You’ve probably heard of Riff Master Pro by now, but you may not know much about Heath Nicholson…the guitar teacher from Sydney, Australia who created it. Heath is a successful teacher, performing guitarist and business owner who has some excellent advice for new and established guitar teachers about how to be more successful.
Heath was kind enough to take some time to share his thoughts about how to be a better teacher, how to use songs in your guitar lessons more effectively and how to keep learning and growing as a guitar player yourself. This episode is full of some great wisdom from a successful teacher who knows how to do it right.
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Items Mentioned In This Episode:
Link – Riff Master Pro Software
Okay, I have a special guest on the Start Teaching Guitar Podcast today. It’s a gentleman named Heath Nicholson, who’s a guitar teacher from Sydney, Australia, and who’s also the Creator of the RiffMaster Pro Software. And Heath has been teaching guitar for over 20 years and he’s also a successful session player and performing guitarist. He’s played thousands of live gigs, he does guitar repair work, and he’s taught a considerable amount of classroom, workshop, and private guitar lessons too on top of all that. So, he’s had a very diverse background with music and the guitar.
And Heath originally created RiffMaster Pro back in 2001 as a way to help his own guitar students become better musicians, and he was kind enough to take a little bit of time to visit with us on the podcast today to talk about it.
Donnie: So, Hi Heath, welcome to the Start Teaching Guitar Podcast.
Heath: Hi Donnie, it’s great to be here. I really enjoy your shows. Fantastic stuff. As a guitar teacher, it’s always good to get some more info and a little bit of insight, so I’m really pleased to be here and I feel honored to be on your podcast, so thank you.
Donnie: Great. Well, it’s wonderful to have you. So let’s start our conversation here. If you could, just tell us a little bit about yourself. You know, more about your background and how you got started playing the guitar, and things like that.
Heath: Sure. Sure. Well, as you said, I live in Sydney, Australia, a great part of the world. I have been playing guitar since I was about nine years old. I first started playing the guitar around about then and I saw a guitar player on TV, playing in a band. An Aussie band here, called Hush. And I looked at that and I thought: “Oh, you know what. That looks like a fun thing to do. I think that that’s what I want to do with my life,” and I told my mom right then and there: “That’s what I want to do.” And I’ve been pursuing that little nine-year-old dream from a nine-year-old ever since, and I just love guitar. I just love being around it.
I’ve immersed my entire life around music and the guitar. You know, I love the sound of it. I love the way they look. It’s fantastic, and that’s really how it started for me. And I went through the process of being taught, like many of us do, by formal and informal teachers. When I started learning, I didn’t really have the benefits that guitar students do these days with YouTube and lots of other things online, and I just had a massive thirst for knowledge really. I hope that answers your question for the beginning.
Donnie: Yeah. Yeah, it does. I think that’s a common story for a lot of us growing up. It’s like once the guitar bug bites, you know. I know myself, as an example, I didn’t have time for anything else. Not for sports, or you know.
Heath: Yeah, exactly.
Donnie: Even girls sometimes. It was like: “No, I’m not going to go out tonight. I’m going to stay home and play my guitar.”
Heath: I know it.
Donnie: Yeah. So, let’s talk about teaching guitar a little bit. You mentioned that you took some guitar lessons. How did you get started with teaching, and are you still doing it? Can you tell us a little bit about your current operation and your program?
Heath: Sure. Sure. Look, I started teaching for a couple reasons. Being a guitar player, in the beginning, for a lot of us, is not very lucrative. It’s tough to get shows and it’s tough to actually make money out of playing the guitar, so I did a lot of things that had to do with guitar because I thought that that’s really what I wanted to do. So, I looked at all the options that I possibly could do, which was playing in a band, playing in a covers band, playing sessions, and teaching was an option as well. And all those certainly are, at least when I realized this is really what I wanted to do with my life, teaching was the easiest option and it looked like it was fairly good money.
