Interview with Chris Riche of Alpine Music Studios
Chris Riche has been playing music nearly his entire life and teaching for more than half of it. He is an amazing musician and an even better person. Chris plays with a fiery passion and dedication unseen in most music instructors today. He is a virtuoso on multiple instruments and can teach any style of music to anyone of any age or skill level. Do you want the latest, hippest song transcribed? Are you in a songwriting rut? Chris at Alpine Music Studio is your guy!
One Louder Magazine: What instruments do you teach?
Chris Riche: Guitar, piano, bass, ukulele and the odd mandolin (about once every two or three years).
OLM: Who taught you?
CR: My dad taught me piano as soon as I was done filling up diapers. He also taught me music theory (later, of course). I had some guitar lessons when I was seven, but I was about 12 when a good family friend – Chris Young – really got me going on guitar. I’ve been sharing musical knowledge almost as long as it’s been shared with me, and I started teaching professionally in my late 20’s.
OLM: What are some of your earliest musical memories?
CR: My house was always filled with music. My dad played piano, my mom played guitar and mandolin, my oldest brother played drums and my middle brother played one mean radio. It was especially fun to watch my parents play music together. Boy, they could rock out Glen Miller! One of my favorite early musical memories was sitting on my dad’s lap playing piano.
OLM: What artists were your primary influences in rock?
CR: Ultimately it was KISS. I was hooked as soon as I saw the show, the boots, the explosions and makeup. Back then it really didn’t get any cooler than that. My childhood walls were covered with their posters; I even owned a KISS belt buckle! Later on, I moved onto Led Zeppelin, Rush, Pink Floyd and other classic rock bands, but KISS was the inspiration that lit everything else up. As I got into my teens, guitar virtuosos like Jimmy Page, Alex Lifeson – and especially Eddie Van Halen inspired me to take my own playing to another level. Nowadays, listening to Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson makes my socks roll up and down.
OLM: You grew up in New Orleans. How did that influence your musical upbringing?
CR: Blues, baby. B-L-O-O-Z-E. Love it. I can’t tell you how many blues jams I’ve played in. Playing blues with other musicians helped me dramatically with my own timing, musical phrasing – and the ability to jam with others. I find it surprising to hear people who are proficient at their instrument but lack the ability to rock with other musicians. It’s sad, really.
As a Nawlin’s boy, I’ve also got the mandatory soft spot for crazy Cajun (zydeco) music. Just start singing “When the Saints go marchin’ in,” and you know I’ll finish it. Geaux Saints!!
OLM: How and when did you begin teaching after you moved to Seattle from New Orleans?
CR: About 15 years ago while I was working at Mackie, I stopped off at Pacific Music in Redmond to pick up some drumsticks for a friend. While I was there I saw a Steve Vai guitar hanging on the wall. I just had to play it, and I ended up in my own world with it for like an hour. That’s when the owner asked me what it would take for me to buy that guitar and I told him I’d have to teach a lot of lessons to be able to afford it. He offered me the opportunity to teach on Saturdays. Before too long, that part-time job became my full-time job and I bid adieu to Mackie. …and the rest, as they say, is history.
OLM: Sweet! So did you ever get that Steve Vai guitar or did the money you earned from teaching lessons go towards another guitar (or gear)?
CR: I got the guitar. It was super-sweet! I played many gigs with it, including the Bite of Seattle awhile back. A few years later I sold it to a student. He made an offer I couldn’t refuse!
OLM: Weren’t you giving guitar lessons to Michael Wilton’s [Queensryche guitarist] son for awhile? Why would he go to you instead of learning from his old man who had been on several albums that received critical acclaim, multiple international tours, etc? Out of all the guitar instructors available, how did you get chosen? Did he follow in dad’s footsteps?
CR: Michael’s son – Jazz – started lessons with me when he was six years old. After I got over being star-struck by Michael, I asked him why he would send his son to me for lessons when he is a major kick-ass player himself. He responded with, “you don’t have kids, do you, Chris? If you did, you would know that children don’t want to learn anything from their parents.” I still don’t have kids, but I get it now.
