Hitting the high notes with a local guitar guru

For Mike Karnes, playing guitar is a full-time job — no, seriously. The guitar teacher, who works out of Silverdale and Port Orchard, has been playing for some 43 years and passing off his wisdom for 36.

For Mike Karnes, playing guitar is a full-time job — no, seriously. The guitar teacher, who works out of Silverdale and Port Orchard, has been playing for some 43 years and passing off his wisdom for 36.

Since 1979, Karnes has been teaching at The Gallery School of Music and Dance in Port Orchard and more recently at the school’s Silverdale location.

You’d think that a guy who plays guitar for a living might have a few other hobbies to temper his day job, but not Karnes. The chord-happy teacher admits to actually getting up for work early, just so he can play guitar for a few hours before arriving at the office.

We recently caught up with Karnes and threw out all the usual questions in favor of an all-guitar Community Spotlight. To be honest, there probably wasn’t much we could’ve asked him without talk turning back to guitar anyway.

Question: How long have you been playing guitar and how did you get started on that particular instrument?

Answer: I was 12 years old so that would be 1965. When I started, they didn’t have tab, they didn’t have guitar magazines — if you wanted to play guitar, you just had to figure it out. So I came up through the trenches as far as that goes. Later I went to college and studied music — and I studied with some really good guitar players — and that helped me get in the position where I had enough knowledge to start teaching.

Q: What’s the hardest part about teaching someone to play guitar?

A: For me there really is no hard part because I get them motivated right from the beginning. To me, what’s critical is I have to connect with that student in that first half hour and make them realize that whatever they want to do on their guitar, they can do it. So it’s vital for me in that first lesson to make sure they walk out of here and they can play a song that they relate to. So there’s really nothing that’s difficult about it for me.

Q: What was the first song you learned to play?

A: When I started out, I didn’t know anybody who played guitar so the only way I could figure things out was by myself, through trial and error. So actually it took me a long time to even learn a song. I would say one of the first songs I learned was probably “Sunshine of Your Love” (by Cream).

Q: What is your personal guitar collection like? How many do you have?

A: Well, I’ve been through the whole guitar collection thing and I ended up getting a Fender custom shop telecaster, exactly like that one (points to picture on wall) and it was so superior to every guitar I’ve ever owned that I never played any of my other guitars and I just decided, you know, I can only play one guitar, I’m just gonna get rid of all the rest of these. There’s no point in having them.

Q: Do you play any other instruments?

A: I play electric bass and I teach electric bass, also.

Q: What’s the competition like among guitar teachers in the area?

A: It’s fierce. As I said earlier, anybody can say, “I’m a guitar teacher,” (but) none of them have the experience I have. I’ve been fortunate enough to have only done this one job all my life. So everyday, I’ve done this and as I said, everyday I learn new things. It’s very competitive.

Q: You learned to play guitar by teaching yourself and the Internet makes it real easy for kids these days to teach themselves to play; what’s the advantage of not going that route and hiring a teacher instead?

A: Very good question. When we do songs, as I always tell my students, the actual song is a by-product. What we’re really going for is the skills you develop to play that song and the chords or scales that you learn to play in that song because those are universal and you’ll use those over and over again. So, as opposed to learning by yourself off the Internet, I show the big picture. A lot of times a guitar lick will be plucked out of a guitar chord fingering and I’ve seen kids that have come in off the Internet and they don’t realize that that’s coming out of a chord, so they’ll play notes individually and that’s not right. Also, there are correct ways to finger things so your fingers flow smoothly across the guitar. I use those songs as learning tools to teach musical concepts that are universal. Not only that, there’s nothing like one-on-one human interaction.

Q: Do you ever get sick of teaching particular songs? Are you tired of hearing people play “Stairway to Heaven” in guitar shops?

A: I don’t because when I see the enthusiasm in a student’s face when they’re learning that, I can recall back to when I was at their level and my enthusiasm learning a song like that. I look at everything from their perspective, not my perspective. And by the way, “Back in Black,” (by AC/DC) is the most-requested song on guitar.

Q: What’s your favorite song to play?

A: I don’t have a favorite song. I like all styles of music and I like just fe-daddling with the guitar. To me it’s almost like a form of meditation where I understand so well how the guitar works that I don’t really have to play a song, I can just noodle with it and discover new ideas and concepts.

Q: Have you ever spun any of those ideas and concepts into a full-fledged song?

A: Nope, I have not ever written any songs.

Q: Have you ever been in a band?

A: Yes — I played professionally for many years. About 20 years. I just got tired of being in bars and being around drunk people and being out late at night and everything. At that time I taught music during the day and played gigs at night and I just decided, “You know, this is what I really like doing (teaching) this is what I want to focus on doing and it’s like a real daytime job.” When you play in a band, then you’ve gotta deal with other peoples’ personalities and their problems and their problems become your problems and it’s almost like you’re a babysitter. This way, I only have to rely on myself and it works out great.

Q: Do you have a favorite guitarist?

A: I would have to say George Benson. A lot of people think of him as a disco singer because he kind of has a split music personality. He’s done a lot of songs that were vocal songs, particularly in the ’80s — in the ’70s is when he really hit big — and a lot of people associate him as being a singer, but he’s actually by far the best jazz guitar player alive today.

Q: Have you had any crazy incidents happen during all your years of teaching?

A: I suppose the day that one of my students came in with some Spock ears from Star Trek on — and he was totally serious — and he wanted to know if he could carry a sign outside of the store that said, “Spock for President.”

Q: And it wasn’t like Halloween or anything?

A: No.

Q: How long have you been in the area for?

A: I started teaching in Port Orchard in 1979. I actually, at one point, was teaching a grandfather, a son and a grandson and I thought, “Oh, I am getting old.”

Q: Are you involved with any projects or any community events outside of your teaching?

A: No. But that brings me to this point here: I’d like to tell you about our school of music and dance, which we formed about a year-and-a-half ago. All the teachers are extremely passionate about what they do and I think you can tell that I’m extremely passionate about what I do. We don’t do it for the money and we don’t do it just because it’s a living — we do it because it’s what we love to do. Our whole thing is about creating positive energy and positive images for students. It’s just like an artistic environment where people can fulfill their artistic desires, whether it’s dancing or whether it’s music. One thing we have coming up here on June 21, we have a show that we put on every year at Port Orchard at the high school that has the dance performances and we have the music students performing. This is one thing that’s unique about what we do is our students have a chance to perform together.

Q: What advice would you give to a kid who’s never played guitar before but really wants to get into it?

A: I’d like him to know that, provided he finds the right teacher, he can do it. The reason I say that and make that qualification is because a lot of times teachers can be somewhat harsh or insensitive to students. I’m extremely sensitive to kids and the way I phrase things. It’s very important to find the right teacher and so what I would say to a kid who wants to play guitar is he absolutely can and his limitations are endless. One more thing, if I could add onto that; I have a guarantee: I challenge anybody who wants to take guitar lessons to take guitar lessons from anyone they want to in this area and then come and take a guitar lesson from me. If they don’t agree that I am the best guitar teacher, there’s no charge for the lesson.