Certainly for the time it was for me, when I was about 23 was when I really started teaching seriously. And how that came about was a few friends of mine asked if I could teach them to play, so I did it for a little bit and sort of cut my teeth, I guess you could call it, and worked out how I could teach. Was it easy? Was it hard? What did I need to know to teach? And then I did this crazy thing and I advertised in the newspaper, in the local newspaper, that I gave guitar lessons, and I never really looked back since then. I did that one ad and it generated such a massive amount of inquiries for me at the time that I was constantly getting calls and referrals, and then, going down to the local music store that had opened up in my hometown, I just asked them one day if they had a guitar teacher and they said they did, but they were firing him, apparently because he didn’t turn up a lot.
So, I put my hand up and I started teaching there six days a week. They were open six days a week and I taught every single day, and I was teaching upward of 45 to 50 students a week sometimes. It was great. I really cut my teeth as a teacher then in those early years, probably between 23 to 26 for me. It was a great period of time because I really got to see what worked and what didn’t for student. Now, fast forward to 20 years later, I teach a smaller amount of students. I teach about 15 to 18 students. Really keen, hardcore students rather than teaching an enormous amount of students. And how I do it these days is really I work with my students to find out exactly what they want before we go down the road of teaching them a whole bunch of material they don’t need.
So, I’m very particular about the people that I teach and I get them to be particular about what they want to learn. You know, we have to go through a certain amount of time where we will get some foundation things happening. I always make sure I work with my students to make sure their foundation is as solid as possible so that everything can springboard from that. You know, I have a number of different things that I work with, with students that are across the board; that I always keep with students that I know that work now.
Donnie: Okay, that’s cool. I like the way you mentioned having that student-driven focus. That’s been my experience too. I mean you kind of have a spectrum of guitar teachers, and on one side you have people like you and I that let the student’s interest kind of drive the focus of the lessons, and I find that that keeps their motivation level really high. And then, on the other side of the spectrum, you have teachers that tend to kind of have more of a benevolent dictator approach, where they kind of drive things and say, “No, you have to learn this,” and you know. So, that’s a great perspective there.
Heath: Yeah, I went through that as well. I certainly went through that period of this is what you must learn, and that’s where I learned, well, sometimes that just doesn’t work for students. And the way I look at it is, to me, the guitar is a piece of wood with strings on it. To me, what comes out of the guitar, and I tell this to all my students, is them, because the guitar, without them, is nothing. And if you consider that everything that comes out of the guitar, whether it be great, whether it sounds awful, whether it be loud, whether it be soft, whether it be beautiful, it’s all them because they’re creating the sound, not the guitar.
Donnie: Yeah. So, you mentioned a couple, it sounds like, pretty fortuitous circumstances. Right? You mentioned the ad that you placed in the newspaper that got a tremendous amount of response, and then happening to walk into the music store at just the right time when they were about to fire the other teacher. So, I mean besides those two pretty big events, what’s been the biggest key, you think, to success with your guitar lessons so far?
Heath: Okay, good question. I think the real key is making sure that the students feel that they are actually moving forward, because over the years I’ve noted, when students don’t feel like they’re actually making any progress, they will get lazy and they perhaps won’t practice, or they’re not inspired. So, what I see is my job and has been the most successful thing for me as a teacher is to, number one, inspire my students to want to play. There’s always that they want to play because they wouldn’t come in the first place. My job is to make sure that every time that they leave a lesson with me that they, number one, feel like they move forward and they had fun. Two: that they had fun.
So, to me, it’s like 80 percent of our lesson is about having fun or being inspired and enjoying the process of learning and playing the guitar, and then the other 20 percent is really the key factors of learning that we need to go through. And I’ve found that that’s worked brilliantly for me and it really does keep my students inspired, happy, willing to work, because they’re enjoy it, and that’s why we all pick up the guitar from what I can tell. It’s certainly why I did it. It’s such a great thing and enjoyable thing to do.
Donnie: Yeah, it’s supposed to be fun, isn’t it?
Donnie: Yeah. So, what are some ways that have worked for you to help keep things fun?
