An Interview with Jonathan Roth, Part 1

Jonathan Roth is a guitarist and composer currently doing graduate studies at the University of Southern California where he studies with Scott Tennant. I connected with Jonathan a few years ago via myspace (though I doubt he remembers!) to ask him some questions about the Christopher Parkening summer masterclass. When I started this blog, he was one of the people on my initial list of potential interviews. Fortunately, he agreed to do one! Because of the length of some of Jonathan’s responses, I’m going to put up two posts worth today, then the final third tomorrow.

Jonathan Roth: [website][myspace][youtube]

Jonathan’s CD’s and compositions are available through his website.

When did you start playing? Classical First?

Short Answer: When I was fourteen years old, but it was really Rock-and-Roll that attracted me to the guitar initially.

Long Answer: Well, it’s really hard to remember exactly the first time I started playing the guitar, but I believe my interest in music began well before that. There are these faint memories of finding a piano method book for beginners inside the piano bench and, with the help of my mom, trying to teach myself how to read music (I bet they’re still there!). And then, there was our electronic keyboard which I’m sure is long-gone by now, but it had this addictive, pre-programmed melody that played over a terrible midi drum track. I would press the “Start” button, listen and then try to play it back from ear – I can still remember that melody!

The guitar was introduced to me by my brother Stephen and by my friends Tim Foster and Drew Fortson when I was in the eighth grade. Stephen had been asking for a guitar for Christmas and one morning he got his wish. His Bullet Series Fender Squire ran through a small 25 Watt amp much to my parents discomfort and, as he tried it on for size, I can remember the enchanting crackle of the pick-ups and the inspiring whistle of the frequencies feeding back. Stephen would play Pearl Jam’s version of Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World more often than not and it was these performances early on that inspired me to pick up a guitar in the first place. After much pleading, he taught me how to form a “C” chord which proved to be extremely difficult, but once I got the hang of it I was thoroughly motivated to keep going.

At about this same time, my good friend Tim Foster was also learning how to play the guitar. We hung out a lot and so one night I tagged along with Tim as he went to his guitar lesson. Later, Tim taught me the chords to Name by the Goo-Goo Dolls, but this time there was a picking part! Not long after that, I was spending the night over at my other good friend Drew Fortson’s house and his dad busted out his 12-string and started playing some tunes from the 70’s, more specifically a song called Crazy On You by Heart. He told me “If you can learn the intro to this song, I’ll be impressed.” That was all I needed. After my parents finally signed up with AOL, I discovered endless pages of tablature and the internet quickly became my teacher. I learned that intro to Crazy On You and played it for him (let’s not consider the quality here). I don’t remember what he said, but, for me, this memory stands out as the bridge between Rock-and-Roll and Classical Guitar.

Then my mom signed me up to take lessons at Suburban Music in Wheaton, IL with a man named Russell Turek. At my first lesson I played a portion of Crazy On You for my “audition,” but my mom insisted that I also learn how to read music. We bought Mel-Bay’s Modern Guitar Method Book 1 and went from there – half Rock-and-Roll and half sight-reading. As my study of the guitar got more intense, I learned that Russell was classically trained and took from a man named Scott Johnston at our local community college: The College of DuPage. Shortly thereafter, my parents were given three tickets to a Christopher Parkening and Jubilant Sykes concert at Wheaton College. I remember sitting in Edman Chapel and drifting off to sleep as the hypnotizing sounds of the nylon strings filled my head. (I’m ashamed at my apparent lack of concert etiquette here, but I still remembered right!?) After the concert, my parents were talking to some friends who told them that their son took from Scott Johnston at the College of DuPage. By this time I was a Junior in high school and so I signed up with Scott and would drive there every Thursday afternoon after school for my lesson. I was seventeen and already had about three years of “guitaring” under my belt, but the agility of my fingers was something to question. Scott inspired me by pushing me into the standard repertoire via tabs and overly fingered scores. Some of the pieces I remember learning early on were Waterfall (David Brandon), Etude No. 6 (Brouwer), Romanza and the A section of Leyenda. But I was still using my Guild D4 steel-string and, at one lesson, he recommended that I purchase a nylon-string. My mom and I then left the College of DuPage stopping at a Shell gas station at the corner of Park and Roosevelt. As we were filling up, she said, “How about we at least go to Guitar Center and take a look?” And that “look” turned into a brand new Cordoba 40-R which I still have today!

High school was coming to an end and I had the strong taste of classical guitar in my mouth. Scott told me about a week long master class that Christopher Parkening gave in Bozeman, Montana. With the help of my parents, I recorded the audition on a VHS tape and mailed it in along with the application. We got a letter late in the Spring of 2002 that said I had been admitted into the program – no way! When July rolled around, my parents and I road-tripped all the way from West Chicago, IL to Bozeman, MT. I checked into my dorm and my parents hung out to help me find my way around. We got a schedule of events and noticed that I would be playing twice over the course of a week: Bach’s “Prelude” from BWV 999 and then Etude No. 1 by Villa-Lobos. The week was amazing! I got to meet Christopher Parkening and a lot of other people who I’m still friends with today.

After the week was done, I began to contemplate my collegiate future. I had been looking at DePaul, Belmont, Huntington, Masters College and the University of Georgia. My parents and I decided that staying at the College of DuPage to pursue an Associates degree was probably the best choice until I could prove myself academically (I was a slacker in high school) and then locate a four-year college to transfer into. Then, sometime during the Spring of my first year at C.O.D., Scott said “Have you ever thought about applying to Pepperdine?” “No,” I replied. “Well, let’s give ‘em a call to find out more information.” What!!? Yeah, so there I was sitting and listening to my teacher on a direct call to Christopher Parkening asking about how I could apply to Pepperdine’s new guitar program (then, one year old). And, as the old saying goes, the rest is history. I filled out the application online, made a low-quality audition CD using my computer microphone and mailed it off to Malibu.

It was the summer now and I was out at St. Andrew’s driving range off of Route 59 in West Chicago. My cell phone rang, but it said “Unknown Caller” which usually happened when one of my good friends would call so I answered the phone obnoxiously loud: “Yellow!” And then the polite voice of a lady came through the ear piece “Is this Jonathan Roth?” After an awkward introduction, Sara Banta, the head of Pepperdine’s instrumental department, told me that they had received my audition CD and wanted me to complete the remainder of the application. A month later, I found myself sitting in my old ’94 Mercury Sable (rest in pieces) with my parents and my brother Andrew on a 2,000 mile trip from West Chicago, Illinois to Malibu, California.

* * * * *

If, when I was trying to figure out how to make that “C” chord, you would’ve told me that I’d be studying classical guitar in Malibu with Christopher Parkening (and now Los Angeles with Scott Tennant), I would have definitely called you crazy! I remember at one of my first classical guitar lessons, Scott Johnston told me to buy two books: The Christopher Parkening Guitar Method and Scott Tennant’s Pumping Nylon. To now say that I have studied privately with both is a privilege and a blessing. God is good!

So, no, classical did not come first. What got me there was a healthy combination of dusty, old piano books, “break-throughs” in early 90’s MIDI technology, Neil Young, Pearl Jam, the Goo-Goo Dolls, Heart, an older, inspiring brother, good friends and two loving parents who prayed and trusted God to guide their misguided adolescent into a fulfilling (hopefully life-long) journey of studying music. If God can do something as amazing as this in my life, He can certainly do it anyone else’s.

”Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” Ephesians 3:20-21

Posted on in Interviews with Classical Guitarists