself has to be good, too! Total Rock Guitar takes this idea a step further. Here, the "exercises" are the music, period. And there are 22 original songs in the thing! They progress from beginner to advanced, cover the range of rock styles, and by the end you have a pretty good global understanding of many of the finer points of music theory, scales, etc.

Who's it suited for? It's a broad range thing. I'd say it's suited for any beginner to intermediate level player who is interested in getting a wide understanding of rock guitar and improving their playing as well.

CS: There's a fairly new line of book/CD packages out now to which you have been contributing called "Signature Licks." Could you talk a little bit about that?

Signature Licks

Black Sabbath
Troy: Signature Licks is a Hal Leonard line, and it's a pretty cool idea. They each take a band/artist and the author digs out a bunch of their 'signature' musical moments - the best songs, riffs, and solos - and he writes a background, a music analysis and some performance advice along with note for note transcriptions and a CD recording of the sections with full backing tracks. But unlike the original recordings, this CD is mixed with one featured guitar part hard right and other instruments hard left, so you can isolate the part you want to learn or play to the backing parts. And to top it off, each featured part is also played at half speed, so these books are really effective learning tools. Over the last two years, I've written Sig Lix books on Black Sabbath, Rage Against the Machine, Foo Fighters, and a new one just now coming out called 'Aggro-Metal' which includes 14 heavy rock bands of the new, low-tuned metal genre. I'm really proud of the more recent ones in particular 'cuz we produced the stuff right up to top level production standards. Other than the fact that there are no vocals and the stereo field is different, you'd be hard pressed to tell the tracks apart from the original albums!

I also just finished Deep Purple (Ritchie Blackmore) last week, which will come out in a couple months or so. That was kinda eye-opening. This work often makes me play stuff I normally wouldn't, and certainly not up to the level of note for note performance. Next week I'm starting another one: Ozzy....cooooooool (laughs). Oh yeah, and I also tracked the solos on Dale Turner's Sig Lix, "Best of Joe Satriani." That was...well, at some point, let's get this thing done! I love Satch, but I mean, it was just so difficult to pull it off. I spent like 90 hours learning and tracking it all. But it's really a great book for the aspiring shred-minded players out there. In fact, I highly recommend all the Sig Licks books.

CS: Being such a prolific author, but also being a private teacher, how do you view the role of instructional books in the process of becoming a better player? Do you view them as a necessary ingredient, supplementary material, or is it more dependent on the student?

Troy: They're just tools to make learning easier and faster. Sure, you can learn to play guitar without them. I did this essentially...and I could paint my house with a toothbrush, too, if I wanted to...but why? I mean, why wouldn't anybody want to take advantage of the tools at their disposal? You'll certainly learn better and faster by getting directed advice from someone who's already travelled down the road and has a broader musical understanding. So you'll rise to a higher level faster. In fact, I wish I could have had some tools like these when I was learning guitar. I had to pretty much figure things out on my own.

But I don't push my view that much. My philosophy is to encourage players to follow their own heart and inspiration. If they happen to want to learn some of the styles/techniques taught in my books, great - they're available. If they want to take it all the way and master the guitar, great. If they only need a little help, that's fine too. Not everyone needs mastery. In fact, there are plenty of great songs written by folks who understand very little about music, and have adequate playing technique at best. You know, playing technique and knowledge is just a vehicle whereby a person expresses music the way he/she wants. So music is the ultimate master. The only thing is, the more you know about music, the wider your scope of creativity.

CS: In the mid-90s, you spent time both in New York City and Los Angeles, but ultimately decided to return to Milwaukee. What have been the tradeoffs for you in terms of musical opportunity, experience, and quality of life in the big metropolis vs. the smaller city?

Troy: On the opportunity side, I don't think the difference is very significant. Bands get signed from all over these days, so you can pretty much do your own thing anywhere. Plus in my case, I'm pretty musically self-sufficient already. So I just came back to Milwaukee and made my own "scene." And the funny thing is, I actually have more contact with music business people in LA now! But it is nice to be surrounded more by a community that shares and supports one's interests. Milwaukee is a little lean on this. So I suppose the tradeoff is not so much about opportunity, but more about immersing yourself in a creative scene. You see something and it sparks an idea that you can then develop further.