Heath: One of the things I do with students is we talk about a lot of different bands that they enjoy, and we’ll often play quite a few of their songs. I find that working with backing tracks and working with different techniques that they can. So, we might do a couple of techniques that they need to work on to either get their chord changes or they need to be able to get their picking correct or play something a little bit faster than normal, but then we’ll work on something that’s completely out of left field. It might be just a simple guitar trick that sounds cool or a technique that they can play to impress their friends. You know, just something to keep that fun element of playing.
That’s some of the things that have really worked for me, and I find I just develop a great rapport with a lot of my students. That’s one of the things that I love about it; is that some of the students who started back with me back those 20 years ago and 15 years ago are still friends of mine today. You know, I’ll go and sit down with them and have lunch with them, and we talk about guitar or music, or whatever. And they’re still playing guitar, but they may not be visiting me as a student, but it’s something that we still have in common and it’s such a great place to be. You know, just having that fun about the guitar. And like I said, I’ve always been inspired by the sound of it and I just love it. I just love guitar playing. It’s great fun.
Donnie: Yeah, it is. And one of the things that I love about teaching guitar is what you just mentioned; that there’s just so much fulfillment that you get out of being able to work with people, and then see. You’ll still know them, like you said, but see the results and the progress that they make on the guitar, you know, five to ten years down the road. And some of them actually do music as a career, and just knowing you were able to play a part in that.
Heath: Absolutely. I have two students, particularly two that I want to mention, who have gone on to make professional careers of their own. And one of these guys is in his mid to late-20s, I think, and he’s in LA, playing for a career, and he’s sending me back pictures of him with Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top and Alice Cooper, and a whole bunch of stuff. You know, he’s just fantastic. He sent me a video. He was on the Letterman Show recently. And to me, it’s like: “Wow.” There was a moment in time where I had a part of that success for him, and it feels good.
Heath: And another student who I remember one of the first lessons I had with him, he was attempting to play open C chord and his fingers were hurting so much, he was in tears. And you know, now, fast-forward 15 years later; he’s a professional musician. It’s crazy.
Heath: It’s crazy.
Donnie: Yeah, that’s so cool. Like I said, that’s my favorite probably aspect of the whole thing. Yeah. So, you’ve had, so far, a very diverse career with music. I mean everything from session work to the teaching side of it to live performance and a lot of other things. I’m sure there has been times in the past where things weren’t always, you know, going your way and there might have been some discouraging areas too, and I was just curious. What kind of things helped to keep you motivated to just keep going when things don’t seem to be going as well as you would like them to.
Heath: A couple things. I know the times aren’t always brilliant, and that’s the ups and downs of life. If life wasn’t up and down, we probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much. What I find – two things particular that I find is hanging about with people who are positive. That’s number one.
Heath: And unfortunately, I’ve found, in the music industry, especially amongst players, there tends to be this pessimism. And I was never really interested in hanging around that, so I found a lot of people through various ways of personal development courses and then found musicians who were more interested in being positive and working towards projects and being happy about them, but that was a way of keeping me involved in making sure things went right. So, it was goal setting. So, if I wanted to have what I called gold-level students, so I wanted to have people who were super keen, who were willing to spend the time practicing, and I wanted to have ten gold students by the end of April, for instance, then I would set about working down that road and I would do it via referrals or I would ask my current students, “Do you want to move to a gold-level student? Do you want to be able to do this, this, this, and this and create this?”
So, that was one way. Another way was actually going and doing some guitar lessons myself, and keeping my hand in being the student. So, remember what it’s like to be a student so that I could then turn that around and go and help my students. Just visiting teachers. You know, there’s always somebody who I find that’s better than me as a guitar player. It’s sad. It doesn’t matter how good I get, there’s always people who are better than me, and that’s such a great thing because then I can. Any of these guys. You know, I’ve gone up and approached some people and I’ve had a fistful of cash in my hand. I said, “Please, will you teach me how to do what you do?” And generally waving cash under their nose generally helps. Helps them find some time. And a lot of the guitar players that I do ask are very busy players and they’re so willing that we end up just talking guitar for hours.
And also, they might only give me a couple of things that I can live on for the next year. You know? There’s so much to learn, and that’s how I do it. It’s always learning new things; is for me. That’s what keeps me motivated.
