Self-taught or Music Education?

Self-taught or Music Education?

The idea of this article came up in a conversation with a friend. There is a huge number of Metalheads who are also musicians, both self-taught or with a musical education, so I wondered, among our idols, who is self-taught and who had lessons or even a conservatory education?
Either way, we have some impressive and accomplished musicians around, and I am not sure what I admire the most: learning by yourself and achieving such a high level of skill or dedicating years to studying music theory and different styles, including classical music. 

I started my research with all the Progressive Metal bands, then went through Symphonic Metal bands, and finally, I also asked for help from our community. I put together here what I came up with:
First of all, I must say it is challenging to obtain accurate information by only searching the web, and I ended up purchasing a few books to ensure the information given here is precise.

Dream Theatre, John Petrucci went to Berklee but didnt graduate and left to dedicate himself to the band. The band was actually formed at Berklee. You can read the most recent interview on the Berklee website.

“Nearly three decades after legendary Progressive Metal band Dream Theater originally formed at Berklee, the band has just released their eleventh studio album, A Dramatic Turn of Events, and is currently on a world tour. This record is the band’s first release since drummer Mike Portnoy announced his departure. Through an audition process, he has been replaced with former Berklee professor Mike Mangini”.

So yes, these guys have a music education. 

We move to three other guitar idols who are graduated and highly skilled: Joe Satriani (long solo career and bands like Deep Purple), Steve Vai (long songwriter career and collaboration with bands like Motorhead and Whitesnake), and Alex Skolnick (Testament). I picked this precise trio because Joe was Alex’s and Steve’s teacher.
Joe was at the famous Five Towns College in New York, and Alex started self-taught but ended up at Berklee, like Vai, who obtained a doctorate at Berklee. 
I particularly like Alex, and I believe he is one of the most underrated Metal guitarists around, but we all have those particular musicians we like the most, and he is among mine.
It’s worth mentioning that he left Testament and Metal to go to Berklee to study Jazz and play in Jazz bands and took this knowledge back to Testament. 

I also had to check Randy Rhoads because of his way of integrating classical guitar with Metal, and he had a very particular style. I found out Rhoads began with folk and classical guitar lessons at approximately age seven at his mother’s music school, Musonia Music School.
Randy was a guitar prodigy who became famous for playing with Ozzy Osbourne and was renowned for his heavy riffs and virtuosic lead guitar, characterised by fast picking and legato passages, minor, diminished, chromatic scales and confident vibrato.
So yes, he had a music education and environment growing up, a bit like our beloved Eddie Van Halen.
His father was a Dutch jazz pianist, clarinettist, and saxophonist. Still, Eddie and Alex were never taught to read music. Eddie, instead, watched recitals of Bach or Mozart’s repertoire and improvised. Between 1964 and 1967, he won first place in the annual piano competition at Long Beach City College. He is well-known for popularising the tapping guitar technique, allowing rapid arpeggios to be played with two hands on the fretboard.

I don’t want to go too far outside Metal musicians, but since Eddie mentioned Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page as main influences. I thought I had to look at Clapton, Page, Blackmore and obviously Hendrix.
Hendrix was self-taught, and his first instrument was an old Ukele found in the garbage.
Jimmy learnt from a book called “Play in a Day” but had guitar lessons at the age of 12 for approximately one year. He received an honorary doctoral degree from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Clapton claims that he is primarily self-taught.
He learned most of his guitar skills from other blues artists in England in the late 1950s and early 1960s
Now, regarding Page and Blackmore, it was said that “Page was an innovator for layman and Blackmore an innovator for musicians” and even if I am more “layman” than a musician, I can see it and couldn’t agree more.
Blackmore had guitar lessons for a few years, and he could read music but didn’t have a conservatory education. His unique combination of classical music, blues, and hard rock has made him one of the world’s most famous and regarded guitarists and one of the architects of the creation of Heavy Metal.

We jump to Death Metal with Gorguts and Luc Lemay, who studied music composition for four years at a music conservatory from 1996 to Winter 2000. He composes classical pieces and has some flute concertos and a violin sonata.

We move on to Melodic Death Metal Children of Bodom, Alexi Laiho (again among my fav) and Janne Wirman. Both had music education with different instruments. Alexi started piano, then violin lessons at seven years old and played classical music for five whole years until his father offered him a guitar at 11 years old. 
It’s important to mention that in Finland, the education system is focused on talent and inclination rather than a pre-established educational path, which allows teachers and parents to assist when a child manifests a particular interest in an area to help redirect towards a precise field.
Janne, like Alexi, started at an early age but applied to the Helsinki Pop & Jazz Conservatory at ten years old, where he graduated. He brought a sophisticated mix of classical music, a touch of Jazz, and wicked improvised live solos. He was also able to play in sync with  Alexi Laiho. This synchronisation can be observed during their live performances or on the recorded tracks Bed of Razors, Lake Bodom and Downfall.

Another fast guy who has an extensive curriculum and is also conservatory-educated is Rusty Cooley. After graduating High School, Rusty continued studying Music Theory at the local college and Music History and Class Piano.

