The sweet smell of incense was in the air at Steve Hissey’s Guitar studio. The self-professed hippy has taught guitar for 50 years throughout Frederick County. In 2010, Hissey came full circle in returning to downtown Frederick with his current Shab Row location after teaching in various locations throughout the county.
Hissey spoke with 72 Hours in his studio recently, reflecting on his lengthy career.
Hissey’s studio is arranged like a time capsule of guitar history. Behind him as he spoke were photos of his guitar heroes, like revered jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.
“I’ve taught thousands of people now. Tens of thousands of guitar lessons,” the 70-year-old Hissey said. “I teach the grandchildren of people I taught 50 years ago.”
As a child, Hissey knew exactly who he wanted to be.
“In kindergarten, I heard [Louis Armstrong] play, and from then on I’ve been hooked on music. … I get emotional about it, it felt like the sun was shining on me when I heard his trumpet,” Hissey said, his voice choking up. “From then on, that’s what I wanted to do. I want to make people feel like that. Find that sunshine.”
His love for music never wavered. He started teaching at Colonial Music in downtown Frederick in the ‘60s. “That was the only music store in the whole area,” he said.
“When I first started teaching, it was all boys — 10, 12 years old — wanting to learn how to rock. That was like, when rock exploded.”
He mentioned that the beginning of his career was good timing; there were very few guitar teachers in the Frederick region, and a musical revolution was happening. Beatles mania and the ascent of guitar legends like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton influenced a generation of young people wanting to emulate them.
This spilled over into the ‘70s, but by the time the ‘80s came around, disco and electronic music came into play. He said the ‘80s “wasn’t a productive decade” for him. But fortunately, the emergence of bands like alt-rockers like Nirvana and Green Day in the ‘90s changed that. And by the mid-2000s, Hissey had a new crop of young students wanting to play the classic rock songs they learned from the Guitar Hero video game.
Through all of the phases, Hissey tried to keep the same teaching philosophy. “I’m known for being Mr. Technique and forcing people to play the right way. But also, I’m liberal enough to know that there are many ways to do the same thing.
“Especially for teaching, you have to know so many different ways to get to a person,” Hissey continued. Some people love reading music. For others, you have to show them — put their fingers in the right spot, Hissey said. “The oldest way of teaching is showing people how to do it.”
He’s taught mostly children during the the first decades of his career, including Spyro Gyra lead bassist Scott Ambush, who grew up in Frederick.
“He was a very supportive teacher,” said Ambush, who studied guitar under him. “It was fun for me because he had a way of teaching you to play by using the music that you’re interested in. At the time I was very much into what would now be called heavy metal.”
Ambush said he didn’t have Hissey as a teacher for long, but he could easily name the music he learned under Hissey’s tutelage. “He would teach me songs and through the songs he would teach me how to play, how to tune my guitar,” Ambush said. “I remember the first song I ever learned to play with him was either ‘Old Man’ or ‘Heart of Gold’ by Neil Young.
“The other great thing about Steve is the first time I seen him play was not because I was going for lessons,” Ambush continued. “He was always a player’s teacher, someone who actually did what they taught. I remember seeing him in Baker Park … that was always a big inspiration when you’re 12 and see your guitar teacher playing songs,” Ambush remembered. “That was really cool.”
These days, most of Hissey’s students are working professionals — doctors and lawyers — rather than kids. He cited music education in schools and the popularity of YouTube lessons as the reason for less adolescent students.
“The healing aspect of music is tremendous. Especially with people with high-pressure jobs,” Hissey shared. “I feel like I’m practicing musical healing along with educating.”
Hissey has no plans to retire.
“I still get excited every time I teach a guitar lesson. I get hyper and goosebumps. There’s no retirement for guitar teachers. … Teaching is my life.”