WIU professor interviews guitar gurus

With his blue sneakers and his AC/DC and Spinal Tap wall décor, music instructor Matt Warnock, 32, is sometimes mistaken for a student at WIU.

“A student yelled at me one time when I was taking an amp from a classroom because he thought I was stealing it,” he laughed. “He said, ‘Hey, you can’t do that!’ and I said, ‘Yes, I can.'”

Warnock began teaching at Western while he was simultaneously working on his doctoral degree. For the last six years, he has not only taught at WIU, but also brought noted musicians to campus, organized the International Guitar Festival at WIU, and toured and played with other musicians in Brazil. And recently, he added yet another role to his resumé: editor-in-chief of Guitar International.

(more, below the photo)

photo of Matt Warnock

Matt Warnock with his Paul Reed Smith guitar

As an interviewer and editor for this online publication, Warnock has had the opportunity to meet musicians he admires, including Ace Frehley of KISS and Brian Aubert of Silversun Pickups. The web magazine, in addition to providing tips for guitar players and headlines from the music biz, also features interviews with guitarists ranging from Kenny Wayne Shepherd to Eric Johnson to Carlos Santana. Even Eddie Van Halen‘s name is among the list of featured interviewees.

“In the Rock History class that I teach at WIU, sometimes a student will ask me how I know this or that about a certain musician,” Warnock said. “I’m able to say, ‘Because I asked them about it.’

So how did such a busy professor get into the music-writing business?First of all, though his guitar expertise and academic credentials may be in jazz, he Respects the Rock.Warnock, raised in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, grew up listening to 60s and 70s-era classic rock by Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin. He started playing guitar when he 15.

“My school offered science or a guitar class, so I chose guitar,” he said. “I knew pretty much right away that I loved it.”

He took private lessons in rock and blues, and then classical guitar, but it wasn’t until a high school teacher began to mentor him that Warnock caught on to jazz.

“He played saxophone in a band, and he started bringing me to gigs around town when I was pretty young,” Warnock said. “Not a lot of kids were interested in jazz, but I was one of the rare ones, so he kind of latched on.”

From there Warnock went to McGill University in Montreal—”kind of our jazz mecca”—to study jazz performance.

“I think the improvisation was what drew me to jazz,” he said. “Growing up listening to rock and blues from the 70s… jazz was a difficult version of that. I kind of always liked a challenge, so that drove me towards it initially.”

Warnock continued his love, and formal study of, guitar by enrolling at Western Michigan University, where he was a teaching assistant as he pursued his graduate degree. It was when he moved to Champaign (IL) to attend the University of Illinois for his doctorate that he made his first foray into music journalism. Like many magazine writers, Warnock got his start by contributing to a magazine he knew inside and out. A longtime reader of Just Jazz Guitar magazine, Warnock decided to e-mail the editor with a sample of his writing.

“They liked it, so I started writing for them,” he explained. “They would mail me books, DVDs, and CDs to review, and then I started writing lessons on how to play certain things.”

Before long, Warnock was contributing interviews with artists, including John McLaughlin, a guitarist who played with Miles Davis and Grammy-winning John Pizzarelli. While continuing to write for this quarterly publication, Warnock finished his doctorate degree and decided to expand his writing portfolio even further.

“I realized that I would have more free time now that I’m not in school, so thought I should fill that time productively,” Warnock said. “I Googled about 100 magazines or online websites that accept contributions, sent stuff to about 25 or 30 of them, and then five or six started having me write for them. I wrote a few things, and eventually kind of settled on writing for one, which was called Modern Guitars. I thought as a freelancer I could use it to leverage my reputation as performer and teacher, and maybe get more experiences. And I love to write.”

But eventually the company partners split, and one partner started a new magazine. That hardly signaled the end for Warnock’s side career:

“Because of my writing history with him, he asked me to jump on board. Now I co-own a publishing company.”

Today, Warnock finds that artists’ press people call him and request that he interview their artists. He is granted full press access at events and has his travel expenses covered for his stories. And he’s interviewed some of his childhood heroes, like Robby Kreiger of The Doors. Earlier this fall, Warnock covered a large guitar-maker conference in Washington, D.C.

“I got to try out amps no one else has seen, and hang out with rock stars for four days,” he said.

Among them was Orianthi, a young female guitarist who had been Michael Jackson’s guitarist on the tour just before he died.

“She was cool,” he said. “I’ve had to the chance to do some pretty cool stuff.”

And in the meantime, the web publication is gaining readership in Europe and several English-speaking countries, and has a readership of approximately 65,000 readers and 700,000 page views per month. “It’s grown pretty significantly,” he said. “And because it’s online-only, we can do a lot of things we wouldn’t have been able to do with a traditional print magazine.”

For example, the medium requires much less turnaround time between the date an interview is conducted and the time it’s published. The publication also focuses on posting shorter pieces frequently, rather than take the time required to invest in a lengthy feature.

“They’re more timely that way, and we can get them out more quickly,” he said.

And as for those features, Warnock still has plenty of heroes with whom he’d like to secure an interview. So who would he most like to meet?

“Probably Jimmy Page,” Warnock said. “I have a lot of questions for that guy.”

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