Why me? I have found this to be the deciding factor on who gets a teaching gig: location, location, location. I think I lucked out because the location was convenient for the Wiltons. After meeting Michael and his wife, I believe they also felt I was the right fit for Jazz. And yes, Jazz is doing quite well. He’s still playing and is in a band now!
OLM: After about a decade at Pacific Music, you and a few other instructors left to start your own place. Why did you do that and what was it like during that transition?
CR: Pacific Music was moving to a new format of teachers, mostly Cornish grad types. After one of the other veteran instructors got fired and replaced with a younger guy, we all started to feel a little nervous. So five of us ventured on and opened up Alpine Music Studios in the Woodinville-Duvall, WA area. In the beginning it was very hard on all of us. We loved the owners of Pacific Music and we respected their decision to go in a different direction, but we just didn’t want to wait ’til our number came up. We decided it was best to be proactive and start our own business. It wasn’t easy; we all struggled. There were even a few nightmares. But it’s good now and as my Zen wife would say, “All is as it should be.”
OLM: How well do you read music? How important do you think it is for your students to read music?
CR: I play much better by ear. I can read music and guitar tabs fairly well, but I find sight reading to be quite challenging. And I really hate the bass clef. Blech.
Guitar tabs are so popular on the computer that you can pretty much get tabs for any song you want just by doing a Google search. But I let my students know that if they invest the time in reading music and sight reading – even just a few hours a day – that they can get very proficient at it. As for its importance, that’s strictly for the individual to decide. If it is important to them, it is important to me.
OLM: What songs do students ask you to transcribe the most?
CR: I would have to say Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’ and Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Crazy Train’ are the two most requested songs. I think I can transcribe them and tab them out without even having a guitar in the room with me. ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is another standby. It seems like I get that request at least 20 times a year. It’s kind of a rite of passage, don’t you think? Right now, Muse is the flavor of the month, probably because it’s on Guitar Hero – the song is called ‘Knights of Cydonia’. You would think Guitar Hero wouldn’t have had much impact with young guitar players, but it has. It seems like once the kids learn how to play something on Guitar Hero, they want to learn to play it for real, for really-real, with real strings, on wood, with tuners and pick-ups. It’s pretty cool.
OLM: Are there any songs you can’t transcribe?
CR: Progressive jazz is a pain. Also, there are guitar players – like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and John Petrucci – who have songs that are beyond me.
OLM: What are some of the hardest songs to transcribe? Why?
CR: Guitars that are tuned very low in pitch are hard to transcribe. It seems like there are hundreds of bands out there tuning their guitars lower than Black Sabbath ever did. When the pitches are that low, it’s hard for my ear to make out the tones – especially when the distortion is dialed up. Although it sounds cool and mean to tune a guitar that way, the sound gets muddy (not sayin’ that’s good or bad … just sayin’).
OLM: What is your least favorite song and/or artist to transcribe?
CR: Any song by any emo artist is obnoxious. I can’t stand the whiny vocals.
OLM: What is your favorite part of being a music instructor?
CR: Maybe this sounds corny, but it’s true: I love having a positive influence on developing young minds. It puts a big smile on my face to see a student playing a song that they thought was impossible.
And sometimes, the best part of my job has nothing to do with music. I’ve had students come in just needing to bend someone’s ear. Several years ago, I had a girl come in for her lesson every week without ever touching her guitar. After a few weeks of this, I spoke to her mother and told her that music lessons might be a waste of her money since her daughter was just talking with me about her problems. Mom’s response took me totally off-guard. She told me I was saving her a lot of money since a therapist would cost much more and her daughter felt comfortable with me. Believe it or not, these sessions lasted over seven years.
OLM: Whoa, crazy! So did she ever pick up her guitar in those 7+ years or was it all “therapy”? Why did those sessions finally end?
CR: Yes, she picked up guitar and she learned to play quite well. She’s in college now and I really don’t know more than that. After all those years, we haven’t kept in touch, but that’s a common thing with students. You teach them for years and they grow up and move on. You never hear from them again unless they put a band together and release a CD or go on tour. I just wish them all the best!
