2015 Interlochen Fingerstyle Guitar Workshop

July 29 - August 1, 2015
Interlochen, MI

Ever since 2012, I've fallen into a pattern where in the odd numbered years I am the director of the Interlochen Stick Workshop and in the even numbered years I am a student at the Fingerstyle Guitar Workshop. This year was a bit of an oddity for me though as I had an extended sabbatical from my job and was able to spend six weeks at our house up in Leelanau County. With that much time off and only two weeks separating the two workshops, I was able to do both.

On July 16th, we kicked off the biennial Stick Workshop and although our attendance was a little light, the workshop was a huge success. With a week off in between, I began to set my sights on the guitar workshop. Even though I'd planned on coming for some time, I actually registered fairly late. That meant that only a week before the workshop started, I received the sheet music for our ensemble piece that pretty much everyone else had been working on already for a month. This year, Tom Clippert sent along a somewhat ambitious arrangement of Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Back Home" and it was apparent that I had some cramming to do. So that was pretty much what I did during my week off. Loved it too!


As has been the case for every workshop since the 2012 season, Wisconsin guitarist Matt Schroeder was the workshop director and traveled with his partner Tom Clippert from Chicago.

The marquee teachers this year were Thom Bresh and Don Ross. Bresh is a bit of a fingerstyle legend from Nashville. His father was Merl Travis and he basically spent his young life learning to play guitar from Travis and also from the likes of Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed. Don Ross is from Toronto and was the first player to sign with Candyrat Records. Don's repertoire is generally a bit more modern and he likes to play with a lot of altered tunings. I was really looking forward to both of these guys.


The workshop started mid-day on Wednesday. This year I was starting with some added complication. Rasa had to return to Novi for work and I kept the dogs with me. Not a big deal except that they needed to be periodically let out and fed. So for the first two days I would be making the 30 minute trek back to the house for lunch and for dinner. Luckily on Wednesday, things didn't kick off until the afternoon so I would only have to make that trek once.

So once we were all registered, we kicked off with the meet and greet. We went around the room and all of the students introduced themselves. It was nice to see a few familiar faces from previous workshops. Then the faculty introduced themselves and played a little. Matt and Tom did a duet that I really liked. The tune was composed by a guitar player named Benjamin Verdery and was called "Mobile Alabama". Next Don Ross gave us an intro and played one of his original tunes. Lastly, Thom Bresh introduced himself, talked a little about the guitars he brought, and played. One of his guitars was a Merl Travis commemorative edition made by Martin. They made one hundred of them and Thom was playing #1. He also had a two sided guitar called a "Super Dualette" made by Del Langejans.

After the intros we broke into our ensemble groups. Each group got an hour with Tom to start working on our pieces and an hour with Matt to start learning how to play "Cannonball Rag". We started with Tom. I was actually pleasantly surprised. As I'd mentioned, our ensemble piece was pretty ambitious and I expected the first day to be pretty disastrous but it was completely opposite. It was pretty apparent that everyone had taken it seriously and put a lot of effort into their parts prior to our arrival. So although there were definitely some hiccups, it sounded pretty good. After that we switched rooms and worked on Cannonball Rag with Matt. It was really fun to dig into this tune some more. Last year Muriel Anderson touched on this tune a bit and I'd always wanted to learn it. Plus this year, Matt had the opportunity to run his charts by Thom Bresh before passing them onto us and Bresh gave it his approval. So there you go!

After that we broke for dinner. I had about two hours before the first concert so I charged home to feed the dogs dinner and grab some food for myself. With that all taken care of, I charged back to campus to catch Don Ross. I have to admit that I wasn't real familiar with Don's stuff before this week. I really enjoyed his material though and he's just a phenomenal player. The concert was great and a good start to the week.


The 9:00AM sessions stayed true to form with Tom Clippert leading us through warm up exercises for for the left and right hands. For the Thursday session, Tom went for the Guliani exercises. These are always a good kickoff in the morning and serve to get our hands working smoothly.

At 10AM we had a two hour session with Thom Bresh. Thom talked a lot about his own experiences as a guitar player and, of course, dug into his own style of Travis picking. In addition to being a master guitarist, Thom also proved himself to be a master story teller and did a good job of keeping our attention until we broke for lunch.

I still had several hours before Rasa would arrive so I busted out immediately and made the 30 minute drive to the house to let the dogs out and throw down some lunch myself. The lunch breaks also served as practice time so they were plenty long enough for me to take a leisurely lunch. I was back in plenty of time for the afternoon session.

The first order of business after lunch was a session with Don Ross. Don was keen on talking about his tunings and his reasoning behind his tuning selections. This is something I've been playing with a lot more lately so it was cool to hear. As it turns out, it's something Don has played with since he first picked up guitar. He said he was always tweaking tunings simply to make songs he was already playing easier to play. Eventually this just became his norm.

After Don's session wrapped up, we took a short break and then got into the first of two master classes. All four teachers (Matt, Tom, Don, and Thom) took part in the class. Several of the students took a shot at performing and getting some solid critiquing. Still battling with my schedule and the schedule of the dogs, I had to bail a bit early to make the run home for dinner and then back for the evening's open mic at the Karlin Inn.

Last fall Matt had contacted me about possibly doing a short session during the workshop showing of the Stick, describing how it works, and letting some students get their hands on it. We communicated several times in the months that followed and decided that I would host the open mic and play the Stick. I was pretty keen on the idea and plus I still had all my gear from the Stick workshop with me so the timing was perfect. So I made the drive home, fed the dogs, grabbed some dinner, and then headed to the Karlin Inn. I gave myself a somewhat ridiculous amount of time to drive back as the Beach Boys were performing at Kresge and I thought I'd be fighting heavy traffic. I was early enough though where it wasn't even a factor and I ended up at the Karlin in about an hour early. There were some other students already there eating though so I grabbed a seat and waited for the rest of the crew.

