Talking guitar with Robbie Calvo
Robbie Calvo has been working professionally as a musician for over 20 years, performing live and playing as a studio musician, writing songs, and teaching others how to play guitar.
His course Pentatonic Protocols 1 is available on Fret Zealot.
Fret Zealot sat down with Robbie to talk all things guitar, his career, and his advice for new guitar players.
Q.) How did you get started playing guitar?
A.) I started when I was probably 13, studying at an early age. I went to lessons and stuff, and studied in London. I had an apprenticeship as an artist, went to art school and stuff, but carried on studying. I decided I wanted to go to the Musicians Institute in L.A., spent a year there, learned my crafts or some of it, you know – and then you spend years and years developing your own style and technique and stuff. I went back to London, started doing sessions for a big producer there for TV and stuff like that. Then, I was writing songs. I didn’t like the English music scene so I decided I wanted to write real songs and move to Nashville to learn that craft. I ended up working in studios there and writing, co-writing, stuff like that.
I feel I’ve been put on the planet to be an educator, and as an educator, I realized that I wanted to empower other people with the things that I’ve developed and learned, not only through schooling, but what you develop yourself, your own kind of passions for things.
I put a program together called “Sweet Notes” about chord tone improvisation. What we weren’t taught in music school was that the notes in the chords, the chord tones, are the strongest resolution points – and guitar players were just playing scales, they weren’t going through any of those tones. I just wanted to empower them with that. To this day, it’s been a bestseller.
I developed my path, then my educational series. I think I’ve done about 28 courses for companies.
I get to the point with it – “this is what you need to do, don’t waste your time with this”. People are busy! My whole thing as an educator these days is to live a good life, be good to other people and share wisdom with them – and quickly, because they’ve got other things to do.
One of the things I found very important for me developing as a guitar player is as soon as I started using my voice, I started to understand resonance and how things resonate with the body and the guitar. It’s not just the guitar, I think that’s something that guitar players are possibly missing, they’re not connected to the guitar and when you use your voice you start connecting.
Q.) What made you want to learn guitar?
A.) I’m very introverted, and as a kid, I was very shy, I found it hard to approach other people. My Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is INFJ, so I am very introverted. I would advocate for other guitarists to find out what your personality type is, and you’ll find out what’s inhibiting you and what works for you.
As an introvert, the guitar became my best friend. I was really happy being in my room practicing guitar and becoming a better musician rather than hanging out with four dudes playing music. The INFJ in me also knows how to monetize that, and a lot of musicians don’t understand that commerce is art and art is commerce.
I’ve always loved the guitar – the resonance speaks to me. The beauty of the melodies you create, the chordal structures – and it’s one of those instruments you can take anywhere. I could go to the park in 20 minutes and sit and write a song or jam with someone.
You can’t do that with a piano – a guitar is a portable best friend.
Q.) Who are your inspirations?
A.) The Who, Ella Fitzgerald, AC/DC Journey, Rush, The Beatles, Elton John were some of my early influences, and developed, once I started getting schooled in music, into Steve Lukather, Michael Thompson, John Mayer, and Joey Landreth. They’re songwriters, great guitar players, and they play melodies on the guitar, they’re not trying to show off. That, to me, is impressive. There are too many people out there competing, trying to be fast, to show off. I just want to hear melodies and I think if you’re a songwriter, you understand that the solo and the fills and the song parts are part of the bigger picture, it’s not about you it’s about the song. I think I’ve developed from loving guitar players to loving songwriting guitar players.
Q.) What’s your advice for someone starting out on guitar?
A.) Make a plan. A lot of people just think “I’m going to play guitar”, but it’s a long road.
The first thing to do is get a good guitar, not a cheap guitar. Get something playable and easy on your fingers. You can always sell it if you don’t carry on. Learn some chords, learn to hum notes over the chords. Dig deeper into them. If you take a “D” chord, there are four double stops in there, three chord tones, suspensions, and you can move the notes around. When you start doing that and digging deeper into one chord you start realizing there’s a whole world of music in one shape and you can move that one shape.
If you learn a “D” chord and move it two frets, that’s now an “E” chord with the D in the bass. Move it one more, and it’s an “F” with the D in the bass. You have these movable chords with open strings that can create a song. Learn a couple of shapes, maybe learn a song or write a song then add a chord to it. Start building a repertoire, start building some songs you can sing and perform. I know guitar players who have been playing for 20 years but couldn’t play you a song. What’s the point?
Learn some simple songs, some of the best songs are the simple ones. You can make them as complex as you want. Learn the diatonic harmonies – all the chords in the key of C in the major scale, and then understand if you play “C” “F” and “G” and it resolves to “C”, you’re playing Ionian mode. If you play those three chords starting on “F”, you’re playing Lydian mode. It’s not that hard, it’s very simple once you learn how it works. I’d say start simple, learn the harmonized major scale and start using a capo. You can go do a gig with a handful of chords and a capo if you learn the songs. Take some lessons, get some schooling and understand what the big picture is. If you don’t know what that is, how do you get there?
Play with intention, pick up the guitar to do something, don’t just noodle. Have an intention of what you’re working for. When you have intention and a target, you can hit the target.
Q.) How about for intermediate guitarists?
A.) I think all the information is there, for guitar players, pentatonic is kind of our default scale.
There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s five great tones, but you have to learn how to use the tones.
What I would say is you’ve got to start listening. I think a lot of guitar players are not even listening.
I teach a workshop in Nashville and I was observing people in the class. I’d say to them, “I want you to play an eight-bar solo.” They go into it, and I’m playing the chords, and about a minute and a half they look up and say “was that it?”. Yeah, it was about 108 bars. Some guitar players have no concept of measures, bars, or length. Start listening and understand how long two measures of music are.
All of this information is small if you don’t expand on it but if you start looking at it, it starts doing this! [expansion gesture].
Your musical information and understanding, that one five-note scale and those four chords is probably 50,000 songs rearranged in different orders, with different rhythms.
The info you have in the four chords is thousands of songs, four tonal centers, scale types – you can use that to create a solo, melody, double stops, all those things. I would say to anyone who already knows some things, you don’t necessarily need to know another scale, you need to use the one you know.
To me if you want to be really good at what you do, you have to really understand the intricacies, the ins and outs, invert the scale, do whatever but dig deep. In society, we are on our phones where everything is surface level. When I was learning and getting into guitar, we used to analyze records and theory and things, have deep conversations, who does that anymore? I think you have to start looking inside, start digging a little bit. I’m a bit of a taskmaster that way, like no, do the work.
Q.) What can someone expect from your course, Pentatonic Protocols 1?
A.) The reason I put this course out is because we learn these scales, these five notes, and we then don’t know what to do with them. I thought if I put together a series of protocols, here’s a way of approaching a solo – i.e. start on the root note and play your first lick, second, phrase from that scale go to the second note in the scale and start your phrase there – you can start anywhere in the scale to do that. What you’ve just done is you’ve progressed melodically cause you’ve ascended up four notes. You can’t not play something different because you started somewhere else and now you have a protocol for your solo. So, when someone says “play an eight bar solo you go “oh, I can do that” instead of “what the heck am I going to do”.
I think if you start with an idea and a protocol, big picture, you can achieve it. If you don’t know, how do you go on the journey?
I use it at my gigs all the time. “What am I going to do in this solo?” I know what key I’m in, I’m going to do this, and nine times out of ten it’s going to be great.
Q.) What other advice do you have?
A.) If you can dream it, you can do it, you just have to do the work.
Follow Robbie Calvo on Instagram, YouTube, and find his website here.
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