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Wisdom from My First Guitar Teacher

Peter Thorn turns to a long-time working guitarist, his first teacher, to see what wisdom he can glean some 30 years later.

I grew up in Edmonton, Canada. I started playing violin at age nine, and picked up the guitar a year later. Terry McDade was my first guitar instructor, and I started taking lessons from him when I was 11 years old. He was the first professional musician that I had met, and he had a profound impact on my life. He’s made a career of playing music in Edmonton, through teaching private lessons, playing all sorts of gigs, and releasing albums. His McDade Family Band has performed at such venues as the Canadian National Exhibition, Vancouver Expo 86, The Commonwealth Games and multiple performances for members of British Royal Family.

Terry plays a number of stringed instruments besides the guitar, and is particularly proficient on the harp. To me, Terry is the quintessential “working musician,” so it seemed appropriate to chat with him for month’s installment of The Working Guitarist!

You’ve had a long and successful career as a professional musician. How do you stay viable in this business?

The thing that’s always been a good motivator for me is that I’m incredibly unqualified to do anything else! I couldn’t get a job serving a cup of coffee. I had a job one when I was 20, for six months. Didn’t take. So, my time and my energy are spent towards what I like to do, but it also helps me to survive. And I love when new stuff (musically) comes my way—everything I hear, I’m like, “I’ve got to check that out”.

So you’ve always had a passion for exploring new music, techniques, instruments, etc?

I’m like a kid in a candy store. It never stops, day after day—it’s so much fun!

So I guess it’s sort of the old adage of music chose you, not the other way around...

I guess so. It was like an apple falling from a tree, hitting me in the head. Damn apple... [laughs]

I think you can make a living playing music anywhere.

You’ve made your home in Edmonton, Canada for many years. You made an impression on me early on as one of the only people I knew that actually made their living playing music. Would you recommend staying in a place like Edmonton, or moving to a music centre such as Los Angeles, Nashville, or Toronto?

I don’t think it makes a difference. Jack Semple, one of Canada’s greatest guitarists, lives in Regina, Sask. But he’s got a nice little studio, he teaches lessons, he gigs, and travels and plays other places, and does great. I’ve found the same thing—my trio played Shanghai last September. We’ve been able to work out of here, and it’s great. I think the markets in places like New York, LA, Toronto, and Montreal are great, partly because there’s a large pool of players so you can get the people you need for whatever project you are involved in. In Edmonton there’s a smaller pool. But that pool is pretty tight—people help each other out. So it’s a little tighter community. I think you can make a living playing music anywhere.

As a student, I was much more interested in ear training than sight reading. I sometimes wonder now if I should have become a better sight-reader. How important is it to learn to read music?

Some of the greatest players ever were not great readers—even great jazz players. I mean, they could most likely read a 32-bar chord chart, but they were not what you call great readers. But the concept of reading can be very helpful. For me, on each different day, I’ve got different requirements. Last Sunday, I was backing up a classical cellist, and she gave me a book of piano scores, all these great classical pieces—a tremendous amount of work. And if you couldn’t read, you’re dead! No way you could G-C-D your way through it. But for many players that are more in the pop arena, it’s really all ears. So I think you do what you need.

Do you recommend attending a music school such as Berklee or Musician’s Institute?

For many people, the secondary education thing works so well. But for others, really what they ought to be doing is getting together in someone’s basement and putting a band together, booking some gigs, and doing what they love to do. They don’t have to go to school to learn to do what they do. Like U2 for example, I don’t think any of those guys went to music school. But I think, probably, they can only play with each other.... but it’s wonderful! They aren’t going to do what Pat Metheny does, they couldn’t, and they don’t want to!

Is it better to be a jack-of-all-trades, or really focus on mastering a particular style or genre of music?

Well, if you are part of that certain demographic of brilliant ear-intuitive musicians, then it’s maybe better to focus on that particular style of music that it seems you are organically inclined towards. But I’m different—I just like a variety of styles. It’s just not in the cards for me personally to focus on a certain style.

You’ve released a number of acclaimed albums, as have your kids in their band The McDades. With the massive changes in music buying, sharing, and storing digitally, how do you feel these days about recording and releasing new material?

I think the focus these days seems to be more on live performance. I think there are many people these days who aren’t that interested in buying albums. They’ll pay the same amount [that would actually pay for an album] in cover charge or ticket price, and go and see a live show and have a good time. I don’t think I’ll be releasing an album this year. I like playing live, I can do it when and how I want, and it just doesn’t seem to be dependent on having an album out.

So maybe the focus used to be on doing gigs to promote a new record, and now it’s the other way around—you release an album or a few songs so you can promote a tour!

Yeah, then you’ve got something to send to the media, and to post on YouYube, saying “Hey, this is me, come to my show!”

Pete Thorn is a Los Angeles-based guitarist, currently touring with Melissa Etheridge. His solo album Guitar Nerd will be out in early 2011.You can read more about his career and music at