We kicked off the open mic at around 7:30PM. I opened up with a couple of tunes that were clean Stick without the effects or loops just so people could hear what it sounds like. I opted to start with the Beatles "Here, There, and Everywhere" and followed up with Bonfa's "Manha De Carnival". It was fun and really got the crowd rolling. From there, our student lineup followed which was (in order) Owen Goldin, Don Spezia, Scott Sisson, Bill Bauer, Randy Morris, Larry Pilotto, and Rhys Coiro. With plenty of time left in the evening, we rolled again from the beginning. I opted to turn on the loops and played "Sunday In Salt Spring" which seems to always be a crowd favorite. Matt Schoeder took the stage to play a few tunes including a duet with Matt singing and playing guitar along with Martha Smith singing harmonies. Tom Clippert ran a couple of tunes and asked me to join him on "Autumn Leaves" which was a real treat for me. At the end, Tom Bresh plays a handful of tunes. By this time it was becoming apparent to me that Thom will never turn down a chance to play. Plus he has that indefinable quality that results in any crowd eating out of his hands. He just killed it at this small family restaurant in rural Michigan and I looked around wondering how many people in the room had any idea who it was that was entertaining them. A real master and a perfect wrap-up to a great evening.


Friday saw us back with Tom at 9:00AM switching from right hand exercises over to some left hand work. From there we had another Thom Bresh session that ran until about noon and then it was time for lunch.

Rasa had finally arrived the night before which meant that my dog duties were passed to her and I was free to stay at Interlochen. I went down to Stone for lunch and ended up having lunch with Don Ross. He had arrived at the Karlin Inn the night before in time to catch my Stick playing and admitted that he'd started dabbling and had picked up a used Megatar. He said he hadn't really taken a shine to it yet but described the setup and it was pretty obvious that the previous owner had really messed up the setup on it. So I steered him a little on how it should be setup and tuned and he promised to have another go at it post-workshop.

In the afternoon we were back with Don Ross for his last session. Again we went through several alternate tunings and Don passed out some TAB for a few of his own tunes to illustrate how he arrived at the tunings and how he uses them.

After Don's session, we got back into our ensemble groups and continued to work on our group pieces for Saturday's performance. Again everyone was very well prepared and the piece seemed to be firming up quite nicely.

After that we broke for dinner. The evening saw a performance by Thom Bresh. Unfortunately at this point though, I had to break away for other obligations. I didn't feel too bad though as I was able to hear Thom play quite a bit over the course of the workshop.


Saturday was the last day. We started at 10AM with another master class. Again Matt and Tom ran the class but both Don Ross and Thom Bresh were there. We had a solid lineup of players for the class and it was very constructive. At the end we simply asked for some good advice from Don and Thom. Both had a lot of good stuff to offer. Among other things, Don talked about listening to other players and trying not to get hung up with focusing on other guitarists. Thom made some good points about melodies in original compositions. All good stuff to take to heart.

After the morning session, we broke for lunch again. This time I ended up eating with Tom, Matt, and Thom Bresh. We got Bresh talking a lot about his days as a Hollywood stunt man way back when which was as interesting as you could imagine. A great lunch to say the least.

In the afternoon, the ensembles had one last run through of their pieces and then the last performance got underway. Both group pieces went very well. The other group performed "Turn, Turn, Turn" and after a shaky last practice, absolutely nailed it in the performance. We followed up with our piece and all went really well. After that, Tom Clippert and Matt Schroeder took turns doing some tunes and were really fantastic to hear. To wrap it all up, Thom Bresh played a couple more tunes and took the performance out with a bang. From there, I said my goodbyes and headed back to the house to meet up with Rasa and some friends who'd just arrived. I still had another four weeks before I had to go back to work and Rasa was just starting a ten day stay.

Post Workshop

On Sunday we woke up to storm warnings for the area. By this time anyone who wasn't staying was likely well on their way home so the timing could have been worse. We saw on the weather radar that storms were rolling in off Good Harbor so we went down to the beach to watch. It was pretty spectacular and when the rains started, we headed home. We were due for two more storms to make landfall that day. We went back to the beach for the second one and for the third, we opted to climb up Sugarloaf and watch it come in from there. We figured we'd get wet so we took rain coats. We didn't make it to the top when the third storm rolled in. This one was quite different from the others. There was a very strange blue stripe in the clouds and there was that freight train roar that tornado witnesses always talk about. The wind really started getting out of hand so we rounded up the dogs and found some low ground to take cover in. After it subsided a bit, we headed back to the house and trees were down everywhere. We were lucky as we were able to get back to the house but several neighbors had trees across their driveways, on their house, or on their vehicles. We spent the rest of the day helping neighbors clean up and learned that roads were blocked in every direction. Nobody was getting in our out and the nearby town of Glen Arbor in particular had taken on the look of a war zone. When all was said and done, the official reports stated that no tornados had come through but there were winds in excess of 100MPH. It would be four days before our power would come back on and closer to six or seven days for people in the path of the storm.


These workshops just seem to keep getting better. I wasn't very familiar with either Don Ross or Thom Bresh before the workshop and really came away holding both of these guys in very high regard. Tom and Matt keep upping their own contributions as well. The amount of prep they put in is admirable and especially Tom's arranging of the ensemble pieces is really impressive. I was really lucky to be able to do both the Stick and guitar workshops this year and really felt immersed in the Interlochen experience moreso that I have since ... well ... probably my last year of high school. Hopefully I can return sooner than later. As usual, what happens next year is a big question mark but I'll find out soon enough.