Like so many musicians, Shawn Persinger, a.k.a. Prester John wears many hats and is incredibly prolific. He’s a performing and recording guitarist, a composer, a music educator, and a published author. As a guitarist myself, I first became aware of Shawn’s work through the articles he’s written for Premier Guitar magazine. Shawn and I spoke about his work and just about everything but playing the guitar!
Do your friends and family call you Prester John, Shawn, or a combination? Which should we call you?
I go by Shawn. Every now and then, someone around New Haven will look at me quizzically and ask “Prester John?” And I gratefully respond that I, yes, am Prester John. But Prester John is really a marketing tool, it’s easier to remember – catchier – than Shawn Persinger.
What was your initial inspiration to make music?
There are several pivotal moments. The decisive one, when I was six-years-old, I wrote about in Nobody Knows I’m Famous, regarding the first time I heard KISS, that was life-changing. The next was discovering AC/DC at age 10 – that made me what to play guitar – up to that point I just wanted to be Gene Simmons.
In my teens, the significant moments were encounters with Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Inner Mounting Flame. And in my 20s, even though I was already a professional musician, hearing The Symphonic Dances of West Side Story pretty much put me on my current path, which is to be the “Leonard Bernstein of Rock and Roll.”
Did you have a particularly influential mentor?
Unfortunately, no. And it is an important piece of advice to younger musicians, “Get a mentor.” I made countless careless, time-consuming mistakes, mistakes a mentor could have warned me about. Many of my favorite musicians had someone to help guide them along: Mike Keneally had Frank Zappa (many excellent players had Zappa as a role model), John Coltrane had Miles Davis, and The Beatles had George Martin. I could go on.
Now that’s not to say that I didn’t have people along the way who were tremendously helpful: Steve Feigenbaum, the owner of Cuneiform Records, had a huge impact on my career, and Jim Kirlin, Taylor Guitars’ Wood&Steel editor, has encouraged me as an artist and writer. But as strong as those relationships are, I don’t speak to them or see them often enough. And, when I was younger, it never occurred to me to ask them for long-term advice.
Do you have a title at Premier Guitar and Wood&Steel? What do you for them? How did you get your first gigs writing for guitar magazines?
I’m a lesson contributor for Premier Guitar, and I’ve published approximately four lessons a year since 2014. Four lessons a year doesn’t sound like a lot, but most of those are very involved. The most recent lesson I finished is comparable to three chapters of a typical instructional book.
I’ve been contributing lessons, essays, and interviews to Wood&Steel for ten years now. Like Premier Guitar, Wood&Steel gives me free license. Thus, my contributions to both magazines have varied wildly from beginner fingerpicking to an introduction to the first wave of punk, from a Mahavishnu Orchestra etude to a lesson on how to play less. Both those magazines have been exceedingly generous with their broad-minded attitudes.
Is there a type of lesson that is your favorite to write?
I do favor the weirder lessons – I even created WeirdGuitarLessons.com – but I also enjoy providing a lesson to beginners that I wish had been available when I was starting out. It took me years of practice to get half-good, so I’m profoundly sympathetic to beginners.
I know you’ve been teaching a Beatles class for more than ten years. Can you tell us a little about that? I’m also curious how you look at the Beatles music differently now than you did when you began – like what you have learned over the years or how your perspective has changed.
Teaching my Beatles class is possibly my favorite thing to do – that and performing my own music. I’ve had a core group of students, mostly hobbyists, for approximately five years and other students come and go. We learn and perform one Beatles’ song every week. I provide “highlights” charts, that can range from vocal harmonies to instrumental solos. For instance, we’ll work on the Penny Lane trumpet solo or George Martin’s “wind-up piano” in In My Life.
To produce my own charts, I reference The Beatles: Complete Scores book, which I love and highly recommend, even though it does have its faults; and the Hal Leonard Guitar Recorded Versions portfolio books. Those are indispensable resources. Then I use my ear and the various isolated tracks that are available on YouTube. With those isolated parts one can hear nuances hidden in the mix. Then I devise my own charts that are a combination of the essential and subtle.
The best aspect of teaching my Beatles class is, whenever I create a chart, or update an old chart, I’m awestruck. There are so many brilliant elements in their music – the compositions, arrangements, and performances – that it’s always surprising and inspiring.
Can you tell us a little bit about The 50 Greatest Guitar Books, like how it came about and came together?
I’m a guitar book fantastic. I have a huge library, more than 3000 books and almost every issue of every commercial guitar magazine. And, although I did attend Musicians Institute (class of 1991), most of my musical knowledge has come from experience and books. I wanted to share the book knowledge with others, to curate a collection what I believe are the most rewarding and creativity-driven books.
You mentioned graduating from Musicians’ Institute in Los Angeles. When a guitar player corners you after a gig and asks, “What that was like,” what do you say?
Musicians Institute was a fantastic experience. I learned how best to study and memorize music, I heard a lot of outstanding music – Michael Hedges performed, and I sat front row center –, and I read every book and magazine in the library, which at the time was relatively small. I do wish I had played in the big band ensemble, but at the time I was too intimidated, my chart reading was weak. I don’t know what the program is like now – I was there almost 30 years ago – but I have only positive memories.
Can you tell us a little about the Halloween Baptizm project?
Too much! I wrote a book about it, Nobody Know I’m Famous: A Year in the Life of an Unknown Musician. That book documents the creation of the music – a unique guitar quartet made up of 6-string steel, 6-string nylon, 12-string, and Taylor Guitars GS Mini bass; the artwork, which I commissioned from two different artists; and my day-to-day professional endeavors.
