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Electric Louieland: Catching Up with Chicago's Premier Guitar Teacher

Nick Stone
Contributing Writer

Nick Stone writes:

I took two months of guitar lessons from Louie Zagoras in 1993 -- if I hadn't moved to California, I might still be taking lessons from him today. At the time, I had just gotten my first guitar, a no-name Frankenstein's monster strung upside down to accommodate my left-handedness. A friend who was taking drum lessons from Louie told me that he had an opening and recommended that I drop by one of his lessons at Louie's studio apartment in Evanston, IL. I was immediately comfortable with Louie: I liked his laid-back, gentle demeanor and the obvious joy he took in music. There were posters of Clapton, Lennon, and Hendrix amid the soundproofing in his little drum studio and his eyes lit up whenever he talked about his heroes. He would teach me anything I wanted to learn: I brought in CDs of my favorite songs and I was amazed as Louie translated inscrutable soundwaves into legible, familiar chords on paper in minutes. I'll never forget the time I asked him to teach me "Slide Away" by Oasis: Louie got up, put the CD in, and was calling out chords before he even got back to his chair: "A minor seven, F, G..." To my pre-teen mind this was an astonishing display of alchemy. When we would finish with the Nirvana and Bikini Kill songs I requested, he would transcribe (from memory) songs unknown to me like "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out," songs whose greatness I would only realize ten years after I had learned to play them.

Right before I moved away, Louie's band, Rollover, had just released its first self-titled CD. I would proudly point out his face on concert flyers when I went downtown with friends: "that's my guitar teacher!" Thirteen years later I still have my battered copy of "Rollover," and a recent listen confirmed that I still know all the words to every song. In the meantime, Rollover signed with Bill Graham Management and went on tour supporting The Allman Brothers, Joerow, Blues Traveler, The Neville Brothers, Hot Tuna, Johnny Winter, Jimmie Vaughan, Robin Trower, Cheap Trick, Eddie Money, Gatemouth Brown and many others. A 1996 U.K. tour found Louie onstage jamming with Joe Satriani almost every night. Louie's songs have also been used in TV shows and movies and for the last 15 years he has been writing songs with Roy Marinell, co-writer of many Warren Zevon hits. Louie is going solo for a while; his new CD will be released in early 2007. In August of 2006 I spoke with him about learning, teaching, and the importance of knowing your place in the musical universe.

NS: Let's start from the beginning: when and how did you learn to play?

LZ: I tell you what, I was lucky, man. I went with my dad to take guitar lessons - I would go with him on the weekend, we'd stop at a bakery and get some cookies, and I'd sit in the store and look at the guitars while my dad took his lesson. So one day I said, "Dad, while I'm sitting here for half an hour, why don't I get a guitar lesson, too"? his guy just opened up a spot and I swear to God, Nick, he was the only guy in Chicago who taught rock. Every other teacher back in 1979 was like, "here's 'Blowin' In the Wind'" -- I mean, I love "Blowin' In the Wind," but they were just showing you folk songs. I liked Jimi Hendrix, and I wanted to learn to do what Jimi Hendrix was doing. And this guy was one of the first guys who taught that.

I was there for a couple months and then I went to another guy named Roger Adler, who is still a friend of mine. And he was the same kind of guy -- there was maybe one guy on the South side and one guy on the North side who could show you rock. I was so lucky to get with this cat... I could just bring him anything: "do you know the solo on this Clapton song?" Everybody else I was talking to was stuck with jazz guitar lessons and they were amazed: "dude, your guy showed you 'Rolling'? My guy -- we're doing 'Greensleeves'!" Then I wanted to learn slide guitar -- most guitar teachers would've laughed you out of the room. My guy was like, "I play slide, let's go." So I was literally a freshman in high school, in 1979 or 1980, and I started playing slide guitar.

I was obsessed with music -- I lived in the suburbs, I had time on my hands, and I just wanted to do music 24/7. It was all I cared about.

NS: How did playing turn into teaching?

LZ: I was working cutting lawns, just busting my ass, dying. I was a sophomore in high school and my brother's friend came back from college one day. It was around Christmas break and I wasn't cutting lawns. He called me up and said, "Louie! You're a hot-shot guitar player -- I want some lessons." I had never taught before, but I said "okay, come on over, it's gonna be $25 an hour." The guy came over and I made $25 in an hour -- if I had cut lawns for four hours I would've made $20. It was like a little bell went off in my head: "I'm going to start giving guitar lessons. What a great way to make money: it's fun, I can learn, I can hang out with guitar players." I started teaching out of my house, people started finding out about me, and the next thing I knew I was super busy teaching.

Then I went to college, so at that time I wasn't teaching, but when I got out of college I walked into the Sound Post in Evanston and said, "I'm a teacher," and the guy went over and put my name up on a board and said, "you're hired." So I showed up the next day and said "hey, I'm the new teacher" -- the guy said, "yeah, but you have to get some students. You have to take the numbers back there and call people." I thought I had a job and had 20 people waiting for me and I didn't, of course. So i started calling people up; there was a board with numbers on it and I was really aggressive about calling people. The next thing I knew, I did have 20 students.

I think with teaching, more than any other business, word of mouth is huge. I mean, word of mouth with movies and bands is obviously a big factor in their success, but especially with teaching. I got most of my business from word of mouth.

NS: So would you actually ask students to spread the word about you?

LZ: At first, when I was just starting and needed to find people, I would, yes. I got busy at the Sound Post quickly and then I started teaching a couple of days a week at my apartment. I realized I could make more money and I had more tools there -- amps, guitars, stereos -- it was a better atmosphere. People liked coming to my apartment more than taking lessons at a school. I wouldn't take just anyone there, but if I liked someone and thought it would work out I would invite them to study there. And I became friends with a lot of my students -- I still am today.