OLM: What is your least favorite part of being a music instructor?
CR: My least favorite part would have to be babysitting. There are some parents out there who really just want to get rid of their kids for awhile. After I babysit those kids for half an hour, I see why.
OLM: So how do you handle a situation like that?
CR: If the student shows even the least amount of interest in playing music, I do my best to nurture that to see where it goes. But if I’m just babysitting, those students don’t last very long at all…two to three months, max. I let the parents know that their son or daughter isn’t interested in music and I encourage them to find something that may be a better match for their child.
OLM: How big a role do parents play in their child’s musical growth?
CR: Some parents play no role at all while others get really involved. I’ve had parents come in with their six year old, whom they feel is a budding Mozart. In reality, the kid is completely tone-deaf. On one hand that’s pretty funny, but it’s not easy breaking the news to those folks. Some parents push their children too hard, which is sad. I’ve seen that kind of behavior strip all the joy out of learning music and I don’t think anything good can come out of that. My favorite parents are the ones who are supportive without being pushy and let their child progress at their own pace.
OLM: What knowledge do your students gain by seeing you?
CR: They receive total consciousness, so they’ve got that going for them, which is nice.
Really, I stress a lot of music theory and technique. I try to help them develop their ear so they can begin to figure out songs on their own. And I really enjoy helping them write their own songs. After all, this music stuff is about self-expression, right?!
OLM: How about you…what do you get out of teaching your students?
CR: Aside from everything I said earlier about the best parts of teaching, I get to pay bills doing something I love. Not too shabby.
OLM: Have any former students put out albums, gone on tour, and/or worked in the music business in some capacity?
CR: Yes! It’s a real kick when my students grow to the point that they put a band together. A few have even cranked out their own CDs. One day, a student I hadn’t seen in years came in with his CD and told me that his band was on the Van’s Warped Tour. I can’t tell you how proud I was.
OLM: If you could have one musician give you a guitar lesson, who would it be? Why him and what would you want to learn in that lesson?
CR: Eddie Van Halen, back before he became a zombie. God, to sit with him and have him teach me how to play some of his solos and instruct me on how he got the “brown sound” … that would be really cool, man.
OLM: What band would you like to record and/or tour with if the guitarist was no longer part of the group? Imagine Van Halen is off-limits.
CR: Why is Van Halen off-limits? Just kidding! I would love to record with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. That would be awesome! But I don’t think I’d want to tour with them. I love my home life too much. I’m a homebody!
OLM: Besides teaching, you must be in a band or twenty. Who are you playing with these days?
CR: I occasionally sit in with the Pop Tarts, the cheesy cover band I really love. They are good friends and it’s always a good time. Other than that, I really don’t gig much.
OLM: Wait a second…you’re this awesome musician that can play nearly anything and you occasionally sit in with one cheesy cover band? What gives?
CR: Musical burnout. I find that when I’m teaching five days a week AND playing in a band, both suffer. And that’s not fair to either the students or the band.
OLM: The million dollar question…what do you charge per lesson?
CR: Well, not a million dollars. $25 per half-hour.
OLM: The desert island question: if you could take the collected works of five artists, who would the five be?
CR: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Van Halen, Dave Matthews, The Beatles
OLM: The second desert island question: if you could take only one guitar with you, which one would it be?
CR: I’m assuming this island lacks electricity, so it’d be my Gibson acoustic. If I have electricity on this island of mine, I’m bringing my Mike Lull custom guitar, baby. It rocks!
OLM: What guitar not currently in your collection would you like to be in your collection, assuming a) price is no issue and b) if you’re price-conscious, say under $5k?
CR: A) Eddie’s original Frankenstrat would be so cool and B) a really nice Paul Reed Smith or a really nice Les Paul.
OLM: Who is your guilty listening pleasure?
CR: Abba, Bee Gees, and we’re just getting started. I love the Carpenters, Burt Bacharach, and I just can’t live without my Tom Jones. That’s not unusual, right?!
OLM: Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, Chris…last question! How can people get a hold of you if they want to sign up for lessons?
CR: Ring me up: 206.818.4142 or check out my website, Alpine Music Studios