Guitarists coped with the enforced isolation of the pandemic in different ways. Some finessed their technique, others checked off songs on their must-learn list. For me, productivity was my distraction: I was playing electric guitar, always plugged in, always writing, always recording. In my mind, it wouldn’t feel like a waste of a year if I had something to show for it.
The downside to this musical hot streak was a complete disconnect from the simple joy of actually playing. My Cort acoustic gathered dust on its stand in the corner of the living room, while my electrics got an eternal workout. Playing live shows with function bands had previously been my impetus for learning new material – without that catalyst, I was lost in an eternal loop of capturing perfect takes and perfect tones.
Looking back, I felt a mental – and, dare I say, spiritual – need to reconnect with the guitar as a source of enjoyment, and I was fortunate that the right trip came along at the right time: an acoustic guitar retreat with online guitar tutor royalty Justin Sandercoe (aka JustinGuitar) on the private Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Yep, that’ll do nicely.
While the trip was originally scheduled to take place way back in April 2020, Covid forced its rescheduling to July 2021. As it turned out, this would prove fortuitous, providing an opportunity to break away from the monotony of pandemic life, not to mention my recording rig.
Island in the sun
Two planes and one boat later, myself and a handful of journalists arrived on Petit St. Vincent, known to locals as PSV. With unobstructed beaches, lapped upon by crystalline blue waters, the island’s natural surroundings look pre-Photoshopped.
Following a brief tour of the 115-acre resort’s sandy hideaways and amenities, we were handed our itineraries for the trip. Justin would host two hours of lessons in the morning, with two hours of campfire-style jam sessions in the evening. Otherwise, the rest of the days were ours to fill as we chose: enjoy any of the myriad beaches scattered around the island’s perimeter; indulge in the free food and drink; book a massage or yoga session; or venture further out to sea for diving and scuba activities.
Yet, as enticing as this R&R sounded, this productivity-obsessed Serious Guitar Journalist was eager to get down to business – namely, the act of reconnecting with the guitar.
Cue Justin Sandercoe. One of the first educators to make it big on YouTube, launching his channel way back in 2006, Justin doesn’t do in-person teaching outside of the occasional six-string celeb, making this a rare opportunity to learn face-to-face from one of the world’s top instructors.
Each day, journalists and guests would convene in the morning to cover fundamental subjects, from chords and embellishments, to pentatonic scales and 12-bar blues shuffles.
Rather than get bogged down in theory, Justin’s approach encourages students to put their skills into practice straight away, teaming up with a partner to divvy up rhythm and lead – an approach honed over his years of hosting guitar retreats in rural Italy.
Guests on the course tend to be at a similar level in terms of technical ability, usually having completed the first steps on Justin’s course – but as he notes, there are clear benefits to that person-to-person experience.
“They’re people who know the chords, they can strum, they might have the pentatonic scale,” Justin explains. “But it’s amazing the amount of times I can technically help somebody here in person and go, ‘Your hand’s in an awkward place!’ and they respond, ‘Ah, now it works!’ – that’s where this stuff is really beneficial compared to online.”
This one-on-one tuition is tailored to each student – for example, while I definitely know my way around a pentatonic scale, Justin was happy to push me further into arpeggio territory, or challenge me to solo using only two strings, putting the emphasis firmly on melody and timing rather than blazing through muscle-memorized patterns.
These skills would later be put to use in late-afternoon, campfire-style jam sessions, which saw students pair up and perform songs, with other guitarists encouraged to join in as Justin signalled the chord changes.
In fact, Justin highlights this as perhaps the most important aspect of the learning experience. When quizzed on what attendees are looking for from these events, his answer is instantaneous.
“Playing with other people,” he responds. “Students say, ‘I haven’t played in front of someone before – for the first time, I want to do it.’”
Nerves are, naturally, an important factor for everyone on the course – myself included – and, accordingly, Justin caters to that anxiety.
“It’s about learning about your heartbeat increasing. When you explain to somebody why they’re scared of stuff and what you can do about it, it very often removes the fear,” he explains.
“Anything that might be slightly scary is about being prepared for all possible things. Sometimes you might crash and burn on guitar, but as long as you’re aware of all of those problems that might occur – that your hands might get sweaty, and you feel a bit weird – if you’re aware of all that stuff in advance, then it makes it a lot easier.”
Of course, as I could attest, practicing guitar is altogether more pleasant when you’ve got limitless sunshine and stunning vistas to accompany your woodshedding.
Petit St. Vincent is set up as a series of 22 cottages – mine was located near the island’s dock, and blessed with its own private beach, complete with loungers and that Caribbean essential, the hammock.
It’s also that little bit easier to knuckle down when you don’t need to worry about food, drink or transport. There are three members of staff for every guest on the island, and there’s a smart way of calling upon any of the generous personnel.
