Guitarist takes love affair with American blues online

DSC_9497Would John Lee Hooker or Howlin’ Wolf be teaching guitar on the Internet if they were around today? With so much of the music business now happening online, it’s quite possible those legends would also be singing the blues in cyberspace. And so for San Francisco Bay Area rock and blues guitarist Jimmy Dillon, teaching online was an obvious next step in a music career that spans decades.

Jimmy is an accomplished and award-winning musician, singer, and songwriter who’s performed with such notable names as Bruce Springsteen, Sting, B.B. King, and Carlos Santana. He’s released four solo albums incorporating his eclectic mix of blues, rock, country, and Latin styles. And yet, in looking back over his impressive professional achievements, Jimmy cites the formation of Blue Star Music Camp as “the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done in the arts.” He started the nonprofit in 2000 because he wanted to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of performers. After many years of living, performing, and touring all over the world, that initiative changed the trajectory of his career and “brought me to where I am today.”

As a working artist, Jimmy recognizes his reality — “Playing gigs, doing sessions, and touring is all great, but it’s not enough to make living. There were times when it was lean, but I always believed it would work out if I stuck with it.” To keep the income flowing, Jimmy signed with a music content publisher to develop instructional DVDs, and they’ve sold really well. He also found that teaching kids at summer camp was good practice for getting in front of a camera. He loves getting students into acoustic blues guitar because, “they can learn the basics and be off to the races, singing around the campfire, bringing their guitar to the beach, whatever.”

Regaining artistic control

There’s a lot of skepticism among artists of Jimmy’s generation who have been exploited by big record companies in the past when it comes to marketing and sales. While Jimmy’s experience putting out DVDs was positive, he wished he could be his own boss and interact with students. When a friend told him about Udemy, Jimmy loved the idea that he could retain complete creative control over his content — as well as the professional image he’s carefully crafted over his career.

Now, musicians aren’t typically known for computer skills, and Jimmy concedes, “I’m not the most technical wizard, but I can play the guitar.” When it came time to create his Udemy course, he enlisted help from the video editor who also manages his website to make sure the results were up to his standards (he uses three cameras). “I pay lots of attention to production values and making sure the experience is as close to having a 1-on-1 lesson as possible,” he says. “I’m passing on the craft I live and breathe, and I try to get that across in my teaching.”

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To that end, his Ultimate Acoustic Blues course was published on Udemy in August 2015, and Jimmy is really pleased with enrollment rates — and motivated to do much more. He knew from past experience that his sweet spot is teaching intermediate to advanced musicians, i.e., those who already have a basic understanding and proficiency, so that’s where he’s focusing his efforts on Udemy too. He’s determined to “be better and more accomplished as Udemy instructor. I’m all over the place so it was good discipline to go through the course creation process and have that structure.” He’s been leveraging the resources available to instructors in the Teach Hub and on Udemy’s private Facebook group to make sure his next courses move him toward his goal: helping students find their own true voice as musicians.

Music’s supposed to be fun!

Much of Jimmy’s on-screen effectiveness comes from paying close attention to the fundamentals. For example, he discovered his videos worked better when shot from the angle of the guitar player looking down at his instrument, rather than from the audience perspective, which is how most instructional videos are done. Another part of Jimmy’s success comes from the tone of his videos and the way he relates to his students. “I want to make my courses fun and conversational,” he says. “I get colorful with teaching. I crack jokes and tell stories.” He advises students to keep practice light and go easy on themselves. “You’ve gotta love it; it shouldn’t feel like a task.”

While building his presence on Udemy takes work, that doesn’t “feel like a task” to Jimmy either because it’s giving him the freedom to act on his ideas and skip the kind of “soul-damaging gigs that prostitute my craft.” He wants to bring other musicians onto the Udemy platform so they can enjoy that same self-determination and creative ownership. Just like he tells his students, his approach to teaching online is to “drop the fear and fly.”