For those who haven’t read the book: Halloween Baptizm is another version of what I’ve always done, or tried to do, which is to create complex but catchy music. I like to think of my music as a combination of seemingly disparate influences, such as Frank Zappa, Patsy Cline, Webern, The Beatles, The Minutemen, Charlie Parker, Bach, etc. Hopefully, something slightly new, not pastiche, emerges.
When I say, “another version of what I’ve always done”, I consider that to some extent I’ve consistently composed the same musical ideas but in different settings. My first band, Boud Deun, was an electric progressive/fusion quartet of guitar, bass, drums, and violin. Then I composed similar music for solo guitar, which I dubbed “Modern Primitive Guitar.” That was followed by an acoustic guitar and mandolin duo, simply known as Prester John. And now Halloween Baptizm, which is the quartet…oh, and I play all four parts of the quartet music.
Can you share an example of what you consider “complex but catchy”?
While at least half of Halloween Baptizm fits that description, I have a scrolling notation example of Six Stories of an Ancient Astronaut on my YouTube channel that can serve as an example. I made a video for that song using Finale’s scrolling playback and iMovie: It’s low-budget but it gets the job done.
I love this piece because the melody first jumps between the steel-string and nylon-string; that’s the “complex” part. The second time through, the 12-string takes over and the melody solidifies into a satisfying whole; that’s the “catchy” part. The piece also fluctuates between the dorian and lydian modes, with some unexpected chromatic notes in the melody creating tonal ambiguity – I love that in this piece.
Regarding your guitar notation, do you work from a style guide, or different ones for different publishers?
I, more or less, use the style guide that Hal Leonard includes in the back of most of their guitar books, which is labeled as “Guitar Notation Legend.” I have particular fonts I favor, which Finale allows me to choose at will, though I keep my default tablature font set to “Times.” I also use thin staff lines and I format the margins so I can hole punch, or better yet publish, without the notation becoming cramped.
I am geekily obsessed with formatting. What looks nice on the page versus what is most practical for players/students, sadly these are not necessarily the same. Font size, staff size, margins, getting as much information on one page as possible without compromising the readability, these are all details I ponder daily.
Luckily, Finale’s flexibility allows me to save a file, then reformat in countless ways. I’ll frequently create a two-page chart for a student, with a bigger staff, that is easier to read, from a one-page chart that I would personally use.
What was your introduction to Finale?
18 years ago, I moved to New Haven, CT and I would hustle for any gig I could get. A student at Yale needed a soundtrack and I got the job. She lined up the musicians and one of them suggested I create the score in Finale. I’ve used Finale almost every day since! I have thousands of lessons; transcriptions; random melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic ideas/sketches; and, of course, my own compositions – all saved in Finale.
Finale completely changed my life. Prior to that, my notation skills were weak; in fact, I wrote everything down in tablature. I’m still an advocate for tab, but the notation obviously has its advantages when working with other instruments.
What do you like about Finale? What would you change?
I would change very little. In fact, I did some beta testing for Finale a few years ago, but all I did was offer some guitar tab and chord diagram suggestions.
Also, I had a student a few years ago who is a professional computer programmer: In our first lesson I was nitpicking some Finale detail and he said “Do you realize how amazing that program is? How much it does? How easy it makes your life? And how much work went into that?” I appraised the situation, said, “Excellent point,” and printed out a handful of charts, which, if I hadn’t had Finale, would have taken me hours to write out by hand.
Can you share a Finale tip or a trick?
Countless. I have a few students who are interested in composition, and fifty percent of our lesson time is spent working on Finale shortcuts and tricks. One of my favorite composition tips…
Like most composers, I do hear music in my head, which I then actualize, but I also compose randomly on Finale. I’ll input a series of complex rhythmic figures, phrases that are unnatural to me and then I’ll strive to play them. Sometimes they work for me, sometimes they don’t. And I then I’ll tinker with them, attempting to find a balance between impossible to play and just barely possible. But this is key, these melodies must be performed in unison or harmony. If played solo, they do sound random. However, with a second or third instrument, they prove to have form and structure.
What’s a good example of this from your repertoire?
Duckling is an archetype. That piece was inspired by Anthony Braxton – his charts sometimes are impossible to play. Duckling is filled with Braxton-esque rhythmic combinations, unexpected syncopations, and sudden rests.
Five Planets Visible With The Naked Eye from Halloween Baptizm is another a prime example. That piece is for the quartet – there are only two lines, but both are played in unison. Both lines on their own are relatively odd, but it’s the combination of the two parts at once that make it challenging to play.
Any Finale tips for teachers?
One that I have found to be beneficial for students is taking a more complex piece – a Bach composition filled with 16th notes or a Leo Kottke piece with intricate rhythms – and converting it from 4/4 (or whatever time signature) into 2/4 or 1/4. I understand the intent of the music is to be felt a certain way, and 2/4 or 1/4 doesn’t necessarily reflect that, but seeing the parts broken down into discrete, more accessible phrases has done wonders for my students, not to mention my own playing. Finale lets me do this with the click of a button.
Another huge breakthrough for me personally, as well as being helpful to students, is changing the keys of certain pieces for easier analysis. I know that being fluent in all keys is important, but for beginners or hobbyist that is not always realistic. Thus, a jazz tune in Eb is much easier for guitar players to comprehend in the key of D.
Yes, eventually you should know how to play in Eb, but, for a beginner to an early-intermediate player, not knowing shouldn’t mean you are ostracized. I’ve encountered a lot of musical snobbery in my years. The ridicule of using tablature; combative, unfriendly cutting contests at jazz jams; and the pretentious distinctions between art music and pop music: To me, it’s all music and it should be accessible to everyone. Anything that makes the admission process less complicated – with an understanding that ideas and approaches are, for the time being, being simplified – I’m in favor of.
Thanks again to Shawn for taking time out of his crazy schedule to share his insights with us.
Shawn Persinger photo by Anne Schmidt