NS: Let's talk about your teaching method. What's your basic approach to teaching guitar -- where do you start?

LZ: The most important thing with teaching is setting the pace for somebody, the pace that they're going to learn at. If you go to a guitar lesson and the teacher is just flying past you so fast that you don't get anything out of it, you might as well open up the garbage can and throw your money in there. I have to figure out what somebody's pace is, because I teach a bunch of different people. I have kids as young as fifth grade who can go at an extremely fast pace -- but I teach fifty-year-olds, too, and with some of them I have to move very slowly.

NS: So at that first lesson, how do you gauge a new student's pace?

On tour - 2004

LZ: I can gauge it pretty quickly because I've taught for so long. I'll start off with the twelve-bar blues, just to get their hands moving and to get some solos going. If someone's following me on a twelve-bar blues really well, I might start taking them faster -- I might start asking, "okay, what songs do you want to play?" So they might name a song, I can show them the chords, write them out and we can start practicing how to perform the song, learning the dynamics of the song. But if I try playing the twelve-bar blues with someone and they have trouble even getting through it with me, I've got to slow the pace down. It has nothing to do with intelligence, people just learn in different ways.

Another big thing with guitar lessons is just making somebody feel comfortable enough to play. If you feel that maybe you missed a couple of holes, that's okay: people will fill those holes. As long as you get people started with chords and understanding the basic notes on the guitar -- and using their memory, getting them to memorize stuff -- that's the key to guitar. When you start playing live, you don't have all your notebooks in front of you -- you've got to remember those chord progressions.

NS: Speaking of which, one thing I remember you saying that I still have trouble with today is keeping a notebook that is exclusively dedicated to music. The first lesson I took with you, you told me to go buy a notebook and bring it to the next lesson. At the second lesson you wrote a bunch of chords and diagrams inside and told me, "don't use this notebook for anything else -- no grocery lists, no homework -- only for music." It's so hard for me to do that; I buy a notebook and start writing songs in it but before I know it, there's a whole bunch of phone messages and other random, unrelated stuff in it, diluting the process.

LZ: You know why I recommend that? I still have notebooks that I work from... the other day I opened a notebook and i saw that I had written "Imperial Mystic Gypsy." And I laughed, you know? It was the name for a band and I thought it was funny. And that laugh put me into my creative mood... as I went through the pages to find the last page I'd written on, I was seeing words here and there and just getting inspired. It's got a power to it, just the little notebook with the lyrics in it -- it's all together, it's all there, it's your creative time -- reminding yourself of good things you've come up with.

NS: I was going to ask you whether you're still teaching. It sounds like you're teaching more than ever.

LZ: I was working as a representative for Line 6 guitar amps for a while, and at that time I stopped teaching. It was okay, but I really missed teaching. I love teaching, and it allows you more of a free lifestyle: now I have more time for my personal life. When I was working for Line 6 it was 10, 12 hours a day sometimes. Now I can teach five hours and day and go home, you know?

Louie with blues legend Buddy Guy

I'm also a really free teacher. A lot of guitar teachers are really strict. The first thing you have to look for in a guitar teacher, the most important thing, is a sense of humor. If the guy doesn't have a sense of humor, get somebody else. The second thing is, of course, does he have a band, is he a professional player? The third thing is, who has he played with? I got to go out and play with Joe Satriani, Dave Mason, Sheryl Crow, the Allman Brothers, Blues Traveler -- some of my favorite guitar players -- and play on stage with these people. So now I have a reputation. That's why I'm probably the busiest teacher in Chicago right now. When you have that kind of stuff behind you it builds respect.

NS: How is your playing influenced by teaching? When you go into the studio or to a gig or practice, is there stuff that carries over from the teaching you did that day?

LZ: Yeah, it's usually stuff like the consistency and accuracy that I try to teach people to play with. Because really, when I play a lead, I'm pretty free and I don't even know where i'm going -- I'm not really thinking scale-wise or anything like that. i'm trying to find notes that I can pull emotion out of. But teaching really helps with my accuracy, because I'm playing guitar five hours a day. so I go to a gig and I'm already warmed up, I'm ready to go. Lately I've been giving students DVDs of me playing with my band or playing with Joe Satriani, and they get inspired. I give them a concert of mine and say, "watch this concert and steal my riffs!" There's an old blues saying: "nothing new under the sun." That is so true with music.

NS: Having students coming from all different backgrounds, is there any group or songwriter that you feel is accessible for everyone and is a good foundation for anyone to learn from?

LZ: Bob Dylan. Dylan was such an artist, such imagery in his songs... I mean, the whole industry of guitar playing is based around songs. That's why people learn to play guitar, is to play a song. The song is a sacred thing, you know? If the Beatles didn't have any songs and were just playing their instruments with no songs, who would have cared? There's a lot of guitar players who are trying to play like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Jimi Hendrix, but it's all about the song at the end of the day.

NS: I recently read Dylan's Chronicles and he says that Hank Williams was the originator of the rules: that when journalists said that Dylan's songs were breaking the rules, they didn't realize it, but that those rules were written by Hank Williams's songwriting.

LZ: It's history -- a good teacher should know the history of guitar the way a musician should. if you ask Jack White about musicians, he'll tell you about everybody from Robert Johnson to Alicia Keys. You've got to know where you sit in the musical spectrum, as a teacher and as a guitar player. I understand now where I come from: from old blues in Chicago, and also from Jimi Hendrix... If you don't know where things have been, how can you know where things are going to go? LM

Nick Stone was born in Wiesbaden, Germany and raised in various American army bases and suburbs. He is currently an independent scholar and musician living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and can be reached via

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