Interview of Mark Hanson
By John Wynn
John Wynn of the John Wynn Guitar Studio in McKinney, Texas, conducted the following interview with Mark Hanson prior to a three-day workshop and concert at John’s venue in August 2009.
- What brought you to the guitar in the first place?
My older sister had a Sears Silvertone, and I was attracted to the folk music records in my home. Then the Beatles arrived!
- Who were the first guitar players you listened to?
Pete Seeger and Leadbelly.
- Did you attempt to mimic their style?
I learned some of their songs, but my real copying of someone’s style came a little later after I heard Paul Simon’s fingerpicking and the Beatles’ acoustic songs.
- If you played sports or had other activities growing up, how did you balance these with being dedicated to the guitar? As a teacher what advice do you give to your students about this?
I was very dedicated to sports in junior high and high school. I even went on to play basketball in college and some pro ball in Europe. That was back when the Europeans were better at handling the ball with their feet than with their hands! They are much better now. But I found the time to play the guitar, be in a folk group, and keep my studies up. As I watched my high-school-age daughters the last few years, I must have been like them – sleeping less than I should have! Seriously, I suggest students carve out a practice time that is the same every day (before school in the morning is good), and put at least a half hour into it daily. Constant, consistent repetition is necessary, and developing a sense of discipline helps!
- Where are some of the most fun places you have played guitar?
On Top of Old Smokey! (Just kidding!) I’ve played guitar all over the country, and in many countries in Europe. Perhaps the most interesting was playing the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR” in Moscow with Russian students. They spoke Russian and French, and we spoke English and German, so the only way to communicate was to sing Beatle songs!
- Tell me about your practice habits.
I practice as much as possible. Repeat this to yourself: Repetition, repetition, repetition! Make sure you practice with good hand position, and a minimum of tension. If I have a big concert coming up, I determine the repertoire, and then make sure I play everything every day for a couple of weeks beforehand. Otherwise, I am usually working on new compositions and arrangements designed for my CDs or to be published in my books and DVDs.
- What was the first song you learned, and how did you learn it? As an adult what is your perspective on that experience?
“Scotch and Soda” when I was about 8! (I think I thought it was about Scotch tape and 7-Up!) Copying tunes and guitar instrumentals off recordings was great for the development of my ear, and my fingers. I would learn a tune, then play along with the recording over and over until I sounded exactly like it. I developed a great sense of discipline doing that, and thankfully it was great fun, too. I enjoyed almost every minute of it!
- Did you have the opportunity to study the guitar in school? Or was it mostly in a private lesson setting?
I played clarinet in school. I took piano lessons for many years, and took guitar lessons as I got a little older. When I came to the guitar I already knew how to be musical from my clarinet, piano, and family singing experiences.
- What do you think is the most valuable advice you could give a student who might be thinking of making music into a career?
Practice really hard; get all the insight you can from great teachers; copy great players; learn to read music; and learn how to run a business, because you likely will be on your own trying to make a living. Also, learn how to read and understand a contract, so that you no one can take advantage of you.
- What was your first “nice” guitar? How did you get it?
A Gibson J-45 sunburst. My parents and I bought it in a music store in Minnesota where I grew up. When I was 18 I bought my Martin D-28 in Nashville from the famous collector and store owner George Gruhn.
- Who is the most famous musician you ever met? Who is your favorite guitar player?
I spent a day with James Taylor, and half a day with David Crosby of Crosby, Stills and Nash. I was working at a guitar magazine (Frets), and interviewed many great guitarists: Larry Carlton, Leo Kottke. I played onstage with Jerry Garcia once! My favorite guitar player: Joe Pass perhaps, but I have many.
- Whose autograph, if you could get it, have you always wanted?
Abraham Lincoln! Oh, you mean among guitar players? Joe Pass and John Lennon.
- Have you ever broken a string on stage during a performance? What did you do?
Yes. While I changed it I told a story about walking over the Amazon River on a rope bridge that broke! In other words, tell a joke and keep it light!
- Tell me how long it took you to learn, and what method you used to learn to tune your guitar?
I’m still learning about the guitar, and I’ve played since the 1960s. I tell my students to strive to play musically, no matter what their technical level. Play with good tone, a steady sense of time, and a feel for the music. That will take you much further than flashy technique with little musicality. As far as tuning is concerned, I learned to tune by ear, using the 5th-fret method. Later I learned that unisons and octaves are the only truly in-tune intervals on guitars and pianos, so I use octaves and unisons. I carry a digital tuner, but my ear is still better than most of them!
- If you could play any other instrument what would you choose? And why?
I play recorder reasonably well, because of my clarinet background. I love Renaissance music, and the wooden sound of good recorders is lovely.
- What is hardest song you ever had to learn? How did you do it?
Probably my arrangement of "Take the 'A' Train." I arranged and practiced it in segments, then stitched it all together. There are three and sometimes four voices going on all at the same time, so it is challenging to play, but sounds great when I nail it!
- What is it about doing this weekend of lessons and performances that excites you the most?
The opportunity to help young folks (and older ones, too!) who are excited about playing a musical instrument. I love to teach, especially the guitar. Playing guitar can be a great hobby, pastime, and even a rewarding career!
- Any advice you might want to give the students that are planning to be here for it?
Practice consistently beforehand so that your hands are in shape to play several hours in a day. And write down all the questions you can think of. Don’t be afraid to ask ANY question. Likely, we professionals have asked the same ones ourselves!
- What do you see in the future for the guitarist as far as exploring new ways to play it (we have just about all seen the tapping style from artists like Michael Hedges to Andy McKee), new technological advances with electronics, and that sort of thing?
All these advances are great. They increase the musical palette. But I still think that melody is king. The tapping style is fantastic in relative small doses for me, in particular if it supports a good melody. But humans were singing melodies long before guitars were invented.
- Who is your favorite modern composer for the guitar? And in what style of music?
Me of course (!), and Doug Smith. And John Wynn, naturally! I appreciate a lot of what Andrew York does. What style? Fingerstyle. That way you have five picks on one hand instead of holding one. Flatpicks are great for strumming and soloing styles and for the great tone they can produce, but I prefer to think in multiple voices, and fingerstyle is the way to go for that!
Copyright © 2009 Accent On Music, LLC, and Mark D. Hanson. All Rights Reserved.