Each cottage has a flagpole; guests mark out their desired food, drink, activity booking, taxi, etc, on one of the supplied forms, then raise the flag. Staff are constantly roaming the island, and will pick up your order and deliver it at your desired time. You can do the same at any of the secluded beaches located around PSV, too.
Another vital ingredient in creating the perfect environment for practice is the fact that the island cuts back on many of the modern-day conveniences that rob us of precious rehearsal time. General Manager Matt Semark has been running the island retreat for 10 years, and thinks its unplugged ethos fits perfectly with Justin’s tuition.
“Consciously not installing things like TVs or Wi-Fi in the cottages and other guest areas allows the participants to focus on learning in a beautiful environment without any distractions,” he says.
“Obviously it also offers a decent excuse for the guitarist to be ‘allowed’ to come and play, as their partners are able to enjoy the rest of the island and facilities, like the spa, watersports and scuba diving, and generally don’t mind tagging along.”
As a city break kind of traveller, I don’t tend to bring guitars with me on sojourns abroad, so having an acoustic at my side was a real novelty on this trip. Justin had reached out to Journey Instruments to procure a carbon-fiber travel guitar for the occasion, and the company ended up furnishing guests who hadn’t brought their own acoustics.
This was my first time spending any serious time with a guitar with a removable neck, and while I would have probably tinkered with the action given more time, I was impressed by its stability and surprisingly punchy tone.
We were well catered for in the accessories department, too, with a copious supply of picks, strings, a capo and a headstock tuner, courtesy of D’Addario, while Justin supplied his course materials and songbooks.
As a result, my moments away from the course – while peppered with exploratory adventures in scuba diving and snorkelling – were more often than not spent with a guitar at my side. Turns out a Caribbean beachside view did wonders for my motivation.
With no distractions, I found myself reconnecting with the guitar at a core level: taking in the resonance of every ringing chord, accompanied by the sea breeze and the distinctive cry of the island’s native birds. If ever there were a case for the benefits of mindfulness on guitar playing, this was it.
Power of psychology
What also came as a surprise was just how much I gained from the course. Given I’ve been playing for nigh-on a quarter of a century, I was one of the more experienced players in attendance, but the lessons I took away were related to the mental rather than physical aspects of learning.
Justin’s approach deals with the psychology of playing as much as it does the rudimentary physicalities – ways to make practice easier, confront fears, deal with frustration when you don’t get it right – and that proved to be beneficial for everyone, no matter their skill level.
“I've always been into the psychology of learning and I've studied neural and linguistic programming,” Justin explains. “So I’m really into how we think and how we learn.
“I’ve been trying to figure out how I can ‘trick’ a student into getting over their fears or finding a new way of doing something, or realizing how important practice is. I like to think that some of my enthusiasm in that area makes me different to other teachers that just teach whatever stuff they like.”
This proved to be a powerful shared experience among journalists and guests alike – the very human realization that we all go through the same stumbling blocks and encounter the same mental obstacles, whether we’re learning a new chord or a particularly advanced solo.
The sessions were also beneficial for island manager Matt, who admits he had an ulterior motive for booking Justin to host a workshop at PSV, given he’s a guitarist himself.
“It was the first time I had actually played along with others,” he says of the lessons. “I really loved the help with learning to sync with another guitarist and take turns soloing over the other’s chords.
“Because we covered so many different aspects over the week, it allowed me to try a few new things, and gave me a better understanding of what I liked more and where I will focus my next stages of learning. I’m aiming to improve enough to be able to confidently play a song by myself on the next workshop in July ’22!”
The course culminated with a final-night performance, which saw journalists and guests perform in front of one another in a slightly more formal – but no less encouraging and friendly – setting.
I tackled Norwegian Wood and Hey Joe in two different pairings, and found great satisfaction in revisiting these simple joys. With band practices put on hold over the pandemic, it was a welcome pleasure to sit alongside another human being and conjure a collaborative performance from seemingly nowhere.
Not only did my time on PSV allow me to reconnect with the acoustic, but I rediscovered part of myself – the teenage guitarist who played for the love of progress, discovery and making music with others. For whom achievement didn’t require recorded proof, as it did back in my home studio; instead, you felt that sense of accomplishment with every conquered performance and each new chord, riff or lick.
In short, it brought me back to myself. And the sense of wonder on my face mirrored the expression on everyone else’s. The trip had given us all a chance to unplug, and an opportunity to fully engage with the instrument – and there aren’t many vacations that can offer relaxation and motivation in such perfect harmony.
- The Unplugged Acoustic Guitar Workshop with Justin Sandercoe is taking bookings for July 2022 – see PetitStVincent.com for more information.