The list goes on and shows how Metal benefits greatly from a Classical music academic background with various influences. It’s not only based on a DIY attitude. Metal is, in a way, the successor of Classical music in terms of how the music is composed.

I want to mention now a few prodigies who were exclusively self-taught.

The first one is Chuck Schuldiner, my number-one idol for many reasons.

Chuck’s thing was to learn his favourite songs by ear.  “He had an excellent ear for music early on, and what he listened to, he taught himself to play,” said his mother. “He loved doing that.” 

In an interview in 1993, he expressed a disinterest in music theory: “I know enough about what I’m playing to memorise the scales and things, but I have no idea how you would label them.

His music evolved and matured in arrangements and lyrics, and Chuck had a distinctive style on both vocals and guitar. Chuck’s melodic fast alternate picking was a constant on his guitar solos carried out by his B.C. Rich Stealth, as well as his returns to tremolo-picked Death Metal passages. from the old days. He mastered many types of guitar playing and created a side project called Control Denied, where he could express his music through a different light.
The Godfather of Death Metal is a self-taught prodigy.

The other musician who caught my curiosity on the matter was Michael Akerfeldt for obvious reasons: the sophistication of the arrangements and compositions going from Death Metal to Progressive (and you don’t do Progressive Metal without music theory unless you are one of these prodigies due to the complexity of the genre)
He has been the primary songwriter for the band since 1991, and there is a vast range of styles and influences. I researched the entire material available on the web, and it looks like he is indeed a self-taught musician. It made me smile to read in an interview that the first song he ever learnt was “Smoke On The Water – on the high E string”.
During my research, I came across some interesting questions but nothing objective apart from the fact he says in an interview that he learned from books. He learnt from 1 book given by his grandmother and two others purchased later.

I think Michael’s music theory knowledge may be limited – and purposefully so. Like Chuck, he seems to have a more photographic memory of music. However this was said in a discussion about Opeth, and it is very interesting:
“I’m sure Mikeal knows what key he’s playing in and knows his basic diatonic scales and chords. An interesting point raised is that “ear players” aren’t afraid of experimenting with chord shapes since the theory of each chord doesn’t necessarily bind them.

To change the focus from guitar men, I tried to find out about Thomas Haake, Meshuggah’s drummer because he is one of the best drummers around. Still, I found very little information about his music education and background. Considering all the complex double bass action, syncopated snare, chaotic accents, over-the-bar line playing and ghost notes, he set a new standard for Metal drumming, pioneering an entire style with Meshuggah in the process. When it comes to guitars, Meshuggah also innovated with 8-chord guitars producing lower sounds.

I am writing a separate piece on these fantastic drummers and the processes of integrating drums in a Metal composition. Meshuggah is “the band” to pick when it comes to drums and their quasi-mathematical music because of Haake’s skills and technique. The same goes for Mario Duplantier, another exceptional drummer I will discuss in the next piece.

To close this article with a high note, I am bringing three of the most talented Self-taught musicians, Jeff Waters, Dave Mustaine and Yngwie Malmsteen. I could be going forever, and I may even make a “second edition” of this article because I was forced to leave a few remarkable musicians out.

Dave Mustaine is indeed self-taught. That said he started as a self-taught musician however he is constantly studying and learning, and it’s safe to assume that from some point he invested in his music education. Dave’s rhythm is flawless and pure. He has a shredding lead style. He mainly uses minor pentatonic scale, adds chromatic notes sometimes and in some solos, goes for insane 4 note per string descending chromatic triplets F

He has been noted as “guitar man” number one in many books and webzines, and it is justified.

Malmsteen is self-taught and stated in an interview the following: “Yeah, I figured that out myself from listening. I would have learned a lot quicker if I had someone to show me that shit. But I don’t think you can be taught to be creative.”

I want to finish this with another underrated musician and band, Jeff Waters from the Canadian band Annihilator created in 1984.

You know how when we talk about the “Big 4 of Thrash” most people like to replace Anthrax with their favourite old-school Thrash band and it is funny. Some will replace with Testament (I would since I am not a big Anthrax fan). Still, I heard Metalheads creating their own “Big 4” and Annihilator is one of the bands that could well integrate a personal selection, and this is partly due to Jeff’s skills as a musician. He is a tremendous player who is definitely underappreciated. His right hand and playing are unmatched, and his writing is distinctly his own. It contains all the essential components of traditional Speed Metal Thrash but adds a unique touch that I adore.

I hope you enjoyed this article. It comes as a small expression of my passion for our music.

Daniela P.

Songs to give you examples in terms of music.

Mustaine “Sweating Bullets”.

Schuldiner “Flesh and The Power it Holds”

Randy Rhoads “Crazy Train” and “Mr Crowley”

Alex Skolnik “Neptune’s Spear”

Mikael Akerfeldt “Absent Friends”

Dream Theatre “Constant Motion”

Meshuggah “Bleed”

Children of Bodom. “Bed of Razors”