Donnie: Yeah, that’s awesome. I actually encourage people to do that as often as they possibly can, and I’ve done other podcast episodes about that, but that’s one of the best ways to keep growing as a musician yourself. And like you said, it also gives you perspective as a teacher, because a lot of times you forget what it’s like to sit in that other chair.
Donnie: Yeah, so taking lessons with someone else really highlights the skills that you need to be a successful student so that you can remind your students about that and kind of help reinforce it, but it also shows you what it’s like to be a teacher from the other perspective. So, very valuable.
Heath: Absolutely. Yeah.
Donnie: Yeah. So, we’re going to shift gears here in a second. We’re going to talk about RiffMaster Pro, but I just had one more teaching question for you.
Donnie: We have a lot of people listening to the podcast who are kind of new at the whole guitar teaching game, and I was just wondering what advice you might have for someone who’s thinking about getting started with guitar lessons for the first time as a teacher.
Heath: Yeah, for the first time, I think I jumped into it not really knowing what to do, because I thought: “Because I can play, then obviously I can teach.” And that was not the case. I had to learn how to teach. It’s very different than playing. My thoughts and my advice would really be to make sure that you can understand the basics that need to be in place so that the student can get where they want to get to. And one of the things I always do with all of my students and suggest every teacher does is really work out what the student knows, what they want to know, and what they goals are, because then it’s a lot easier for us, as teachers, to give them what they want so that they can have that fun time and feel like they’re moving forward.
It’s always kind of like setting a little bit of a goal for them. And it is tough when you’re teaching for the first time because there’s this, you know, “Am I good enough myself to impart knowledge to anybody else?”
Donnie: Right. Right.
Heath: That’s always a question going on for me. Who am I to teach somebody else? And I look at it from: “Well, if I can add value to this person and help them even just a little bit, even if they only come to me for a few months and then they move to another teacher, or they look at something else or they try a different style. Whatever it is, if I can just give them just a little bit of value, then that’s a job done and happy with. So, if you’re starting for the first time, it’s really looking at it from helping students. And even if you’ve never taught before, go and do some teaching for free.
I did some community college teaching to classes, and that was a real eye-opener, because I had never taught a class before and then I walked in and there were 30 people with guitars.
Heath: Donnie, I don’t know if you’ve ever taught a class full of people before, but when everybody plays, it’s mayhem.
Donnie: I have, but not 30.
Heath: It was like jumping into the fire. It was amazing. And again, that taught me how to simplify stuff. So, simplify it and I guess make it process-driven. So, as much as guitar is an artistic thing, we have to be process-driven technically, I guess. You know, I talk about, with my students, there’s really only three things that we need to learn. And number one is technique, number two is theory, and number three is expression.
Heath: And the technique is all that stuff that we need to get over, being able to move our hands to get into the right chord shapes or player scale, or the picking or whatever it is that we have to coordinate. You know, there’s that stuff, and then the theory side of it, which scares so many students and one of my things is breaking that stuff down so it’s very, very simple to understand, because that’s how I wanted it to be when I was learning. It was all this big mystery about theory. And then the expression, which can only come from us a guitar player and from our heart and from our head. And to me, there’s a couple of things that when I said to you before that the guitar is just wood with strings on it. The music really comes from inside us.
And I know that’s kind of esoteric, but it’s true. The more I see guitar players accept that, the better their playing becomes.
Donnie: Yeah. Yeah, that’s so true. I guess the way I’ve always thought of playing the guitar is it’s always been kind of like an extension of your soul almost. You know, who you are as a person just comes out when you express yourself that way. So, I totally agree with you on that. Yeah, so let’s talk about RiffMaster Pro. Tell us a little bit about what the software is just in case there are people listening who haven’t heard of it before, and kind of how you ended up creating it.
Heath: Sure. Sure. Well, RiffMaster Pro really is a basic software tool that’s available for the Mac, it’s available for Windows, and also we have it on iPhone and iPad as well at this stage. It just takes a music track and slows it down. That’s really the basic premise of it, and retains the pitch. Now, the reason that I did that was because when I learned the guitar, when I was around about 13, one of the things that bugged me was everybody played so fast and I could never play as fast as these guys on the record. So, I came up with this brilliant idea on my father’s old turntable. Do you remember those?
