It may help readers and students understand me a little better if I tell my story.
When I was six, I heard a song on the radio and asked my mother what that instrument was that we heard. She told me it was a guitar. I decided right then and there that I wanted to play guitar. She told me that I would have to take two years of piano, first. Well, to a six-year-old, that is a third of his LIFE. I said okay, though, because I really wanted to play the guitar.
I took the one year of piano at school and then a year with my aunt, Margaret, with the recitals and all. They were terrifying, in front of all those people, alone, trying to play stuff I didn't like and had a hard time memorizing because of that. But I did it, anyway, because... well, you know. Looking back, it was the best thing my mother ever made me do so, thanks, Mom.
When I was eight years old, then, I asked for a guitar for Christmas. I woke up Christmas morning to find a little plastic guitar that had a crank on it which played "Pop Goes the Weasel" when you turned it. Hey! I was an EIGHT-YEAR-OLD. Now times were a lot more simple back then, but come on. Eight? Well, I broke it that day....
The next year at Christmas, I asked for a guitar again and got a cowboy hat or something like that, but no guitar. I asked again at ten and got the same results. I gave up. Then, when I was twelve, my oldest brother, Jim, had been playing coronet in band at school and somehow, sports or something, he blew out his eardrum. The doctor told my parents no more wind instruments for him, so they went and bought him a guitar and set him up with lessons from Mr. Terrill Gardner at McCord Music Company.
He came home playing songs like "Down in the Valley," pick, strum, strum, really hokey. I thought, "Whew. I sure didn't want to play that kind of stuff." But a few months later, he started playing songs that we heard on the radio.YES! That's what I had wanted to do, but it was his guitar and I was the little brother. However, that year, when I was thirteen, he had turned sixteen and guess what. He got his driver's license. That meant that every time opportunity presented itself, he was out in the car (a 1963 1/2 Fastback Ford that my Dad special ordered with a straight six in it, but it looked really cool with a red body and white top).
So every time he was gone and my other brothers weren't around to tell on me, I would sneak into his room and pull out his song sheets and chord charts and try to learn the songs. By this time, since he was playing more advanced songs, he got his hands on a Fender Esquire electric guitar (essentially a Telecaster with one pickup), which made it easier to play barre chords, so those are the chords I used from the very start. The method that Mr. Gardner taught was unique and a very fast method, by which I could see that barre chords opened up a world of chords with only a few hand shapes, or hand "positions" as they were called. I had only learned a few of the basic chords and nobody was around to tell me that barre chords are hard, so I just took it for granted that they were as easy as (or no harder than) any other chords. Within just a few weeks, I was playing songs that Jim played. I wasn't nearly as good or as fast with my changes as he was, but I could tell that the songs I was playing actually were the songs I liked, songs like "Louie Louie" and "Money" by the Kingsmen, some Bo Diddley, and others.
I was having a blast and even started trying to "pick-out" songs by ear. I was so successful at finding the chords (since songs were much more simple in the early sixties) that I started picking out the lead guitar sections of the songs. It was terribly slow going, but I really wanted to play like the records. One day, as I sat cross legged on the floor of Jim's room, guitar in hand, trying to play the notes I had found for the lead break to "Money" by the Kingsmen, I heard him behind me!
Fear ran through me as I turned to see his reaction. He had been watching me play the notes all up and down the neck on a single string and said, "Why don't you play the notes across the neck, instead," and proceeded to show me how much easier and more accurate that was. I thought he was going to be angry, but instead, he helped me with a single sentence. From that point on, I made the ame request of everybody I respected, musically, "I don't want a lesson, I don't want a speech, I don't want a paragraph, I'd like it if you could tell me one sentence that you think would help me on the guitar." I have gotten some of the greatest answers from that simple, humble question.
At age 13, most young boys are sprouting their wings and going out during the summer to play football, go swimming, hang out, etc. Instead, I spent the entire summer in my room, cross-legged on the floor, in front of the record player, picking out songs. I did take about six or seven free karate lessons, but sparring with the instructor, breaking a toe, and chipping a tooth taught me that I'd be better off playing the guitar. When I went back to school that fall, kids asked where I had been all summer and called me a big snob for not hanging out with them. To the few, I showed my chops and they understood, because in one summer, I could play pretty well. You have to consider that when you play guitar from the time you wake up until the time you go to bed, with a few interruptions for meals, bathroom breaks, and bothersome brothers, you can get pretty good pretty fast. Well, about fifteen to eighteen hours a day will make anybody pretty good pretty fast. Picking-out songs had become a lot faster, too, so I had quite a few songs that I could play partially or all the way through, but I had to learn them by ear and never wrote anything down, so I had to memorize them as I went along. This is where I developed what I later told students was my "Mike Ellis 3-in-a-row Method." If you could play something exactly right, with the record, three times in a row then you could move on to the next part. It was drudgerous work, but the payoff was exhilarating!
A little side-story goes here. When we heard that the recreation center was offering free karate lessons by a fifth degree black belt instructor, nearly every boy in the neighborhood went to take free lessons. The first lesson, the instructor said, "I know why you are all here. You want to break boards, right?"
Of course, we were all like a bunch of little puppies shaking our heads "yes." He went on to tell us how to hold our hands in ways that would prevent us from doing serious damage to them and told us that we had to achieve these hand positions at the last possible second from a cmpletely relaxed hand, to create more of a whip effect and go through the board. As I later tried to put my hand into the different positions at the last possible second, I noticed that one of these looked like the basic G chord. At that point I decided that I could become much faster with my chord changes if I could make the entire chord shape instantaneously, Eureka! It worked! It took hours of trial and error, lengthy examination, and studying what the hand wanted to naturally do and overcome it, but it worked. Now I was playing the chords as fast as the songs and had learned four or five lead guitar parts, note-for-note with the record.
