Interview With Instructor Tom Kolb

Posted by Michael Mueller on June 28, 2016 at 2:40 PM

Guitarist Tom Kolb is not only one of our longest-tenured instructors here at  but also one of our most popular. A professional guitarist for several decades, Kolb has taught at Musicians Institute for over 25 years, played with the Edgar Winter Group, the Monkees, the Turtles, and Mitch Ryder, served as music director for Mark Lindsey (Paul Revere and the Raiders), and even jammed with Steven Spielberg on some Klezmer music. In this interview, Kolb offers tips and advice for guitarists looking to improve their playing.

Browse all Tom Kolb guitar video lessons

You’ve been an instructor at Musicians Institute for over 25 years now. How did that gig come about?
I graduated from the guitar program (then called G.I.T.) in 1989. I was named “student of the year” and received a Howard Roberts fusion guitar for that. Right away, I started getting calls to sub for teachers, and by 1991, I was hired on as full-time staff.

Tom KolbAs a longtime guitar instructor, what are some of the most common mistakes you see students make?
Most commonly, it’s a lack of focus. They sit down and start noodling their favorite licks, and before they know it, an hour has gone by and all they’ve done is played stuff they already know well for the whole practice session. It’s an easy trap to fall into—I do it, you probably do it—because it’s frustrating to learn new skills or new material.

Guilty as charged. Are there others?
I’ve noticed that students don’t learn repertoire any more; they don’t learn complete songs. Players of our generation learned guitar by learning songs and copying our favorite players. We didn’t learn just the riff.

Also, I see many students who spend way too much time learning flashy licks and not nearly enough time on rhythm guitar, chord vocabulary, fills, and the like. I tell my students that if they’re going to play guitar for a living in any capacity, they’re going to be playing rhythm guitar for nearly all of it.

What have you learned from teaching?
One of the main reasons I keep teaching is that it’s like taking lessons. When trying to explain a concept to students, sometimes you have to try to explain the same thing 12 different ways to get everyone to understand it, so you’re forced to come up new ways of looking at concepts that may be old and familiar to you.

I’ve also learned that stage fright is far more common than I’d ever thought. Everyone gets nervous to some degree when performing publicly—including me. From helping my students learn to deal with it, I’ve learned how to handle my own nerves, how to not be afraid to express myself musically, and how to not worry what anyone else thinks.

Do you still practice?
I’m a very busy teacher, but I’m first and foremost a player. I play in a very successful cover band that tours and plays lots of Hollywood parties and other private events, where our set list is dictated by what the client wants, so I sometimes learn 20 new songs a month. And it’s through learning new songs—some that I’ve never even heard of—that I learn new things on the guitar.

For example, with some of the newer, contemporary tunes, I encounter strange tunings and chord shapes that I need to figure out and learn how to play. And because I work with two keyboard players, we learn a lot of our songs in unfriendly guitar keys, like Gb or Db, so I can’t always rely on basic open chords and familiar patterns. I’ve actually learned how to play The Beatles’ “here Comes the Sun” using my index finger in place of a capo!

What 5 tips would you offer to improve your playing?

  1. As I alluded to earlier, I think it’s imperative that guitarists build repertoire. If nothing else, learn every Beatles solo—you’ll learn how music works just in doing that!
  2. When you learn a solo, take the time to learn why it works over the chords.
  3. Learn how to transpose music, so you can use your favorite licks in other keys.
  4. Listen—especially to other musicians. Playing with loops and backing tracks is great practice, but playing with other musicians and listening to what they’re doing is where you get so many new ideas.
  5. Finally, over-practice; that is, don’t practice only until you get it right, but when you get it right every single time, and then practice some more.

How do you feel about about sight reading?
It’s so valuable, yet it’s still a problem for guitar players. Many of my students have to start right from the beginning with learning the staff, the notes, basic theory, and so on. But if you stick with it and become a proficient reader, you’ll end up playing with better players, and that opens up all sorts of opportunities. Even learning how to read chord charts will help. Oftentimes at important auditions, they may just put a chart in front of you, and you need to be able to navigate it and make the music happen.

Besides your lessons at here, what instructional products do you recommend to your students?
Well, since we were just talking about sight reading, I think David Oakes’ sight reading book, Music Reading for Guitar, is excellent. We also discussed building repertoire, and the new G-Plus Song lessons at GuitarInstructor are great for that. As for my own books, I’m really proud of my Soloing Strategies book and the new Connecting Pentatonic Patterns book, which I use a lot with rock players who are trying to learn the neck.

Music Reading for GuitarSoloing StrategiesConnecting Pentatonic Patterns

Any final words for guitarists?
Tone! Tone! Tone! I know guitarists love to talk about tone, and they chase it constantly, but you’ve got to learn how to dial in a great guitar tone. People won’t listen to you if you’ve got horrible tone.

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sammy zoso on July 14, 2016 at 1:29 AM

Great interview with Tom. I hope you'll do more of these in the future. A comment and request related to instruction is I see nothing for the lower level or mid level intermediate in terms of a path or plan for steady improvement and mastery. There are lots of lessons that are helpful and informative but seem disconnected unlike beginner lessons. An organized instructional plan would be most helpful for those of us at lower intermediate level or slightly above.

Stratocat on July 10, 2016 at 7:56 PM

Tom was the second player who taught me how to play guitar when we were in high school. He was the best guitar player in school and as a friend, I played with him several times, always watching and listening to what he was doing since he was so much better the myself. I still use some of his techniques that I remember from back then. I knew he would be successful at his craft. He is only one of two musicians that I have known and played with , in all of these years, that have made a successful life long vocation of playing and teaching music. They just don't make them like Tom anymore which is too bad for the kids coming up. All of his advice is on point.