It's also about finding other musicians to work with. The big benefit for me of being in NYC for a while was getting plugged in to the music scene and the impact that had on my perspective in general. See, I was raised in the Midwest, in a relatively safe, suburban, middle-class, consumer-driven lifestyle. I liked music for the sake of music, so I focused on learning it all in the technical sense as a musician. The one thing I never quite got was the social element of rock. Then I saw first-hand the harder-edge, "wilder" or more dangerous side of life. Sure, I saw plenty of concerts growing up, but it's not the same - you know, just experiencing the freakshow at a club like the Limelight, listening to Ministry at 140 decibels. I guess I just finally recognized a big part of what rock 'n' roll is all about. I'm like, "oh, I get it!" I suddenly had more insight into what drives the whole thing on a social level. I was always looking at music as a skill and an art. Now I saw it from the social perspective, and commercially, it's more about entertainment and people buying into a "ready made" self-identity.

CS: Two of the many hats you wear is that of owner of your own recording studio, Artist Underground, and as a producer of other bands. How have these experiences shaped your concepts of sound, production, recording, and even playing?

Troy: I guess I used to think a bit more in terms of notes and guitar playing... being technically correct. Now that view is accessible to me when I need it, and it helps a lot when editing, but these days I listen for the overall attitude and especially tone. Plenty of times I don't choose the take that is technically best, preferring those that have more "character" or "edge" to them. And how it sounds - the tone - is more important that almost anything. Now when I compose music I "hear" the entire thing in my mind, pretty much all the parts together and especially the vibe and attitude. That's where I write from. Playing is just the afterthought of getting it out and pegged down into solid form. But there's a bit of a paradox here. The one other thing that has become painfully obvious to me while producing other bands, is that performance is the single most crucial aspect of a good sound. A lousy, or even mediocre performance basically ties the hands of the producer and limits what they can do. And on the other hand, a great, tight performance will sound good with very little "production" effort. So I guess the technical playing side is in there for me, it's just that I don't think about it directly.

CS: Your website at www.stetina.com is comprehensive and well-designed. Are you one of the growing legions of professional musicians who have spent time learning some of the finer points of HTML and web design?

Troy: Well, yes and no. I'm on computers a lot these days. Artist Underground is computer-based. I even built a few PCs from scratch. I started with computers years ago, first for writing manuscripts, then later I even got into page layouts and notation engraving for some of my books. So progressing into web design wasn't too far off the mark for me. I sat down with my wife a few years ago and we learned the basics of HTML to get my first site going. Then over the years I've picked up more here and there and even doing a few websites for other bands. But I'm no IT professional. It just takes too much time to stay on top of everything. My sites at www.stetina.com and the commercial end at www.ModRock.com are a joint effort with my web partner, who handles database stuff, inventory, customer service, etc. I'm more the content guy, and I'm strong on design stuff.

CS: You now offer Master Classes on the website. How does this differ from what you present in the instructional books, and how has the response been?

Troy: The masterclasses are a lot of fun. I'll be doing more on other styles soon, too. The first one we just started is teaching a Beethoven piano sonata that I did for electric guitar, bass, and drums, and that I recorded years ago. It came about by accident really. I was digging around and found the old multitrack tape, so I remixed it and posted on my site (http://www.stetina.com/music/beethoven1.mp3). Then people started asking about learning the thing and I thought, "Why not?" Actually the masterclasses teach more than just the music. I teach what's going on within the music and help people develop their technique in general. By the way, you can go to http://www.stetina.com/instruction5.html to find out more about how they work and even download a free sample lesson. The difference between these masterclass lessons and writing books is subject matter, scope and method of delivery. Because I have direct contact with the people who want to learn, I can cater right to what they want as far as selecting subject matter. The immediacy is awesome. Plus, each lesson is fairly short, so I write it in a day, format it right into PDF's or whatever, and the next day people are working on it and giving me feedback by the end of the week! Writing a book is such a big endeavor and takes forever. Even after I'm finished with a manuscript, it takes the publisher at least another 6 months to get the thing out, so by the time a book comes out, I've moved on to something else. Besides the masterclasses, I've currently got a number of people working on a huge series of lessons right now, that will be done entirely online in a similar fashion. I'm editing and formatting these to make sure they all kick butt. I think this is the wave of the future.