Donnie: Yes, I do.
Heath: Starting to show my age. And you know, this was great because I’d have these AC/DC records that I would save my money and purchase, and I’d have those 45s on the turntable and I was just sort of dragging my thumb along the edge of the turntable and it slowed down. And I thought: “Oh, how can I get that to do that?” So, I would just put a bunch of coins on top of the middle of the record and it would actually weigh the turntable down so much that it would slow the song down, so it would slow the guitar solo down. So, I could learn Angus Young’s guitar solos from a lot of that early AC/DC stuff, which is what turned me on as a guitar player.
And number one problem with that was as soon as I slowed that down, the pitch of the song changed as well, so I’d end up having to learn something way down on the bottom E string, but it was actually played high up on the high E string and B string on the 12th fret or the 15th fret. But I had to play it all the way down on the open strings because that was how I heard it. And I thought: “Well, wouldn’t it be great if there was a possibility to slow something like that down without changing the pitch?” So, cut a long story short, fast-forward to technology that we can actually use to create that, and I went about with a student actually, and we looked into the software development of how we could possibly do this.
And we did this really because I just wanted it (A) for my, because I was playing in a lot of cover bands at the time and I thought: “Well, if I can learn songs quickly and effectively, I could get more work. So we developed this very archaic, little thing on a Windows machine, and it worked. It wasn’t brilliant, but it worked. And I started to show my students and it helped them. We had a few students who were testing it and it was great. And then the further and further along we got, we decided to put more features in it. And again, cut a long story short, we kind of went down this road of developing more and more and more and more, and then yeah, it’s now on sale. It’s a great product, and guitar players from hundreds of countries around the world actually buy this as well as guitar teachers to help their students as well.
So, really just the basic premise is that it’ll slow a song down and retain the pitch so that we can learn something. So, if we’re learning an AC/DC solo, we can play it at 25 percent the speed of what Angus plays it at, but we can still play it in exactly the same position on the guitar neck and all the same notes. Just makes getting those notes and finding the pinpoint accuracy in them, and that’s what it was about for me. Just finding exactly what these guys were playing and not trolling the Internet for tablature that wasn’t all that correct half the time.
Donnie: Right. Right. So, since we’re talking to guitar teachers here, I mean this is obviously something that anyone who plays the guitar can use, but could you maybe give us some specific ideas about how many guitar teachers could use a tool like RiffMaster Pro in their lessons?
Heath: Absolutely. Look, to me, ear training is the key as a musician. If your ear is developed, then life is so much easier as a musician. It’s more enjoyable as a musician as well. And one of the things that I did with a lot of my students with the software, especially if they only had a half-hour lesson. You know, I had a lot of young people who were coming in for half-hour lessons and they’d bring me in a CD and go: “Hey, I want to learn this.” And I went through that period of just working these songs out as quickly as possible on the RiffMaster Pro. That was one way of doing it so that we could cut down their, I guess, learning window, so it was a lot quicker and easier for them to learn the song. And therefore, they kept coming back to me, which was great, because they had an enjoyable time and they got to play the things they wanted to do quite quickly.
That’s what I found was very useful. It also has a loop feature that we could loop a certain section and slow it down a bit. So, if a student was struggling with a section in a song, then we could take those four bars perhaps and loop that section, and then slow it down a little bit, and then they could play along and then play along and then play along and then play along. That’s where I found it to be extremely useful. And then students then getting the software and then taking it into their own music or changing the key. That’s another feature that we have involved in RiffMaster Pro. If we wanted to work on a backing track, say, that was in the key of B, but we wanted to move it to A for ease of playing, or any other key for that matter, we could quite simply do that with a couple clicks of a mouse and then play in a different key.
Donnie: Yeah, that’s great. It’s a really useful tool, sounds like. And I noticed. Since you mentioned that you used it as a teacher and also your students would take it and use it as well, I noticed that you offer an affiliate program for RiffMaster Pro, and to me that’s something that guitar teachers could sign up for and they could refer their students to your software through their affiliate link, and then that would be a way for it to kind of pay for itself. Right?
