The Thinking Man's Shredder

Brett Milano
October 12, 2001
Finn sets the tempo for a class exercise.
Steve Vai was in the audience in September 2000 when Finn (above) and Berklee students paid tribute to the guitarist.
Photo Kim Grant
Photo Kim Grant
Photo Bob Kramer

"I don't think of myself as the professor type," notes teacher and guitarist Jon Finn. If you sat in on Finn's class on advanced rock improvisation 1, you might mistake it for a hot band having a jam. Dressed like a rocker in jeans and sneakers, Finn strums rhythm, taps his feet in time, and breaks into a grin whenever someone plays a tasty lick. The main difference is that he's got his students jamming on pentatonic scales that are too sophisticated for most rock players to handle.

Finn is a man on a mission. He's a confirmed rock'n'roller with amazing technical chops, and is out to prove that you can be a serious thinker without losing your status as a mean guitar shredder.

"You know the perception people have of rock guitarists—gunslingers and drug addicts," he notes in his office after class. "If there's one issue I get evangelical about, it's when I hear a lot of words from well-known rock players who say, 'Don't practice, be a rebel, studying the instrument is bad for your creativity.' The mentality is that if you're too technically proficient, you're not rock'n'roll; and I'm not sure if I agree. My feeling is that it's possible to be a studied musician and maintain that primal energy; it's just not easy. I personally love players like Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, Steve Morse and Eddie Van Halen; the ones who can speak to my soul and challenge my intellect at the same time."

Like the guitarists he's just named, Finn manages to play a wide variety of music. He's played clubs over the past decade with different incarnations of the Jon Finn Group, whose all-original repertoire covers metal, blues, funk and fusion, sometimes all at once (one of his pieces lives up to the title of "If Stevie Ray Vaughan Went to Berklee and Studied Jazz"). Meanwhile he's the regular guitarist for the Boston Pops, a gig that's found him playing with everyone from Aaron Neville to Ben Vereen. But he initially took up guitar for the same reasons that most every kid did.

"I was in pursuit of social acceptance. There I was, a six-year-old kid with a plastic guitar, and I had the whole neighborhood watching. One thing I try to remember is that I 'm not a teacher if I'm not a musician. And the reason I'm a musician is because I heard 'House of the Rising Sun' and thought the world was coming to an end."

Finn's instincts often made him a misfit within the Boston rock scene, where three-chord garage rock is king. That much was clear in 1990, when his group competed in WBCN's annual Rock'n'Roll Rumble. Among their competitors was Left Nut, a gonzo punk band that was never known for its technical prowess (their singer saw fit to interrupt one of Finn's solos by pouring a beer over his head). Neither band won. "Grunge rock was the mainstream then, and we were the first instrumental rock band to be in the Rumble. The Boston Herald called us a band you love to hate. In fact we lost because there was a scoring category for vocals, and we didn't have any."

But he's fit in more naturally at Berklee, where he's helped draw a larger number of guitarists and rock-oriented players. And he's succeeded in bringing some of his own favorite players, including John Petrucci (Dream Theater) and Steve Morse (Dixie Dregs, Deep Purple) to lead classes.

"I used to give lessons in a local music store and since most of the players were beginners, it was easy to get complacent," Finn says. "Berklee is different, because the best players from all over the world come here. I've had students that are better than me in some respects. That's cool, because it keeps me honest; and I can use that as a cue to keep improving."

Finn's noticed a change in his students since he started in 1989, when the Steve Vai/Joe Satriani school of million-notes-a-minute playing was in vogue. "At the time students were more concerned with pure technique. I'd say that today they're more well-rounded, more aware of the history of rock guitar." On the other hand, some have been incredibly specific in their goals. "I had one student who just had one band he wanted to play with. He was a big Zappa fan, so his whole goal was to get into Dweezil Zappa's band. He had all the information, and he had everything planned out. When I first heard him say that, I thought he was nuts. But he wound up getting the gig."

Finn came of age in the late '60s, when a skilled guitar player could still change the world—or at least, be assured of a steady gig. Is there a danger of the world getting too crowded with axe-slingers these days?

"Yes and no. When I was in high school I could always make a call to a booking agent, say 'I have a rock band' and get work. That's certainly changed with the number of people doing it these days—and that keeps it vital by making it more competitive. What happens now is that you turn 20, play in a rock band for three years, and then go into computers. I think there's still a relatively small number of people that stay with it their whole lives, and for them there's still a lot of possibilities."