For Nikki O’Neill, playing guitar on and off the stage is her passion and something that comes naturally for her. Even though lately a buzz has been around her due to her new book, Women’s Road to Rock Guitar, where she explains the ins and outs of becoming a rock goddess like herself, O’Neill also still gravitates towards the art of live performing. “I would have gone to Woodstock,” O’Neill says when asked what concert she wished she could have gone to but couldn’t. “Especially the sets with Santana, Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix,” she adds.
O’Neill is a busy woman. Playing in various bands in Los Angeles and teaching private guitar lessons, she also writes for She Shreds magazine, as well as the e-book series Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt in Music & Lyrics. O’Neill is also very drawn to supporting females in learning guitar and starting writing songs. She has been an international guest clinician at ELLA, an all-female rock music college in Sweden, and created and taught the group class “Women’s Contemporary Rock Guitar” at The New School in New York City, where the focus of the class was on contributions of female guitarists and working on the students’ own songs. O’Neill will be teaching at ELLA again at the end of April. I had a little chat with O’Neill via e-mail where I learned more about her passions, hopes and why she does what she does:
I saw on your blog, you have trouble writing lyrics (as do I!). When you're writing lyrics, what makes you feel successful? Like you've written the perfect lyric?
When I can find images or words that surprise me because they stir up the imagination, paint pictures, and engage the senses instead of just sounding generic. Often, the good stuff comes totally out of left-field for me... sometimes I wonder if I'm tuning into words and images that are out of character for me, or if they actually dig far deeper into me than I realize. Whenever that happens, I feel successful.
If I've been away from writing for a while, it's really frustrating... it feels like the transmitter is dead silent. Thankfully I've learned from experience to just show up and write consistently for a few days, even if it's a bunch of junk... eventually I will tune in to that signal and get the better ideas. It also helps me a lot to explore new places, art and music, and to push myself to be a better observer... that makes me more receptive and it opens up my writing. I'm guessing many other songwriters can relate.
What inspired you to write Women's Road to Rock Guitar?
Three things: I've learned so many helpful things from other musicians that advanced my playing, so I wanted to pass that on to others. Second, I'd love to see more serious female guitarists like Orianthi, Bibi McGill, and Nita Strauss out there... I think there's an interest in the music industry for that, and many work opportunities for someone who's willing to dig in and get really good.
Finally, I've had my share of great and awful guitar teachers, and I've seen so many guitar books, classes and videos, where the topics are all over the place and so disconnected. They intimidate and discourage people — making them feel like they're untalented and stupid, when it actually is the information that isn't thought through enough and presented correctly. I'm good at connecting dots and explaining things. It has resulted in a lot of very cool gigs for me, like teaching international clinics; group classes at colleges; writing articles for magazines like She Shreds and Rockrgrl, and getting paid to teach songs on YouTube. So I wanted to take the next step and write a really good book on rock guitar. And I'm so glad that magazine reviewers and many readers around the world have given it very positive reviews.
What's your favorite cover to play live?
It varies a lot... right now I'm getting a kick out of playing soul tunes with pretty, colorful chords on my ukulele, like "(You Make Me Feel) Like A Natural Woman"! On the total opposite end of the spectrum, I love playing songs with badass riffs... like Led Zeppelin's "Moby Dick", The Beatles' "Paperback Writer", Funkadelic's "Super Stupid", Ann Peebles' "I Pity the Fool," or anything by Black Sabbath...
What are the good and the bad parts about teaching vs. playing live?
For me, they balance each other. I mostly play original music nowadays as opposed to playing a lot of covers or being in cover bands. Creating music on stage with other people and performing for other people is exciting, personally fulfilling, and it can feel like a great release. Teaching, for me, is about giving back to others. But I have to make sure I always keep performing, even if it's just going to a blues jam when I'm in between gigs with my band... otherwise I get burnt out on teaching and lose perspective.
Have the skills you've gained playing live help you teach your guitar students? And vice versa.
If the students are playing in bands and writing songs — even if it's just for fun — then we can share experiences and discuss things like putting together a set list, improvising a solo, or gear issues. If they haven't reached that point, I still think it must be more inspiring to a student to have a teacher who's writing, recording and performing instead of someone who's quit all that stuff and just teaches. There has to be a more vibrant energy about people who do their art actively than those who put it off... It has nothing to do with how famous they are, or how much acclaim they have.
Has teaching helped my live performing? Hmm... The two fulfill very different aspects of me. Teaching stimulates my analytical side and the part of me that wants to help others practice an art form and get confident on the guitar. But when it comes to the stage, I use it to express my emotions.
You've mentioned Prince as a major influence on your blog-- have you heard his new music? What do you think?
I dig "Mars" and the title track from Plectrumelectrum.... it's refreshing to hear him with a warmer and more "live" drum sound. I love seeing him rock out a lot more lately and show people what a phenomenal guitar player he is. He's a huge inspiration for me as a singer and guitarist because he has such an enormous range of expression on both instruments. And as a live performer, nobody can touch him today except Bruce Springsteen.
I see on your Instagram you're going to be guest teaching at ELLA Music Education in Sweden-- awesome! Tell me more about that and how you got that gig!
Thank you! I first found out about ELLA by pure coincidence through a drummer friend of mine. We used to play in an all-female [bossa] nova big band (awesome but short-lived project!) Over dinner, she told me about this Swedish all-female rock school on an island in the Baltic Sea, and since then I've been a guest-teacher there three times. It's a one-year fulltime music education for young women. Most of the students are between 18-25 and come from all over Sweden, but they've recently opened up to international students. They've had two students from Texas, and right now there's a girl from Japan who studies guitar and loves metal!
ELLA's goal is to provide a broad musical education but with a gender perspective, so the program includes instrument instruction (a main instrument plus the other rock band instruments), ensemble playing, song writing, music theory, audio engineering, music production, music business, and gender studies. When they flew me out last year, the students were just about to embark on a nationwide tour that they had planned and budgeted. It was their final project. I can't wait to meet the 2015 class— I'm going at the end of April!
Since your book has been popular, are you thinking of writing any more books about learning guitar?
No, one book is enough for me. It gives you the basics and a solid foundation for rhythm guitar, soloing, improvising, how the fret board works, common rock song structure, plus the 101 on pickups, amps, and effects pedals. Anything beyond that I really think people should learn by playing in bands, writing songs, performing and making friends with other musicians and artists!
What new music have you been listening to? What has been inspiring you lately?
Gary Clark Jr, Tame Impala, Alabama Shakes, Radio Moscow, Butch Walker... Sam Smith's song "I'm Not the Only One" is really beautiful in an old-school way. The arrangement is minimal, but every little thing is done so right. And all the instruments are engaged in this perfect mood-matching together with his voice. There are also two L.A. bands I really like that are more indie— Free Fall Rescue (their album and song "Rise" is fantastic) and Secret Sound Machine... and I'm very inspired by the Swedish psychedelic blues trio Cosmic Blonde.
You can buy Nikki’s new book on her website here. Featured image by Steve Janowski
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