Heath: Absolutely. It’s another income stream for them really. Originally, when I made the software, I didn’t even think that I would be out selling it. It was more or less for me and me and my students. And now it’s become this entity of its own, and we started the affiliate program for that reason. So that teachers could go out there and resell the software. And (A) they can offer it to their students and they can make a little bit of commission of it. It’s 50 percent commission, so whatever they sell, they get 50 percent of whatever it sells for. And currently the Mac version and the Windows version is 49 US dollars retail.
Heath: So, teachers can put a link up on their website or send their students to us directly, and we have our affiliate program there. If any of your teachers want to be involved in that, they can contact me, and you can put a contact address or whatever you’d like to do on the website.
Donnie: Okay. Yeah, I’ll definitely. I’ll put a link in the show notes for this episode. Not only to the software itself, but to your affiliate program page so that any teachers that are interested could check that out.
Heath: Absolutely. Thank you, Donnie. That’ll be great.
Donnie: Yeah. So, I guess we’re just about out of time here. Do you have any parting advice for the guitar teachers who might be listening today?
Heath: Well, parting advice. I feel like I’m wise. You know, it comes down, to me, to a couple of things really. I think, as a guitar teacher and guitarist in general, that we forget sometimes how blessed we are. If we can do this for a living, and whether we make a lot of money or not, I think it’s a privilege to be able to teach. Teaching, to me, is also a great way of keep my chops up because it keeps me on my toes. You know, I love getting students who are a bit of a challenge, who come in and I can give them a whole bunch of stuff to work on, and then the next week they’re done. You know? I go: “Oh my God, I need to come up with something new for them to do,” and that keeps me in the process.
So, if you can remember why you’re doing it, and to me it’s always about fun. It’s about imparting some knowledge. If we can, as guitar teacher, every time a student walks out that they have a smile on their face and that they have actually moved forward, that’s where it is. You know, like we said before, it’s seeing that improvement. That’s the biggest thing; is that we’re privileged to teach and it’s really about fun. And then, if we can make a living out of it, then that’s a super bonus for me.
Donnie: Yeah, absolutely.
Heath: May I say before we finish? I think what you’re doing is a fantastic thing for guitar teachers. There was nothing like this available when I first started, or at least there was nothing that I knew about, and I think that you being willing to share this information with other guitar teacher just reminds us that we’re not by ourselves and that there’s someone out there who’s going through the same thing we are. You know, if we’re having trouble with a student or we’re having trouble with motivating students or motivating ourselves, there’s always different ways that we can get through that. And just having a bit of a community where we can talk to each other on this level, with that: “Hey, this what I’ve experienced, this is what you’ve experienced, and how we can help each other,” I just think is such a great thing, Donnie.
So, I’m going to be letting all my subscribers from RiffMaster Pro know about your systems and what you’re doing, because there are tons of guitar teachers out there that would be so happy to just get a little bit of advice, even if it’s just a small thing.
Donnie: Yeah. Well, I really appreciate the kind words, Heath. I mean and that’s really why I started doing this to begin with; is because I just wanted to share what I’ve learned over the years, and we really are a community here at StartTeachingGuitar.com, so we’re kind of all teaching each other. I mean I’ve learned so much through my interaction with other teachers, so it’s just like you said. It’s all about the community aspect of it and just doing what we can to share what we know. You know?
Donnie: So, yeah, I appreciate that. And I just want to say thanks for taking the time to be on the podcast today, Heath. I really appreciate it.
Heath: Thank you, Donnie. Thank you for having me. It’s been great.
Donnie: Yeah. And just as we wrap it up here, if anyone is interested in purchasing RiffMaster Pro, an easy way to get there is to go to StartTeachingGuitar.com/RiffMasterPro, and that’ll bring you directly to Heath’s sales page, and I’ll also have link in the show notes, like I mentioned before. So, anyway, thanks a lot, Heath. I appreciate it.
Heath: Brilliant. Thank you, Donnie. I appreciate it, too. Thank you, mate.
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