CS: Let's talk a little bit about the new record, Exottica. What was the compositional and recording process like?

Exottica

(2000)
Troy: I had always resisted doing any instrumental guitar thing. I don't know, I just have always preferred vocal music. But when I was in California with Don Dokken in the summer of '94, I started having these melodic ideas coming to me, pestering me really, and they were clearly instrumental melodies. The first one was the theme for "Sunrise". It came out spontaneously one day when I was writing tunes for the Metal Rhythm Guitar method revision. And it just kept popping back into my head. Anyway, after we moved back to Milwaukee and built the studio, with all these cool instrumental ideas coming along, I figured I'd just go with it.

First, I demoed about a dozen songs in my spare time through 1997, and when my friend and drummer Brian Reidinger came in one day in 1998 to lay down drum tracks for a Signature Licks recording, I snagged him for an extra day. Then it still took me almost year to select the right software, work out all the computer bugs, and get really proficient with the new recording system! So one day my wife says, "If you ever expect to finish that album, you better just block out everything and work on it till it's done." It took me about 2 solid months in spring of '99 to get it all recorded. One of the things that made it a little more difficult was my compositional approach. There aren't just 2 parts, a rhythm line and melody over it. There are sometimes 4 or even 5 parts working together, including counter-melodies. So there's a lot in there that may not even be apparent on first listen, but over time you hear more and more. The other thing that made it difficult is that I'm just a ridiculous perfectionist when it comes to this stuff! Now it seems to be catching on a bit. I just got 3 songs placed in an upcoming MTV sitcom called "Sausage Factory", and finally got some retail distribution going.

CS: Who has had the most impact on your playing, and who has been your biggest influences compositionally?

Troy: Hmmmm...lots of influences. The strongest one was probably Randy Rhoads, way back when. I had this live tape of him playing an Ozzy show, broadcasted on the "King Biscuit Flower Hour" radio show that just riveted me. His playing had such a purposefulness to it - every note had meaning. My playing has evolved quite a bit from that, but purposeful melody is still something I go for to this day.

I'd say that overall, I have gone through three distinct stages as a musician. The first was about guitar technique, which culminated in writing Speed Mechanics in 1990, when I pretty much got to the point that I could play anything I wanted as far as I wanted to. Then I kinda stopped practicing really, and turned more toward songwriting and composition. The third stage was music production which I got into seriously in the late 1990s. Now, it's about impossible to categorize my influences. At this point, anything I hear and like is an influence in a very real sense, because I can pretty much learn songs, melodies, rhythms, riffs, just by hearing them. Plus, I can write in a lot of different styles. The only trouble these days is finding enough time to do it!

CS: The link between the metal and classical genres has held strong for at least the last 20 years. What do you think it is about these seemingly dissimilar styles that make them such a natural combination?

Troy: Both are dramatic. By that I mean powerful, as well as virtuosic.

CS: What's currently in your main equipment setup?

Troy: I have a few Marshall half stacks, and half a dozen stomp box distortion pedals. But these days I'm usually too lazy to mic them up so I just plug in my Line 6 POD instead! Sounds pretty close, although the POD isn't exactly the same as a real amp.

CS: What's in your CD player right now?

Troy: Good question. Let me take a look...okay, in my living room player, it's Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. Down in the studio, I've got Nevermore, Red Hot Chili Peppers, BENT, Stryper, and a demo for a new band I'm thinking about taking on.

CS: Finally, do you have any general advice for those beginning players out there who are struggling to get a grip on the instrument?

Troy: Follow your inspiration. Learn what turns you on. But you also need to learn stuff that is at or just slightly beyond your current level. So if some of what you love is too difficult for you at this stage, you'll learn a lot better and faster by finding something that progresses in a graded fashion, like a good guitar method dedicated to the style(s) you are into. Then, after you get to that level, get back into exactly what you love.

CS: Thanks, Troy, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat with us.

Troy: Thank you, Chris. It was a pleasure.

Visit Troy on the web at www.stetina.com
Look at Troy's instructional books