My second-oldest brother, Bill, had wanted to play guitar, too and bought a Supro electric guitar. It was not nearly as nice as the Esquire, but it had six strings and you gould plug it in the Fender Princeton amplifier that Jim had gotten with the Esquire. The Supro had flat-wound strings that felt like garden snakes when you played them. I pulled it out several times when Bill was gone. He never really pursued playing it and didn't progress very fast, so I offered to buy it from him. He sold it to me for eighty dollars and BAM, I had an electric guitar. Now all I needed was an amp.
Enter Chris, another ninth grader in some of my classes and also a guitar player. He asked me if I wanted to get together with him and a drummer, Kenny Landers. I naturally said yes, since Chris and I were friends and Kenny was a classmate's older brother. I "borrowed" Jim's amp and went over there on a Monday afternoon, after school. To my surprise, Chris could play and sing at the same time, and he knew the words to several songs. After we jammed, Chris asked me if I wanted to be in a band. I said I did and he said, "Good. We have a job Saturday night."
"What?" I asked."Don't worry," he said, "it's only for an hour." I did the math in my head for two and a half minutes per song and it turned out to be at least fifteen songs that we would need. He told me not to worry, that all the songs would be like "Louie Louie," the three and four chord songs we played already.
I said that I'd give it a try and he said,"Good. You get to play lead on the songs."
I knew the lead to a couple of the songs, but not all fifteen, and the gig was five days away. That's when I learned how to improvise leads. I took leads that I knew and connected bits and pieces of different ones together. I didn't memorize these new leads and they were never the same from one practice to another, but they always seemed to sound like they sort of fit and actually didn't sound bad or out of key. In five days, we had fifteen songs with vocal, drum, and two guitar parts, but we needed a bigger amplifier. We knew that Joe had a huge Fender Bassman amp and ended up borrowing it from him. Saturday night, we ran the two guitars and the mic all through the one amp. We blew one of the speakers. Our pay for the night was thirty-five dollars and the speaker repair was twenty-five, but we were now actually professional musicians with a gig under our belts.
By now I had been in several local bands from Dallas to Lubbock, where I attended Texas Tech. I dropped out of school to be a working musician, but wasn't working. I got various little jobs, but was still living at home at twenty-three. One job fired me for a single mistake and I had heard that if you were wrongfully fired, the owner had to pay half of your unemployment benefits, so I went and filed for benefits. They asked me what kind of work I wanted to find and I told them I was a musician.
One lady smirked at me with, "Musicians have agents. Go get an agent. We don't do that here."
I said I would accept a cooking job like I had before, went through the steps for filing, and left.Two weeks later, I got a phone call from the Texas Employment Commission from a lady who told me that a Mr. Terrill Gardner at McCord Music Company was looking for a guitar teacher. I couldn't believe my ears. I had tried teaching some kids in my home, but it never seemed to work out. This opportunity, however, was with a teacher with thirty years teaching experience. Naturally, I said I would go talk to him.
Mr. Gardner said that if I wanted to work with him, he would teach me how to teach, but there were conditions. I had to attend lessons with him for an hour twice per week, I had to take only the students he gave me for starting out, and I had to pay him forty-eight percent of whatever I made for the first two months, then forty five percent and less and less as time went by. After two or three weeks of training on his method of teaching and how to interact with parents, he finally gave me three six-year-old kids to teach. I asked why three six-year-olds and he told me that their hands were too small to reach all the way around the neck of the guitar, their fingers were too tender to push down the strings, and their attention spans were about five to ten minutes. He said that if I could teach them, I could teach anybody.
These were private one-on-one lessons in a room that was way too small for the teacher, student, and parent, so I was pretty much in control, or so I thought. It was like teaching in a walk-in closet. Looking back on it, I can't believe that smoking was allowed and I smoked in that tiny space with kids in there. Anyway, the tuition was sixteen dollars per month for each student, a whopping forty-eight dollars per month, but I had to give Terrill twenty-three of it, leaving me making twenty-five dollars the first month. My number of students increased over time as I was working in a music store three days a week (if I had enough students for three days). Terrill worked at the other McCord store and I was the only teacher available. Things gradually got better with more students and decreasing commissions to Terrill.
In addition to teaching me how to teach, Terrill told me that if I was going to teach there, I had to play every song in this file cabinet drawer. It must have been hundreds. I had been playing guitar for eleven years, playing rock, blues, and rhythm and blues. I thought I was a pretty good guitar player, but knew there was a lot I didn't know. I actually did play every song in that drawer. There were songs like "Just the Way You Are" by Billy Joel, the old standard jazz tune "Satin Doll", "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire"), and so many songs that were not Rock songs.
With many of the songs, there were chords like Gm7 and D+ and many more that I had never seen. When I would ask Terrill what these chord titles meant, he would answer with the most simple answers. He did not tell me to go memorize the formula for every chord type in every key. He would say things like, "The plus sign stands for augmented. That just means to raise every 5th scale note in the chord one note each." That's the real truth about augmented, regardless of the other parts of the chord name, regardless of the distance from the Root to the 5th in major second intervals (just ignore that last part for now). He taught me to use the K.I.S.S. rule. When I asked what that was, he replied, "Keep It Simple Stupid."
Terrill was my mentor, my partner, my musical savior. He taught me HOW to teach and I use his methods to this day. The most important lesson Terrill taught me was to use the K.I.S.S> rule, but the second most important lesson was to never say something the same way twice. If you tell a student something and they don't understand it, then repeating it the same way id not going to work.